When most Northern Californians think of National Parks, Yosemite looms large. Perhaps Lassen, Sequoia and Kings Canyon come to mind for the more outdoor-minded.
What so many 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 which are in urban or suburban areas. For Bay Area locals (and visitors alike!), there’s no need to drive far – or even drive at all – to visit one of these attractions. These destinations are all perfect for a staycation for locals. So many of them offer an educational and fun adventure for kids.
The year 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the National Parks in the United States of America, so this is the perfect year to visit, particularly if you haven’t explored many of the nation’s treasures with your kids. Here’s a quick overview of all the National Parks managed sites within the Bay Area. Keep reading for tips for making the most of a visit to a NPS park or monument as well as saving money along the way.
National Parks Managed Sites in the San Francisco Bay Area
1. Alcatraz Island (San Francisco)
The country’s most famous former prison needs no introduction! The Rock is an excellent outing for kids ages 5 or 6 and up. Be sure to make advance reservations for a seat aboard the ferry to get you to Alcatraz, as those tickets go fast during the high seasons and weekends.
2. San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park
Located at one end of Fisherman’s Wharf, the San Francisco Maritime park houses 8 historic ships that will delight sea-loving kids. It makes my list as one of the top places to play pirate with kids in the Bay Area and works well for toddlers and younger kids.
3. Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site (Danville)
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 and you are shuttled to the home from downtown Danville, so plan ahead for logistics.
4. Fort Point National Historic Site (San Francisco)
Located in the Presidio in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, this is the strategic position used to defend historic San Francisco in the years after the Gold Rush. There are tours and exhibits featuring both military history as well as the history of the Golden Gate Bridge, so there are a lot of options depending on the ages and interests of your kids.
5. Golden Gate National Recreation Area (San Francisco)
Golden Gate National Recreation Area is the term used to describe multiple National Parks areas in the San Francisco Bay Area, including Alcatraz Island, Muir Woods, Fort Point, the Presidio, and the Marin Headlands. There’s so much to do within this area that you might need a few days! Get some ideas of the range of offerings here.
6. John Muir National Historic Site (Martinez)
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 Victorian home near Martinez. It’s small enough that it is a viable outing with younger kids. You can tour the home and hike the grounds or even pack a picnic.
7. Muir Woods National Monument (Mill Valley)
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. The monument is exceptionally popular on weekends and has limited parking, so arrive early to beat crowds. Plan for 1-2 hours with younger kids.
8. Point Reyes National Seashore (Marin County)
Point Reyes is one of the nation’s most gorgeous stretch of beaches. Located north of Stinson Beach along Highway 1, hike seashore trails with your kids, watch for whales, or visit the historic lighthouse. This is another one of the NPS sites that may take more than just a single day to explore.
9. Presidio of San Francisco
One of the several sites within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Presidio protects the historic army buildings near the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge.
10. Rosie the Riveter WWII Homefront National Historical Park (Richmond)
One of the newer National Park sites (founded in 2000), this site in Richmond is an excellent educational outing for kids beginning to study World War II history. The museum collection focuses on the effect of the war on the homefront and can be done in under an hour for a short outing with kids.
Tips for Visiting National Parks Sites in the Bay Area with Kids
Ready to plan a National Parks excursion with kids? Here are some tips for making the most of your visit to National Parks run destinations.
- Junior Ranger Program: Most (but not all) sites run by the National Park Service 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. Complete it and get a badge and certificate to take home as a souvenir.
- Free Days in 2016: To entice more visitors into the parks, the park service is offering a special 16 free days in 2016 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 this year!
- Free for Fourth Graders: Last year, the federal government announced a new initiative “Every Kid in a Park” (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 EveryKidOutdoors.gov and take an official 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.)
For more California staycation ideas with kids, don’t miss these other posts.