If you go

(All addresses in San Francisco)

INFORMATION

Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Fort Mason Building 201; nps.gov/goga, 415-561-4700.

San Francisco Visitor Information Center. 900 Market St. (Hallidie Plaza); sftravel.com, 415-391-2000. Open daily May through October; closed Sunday in winter.

William Penn Mott, Jr. Presidio Visitor Center. 210 Lincoln Blvd.; presidio.gov/visitor-center, 415-561-4323. Open daily.

LODGING

Inn at the Presidio. 42 Moraga Ave. innatthepresidio.com, 415-800-7356. Rates from $295.

Travelodge at the Presidio. 2755 Lombard St., wyndham hotels.com, 415-931-8581. Rates from $207.

DINING

Arguello. 50 Moraga Blvd. (Presidio Officers’ Club). arguellosf.com, 415-561-3650. Lunch, dinner and weekend brunch. Moderate

The Commissary. 101 Montgomery St.; thecommissarysf.com, 415-561-3600. Dinner only, Monday to Saturday. Expensive

Presidio Social Club. 563 Ruger St.; presidiosocial club.com, 415-885-1888. Lunch and dinner every day, weekend brunch. Moderate

Sessions at the Presidio. 1 Letterman Drive; sessionssf.com, 415-655-9413. Lunch and dinner every day. Moderate

TRANSIT. 215 Lincoln Blvd. (Main Post). presidio.gov/places/transit, 415-561-4435. Breakfast and lunch, Monday to Saturday. Budget

ATTRACTIONS

Fort Point National Historic Site. End of Marine Drive (Building 201, Fort Mason); nps.gov/fopo, 415-556-1693. Open Thursday to Monday.

Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center. Southeast end, Golden Gate Bridge; goldengatebridge.org/visitors, 415-426-5220. Open daily.

Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. 991 Marine Drive; farallones.noaa.gov/visit, 415-561-6622. Open Wednesday to Sunday.

Letterman Digital Arts Center. 1 Letterman Drive, Building B; oneletterman drive.com, 415-746-5000. Open Monday to Friday.

Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center. 640 Mason St.; njahs.org/640. Open Saturday and Sunday afternoon; $10 admission.

Presidio Chapel + Interfaith Center. 130 Fisher Loop; interfaith-presidio.org, 415-561-5444.

Presidio Golf Course. 300 Finley Road. presidiogolf.com; 415-561-4661. Tee times by reservation.

Presidio Officers’ Club. 50 Moraga Ave. presidio.gov/officers-club, 415-561-4400. Open Tuesday to Sunday.

San Francisco National Cemetery. 1 Lincoln Blvd.; nps.gov/prsf/learn/historyculture/ san-francisco-national-cemetery.htm. Open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day.

Society of California Pioneers. 101 Montgomery St., Suite 150; californiapioneers.org, 415-957-1849. Open Wednesday to Saturday.

Tides Thoreau Center. 1012 Torney Ave.; thoreau.org, 415-561-6300. Open Monday to Friday.

Walt Disney Family Museum. 104 Montgomery St.; www.waltdisney.org, 415-345-6800. Open every day. Adult admission $25.

SAN FRANCISCO — This City by the Bay means many things to many people: Fisherman’s Wharf and North Beach. Union Square and Chinatown. It means Haight-Ashbury and the Castro, the Mission District and the Embarcadero.

But for any visitor who arrives in San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge, it is the Presidio where the city lays out the welcome mat.

It wasn’t always so. In fact, for more than 200 years until 1994, the Presidio was a military reservation under three flags. Established in 1776 by the Spanish, it fell under the rule of an independent Mexico in 1821, then was transferred to the United States in 1847 during the Mexican-American War.

Through gold rushes, earthquakes and world wars, the 1,485-acre Presidio stood as a bulwark of American Pacific defense, ultimately earning recognition (in 1962) as a National Historic Landmark. When the Golden Gate National Recreation Area was created by Congress in 1972, the Presidio was included within its boundaries. Seventeen years later, during a period of military downsizing, a decision was made to close the base — and on Oct. 1, 1994, the transfer was official.

What that meant for San Francisco was that the city had a new playground, one that is still being invented. The Presidio is the largest urban park in the country. Refurbished military buildings of wood and red brick are now providing homes for more than 200 organizations, many of them nonprofit agencies, and for attractions such as the Walt Disney Family Museum and the Letterman Digital Arts Center. Eucalyptus trees tower over a golf course and 24 miles of quiet forest trails, punctuated by modern art and vistas of a 29-acre national memorial cemetery.

Crissy Field, once a bayshore airstrip, is now a public recreation area, more than 4 miles long with a bird sanctuary at its heart. Along with bluffs that overlook the Pacific, embedded with a dozen concrete gun batteries that still point to sea, it guards the Golden Gate. Just beneath the bridge’s southern abutment, largely invisible to those who cross above, is Fort Point National Historic Site.

A little history

The first inhabitants of this land were the Ohlone Indians. For thousands of years, they hunted, fished and foraged. But in 1769, when the Spanish marched up the coast to establish Franciscan missions and forts (presidios) to guard them, the natives’ freedom came to an end.

The Spanish made plans to colonize and fortify the great inland harbor of San Francisco. It became their northernmost American outpost in June 1776, when Captain Juan Bautista de Anza led 240 soldiers and their families north from Mexico to establish new homes. An adobe quadrangle and living quarters were completed by that September and dedicated as El Presidio de San Francisco; an adobe fort with 13 bronze cannons was added in 1794.

In 1821, when the Republic of Mexico, including Alta California, became independent, Mexican soldiers served at El Presidio and built a new pueblo nearby, Yerba Buena. Here they remained until 1835, when General Mariano Vallejo transferred the militia north to Sonoma, where he had established his home. Twelve years later, the United States seized the Presidio and Yerba Buena, renaming the settlement San Francisco.

Even as the Army was making repairs to the Presidio, the 1848 discovery of gold prompted its expansion. The Corps of Engineers built Fort Point, an imposing, brick-and-granite fort of four tiers, to protect the bay’s entrance. Through the Civil War, the Indian Wars of the 1870s and 1880s and the Spanish-American War, which sent troops to the Philippines at the end of the 19th century, the Presidio justified improvements that included concrete gun installations on the bluffs. And in 1906, when San Francisco’s great earthquake and fire devastated the city, the Army provided food and clothing to refugees in tent camps while helping to maintain order in the city.

To enhance defense of the harbor, Crissy Field was built in the 1920s. It moved to Marin County with the completion in 1937 of the Golden Gate Bridge. Four years later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it became a staging ground for the internment of Asian citizens — even as Japanese-American soldiers studied at a new Military ­Intelligence School on the former airfield. Meanwhile, ­Letterman Hospital, built during the Spanish-American War, became the largest Army hospital in the country, treating over 76,000 soldiers from the Pacific theater.

When World War II ended, the Presidio became headquarters for the sixth U.S. Army and for Nike missile defenses around the Golden Gate.

Following the base’s transfer to the National Park Service, Congress created the Presidio Trust, a new federal agency, charged with finding ways to maintain 470 historic buildings in the Presidio, along with nature and recreational facilities. It has done so mainly by generating income through leasing its buildings and rehabilitating them for new uses.

The Main Post

There’s no better place to begin an exploration of the Presidio than at its new visitor center. The William Penn Mott, Jr. Presidio Visitor Center opened in late February following the eight-month, $5 million refurbishment of a circa-1900 guardhouse. Rangers are on duty 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily to answer questions and direct guests to interactive, state-of-the-art exhibits, including a large-scale model of the Presidio with touch-screen panels to identify locations.

At the south end of the Main Parade Ground, about five blocks away and directly facing the Visitor Center, is the Presidio Officers’ Club. The claim is made that this is San Francisco’s most historic building, as exposed adobe walls dating from the 18th century may still be seen just to the left of the main entrance. Visitors are welcomed to an archeology lab on Wednesday afternoons, perhaps also to interact with researchers in a nearby dig site.

Any other day but Monday, the Officers’ Club may be hosting free public programs that range from music and dance to lectures and cooking demonstrations. Through next March in its Heritage Gallery, an exhibit discusses the ­Presidio’s role in World War II Japanese-American internment, and how that has affected current views on immigration reform and racial profiling.

Once an Army training site, the 7-acre Parade Ground is now an expansive lawn framed by rows of historic barracks and officers’ quarters. Many San Franciscans know it best for its Off the Grid Picnics, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays from March to October. Two dozen food vendors nurture the family-friendly event, which includes music, lawn games and yoga classes.

Flanking the Parade Ground along Montgomery Street are the beautiful three-story, red-brick barracks, built between 1895 and 1897, that marked the Presidio’s first major use of brick in its architecture. The southernmost of the five is now home to the Society of California Pioneers, whose museum here showcases a collection of maps, art, historical documents and more dating back to 1850.

Three doors down, the Walt Disney Family Museum is dedicated to the life and work of America’s most beloved animator, the creator of Mickey Mouse. Early drawings, cartoons and music are presented on more than 200 video screens in interactive galleries, narrated in Disney’s own voice. Other galleries offer insight into his creative risks, failures and triumphs. A highlight is a spectacular scale model of Disneyland, which opened in 1955.

Disney fans may also be drawn to the Letterman Digital Arts Center near the ­Presidio’s Lombard Gate, east of the Parade Ground. Once the Letterman Hospital, this campus is now home to the “Star Wars” empire of filmmaker George Lucas, including Lucasfilm Ltd., LucasArts and Industrial Light and Magic. A bronze statue of Jedi master Yoda stands in a fountain, in a public landscape designed by architect Lawrence Halprin; and during business hours, the ­Lucasfilm lobby is open to show off “Star Wars” memorabilia, including costumes and a life-size Darth Vader.

Nearby is the Tides Thoreau Center, a 12-building complex of former hospital buildings that has been converted to affordable work spaces for nonprofits. One of its corridors has a gallery that features rotating exhibitions that focus on environmental and social-justice issues.

Crissy Field

An exciting new project is Presidio Tunnel Tops, a ­14-acre development that will offer a direct pedestrian connection between the Main Post and Crissy Field. Where once a freeway known as Doyle Drive swept through the Presidio from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Palace of Fine Arts (just off the base), new tunnels have been built to partially obscure that road. The over-the-top landscape project is scheduled for completion by the Presidio’s 25th anniversary as a national park in 2019.

Anywhere along the shore, you can pick up the Golden Gate Promenade/Bay Trail, extending from the Marina Gate to the West Bluff Picnic Area. Popular with walkers, runners, bicyclists and even in-line skaters, the trail stretches 4.3 miles along the bayshore and links beaches and other recreational sites.

Among them is Crissy Marsh, where more than 100 species of birds lay over as they travel the transcontinental Pacific Flyway. (More than 300 species have been identified in different parts of the Presidio.) Needless to say, it’s a favorite location for birdwatching. Reeds fill this wetland where freshwater streams enter the salty San Francisco Bay.

There are several locations with sports-equipment rentals, including the Sports Basement, which occupies a former commissary. Bicycling, running, hiking and swimming gear are available here, and there are yoga classes and bike maintenance clinics.

Nearby, former hangars and warehouses have been turned into climbing gyms, trampoline houses, batting cages, indoor swimming pools and more. And the Grass Airfield meadow is ideal for playing and picnicking.

Two sites of interest are the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center and the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center. The former once trained Japanese-American soldiers as translators during World War II; it now is home to an interactive museum and learning center. The latter educates visitors about a marine preserve 27 miles west of the Golden Gate, a haven for bird life, sea otters and blue whales; on request, rangers can provide information on science-oriented excursions.

Golden Gate and Pacific Coast

If you were to continue on the Golden Gate Promenade/Bay Trail for another 1½ miles beyond West Bluff, you would reach Fort Point. This national historic site, built between 1853 and 1861, was designed to protect San Francisco Bay against enemy attack during the Civil War and other conflicts. Self-guided and docent-led tours describe the fortress-style architecture — the only example of the Army’s “Third System” style west of the Mississippi River — and the lives of the soldiers who were posted here.

As you are now directly beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, it is not a surprise that the landmark’s Welcome Center is almost directly above, next to the toll plaza. Linking San Francisco to Marin County since 1937, the art deco suspension bridge, with its signature International Orange color and 746-foot-tall towers, is known the world over. Indeed, it attracts more than 10 million visitors annually. Many of them cross the 1.7-mile-long span on foot, braving fog, wind and other changing weather conditions. Inside the Welcome Center are numerous videos, construction-era relics such as rivets and hard hats, and other memorabilia.

The 2.7-mile Presidio link of the 1,200-mile California Coastal Trail starts at the Golden Gate and continues to the 25th Avenue Gate near Baker Beach, offering panoramic views of the bridge and the ­Pacific from rocky coastal bluffs.

Milelong Baker Beach was the original home of the Burning Man celebration in the late 1980s. It remains home to ­Battery Chamberlin, whose 50-ton “disappearing gun,” 6 inches in diameter, was installed in 1904. On the first full weekend of each month, the battery welcomes visitors to a small museum within its underground cartridge room, as park rangers demonstrate how the gun was loaded, aimed and fired.

Many other batteries may be seen on the 0.7-mile ­Batteries to Bluffs Trail, which extends between Battery Godfrey and Battery Crosby above intimate Marshall’s Beach, north of Baker Beach.

Near Lincoln Boulevard, the Coastal Trail passes the World War II Memorial to the Missing, a tribute to 412 servicemen who were lost in the Pacific or buried at sea between 1941 and 1945. The names are engraved in a gently curving wall of California granite, against a backdrop of Monterey pine and cypress trees.

Southern Wilds

Until the 1880s, there were few trees in the Presidio. But starting in 1883, a 20-year beautification campaign resulted in the planting of 400,000 seedlings — eucalyptus, pine and cypress — upon the windswept hills south of the Main Post. Accentuating the divide between city and military post, the rows of trees forever altered the Presidio landscape.

A popular way to experience the woodland is Lovers’ Lane, a straight-as-an-arrow, 0.6-mile promenade that was once used by Spanish soldiers as a shortcut to Mission Dolores. Today it connects the Main Post to the southeastern Presidio Gate.

These woods are also home to two of the four installations by British artist Andy Goldsworthy in the Presidio. “Spire” (2008), built from the trunks of 37 felled Monterey cypress felled during reforestation work, rises like a steeple on a ridgetop. Wood Line (2011) is made from eucalyptus branches extended in a serpentine curve below Presidio Gate. Two other environmentally themed sculptures, Tree Fall, a suspended tree trunk covered with dried clay, and Earth Wall, a faux-excavation site within the Officers’ Club, were completed in the Main Post in 2014.

Other woodland features include Mountain Lake and El Polín Spring, both locations wetlands undergoing ongoing restoration; the Lobos Valley Overlook, with a view of a restored native sand dune habitat; and the Rob Hill Campground, where groups and families may stay from April to October. And in the heart of the Southern Wilds is the 18-hole Presidio Golf Course, a favorite of Northern California linksters.

A peaceful overlook in a eucalyptus grove near Washington Boulevard offers a stunning view of the 29-acre San Francisco National Cemetery, the first national cemetery on the West Coast. About 30,000 Americans are buried here, among them Civil War veterans, Buffalo Soldiers and Medal of Honor recipients. A Korean War Memorial, honoring 50,000 American and 1 million Korean casualties, stands just outside the cemetery entrance in the Main Post.

As much a part of the cemetery as the Main Post, it would seem, is the Presidio Chapel and Interfaith Center. Built in the 1930s, it features stained-glass windows, a fresco painted by a protege of famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and a meditation room hung with banners that feature park wildlife.

Stay and dine

I loved staying at the red-brick Inn at the Presidio. This 22-room, boutique hotel occupies historic Pershing Hall, built in 1903 in the Georgian Revival style of architecture. Once home to unmarried Presidio officers, it was named for General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, who left this base to become commander of the American Expeditionary Force in France during World War I. LEED-certified since its restoration, the Inn includes filling breakfasts with its spacious room stays.

A new 42-room lodge is under development in the red-brick barracks along Montgomery Street, facing the Parade Ground near the Walt Disney Family Museum. It is planned for a 2018 opening.

Meanwhile, there are numerous dining options in the Presidio. In the Presidio Officers’ Club is Arguello, featuring Mexican food and drink by renowned chef Traci des Jardins. The Commissary is another Des Jardins project, featuring California cuisine with locally sourced ingredients and Spanish stylings.

The Presidio Social Club recalls the mood of an upscale diner of the early 1900s, when it was a foot soldiers’ barracks. Sessions at the Presidio, in the Letterman Digital Arts Center, is a gastropub, serving new American food with craft beers. TRANSIT is a good budget choice for dine-in or take-out meals at the Presidio Transit Center.

— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at janderson@bendbulletin.com

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