When you have 84,000 acres to explore, there’s always the potential for beautiful surprises. Even if you’ve been to the park sites of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), there’s always more to discover.
In that spirit, here’s an insider’s guide to some of our favorite hidden gems of the GGNRA. From secret beaches to undiscovered redwood groves, these spots provide a chance to get into nature and steer clear of the crowds. How many have you found?
These special moments are brought to you by the Parks Conservancy and our dedicated staff, volunteers, members, and donors. To help support Bay Area National Parks for generations to come, consider a gift before the end of the year. When you donate before Dec. 31, your gift will be matched dollar-for-dollar, up to $250,000! Donate here >>
You may know Cavallo Point, but do you know Point Cavallo? Near the restored lodge at Fort Baker, find the Battery Yates Trail and walk south to a point of land that sticks out into the Bay. From there, you can savor unobstructed views of the bridge, Alcatraz, and San Francisco. Your Instagram followers will love you.
If you haven’t been to Fort Baker since its restoration, you’re missing a bigger gem. Amid the historic army buildings, trails climb gently up from Bay. You can enjoy a hike or bike ride, explore the seacoast, and bring your dog too! Grab a bite at Cavallo Point, relax with a book in an Adirondack chair on the circling green lawn, and marvel at how this area can still surprise you.
Lone Cypress at Milagra Ridge
Sure, you can see this tree from almost anywhere in Pacifica if you’re looking for it, but somehow this spot has remained a hidden gem.
Milagra Ridge is smaller than other parks in the GGNRA. You can hike around it in an hour, but in that hour you’ll be treated to expansive views of the Pacific Ocean. You might even catch a glimpse of the federally endangered Mission blue butterfly, which counts Milagra Ridge as key habitat. If not, you’ll certainly see other butterfly species.
As you walk around, make sure to snap a few photos of the giant cypress tree at the center of the ridge, with the ocean beyond. All the skyline ridges in San Mateo County—including Milagra, Sweeney, and Rancho Corral de Tierra in the GGNRA—offer incredible views on clear days.
Black Sands Beach
You’ll feel like a pirate as you descend the steps to the black sand on this hidden beach in the Marin Headlands. Note that the tide can make this a very small black sand beach, so make sure to check tide charts before visiting.
But if the tide looks right, you’re in for a treat. Drive past Hawk Hill on Conzelman Road and park in the Upper Fisherman’s lot. The views of Point Bonita and the Pacific Ocean are unmatched, and the sheltered nature of the beach makes it feel like you’re on your own piece of coastline.
Tree Fall in the Presidio
This is a hidden gem in plain sight. You may have been to a Presidio Picnic or other events in the heart of the Presidio, did you know there was a world-renowned piece of art nearby?
Tree Fall is one of four pieces by artist Andy Goldsworthy around the Presidio. The others—Spire, Wood Line, and Earth Wall—are in more public locations. But Tree Fall is in a small building in the Main Post, the historic Powder Magazine built during the Civil War to house Army munitions. A eucalyptus tree removed from the Presidio Parkway project is preserved in cracked clay and suspended above visitors in beautiful organic patterns.
Tree Fall is only open for docent-led tours. Check the Presidio Trust site for open times. Parks Conservancy members have previously taken special guided hikes to visit all four Goldsworthy pieces and learn more about them. Check our Member Events page for the latest events.
Another entry in the “who knew?” category, Fort Miley is right next to the more popular Lands End but rich in its own history and views.
Fort Miley is sandwiched between Lands End and the San Francisco VA Hospital. It has a ropes course and the historic Battery Chester, which was once a key coastal defense installation. It’s one of the highest spots above Ocean Beach and offers unparalleled views of the Pacific Ocean.
This small spot was key to the formation of the 84,000-acre GGNRA. Amy Meyer, an important figure in the creation of the new national park sites in the 1970s, says she was inspired to save Fort Miley from possible development. That opened the door to saving more land as it was transferred from military post to park, and the rest is park history.
For one of the best redwood spots in the Golden Gate National Parks, check out little-known Phleger Estate in San Mateo County. Located on the eastern side of Skyline Boulevard, the 1,000-acre parcel can be accessed through Huddart County Park.
Once inside, on your hike you’ll find remnants of the redwood logging of old: century-old redwood stumps and remnants of steam mills. But of the redwoods lining the trails today, some are over 100 years old. While hiking, be on the lookout for mountain lions, bobcats, eagles, deer, hawks, and steelhead trout.
El Polín Spring
In the heart of the Presidio is a spot that represents the heartbeat of the conservation work we do in the Golden Gate National Parks. The resurrection of El Polín Spring was all about restoring our lands to their natural state, and the flora and fauna have returned in droves to thank us for our help.
El Polín Spring had long been a source of freshwater for inhabitants, including the Ohlone who lived downstream in a village called Petlenuc. But parts of the stream were eventually buried underground, and it took a large restoration effort starting in the late 1990s to unearth the entire Tennessee Hollow Watershed from the spring to the Crissy Field Marsh.
Today, you can visit the spring itself from the Presidio’s Ecology Trail and walk almost the entire watershed down to Crissy Field. It’s a peaceful experience marked by birds singing and nature all around. Or find archaeological remnants along the trail, it’s a great space for learning.