Why would you choose to take a hike when you’re in such a vibrant city with so many other things to do and see? There are several reasons: the Golden Gate Promenade has beautiful views, fresh air, sunshine, beaches, picnic areas, and exercise opportunities. On a clear day, there are gorgeous views in every direction: the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, Crissy Field Marsh, and the San Francisco skyline.
The Golden Gate Promenade is an easy-to-walk trail on the edge of San Francisco Bay. The wide, flat, Promenade is smooth enough to walk, jog, bike, or push a stroller. It’s also dog friendly and wheelchair accessible, and it’s easy on the budget because it’s all free.
For another great San Francisco trail with great views, visit our related post: Lands End Hike.
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Bits of History and Points of Interest Along the Promenade
The 2-mile Promenade runs through Crissy Field between historic Fort Point, under the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marina District, near the Palace of Fine Arts. Fort Point, Crissy Field, and the Promenade are all part or Presidio National Park. Yes, the Presidio really is a National Park, and, if it were on any other continent, it would likely be a World Heritage site too.
Presidio National Park
Strategically positioned at the entrance to San Francisco Bay, the Presidio served as a military installation for 218 years. The Spanish built a garrison on the site in 1776.
After winning its independence from Spain, Mexico took control of the garrison in 1822. In 1846, the U.S. Army seized it from Mexico and occupied it until 1994. Now the 1,500-acre site, located inside the city limits of San Francisco, is Presidio National Park.
In retrospect, it’s fortunate that the army occupied this 1500-acre site for 148 years. Otherwise, it would have become another San Francisco neighborhood completely covered with housing. And although the Army built more than 700 buildings, they built them in clusters keeping much of the acreage in its natural state.
The Presidio is operated by a Trust that manages the rehabilitation of the old Army buildings and then leases them as private businesses and residences. The Trust recycles the income back into the park to preserve its natural spaces and rehab more buildings. The Walt Disney Family Museum now occupies a former barracks building, and Lucas Films was built on the site of the old Letterman Hospital complex.
Unlike most National Parks, there’s no entry fee. The park is free because it’s financially self-sufficient.
Just 3 years after seizing the garrison from Mexico, gold was discovered in California — the rush was on. People from around the country and around the world began streaming through the Golden Gate to get to the gold fields. The U.S. Army began building Fort Point to protect the entrance to San Francisco Bay.
The Army constructed the granite and brick fort between 1853 and 1861, just in time for the start of the Civil War. The point of land chosen for the fort was strategically perfect but elevation-wise, was way too high. The Army blasted the 90-foot (27 m) high cliff away until it was merely 15-feet (4.6 m) above sea level. This allowed the fort to be closer to water level making it possible to place artillery where cannonballs could skip over the water striking enemy ships at their waterline.
Even in the 1920s, when the golden Gate Bridge was being designed and engineered, Fort Point was considered so historically significant that rather than demolish it to accommodate the bridge’s southern footing, a special span was created so the bridge would arch over Fort Point.
Warming Hut Park Store and Café
The Warming Hut occupies a renovated former Army storehouse that was built in 1909. The Hut provides much-appreciated sandwiches, salads, soup, bakery items, hot and cold drinks, and, thankfully, restrooms. It also has a selection of gifts, gear, and locally made souvenirs. It’s near the west end of the Promenade by Torpedo Wharf.
In the photo below, notice that the sign calls the trail “Crissy Field Promenade” instead of “Golden Gate Promenade.” It’s the same trail. Both names are used, but “Golden Gate Promenade” is used more often on signage and maps.
NOAA Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center
The Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary is responsible for protecting 3,295 miles off the California Coast. Its tasks include research, conservation, education, and protection of sanctuary waters.
The Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary is part of the National Ocean Service (NOS), which is a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The visitor center offers educational resources about wildlife and conservation. The picturesque building it occupies is a historic former Coast Guard station.
In 1915, the Panama–Pacific International Exposition was held in San Francisco, and many of the structures built for the Expo were built on the dunes along the waterfront. It was a World’s Fair, which celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal and symbolized San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake.
In World Wars I and II, the waterfront became the airfield for the Presidio Army base and was named Crissy Field. When the army left, it was a dilapidated, asphalt-covered mess.
It took nearly 20-years, $35 million, (mostly from private donations), and thousands of volunteers to transform Crissy Field from an abandoned airfield to a pristine wetland. It was the largest community project ever undertaken in San Francisco, but it was certainly worth the effort. Now Crissy Field has a tidal marsh, a grassy meadow, sand dunes, a beach, and picnic areas.
Crissy Field Marsh
Crissy Field was once a wetland and part of the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds. The restoration included adding a tidal lagoon to restore part of the marsh.
East Beach at Crissy Field
East Beach is the most popular Crissy Field Beach and is a favorite spot for children and dogs to play.
Crissy Field Center
Crissy Field Center has classes and programs for youth to “encourage new generations to become bold leaders for thriving parks, healthy communities, and a more environmentally just society.”
Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is not part of Presidio National Park. I’ve included it because you’re likely to walk past it or through it if you take the #30 bus to Broderick and Beach to get to the Promenade’s east end.
The Palace of Fine Arts was built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition — A World’s Fair, which celebrated both the completion of the Panama Canal and San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake. The faux Roman ruin is a very popular photo op, especially for wedding photos.
Golden Gate Promenade Planning Information
Presidio Trails Map
The National Park Service provides a really useful Presidio Trails Map on their website, which you can view on your phone and/or download as a PDF. In addition to the parks trails, the map shows locations of interest, including the Golden Gate Bridge and Welcome Center, historic Fort Point, Crissy Field, and the Warming Hut. (The Palace of Fine Arts is on the map too, although it’s not part of Presidio National Park.)
Getting to the Golden Gate Promenade
My visits to the Promenade are usually one-way treks, so I prefer taking public transit, but you can also drive and park. Here are parking and public transit options:
Crissy Field Weather — Be Prepared
One of the big attractions to the San Francisco Bay area is the weather. In the summer, when it’s 100+ degrees inland, it can easily be 30-40 degrees cooler in San Francisco. Even warm, sunny days in the city can get really chilly, really fast if/when the fog rolls in, so bring extra layers.
Don’t forget to bring along your day trip essentials bag!
The Golden Gate Promenade, with its splendid views of the the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, and city skyline, has to be one of the best walks on the planet. It’s an easy walk on a wide, smooth, flat surface, and it’s absolutely free. This is one of the great things to do with your family at Christmas as well.
Visit our San Francisco Itinerary post for suggested 1, 2, and 3-Day Itineraries and bonus lists of things to do to help you create your own custom San Francisco Itinerary. And check out our Hiking in San Francisco post when you’re ready for another San Francisco walk or hike with gorgeous scenery.