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Golden Gate National Recreation Area
This extraordinary "National Park Next Door," as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area bills itself, provides almost unlimited recreational opportunities for Bay Area residents and visitors. It encompasses 114 square miles of coastal wilderness, city waterfront, and historical landmarks. It stretches from the Tomales Bay at the north end in Marin County all the way south to the Phleger Estate in San Mateo County.
While the western portion of San Francisco is often shrouded in fog, there are enough warm and sunny days to make the GGNRA beaches popular destinations. Baker Beach, at the southwestern corner of the Presidio, is a good spot for picnicking, fishing, and sunbathing, though strong tides and the cold water make swimming here dangerous. There are great views of the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate, and for a good workout you can walk along the coast from Baker Beach almost all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. The entrance is off Lincoln Boulevard; take Bowley Street to Gibson Road.
Just a little south of Baker Beach is China Beach, named for the Chinese fishermen who used to camp there in the 19th century. It's a small beach, tucked away in a cove in Seacliff, one of the city's most exclusive residential neighborhoods. It's one of the few beaches in San Francisco where swimming is encouraged; lifeguards are on duty from April to October, and changing rooms are provided. Even in the protected cove, the water is pretty cold, so only the hearty venture in. There are steps down to the beach from the parking area, which is on Seacliff Avenue off 25th Avenue.
Lincoln Park and Lands End
Lincoln Park occupies the Point Lobos headlands at the northwest corner of the San Francisco peninsula. There are scenic walks throughout the park, or you can follow the Coastal Trail through the park from Eagle's Point, a breathtaking stairway and viewing platform at the northeast corner, all the way to Cliff House and the Sutro Baths.
If you leave the Coastal Trail and follow the trail to Land's End, you'll wind your way down the slope through cypress and pine forest to a promontory overlooking the Pacific. Note that the trail to Land's End is for experienced hikers only, as the steep cliffs and occasional landslides can make the footing treacherous. Also, it's a long way down from the bluff to the bottom, and we all know what that means when it's time to return.
The California Palace of the Legion of Honor, one of San Francisco's art museums, is also located in Lincoln Park. The beautiful building, recently reopened after a multi-million-dollar earthquake retrofit, is modeled after the Paris original and sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean and the Golden Gate Bridge. There's also a public golf course in the park near the museum.
This wide expanse of beach stretches three miles from the Cliff House to Fort Funston. Even in foggy weather it's a popular spot for beachcombers and joggers; on nice days, sunbathers and kite flyers take over the beach while bikers and skaters cruise on the nearby bike trail. While you may see wet-suited surfers in the water, swimming is not advised for mere mortals.
Ever thought you wanted to fly? At Fort Funston you can watch hang gliders come close, floating gracefully back and forth on the air currents rising off the cliff. Weekends are the best time to catch these daring fliers in the act.
Fort Funston is also a good place for the earth-bound, with wheelchair-accessible paved trails along the ocean cliffs. Be sure to bring a jacket, as those same winds that attract the hang gliders can make the cliffs pretty chilly. You can follow a trail down to Funston Beach, though be forewarned, it's a tough climb back.
Fort Funston is also popular with dog owners, as it is one of the few places where you have official permission to let your dog off the leash, under voice control. You'll often find dogs getting their obedience training along the bluffs.
The Fort Funston Visitor's Center has exhibits on the ecology of the area and is open daily from noon until 4 p.m. The phone number is (415) 239-2366. Entrance to the Fort Funston parking area is off Skyline Boulevard (Route 35) just south of John Muir Drive.
On November 2, 1769, the members of an expedition led by Spaniard Don Gaspar de Portola became the first Europeans to gaze upon San Francisco Bay, and they did so from Sweeney Ridge in what is now the town of Pacifica. Since Sweeney Ridge is often shrouded in fog, it's fortunate that Portola and his men were here in the fall, when the weather is more cooperative. Today people visit Sweeney Ridge to see San Francisco Bay and the stone marker commemorating Portola's discovery but also for views of Mount Tamalpais, the Farallon Islands, and Mount Hamilton.
The easiest trail to the discovery site is from San Bruno on the east side of the ridge. Head west on Sneath Lane from Highway 35 until you come to the small parking area by the GGNRA gate. From there it's a steady uphill walk on an asphalt road to the top of the ridge. It's a bit of a climb but your efforts are rewarded with spectacular 360-degree views. The walk up and back will take about an hour and a half.
You can also start your hike in Pacifica on the west side of the ridge; the trail leaves from the parking lot behind the Shelldance Nursery at 2000 Cabrillo Highway (Highway 1) in Pacifica.
The Phleger Estate became part of the GGNRA at the end of 1994, so it's one of the newest pieces of the park. Situated between Skyline Boulevard and Interstate 280, the park's 1232 acres offer spectacular views, large stands of redwoods, and a host of wildlife. There are currently about 10 miles of trails through the property, and the estate is adjacent to other parks and preserves if you're interested in longer hikes.
You can get access to Phleger's trails from Huddart Park off King's Mountain Road in Woodside. You can pick up a map at the entrance station. There's a $4 per vehicle entrance fee. You can also park at the Purissima Creek Redwoods Open Space on Skyline Boulevard just north of King's Mountain Road and enter Huddart Park on the uphill side. From there you can follow Huddart Park trails over to the Phleger trails, but you have to know where you're going; there's no place to pick up maps or trail guides on that side.