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San Francisco Bay Area National Parks: A Complete Guide

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When most Northern Californians think of national parks, Yosemite looms large. Perhaps Lassen, Sequoia, or Kings Canyon come to mind for the more outdoor-minded. What so many travelers don’t realize is that the National Parks Service manages a number of historical and natural sites of interest all over the nation. Many of these national park sites are in urban or suburban areas – including in and near San Francisco!

For Bay Area locals looking for a staycation or visitors to the Bay not ready to bite off significant transportation logistics, there’s no need to drive far – or even drive at all – to visit one of these attractions. So many of them offer educational and memorable adventures for kids, and quite a few of them are also totally free to visit.

Muir Woods National Monument National Park Service Entrance Sign

Our family visits national parks regularly, including many national parks, monuments, historical sites, and other federal lands close to our home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here’s an overview of all the national parks sites in the city of San Francisco and within the Bay Area, with tips for making the most of a visit to a NPS park as well as saving money along the way.

National Parks Near San Francisco: Bay Area National Monuments, Recreation Areas, Memorials and More

1. Golden Gate National Recreation Area (San Francisco)

San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge - View from Marin Headlands
  • Location: Multiple (from southern San Mateo County to northern Marin County)
  • Cost: Many sites free, varies
  • Recommended Ages: All ages

First things first when it comes to getting your San Francisco national parks bearings and terminology straight: Golden Gate National Recreation Area is the umbrella name used to describe multiple National Park destinations in the San Francisco Bay Area. These include Alcatraz Island, Muir Woods, Fort Point, the Presidio, and the Marin Headlands.

The terminology can be confusing since the whole area is sometimes promoted together as a single unit. It’s important to understand that each of the destinations may charge separate admission fees and are not necessarily co-located.

There’s so much to do within this area that you definitely need a few days if you want to see it all. Get some sense of the range of offerings here. And then keep reading, as I’ve detailed several of the best individual attractions within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area as separate listings below.

2. Alcatraz Island (San Francisco)

Alcatraz island in the San Francisco Bay
  • Location: Ferries depart from Pier 33 (Alcatraz Landing), San Francisco
  • Cost: No NPS fee, but ferry tickets required: $45.25 adult, $45.25 junior (12-17), $27.55 child (5-11), $42.65 senior (62+)
  • Recommended Ages: School Age Kids, Teens

The country’s most famous former prison almost needs no introduction! Alcatraz is one of San Francisco’s most well-known tourist attractions. The Rock was once home to the likes of Al Capone and many other notorious criminals and is now an excellent outing for kids of elementary school age and up. What many visitors don’t realize is that Alcatraz is operated and protected by the National Park Service.

To get to Alcatraz today, you’ll need to take a short ferry ride. While Alcatraz itself is free, the ferry transport is not. Be sure to make advance reservations for a seat, as tickets go fast during the high seasons and on weekends. I highly recommend booking tickets direct from the concessioner, Alcatraz City Cruises, as third party sites often have a needless markup or may not even be legit. For families of four with two kids ages 5-11, the family ticket pack usually saves about $15.

Set aside up to half of a day for a visit, and plan to take the free audio tour of the cell blocks. Pack lots and lots of layers because the sea breeze can make the island downright frigid many months of the year.

3. San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park Hyde Street Pier Entrance
  • Location: 2905 Hyde St., San Francisco
  • Cost: Free for most of the park area; $15 adult (16+), children free (15 & under) for Hyde Street Pier (admission is included with an America the Beautiful National Park Pass)
  • Recommended Ages: Preschool, School Age, Teens

Located in the thick of things among the tourist attractions of Fisherman’s Wharf is the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. For families with kids interested in ships or for any naval history buffs, this park is easy to visit and returns a lot of bang for your buck.

The park includes several buildings and sites to visit down by the waterfront adjacent to Ghirardelli Square. Those include the Visitor Center, the Maritime Museum (located in the Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building), a Maritime Research Center, and the Aquatic Park Historic District.

The main attraction for most guests in the park is the Hyde Street Pier. The pier is the mooring location for 8 historic ships, several of which are available to tour and explore for an additional fee.

Many kids will enjoy participating in the park’s challenge on the interactive mobile app game, Agents of Discovery, or becoming a Junior Ranger.

4. Presidio of San Francisco

Presidio Tunnel Tops Playground
Photo courtesy Rachel Styer / Presidio Trust.
  • Location: 210 Lincoln Boulevard, San Francisco (and surrounding areas)
  • Cost: Free
  • Recommended Ages: All ages

One of several sites within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Presidio protects the historic army buildings near the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. But it’s much more than a military installment. The Presidio has truly become a major destination in its own right since I moved to the Bay Area nearly two decades ago.

The top draw for families is the new Presidio Tunnel Tops, a massive park and public works project with open spaces, playgrounds, food trucks, and more within view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Presidio is also home to the Walt Disney Family Museum, a must-visit for Disney fans and anyone interested in the history of American film and entertainment.

Crissy Field and Beach are also popular recreational spaces on warm days. And if the weather doesn’t cooperate, there is indoor fun to be had at the House of Air trampoline park or at Presidio Bowl (for a separate fee, of course).

5. Fort Point National Historic Site (San Francisco)

  • Location: 201 Marine Dr., San Francisco
  • Cost: Free
  • Recommended Ages: School Age, Teens

Located in the Presidio in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point is the strategic position used to defend historic San Francisco in the years after the Gold Rush. Built during the Civil War, it was central to the Union’s planned defense of the city from a potential Confederate attack. It was used again extensively during World War II.

The historic fort houses exhibits featuring both military history as well as the history of the Golden Gate Bridge, so this is a national park site that is probably best for history buffs and older kids. There are 15 minute ranger talks three times daily if you just want a quick bit of information on a shorter visit.

Within walking distance of Fort Point building is the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Center which has additional history on display about the bridge itself. Be sure to walk around the area for multiple Golden Gate Bridge vantage and view points for photos.

6. Muir Woods National Monument (Mill Valley)

Muir Woods Multigenerational Family Selfie
  • Location: 1 Muir Woods Rd, Mill Valley
  • Cost: $15 adult (16+), children free (15 & under) (admission is included with an America the Beautiful National Park Pass)
  • Recommended Ages: All ages

Strolling through the majestic redwoods in Muir Woods should be on every San Francisco local and visitor’s must-do list. The views are simply incredible. Muir Woods is the national park site in the Bay Area that my family has visited most over the years, and we get something different out of it every time we visit with our kids at different ages and stages. It’s also highly accessible, so we’ve had success visiting with babies and with grandparents.

The monument makes an easy day trip from San Francisco. Just note that it is exceptionally popular on weekends and has limited parking, so the NPS instituted a reservation system several years ago. Be sure to book well in advance if you plan to drive.

There is an easy loop hike through the main part of the redwoods that has several alternative paths to return, so you can customize your tour based on the length of time you have to visit. Plan for up to about 2 hours for a casual visit, but longer if you plan to take one of the more serious hikes out of the valley.

Muir Woods Redwoods

7. Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site (Danville)

  • Location: 205 Railroad Ave, Danville (meeting point for shuttle)
  • Cost: Free
  • Recommended Ages: Teens

This site in Danville is the former home of one of America’s most famous playwrights, Eugene O’Neill. If you have older teens beginning to study his work, consider a trip to tour his home.

Advance tour reservations are usually required (except on Saturdays). You must park at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley and take a NPS shuttle to the home, so plan ahead for logistics and book well in advance.

8. John Muir National Historic Site (Martinez)

  • Location: 4202 Alhambra Ave., Martinez
  • Cost: Free
  • Recommended Ages: School Age, Teens

I bet you didn’t know that the nation’s most famous conservationist lived just 30 miles from San Francisco when he wasn’t exploring the great outdoors! This national parks site protects John Muir’s home near Martinez. It has a small enough footprint that it is a doable outing even with younger kids.

The site offers a 20 minute video to get oriented, followed by a free audio tour with 12 stops on the grounds. You can also tour the historic Victorian home, explore the orchards, or hike on one of several trails nearby. Consider packing a picnic lunch for longer visits.

Note that the Martinez Adobe (which houses the only permanent exhibit of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail that starts in Southern California) has structural damage and is closed indefinitely.

9. Point Reyes National Seashore (Marin County)

National Parks in the San Francisco Bay Area - Point Reyes
Breathtaking coastal views in Point Reyes.
  • Location: 1 Bear Valley Road, Point Reyes Station
  • Cost: Free
  • Recommended Ages: All ages

Point Reyes is one of the nation’s most gorgeous stretch of beaches. Located north of Stinson Beach along Highway 1, this National Park site is a little harder to reach than some of the others on this list, but it delivers a big payoff.

Things to do in addition to just spending time on the beach include hiking seashore trails, watching for whales, sea lion spotting at Sea Lion Cove, visiting the historic lighthouse, or even chasing a waterfall. This is another one of the San Francisco Bay Area national park sites that may take more than just a single day to explore.

The main Bear Valley Visitor Center is the place to pick up a Junior Ranger booklet or get additional information. As is often the case on the coast of Northern California, fog in the area is common. Pack layers to be prepared for cold!

10. Rosie the Riveter WWII Homefront National Historical Park (Richmond)

  • Location: 1414 Harbour Way South, Suite 3000, Richmond
  • Cost: Free
  • Recommended Ages: School Age, Teens

One of the newer National Park sites (founded in 2000), this site in Richmond is an easily accessible educational outing for kids beginning to study World War II history. The museum collection focuses on the effect of the war on the home front, with special focus on the role that women played to support the war effort. Films are shown in the Visitor Education Center as well.

On most Fridays a real “Rosie” hosts a talk, so this is an increasingly rare place to meet a member of the Greatest Generation and hear their important stories first hand. Near the site and available to tour on Sundays for an additional fee is the SS Red Oak Victory ship, the only remaining ship (of 747!) built in Richmond’s Kaiser Shipyards during World War II.

11. Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial (Concord)

  • Location: Meeting point: 4202 Alhambra Ave., Martinez
  • Cost: Free
  • Recommended Ages: School Age, Teens

Another important and more somber World World II site in the Bay Area is the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial. The memorial is located on the site of a massive 1944 accidental explosion caused when loading two ships with ammunition bound for the Pacific theater. The result was the loss of 320 men (a majority of whom were African American), making it the largest disaster on the home front during the war.

As this memorial site is located on an active military base, access is highly controlled. Reservations are required and must be made a minimum of 2 weeks in advance. Visitors are shuttled from John Muir National Historic Site by the National Park Service.

Tips for Visiting San Francisco Bay Area National Parks Sites

Ready to plan a Bay Area national parks excursion with your family? Be sure to check out my getting started guide to national parks for beginners, but here are a few specific tips for making the most of your visit to national parks near San Francisco.

Participate in Junior Ranger Programs

National Park Junior Ranger at Muir Woods

Most (but not all) sites run by the National Park Service in the San Francisco area offer “Junior Ranger” activities that are perfect for engaging kids in the destinations. Ask at the visitors centers for each site and you’ll be given an activity book for your child to complete while touring the area. You can also sometimes download the booklets in advance of a trip so your kids have something to occupy themselves on a drive. Complete the required activities in the book and get a badge and certificate to take home as a souvenir.

Watch for Free Days

To entice more visitors into the parks, the park service offers a few special free days where all park admission fees (for those that charge them) are waived. 

While many of the destinations run by the National Parks Service in the Bay Area are free already, two (Muir Woods and the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park) usually require admission fees, so these free days offer a great opportunity for savings. Note that Alcatraz is always free, but since a private company operates boat transport to the island, there are sadly no free trips to the Rock!

Fee-free days in 2023 (and projected dates for 2024) are:

  • September 23, 2023: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11, 2023: Veterans Day
  • January 15, 2024: Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday
  • April 20, 2024: First day of National Park Week
  • August 3, 2024: Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
  • September 23, 2024: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11, 2024: Veterans Day

Get in Free with Your Fourth Grader!

For the better part of the last decade, the federal government has run a program (originally known as “Every Kid in a Park” and known now as Every Kid Outdoors) that allows all Fourth Graders to visit national parks for free. To be eligible for this benefit, you need to apply online at and take a printed pass with you on each visit. The pass is good for all children under 16 and up to three adults for free, so the whole family can come along! (Note that if you visit a park that charges vehicle fees, the pass admits all children under 16 and all adults in up to one passenger vehicle.)

Save on Multiple Visits with an Annual Pass

If you don’t have a fourth grader in the family, there is still a way to get into national parks pretty cheaply. The America the Beautiful annual pass costs just $85 and usually covers admission for a whole family for a full year into every national park site and many additional federally-managed lands.

If you are planning to visit even just a couple of larger national parks, or a single large national park and a few smaller local ones, you’ll likely come out ahead with a pass.

(Looking for more information on larger national parks close to San Francisco? See my guide to Northern California National Parks for tips on Yosemite, Sequoia, Lassen, and more.)

Download the NPS App

National Park Service App Screenshots from Fort Point in San Francisco

In 2021, the National Park Service released a brand new smartphone app to serve as an on-the-go-guide to national parks. It’s quite informative and well done, and I highly recommend getting it on your phone before a trip. It includes park hours, admission information, time-sensitive alerts, things to do, suggested tours, and more.

While most NPS sites in the San Francisco Bay Area have plenty of cell coverage, If you plan to visit a national park site that is more remote, you can even download that park’s information locally to your device for access off the grid.

Check Park Hours

Not all San Francisco Bay Area national park sites are open daily, especially the smaller ones. Check opening days and times carefully before planning a visit.

Need more San Francisco Travel Information? Check out these posts:

Did you know that the National Parks Service manages nearly a dozen historical and ecological sites right in the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area? Find out where you can explore National Parks and National Monuments close to home.

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[…] Trips with Tykes: National Parks Sites in the San Francisco Bay Area Perfect for Kids […]

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Friday 4th of March 2016

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Heather Flett

Friday 4th of March 2016

I love this, great list!

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Wednesday 2nd of March 2016

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Leanna Alldonemonkey

Wednesday 2nd of March 2016

Great list! You've got a lot of my favorites on here (like Muir Woods and Point Reyes) but also several I hadn't heard of - I especially want to check out the Rosie the Riveter site!