Golden Gate National Recreation Area: The Complete Guide

The Golden Gate Bridge, shot from Marshall's Beach at Sunset.
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Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Address
Mill Valley, CA 94941, USA
Phone +1 415-561-4700

Whether it's centuries-old redwood tree forests, sandy beaches, or views of San Francisco’s most iconic landmarks and historical sites, the varied landscape found inside Golden Gates National Recreation Area (GGNRA) is unlike anywhere else on Earth. The 80,000-acre urban park is managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and usually sees more than 15 million visitors each year.

What sets this park apart from the rest? It is made up of 37 distinct sites spread from southern San Mateo County to northern Marin County (including parts of San Francisco), rather than one continuous space. The land here has certainly seen its share of history from the indigenous Coastal Miwok and Ohlone people to the arrival of Spanish Colonial rule, the Mexican Republic up to the California Gold Rush, and United States military history.

Things to Do

With so much space available within GGNRA, planning a visit can be a little intimidating for first-timers. At 80,000 acres spread across several counties, there are endless opportunities to explore, so it’s best to condense your trip to a single portion of the park and go from there.

North of the Golden Gate Bridge, the county of Marin offers more beachy options, such as the coastal trails at Marin Headlands, Muir Beach, Muir Beach Overlook, Stinson Beach, and even parts of Point Reyes and Mount Tamalpais. To the south, San Francisco County contains hiking trails at Fort Funston and local beaches. Even further south, San Mateo County contains drier, more rugged sightseeing at Mori Point, Rancho Corral de Tierra, and Sweeney Ridge.  

For hikers and nature lovers, Muir Woods National Monument is definitely one of the most popular attractions. It’s been federally protected since 1908, so the old-growth redwood trees here are pretty spectacular. Closer to San Francisco, Fort Point National Historic Site offers one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge along with a preserved fort that helped defend the San Francisco Bay from the gold rush era through World War II.

Many visitors also don’t realize that the infamous Alcatraz Island is part of GGNRA; the island is most known as the former maximum-security federal prison, but it was also the site of an important protest for Native American civil rights in 1969.

Muir Woods National Monument
wayfarerlife photography / Getty Images

Best Hikes and Trails

With over 250 established trails over 140 miles, GGNRA is loaded with hikes of all lengths, levels, and sights.

  • Land’s End Trail: A moderate 3.4-mile loop trail inside Land’s Ends Park, this trail has a 500-foot elevation gain and goes past the city’s historic Sutro Baths.
  • Mori Point Loop Trail: Located on the westernmost section of the recreation area, Mori Point is a moderately strenuous 1.4-mile round trip hike to a peak overlooking Pacifica.
  • Muir Woods Main Trail: The main trail inside Muir Woods National Monument begins at the visitor center and follows the creek past massive redwood trees. An easy 2-mile walk for most beginner hikers, the path here consists of paved sections along with packed soil and a wooden boardwalk. 
  • Crissy Field Promenade: Popular with joggers, this flat trail goes for about 2.3 miles and runs alongside Crissy Field and East Beach. It is a great place to enjoy a leisurely stroll while taking in views of the bay and bridge. 
  • California Coastal Trail Section: Hike a 1.5-mile portion (each way) of the famed 1,200-mile California Coastal Trail at Golden Gate. The trail starts at the parking lot for Baker Beach and takes hikers past coastal views of the Pacific and the entrance to San Francisco Bay. 

Historic Sites

The park holds about 1,200 historic structures including five National Historic Landmarks: the Presidio of San Francisco, Fort Point National Historic Site, San Francisco Port of Embarkation, Alcatraz Island, and San Francisco Bay Discovery Site. Along with Fort Point and Alcatraz, GGNRA visitors can also learn about the area’s native Ohlone people at the Presidio or take a walking tour of the former military transport hubs at Lower Fort Mason.

If you travel less than 20 minutes from downtown San Francisco to Pacifica, you can visit the exact site where the Spanish Captain Juan Gaspar de Portolá first saw San Francisco bay. The “discovery” would eventually lead to colonization of the area by the Spanish seven years later at the expense of several independent Ohlone tribes who lived there at the time.

Wildlife

Golden Gate may be neighbors with one of the largest cities in California, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of diverse wildlife who call it home. In fact, the recreation area supports almost 53 species of mammals, 250 species of birds, 20 species of reptiles, and 11 species of amphibians in total. There are also nearly 2,000 different species of plants inside that rely on the park’s 19 distinct ecosystems to thrive. These ecosystems, ranging from terrestrial, coastal, and marine, helped designate the park as an official UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1988, highlighting scientific research, education, and conservation throughout.

Baker Beach and Golden Gate Bridge
Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

Beaches

Many of San Francisco’s best beaches are located inside GGNRA, though depending on which part of the park you’re in, the weather doesn’t always cooperate with sunbathing and swimming.

  • Muir Beach: Part of a quiet, sheltered lagoon and a favorite among wildlife viewers, Muir Beach is found about 3 miles west of Muir Woods National Monument.
  • Marshall’s Beach: Marshall’s requires a hike down the Batteries to Bluff Trail from Fort Scott to gain access, though you’ll be rewarded with a close-up sight of the majestic Golden Gate Bridge once there. A section of the beach is a favorite for nude sunbathers, so keep that in mind as you’re exploring the shoreline.
  • Ocean Beach: Adjacent to Golden Gate Park and the Sunset District of San Francisco, Ocean Beach is notorious for its killer rip currents. While it is rarely safe to enter the water here, the 3.5-mile beach itself is great for lounging, beach barbecues, and watching the sunset.
  • Stinson Beach: On the other hand, Stinson beach in Marin County is a great place to swim. The road to get there is a bit windy and steep, but the white sand beach is ideal for volleyball, picnicking, fishing, and surfing.
  • Baker Beach: With views of Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge, the 1 mile stretch of sand making up Baker Beach is one of the most popular in the area. There may be harsh ocean conditions here, but there are few spots with a better angle for viewing the bridge. Be sure to check out the Battery Chamberlin coastal defense artillery near the parking lot.

Where to Camp

Golden Gate National Recreation Area has four campgrounds to choose from, though they are all located within the Marin Headlands section. Reservations are required for each spot, and they tend to fill up fast since they’re limited to a handful of sites per campground.

  • Bicentennial Campground: Although there are only three sites here, Bicentennial Campground is probably the easiest to access in the recreation area, as it is just 100 yards from the parking lot by Baker Beach. 
  • Hawk Campground: Hawk is the most remote campground inside Golden Gate, located above the Tennessee Valley near the Marin Headlands. You’ll have to hike at least 2.5 miles uphill to reach one of its three campsites, and the maximum stay is three nights per calendar year. 
  • Haypress Campground: Located inside the coastal part of Tennessee Valley near Mill Valley, Haypress’ six sites are popular for first-time backpackers to test out their skills. A 0.7-mile hike is required to get there, and there’s an option for an additional trek to the beach at Tennessee Cove once you’ve arrived.
  • Kirby Cove Campground: A combination of woodland bluffs and secluded coast, the six campsites at Kirby Cove are some of the most sought-after in the area.
Panoramic view of San Francisco skyline with historic Crissy Field

bluejayphoto / Getty Images

Where to Stay Nearby

Golden Gate is surrounded by residential and commercial areas, so it isn’t tough to find accommodations nearby. If you want to stay inside the recreation area however, you have a choice between two hotels.

  • The Inn at the Presidio: This boutique hotel once housed United States officers when the Presidio was an army post, and has since been restored to maintain an authentic historic experience for its guests. Its main red brick building contains 22 rooms, including 17 suites and space for meetings and events.
  • Cavallo Point Lodge: Located in Sausalito at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, Cavallo Point is known for its eco-friendly practices and high price tag. For an extra luxurious experience, pair your stay with a treatment at their Healing Arts Center & Spa.

How to Get There

Directions to GGNRA depend on which part of the park you’ll be visiting, but generally, it can be reached by Highways 1, 101, and 280 from the south San Francisco area. From the East Bay, take Highway 80 over the Bay Bridge. Be sure to consult NPS maps to familiarize yourself with the area before heading out, but if you’re not sure where to go first, stop at the visitors center at 201 Fort Mason, San Francisco.

On weekends and holidays, the Muir Woods Shuttle picks visitors up near additional parking along Highway 101 and the PresidiGo Shuttle has a bus to take passengers to the Presidio and Fort Point sections. For Alcatraz, the Muni F Line runs along Market Street to access the island ferry terminal at Pier 33 on the Embarcadero waterfront.

Accessibility 

There are a range of accessible park sites and features available depending on which part of the park you’re at. The park’s website has separate links for physical/mobility, deaf/hearing loss, blind/low vision, and service animals, with each area of the park mapped out individually from Marin County to San Francisco and San Mateo.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Download the official National Park Service app for features like interactive maps, park tours, events, and general information about GGNRA.
  • Golden Gate has earned a reputation as one of the most dog-friendly national parks in the NPS system. Leashed dogs are allowed on a majority of the trails, and there are where you can take your dog off-leash.
  • Consider stopping in at the Fort Mason Visitor Center at the edge of the bay to get more information about the area; it’s the official headquarters for both the GGNRA and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.
  • Beach wheelchairs can be picked up on-site at Stinson Beach, Muir Beach, Rodeo Beach, and Baker Beach (they must be reserved at least five days ahead of time by emailing the NPS), but to use them in other sites within GGNRA you’ll have to make arrangements to pick up a chair at the headquarters building in Fort Mason.
  • Visit the park’s website to see the most current trail closures and reroutes before hiking.
Article Sources
TripSavvy uses only high-quality, trusted sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. National Park Service. "Golden Gate NRA Annual Park Recreation Visitation." 2020.

  2. National Park Service. "Animals." May 12, 2020.

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Golden Gate National Recreation Area: The Complete Guide