Many who travel to San Francisco come to visit the icons this city is so well known for: the classic street trolleys, the Haight-Ashbury in all its hippie glory, and most of all, the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge.
That famous "international orange" bridge spans the entrance to San Francisco Bay, between the untouched hilltops and open skylines of the Marin Headlands to the north and the Presidio in San Francisco. These National Park lands -- part of what makes this city among the most beautiful in the world -- allow for an easy escape and provide some of the most striking scenery on the Bay. It's an area with views every visitor (and local) should take the time to appreciate.
So I did.
Planning a route of about eight miles, I set out for what became a surprisingly relaxing hike from the San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf Hostel in Fort Mason to Sausalito, ending with a ferry ride back across the Bay.
Now, I know what you're thinking. Eight miles seems like quite a hike! But believe me, it's not strenuous in the least bit, especially walking at your own leisurely pace, and it can be tailored to anyone's comfort level. Some segments of the hike can also be bypassed with a local bus.
First 3 miles: Fort Mason to the Golden Gate Bridge
Fort Mason, home to the Fisherman's Wharf Hostel, served as a U.S. Army post for more than 100 years. The hostel itself is actually part of a former army hospital. Today, Fort Mason belongs to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and is full of history and beautiful architecture, with breathtaking views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Walking down the hill toward the Marina District, I make my way west with the bridge in the distance. The coastal walkway, initially lined with boats, slowly transforms into seashore greenery and sandy beaches. Along the way, the Palace of Fine Arts offers a tempting sidetrack. After all, its Corinthian pillars and reflecting ponds do seem a perfect place to spend a sunny day.
As I get closer to the bridge, I'm surprised to find so many places to visit along the Presidio coast, including a rock climbing gym, the Crissy Field picnic area, the Warming Hut Cafe and Bookstore, and historic Fort Point.
I end the first leg of my journey with some well-deserved photo opportunities in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Bus bypass: Board the MUNI-28 bus at the corner of Laguna and Bay streets, just outside of Fort Mason, and get off at the toll plaza at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Cost is $2.
Second 2 Miles: The classic walk across the bridge
Yes -- the Golden Gate Bridge is actually two miles long! The most important travel tip for this part of the walk is to bring a sweatshirt or jacket. Even if it's a warm, sunny day in the city, a mile out onto the entrance to the Bay it can be quite windy and cool.
Once across the bridge, I find a wonderful lookout spot, Vista Point, with skyline views of San Francisco, Angel Island, and Alcatraz.
Bus bypass: Golden Gate Transit picks up at the toll plaza at the south end of the bridge. As the bus is traversing the bridge, you can use the bus stop request to indicate to the driver that you want to get off as soon as the bus gets to the north side. Alternatively, take the bus all the way into Sausalito. Cost is $4.15 for bus fare (50-cent discount with a MUNI transfer).
Final 3 Miles: Marin Headlands to Sausalito
This part of the hike is a little tricky, but once you get away from the bridge, you're rewarded with the peaceful beauty of the Marin Headlands.
To access the Coastal Trail that will take me to Sausalito, I walk on the path underneath the bridge and make a slow decent to sea level. Besides the occasional biker, I find myself enjoying my surroundings alone. Wandering down to Fort Baker, I eventually connect to the Coastal Trail to walk around Horseshoe Bay. Across the great meadow are the beautifully restored fort buildings that are now Cavallo Point, an upscale lodge. Swinging a right past the Bay Area Discovery Museum, I see the entrance to the trail heading north.
Don't forget to walk around past the Presidio Yacht Club for a view of the Bay. Here you'll find great rocks to sit on and enjoy a snack while you take it all in. I find a few strangers here using the quiet to do a bit of writing. With such beautiful views of the water and the bridge, I make a mental note to try that later.
As I head north, eventually the path merges with East Road, and following that I enter the picturesque town of Sausalito. The hills are covered with houses, all of which must have great views.
I follow some bikers and a few other hikers onto Bridgeway Street, the main avenue on the waterfront. This street seems to be full of overpriced cafes and shops, but still it has its own charm. My goal is to find the more local Caledonia Street, and take some photos of the eclectic houseboats.
Everyone can choose their activity of choice here -- shopping, eating, or even kayaking! I hope to come back for a happy hour, taking in the splendid view from one of the bars on the water.
Ferry Ride Back!
Rather than hike the whole way back, I opt to take the Golden Gate Ferry, which runs from a terminal on Bridgeway Street back to the San Francisco Ferry Building. The ferry runs every couple of hours and costs $8. Just outside the San Francisco Ferry Building, board a MUNI-F streetcar toward Fisherman's Wharf, and get off at Jones and Beach Streets ($2). From there, it's a 5-block walk west back to Fort Mason.
Don't want to go back to San Francisco? The HI-Marin Headlands Hostel is just 5 miles from Sausalito, tucked in the hillside at former Fort Barry. On Sundays and holidays, catch the MUNI-76 just outside Sausalito and take it to the Marin Headlands Visitor Center, a short walk from the hostel.
This story was written by Erinne Grant, the marketing and communications intern for Hostelling International’s Northern California hostels. Originally from Indiana, Erinne recently moved to San Francisco and is a student at SF City College.
Stay at the San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf Hostel in historic Fort Mason, on the waterfront just 3 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge.