Unexpected Presidio

Words by Linda Hubbard

Looking for a getaway that offers military history, outdoor adventure, hidden art treasures, a quirky blend of curiosities, along with luxury lodging and great dining options? Look no further than the Presidio of San Francisco, a national park site like no other.

First, a bit of background: Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the 1,500-acre Presidio is stewarded by the Presidio Trust, the NPS, and fundraising partner, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Home to 330 native plant species and 350 species of wildlife, it’s divided into four regions encompassing coastal beaches, interior forests, the new Presidio Tunnel Tops, and the active Main Post, with lodging, cultural attractions, and restaurants.

for the military history buff

Formally established on September 17, 1776, the San Francisco Presidio has been administered successively as military headquarters by Spain, Mexico and the United States. Throughout its history, it’s been the launching point of most of America’s military engagements in the Pacific. Until its transfer to the National Park Service in 1994, the Presidio was the longest continuously operated military installation in the United States.

Housed in one of San Francisco’s oldest buildings, the Presidio Officers’ Club galleries illustrate the military history of the park, including a special exhibit on the Japanese Exclusion Orders, issued by Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt to intern 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast.

The Korean War Memorial is just a short walk down the Presidio Promenade, on the way to the Battery Bluff site, the park’s new addition. Its historic gun batteries were restored in 2022 and opened to public access for the first time since their construction in 1902. Scenic overlooks provide views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and Angel Island, and the site sports inviting picnic tables and gardens. Across Lincoln Blvd. to the south, the San Francisco National Cemetery is the resting place of over 30,000 soldiers, family members, and notable military figures. It is open to the public and an online grave locator is available.

Just under the Golden Gate Bridge, with fantastic views of its belly is Fort Point. Built over a period of eight years beginning in 1853, Fort Point became obsolete following the Civil War because brick forts of its kind were easily breached by rifled artillery. It achieved some 20th-century fame as the scene in the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film, Vertigo, where Scottie (James Stewart) saves Madeleine (Kim Novak) after she jumps into the San Francisco Bay. High along the California Coastal Trail above the Pacific Ocean are more gun batteries, and the World War II Memorial to the Missing.

for the explorer

No visit to the Presidio would be complete without a stop at Presidio Tunnel Tops, an innovative new site designed by the makers of the High Line in NYC that opened in July of 2022. Thousands of visitors flock to this spot weekly for scenic views, gardens and picnic spots. Activities for kids include the Field Station, a discovery center focused on nature and the environment, and the Outpost, a nature playground with water features and unique wooden play structures and art and building areas. Park Rangers tell stories by the campfire circle, and events like live music, and art installations activate the space on weekends. The Presidio Pop Up is a rotating line up of favorite food trucks at the site to keep visitors satisfied, seven days a week.

The nearby seven-acre Main Parade ground with its distinctive red brick buildings and lawns is the cultural center of the park. Here you’ll find the Walt Disney Family Museum, Presidio Bowl, the Presidio Theater and more.

for the outdoor adventurer

For the hiker or cyclist, the Presidio boasts 24 miles of trails and 25 miles of bikeways. Our favorite hike is a 5.5-mile loop that includes the Southern Wilds. Starting at the Main Post near the Lodge at the Presidio, head out on the Presidio Promenade, which can take you all the way up to and over the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Presidio Promenade intersects with the Bay Trail before becoming the Juan Bautista De Anza National Historic Trail, which climbs gradually, eventually coming to Mountain Lake, the last natural lake in San Francisco. The Mountain Lake Trail continues past Presidio Golf Course, one of the oldest courses on the West Coast. Built in 1895 as a nine-hole course for army officers, it has hosted presidents—Theodore Roosevelt—baseball players—Joe DiMaggio—and even famous golfers like Arnold Palmer.

Return to the main post via Lover’s Lane, an historic trail established in the 18th century as a shortcut used by Spanish soldiers and missionaries to get from the Main Post to Mission Dolores, located three miles south of the Presidio. Note: Presidio trails are dog-friendly but do heed the coyote warnings and keep your dog leashed at all times.

for the art enthusiast

British artist Andy Goldsworthy has three different “site-specific” outdoor works on display in the Presidio, which can be explored together on a three-mile walk. The first is Spire, a 100-foot-high structure constructed in 2008 by stitching together the trunks of 35 cypress trees that had been removed in the area to make way for young saplings.

When walking down Lover’s Lane, you are alongside Goldsworthy’s Wood Line, inviting you “to contemplate where the life of a tree begins, the fertile earth.” Made up of eucalyptus branches, it is more than 1,200 feet in length. School children on field trips can often be seen scampering on top of it.

Earth Wall is the third installation, located on the patio of Colibri Mexican Bistro in the Presidio Officers’ Club. The sculpture’s six-foot-wide sphere was shaped using naturally curved Presidio eucalyptus branches. Clay taken from the courtyard during the club’s renovation was used to bury the sculpture within a rammed earth wall.

and quirky discoveries not to be overlooked

The 450-square-foot Presidio Pet Cemetery invites the visitor to ponder gravestone inscriptions written with care and affection. A rickety white picket fence marks the boundary of the cemetery, which may have been first used just after World War II and is now fully occupied. The right-hand corner of the cemetery was apparently the section reserved for birds. “Roc’’ the Macaw rests there, as does “Our Knuckle Head Parakeet to Paradise.”

Star Wars fans make pilgrimages to the Yoda Fountain located at the headquarters of LucasArts. The Jedi master keeps watch over the Letterman Digital Arts district with its lovely public gardens, lawns and walkways. It also houses Sessions at the Presidio restaurant, with wine and delicacies straight from Lucas Valley Ranch.

camping on a hilltop, luxe lodgings and serious eateries

While it’s possible to see at least a portion of what the Presidio offers as a day trip, it’s more satisfying to immerse yourself there over a period of days. The good news is that you don’t need to settle for a dorm room—or food.

The Rob Hill Campground is open for group camping each season from April 1, through the end of October and available for reservations on a rolling basis on recreation.gov. Located at the Presidio’s highest point, it is one of only two campgrounds in San Francisco.

Inn at the Presidio, five time winner of Conde Nast’s Reader Choice award for Best Hotel in San Francisco, was originally Pershing Hall Bachelor Officers’ Quarters. Built in 1903, it’s on the National Register of Historic Properties. Beautifully renovated, it offers 22 rooms in the main building—17 with fireplaces—and four more at the adjacent Funston House, which can be rented in entirety for family reunions, parties, or business functions.

Lodge at the Presidio opened in 2018 and quickly claimed the top spot on TripAdvisor’s list of best hotels in San Francisco. Built in the late 1890s as part of the Montgomery Street Barracks, over the years it housed six artillery companies, two infantry companies and a cavalry troop. It is the closest hotel to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, which can be viewed while enjoying the outdoor fire pit.

Guests staying at the Inn or the Lodge are treated to  lavish continental breakfasts along with wine and cheese in the afternoon. Both are pet-friendly. They are also quite popular, so book well in advance, particularly on weekends.

When it’s time to sit down for lunch, dinner, brunch or dessert, Colibri Mexican Bistro has a full menu for any time of day. Eat al fresco on a beautiful patio open all year round (heat lamps and blankets included!) or in the cozy dining room and bar. Colibri’s chefs and bartenders serve a new spin on favorite dishes from Central Mexico and an extensive tequila menu.

Presidio Social Club is located just inside the Presidio’s Lombard Gate entrance. The dinner menu features innovative takes on classic ‘40s and ‘50s American standards, like meatloaf, deviled eggs, grilled liver and onions, prime rib and pineapple upside-down cake, as well as 21st-century options. It is extremely popular, and reservations are advised.

Sessions at the Presidio, located by the Chestnut Street Gate, is the perfect mix of modern and classic, with a nice patio for outdoor dining, especially brunch! The menu ranges from Waygu appetizers made with beef from Skywalker Ranch to gnocchi to fresh pan-seared salmon. Check their site for the most current menus and hours

When you’re making plans, presidio.gov/visit is a good place to start. And don’t forget to drop by the Presidio Visitor Center at 210 Lincoln Boulevard for exhibits and maps to enhance your experience.