When I agreed to this trip in late spring, I thought the weekend would give me a little time to reach and explore one of California’s National Parks. Perhaps I’d fit in a brief introduction to Yosemite or Sequoia: no, too much driving: three hours just to get there, and then an even longer trip back to San Jose. Well, then, maybe north to Point Reyes, spending the day hiking, beach walking, and watching the Sunset, racing to the airport after sunrise the next morning. Scratch that, lodging was difficult to find by the time I made plans. Perhaps south to Pinnacles National Monument: no, again too far. I grudgingly settled for a day in the bay area, aiming to wind my way to Muir Woods for a lengthy hike among the redwoods. In the end, I didn’t make it there, either, but the day I did have was what I’d originally had in mind.
Golden Gate NRA didn’t grab my attention as I read about it at the NPS site. It sounded like a bureaucrat’s idea of a park, cobbled together from leftover federal land and oversold as an ‘urban national park’. The NPS map showed it distributed over 60 miles and three counties, with little patchwork pieces here and there: the Marin Headlands and Muir Woods above the Golden Gate Bridge, former military bases dotting both the northern and southern peninsulas, and small areas tucked in among the city, along the shore, and on the ridges south of the city.
Given the fame of the bridge connecting the two peninsulas, it's easy to forget that "Golden Gate" originally referred to the passage between these two points of land. The National Recreation Area of the same name is the equivalent of a ‘rails to trails’ conversion, except it’s more ‘forts to trails’. But the quilt of former military property cum national park has produced some very special places, places that give you the experience of solitude and nature within minutes of one of the nation’s largest cities.
My first stop in the Recreation Area is at Crissy Field, one of the newest additions, opened in 2001. It’s 100 wonderfully located acres near the northwest corner of the peninsula, a small strip that includes beach, a tidal marsh, the historic Field itself (home to both the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition and San Francisco’s first airfield) and the Crissy Field Center, dedicated to community and environmental activities. To the east is the marina; I head west past picnic areas and out Marine Drive to Fort Point, a Civil War era facility that’s now directly under the Golden Gate Bridge. The brick structure itself is surprisingly attractive, although you can only access the ground floor. I notice that somewhere between Jefferson Street and Fort Point the Sun has become a lot scarcer, making the Point even cooler than it might have been.
I’m finally ready to head across the bridge. By now, I’m thinking that Muir Woods will have to wait for another visit. I’ve been there before, two decades ago, and I decide to turn left once I’m across the Golden Gate, exploring and heading for the lighthouse at Point Bonita and perhaps Muir Beach.
Before doing that, I join the hundreds of people at Vista Point on the north side, looking back south straight down the Bridge’s roadway, and across the water east to Alcatraz and southeast into the city. The Sun is making its final appearance: the skies over the Bridge and the city are clear, but to the west it’s a different story. Looking away from the crowds, I see the ridges of the Marin Headlands fighting to keep back the fog, then giving way to the end of the blue skies as the gray matter spills over like water cascading over a dam.
For two hours, I wander and circle around the roads, hills, and forts of this area, stopping to marvel at how completely fog has obscured the rest of the world, or to walk through a massive WW II gun emplacement, or walk along the beach before heading to my hotel for the night. During the entire time, it’s hard to believe I’m within miles of millions of people—I encounter a car or two at most at the places I stop. I leave with an unexpected collection of memories:
- Watching the Golden Gate Bridge emerge from the fog, then disappearing completely for minutes at a time, despite being only a mile away
- Conzelman Road weaving along the ridge atop the north side of the Golden Gate, clinging to the bluffs above the shoreline, between abandoned batteries, looking down on rugged, rocky coasts
- A foghorn booming somewhere along the hidden shore, as Point Bonita’s light flashes from the other direction
- The massive, unfinished concrete structures of Project 129, designed to hold guns that could reach battleships 15 miles at sea
- Watching the Pacific gently lapping the beach at Fort Cronkhite, the whole scene—from sky to shore—a study in shades of gray
This country is surprisingly rugged, and after a half-century of un-settlement, provides a wide variety of opportunities for solitude. I change my day’s ultimate destination for the third time, settling on the half-mile walk to the Point Bonita Lighthouse. When I discover that the walk can only be completed when the Lighthouse is open (Wed-Sat, 10-3:30), it’s neither too surprising nor disappointing. I turn around at the tunnel through the massive pinnacle of rock that lies between the headlands and the end of the Point, and head to San Jose as the day comes to a close.