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The Presidio of San Francisco

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

ONCE A U.S. ARMY BASE, TODAY THE PRESIDIO OF SAN FRANCISCO is a national park unit, a place
where history, serenity and future promises whisper in the ocean breeze. Part of the Golden
Gate National Recreation Area since 1994, this magnificent landscape, which includes a
coastal shoreline and forested hills, has been transformed into an urban oasis. In addition
to being a safe place for wildlife and plants, including rare and endangered species, this
1,480-acre park is a great place to take a hike, stroll the beach or commune with nature.
It also provides visitors a chance to reflect on history and to pay tribute to the many
heritages that make up our nation. In 1776, Spanish colonial officials ordered a new
presidio (fortified garrison) to be established on the Northern California frontier.
Lieutenant Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza led a group of 240 men, women and children across
the Southwestern deserts and mountains to San Francisco Bay to settle the land. Included in
this group was Father Pedro Font. It is through his diary that we can relive some of the
history of the Presidio’s landscape. “We ascended a small hill and then entered upon a mesa
that was very green and flower-covered, with an abundance of wild violets. Indeed, although
in all my travels I saw very good sites and beautiful country, I saw none which pleased me
so much as this,” Father Font wrote. Even 225 years later, visitors entering the Presidio
of San Francisco can easily understand how Father Font came to describe this area as a
“marvel of nature.” Much has changed in the succeeding years, including ownership (Spain
1769-1821, Mexico 1821-1848, and then the United States), but the beauty of the site has
never diminished. With so many natural treasures, it seems only fitting that, when the army
decided the post was no longer needed, it was turned over to the National Park Service
(NPS). It is now jointly managed by the NPS and the Presidio Trust, a special
public-private governmental agency tasked with managing most of the buildings of the
Presidio and making the park financially self-sufficient by 2013. As fitting as it may have
seemed, the transformation from military post to a national park unit was a complex
challenge. Although nature beckons at every twist and turn, there are also some man-made
treasures that took special consideration. Of the Presidio’s more than 800 buildings, 500
hold historical significance. A trip to the Presidio is not only a memorable experience,
but one that is as educational as entertaining. The best place to start exploring the
Presidio is the main post. There you’ll find plenty of parking space that will accommodate
motorhomes. You also will find some of the historical architecture here. The red-brick
buildings, old barracks representing the Colonial Revival style, were built in the late
1800s. Today they stand proudly, lined up like soldiers, giving testimony to the Presidio’s
military past. Inside one of the brick buildings is the visitor center, where you can learn
about the different tours that are available. Every month, the Presidio offers more than 20
tours and activities. Each tour has a unique perspective, whether covering marine life,
birds or other topics. There’s the Cannon Drill Tour, which will teach you how soldiers
loaded and fired a Napoleon 12-pounder cannon during a Civil War artillery drill. And
there’s the National Cemetery Walk, where you’ll visit the final resting place of many
interesting people: pre-Civil War soldiers, a Union spy, an Indian scout and African
American soldiers who helped conquer and preserve the Wild West. To check out what tours
are available or to request specific tours, call in advance. If you prefer to explore at
your own pace, the visitor center will provide you with maps. But whether you’re on your
own or with a group, don’t miss Fort Point. Fort Point was built on the site of the old
Spanish battery. Construction began on the state-of-the-art brick-and-granite fortress in
1853. The structure features 7-foot-thick walls and three tiers of casemates (vaulted rooms
housing cannons), plus a barbette (a protected platform) tier with additional guns. Built
to mount 141 cannons, this impressive piece of architecture was first occupied in 1861, at
the beginning of the Civil War. Throughout the war, artillerymen at Fort Point stood guard
for an enemy that never came. Amazingly, the closest the fort came to destruction wasn’t
from enemy forces, but its own government. In 1930, the plans to build the Golden Gate
Bridge included demolition of the fort, but Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss redesigned the
bridge to extend over the fort, saving the structure. In 1970, President Richard Nixon
declared Fort Point a National Historic Site. Today’s visitors only have to pause a second
in the midst of the historic brick walls to sense the stories its presence brings. And when
the fog is thick, it’s easy to imagine old war spirits whispering their way about. The top
of the fort serves as a platform where visitors can marvel at what is heralded as one of
the top-10 construction achievements of the 20th century: the Golden Gate Bridge. Be there
fog or blue skies, the photo opportunities are endless and inspiring, so don’t forget your
camera. Long the guardian of the Golden Gate, this national park unit now stands ready to
house a network of organizations dedicated to improving human and natural environments. Its
mission is one of protecting the past and securing the future of both the man-made and
natural treasures. Whether you come to experience its history, to behold the beautiful
vistas of San Francisco Bay, or simply to unwind in a serene setting, chances are you’ll
walk away agreeing with Father Font: The Presidio is indeed a marvel of nature.
Before You Go: For more information about Presidio tours, call the visitor
center at (415) 561-4323. You might request a copy of the quarterly publication that
contains a list of upcoming events and tours, or visit www.nps.gov/goga. The Golden Gate
National Recreation Area also includes Alcatraz Island, Fort Point National Historic Site
and Muir Woods National Monument. For further information, contact: Golden Gate National
Recreation Area, Building 201, Fort Mason, San Francisco, California 94123; (415) 561-4323;
www.nps.gov/prsf. Nearby Candlestick R.V. Park, (800) 888-CAMP, has 166 full-hookup sites.
For complete campground information, check the Trailer Life Directory. For more Golden
State travel information, call (800) TO-CALIF; or visit gocalif.ca.gov

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