Beyond the Gates

Golden Gate National Recreation Area may be San Francisco's best-known park unit, but the diversity of other nearby sites spans quite a distance, too.


By Heidi Ridgley


Tony Bennett once crooned that he left his heart in San Francisco. But had he dropped in on any of the national parks surrounding the city, he may have been tempted to leave the rest of himself behind. Without a doubt, these gems help to make the Bay area one of the golden nuggets in the Golden State.

Even if you only have time for a short visit, it’s easy to do a triple play of history, culture, and nature—some with a pounding Pacific backdrop. Roll them all together and you have the makings of a memorable long weekend or the launching point for a larger adventure. But don’t feel you have to see everything in one go. The city high on the hill is certain to beckon you back again.

Alcatraz Island

Heading to Alcatraz is fitting for the first day: Ferrying across San Francisco Bay, you’ll get a coveted firsthand view of the city’s skyline. Getting to the dock is easy via the city’s historic “F” trolley, which you can grab on downtown’s main drag: Market Street.

Built as a fort designed to protect the San Francisco harbor during the Gold Rush, Alcatraz became a federal penitentiary in 1934. Until 1963, the prison, known of as “The Rock” or “America’s Devil’s Island,” was the end of the line for some of country’s toughest old-school gangsters, who had colorful nicknames of their own: Al Capone, a.k.a. “Scarface”; Robert Stroud, a.k.a. “The Birdman”; and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, among others. As your ferry trip begins, take a moment to gaze below into the frigid waters and deadly currents, which ensured that no one escaped Alcatraz and lived to tell the tale.

The ferry isn’t free but admission to the site is, and so is the self-guided audio tour, which tells stories in the actual voices of the men who lived there. Don’t miss the recreation yard. It’s worth hitting the pause button to walk out onto the cracking cement and feel what it was like to be so close to civilization, yet so far. It’s said the inmates could hear the disembodied din from the city’s shores, especially during New Year’s Eve revelries.

In 1969, shortly after Alcatraz closed, a group of American Indians calling themselves “Indians of All Tribes” took over the island and claimed it as their own, citing previous treaties with the U.S. government that handed “surplus” land back to their people. In fact, one of the first images that will greet you is the “Indians Welcome” graffiti left from the 19-month occupation, which brought greater awareness to the plight of American Indians.

The site became a national park unit in 1972 and is now home to hundreds of seabirds. Stroll the grounds outside, walk past the gardens to the steep cliff face, and you’ll easily spot Brandt’s cormorants, brown pelicans, pigeon guillemots, black oystercatchers, western gulls, and even nesting wading birds such as snowy egrets and black-crowned night herons. You’ll soon realize that of all the names this island has worn, the one early Spanish explorers gave it in the late 1700s is once again the most appropriate: “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” or The Island of the Pelicans.

Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site

Less than an hour away in the San Ramon Valley, you’ll find another recognized spot where a man was holed away—this time of his own free will. In 1937, playwright Eugene O’Neill moved to Tao House, where he penned his tragic autobiographical plays, including Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for which he won his fourth Pulitzer Prize. Along with his wife, Carlotta, he took refuge at this sunny spot on a hill in Danville, about a 45-minute drive from San Francisco.

With Carlotta’s passion for Oriental décor and Eugene’s keen interest in Taoism, one of the great Eastern religions, the Spanish colonial abode features an eccentric Asian twist. The gate to the front yard is decorated in Chinese symbols that the O’Neills translated as “House of the Righteous Way.” Feng shui design principles suggest that evil travels in a straight line, so the O’Neills created zig-zag paths, some of which lead to dead-ends—one path to the birdbath, for example, and another to steps that lead to door-less walls. In fact, the “front door” is tucked into the side of the house and painted red for good luck, happiness, and prosperity.

Although the Park Service took over the site in 1976, visitors may find themselves stymied at the prospect of getting into the home, which is nestled inside a gated community. If you want to see the site yourself, a ranger must pick you up in downtown Danville. But don’t let that deter you—just call 925.838.0249 well in advance.

Today, the Park Service is trying to locate as much of the original O’Neill décor as possible. In 1992 the effort got a little help from Katharine Hepburn, who starred in the film version of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. A local furniture emporium had been using O’Neill’s teak bed frame as a display table—the third reincarnation of what was once a Chinese opium table—when Hepburn persuaded the owner to donate the item to the Park Service; visitors can now see it in the home’s master bedroom. But the real highlight is O’Neill’s original desk. His paraphernalia, including a crumpled Lucky Strike cigarette pack found behind a fireplace during renovations, is positioned as if he just left the room to play with the family dalmatian, Silverdene Emblem O’Neill. You can even pay your respects to the dog they called “Blemie”; the pampered pooch is buried on the property.

Time your visit well and you’ll get more than a guided, in-depth history of O’Neill’s traumatic and dramatic life—you could also see an O’Neill play at the Tao House’s barn, performed by local actors and theater companies in May and September.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Now that you’ve probed the dark side of humanity at Alcatraz and the digs of a legendary dramatist who transferred his turmoil into desperate stage characters, it’s time to get back to the light. The 70,000-acre Point Reyes National Seashore, less than an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, is the place to do that, and it’s worth setting aside a whole day. This craggy coast boasts spectacular wildflower blooms in spring, lumbering elephant seals nearly year-round, and a chance to witness gray whales migrating past the park’s 138-year-old lighthouse in spring and fall.

When Sir Francis Drake stopped here in 1579 as he sailed around the world, the Miwok tribe had already been living here for thousands of years, as had thousands of Tule elk, a species taken to the edge of extinction in the late 1850s, as hunting and habitat loss took their toll. Thankfully, 13 elk were reintroduced in 1978, and the population has since grown to more than 500. Today, you’re almost guaranteed to spot a few of them if you hike down a portion of the Tomales Point Trail, wedged between the Pacific Ocean and Tomales Bay.

Elephant seals almost vanished from Point Reyes, too, after being hunted to near extinction. Absent for more than 150 years, they began repopulating these shores again in 1981. The seals spend so much time here today that you almost have to go out of your way to avoid them. View their antics from the Chimney Rock Overlook, reached via a short, easy hike along the Pacific coast.

For another eye-popper, linger at the viewing platform before or after checking out the Point Reyes lighthouse—308 steep steps away. Gray whales migrate south from Alaska to Mexico from December to February and return north from February to April, right along the coast, so this may be your best chance to spot a mother and her calf breaching and bobbing near the shore. While you’re there, find out when a ranger is scheduled to lead a short talk about the lighthouse’s construction and mechanics, and you’ll learn all about the lonely life of its keepers before the days of automation.

Muir Woods National Monument

It’s hard to compete with the potential to see so many different and appealing mammals in one park, but if any flora can, it’s the coastal redwoods—the tallest living trees in the world—found at Muir Woods National Monument.

Named for John Muir, one of America’s early environmental leaders, the national monument is just 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, which means bracing yourself for the crowds. Visit on a weekday, if you can. This cathedral of ancient trees is one of the last stands of old-growth redwood forest on Earth. Some of the trees are more than 1,000 years old. The self-guided, round-trip tour is two miles but can be shortened to an easy half-mile on boardwalks. (Do stick to the trails, though, to prevent spreading sudden oak disease, and be sure to clean the soil from your shoes when you leave.)

From mid-December to March, you can peer down into Redwood Creek to see spawning Coho salmon. This creek is one of the last streams in California that still supports wild populations of Coho—a federally listed endangered species. If you want to venture farther, stop by the visitor center to find trails that wind through the watershed, from easy hikes to more strenuous routes. Or you could just stand in one spot and gawk—the trees are that amazing. Don’t miss the cross-section of a sliced tree trunk on display since it fell in 1930—at 1,021 years old. The exhibit highlights the circumference of the tree at certain dates in history, such as when Columbus sailed and when the Declaration of Independence was written.

It’s an appropriate place to finish this trip: beside a humbling reminder of just where we humans fit in with other species in the great march of time.

Side Trip : Crissy Field

If seeing the Golden Gate Bridge is on your to-do list, one of the best views comes from the approach to the Golden Gate Promenade, stretching along the Presidio’s Crissy Field, an old U.S. Army airfield-turned-national park that hugs San Francisco Bay. Along the way, you’ll see so much more.

The land was handed over to the Park Service in 1972, but restoration of the tidal marsh didn’t begin until 1998. Today a mosaic of native grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs provides a resting and refueling spot for great blue herons, willets, and grebes, among other birds.

Take a stroll, bring a picnic lunch, or grab a meal at one of two eateries en route, and try not to miss the visitor center at the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, 1,230 square miles of nature that include the largest seabird rookery in the contiguous United States. It’s also the ideal habitat for thousands of seals and sea lions, and breeding and calving grounds for humpback whales. The visitor center is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. For more information and to reserve space on a whale-watching trip led by sanctuary staff, visit www.farallones.org.

Travel Essentials

Flying into San Francisco couldn’t be easier. Both airports—San Francisco and Oakland—are served by the city’s subway system, BART, which will get you to your hotel in a flash. For general information about visiting San Francisco, including maps, transportation, hotels, and restaurants, contact the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau at www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com. To avoid long lines, book the Alcatraz ferry in advance at http://alcatrazcruises.com. For reservations at the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site (open Wednesday through Sunday), call 925.838.0249 at least one week in advance. For a California-style eating experience, check out Millennium, a gourmet vegetarian restaurant that uses sustainably grown produce in the heart of the city’s theater district, a few blocks from Union Square: www.millenniumrestaurant.com.

Washington, D.C., freelance writer Heidi Ridgley specializes in travel, history and conservation pieces.

This article appears in the Fall 2008 issue.

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