Golden Gate National Recreation Area offers visitors magnificent views of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, but there’s much more to the area. That’s because Golden Gate National Recreation Area — known as GGNRA or simply Golden Gate — is made up of 80,000 acres of land extending both north and south of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Interestingly, the recreation area, which is managed by the National Park Service, features 37 distinct parks — including Muir Woods National Monument and Alcatraz Island. Golden Gate, which supports 19 distinct ecosystems and is home to more than 2,000 plant and animal species, also features more than 130 miles of trails and 1,200 historic structures.
It’s no surprise then that the park is exceedingly popular. In fact, Golden Gate routinely draws more than 15 million visitors each year.
Golden Gate’s sheer size and scope of activities, combined with its high number of visitors, means planning a trip to the area can be challenging. To help make that task easier, the National Park Service has released its “Top 10 Summer Tips at Golden Gate NPS,” written by the rangers who work there.
“Those who visit Golden Gate National Recreation Area can discover an amazing variety of experiences and destinations,” the rangers write. “We hope you’ll have fun, make lifelong memories, and enjoy this special place.”
Let’s get right to it. Here are the rangers’ top 10 tips for planning a summer trip to Golden Gate.
1. Be Patient And Flexible
“GGNRA is a big place with a major city nearby, so traffic and road construction may make drive times take longer than expected,” the rangers explain. “Always have a few back up plans in mind and remember to reserve campgrounds or lodging well in advance.”
Golden Gate has four campgrounds located in the Marin Headlands. Reservations are required for each of these campgrounds. You can learn about the campgrounds as well as how to make reservations here.
Golden Gate also has two luxury hotels and two youth hostels. You can learn more about lodging here.
2. Repeat: “Can You Hear Me Now?”
“Cell service and bandwidth will vary across the park. Don’t be surprised if you can’t receive calls or texts — even in the few areas you do have cell reception,” the rangers note. “Car services like Uber may get you to the park, but it will be difficult to reach them to arrange a return trip. Finally, be sure to download or print maps ahead of your visit so you don’t need to rely on cell service.”
3. Download A Digital Guide
The NPS App provides interactive maps, tours of park places, and on-the-ground accessibility information about more than 400 national parks to make trip planning easier. The free app can be downloaded through the App Store and Google Play.
“Download the NPS App so you can digitally explore all 81,000 acres of parklands — by map or topic of interest,” the rangers explain. “You can even find the information you need about visitor centers, events, lodging, places to eat and shop, and services throughout the park.”
Pro Tip: Rangers suggest downloading the NPS app and following the prompt to save Golden Gate for offline use. That way you can use the app even while in remote areas like Muir Woods where cellular service is not available.
4. Meet “Karl The Fog”
San Francisco is famous for its fog, which many residents refer to as “Karl the Fog” or simply “Karl.”
“The Bay Area is well known for its microclimates, and infamous fog,” rangers note. “Keep in mind that temperatures along the colder, windy coastline may be 10 degrees cooler than inland areas. Be sure to dress in layers to ensure you are comfortable while visiting our park.”
You can learn more about the weather at various places within many areas of Golden Gate here.
5. Drive Responsibly
The rangers remind visitors to always “Observe posted speed limits and use pullouts when viewing wildlife and taking pictures so other cars can pass safely.” They also point out that since wildlife may use the roadways too, “following the posted speed limit will help ensure their safety, as well as yours.”
Pro Tip: Bicycles and pedestrians are allowed to travel on any part of the park road, barring temporary, wildlife-related closures, so keep an eye out for them as well.
6. Stay On Boardwalks, Trails, And Shores
“Rip currents, scaling rocks, and walking off-trail can all be dangerous. In fact, they account for more visitor injuries than any other natural feature each year,” rangers explain. “Avoid tragedy by recreating in the park responsibly at all times. Also, always adhere to all safety signs and messages.”
You can find beach, wildlife, terrain, and activity safety tips here.
7. Watch The Time
There are more than 80,000 acres within Golden Gate, and many of the park’s distinct sites have different hours of operation, the rangers explain. If you plan to visit areas such as Fort Point, Muir Woods, Alcatraz, and visitor centers, be sure to check those areas’ operating hours in advance so you can plan your visit accordingly.
You can find operating hours for various park areas here.
8. Take Safe Selfies
It can be dangerous to take pictures because people lose track of where they are walking. Indeed, many people are unnecessarily injured — or killed — each year while taking pictures and selfies in national parks.
“Always be aware of your surroundings: Never approach wildlife, or walk off-trail to take pictures,” the rangers remind visitors. “Furthermore, do not feed or bait coyotes, or any other wildlife.”
The rangers go on to note that “We love wildflowers too — and we can best protect them by photographing them from a distance.”
You can find more tips for viewing wildlife safely here.
Pro Tip: To safely take pictures of wildlife, rangers use the “rule of thumb.” Here’s how to do it: Hold your thumb up and out at arm’s length. If you can cover the entire wild animal with your thumb, you’re probably a safe distance away.
9. Be An Early — Or Late — Bird
Golden Gate draws large numbers of visitors, so it’s going to be crowded. To avoid crowds as well as traffic, the rangers suggest arriving at the park before 9 a.m. or after 3 p.m.
“Sunset is a popular time for our San Francisco park sites along the coast, including Baker Beach, Ocean Beach, and Lands End,” the rangers explain. “To beat the crowds, you can instead watch the moon rise — especially when it’s full! — at Crissy Field, Fort Point, or the Presidio.”
You can learn more about those — and other — areas of Golden Gate here.
10. Appreciate The Urban Landscape
“Golden Gate is much more than a natural ecosystem,” the rangers point out. “Responsibly take in the vibrant communities, cityscapes, and natural wonders throughout this area.”
That said, the park is in an urban area. “Use your best judgement with your belongings — and avoid leaving significant valuables in unattended vehicles,” the rangers note.
“And regardless of which areas of the park you visit, always remember to Leave No Trace to minimize human impacts on the environment!”
Pro Tip: The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace are:
- Plan Ahead & Prepare
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
You can find more details about these steps here.
If you plan to be at Golden Gate, or in the San Francisco area, be sure to also read:
- 10 Key Ranger Tips For Visiting Muir Woods National Monument
- 10 Things To Know When Planning A Visit To Alcatraz
- Visiting San Francisco’s Marin Headlands: 9 Things To Know
- 9 Things To Know Before Your First Trip To San Francisco
Be sure to also check out all of our San Francisco and California coverage.