14 Historical Highlights of San Francisco’s Fort Mason

HI USA Fort Mason Common Area

The City by the Bay has a rich and colorful history that reflects its melting pot population and role in California culture. When you stay at any of HI USA’s three hostels in San Francisco, you can get a taste of the city’s vibrant past on our free walking and bicycle tours and through interactions with hostel staff. However, when you stay at HI SF Fisherman’s Wharf, you get to be totally immersed in a slice of Bay Area history, as the hostel sits within a National Park that originally served as an army post for more than a century. Next time you’re in town, take a walk around the 1,200-acre landmark, which runs right along the Bay and offers picture-perfect views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, and learn a little more about its role in San Francisco history. We’ve compiled a list of 14 historical highlights to give you a head start.

  fort mason group

1. Fort Mason has over 49 buildings of historic significance, and the park is designated as a National Historic Landmark district. 

2. At various points over the past 200 years, this little hill on the bay has served as some sort of fort for Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. armies. 

3. In the ‘60s, Congressman Philip Burton spearheaded a campaign to recreate Fort Mason as a national park that would provide recreational opportunities for all. 

4. The overlook area where Fort Mason is today was called Point San Jose after the U.S. army established it as a military reservation in 1851. 

5. This piece of land was originally the site of villages maintained by the Ohlone Native American people, who also had settlements in nearby Crissy Field, and Sutro Baths

6.  The HI SF Fisherman’s Wharf hostel building was originally constructed in 1863 as a barracks for Civil War soldiers. During later wars, the building served as an army hospital.

fishermans wharf hostel fort mason

7. HI USA turned the former hospital building into San Francisco’s first hostel in 1980, and today guests can stay in a former surgery room or former physical therapy room. 

8. Ten years before the Civil War, civilians quietly built houses on the military land and called it Black Point. These wealthy, well-educated residents were committed to the anti-slavery movement, and you can see two of the houses, known today as Quarters 3 and 4, in the park. 

9. After the 1906 earthquake, Fort Mason was opened to citizens who had lost their homes, and the army provided food, water, and temporary shelter. 

10. In 1915, the area known today as Lower Fort Mason was constructed as the San Francisco Port of Embarkation. You can still see the piers, their sheds, and warehouses on the road in back of the hostel (pro tip: Café Franco, which is the hostel’s on-site café, is the perfect spot to enjoy a coffee with a view of the pier and beyond). 

cafe franco fort mason

11.  HI USA is not the only non-profit to have found a home at the historic fort. The Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, whose campus is the warehouses of the Port of Embarkation, is a non-profit that houses organizations connected to arts and culture. 

12. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) was created as part of the National Parks Service in 1972 to protect the historically and ecologically significant landscapes surrounding the San Francisco Bay. As part of redevelopment efforts, many temporary army buildings of the past were removed to create the Great Meadow, where today you’ll find locals picnicking and playing lawn games on sunny days, 

13. Fort Mason’s oldest buildings are the Fort Mason Officer’s Club, the Brooks House, the Haskell House, and the Palkmer House, which were built by civilians between 1855 and 1877. 

14. HI San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf hostel and Fort Mason are ideally located for a day of exploring some of the city’s highlights – here are just a few things you can do within walking distance of the park


HI USA tip: Now that you’ve explored Fort Mason, find out more about other HI USA hostels that are in or near gorgeous national parks


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