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National Parks Minutes From Downtown San Francisco

National Parks Minutes From Downtown San FranciscoNational Parks Minutes From Downtown San Francisco

A collection of 37 park sites in and around San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge have attracted more visitors annually than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Glacier national parks combined. Because they are part of the National Park Service and located in the midst of the densely populated Bay Area of California, these parks attract regular visits by locals, enthusiastic volunteerism, and lots of visitors from outside the Bay Area.

Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy

Some of these 37 sites are famous, such as Alcatraz Island, where the empty prison and somewhat spooky grounds are open for tours, and Muir Woods, home to majestic giant redwoods. Altogether, 16 million visitors enjoy this sprawling national park system in an urban setting. Just hop on a city bus, and it's remarkable that within minutes from downtown San Francisco, one's toes are in the Pacific Ocean, a fishing rod is in hand, you're hiking on paved trails with the family dog, or you're waiting for the next big one with other surfers. Better have a wetsuit, though, if you're heading into the surf. The water is "frigid," according to the National Park Service.

Sunset and Dinner Combo

Ocean Beach is at the westernmost edge of the city. Sunset was at 8:34 p.m. one day last week, so I took the city bus line there in under 30 minutes, leaving time for a walk on the sandy beach. Right across from the beach is the historical Beach Chalet. Watch the sun go down at the edge of the continental U.S. from a windowside table, enjoy a beer from the chalet's microbrewery, and catch the jazz trio vibes. Nearby is another landmark restaurant, Cliff House, which has been perched on bluffs right above the waves since 1863.

National Parks Minutes From Downtown San FranciscoNational Parks Minutes From Downtown San Francisco

A Windmill Bonus

Between the beach and Golden Gate Park, notice the silhouette of a super-sized century-old windmill, a gift from Holland, just behind the Beach Chalet. Recently restored by master craftsmen in its homeland, this is one of two that overlook Ocean Beach. A fresh ocean breeze flows through the cypress trees into the vibrant Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden, where in early spring, thousands of bulbs mixed with Icelandic poppies explode in color.

Fire Rings

If you love a campfire on the beach, it's totally fun and completely legal to build one in the fire rings installed on Ocean Beach. Artists from Burners Without Borders have created the large rings. We recently joined a party of 20 who were gathered round a roaring fire with hot dogs and marshmallows on sticks.

Getting There

The MUNI bus 18 traveling along the oceanside Great Highway will take you to the Beach Chalet, the windmill, the fire rings, and the dunes. Nos. 5 and 31 buses stop by the Cliff House, as well. Parking spaces also run along 3 to 4 miles of the Great Highway.


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