A half day’s drive west of Yosemite Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area is richly peppered with national monuments, historic sites, and coastal recreational areas. Whether you’re a nature lover or a history buff, you’ll find plenty to fill a long weekend here, either before or after your Yosemite vacation.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
An urban escape on the edge of the city, this green space protects Pacific Ocean beaches, historical parks, bayfront parks, and nature preserves extending across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County.
Highlights include a boat ride over to Alcatraz Island, a former U.S. military fort, then a federal penitentiary nicknamed “The Rock,” and later a Native American protest site during the 1960s. North of the city, the Marin Headlands are ideal for long rambles with panoramic ocean views, which are shared by Muir Beach and crescent-shaped, white-sand Stinson Beach.
Popular with visitors of all ages, Muir Woods National Monument has protected gorgeous stands of old-growth redwoods along a creekside for more than a century.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Just about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco along the Pacific coast, this national seashore is a wild, rugged patchwork quilt of rocky headlands, sandy beaches, meadows, and forested hills. The wildlife watching is phenomenal here, with herds of tule elk, waterbirds that flock to lagoons, a seasonal colony of elephant seals, and whale watching from the lighthouse at the point where English explorer Sir Francis Drake landed his ship, the Golden Hind, in 1579. For hikers, the Earthquake Trail interestingly traces damage from San Francisco’s famous 1906 earthquake.
San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park
On San Francisco Bay, this small waterfront historical park lies in the Fisherman’s Wharf district. Maritime history buffs will be overjoyed at the park’s unique collection of 19th-century sailing ships, off Hyde Street Pier. Rangers lead tours that go below decks on the ferry boat Eureka and give sail demonstrations aboard the square-rigged ship Balclutha, where whimsical sea shanty sing-alongs take place monthly.
Check schedules of living history programs at the park’s visitor center, located at the corner of Jefferson and Hyde Streets. Call (415) 447-5000 or visit www.nps.gov/safr for more information.
More National Historic Sites, Parks, and Memorials around the Bay Area
More niche historical sites make for easy day trips around the Bay Area. About an hour’s drive east of San Francisco in Danville, the Eugene O’Neill National Historical Site enfolds the Asian-inspired architecture of Tao House, the former home of a Nobel Prize-winning playwright.
Farther north in Martinez, about 35 miles northeast of San Francisco, the John Muir National Historic Site preserves the former ranch home of California’s most influential 19th-century conservationist, who was instrumental in establishing Yosemite National Park. In a pastoral valley surrounded by fruit orchards, this ranch abounds with wildflowers and bird life on the slopes of Mount Wanda. Opening hours are usually from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday only.
For WWII history buffs, Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial is the site of the war’s largest homeland disaster. Because the memorial is located on an active military base, reservations for guided tours are required and must be made at least two weeks in advance. It’s about an hour’s drive northeast of San Francisco, outside the suburb of Concord.
A short drive north of Berkeley in the East Bay, Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park offers ranger-guided talks at the Rosie the Riveter Memorial, docent-led tours of the historic Red Oak Victory ship, and self-guided driving tours for history enthusiasts.