California: Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Muir Beach Overlook
Muir Beach Overlook

Courtesy of Vicky and Chuck Rogers, Flickr's Creative Commons

Golden Gate National Recreational Area encompasses more than 30 scenic and historic sites that chronicle hundreds of years of San Francisco’s history and invites visitors to explore the area’s American Indian, Spanish, and Mexican cultural heritage. American Indians have occupied the San Francisco Bay area for more than 10,000 years. The Ohlone, or Costanoan, and Coast Miwok American Indians lived throughout the area when the Spanish arrived in 1769. 

The story of San Francisco’s Spanish heritage begins on November 4, 1769, when Captain Juan Gaspar de Portola came over Sweeney Ridge and saw “a large arm of the sea or some sort of harbor within the mountains.” Although his intention was to find Monterey Bay, his expedition instead came across San Francisco Bay. Golden Gate National Recreational Area commemorates this moment in history at the Portola Site Acquisition Monument, located within the San Francisco Bay Discovery Site. In 1968, the National Park Service erected a small Serpentine rock at Sweeney Ridge where Portola and Sergeant Juan Ortega first glimpsed the breathtaking sight of San Francisco Bay, one of the world’s greatest harbors and the finest on the Pacific Coast. The San Francisco Bay Discovery Site is a National Historic Landmark.

Following Portola’s expedition and recognizing the value of the bay, the Spanish settled the San Francisco area in 1776. In that year, under the direction of Captain Juan Bautista de Anza, they built the Presidio of San Francisco, a military garrison, to fortify the bay’s entrance and keep an eye on foreign fleets as they entered and exited the bay. Today, just to the east of Pershing Square within the “Main Post” of the Presidio of San Francisco, is the site of the original Spanish Presidio; visitors will see a boulder by the sidewalk that approximates the northwest corner of the original Presidio. A few miles inland, the Spanish constructed the Mission San Francisco de Asís (now Mission Dolores); Mission Dolores is the oldest intact building in San Francisco and stands as a lasting testament to the legacy of Anza’s Expedition. Spanish troops were also responsible for monitoring the American Indians who lived near the Presidio.

Between 1822 and 1846, the Presidio became part of the Mexican Republic. The Coast Miwok, Yokuts, Pomo, Sierra Miwok, and Salinan were all gathered in the area to supply the Presidio with labor and to serve the needs of the Mexican settlement. When Mexico opened its ports in 1821, various trading companies began to arrive. By the 1820s, the Presidio settlement had expanded outside the original walled plaza built by the Spanish. In 1848, after the Mexican American War, California became part of the United States. The Presidio served until 1994 as an important military post, then became part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. During World War II, the internment of Japanese Americans was commanded from the Presidio and soldiers trained at the Military Intelligence Service located there. Also posted to the Presidio were the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry, who guarded two of the nation's earliest national parks, Sequoia and Yosemite, in the early 1900s. Today, visitors may find some of these soldiers buried in San Francisco National Cemetery.

The National Historic Landmark statement of significance sums up why visitors will want to visit the Presidio for themselves. “The Presidio of San Francisco is the oldest Army installation operating in the American West and one of the longest-garrisoned posts in the country. More than two hundred years of military occupation of the Presidio have resulted in the development of a complex historic district of several overlaid historic landscapes, each composed of buildings, structures, objects, sites and other features representing at least eight distinct phases of development. The breadth and diversity of contributing resources are vast and include a veritable outdoor museum of military and related architecture.”

Many areas within the Presidio are open to the public, such as the variety of historic buildings and avenues found within the Presidio’s Main Post that display a combination of the area’s architectural styles; the Letterman Hospital Complex, which provided care for soldiers through many wars and is now the Letterman Digital Arts Center; and the World War II Memorial that overlooks the Pacific and pays tribute to American soldiers.The Presidio also offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities, including a 25-mile hiking trail, a 14-mile cycling trail, rocks and piers for fishing and crabbing, ancient redwood groves, ranger-led tours, and a world-class board-sailing area around Crissy Field. Click here to read more about Crissy Field’s important place in our country’s aviation history.

The Spanish introduction of diseases into the area, forced labor, and missionary attempts to convert the Ohlone/Costanoan people to Christianity and alter their way of life drastically changed the world that they knew. Despite this, their descendants still reside in the San Francisco Bay area and maintain their cultural traditions by restoring their native language, continuing to use traditional plants for medicinal purposes, and practicing the ancient arts of storytelling, dancing, singing, and basket weaving. The National Park Service works with the present day Ohlone and Coast Miwok peoples to preserve and interpret their ancestral sites located throughout the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in places such as the Presidio, Lands End, and Muir Beach.

Land’s End offers magnificent views and is San Francisco’s rockiest coast. It is also the location of the Park’s oldest archeological site—Coastal Miwok shell material dated from 150 AD. The remains of the Sutro Baths (which could accommodate 10,000 people at a time) and Cliff House provide a glimpse of Victorian grandeur and leisure at the turn of the 20th century. The rehabilitated Neoclassical style Cliff House still provides entertainment, dining, and dazzling views of the Pacific Ocean. Visitors can also view the remains of three shipwrecks off of Land’s End’s rocky shoreline. 

The Coast Miwok people densely populated Muir Beach before the Europeans arrived, passing down for millennia a culture rich with knowledge of plants and wildlife. While they had a permanent residence near Muir Beach, they also traveled as the seasons changed to continue hunting, gathering, and fishing. Activities such as hiking have eroded this once pristine ecological setting. In 2009, The National Park Service partnered with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to restore and revive Redwood Creek’s ecological balance and enhance the area’s salmon habitat. Together, they have performed archeological investigations and reintroduced native vegetation to the area. The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria have provided essential knowledge about the traditional and native ecology. A walk around Muir Beach or a stop at the Muir Beach overlook provides visitors with a glimpse of the sights and sounds that American Indians experienced in this picturesque area for thousands of years.

Visitors can further explore American Indian cultural heritage at Alcatraz Island. Alcatraz Island was the site of American Indian protest in 1969. The indigenous Ohlone people occupied the island for at least 10,000 years before Juan Manuel de Ayala, a Spanish naval officer, documented it as “La Isla de los Alcatraces” (“The Island of the Pelicans”) in 1775. Before his arrival and the subsequent European, Mexican, and American ownership of the island, the Ohlone may have used the island as refuge from Californian missions, a place to isolate disobedient tribe members, and to gather food. 

Americans built a prison on Alcatraz in the mid 19th century to hold military prisoners and notorious criminals, which closed in 1963. On November 9, 1969, Mohawk Richard Oakes led a group of American Indians to Alcatraz to inhabit the island with the hope of building a college, museum, and cultural center there. The Indians remained on Alcatraz for nearly two years, during which they organized an elected council and provided jobs for fellow occupants. Although the Indians did not ultimately reclaim the island, their activism spotlighted their desire for independence and led to changes in the relationship between Native Americans and the United States government. Click here for more details about the American Indian Occupation of Alcatraz.

Visitors can tour Alcatraz Island and see messages that American Indians scrawled on the walls during their stay. Daily tours of the island require reservations and are 2-3 hours long. Every Thanksgiving, thousands of American Indians, activists, and spectators gather on Alcatraz for an “Unthanksgiving” and the Indigenous People’s Sunrise Gathering. This gathering commemorates the American Indian occupation of Alcatraz. No tours of Alcatraz are given on that day.

To visit historic and cultural sites throughout Golden Gate National Recreation Area, tourists are encouraged to obtain a copy from any of the park’s visitor centers of the Guide to the Parks, published by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservatory. Follow this link for a list of historic and cultural sites located in the park.


Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park System, is located in and around San Francisco, CA. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file for Golden Gate Park: text and photosThere are multiple entrances to Golden Gate National Recreational Area, and all destinations within the park are free except for Alcatraz and Muir Woods. For a list of events and programs within the park, please view the latest edition of the park’s publication, Golden Gate National Recreation Area's Park Adventures. For more information, visit the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreational Area website or call 415-561-4700.

The park headquarters of Golden Gate National Recreational Area, a unit of the National Park System, is located at Fort Mason, Building 201, in San Francisco, CA. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file for Alcatraz: text and photos.

Several buildings and structures within Golden Gate National Recreational Area have also been documented by the Historic American Buildings SurveyMany sites of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area are also featured in the National Park Service’s Aviation: From Sand Dunes to Sonic Booms Travel ItineraryThe Early History of the California Coast, and World War II in the San Francisco Bay Area. Click here to find out more about Golden Gates National Parks Conservancy’s programs for children, youth and family.

Last updated: August 11, 2017