San Francisco’s hottest new attraction is at the top of a highway

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They say the youth is wasting on the young, but what about a playground with a view? After all, that’s what the youngsters of San Francisco got at the newest major addition to a national park – Presidio Tunnel Tops. Now, every day, hundreds of kids will be scrambling, running, falling and splashing with the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in fog as a backdrop.

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I was in San Francisco for the first time since the pandemic to see a lot of old and new stuff. My house was one of the city’s most storied properties, the former Francis Drake Hotel, now called the Beacon Grand after a facelift. It’s fair to say that many of you have probably stayed here at least once over the years, probably with family as I did two decades ago. (Listing decades makes you feel really old, wow.) Since opening in 1928 in Union Square, it’s been one of the city’s most prominent Art Deco skyscrapers. But by the 2010s it was a little worse for wear and by the end of the decade the decor was decidedly outdated. The new owner has refreshed the rooms – single glazing has been replaced, lighter colors, bathrooms with period accents – and revamped the dramatic lobby by moving the bar to the mezzanine. If all goes according to plan, the iconic Starlight Lounge will be back in a year or so.

The view over the playground.

Presidio Trust

That you can go from the Union Square area, your bustling city center, and drive or bike about three miles to a place like the Presidio, while staying in the same city, requires a suspension of disbelief. The park consists of more than 1,400 hectares of eucalyptus forest, fields and dunes that overlook the bay and the bridge forms this park. This part of San Francisco, right on the tip of the peninsula from which the Golden Gate Bridge rises, is where the Spanish once built a military outpost (just a few months after the Eastern Colonies declared their independence from England). This area remained a military base under Spain, then Mexico, and finally the US until it was closed at the end of the 20th century. In the 1990s and 2000s, former barracks were converted into rental housing, museums and hotels; and industrial spaces were repurposed for breweries and activities such as rock climbing. There is a golf course and a bowling alley serving beer and burgers. Miles and miles of trails through the woods and along the misty cliffs opened up, creating one of the largest parks in any city anywhere. Installations by artists such as Andy Goldsworthy provided a touch of whimsy.

But there was one big mistake. The highway that took people to the Golden Gate Bridge cut through the park, cutting off the upper parts of the coast below. After years and years of planning and fundraising (the project cost $118 million), a design by James Corner Field Operations, the team behind the High Line, has finally been realized.

That plan involved re-routing the highway into a series of sleek new tunnels and, on top of that, the construction of a series of terraces connecting the Main Parade Lawn to Crissey Marsh, the Bay Trail and the beach. About 200,000 plants were added during construction, and although they are drought-resistant varieties, so little rain has fallen this summer that it’s still hard to imagine what the space will look like when everything is full.

That aside, there was already enough new park material to see and experience. A campfire circle has been added just behind the visitor center, making the space feel like a veritable national park. Opposite, with the rest of the park sloping into swamp and then Angel Island in the distance, it feels like a national park. Plus, there’s actually a campground in the Presidio itself. If you face the water, on your right you will see the Transit Center and Picnic Place where a number of public grills have been placed. The Presidio Trust has spent a lot of time working on ways to get all of San Francisco to want to use this park, and talking to different constituencies meant not only public transportation options, but amenities like grills.

Then there are a series of grassy lawns and views – the first scans across the skyline to the dome of the Palace of the Arts to Alcatraz to Angel Island. On one of the lawns are benches made of cypress that fell into the Presidio.

Then it’s a terraced slope that will eventually be an amphitheater-like thing with springy grass for you to stretch out on (possibly: now trimmed, the lawn currently looks more like an early chia pet). Below that is the playground, which leans on the theories of risky play good for children with wooden palisades to climb on and a giant felled tree with shaved limbs sticking out. Bonus for parents of toddlers: there is a section with water pumps and drinking troughs. For parents who want to look up from their phones, it’s a playground with arguably the best view in the world.

The top half of the Tunnel Tops area is kind of structured and play oriented. The area below the playground with the restored wetlands and trails winding through the dunes is rugged and loose, adding again to the sense of wonder that such a thing is in a big city.

My typical visit to San Francisco includes the classic urban activities – restaurants, museums, architecture walks, etc. Next time I think I’ll grab a bike and fill a backpack with picnic gear to cruise around here and plop down for a scenic lunch.

And I’m clearly not the only one. It was the middle of the day in the middle of the week and the park was busy. Friends in town told me it’s already packed on weekends.

In cities, so much of the last twenty or so years has been about undoing the 50 years before that, of rejoining communities and giving people access to the natural wonders we’ve often paved. The new Presidio Tunnel Tops are a great notch on that belt..

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