I was recently sent to the Sacramento area for work, and as I had to fly in Sunday to be at the office first thing Monday, I hopped an early flight that landed around 12:30. It was almost two hours to San Francisco, but I’d never been there before and had always wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge so I went for it even though I wasn’t feeling great when I got off the plane.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
I began my visit in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the large park north of the bridge. I could easily have spent two days there because there’s so much to do. I had an hour. If you have more than just one evening in in town, check out this great local’s guide to San Francisco written by a resident travel blogger!
I started out winding up the scenic road with overlooks offering great views of the bridge, but forced myself to keep going deeper into the Marin Headlands. I wanted to stop at the visitor center there to grab a National Parks passport stamp and some maps.
After considering my options for such a quick visit, I decided to see a couple things nearby and then head back to the bridge overlooks so I could enjoy that view before it got dark. There is an old Nike missile launch site in the park and I tried to visit that, but discovered that it’s only open for tours for a few hours on Saturdays.
Instead, I continued on to the Rodeo Beach parking lot. There were two trails available, and I picked the shorter one that took me to South Rodeo Beach. It was only a couple minutes of reasonably easy walking and opened up to some great views of the Pacific Ocean crashing against rocks along the shore. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I’ve seen dozens of pictures of sunsets behind the rocks off of the northern part of Rodeo Beach online, and I sort of regret not venturing further up. Unfortunately, it started raining that point, and I had to hustle back to the rental car to avoid getting soaked. The hike seemed a lot easier when I was casually walking downhill than it did when I was half-jogging back up.
I continued up the road to the Point Bonita Lighthouse parking area, but I decided to just snap some pictures of the bridge from the overlook there instead of making the walk out to see it. My queendom for more daylight.
Though there were some other tempting places on the map of the park, I decided it was time to head back to see the Golden Gate Bridge up close. I stopped at a couple of the overlooks with parking areas along the way and took some pictures. The two that were closest to the bridge looked like they’d had parking or at least a pull-off area at one point, but those were blocked off with barricades and accessible only to pedestrians walking on the sidewalk. (Recurring theme here) I wished I’d had time to park and really explore the area.
I parked in the lot at the north base of the bridge and found a stairway that led to a path underneath it, and without having any idea where it led, I followed along, listening to the cars rumbling above me as I passed under the lanes of traffic.
After climbing up the stairs on the other side, I emerged into a much busier viewing area that had a better angle to see it from. It was cool to see the bridge straight-on from the end with traffic flowing in both directions. I also got my first view of Alcatraz. I had considered doing a sunset cruise to see “The Rock,” but time would’ve been tight and I would’ve had to pre-purchase my ticket because that departure was almost sold out, so I decided to pass on it for this trip. There was also an entire family posing for a picture while standing on top of the rock wall keeping people away from a pretty significant drop, which reminded me of the old proverb, “The family that tempts natural selection together stays together.” Or is that not a thing?
Golden Gate Bridge
After that, I crossed back under the bridge and hopped in my car for the drive into San Francisco. As you approach from the north, there are electronic signs regarding the cashless toll. Several of them said that the Fast Track pass is required, which concerned me a little as I didn’t have an account. I had checked with a park ranger when I stopped in the visitor center to find out if that meant that I actually had to open an account or if it would just be billed to my license plate if I didn’t have one. I was concerned that I’d get a ticket later on in addition to the toll and rental car company’s service fees if I didn’t have the Fast Track, but she assured me that it worked just like other cashless tolls that I’ve been to in other areas. She also cautioned me to NOT STOP at all because tourists occasionally get rear-ended when they try to stop at the old toll booth that still spans the southbound lanes.
I later found out that I could pay my toll online within 48 hours and avoid the rental car fees. After my first cashless toll experience (I hate toll roads with a passion) on a business trip, I was surprised by a $30 bill from the rental car company three months later that covered about $7 in tolls and $23 in fees. I was thrilled to be able to avoid this on the Golden Gate. The system they use there is fantastic for rental cars because you enter your plate number and the dates and times you’ll have the car there and any crossings that occur during that time are billed to your credit card. It’s great because you can be very specific with the times you enter to avoid paying another customer’s toll if the car you’re driving happens to get rented out again the same day, and you don’t have to worry about the rental company charging you a bunch of fees later on.
I thought it was neat to drive across the bridge, but it’s not worth renting a car or paying the tolls ($7.50 for people who don’t have an account, but you can save a dollar if you register beforehand) if you don’t have any other reason to cross. Still, it’s cool to say that you drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. As an admittedly biased Michigan native, I actually found the drive less spectacular than the Mackinac Bridge (ours is longer, just saying), and even though the Golden Gate is taller, the gratings in the Mighty Mac definitely make it a more intimidating drive.
The visitor center on the south side of the bridge has a much bigger parking area, a large gift shop, and even some cafes. I discovered that it’s apparently the vantage point of most of the iconic bridge pictures that I’ve seen online before. Unfortunately, my visit was hampered by pretty steady rain while I was walking around the area so I didn’t stay as long as I had planned. The gross weather did give me a chance to see a little bit of the famous San Francisco fog though.
There was a neat exhibit showing how the bridge towers were engineered to provide the least amount of tension when holding the roadway up. By pulling on the chains for the three miniature bridges, you could feel that the mid-range one took the least amount of strength to hold it up. The two options with tall and short towers required much more effort to support the bridge.
After picking up a gorgeous puzzle (addict here) in the gift shop, I headed off in search of Fisherman’s Wharf for a much-needed dinner. The drive didn’t take too long, and on this rainy, miserable Superbowl Sunday, finding parking in the area was fairly easy, though decidedly not cheap at $6/hour for a meter. Luckily they take credit cards because I don’t think I’ve ever had $6 worth of quarters in my possession at any point in my life.
I had no idea where I wanted to eat, so I grabbed an umbrella and wandered around for a while. I was almost roped in by a food truck selling custom made ice cream sandwiches, but decided that I wanted somewhere warm, indoors, and serving actual food since even though it was only around 5 local time, my stomach was still on an Eastern time zone eating schedule and my weird travel day hadn’t given me much opportunity to eat anything but junk so far.
During my wanderings, I was excited to catch a glimpse of some of the famous street cars. I was strongly tempted to hop on one for a ride, but I didn’t actually have anywhere to go, and I wasn’t sure how the fares worked.
I eventually found my way to a place called Tugboat Sally’s and ordered some fish and chips and beignets. They had a fairly small menu, but it was exactly what I was looking for. It was fast and cheap, and had a fun, quirky interior. They appeared to have some sort of outdoor seating (by the water?) because an employee was hauling in and stacking chairs while I ate, but I didn’t venture around outside. I should’ve, but I was exhausted by that point and really just wanted to get started on my 1.5 hour drive to the hotel I was staying at.
I wandered through some of the cheesy tourist stores for a little while because I was determined to use up most of the expensive parking I’d paid for and then hit the road. There’s so much to do in this area, from museums to Pier 39 that you could easily spend a whole day down there, but sadly a lot of the cool stuff was closed by the time I made it over.
I made one more regrettable choice along the way – I didn’t stop on Treasure Island on the way across the Bay Bridge. I saw the signs for it, but had no idea what it entailed, or what kind of area it was, so I passed right by. I did some googling later on, and was pretty disappointed in myself. It had mostly stopped raining by that point, so I suspect that I missed some good views, but I’m going to have to visit the city for real someday, so I’ll just add that to the list of things I missed.
There’s only so much you can do in three hours, but I felt like I got a pretty good taste of the city. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I left my heart in San Francisco, but I’ve wanted to see it for as long as I can remember and was thrilled to have even a rushed visit. Because the San Francisco airport is so far outside of the city (Google Maps clocks the trip to Fisherman’s Wharf at 30+ minutes by car or an hour on public transit), you might not be able to do a visit like this on a layover, but if you had an overnight stopover, it’s pretty doable.