San Francisco is known for many things, including its arts, culture, food, mild weather, and excellent pro sports teams, to list several. It is also known for its natural beauty and walkability. My favorite part of San Francisco incorporates those last two attributes: a walk along a section of the San Francisco Bay Trail from Aquatic Park to the Golden Gate Bridge. Along this trail are some of the most beautiful and spectacular vistas of San Francisco, the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the surrounding areas.
Below, I’ve provided a “road map.” Follow it as far as or as little as you desire. Each step leads to beauty.
First Thing’s First: Properly Planning And Packing For Your Journey
Layer up, because temperatures can change rapidly. Sunblock is a must, even on foggy or cloudy days. Wear comfortable shoes. And as always, hydrate!
Anticipate a one-way walk time of at least an hour, depending on rest stops and time spent gazing at the wondrous sights. If walking this far seems daunting, consider renting a bike. Several vendors are available in the area.
Starting Your San Francisco Bay Trail Adventure
Let’s start at the Powell and Hyde cable car turnabout near Ghirardelli Square. This cable car line begins in downtown San Francisco and trundles over both Nob Hill and Russian Hill before beginning a steep descent toward the San Francisco Bay and the turnabout. You can jump aboard anywhere along the line.
After hopping off the cable car, walk down the grassy slope toward the Bay and Aquatic Park. When you get to the concrete walkway running parallel to the beach, and bay turn left and head west. The full walk is approximately 3.5 miles each way. Most of it is flat, except for a short but steep uphill climb just beyond Aquatic Park. To avoid this hill, you may take transportation to the Marina Green and start the walk there. The parking is free.
1. Taking In The Views At Municipal Pier
Just before the uphill path is Municipal Pier, a concrete esplanade shaped like an apostrophe. It gracefully curves 1,400 feet out over the shoreline into San Francisco Bay. (Just to confuse you, Municipal Pier is also known as Aquatic Park Pier and Muni Pier.)
The view along the walkway is magnificent, offering vistas of water, sky, bridges, sailboats and ships, islands, distant hills, and of course, fog. Don’t be surprised if you see folks swimming nearby in the bay. The perspective is similar to that from a boat out in the bay, except the cold, white-capped waves will not splash you! On a lucky day, you can see all of these sights in one visit. One could end the walk here and be perfectly satisfied.
Note: Parts of the pier have deteriorated substantially over the 91 years since it was built and are currently fenced off. Structurally it remains sound and is open for walking and fishing daily.
2. Shipping Out From The Fort Mason Port Of Embarkation
The walk up the hill (McDowell Road) is steep but short. At the top, under a grove of cypress and eucalyptus trees, is an overview of the Fort Mason Port of Embarkation, which was the second-largest such port in the country for transporting troops during World War II. The buildings, wharves, and piers remain but have been repurposed into artistic, cultural, and environmental endeavors. A wonderful swords-to-plowshares moment.
There are also several restaurants, and on Sunday, a terrific farmer’s market. Walking west, you will pass through the Great Meadow, a large but surprisingly quiet grassy field. It has panoramic vistas of San Francisco and is a great spot for picnics. If you wish to visit the pier areas, you can walk down a series of steps directly down the hill; or, for a gentler stroll, you can reach them by walking through the mildly sloping Great Meadows and then looping back through the main gate of the fort.
3. Playing And Fueling Up At Marina Green
Marina Green, just west of Fort Mason, is a grass-covered, 74-acre area with a perimeter of a bit less than a mile, all bordered by a flat path. It is used for running, biking, skating, walking, sunning, group exercises, yoga classes, youth sports practices, kite flying, and standing in line for a fresh pour-over coffee prepared by local baristas in the frequently present Philz Coffee Truck. This Philz truck is located at the northwest corner of the green. On weekends, a Yucatec Mayan fusion food truck (Conchinita) pulls alongside. Legendary!
Watch out for dogs chasing balls, frisbees, and friends, as they are often not on leashes! Fortunately, most are well mannered.
4. Boats, Birds, And Donuts At East And West Harbor
At the east and west ends of Marina Green are two yacht harbors, operated by the City and County of San Francisco. They are sensibly named East Harbor and West Harbor. Several hundred sailboats and a smattering of cruisers are moored there. Most are in the 25–45 foot range. Others are larger and more impressive if you’re into boats!
Don’t miss the Dynamo Donut & Coffee kiosk on the west end of the harbor. It offers an interesting and delicious assortment of donuts including passion fruit milk chocolate, chocolate star anise, bacon maple apple, and caramel de sel, to name a few. Vegan and gluten-free varieties are available at times too!
When munching on one of these donuts or sipping a cuppa, scan the treetops adjacent to the St. Francis Yacht Club (StFYC) to the north. With luck, you’ll see one or more great blue herons sitting immobile, gazing over their terrain. Sentinels of SF Bay! My wife and I counted eight up there one time.
5. Wave Organ
StFYC is a private club, but the adjacent roadway and walking paths are public. A fun addition to this walk is to follow that roadway east to the end, a little less than half a mile. You’ll be on a narrow jetty that forms a barrier between the bay and harbor. It’s a wonderful location to sit and watch sailboats on the bay and, in another direction, the San Francisco skyline.
The tip of the peninsula is decorated by the acoustic Wave Organ sculpture created by Peter Richards and George Gonzalez in 1986. In the right conditions, water coursing through the “organ” pipes creates eerily soothing “music.”
6. My Number One Favorite Spot
Just west of the StFYC is a small terrace with two benches. It is my favorite spot on the entire walk, right at the water’s edge, offering direct, unobstructed views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the surrounding bay. Feel the sun and wind, smell the salty air, embrace the beauty. And enjoy the moment. It is an inspiring point.
Just west of this plaza is a compressed-dirt-and-rock pedestrian and bike path leading to Crissy Field East Beach and beyond to the Golden Gate Bridge. This is an entrance into The Presidio, once a U.S. Army base, now a self-sustaining national park. (That’s why you have to pay for parking in most locations in The Presidio — except, so far, East Beach.) The beach is used for sunbathing on warmer days. Dog walking and playing every day. And when the wind is consistent and strong, expert sail-, kite- and foil-boarders launch from the beach into the bay.
Watch for flights of pelicans, the only birds to have an island in San Francisco Bay named after them — Alcatraz is the Spanish word for pelican. At the end of the beach is a pedestrian footbridge over the tidal flow from the bay to Crissy Field Marsh.
7. My Other Favorite Spot
That would be Crissy Field South Beach. I’m not sure why it is so named because it is on the north side of this bit of land and further west than East Beach. Nevertheless, this beach is really just a continuation of East Beach, the separation being the tidal channel into the marsh.
About 200 yards beyond the footbridge, under a grove of cypress trees, is a small wooden path leading to the beach. This spot is my other number one favorite part of the walk! Nearby are several wood benches facing the bay. The views are spectacular: the Golden Gate Bridge now a bit closer off to the west, hills and towns of Marin County and Angel Island to the north, Alcatraz Island and the East Bay far to the east, and Crissy Field Marsh to the south.
I always have a sense of peace and contentment when I stop by. These sights are impressive, no matter what the weather or time of day. But if I had my druthers, I would visit only on bright, sunny, windy days, preferably in the late afternoon. This is when the sun is lower in the sky, its rays shimmering and dancing on the white-capped water. And it is when the westerly breeze is brisk and refreshing. Close to perfection.
8. Crissy Field
This is a large, beautiful piece of real estate west of the marsh. Over the years, Crissy Field was purposed and repurposed many times over by the U.S. Army. In no particular order, it was used for stables, warehouses, administrative buildings, refuse dumping, barracks, and as an airfield. Today it is a 130 acre somewhat oblong grass field, with more than its share of gopher holes. It’s used for recreation, similar to Marina Green but much larger and much less crowded. Check it out.
9. Glimpsing Five White Buildings And Five Red Roofs
Opposite Crissy Field is a compound consisting of four white buildings with red roofs, and a pier leading out to a boathouse with the same color scheme. At one time, “when ships were made of wood and men were made of steel,” this was a U.S. Coast Guard motor lifeboat station, Fort Point Station. Indeed, it was my first duty assignment while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Today it is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary headquarters. Their mission statement says, in part, “we protect the wildlife, habitats, and cultural resources of one of the most diverse and bountiful marine environments in the world, an area of 3,295 square miles off the northern and central California coast.” Pretty impressive responsibility to be housed in a former motor lifeboat station.
Visitors are welcome.
10. Warming Up At The Warming Hut
Continuing west on the trail, the Golden Gate Bridge looms larger. One last stop before the final push to Fort Point and the famous bridge is the Warming Hut. It is just as it is named. A warm, ADA-accessible place to recoup and refresh with hot (or cold) drinks and snacks. Souvenir artwork, clothing, books, and knit knacks are available for purchase, all celebrating the Presidio, Crissy Field, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.
It isn’t open all week, so if you’d like to make it part of your journey, check the Warming Hut Park Store website for hours.
11. There At Last: Reaching Golden Gate Bridge And Fort Point
The walk from the Warming Hut to the Golden Gate Bridge is about half a mile along a well-paved road shared by pedestrians, bicyclists, and motor vehicles. And the views are awesome!
As before, be careful. There are cars to the left of you and crashing waves to the right of you. You’re stuck in the middle. But the up-close sights of the massive bridge, Fort Point National Historic Site, and ocean swells roughly smashing into the bay and shoreline are worth the effort. Tours of the fort are available. Check Fort Point National Historic Site’s website for days and times.
Know that walking or biking across the Golden Gate Bridge is a visual treat but can be an auditory misery! It is a story for another time.
Finally, I recommend visiting the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District website for photos, history, further exploration, and even transportation options to cross the bridge and get back downtown.