Think you’ve seen all of San Francisco? Think again! The just-opened Presidio Tunnel Tops adds an amazing new asset to the city’s visitor- and local-friendly lineup.
San Francisco’s newest park – the 14-acre Presidio Tunnel Tops – opened to the public on July 17, 2022. New national park land, built over the tops of the Presidio Parkway tunnels, adds a novel outdoor attraction to the city’s already impressive lineup of landmarks. Visitors and locals are already discovering the Tunnel Tops’ scenic green spaces for recreation and the restorative power of nature. The new park is packed with kid-friendly play areas, nature-rich spaces, enticing amenities and some of the best bayfront and Golden Gate Bridge views in the entire city. If you think you’ve seen all the attractions of San Francisco, think again! It’s time to plan your next visit, and put the Presidio Tunnel Tops at the top of your itinerary.
The Story Behind San Francisco’s Tunnel Tops Park
The opening of the Presidio Tunnel Tops is an event decades in the making. The park project launched in 2014, although its origins go back to 1993 when the city recognized the need to replace Doyle Drive. This seismically unsafe eyesore previously linked San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge and also cut the Presidio in half. A massive feat of engineering put the new Presidio Parkway section of Highway 101 under concrete tunnels, which also presented the opportunity to build something on top of those tunnels. Something nice? Perhaps a park?
Eight years of fundraising, planning and collaboration between the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the Presidio Trust and National Park Service went into the Presidio Tunnel Tops project. Complicating matters, the Presidio is a historic landmark district (older than the USA, in fact), and is financially self-sufficient. The conservancy was able to raise over $98 million of the $118 million total cost of the new park.
The Partnership for the Presidio sought and emphasized community input, making it essential for the Tunnel Tops to be a park for everyone to visit to connect with nature, history and culture in this unique location. Community organizations, health experts, activists and artists have all been involved in the planning process. The acclaimed landscape architects of James Corner Field Operations, the firm behind the celebrated High Line in New York City and experts in boosting ecology within urban spaces, are credited as the design partner.
It’s impossible to overstate what a remarkable achievement the Presidio Tunnel Tops represents. Where a noisy, smoggy highway once cut through the land, bisecting the Presidio and cutting off its natural connection to the bay, there is now a beautiful, inviting park regenerating the landscape. It’s a peaceful haven in the midst of the vibrant, bustling city, and has brought new energy to the already distinguished Presidio. Locals can feel very proud of San Francisco’s newest national park, and for tourists the Presidio Tunnel Tops have sprung to the No. 1 spot on every must-see list.
An Overview of the Tunnel Tops
The Presidio Tunnel Tops sit above the concrete tunnels over Highway 101, yet the freeway itself is barely visible nor audible throughout most of the park’s 14 acres. The new park seamlessly connects the Presidio’s Main Post section to the Crissy Field waterfront area, a popular destination with beaches, a waterfront promenade and wildlife-rich marshlands.
The Tunnel Tops appears as a series of terraces and slopes, gently winding down toward the bay and offering unobtrusive amenities between planting zones. Almost 2 miles of paths keep visitors off the landscaping, which comprises some 200,000 plants. Around half of the plant species in the park are native to the Presidio, and all are drought-tolerant species that thrive in the unique microclimate. They also include species that support pollinators and wildlife. At this time the landscaping might look a little sparse, but in just a few seasons it will grow more densely and resemble the dune and coastal scrub of the native landscape.
Incredible Views from Every Single Spot
San Francisco has no shortage of outstanding viewpoints, but the Presidio Tunnel Tops blows away the competition with its wide-open panoramas. From every spot in the park you can admire the full, glorious span of the Golden Gate Bridge (fog allowing), along with Alcatraz, Angel Island and the grand dome of the Palace of Fine Arts. It’s a living seascape, with horizontal bands of colors and varied translucence that shift under San Francisco’s fickle fog and peek-a-boo sun.
The park’s layout naturally focuses on those bay views. Benches crafted of fallen cypress trees from the Presidio woodlands all face the bay. Choose from one-sided picnic benches (everyone gets a seat with view) or organic wave-like seats, smooth, warm and as ergonomic as they are aesthetically pleasing. If you can take your eyes off the view, the park is also prime for people-watching, especially on a summer weekend when the picnickers, dog-walkers, kite-fliers and tire-out-the-kids-ers claim spots on the lawns. Bright red stools fashioned like oversized spinning tops combine seating with play, as popular with adults as they are with kids.
Places to Play at the Presidio Tunnel Tops
Taking in the views from the Presidio Tunnel Tops is a wonderful way to spend a few hours, but the park has a great lineup of more active attractions, too. They include:
- Outpost: A 2-acre playground constructed from all natural materials and inspired by the nature and history of the Presidio. Distinct zones are connected by winding paths, and include tunnels, climbing structures, classic slides, an unusual log swing, art area, science area and water play area. The layout encourages exploration to build self-confidence, and increases in challenge from east to west.
- Field Station: Open Tuesdays through Sundays, the free, cabin-like facility welcomes all ages to come and explore the natural and cultural world of the Presidio. Kids can learn about science, do art projects and study maps, slides and ecological artifacts from the park.
- Cliff Walk: The pleasant promenade follows the edge of the bluff, 30 feet above the bay and Crissy Field. It features three overlooks: Bay Overlook facing Alcatraz, Crossroads Overlook with views of Angel Island, and Veterans Overlook where you can take in the Golden Gate Bridge and the National Cemetery.
- Campfire Circle: With seating for up to 75 around a central firepit, this cozy site hosts ranger-led campfire talks.
- Picnic areas: Community tables under shady trees include reservable sites with barbecue grills plus access to nearby food services.
More Amenities at the Presidio Tunnel Tops
One of the most attractive additions to the Presidio Tunnel Tops is the Presidio Pop Up pilot program, which invites mobile food vendors to the park every day. The roster of vendors reflects the diverse cultures and cuisines of the Bay Area. Look up the daily schedule of delicious eats here. Two brick and mortar restaurants are also set to open at the park, including one at the Transit Center.
The Transit Center is served by the free Presidio Go Shuttle, which offers daily connections to Embarcadero BART, Van Ness/Union Street and Transbay Terminal. The center is also served by Muni 43 and 30 routes, making it easy to get to and from the park via public transit. Paid parking at the Presidio is also available. A couple of Presidio-based rental companies offer bike rentals, which is a great way to explore the wider area.
Explore the Rest of the Presidio
There’s a lot more to see at the Presidio, with the Tunnel Tops adding to a list of existing attractions. There’s a bowling alley, urban hiking trails, beaches, scenic drives, the National Cemetery, and the Disney Family Museum, among others. You can also stay in one of two hotels: the Inn at the Presidio and the Lodge at the Presidio, both historic structures converted into luxury properties.
Stop in at the Presidio Visitor Center, which is open daily, to consult a park ranger, pick up an illustrated map of the park and adventure checklist, and get that national park stamp for your collection.
Visit www.presidiotunneltops.gov for more information and the latest schedule of events.