All of this area, beginning with the Golden Gate Promenade, has all been within the confines of the Presidio. This is the wooded land that the Golden Gate Bridge attaches to on its southern end. It is a former Army Base originally established by the Spanish in 1776. It passed to the U. S. Army after the war with Mexico in 1846. At that time it was just high sand dunes covered in grasses and brush out to the cliffs. The Army, seeking to gain a more commanding, imperial look (or as Major W. A. Jones, the officer in charge of the project, put it: they wanted to “accentuate the idea of the power of the Government”) and so planted 100,000 trees of 200 species between 1886 and 1897. This project was designed to beautify the area, provide windbreaks, and also to make the Presidio distinct from the City. In the end, this was the largest landscaping project in U. S. Military history.
Included in these plantings were Australian Eucalyptus trees, which grew to great heights (75 Ft+). These large trees, besides providing windbreaks for the fort, also helped prevent erosion. When the Army left, the National Park Service incorporated some of the Presidio into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Presidio Trust administers a portion of this. However, with the Army gone, the activists felt the need to butt in and press the GGNRA and the Trust to cut down these magnificent trees. This project has begun in earnest and hidden above Rob Hill Campgrounds there is a large tree graveyard where once healthy trees have been chopped into logs. This is a disturbing sight to anyone that has viewed swaths of clear-cut and now sees the same being done in the name of conservation.
The theory is the Eucalyptus are a non-native species and have grown large at the expense of the small scrub brush that used to cover this land providing a habitat for small bugs and other winged things. I think if they had there way they would turn these beautifully wooded cliffs back into sand dunes just for the sake of that nativism. I like little bugs as much as the next guy but the reality is these trees have been here for over 100 years. Who speaks for the Eucalypti?But now, returning to the northern shore trail, great bunkers built by the Army on the cliffs to protect the entrance to the harbor can be seen. These concrete batteries, as they are called, were built, along with many others around the coasts of both the city and the Marin Headlands, before WWII. Like Fort Point, these too never saw action. After passing the bunkers and coursing through a small wooded area, the trail unites with the roadway for several hundred yards. At this juncture the paired trail and roadway come out into the open. Walking along the side of the road and looking out toward the sea the view here is unimpeded.
Sloping down to the shoreline the landscape here are some of the last remaining natural coastal dunes left of what once covered nearly half of San Francisco. Preserved here is a true dune scrub brush environment. Interspersed with the scrub brush are numerous wild flowers: Chamisso’s lupine, Indian paintbrush, yellow bush lupine and coffeeberry, among others. The rolling dunes covered with this low-lying foliage provide a habitat for many species of birds: Anne’s hummingbird, Red Tail Hawk, Bewick’s wren, white crowned sparrow and the tiny bushtit. Soon the trail descends from the roadway once again into the woods and eventually all the way down to Baker Beach.
Baker Beach and China Beach
Baker Beach sits just inside the mouth of the Golden Gate and the bridge that is now behind at the east end of the beach dominates its wide expanse. This is the most popular of the city beaches. A broad expanse of fine white sand stretches from the rocky cliffs just below the bridge to the neighbor hoods that cover the western cliffs. When the weather is right, this beach fills up with locals. Sometimes you can sit on this beach and the fog will enter the gate in what is known as the “fickle finger of fog”. A dense, narrow mass of fog only a couple of hundred feet high will leave the shore uncovered but envelop whatever is on the water, including parts of the bridge. At others the fog, only several feet high, will hug the Marin Headlands on the opposite shore, streaming down the cliffs in what looks like a waterfall of clouds. At the western end of the beach a trail ascends again out of the wild places and into one the most exclusive neighborhoods in town, Seacliff. In this neighborhood there is a little known stairway that descends the cliff to another, smaller beach known as China Beach. Chinese fishermen anchored their boats in this wind-protected cove in the late 19th century and established an encampment on the shore.
Continuing on through the Seacliff neighborhood on El Camino Del Mar, the great homes adorn the hillside. It is interesting to note that some of the homes on the shore side of the street pay little heed to what the street facing side of the structure looks like. Indeed some of these homes only sport a garage door. The homes themselves, built on the slope facing the sea, save their entire splendor for viewers below them. By contrast, the homes on the opposite side display all their grandeur to the street and in fact are built up on a rise, the better to catch that famous view from the grand upstairs windows.
Lincoln Park, the Palace of Legion of Honor and Land’s End
Eventually Lincoln Park and Golf Course come into view rising on the left upon the final northwest ridge before the open ocean. This public course is primarily known for its views. On certain holes, golfers striding up the fairways are treated to jaw dropping views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the breakers crashing on the rocks far below. On the course itself, Monterey Cypress, which typically sprout multiple branches and spread outward rather than upward, have been trimmed over the years to allow the trees to attain great heights. They stand majestically throughout the course giving a stately look to the entire course.
Palace of Legion of Honor
On the southern edge of the course, the entrance road is shared with the Palace of Legion of Honor. From here the course, and the entire surrounding area, slopes away to the cliffs on the waters edge affording panoramic views of the Golden Gate and the City. In the distance, away from the water and to the right, the downtown area shares the panorama with the heights of the University of San Francisco, which in turn is dominated by the spires of St. Ignatius.
The Palace of Legion of Honor, a magnificent building, is an exact replica of the original in Paris, right down to the bronze cast of Rodin’s “The Thinker” in the entranceway courtyard, one of only five such casts in the world. Within the Palace are many fine works of art, most notably the collection of sculpture by Rodin, one of the largest in the world.
Besides “The Thinker”, some of Rodin’s most famous works are included here: “The Kiss”, “The Burghers of Calais” (actually several free standing sculptures) and “Victor Hugo” (there are two different sculptures here, a bronze bust and a great unfinished white marble work, also a bust). Included here as well are several other bronze works: “The Mighty Hand”, “The Call to Arms” and “The Age of Bronze”, a wonderful piece depicting a nude of young male.
Land’s End Trail
At the coast across from the golf course, Land’s End Trail opens directly on the cliffs and proceeds around the point. At the trailhead there is a vista platform with dramatic views of the rocky shore below and the bridge beyond. Further out along the trail, as it winds up and down the ridge, a look back toward the city encompasses the bridge in the background and below Baker Beach and China Beach with the cliffs above them mounted by the Seacliff neighborhood. Just west of China Beach is another small beach, inaccessible by land.
A large outcropping separates this beach from China Beach. The breakers wash up on the virgin sands and at high tide smash against the cliffs that back the shallow sands. The face of the cliffs that rise dramatically are splotched with dark moss, bright green algae and ice plant which in winter become red tinged adding to the swatches of color against the blackened stone. Stunted trees and other brush cling to the cliff edge and above them stand large eucalyptus, cypress and pines. Looking down from the trail, the view from this aerie captures in miniature what this place might have looked like without the intrusion of modern man. Of course, the fact that most of the plant species here, especially the trees, are non-native puts the lie to that illusion. Still it’s fun to fantasize.
Across the entrance to the bay, looking north, the Marin Headlands rise majestically a thousand feet above the sea. The Headlands are part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and nearly forty years ago were preserved from development. This immense area of rolling hills recedes north to Mount Tamalpais. At the shoreline inside the Golden Gate the sea has eroded these hills, formed by the collision of two tectonic plates, baring rock faced cliffs that tower over the mouth of the bay.
Between the two shores of rising cliffs the sea enters the Gate and froths mightily, driven by the wind and the tide and the ever-shifting currents. In the waters before the bridge the fog horns blast. One horn in the middle of the bridge itself blasts twice. (I believe the term dichromatic, or diatone.) One blast is high, one low. It’s the classic Hollywood version of a foghorn, Beeee Looow. Other smaller rocks have their own single blast horns, each of which is unique for easy identification by sailors, and these, together with the wind and the blowing sea and the gulls and all the other sounds of the wild shore, blend in a rising chorus.
The trail proceeds along the edge of the cliff and turns a corner which obscures from view the bridge, beach and city. Now the feeling is of wild lands with the pounding surf below and the thickly wooded hills that surround giving a sense of truth to the illusion. The trail rises on a stairway and leads under the cooling shadow of trees. All around, the thick underbrush provides cover for unseen wildlife that scurry to hide from the approaching footsteps. At the top of the rise, when the stairway begins to descend, the encroaching forest thins and once again the terrain is drenched in light. Halfway down the stairs, there is a bench and here, through a gap in the hills, the bridge once again comes into view. It is a great spot to stop for a short rest, linger a while and read, or simply contemplate the wonder of existence.
Proceeding along on the trail, cliffs rise on the left that are called the “Painted Cliffs”. One section of the cliff face appears to have been whitewashed and later splotched with red. I’m not sure of the origin of this but it may be indigenous. Patches of lichen, some a metallic green like the color of tarnished silver, some a pale yellow-green and others an almost luminescent yellow, blend with various types of verdant moss, small ferns and other diminutive plants to cover the rocks which completes the image of the cliffs being painted by an unseen hand.
Beneath these cliffs there is an area of grass that in the spring and early summer is covered in wild flowers. During this time the blend of colors on the cliff and the surrounding vegetation present a truly enchanting tableau. In the late fall the colors on the cliff change subtly. The leaves of small plants change to a soft yellow. On the hillside above, bushes bear blood-red berries. The mosses darken with the first rains that also awaken splotches of bright green algae. The grassy area below now sprouts new light green grass pushing up through the gray-brown, desiccated grasses and wildflowers long dead and gone to seed, scorched by the late summer sun.
As the trail exits this area, there is another stairway on the right that leads down the cliff side to the shore. At the foot of these stairs Land’s End stretches out into the churning waters. This is a large, very high outcropping that appears to have been leveled off. Walking out to the edge here and looking down into the teeming, bubbling sea gives a sense of being suspended out over the gate itself. Below is the beach known as Mile Rock Beach, named after Mile Rock that is just off shore here. Mile Rock sits out farther than the rest of the visible rocks here but many more lay around hidden beneath the surface. Many ships were lost off this point and the remains of three, the Ohioan, the Lyman Stewart and the Frank Buck can still be seen at low tide. Eventually, Mile Rock was given its own foghorn contained in the recognizable by all afloat (and ashore) by its orange and white striped barrel atop the rock.
This is not a beach in the usual sense of the word as it is heavily strewn with rocks and boulders, some small to medium but others of immense size. During periods of low tide many rocks are exposed and reveal themselves to be encrusted with barnacles as well as small mussels clinging in groups patiently awaiting the return of the life giving sea. The surf washes onto, around and between these creating a wonderland for all the creatures that live in the area between the sea and the land. The views back toward the bay are incredible. As the backdrop of course there is always the bridge but in the foreground the wild rocky beach, sometimes with small fishing boats plying between the massive rocks, other fishermen perched high upon them and the great looming, indomitable presence of Land’s End itself combine to create a charming scene.
But always before is the endless Pacific. It exudes so much power, belying its deceptive name. On most reasonably clear days the Farralone Islands are visible to the west and when it is exceptionally clear Moon Island is visible just north of the Farralones. Freighters and tankers can be seen swinging into the channel, their smokestacks wafting skyward. Small craft dodge around these, sailboats with their sails bent by the wind or speedboats leaving a long wake trailing. Usually though, sitting just off the coast, is the marine layer enveloping all and waiting patiently for the day’s heat to subside so it may, at dusk, “tip toe in on cat’s feet” *, blanketing all with its cool natural air conditioning.
Back up on the cliff, the trail continues until and, after rounding a corner, the Veterans Administration Hospital comes into view. It is perched high above this seeming wilderness and its post modern architectural design appears somehow out of place, like something from another time, another world.
© Stephen Alexander 2008
Part 2 of my San Francisco reminisces