Everything you need when planing a vacation trip to San Francisco
Looking up at the North Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge

GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE

The Golden Gate Bridge with San Francisco in the background

In a nutshell…
Since it was built, the Golden Gate bridge has lost its title as the world’s longest suspension bridge (a title it held for 27 years) but it has not lost any of its magic. It is hard to say exactly what it is about it – the austere depression Art Deco towers, its deep orange-red against the cliffs of the Headlands or the inverted arch of the suspension cables that give it such poetry, but obviously they got a lot right and rose to the challenge of building a structure as spectacular as the location that nature created.


Visiting the bridge should be high on the list of any first time visitor to San Francisco.

 

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Walking The Bridge

Out on the bridge

 

Any visit to the bridge should include a walk to at least one of its towers, if not the middle point. There you can look back towards the city for an amazing view and look down on the container ships entering and leaving the bay for an equally amazing view. It is almost always cold and windy on the bridge (be sure to dress in layers) which adds to the drama of the experience. You can enter from the south or the north—there are parking and visitor centers at both ends, but it is not quite as long a walk from the southern parking lot to the center, as it is from the northern one.  In either case, if driving to the bridge, stay in the right lane when approaching it. The turn offs come just before and after the bridge and it is often difficult to make lane changes at those points.

 

Marin Headlands

The Marin Headlands

 

Just across the bridge, to the north is the Marin Headlands – the hills to the north that you see across the straights. By all means, if you have a car go there as part of your Golden Gate Bridge excursion. From there the vistas are absolutely world class. To get there cross the bridge while staying in the right lane. As soon as you exit the bridge there will be two turn-offs – the first one leads to Vista Point, where you can park and walk across the bridge from the north, the second turn-off is for Alexander Avenue. Take the second turn-off.  It will take you back under the interstate and start climbing the hills that look out over the Golden Gate.

 

There are three points along the road where you will want to get out and take in the view. The first is Battery Spencer. The hills are covered with artillery batteries; Battery Spencer is the first you will come to. It is also the first place as you head up the hill where you will see cars parked at the side of the road. It is a bit of a walk from the road to the overlook, but one that is well worth it.  I am sure you have seen photos taken from there many times but they are no comparison to being there and feeling the immensity of the northern tower as you look down on the bridge’s deck and across the bay to the city. It is also worth taking a look at the battery itself. It was fitted with 16 inch guns. These were the same size as the ones on the WWII Iowa class battleships. A salvo from them had the power to move a battleship sideways. 16 inch (about 40 cm) refers to the diameter of the cannon’s bore and, therefore, the diameter of the projectile. That is a pretty big bullet.

 

The view from Hawk Hill looking towards Point Bonita


The next point along the road where you may want to stop for a moment, just for fun, is where the needle is threaded – that is to say, where the pyramid of the Transamerica building is exactly in the center of the top most opening in the bridge's northern tower. There is one spot, one spot exactly, where this happens. Thousands of professional photographers have stood on this spot to get that money shot that can be sold to the printers of travel brochures. Pull off at the turn out near the eucalyptus grove, and you can shoot your version of it too.

 

The view from Hawk Hill


The third spot along the road where I recommend stopping is a must. For one, it is where the road ends, but also it is absolutely one of the great views of the world. This is Hawk Hill and is the highest point on the road. There is a large military tunnel going through the hill which will take you to the side of the hill away from the city which allows you a spectacular panorama of Rodeo Valley, Point Bonita and the Pacific beyond.  From there you can climb up to the top of the hill where the view looking back towards the city is…well what can one say…epic, magnificent, sublime? Yes, that and more.

 

Point Bonita Lighthouse

The Point Bonita lighthouse

 

The locked tunnel door that leads to the Point Bonita LighthouseIf it happens to be Saturday, Sunday or a Monday between 12:30 pm and 3:30 pm when you visit the Headlands you might as well descend from Hawk Hill on the side that is away from the city. There you can wind around on the road until you come to the parking area for the Point Bonita Lighthouse.  It is a half mile steep hike from the parking area to the lighthouse, but again, well worth it if you have the juice in you. I say do so only on those days and between those times because any other time you will come to a locked iron door in a cliff face through which you must pass to get to the lighthouse.


Again, the lighthouse’s visiting hours are: Saturday, Sunday and Monday 12:20 pm to 3:30 pm.

 

Fort Point

Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge

 

Because of its obvious military significance, as soon as the Spanish first settled in the Bay Area, they built a fort on the northern tip of the peninsula. For the next 200 years, this area would remain a military zone, getting upgraded and modernized after the territory became a part of the US. Part of that modernization, that as it turned out, was not quite modern enough, was Fort Point. It was finished in 1861 just as the American Civil War was about to demonstrate most graphically, such brick forts were no match against the latest advances in artillery technology. Although the fort was obsolete as soon as it opened, it was kept in service until 1900.  The best location to place a fort protecting the straights – the narrowest point, is exactly the best location to also place a bridge. As such, Fort Point was nearly demolished to make way for the bridge. But, in the end, it survived and now sits squarely under the southern end of the bridge.


The fort is maintained by the National Parks Service as a National Historical Site and you can visit it (free of charge) Friday through Sunday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. If you do, you can wander through the fort’s arched brick casements, learn how they stored their explosives, inspect some cannons of the day, and stare straight up, agog, at the bridge’s underbelly.


The fort has a web site at: nps.gov/fopo/

 

Hours opened, are Friday through Sunday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.

 

Fog

Fog covering the Golden Gate Bridge

 

For some 200 years ships sailed up and down the California cost right past the mouth to one of the worlds largest and most perfectly formed harbors, completely ignorant of its existence. In fact it was not until a lost land party stumbled upon it 1769, that non native people first set eyes on San Francisco’s immense bay. Why? Fog.  It is very common, especially in the summer, for fog to cover the Golden Gate (the water passage to the bay that runs under the bridge.)  It is often the case that it is bright and sunny in downtown San Francisco while the bridge is totally obscured by fog. Case in point: that was exactly the condition when I took the above photo from the road to Fort Point.

 

The fog usually forms in the night, but often burns off by the middle of the afternoon. This is something to keep in mind when planning your trip. Views of the bridge from the Headlands are as spectacular as just about any in the world. It would be a shame to miss the experience due to fog. So keep some flexibility in your itinerary. If you notice the view is clear, better go see the bridge now rather than put it off till tomorrow.

 

 


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