At nearly 1,500 acres or 2.5 square miles, the enormous Presidio occupies a giant chunk of the northwestern corner of San Francisco, ending at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. Originally founded in 1776 by Spanish soldiers, it morphed into a Mexican military base and was eventually taken by the American army in 1846. It remained an active and important army base until 1994, when it was given over to the National Park Service. In 1996, the United States Congress created the Presidio Trust, a public-private partnership which became (in accordance with its mandate) entirely self sufficient in 2013. The Presidio Trust maintains and administers The Presidio to this day – and does a wonderful job. What is immediately evident is how lovely the old army base is, incredibly tranquil, wooded and manicured. Almost the anti-San Francisco, The Presidio is a true oasis in the city. “I’ve been to San Francisco numerous times but I had never been to The Presidio. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it is, so much history, and so much to do. I’m just sorry I came here on my last day in San Francisco,” said Charlene Lowe visiting from Charleston, South Carolina.
The Presidio Trust has preserved the building and character of the old fort by refurbishing many of the 433 old wooden and brick buildings that were once barracks, storage facilities, offices and more. Many of these beautiful buildings are today rented out to individuals (over 3000 people now rent homes and flats in the park) plus various institutes, businesses and non-profit organizations. All the buildings retain the original military character and any signs are small and tasteful. One of the largest entities within The Presidio is the Lucas Film Letterman campus with the iconic “Yoda” statue out front.
There’s a small hotel (opened in 2012) called The Inn at the Presidio, an entirely refurbished historic building that once was the Officers Bachelor Quarters. Done in cream and dark browns, the 26 room boutique hotel is a comely addition to the park and a nice spot to stay the night, and really experience The Presidio. You can’t miss the fog horns blowing from the nearby bay. (The Presidio even contains the only official campground in San Francisco)
Things to do:
Activities: There are approximately 24 miles of easy, moderate and a few strenuous hiking trails within The Presidio. The Bay Area Ridge Trail is one of the best of the excellent trails that wind through more than 300 acres of eucalyptus, pine and cypress trees. Remarkably none of these trees were native but were all planted by the army about a hundred years ago, creating an urban forest. Eight scenic overlooks dot the trails including one above the San Francisco National Cemetery, a tasteful and immaculate cemetery housing the graves of legions of soldiers. (Plus the views from this cemetery of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge are outstanding) Guests can also enjoy the stunning Presidio Golf Course and the Presidio Bowling Center, both open to the public. Relatively flat and easy to walk or bike, plus unlike many other areas within San Francisco, parking is plentiful and usually free.
The Presidio Officer’s Club opened in 2014 after a $30 million renovation and is delighting visitors. What once was the stuffy army Officer’s Club has transformed into a new event space and large gallery – in reality, it’s a world class museum. The building was the original old adobe El Presidio and is arguably the oldest building in San Francisco. Nearby an archeological dig is underway attempting to discover the true nature of the Spanish and Mexican history of the Presidio.
Featuring historic documents, photographs, films, recordings and interactive state-of-the-art displays, the Officer’s Club museum helps to explain the often overlooked yet extensive western military history of the United States. “These exhibits were meant to give people a feeling about the different facets of this place,” said Eric Blind, the Director of Presidio Heritage Programs. There is also restaurant in the Officer’s Club called, “Arguello,” run by famed Bay Area chef, Traci Des Jardins which offers home-style Mexican cuisine. (It’s named for Luis Antonio Arguello, who commanded The Presidio from 1806 until 1822 when he became the first Mexican Governor of Alta California.)
The Walt Disney Family Museum, (not affiliated with the Walt Disney Company) is all about Walt Disney’s personal history. Featuring countless photos, short films and personal effects of Walt himself, this is a must visit for all Disney fans. Truly a superb museum.
Besides Arguello, there are a total of 13 cafes and restaurants within the area for noshing and dining.
Originally scrubby beaches and sand dunes, then a long ago abandoned military base as part of The Presidio, Crissy Field is today one of the coolest places in all of San Francisco. Part of the protected Golden Gate National Recreation Area, or GGNRA, Crissy Field is a free beach area facing the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and San Francisco Bay.
In 1918 the United States Congress authorized funds for the construction of eight early airfields that offered coastal defense of Northern California. At the time, the only dedicated Air Service Coast Defense Station in the western United States was at The Presidio. The United States Army Air Service (as it was then called) used this pioneering air base for search and rescue missions, advancing new techniques in military aviation, putting on air shows, as observation for artillery practice, aerial photography for the US Geological Survey, forest fire patrols and offered air support for the U.S. Mail. Still housing old airplane hangers plus Mission Revival, Craftsman and Mediterranean Revival style buildings, this area was a major airfield in the early days of flight when most people had never even seen an airplane.
Famous early aviator and colorful Major Henry H. “Hap” Arnold (later leader of the United States Army Air Force in World War II) was instrumental in the expansion and naming of what came to be known as Crissy Field. Crissy Field’s sand dunes were leveled and a long grass lawn was planted as a runway. The base was re-named for Major Dana H. Crissy, an early Army Air Service pilot from Sacramento who crashed his small plane and died on October 8, 1919. He was commanding the first transcontinental endurance mission attempting to fly west to east across the United States. Unfortunately, Crissy crashed his De Havilland DH-4 the first day out while attempting to land in Salt Lake City. “Hap” Arnold had the name of the new airfield officially changed to Crissy Field in March 1921, in honor of his friend. Eventually the base fell into disrepair, but today the area has been revived.
Things to do:
Crissy Field is the place where San Franciscans (and in-the know visitors) go to enjoy the fresh air, stroll, jog, bike, walk, run their dogs (it’s an off-leash area) or just chill out. Art installations join various activity centers that rent some of the old hangers. Activities include a trampoline center, swim school, batting cages and bike rental facilities. People kayak, launch sailboats or even swim in the cold waters off of Crissy Field, but most just take in the incredible views of the Bridge, the Marin Headlands and the many passing ships and boats. The Warming Hut is a fun place to grab a cup of coffee and meet some of the locals. Plus at Crissy Field you can park for free as long as you like.
The Presidio and Crissy Field have undergone tremendous changes as of late with the reopening of the Presidio Officer’s Club being only the latest example. Further slow and steady development is taking place as additional historic buildings get refurbished. If you’re a local or just visiting San Francisco, don’t miss this spectacular part of the city.
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If you go:
There is a free bus called the PresidioGo that departs every 30 minutes from the Presidio Transit Center. It goes to the downtown Transbay terminal in the South of Market area.
The area is bike friendly and various bike rental facilities are available in both the Presidio proper and at Crissy Field. Walking and hiking here is the way to go but parking is plentiful, particularly in the Crissy Field area.
And importantly there is plenty of free parking in the Presidio and Crissy Field,
The Inn at the Presidio is the only Inn within the park. Very nice. Various motels and hotels are located nearby outside of the Presidio and Crissy Field. And of course all over San Francisco.
Presidio Officer’s Club
Arguello – Mexican home-style cuisine inside the Presidio Officer’s Club
There are also 13 separate dining facilities within the park.
Pizzeria Avellino is a very good New York style pizza place located just outside the park at the Lombard Gate
c. Bob Ecker 2016