Fort Mason to Aquatic Park
Fort Mason was named for Richard Barnes Mason, a military governor of California before it became a state. During the Civil War, Fort Mason was known as Point San Jose and was part of the coastal defense system, with cannons mounted in the upper part of the fort. The lower part of the fort, where we'll begin our walk, was used as a port of embarkation for the army during WWII, as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars. Now it's known as Fort Mason Center.
After exploring the fort we will walk to the pier at the end of Van Ness Avenue and on to Aquatic Park and the National Maritime Park, with its fantastic collection of ships at the Hyde street Pier. To get oriented, locate your starting point on this map.
From downtown take the Muni 30-Stockton Line and get off at Laguna Street. Either transfer to the Muni 28 line, or walk two blocks north to the entrance of the Fort Mason Center.
Locate the intersection of Bay Street and Marina Boulevard in San Francisco. The parking lot for the Marina Green is free, but there are some locations and times when only slip holders can park. There is a pay lot inside Fort Mason Center.
This trip can easily be done by bicycle, but bring a lock if you want to go inside any of the attractions. You can rent a bike at Fort Mason from Park Wide, which is the official bike rental company for the park. The kiosk is just outside the gate to Fort Mason Center.
Distance: 3 miles.
Note: Most of the attractions and restaurants at Fort Mason Center are closed on Mondays.
As you begin, notice the Safeway grocery store at the corner of Bay and Marina Blvd. This is just another store now, but in the olden days before the internet, it was a well known “pick-up” spot for San Francisco singles. Fort Mason will be quiet or busy depending on what activities are scheduled for the week. Check the calendar to see what’s going on during your visit. Notice the building numbers on each building to help you find what you’re looking for.
There are three small museums here; Museo ItaloAmericano, the Mexican Museum and The Long Now Museum. The Cowell Theater is closed for renovation until spring 2014, but The Magic Theater, BATS Improv and The Young Performer’s Theater are open. Special exhibits, e.g., the Fall Antiques Show, are located in the piers on the water and in the conference center as you walk in. Normally you can buy tickets for special events at the door as well as on line.
Special events on the piers often include dining areas. If no events are in progress at the time of your visit or if you prefer something else, try the highly-regarded Greens Restaurant, which opened in Fort Mason Center in 1979 under the auspices of the San Francisco Zen Center. Green's has both a dining room and a take-out counter, and the dining room has a serene ambiance with lovely views of the harbor and bay. The cuisine is exclusively vegetarian.
You could take this walk in the late afternoon, then return to Fort Mason to eat at Greens and catch a show. For lighter food, try Cooks and Company or the Goody Café. Check the schedule to see if Off the Grid has anything going in the area, or shop and eat at the Sunday Farmer’s Market, 9:30 to 1:30. If you’ve brought a picnic you’ll find plenty of spots for your feast. If you have children with you and it's Friday night, check out the San Francisco Children's Art Center, which offers a drop-in program from 6:00 to 9:00 pm.
Many activities are possible at Fort Mason Center, and it can take a while to explore and find your favorite spot. There are some unusual chairs made out of very large logs behind the firehouse in the north eastern corner of the fort. The Exploratorium maintains a kiosk showing various experiments they have posted around the area. On the eastern retaining wall you’ll find the hull of an old ship. Don’t miss the Friends of the Library's Readers Book Store. The Goody Café can be reached from inside. There is also a rental gallery for SFMOMA.
From the south side of the Fort Mason parking lot notice the stairs leading to the upper section of the fort. Either take these or exit the fort and walk up the hill to your left. Both lead to Fort Mason Green, a large grassy area sometimes used for events. Look for the Benny Bufano sculpture entitled "Madonna Protects the Children of the World," as well as a statue of Congressman Phillip Burton, who sponsored legislation that created the Golden Gate National Parks in 1972. Look out over the Bay from the Green; on any given day you might see a ribbon of fog streaming through the Golden Gate, enveloping the Golden Gate Bridge and everything else in its path.
When you're ready, follow the path around until you come to a street on your right. Turn and walk behind the San Francisco Fishermen's Wharf Hostel. Notice the cafe in the back - it's open to the public. Continue until you come to Black Point Battery. This Civil War era battery has been restored with its cannon in place. Walk through the battery until you see a few picnic tables at the end. Stop a moment to admire the sweeping views of Alcatraz, then take the stairs to your right and walk along the street. This part of the fort contains businesses and residential areas, as well as a large community garden. As you walk, look for a driveway on your left, which belongs to the Haskell House - reputed at one time to be haunted and today one of three homes remaining on Black Point. What a gorgeous spot - but it's a private residence, so you can only peak down the driveway. Retrace your steps to the picnic area and go down the stairs to rejoin the path along the shore.
When you come down the hill from Fort Mason walk out on the long curving pier at the end of Van Ness Avenue. From here you have a nice view of Aquatic Park and the Hyde Street Pier. Turn around and exit the Pier, passing the City's popular Bocce ball courts and continuing towards the Aquatic Park Bathhouse, built in 1939 to invoke the impression of an ocean liner. The Bathhouse has recently been renovated and you can once again see restored murals created by Sargent Claude Johnson, an African American artist, and other New Deal artists that helped to decorate the building. Behind the Bathhouse is the former Ghirardelli Square Chocolate Factory, redeveloped in the 1960's into a tourist and shopping destination. Today it struggles to regain it's former glamour. Looming behind the Bathhouse and Ghirardelli Square you'll notice two large, curved apartment towers. Known as the Fontana Towers, they were developed in the late 1960s on the site of an old factory and almost singlehandedly started a civic revolt over the "Manhattanization" of San Francisco. When vintage Hollywood star Eddie Fisher came to San Francisco in the late 1980's, he lived here with his 5th wife Betty Lin.
Continue towards the Hyde Street Pier, one of the best tourist values for families. The visitor's center is located at 499 Jefferson Street, at the corner of Hyde. Children under 16 are free and a 7-day ticket for adults - allowing you to visit the ships - is only $5.00! You can wander around the pier for free.
The entrance to the Hyde Street Pier is on Jefferson Street; when you reach it, turn away from the beach. Before you reach the pier entrance you'll pass the Dolphin Club, founded in 1877 to promote swimming and boating in the bay. Next door is the South End Rowing Club. You can get day passes for these clubs on alternate days. They provide a place to change into a bathing suit if you want to return to the beach and swim in Aquatic Park. Swimming to Alcatraz is a popular activity for club members - although not recommended for the majority of first-time visitors.
Once you're finished at the Hyde Street Pier, walk east to Pier 45 to see some more old ships and play some games. Stay on the north side of the street unless you have a desperate need for a new tee shirt. Just before reaching Pier 45, notice boats for hire. It's not possible to make a living commercial fishing from Fisherman's Wharf these days, so captains hire their boats out for tourism or day fishing. Signs outline their terms. Sometimes you'll find a captain on site and ready to go.
When you reach the crab stand at the corner of Jefferson and Taylor, turn left. You're now officially on Fisherman's Wharf. Ahead you'll see the Musee Mecanique, a great collection of old mechanical amusements that was formerly housed on the lower level of the Cliff House. Sadly, modern and noisy games have been added that overshadow the classic old ones. Don't miss Laffing Sal, a lady with a past. She's worth a quarter. When you're out of quarters (not possible, they have change machines) or simply ready for a change, walk through to the pier behind. If the doors are closed go outside and walk around the building.
On the pier you'll find the USS Pampanito submarine, and further down, the SS Jeremiah O'Brian, a liberty ship built by Rosie the Riveter. Both have been restored and are open for viewing.
Tired? Be a tourist and have an Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista Cafe at the corner of Beach and Hyde streets. At Jones Street between Jefferson and Beach, you can catch the historic F-line trolly cars back to downtown or if you left your car near the start of this walk, you can catch the 30-Stockton line at North Point and Hyde Streets to retrieve it. There is a cable car stop here, but there is usually a crowd waiting and the line can be long. Try the California line instead - it's far less crowded.
From this trail you can connect to the Crissy Field Loop. From Fort Mason Center, walk west along the Marina Green and the SF Marina Small Craft Harbor.
In the Area
From the National Maritime Museum you can walk to Ghirardelli Square, the Cannery and Pier 39. At the entrance to Pier 39 you'll find the Aquarium of the Bay and a Carousel. Don't miss the sea lions, who have taken over a portion of the marina. From Pier 41 you can go to Angel Island, Sausalito or Tiburon, and from Pier 33 you can visit Alcatraz.
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