Golden Gate National Recreation Area: A User's Guide

THE ROCK: Take in the view of Alcatraz Island with some of the local wildlife. (Photo: *~Dawn~*/Flickr).
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The Golden Gate National Recreation Area is a strand of green gems stretching 70 miles north and south of San Francisco and the famed Golden Gate Bridge. You’ll find towering redwoods, historic landmarks, gurgling streams and thundering surf among the more than three dozen parks that make up Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

The landmarks preserved within Golden Gate National Recreation Area include the infamous federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island and SF-88, the Nike missile site built during the Cold War era as part of the last line of defense against Soviet bombers.


President Richard Nixon signed into law "An Act to Establish the Golden Gate National Recreation Area” in 1972. The bill included $120 million for land acquisition and development.

The park has grown over the decades with the help of partners such as The Nature Conservancy and the Peninsula Open Space Trust.

Things to do

Hike to the beach on the mostly-level Tennessee Valley Trail. The trek to Tennessee Beach is about 3.5 miles roundtrip. Other trails take you into the hills above the valley. The Marin Headlands has an extensive trail network offering a variety of challenges.

You don’t need a fishing license to try your luck fishing and crabbing off the pier at Horseshoe Cove at Fort Baker, a 335-acre former U.S. Army post located immediately north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Take to the skies — if you’re into that sort of thing — at Fort Funston south of the city, where dunes up to 200 feet high and ocean breezes make this part of the park a popular hang-gliding spot.

Why you’ll want to come back

Where else can you get a view of one of the last native spawning runs of Coho salmon? Heavy winter rains trigger the run up Redwood Creek in Muir Woods and you can watch from the footbridges that cross the creek.

Flora and fauna

The park features an assortment of habitat: grasslands, marshes, tide pools, redwood forests, oak woodlands, coastal scrublands and beaches. Golden Gate National Recreation Area is home to 53 species of mammals, 250 birds, 20 reptiles and 11 amphibians.

In the redwood forests of Muir Woods visitors will see hazelnut, western azalea, wood rose, wild ginger, trillium and sword ferns growing in the deep shade of the ancient trees. They may see a grey squirrel above them or a black-tailed deer stepping through the shadows.

Hiking through coastal scrublands and grasslands you might spot a gray fox, bobcat or coyote. While walking through the grasslands, also keep an eye out for the endangered mission blue butterfly, light iridescent blue and about the size of a quarter.

Along the shore, look for harbor seals on the rocks in Point Bonita Cove at Marin Headlands.

By the numbers:

  • Website: Golden Gate National Recreation Area
  • Park size: 75,500 acres or 118 square miles
  • 2010 visitation: 14,271,503
  • Funky fact: The Golden Gate National Recreation Area expanded in 2011 with the addition of more than 3,800 acres of Rancho Corral de Tierra on the San Mateo County coast south of San Francisco.

This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. W e'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.

Inset photo of hang-glider: Jupiterimages