Presidio National Park

If you made a list of all the things that are great about America, our National Parks would have to be pretty close to the top. With these parks, we preserve and maintain our most beautiful and historical places so that all of us can experience and enjoy them. We’re very fortunate here in San Francisco to have a 1,491-acre (2.3 square mile) National Park right inside our small and densely populated city. The Presidio became a National Park largely because its geography made it important and its history helped preserve it.

The Presidio occupies the point of land on the south side of the entrance to San Francisco Bay. It’s the perfect strategic location to watch over the entrance and protect the bay. It was home to the Ohlone people for thousands of years; the Spanish built a garrison here in 1776, and, when Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1822, the Presidio passed to Mexico. The US Army seized the Presidio in 1846 at the start of the Mexican-American War and occupied it until the base closed in 1994. The Presidio had been given National Historic Landmark status in 1962, so when the Army left, it was turned over to the National Park Service and became part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area.

During its 148-year control of the Presidio, the Army built about 740 buildings on the base. They deliberately built the buildings in clusters and kept a lot of the land as forested open space. This decision, I suspect, was more about camouflage than ascetics, but it did maintain the beauty of the landscape, and, since the Army controlled it, no one else could develop it either. So a location that was important militarily ended up being partially protected by the military. This is largely why it’s a beautiful park now and not just another housing development.

Like most National Parks, the Presidio has beaches, hiking and biking trails, meadows, woods, habitat for flora and fauna, a lake, and even camping. But it has much more; there are forts and other remnants of armaments, vintage architecture, scenic overlooks, a golf course, two chapels, a national military cemetery, and more. In 2009, the world-class Walt Disney Family Museum opened in a former barracks.

Although the Presidio is a National Historic Landmark and a National Park, it’s managed by a trust and is financially self-sufficient. The trust rehabilitates the old buildings and then leases them as private residences or businesses. The income is used to rehab more buildings and to preserve the natural, scenic, cultural, and recreational resources of the park. One of the former barracks buildings is now the Walt Disney Family Museum, and the old Letterman Hospital complex was torn down and replaced with Lucas Films’ Letterman Digital Arts Center. 

The Presidio Trust has a great website with details about everything there is to see and do in the park. The website even has downloadable maps and audio tours. Unfortunately, the website blocks any attempt to link it to a word or phrase, so the best I can do is give you the URL ( There are maps and schedules for the PresidioGo shuttles and bike and trail maps and more.


Here are brief descriptions of some of the park’s major sights:

01) Fort Point (Z28-12-311)02) Fort Point Canon (Z28-10-433)


Fort Point

The US Army had barely settled into the Presidio when gold was discovered in California. The gold rush was on and people flooded into California by the thousands; many of them entered by ship through the Golden Gate. The U.S. Army decided it needed to protect San Francisco bay and quickly began constructing a fort at the bay’s entrance. Constructed of granite and brick, Fort Point was built, between 1853 and 1861, at the base of what is now the Golden Gate Bridge. In fact, the bridge has an extra span that was specifically engineered to arch over the fort.


Historian, John Martini writes “Although its guns never fired a shot in anger, Fort Point has witnessed Civil War, obsolescence, earthquake, bridge construction, remodeling for later wars, and restoration as a National Historic Site. It stands today beneath the soaring Golden Gate Bridge as a monument to more than two centuries of military presence on San Francisco Bay.”


03) Crissy Field Tidal Marsh (Z28-12-402)

Crissy Field

It took nearly two decades to plan, raise $34.5 million (mostly from private donations), cleanup, and — with the help of thousands of volunteers — transform Crissy Field from a dilapidated, abandoned airfield to a pristine wetland. It was the largest community project ever undertaken in San Francisco.

Now Crissy Field has a tidal marsh, a grassy meadow, sand dunes, a beach, and picnic areas. An old army shed at the western end had been restored and converted to a café and bookstore called the Warming Hut. The wide, smooth Golden Gate Promenade runs right through Crissy Field on its 4-mile route from Fort Mason to Fort Point.

04) Crissy Field Dunes (Z28-12-400)05) Crissy Field Beach (Z28-12-413)


   Crissy Field dunes with Chamisso Bush Lupine »»»»

                                             Crissy Field beach »»»»

Presidio Trails

There are a dozen hiking trails in the presidio, and you can download a map from the National Park webiste hereMy personal favorite is the Ecology trail. This one-mile hike begins near the Presidio Officers’ Club and ends at Inspiration Point near the Presidio golf course. It’s a wide easy trail that wanders (mostly uphill) through a heavily wooded area with redwood, pine, cypress, and eucalyptus trees. Shortly before reaching Inspiration Point, the trail passes by Tennessee Hollow, the site where many San Franciscans camped after their homes were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Inspiration Point is topped with a stone plaza that provides an expansive view of the Presidio and the bay beyond.

06) Presidio Chapel (Z28-8-554)


Presidio Chapel

The Presidio Chapel, with its wooded hillside setting, red-tiled roof, and deeply textured stucco walls, is postcard pretty. It’s a Spanish Colonial Revival Mission that was built in the early 1930s and served as the Army’s interfaith chapel through 1994.

The chapel has 11 stained glass windows in the sanctuary that represent the virtues of military character. It’s also home to an important depression-era mural. In 1935, Victor Arnautoff created a 34-foot fresco on the chapel’s terrace wall. The fresco depicts the history of the Presidio beginning with the Ohlone people and ending as a peacetime Army base.


08) Cemetary (Z28-12-374)

San Francisco National Cemetery

This cemetery, according to the signage at the gate, was designated a National Cemetery in 1884. It’s “a burial place for veterans of all wars” including “thousands from the Pacific Theater of World War II.” There are nearly 30,000 soldiers and their families buried here, and, as you can see from the photo, they have a stunning resting place. 

There are only two cemetaries remaining in San Francisco: The National Military Cemetery here and a cemetary next to Mission Delores with gravesites dating back to the early 1800s.


09) Disney Museum (Z28-12-382)

Walt Disney Family Museum

This amazing museum is a new and very welcome addition to San Francisco. Opened in 2009, the museum leads visitors through ten galleries that recount the life and work of Walt Disney. Organized in chronological order, the exhibits use a variety of media (photos, videos, interactive exhibits, and a wonderful scale model of Disneyland) to tell Walt’s story.

On some level, we all know that Walt Disney started with cartoons, then made feature length animated films, then TV shows, and finally theme parks. But you really have to see this museum to appreciate the staggering size of the body of work he produced and the immense span of his creativity.


11) Digital Arts Center (Z28-12-343) 12) Boba Fett (Z28-12-269)

Letterman Digital Arts Center

Lucas Films built a new digital arts center on a 23-acre site that was once part of the Letterman Hospital complex. The new Letterman Digital Arts Center opened in 2005 and is home to Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and LucasArts. According to the inauguration press release the center has the “largest computer network in the entertainment industry” and houses a massive data center and render farm.

The center’s four 4-story buildings were designed to fit perfectly with the Presidio’s existing architectural styles, and they face a beautifully landscaped 17-acre park that is open to the public. 

The café is also open to the public and so is the lobby of Building B where you can see memorabilia from the Star Wars films (like Boba Fett's suit in the photo. Building B is the one with the Yoda fountain at the entrance.


Officer’s Club and Visitor’s Center

The Officer's Club is the oldest building in the Presidio. It’s believed that some of its adobe walls date back to the early 1790s, when this was a Spanish garrison. Normally, the Presidio's Visitor Center is located here, but the club is undergoing a major rehabilitation and will not be open again until late 2012.

A happy collusion of history and geography helped preserve the presidio; a political intervention turned it into a National Park. In the late 1980s, Congress started several rounds of base closings in America. California ended up taking a disproportionate share of the closings, and I’ve always believed conservatives deliberately pushed for this outcome in order to punish California for its liberal leanings. If true, this probably isn’t the outcome they hoped for. The Presidio Army Base was closed, and San Francisco, the most liberal city in America, got a National Park in one of the most beautiful locations on the planet.


Giving credit where credit is due:

Website: A History of the Presidio

Website: Presidio of San Francisco


© Virginia E. Vail 2012