San Francisco with Kids: Exploring the Presidio
After the fog lifts and the vistas open up to reveal the shipping lanes under the Golden Gate, it becomes apparent why three nations — Mexico, Spain, and the United States — chose this spot to establish their outposts on the San Francisco Bay.
Now a vital part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area, families pack the Presidio of San Francisco to ride bikes, fly kites, picnic and play in the shadows of iconic city landmarks. They walk in the footsteps of history — a time when it was important to keep an eye to the coastline watching for intruders; an era of frenzied preparation for battle in foreign lands; through moments from a family album of memories belonging to those once stationed in the cottages and duplexes on the property.
If you plan to include the Presidio in your itinerary while visiting San Francisco with kids, here are some activities and places in the park my family suggests you check out:
EXPERIENCE COASTAL DEFENSE
The coastline is still dotted with the remains of batteries and artilleries where the army conducted coastal defense activities. Fifteen of them can still be explored by visitors today. Located in and around the Presidio’s Fort Scott area, my kids have found that they provide the perfect backdrop for imaginative child’s play or hide and seek fun and often make for unconventional playground structures.
None are quite like Battery Chamberlin. The only battery in the Presidio that still houses functional weaponry, Battery Chamberlin is the home of the “disappearing gun,” a 50-ton rifle. On the first full weekend of each month, visitors can take part in a demonstration of the gun. It’s a shot that will be ringing in your ears for a while!
Tip: After the gun demo, be sure to check out the small seacoast defense museum in the battery’s cartridge room.
A STILL ACTIVE MAIN POST
Still the central hub and heart of the Presidio, the main post is home to a variety of activities. Among them is the study of the area’s history. A collection of archaeological labs is located behind the Officer’s Club in a building that resembles a row of unassuming garages. If you’re lucky, you’ll visit on a day when all of those doors are open — revealing scientists studying old adobe and other artifacts unearthed from the areas nearby. There is a lot to study, too. After all, it was from the main post area that the El Presidio (the original military post) was established by the Spanish in 1776.
For a more physical activity, head to Presidio Bowl. A one time a perk enjoyed by those stationed on the base, it sits in the middle of the Main Post. This little 12-lane alley is a great place to introduce kids to bowling. It’s also the only bowling alley in San Francisco where parking is plentiful.
Adjacent to the bowling alley is the Parade Ground. Once used for military exercises and ceremonies, it is occasionally called back into its historic duty for commemorative celebrations and public gatherings. It also serves some more social and community building purposes such as Film in the Fog, an outdoor movie experience, and Shakespeare in the Park.
Tip: Dressing in layers for outdoor activities at the Presidio makes it easy to adjust your comfort level to what can often be rapidly changing weather conditions.
SIGHTS DISNEY FANS LOVE
Now who would have thought that a historic military base would be a magnet for Disney fans? Well when the Walt Disney Family Museum opened its doors in one of the buildings on the Presidio’s main post, Disney fans began showing up in droves. The museum provides a look at the humble beginnings of the Disney Empire as well as the Disney family story.
And now with Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm, there’s yet another reason for Disney fans to visit. LucasArts’ Letterman Digital Arts Center is located just down the road from the Disney Family Museum. Home to 1500 employees, the center stands on the footprint of what was once the Presidio’s Letterman Army Hospital. It is a common sight to see families snapping photos of their kids in front of the Yoda Fountain outside of Building B. During regular business hours, visitors are welcome to peruse the gallery of Lucasfilm memorabilia and enjoy a photo opportunity with a life sized Darth Vader.
Tip: While a visit to the Lucasfilm gallery can only take place during regular business hours, photo opps at the Yoda Fountain can take place at any time.
AN OUTDOOR PLAYGROUND
The former Army coastal defense station and air strip, Crissy Field runs the length of the shoreline just below the Main Post. Where there were once planes and hangars, there are now walkers, joggers, and cyclists, thanks to a restoration project completed by the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy. It includes a trail that cuts from the Marina Green to Fort Point underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
Also located in this area is the Crissy Field Center, an environmental education center where school field trips, center camps, and other programs participate in green education activities. West Bluff Picnic Area and Beach is another popular destination on this path. The shoreline here hugs a protected inlet on the bay where families and young kids can safely play.
Like in other areas of the post, the military past remains ever present. It’s hard not to notice the shell of an underground ammo storage in the middle of the picnic grounds. Of course today, like many things in this area, it is covered with curious children.
Follow the pathway between the beach and the picnic grounds and you’ll find the Fort Point Pier (also known as Torpedo Wharf). It is a spot long favored by fishermen for crabbing, an activity your family can try too. Free crabbing lessons are offered from March through October. Participants are outfitted with nets and equipment, then under the guidance of a park ranger given time to haul in their own shelled feast to take home. It’s a great exercise in patience for young kids. “You see children, the fishing cages need to be submerged for some time to allow the crabs to crawl into them. They won’t get in there if you keep pulling the pod up to look inside!”
Tip: Find delicious warm chocolaty relief from foggy San Francisco mornings by ducking into the Warming Hut. Located at the foot of the pier, the hut has a long history of doing as its name suggests. These days though warming chilled souls is done over a fantastic cup of hot chocolate.
THE INCOMPARABLE FORT POINT
As hearty hot chocolate drinkers sip their steaming drinks al fresco, they will surely spot an unusual structure at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a Civil War-era fort appropriately named, Fort Point. Luckily those who developed and built the bridge thought to protect it rather than level the structure to make way for the famous San Francisco to Marin connector.
Today costumed docents take visitors through the fort’s maze like architecture directing them to points of interest such as barracks, cells and a gunpowder storage area. Military buffs in your crew will enjoy the small museum where guns, cannons and swords are among the artifacts on display.
Tip: Close toed sturdy shoes are a wise wardrobe choice for optimal enjoyment and easy personal navigation on this tour!
YOU MIGHT AS WELL JUMP
While getting outdoors is a core theme in today’s Presidio, there’s a big indoor adventure here that can help get you in shape for earning your weekend warrior title. A trampoline park called, House of Air, resides in one of the old military buildings beside the West Bluff Picnic Area. This bouncing venue caters to more than just young kids celebrating their birthdays. An example of this is an offering of classes where teens can hone their daredevil jumping stunts ahead of snowboarding season in a safe, supervised environment with professional instruction.
Tip: This venue is POPULAR! Save time and avoid frustration by making a reservation and filling out waivers for your youngsters online.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME
The Presidio Trust continues to press forward with plans to revamp more historic buildings and restore outdoor spaces to their natural luster for all to enjoy. Return visits will yield new experiences and hold promise to bring visitors closer to the past and ultimately to the history of this amazing place. So bring the kids to the Presidio of San Francisco often.
- Read about our other family vacations and day trips from San Francisco.
- See all of our vacation photos from San Francisco.
Kristine lives in Mountain View, California, where she is the mother of a gifted girl athlete and a special needs charmer. Like almost everything in her house,…