When listing national park sites, San Francisco rarely comes up in the discussion. You may be surprised that the northern California city harbors many places managed by the National Park Service (NPS).
How can places of such natural beauty or historical significance possibly elude your travel bucket list? Like the fog that spreads over the bay, it is a mystery. Let’s see if we can change that! We will outline 16 fantastic national parks near San Francisco for you to visit on your next California vacation.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
In the early 1970s, Congress added two urban expanses to the National Park System, one being the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). It stemmed from the idea of bringing national park sites closer to home for city dwellers.
The unique area offers nearly 81,000 acres of parklands, 758 historic structures, and 140 miles of trails. It is America’s largest national park unit in an urban setting.
You will likely need clarification when researching what sites comprise the GGNRA. Some significant attractions are listed solely under the GGNRA, while others technically under this unit receive individual recognition and a separate website. For our purposes, we will focus on two primary sites as part of the GGNRA: Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island.
Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937 and is still one of America’s most iconic landmarks. It was the world’s tallest and longest suspension bridge at the time. The beautiful engineering and architectural masterpiece measures 1.7 miles in length.
There are many ways to experience the bridge, from walking or driving across to viewing it from various vantage points around the city. If your schedule allows, observe the bridge from a few different locations. Each perspective is unique and beautiful. The different views are manageable since the bridge and its surrounding scenery is breathtaking.
Thought to be an inescapable federal prison, “The Rock” has a lot of history. In addition to serving as a maximum security federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963, it also served as a fort and a lighthouse. The prison held some of the fiercest criminals ever known, including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert Stroud, “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis.
The NPS partners with Alcatraz City Cruises, an independent company, to provide ferry rides for visitors to and from the island. Once on the island, you can tour the prison grounds and cells. The NPS offers an audio tour where you hear commentary from former prisoners, guards, and wardens. It brings the eerie prison halls to life as you explore.
You can imagine the cold, dark cells and narrow halls giving its captives a feeling of hopelessness. It is no wonder prisoners desperately wanted to escape. Thirty-four men made fourteen separate escape attempts. The most famous effort occurred in 1962 when Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin made it to the bay and were never found, presumably drowning.
In addition to exploring the prison, the island houses lush gardens and many waterbirds. It is an odd mix of natural beauty and haunting history. You gain excellent views of the bay, bridge, and city skyline. The whole experience is unique and not something you will find at any other national park site.
Fort Point National Historic Site
The Fort Point National Historic Site sits at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, providing a unique perspective of the engineering marvel. Although an excellent reason to visit, the park brings much more to the table with its rich history. The Civil War-era fortress is the only brick fort on America’s West Coast. A critical defensive stronghold, the fort defended San Francisco Bay after California’s famous Gold Rush through World War II. Engineers used the fort as their headquarters while building the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s.
The weathered Fort Point Lighthouse was built in 1864 and dutifully lit the shores until 1934. Eventually, the bridge towered over the beacon, blocking its light.
The fort proudly displays beautiful masonry within its thick walls and casemates. You can tour the fort alone or participate in a short ranger-guided tour and talk, where you learn about its history and significance.
Visiting the park is well worth your time. With such close views of the architectural design of the bridge and fort, you will gain a deeper appreciation for the structures. While touring the fort’s three levels, you will discover casemates, cannon mounts, cannons, soldier quarters, and the lighthouse. The top tier yields spectacular views of the bridge and San Francisco Bay.
Park rangers lead a unique candlelight tour on specific evenings. Note this tour requires a ticket purchase. Please visit the Fort Point site to verify general hours and tour availability before your visit.
Muir Woods National Monument
Muir Woods is a gorgeous park comprising giant redwood trees. Admittedly, the trees here are less significant than the coastal redwoods in Redwood National Park. However, Muir Woods still harbors massive trees and is one of America’s most tranquil and beautiful settings.
The park houses six miles of trails with loop options for a half-hour, hour, and hour and a half. Accordingly, you can customize your experience based on time and fitness level. Most of the trails are level and consist of paved or boardwalk sections. Everything about the setup makes your experience relaxed and enjoyable. If you want to take an even longer hike, the park offers trails stretching into nearby Mount Tamalpais State Park.
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park sits in the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood. All attractions reside within a small area along the waterfront. Accordingly, walking is the best way to get around.
Hyde Street Pier: You can walk the docks and board some historic ships at Hyde Street Pier. The vessels date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many visitors find it a thrill to step aboard the boats, envisioning what life may have been like so long ago on the sea.
Visitor Center: The visitor center holds two must-see attractions. First, you will be greeted by a First Order Fresnel lighthouse lens as you enter the building. You may be surprised by its size and the number of prisms housed within the light. Second, the Waterfront Exhibit vividly depicts six different historical waterfront neighborhoods.
Aquatic Park: The Aquatic Park includes a lawn and a beach perfect for relaxing as you savor the bay and city views. It also contains a cove where boats can anchor in a protected location.
Maritime Museum: The Maritime Museum sits in the Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building, built in 1939. It is reminiscent of an ocean liner. You will find murals and vibrant works of art portraying a strange underwater world.
Maritime Research Center: The Maritime Research Center is a library with more than 35,000 books and periodicals dating from 1536 to the present. Its collections include maps and charts of the Pacific Basin and the West Coast.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Approximately a 1.5-hour drive north of San Francisco, you will discover a 71,055-acre park in Marin County along the Pacific coast. The rugged but beautiful park comprises lush forests, coastal grasslands, dunes, beaches, and historic structures. It teems with wildlife, including many birds and fish, elephant seals, migrating gray whales, and tule elk. The rural setting feels worlds apart from the urban park sites closer to downtown San Francisco.
Beaches: With 80 miles of shoreline, you will discover many beaches to explore. Some are sandy and perfect for walking, while others are rocky and better suited for tide pooling.
Kayaking: Ocean kayaking along the open coast is a unique way to experience the park for those with the proper experience. Most visitors choose to kayak in the calmer waters of Tomales Bay.
Hiking: For those who enjoy hiking, the park offers beautiful trails through Douglas fir forests and rolling coastal hillsides with spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean.
Suppose you love long hikes and trekking through the Phillip Burton Wilderness. When you emerge from the forest onto the southern end of Wildcat Beach, you will discover an absolute gem. Alamere Falls, a 40-foot waterfall, gushes over a cliff, spilling onto the beach. Note that Alamere Falls is a minimum of a 13-mile round-trip hike. It is also dangerous in spots as it passes along the edges of cliffs and occasionally experiences coastal erosion.
Wildlife Watching: Many visitors hope to see elephant seals, whales, or elk. Although it is possible to observe elephant seals year-round, the best time is December through March. Chimney Rock, situated at the eastern spur of the Point Reyes Headlands, is an excellent place to spot elephant seals, birds, and wildflowers. Its namesake trail takes you along the ridge crest of a narrow peninsula, yielding views of Drakes Bay.
The headlands of the Point Reyes Peninsula provide one of the best places to view whales. Although you can see gray whales when migrating south, they pass closer to the shore when they migrate north from March through May.
Head to Tomales Point at the northern end of the national seashore for your best chances to spot tule elk. A large herd roams in a 2,600-acre area called the Tule Elk Reserve. You can find them year-round, but August through October is the rut season.
Lighthouse: Point Reyes Lighthouse is a highlight for many visitors. It sits at the westernmost end of the headlands. Although only 20 miles from Bear Valley Station, the drive takes 45 minutes to an hour. The historic lighthouse safely guided mariners from 1870 to 1975. You must descend 313 stairs to reach the lighthouse. The weather is typically cool and windy and often foggy or rainy. On the way out, you must climb those same stairs!
Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park
If you are looking for a park steeped in history, you found it. Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park honors the sacrifices made by our men and women on the home front during World War II. In particular, the park pays homage to the efforts of women and African Americans.
The park sits 19 miles northeast of downtown San Francisco in an industrial warehouse along Richmond’s waterfront. Admittedly, it is not the typical image that comes to mind when you think of national parks. Do not judge this book by its cover. The park is about history and honoring those who often get overlooked. There is plenty to explore here.
Rosie the Riveter Visitor Education Center: The visitor center offers excellent videos, displays, and interactive exhibits. Rangers and docents can answer questions and guide you to other park attractions. On most Fridays at 10:30 and 11:30, you can meet with real home front workers from the war. Visit the Rosie the Riveter website to verify hours.
Ford Assembly Plant: Workers converted the plant into a tank depot during the war, one of only three in the United States. Every combat vehicle in World War II got processed in one of these facilities.
Rosie the Riveter Memorial: Visit the Rosie Memorial in Marina Bay Park, where you will find abstract sculptures resembling ships assembled by shipyard workers. It is the park’s centerpiece.
Shipyard No. 3: You can see the remaining historic buildings of World War II Shipyard No. 3, including the cafeteria, first aid station, forge, machine shop, warehouse, and paint shop. “Rosies” welded parts together at the five dry docks as part of an assembly line to build ships.
SS Red Oak Victory: Visit the last surviving ship of 747 vessels built at the Richmond Kaiser Shipyards during World War II. You can tour the ship on Sundays between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm. Visit the Red Oak Victory site for details.
John Muir National Historic Site
To say John Muir significantly influenced our national parks would be an understatement. Finding anyone who impacted our current national park system more than John Muir is challenging. Accordingly, he is known as “The Father of the National Park Service.”
Muir was a naturalist, conservationist, and co-founder of the Sierra Club. While exploring the wilderness, Muir fell in love with the natural beauty of our lands. He believed in it so much that he convinced our government to protect these sacred places so future generations could enjoy them. If not for Muir, we may not have places like Yosemite National Park.
Visitor Center: The park’s visitor center is a 45-minute drive northeast of downtown San Francisco. Watch a fantastic 20-minute film on Muir’s life and legacy. After the movie, take an audio tour with 12 stops throughout the grounds. Although not part of the audio tour, you can explore Muir’s home, a 17-room Victorian mansion with over 10,000 square feet of floor space.
Hiking and Exploring: The Muir family used much of the land for their fruit farm. John maintained a 326-acre section outside the orchards as an escape where he could take nature walks with his two daughters, Wanda and Helen. He named the area Mount Wanda.
You can hike and explore the lovely area of meadows and rolling hills. The trailhead is located 0.25 miles from the visitor center and has a parking lot.
Although the name implies there is a mountain, it is a series of hills. The peaceful area has lovely views, providing an excellent opportunity for a stroll or an extensive walk for exercise. You can bring a leashed pet in this area.
The park offers seasonal programs and tours in Mount Wanda, including wildflower walks, campfire programs, bird walks, and full moon walks.
Picnicking: Enjoy a relaxing picnic under the redwood and pecan trees in the historic orchards or on Mount Wanda. Both are fantastic.
Family Gravesite Tour: The Muir family gravesite is open to pedestrians and bicyclists from 10:30 am to 4:30 pm Monday through Friday. When staff is available, rangers lead site tours on Saturday and Sunday. These tours require a reservation.
Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail
Juan Bautista De Anza led 240 men, women, and children on an extensive journey from 1775 to 1776 to establish the first non-native settlement at San Francisco Bay. The Anza Trail spans 1,200 miles, connecting historical, cultural, and recreation sites from Nogales, Arizona, to San Francisco, revealing the legacy of our Spanish colonial heritage.
Note that the NPS manages each site along the trail independently. The only permanent exhibit for the path rests at the Martinez Adobe in the John Muir National Historic Site. It is currently closed for structural repairs.
The NPS is developing a 1,200-mile non-motorized recreation trail by connecting certified trail segments. To date, the NPS has completed nearly 300 miles of the course.
So, in the meantime, how can you experience the trail? You can take an auto tour that closely tracks the Juan Bautista de Anza Historic Trail. Or, you can try the Trails & Rails experience. The NPS has partnered with Amtrak, where you can ride the Coast Starlight train between Santa Barbara and San Jose on summer weekends while enjoying the scenery and learning about the trail’s history.
Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site
About 45 minutes east of downtown San Francisco, you can visit the home of Eugene O’Neill, America’s first playwright to win a Nobel Prize for literature. He wrote some of his most noteworthy plays in this house, including:
- A Moon of the Misbegotten
- The Iceman Cometh
- Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Tours every day except Saturday require a reservation. Regardless of which day you visit, you can only access the park site by an NPS shuttle bus. Tours depart at 10:00 am and 2:00 pm from The Museum of the San Ramon Valley (205 Railroad Avenue). There is no cost for the park entrance, the shuttle ride, or the tour.
The park recommends you allow two hours for your tour and that you schedule at least two weeks in advance to secure a spot. Visit the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site for tour information and availability.
Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial
Although not well known, the park marks a critical moment in America’s history. The site, known as the Port Chicago explosion, is the location of the worst homefront disaster during World War II. On July 17, 1944, two fully loaded ammunition ships exploded instantly, taking the lives of 320 sailors and civilians, injuring about 400 others, and seriously damaging the pier, two cargo ships, and the town of Port Chicago.
The naval magazine was constructed after the attack on Pearl Harbor and quickly became the Navy’s largest ammunition shipment facility on the West Coast. Due to the demand for war materials, America called for mobilizing all citizens, including women and African Americans.
Most soldiers who died in the explosion comprised young African Americans in segregated work units. In the aftermath, 258 surviving sailors refused to return to work due to unsafe conditions and racial discrimination. Fifty were charged and convicted of mutiny, sparking public protests.
The incident led to military desegregation and helped inspire the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial honors those who lost their lives and is recognized as a pioneering site in the racial integration of our armed services.
Tours: You can tour the site to learn about the incident and its aftermath. There are several things you need to know before attempting to visit the park:
- The tour is free
- It is on an active military base
- You can only enter the site on an NPS shuttle bus
- Tours occur only on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday
- Tours require a reservation at least two weeks in advance
- You can catch the shuttle bus at the John Muir National Historic Site (4202 Alhambra Avenue)
- You must be a U.S. citizen and will need to show a government-issued ID upon arrival
- The tour takes approximately 90 minutes
National Parks Within a Few Hours of San Francisco
So far, all the parks on our list reside within the greater San Francisco Bay Area and consist of national park sites, historical parks, trails, national seashores, and memorials. If you venture a few hours outside of San Francisco, you can visit some of America’s best full-fledged national parks.
Pinnacles National Park
A 3-hour drive south of San Francisco, Pinnacles National Park is known for rocky spires and talus caves. The two most popular activities are hiking and bird watching.
Although a small park, it offers 30 miles of hiking trails through grasslands and caves. You gain surreal views of those rocky spires as you explore the park.
The park houses many bird species, including yellow-billed magpie, greater roadrunner, canyon wren, California thrasher, prairie falcon, northern flicker, California quail, wild turkey, and red-shouldered hawk.
When it comes to birding, many visitors hope to spot the endangered California condor, the largest land bird in North America with a wingspan of up to 9.5 feet. The park is a release and management site to protect the birds. Head to the High Peaks area early morning or evening to have the best odds of spotting California Condors.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
A 4-hour drive north of San Francisco, Lassen Volcanic National Park is known for volcanoes, steaming fumaroles, crystal-clear mountain lakes, and wildflower-filled meadows. The seasons significantly impact your visit, but the park is gorgeous year-round. Popular activities in winter include sledding, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. Summer brings hiking, biking, and scenic drives along the alluring 30-mile Lassen Volcanic National Highway.
Bumpass Hell Trail is the park’s most popular hike. Typically only open in summer and fall, the trail takes you through the park’s most significant hydrothermal area, where you can see steaming fumaroles and bubbling mud pots.
The park harbors beautiful lakes with many reflecting picture-perfect mountains. Visit Emerald Lake and Lake Helen, two surreal alpine lakes with crystal-clear water. For a very different lake, check out Boiling Springs Lake. It is sea green in color, 125 degrees, and flanked by bubbling mud pots.
Lassen Volcanic National Park often gets overlooked for one of its best features. It has minimal light pollution, making it an excellent place for stargazing.
Yosemite National Park
Nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite National Park is a 4-hour drive east of San Francisco. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for granite cliffs, cascading waterfalls, deep valleys, grand meadows, and ancient giant sequoias. It is a treasure trove of natural wonders.
The gorgeous park spans more than 748,000 acres, offering much to explore. Yosemite Valley houses some of its most iconic landmarks, including Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls. You could spend days here, never tiring of the breathtaking scenery.
Popular activities in the park include hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, and viewing wildlife. Animal inhabitants include black bears, deer, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, red foxes, Pacific fishers, and mountain lions. Whether you seek thrilling outdoor adventures or desire to relax in nature, you cannot go wrong with a visit to Yosemite National Park.
Redwood National and State Parks
A 6 to 6.5-hour drive north of San Francisco, Redwood National Park is home to some of the tallest trees on the planet. The park is managed jointly by the NPS and three state parks:
- Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park
- Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park
- Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park
The entire park is about 50 miles, end to end. Walk under coastal redwoods stretching to the sky in a forest more beautiful and quiet than you can imagine. If you ever want to get lost in the woods, it is the place to go.
The two most popular activities are hiking and scenic drives. Both are magnificent.
Although the park has many roads with great views, drive along Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. The road is wide with gentle, sweeping curves through the giant coastal redwoods. You will discover many places to stop and explore.
The park houses many excellent hiking trails to walk under the redwoods. Many visitors love Tall Trees Grove and Fern Canyon, featured in the film, The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Lady Bird Johnson Grove, Stout Grove Trail, Grove of Titans, and Boy Scout Tree Trail provide an equally rewarding experience.
For those who enjoy watching wildlife, Roosevelt elk inhabit the park. Although not as big as moose, these elk can exceed 1,000 pounds. Head to Elk Prairie, Elk Meadow, or Gold Bluffs Beach for your best chances of a sighting.
You may be surprised to hear the park offers tide pooling. The park, stretching along the coast, encompasses alluring beaches. You can search for sea stars, other aquatic plants, and animals at low tide.
Battery Point Lighthouse sits in the park, perched on an island at high tide. You can cross a land bridge during low tide to visit the lighthouse. Keep your eyes and ears open while exploring the lighthouse. Sea lions and seals regularly hang out in this area.
Kings Canyon National Park
A 4-hour drive southeast of San Francisco, Kings Canyon National Park rests in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The park is known for its towering granite walls and behemoth sequoia trees. It holds some of the world’s largest trees by volume and houses natural wonders similar to Yosemite National Park.
The park’s main attraction is the General Grant tree in Grant Grove. It is the second-largest tree by trunk volume at 46,608 cubic feet.
Hiking and exploring the sequoia groves comprise the park’s most popular activities. You will find plenty of trails to enjoy the granite rock formations and surreal forests, whether you aim for a short nature walk or a more challenging trek. Granite domes and cliffs provide plenty of rock climbing opportunities for those seeking a more intense adventure.
If you desire to observe wildlife, mule deer, black bears, and Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep inhabit the park.
Sequoia National Park
A 5-hour drive southeast of San Francisco, Sequoia National Park sits in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The park is renowned for having some of the world’s largest trees. Its namesake trees may not be as tall as coastal redwoods, but sequoias grow more significant in diameter.
The park’s main attraction is the General Sherman tree in the aptly named Giant Forest. It is the largest tree by trunk volume at 52,508 cubic feet.
Hiking and exploring the groves of giant trees are the park’s most popular activities. The beautiful forests typically mesmerize guests, overwhelming them with their size and beauty.
Drive through the Tunnel Log, a fallen tree in Giant Forest with a tunnel 17 feet wide and 8 feet high. It puts in perspective the size of these magnificent trees.
Visit Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park if your schedule allows it. The parks sit next to each other, and the entrance fee covers both parks. A visit to each is well worth your time.
Wrap-Up: National Parks Near San Francisco
A surprise to many, the San Francisco Bay Area houses beautiful and historic sites managed by the NPS. Each park site offers a unique and rewarding experience. After riding a cable car and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, visit the fantastic national parks near San Francisco. Then you will be in a golden state of mind.
We are Scott and Julie of Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.