San Francisco’s Presidio offers all the history, recreation and scenic splendor that you’d expect in a national park, but the expansive playground also features many under-the-radar surprises. Just south of Rob Hill Campground, the city’s only overnight camping facility, customers of Presidio Wine Bunkers store their bottles in former military batteries. A revamped ammunition warehouse along Gorgas Avenue houses SenSpa, a tranquil spa and wellness destination. Nearby, a Yoda fountain guards the entrance of an office building.
To survey the Presidio’s secret haunts on your own, hop aboard the free PresidiGo shuttles that link downtown San Francisco and popular stops in the park. Then, start exploring.
Change your outlook.
Nearly 25 miles of trails link the Presidio’s scenic overlooks, and each observation point presents a uniquely picturesque view of this 1,491-acre park. New in November 2015, the Battery East Vista offers an unobstructed panorama of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands. Nearby, the Golden Gate Overlook marks the intersection of three major routes: the California Coastal Trail, Bay Area Ridge Trail and Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. From here, visitors enjoy a rare look straight down the Golden Gate Bridge roadway.
Explore the intersection of nature and art.
Internationally renowned artist Andy Goldsworthy creates installations using natural materials gathered where he works. His four Presidio sculptures incorporate tree trunks, clay, soil, stone and other elements from the park. See all four sites along a hiking loop that starts from Main Post, travels up Lovers’ Lane and across the Mountain Lake Trail, and then returns down the Upper Ecology Trail. (Pick up a map and guide to Goldsworthy’s installations at the Presidio Officers’ Club, or download a copy online.)
Reach for the rafters.
Tucked away in a row of revamped hangars at the western edge of Crissy Field are family-friendly recreational stops ranging from baseball cages at Batter’s Box SF to indoor rock-climbing walls and yoga at Planet Granite. Burn off some energy with an hour of bounce time at the House of Air. With 8,000 square feet of trampolines, including springy dodgeball squares, a designated children’s area and a skate-park inspired freestyle section, it’s a playful alternative for all ages.
Embark on a multi-museum adventure.
Several surprisingly diverse museums operate in the Presidio. Along Crissy Field, the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) Historic Learning Center spotlights Japanese-American soldiers who performed top-secret linguistic work during World War II. The Society of California Pioneers Museum on Main Post showcases historic Golden State memorabilia; a few doors down, the Walt Disney Family Museum chronicles the artist’s life through original drawings, photographs and family mementos. At the Letterman Digital Arts Center, science fiction fans snap selfies next to a Stormtrooper standing in the Lucasfilm lobby and the Yoda fountain that’s just outside. The facility also houses vintage movie posters, awards, a life-size Darth Vader and rare "Star Wars" memorabilia.
Dine on dishes by a James Beard Award winner.
Chef Traci Des Jardins has two James Beard awards under her belt, and her three Main Post restaurants have put the Presidio on San Francisco’s culinary map. Choose Transit Cafe for American small bites and to-go picnic items, or head to Arguello, in the Presidio Officers’ Club, for casual Mexican classics. The Commissary, where Des Jardins puts a California spin on Spanish cuisine, brings fine dining to a former military mess hall.
Get to know the park’s native plants.
More than 330 native plant species thrive in the Presidio, including the rare Franciscan manzanita—scientists believed it was extinct until 2009, when a biologist discovered a stem in the park. Learn about local biodiversity at the Presidio Nursery, where staff gardeners and volunteers grow thousands of indigenous plants for landscape restoration projects throughout the park. Or, pass behind the historic homes on Kobbe Avenue and follow the dirt road to the Fort Scott Organic Community Garden. With secluded benches surrounded by splashy flowers and vines, it’s an idyllic picnic spot.
Explore San Francisco’s early beginnings.
A boardwalk trail circles the restored watershed and archaeological sites at El Polin Spring, which supplied fresh water to native Ohlone people, late 1700s Spanish soldiers and the first families living outside the Presidio walls. Today, the spring draws wildlife watchers, hikers and history enthusiasts. From here, follow the Ecology Trail to Main Post and visit the Presidio Officers’ Club. Entrance is free, and dynamic exhibits employ historic photos, film clips, artifacts and even exposed layers of restored adobe walls to showcase the Presidio’s transition from windswept dunes to military post to national park.
Pay homage to departed veterans.
Several Presidio monuments honor fallen soldiers, including the West Coast World War II Memorial that overlooks the Pacific Ocean and bears the names of more than 400 military members lost or buried at sea. Near the Presidio’s southern border, along the Mountain Lake Trail, the Marine Cemetery Vista commemorates some 500 mariners who died between 1881 and 1912. From the tree-shrouded National Cemetery Overlook, views extend over 28 acres of white headstones lining rolling hills that face the Golden Gate. Stone structures at the wheelchair-accessible site feature poetry by World War I officer Archibald MacLeish.
Play archaeologist for a day.
Spanish soldiers established a garrison at the Presidio in 1776, and archaeological excavations continue to unearth artifacts around the footprint of that original fort. Free behind-the-scenes tours of the park’s archaeology lab introduce ongoing efforts to clean, catalogue and curate these discoveries. Visitors can talk with working archaeologists engaged in digs near the Presidio Officer’s Club on weekends during the lab’s summer field season.