WHAT IS IT? Mid-19th-century coastal defense fortification built at the northern tip of San Francisco; the narrowest entry point into San Francisco Harbor. The Fort has not moved but its surroundings have changed dramatically since its construction: it now sits underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
BEAUTY (8/10) It is easy to believe that when built, Fort Point was a stunning and imposing structure. Its approximately 8,000,000 red brick walls make unexpected turns, conforming to the coastline it protects. Graceful arches shape its interior corridors and brick spiral staircases link its three stories.
Nowadays Fort Point plays a near silent second fiddle to its upstairs neighbor, the Golden Gate Bridge. The Fort architectural beauty is an afterthought to the exterior views it provides. But what views they are! Is it possible for a bridge to be more photogenic than the Golden Gate? We do not think so.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10) The land where the Fort stands has played a defensive role since 1769, when the Spanish first arrived in the area. Control of this land has always militarily meant control of San Francisco Harbor.
Fort Point was the only Third Generation Coastal Defense fortification built in the West. Construction began in 1853 and finished just one year later. Fort Point never saw military action. The invention of the rifled cannon and its overpowering use at the 1861 Civil War battle of Fort Pulaski made all the Coastal Defense forts obsolete, Fort Point included. The Fort saw little use from then on.
The initial plans for the Golden Gate Bridge proposed demolition of Fort Point. The Bridge’s Chief Engineer had other plans. He altered the blueprints to include the Fort, effectively merging the architecture of two eras. The Site became a part of the Park System in 1970. Fort Point remains the only West Coast Park site that explores both the Civil War and mid-19th-century military life.
CROWDS (8/10) Surfing in the Pacific Ocean is mildly crazy. Surfing in the shark-infested Pacific shores of the Bay Area is crazier. Surfing underneath the Golden Gate Bridge in the world’s sharkiest waters is insane. The surfers’ eminent danger did not stop us from watching them from our perfect perch atop Fort Point’s outer walls.
The Fort was crowded and everybody looked excited and in an exploring mood, even the two sets of wedding parties posing for that ideal photograph.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5) Fort Point National Historic Site is open only Friday through Sunday from 10 to 5 despite its popularity as a tourist destination. Plan accordingly. We wish the Site could be open every day.
Most of the Site’s visitors seemed to have walked down the hill from the Golden Gate Bridge Gift Center parking lot. It is a short but steep walk but Gift Center lot has ample space. The Gift Center is also a MUNI bus stop for the 28 and 29 lines. The 28 line goes down Lombard Street (site of many of the City’s affordable motels) and into the Marina District.
There is parking nearby at the incredible Warming Hut Gift Store, just a short flat walk to Fort Point. To get there, go west on Mason Street paralleling Crissy Field. A gradual sweeping right turn will take you past a few warehouses and towards the base of the Bridge. Soon you will be at the Warming Hut and a small parking lot.
If you are bold, continue on this narrow road to Fort Point NHS. There is no advertised parking lot, but there were available spots there. The cars next to Fort Point NHS belonged primarily to surfers. Tourists and visitors do not seem to know that you can park here.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5) This terrific bookstore stocks a quirky selection of Fort Point-related titles.
Footsteps in the Fog: the San Francisco found in Alfred Hitchcock’s films. You might know Fort Point as the place in Vertigo where Jimmy Stewart saved Kim Novak from a suicidal drowning attempt after she jumped into the Bay.
Artillery at the Golden Gate examines the areas role during WWII. Fort Point was the location where the U.S. Army dropped an anti-submarine net and innumerable mines in an attempt to protect the Bay from a naval attack.
And what is the Autobiography of Kit Carson doing here? Well, the famed Rocky Mountain pioneer was a member of the 1846 raiding party that attacked the Spanish fort located here before Fort Point’s construction.
The bookstore sells many attractive Golden Gate Bridge photos and posters. We especially liked the Golden Gate Bridge blueprint posters. The store also sells a wide array of Civil War-related books and paraphernalia. The store fits a quality grouping of books and gifts in its relatively smallish space.
COSTS (5/5) Entry is free.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5) We were pleasantly surprised at Fort Point NHS by two roaming Rangers and one costumed interpreter. We were not expecting much because we had seen no Rangers at any of the 20+ other Golden Gate NRA sites. The strong Ranger presence only slightly makes up for the weekend-only hours.
TOURS/CLASSES (7/10) The Site offers a plentiful amount of educational opportunities. Multiple self-guided rooms recounting the day-to-day life of a 19th-century soldier. One film recounts the history of Fort Point while another tells the Golden Gate Bridge construction story.
On the day of our visit, free Ranger-led tours began at 11 and 3. They were also gratis cannon demonstrations at noon and 2:30. Free guided tours in one of America’s most expensive cities, what a great deal.
FUN (6/10) Forts are fun. Yeah, we said it. Is touring Fort Point NHS as fun as hanging out at the nearby Golden Gate NRA beach, picnicking on the adjacent lawn, surfing under the Bridge or walking across the grand span? That depends on who you are.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10) Every fort we visit exceeds expectations. Fort Point is no exception. The graceful and daunting interior belies the outside’s bland brick warehouse feel. The real draw of the Site, however, is the unparalleled views of the Golden Gate Bridge. You get right underneath the grand red span. Right underneath! Once the seismic retrofitting finishes, the views will return to their past magnificence.
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