The National Park Service is turning 100 in 2016. And what better way to celebrate the auspicious occasion than with an inspirational birthday visit to one of the many national parks within easy travel distance from San Francisco.
Alpine forests, dramatic sea cliffs, towering redwoods and fascinating regional histories are some of what you’ll find on a park excursion, and all part of the rich splendor and stunning natural diversity of national parks in or near the Bay Area. With so much on offer so close to home, the opportunities to explore and discover are seemingly endless, and as convenient as a bike ride across town or a daytrip to the country.
Here are eight notable national parks in or near San Francisco for enjoying the great outdoors:
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
With multiple sites in San Francisco, and in bordering Marin and San Mateo counties to the north and south, respectively, GGNRA is the largest and most accessible Bay Area park for city dwellers. The popular Lands End near Ocean Beach includes the Coastal Trail, offering spectacular sea and bay views at every turn. While the expansive Marin Headlands features hiking and biking trails that start at rugged Rodeo Beach and meander past historic military bunkers to reach the 920-foot Hawk Hill.
Point Reyes National Seashore
A triangle-shaped peninsula strung along the western edge of Marin County, this wild and windy park encompasses 71,000 acres of rolling grasslands, twisted Monterey pines and a dramatic rocky coastline buffeted by crashing breakers. While 1,500 species of plants and animals call the park home, the main attraction is the historic Point Reyes Lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula some 60 miles from San Francisco, and an ideal spot for watching migrating gray whales.
Yosemite National Park
A jewel in the national park crown, this vast wilderness on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is one of the most popular attractions in the state. Celebrating its own birthday – 125 in 2015 – the spectacular Yosemite Valley is the epicenter and a four-hour drive from San Francisco. Enjoy views of the soaring rock cliff El Capitan and Bridalveil Falls, and the dramatic Vernal Falls. Intrepid hikers can also trek up the 4,800-foot-high Half Dome.
Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail
Follow in the footsteps of Juan Batista de Anza, the Spanish explorer who established the Presidio and Mission San Francisco in 1776 after trekking some 1,200 miles from Arizona. In San Francisco, the Mountain Lake Trail in the Presidio includes a historical marker where de Anza camped – a popular reenactment site. Sections of the trail circle the Bay Area and continue south to Monterey and beyond, following the historical route with numerous markers and facilities along the way.
Muir Woods National Monument
Just 17 miles from San Francisco in Marin County, the 554-acre Muir Woods is a popular draw for locals and tourists alike. While up to 6,000 visit daily in the dry summer months, the park is often shrouded in fog – a vital ingredient to the unique ecosystem of old growth coast redwoods. Those trees are the stars here, growing up to 250 feet in height with most between 500-800 years old. Avoid parking hassles and ride the Muir Woods Shuttle from April through October.
Fort Point National Historic Site
Lurking mostly unseen under the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point was built prior to the Civil War as the first line of defense against enemy warships entering San Francisco Bay. Used by the US Army up through WWII, the fort’s exquisite and well-preserved arched casements are an excellent example of the art of brick masonry from the era. View displays of vintage canons, and tour the soldiers barracks and officers’ quarters.
Easily the most sought-after ticket for Bay Area visitors, the iconic Alcatraz Island is situated a short ferry ride away in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The frigid water and hazardous currents made it an ideal prison locale for the country’s most dangerous convicts from 1933 to 1963. And that rich history comes alive during a fascinating self-guided audio tour narrated by former guards and prisoners. The views of the bay are pretty amazing too.
Pinnacles National Park
The newest edition to the state’s wealth of national parks, Pinnacles was upgraded from its national monument status in 2013. Originally established in 1908, the park is located 120 miles southeast of San Francisco and features the eroded remains of an extinct volcano and other dramatic spires and rock formations that gave the park its name. Caves, condors, rare chaparral vegetation and unique geological formations created by the San Andreas Fault are also part of Pinnacles’ rich offerings.