During our recent visit to the San Francisco Bay Area, we unexpectedly found ourselves at a national park site that we didn’t even know existed. Researching this a bit more, I was surprised to learn there are 10 national park sites in the Bay Area. Considering how much we love the national parks and seek them out every where we go, you might find it surprising that we didn’t know about these parks. To our defense, there are over 400 sites in the US that the National Park Services manages, many of these being lesser known sites of historical significance.
While images of extraordinary natural landscapes of places like Yosemite and Yellowstone pop to mind when talking of the national parks, there are a great deal of wonderful sites located in busy populated urban areas. Many famous and well visited tourist sites are also classified under the park system (i.e. The National Mall in Washington DC), which most people don’t even realize.
For people visiting (or living!) in the Bay Area, there are a great deal of parks that are easily accessible no matter where your trips takes you. As with all of the NPS locations throughout the country, these attractions provide an educational and fun adventure for kids and their parents, not to mention the awesome junior ranger badges!
Alcatraz Island is one of several national parks located in San Francisco and is typically a “must see” attraction on most visitor’s San Francisco itinerary. But I bet most people don’t realize it is a national park operated site. Yep.. so book your tickets (well in advance during high season and weekends), grab your Junior Ranger Booklet and head over for a wonderful ride across the bay to learn about the country’s most infamous prison. While it’s not cheap to visit Alcatraz Island, it provides gorgeous views of San Francisco from the water and provides an opportunity to explore this notorious prison first hand. Kids under age 5 would probably not get too much out of a visit, but all ages are welcome. Remember to dress in layers – it’s cold on the island year round!
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
Located at the end of Fisherman’s Wharf, just near the cable car line, is a wonderful park focusing on the maritime history of San Francisco. The park itself consists of a visitor center with loads of fascinating information and great hands on exhibits as well as several historic ships. Across from the visitor center is a free area where kids can play with interactive exhibits as well as sit in a boat or play in the sand. To gain access to the other ships, visitors must pay $10 per adult (kids under 15 are free). I recommend paying the money. When else can you hop aboard a real life sail boat straight out of a fairy tale? Enjoy playing pirate while wondering the massive ships!
Fort Point National Historic Site
Located in the Presidio area of San Francisco, Fort Point was strategically used to defend San Francisco in the old Gold Rush days. A newly renovated visitor center, housed in a refurbished guard house overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge has recently opened to lots of fanfare. This visitor center provides some of the best and most up to date state-of-the-art, interactive exhibits in the national park system. Just inside the entrance is a large-scale Presidio model surrounded by touchscreen panels that help visitors select destinations to visit during their day in the park. The center provides visitors a wonderful overview of all they can do in this area of the city, while also learning more about the military history of the area.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area has a broad scope and actually includes areas throughout the city as well across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin. Near the Sutro Baths in San Francisco, there is an interactive visitor center with gift shop. Unfortunately, this visitor center does not provide Junior Ranger programs, so you will have to head across the bridge to the wonderfully serene Marin Headlands Visitor Center to get your badge. Here you can hike through the hills to the beach searching for bobcat scat, while soaking up the foggy cool air even on a summer’s day! This is the perfect excuse to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and explore all of the various view points on the northern bay’s side!
The Golden Gate Recreation Area has information centers located at the Cliff House, Crissy Field, Marin Headlands, Muir Woods, and the Presidio, but not all will have the Junior Ranger booklets, so don’t go too far out of your way before calling. There is also an information center (open weekdays) at Fort Mason for the National Park Service’s Pacific West Region. Lastly, if you find yourself heading south, the Pacifica Visitor Center has information and exhibits about the southern section of Golden Gate and the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Also across the Golden Gate Bridge, 35 miles up the coast is Point Reyes National Seashore with some of the states most beautiful beaches. Point Reyes is a popular destination for locals looking to escape the city on its many hiking trails. Take time to check out the historic lighthouse (which is often shrouded in fog!), look for whales or elephant seals and hike around.
There are two visitor centers – Bear Valley and Lighthouse Visitor Center offering two totally different experiences. The Bear Valley center provides information on trails and a glimpse into the ecosystems of the park. The Lighthouse Visitor Center has exhibits on the historic lighthouse, as well as on some of the animals found in the park (whales, seals, sea lions, birds, etc). Kids will love the touch table where they can feel the skulls of various animals. Attached to the lighthouse is the Ocean Exploration Center which provides information on the ocean environment in this area.
Muir Woods National Monument
Continuing up to Mill Valley, you can follow the tour buses through the hills to the beautiful Muir Woods National Monument. Muir Woods is one of the few places on earth where you can still see centuries old redwoods. Many of the redwoods here are between 600 – 800 years old, the oldest being 1200 years old. If you haven’t been to Sequoia or Redwoods National Parks, this is your opportunity to get lost among the big trees.
If you really want to visit Muir Woods, visit early in the day or late afternoon as parking can be atrocious here. This park sees a lot of day trippers from the city which means masses of people milling about. It’s so popular because it’s beautiful, is super kid friendly and accessible to those with mobility challenges since most of the main trails are concrete.
Even with the crowds, you can find yourself a quiet serene spot to soak it all up. Start your explorations of Muir Woods at the Visitor Center, taking time to check out the model of the Muir Woods valley and the small diorama of the redwoods. Don’t forget to pick up your Junior Ranger booklet, you will want this one. Each badge is handmade out of fallen redwood trees. They are super cool and worth the effort to earn!
Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site
The Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site is located in the east bay city of Danville. This site is the former home America’s only Nobel Prize winning playwrights, Eugene O’Neill. While this may not be of great interest to small children, the Junior Ranger booklet proved to be quite interesting even for smaller kids (probably 7 and up) with information about the house as well as what O’Neill used in his plays. The site is only accessible by a shuttle bus service which picks visitors up in downtown Danville starting at 10 am. On Saturdays, visitors can go on their own self-guided tour of the grounds, while advance reservations are required for tours on other days of the week (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sundays), so this is one you must plan in advance for.
John Muir National Historic Site
Often called the father of the National Park System, John Muir is one of America’s most famous conservationists. Because of his writings, we have such wonderful places like Yosemite protected and preserved for generations to come. When he wasn’t out exploring the wilds of Yosemite and Alaska, he made his home in Martinez, a small town about 30 miles from San Francisco. The John Muir National Historic Site is an easy place to visit with kids of all ages. You can tour his home and the grounds of his estate which include orchards with fruit you can sample. Enjoy soaking up the surroundings while walking on the many trails throughout the 9 acres of orchards.
Rosie the Riveter WWII Homefront National Historical Park
Rosie the Riveter WWII Homefront National Historical Park allows visitors the opportunity to learn about the efforts and sacrifices of American civilians on the World War II home front. Exhibits share information about how they lived, worked and managed during war.
One might wonder why this historical site was chosen to be located in Richmond, a town in the east bay. It was chosen because this city played a significant role in the war. Shipyards in Richmond produced more than 700 ships, more than any other complex in the country. In addition, there were a great number of industries located here that helped keep the country afloat.
This is a fascinating site that serves as a great educational outing for kids interested in learning about World War history and about how life was in the old days.
The Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial is located not far from the John Muir Historical Site in Martinez. This site is dedicated as a memorial for one of the worst home front disasters to occur during World War II, where 320 service men were instantly killed. The disaster occurred in 1944 when two ships that were being loaded with ammunition for troops in the Pacific exploded.
In order to visit the memorial, visitors are picked up by a park shuttle from the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez. A ranger will provide information about the disaster and memorial on the way. While this memorial does not currently have a Junior Ranger program, they do have trading cards with detailed information about different aspects of the memorial that kids can get from on site. Advance reservations are required.
Hooked on the national park system and want more to visit? There are even more national park sites within reach of the bay area. Considering heading to Yosemite Valley for awe inspiring views, Sequoia or the Redwoods for a look at some massive trees, Lassen Volcanic National Park for a close up look at volcanos or Pinnacles National Park for some quiet reflective time exploring off the beaten path.
Considering I lived in the Bay Area for almost a decade and have been visiting yearly with my son since 2010, it’s shocking that we have not visited all of these Bay Area sites! Four down, 6 more to go!
Did you know all of these parks existed in the Bay Area? Do you have a favorite?
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