A light ocean breeze rustles the leaves of eucalyptus trees that surround us, releasing the fresh scent that every spa attempts to emulate. Wild calla lilies grow on the forest floor. The temperature registers 68 degrees, perfect for a walk in the woods. My husband and I smile at each other as we continue our climb up a huge hill, thrilled to have found such an oasis on a weekend away from our 3-year-old.
While it feels like we are in a remote forest in western Oregon or in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state, we are actually in the midst of an easy-to-reach metropolis. More than 7 million people call this city home, where cable cars clang up and down the hills, Fisherman’s Wharf bustles with tourists, and Cantonese still rings out in the oldest Chinatown in North America.
That’s right. We are in San Francisco — and in the heart of the Presidio.
This 1,500-acre park, with its own restaurants and hotels, is a surprise paradise. During our stay, it offered the perfect combination — because we love the nature and hikes available in national parks and the four-star restaurants and mixology found in cities.
Many people have seen glances of this green swath dotted with historic buildings on their way to the Golden Gate Bridge, which juts from its lands, but they don’t know what lies within. It hasn’t become a hot tourist destination — yet.
San Francisco occupies a peninsula, and the park perches at its tip, the Pacific Ocean on one side, San Francisco Bay on the other. Given this key position, it was a U.S. military post for nearly 150 years; in 1994, the land became parkland, a holding of the National Park Service.
The Presidio’s many historic buildings represent a wide range of architecture, from Queen Anne and Colonial styles to Mediterranean and Mission Revival — but it all flows together beautifully.
The grounds are covered in redwoods and flowers, helping make the park a bird sanctuary. The land is divided into four sections: Main Post, Golden Gate, Crissy Field, with beaches on the bay, and the decidedly nonurban Southern Wilds, where my husband and I took that hike among the eucalyptus. More than a dozen hiking trails (for all levels) crisscross the park, which also holds eight scenic overlooks and four beaches. All of this just a few minutes away from the restaurants and museums of San Francisco.
Golden Gate views
One of the main draws to this park are the public beaches that supply views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the art deco beauty that has become a San Francisco icon. Two of the most popular are Baker Beach and Crissy Field’s East Beach.
Baker Beach, on the west side of the park and overlooking the Pacific, is a wonderful spot for a picnic or afternoon walk, with glorious views of the bridge to one side, and cliffside dwellings reminiscent of Italy’s Cinque Terre (or as close as we can get here in the U.S.) on the other side. Many families gather here on weekends with picnics in tow, taking photos of the bridge or the scenic mountains in the distance. The water is a bit too brisk and choppy for swimming, but it’s a great spot to walk along the shore, getting your toes wet while admiring the scenery.
East Beach is a bit more crowded with joggers and bikers on the promenade, games of Frisbee on the sand and kite surfers on the water. Alcatraz Island and its notorious prison lie in the distance, making me ponder the legends of sharks that kept prisoners from swimming to freedom and the bravery of those kite surfers. Picnic tables and grills are available at the beach, so the atmosphere is lively here.
A visit to the Golden Gate Scenic Overlook provides sand-free views, with the added perk of a fabulous breeze through the surrounding cyprus trees on the day we visited.
A relatively short hike away is Battery Godfrey, which was built in 1895 to defend the city against battleships at ranges of up to 10 miles. The battery itself was considered obsolete by 1943 and while the weapons have been removed, the original concrete forts remain and offer some good climbing and spectacular views of the ocean, the coastal mountains and the bridge.
The Main Post
Away from the hikes and beaches, the main parade ground is a grassy avenue, several blocks long, surrounded by rows of beautiful, historical buildings in the heart of the park.
Twice weekly from March to October, the main parade grounds are transformed into a perfect social gathering spot, offering the afternoon-long Presidio Picnic each Sunday and Presidio Twilight each Thursday evening. These events host all kinds of international food trucks, yoga, dance programs, fire pits, live music and views of San Francisco Bay.
On the Sunday morning that we were there, families gathered early for games of Frisbee, while parents prepared for a picnic, warming up the grill and laying out blankets and snacks. Children played tag and released swarms of bubbles into the ocean breeze. The local Y offered learn-to-ride bike lessons later that day.
All that family activity made us miss our son, which made our departure easier. Still, it was a wonderful way to spend a few days, relishing a park that felt like a small town within the borders of the big city.
Leslie Plesser is a writer and photographer living in Minneapolis. Find her work at shuttersmack.com.