Archive for June, 2005

Martinez, Calif.
Visited: June 19, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 207 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Inner GlowWHAT IS IT?
Home and fruit ranch, from 1890 to 1914, of John Muir, our country’s greatest conservationist and advocate for the beauty and necessity of wild, public lands.

BEAUTY (4/10)
John Muir would probably not recognize his former ranch and abode. His 2,700 acres have dwindled to 8½. His home’s rural California surroundings have morphed into an industrial and population center. The quiet serenity he enjoyed writing in his second floor “scribble den” would now be impossible because an 8-lane freeway now passes within yards of the room’s windows. Had the situation been the same in the 1900’s, John Muir probably would have moved.

The ranch’s grounds provide a welcome respite from the asphalt visuals. Sadly, the roar of automobiles never ceases. The wooden windmill and verdant orchards speak of a different time. There are trees bearing almonds, pears, oranges, apricots, figs and pomegranates. There are true Cedars and Eucalyptuses growing far from their native soil. A proud Sequoia rises just steps from the house. John Muir planted the seeds of the gentle giant in the 1890’s. His hand touched much of the botanical life that remains.

John Muir lived in this Victorian house for the last 24 years of his life. Reproductions of Thomas Hill and William Keith paintings of the places he helped preserve decorate every room. Even inside his home, John Muir surrounded himself with reminders of nature.

Much of John Muir’s writing originated from what he called his “scribble den.” Muir’s prose encouraged Americans to acquaint themselves with nature and conserve what American wilderness remained. Early meetings of the Sierra Club, the conservation organization co-founded by Muir, were held in his house. Exhibits in the attic chronicle the conservation movement in the United States.

John Muir’s Scribble DeskCROWDS (6/10)
We encountered a few other couples as we wandered the house and the orchard. The parking lot was surprisingly sparse for a weekend afternoon.

The John Muir House is located near the East Bay town of Martinez, just a stone’s throw from California Route 4 a/k/a the John Muir Parkway. Take Exit 9, go north and take the first left. If you blink, you might miss the Site. The House is within 40 miles of Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley and the Muir Woods.

The Site’s bookstore carries over 70 books, videos and children’s books by and/or about John Muir. It does not carry much else. John Muir’s mission did not die in 1914. He was the father of the American environmental movement. We would have enjoyed a few books about the modern-day John Muirs, the National Park System, and the specific Parks that John Muir helped to create.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $3 per person, free with the National Parks Pass. Your fee also includes admission (for a week’s span) into the Muir Woods NM located almost 40 miles to southwest near Mill Valley in Marin County.

One Ranger in the Visitor Center; one volunteer at the house. There were so few visitors that two staff should have been sufficient. However, the Ranger was occupied with a student conducting an interview and the volunteer was focused on her cross-stitch. Neither were particularly helpful.

We arrived in time for a 2 p.m. tour of the house, but the Ranger never appeared. It seems we weren’t clear enough when we said we’d be interested in the 2 p.m. tour.

No matter. The 14-page booklet, available for a $1 at the VC, provided plenty of information as we gave ourselves a self-guided walk around the Site.

Gab Misses Her FlowersFUN (4/10)
Our time at the Site was uneventful but not unpleasant. We strolled through the orchard trying to name the trees and fruit blossoms before our pamphlet told us their true identities. We walked through the house in silent admiration of the man who had done so much for what is now the National Park Service. We rang the bell in the bell tower (the volunteer said we could.) Gab was thrilled to see that the plants in John Muir’s sunroom were the same kinds that used to decorate our old apartment. Michael didn’t have the heart to tell her they were probably placed there post-Muir.

But the freeway is constantly in your line of vision and buzzing in your ears. The home of someone who so loved and promoted the serenity afforded by nature is now in the shadow of concrete and steel. This is both a cruel irony and an effective reminder that the struggle to protect our natural resources and places of beauty is not over. John Muir’s advocacy and the creation of the National Parks was the beginning, not the end.

If you are not familiar with the conservation work and the writings of John Muir, little will be gained by visiting this Site. Go instead to Muir Woods NM or the John Muir Wilderness Area and immerse yourself in the natural beauty he helped preserve and protect.

TOTAL 42/80


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Part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area
San Francisco, Calif.
Visited: June 18, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 206 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

On Top of Fort PointWHAT 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.

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.

Crazy Surfers Under the Bridge
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Fort Point and Neighbor
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.

TOTAL 55/80

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near Concord, Calif.
Visited: June 18, 2005
NPS Site Visited: Not an Official Site
NPS Affiliate Site Visited: 10 of 26
NPS Website

Ghost Pier at Port ChicagoWHAT IS IT?
Site of a July 17, 1944 ammunitions explosion that blew up two ships parked side-by-side on a loading pier and killed over 300 men. Port Chicago was the largest stateside disaster during World War II. Over 200 of those killed were enlisted African American seaman, 15% of all WWII African American deaths.

BEAUTY (4/10)
The Memorial consists of a small granite block commemorating the dedication. The names of those who died are etched in four table-top granite plaques that look out onto the remnants of the destroyed pier in the Carquinez Strait. You are looking out onto a watery graveyard. It is a chilling site. A mangled piece of metal sits near the plaques unmarked. The Ranger told us that it is a piece of one of the detonated ships. We are sure it has some stories to tell.

Many factors led to the incredible tragedy of Port Chicago: a segregated military force, no training for ammunition loaders, the loaded ammunition was live and two ships were loaded simultaneously side-by-side. The Navy addressed all these problems within years of the explosion largely because of the lessons learned at Port Chicago.

However, Port Chicago’s pull on our American psyche does not end there. The Port Chicago disaster holds great historic significance because it has been effectively erased from our collective national memory. It is not a story we repeat about our greatest generation.

The African Americans at Port Chicago had enlisted in the Navy with the understanding that they would be fighting overseas. Instead, the Navy sent them to Concord, California to load live ammunition.

Immediately following the disaster, other African American regiments spent the next weeks cleaning up the destruction, taking in the loss of their fellow seamen. The devastation caused by 5,000 tons of explosion was removed in just three weeks. At that point, the seamen were ordered to begin loading ammunition again, in the same way and in the same place where their fellow seamen had fallen.

Three divisions, 328 men, agreed to keep working but refused to load the dangerous ammunition. They were all taken into custody, 258 of them imprisoned on a floating barge and charged with mutiny. The threat of firing squad dwindled the number of resisters to 50.

The Court Martial began in September of 1944, the judgment coming soon after: dishonorable discharge and 8 to 15 years in jail. Future Supreme Court Justice and then NAACP attorney, Thurgood Marshall, watched the trial and was disturbed by its “obvious racism”. He argued for the seaman’s benefit before public officials and for the press. President Truman agreed and released the men once the War ended. The Court Martial and the explosion are often cited as the reason Truman desegregated the military in 1948.

The Navy has never taken responsibility for the disaster. They have always blamed the soldiers. Racism sears through their argument. The families of the fallen African American seamen have never been compensated. In contrast, the Navy immediately compensated the families of white Officers who died in the blast.

The memorial to the fallen seamen took 50 years to build. The remembrance saw the light of day only because of the tireless ten-year lobbying of a local Congressman and a president with a sympathetic ear. Five years after the memorial’s dedication, in 1999, President Clinton pardoned the 50 mutineers. Only one of the soldiers accepted the pardon, the others still believe they had done nothing wrong.

CROWDS (8/10)
The high security atmosphere of a working military base prevents you from driving to the Memorial. Instead, you drive to the base’s entrance, a Park Ranger picks you up in a minivan and drives you to the explosion site. We toured the Site with a retired African American man, his wife and daughter. He had served in the Navy. He was very familiar with the Port Chicago explosion. He and his family added a perspective and understanding to our visit that we would not have had without them.

An unexpected participant in our visit was an on-duty federal police officer. He trailed the NPS minivan in an SUV and watched us closely during our entire stay. We followed the NPS Ranger’s rules and kept our camera focused on only the Memorial.

<50 Years in the MakingEASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
Port Chicago N MEM is located on the still-active Concord Naval Weapons Station. Access is very limited. You must arrange your visit ahead of time with a National Parks Service Ranger. The phone number is (925) 838-0249. Tours are available Wednesday through Saturday. In addition, no civilians are allowed on the base while the Weapons Station is handling live ammunition. Our request took three weeks to process (because of live ammo) and we knew our tour was OKed only a day prior to our visit.

Parts of the base have been included on the most recent base closure list. Contrary to most communities, Concord is eager for the base to close; they want the prime real estate developed. Accessing the Memorial will be much easier once the base closes.

The Site has no bookstore.

COSTS (5/5)
Port Chicago N MEM must be visited via a guided Ranger tour. Both the tour and entry are free.

One wonderful and tireless woman is the only Ranger that gives the mandatory tours at both Port Chicago N MEM and the Eugene O’Neill Tao House. She is it at both places. Nonetheless, five tourists to one Ranger was not a bad ratio.

Our Ranger-led tour was terrific, just as educational, thought provoking, and in-depth as an intensive graduate school level class. Our Ranger Tour Guide had a tangible passion to teach about the events at Port Chicago. She brought additional reading materials, pictures and histories into the minivan for us to peruse post-tour. Her tour illuminated an episode in American history that we knew nothing about despite not having what most Park sites enjoy: a Museum or even an official Parks Pamphlet.

FUN (5/10)
Port Chicago N MEM offers no easy answers. Questions of racism, mutiny during wartime, segregation and the Navy’s indifference are hard to address and fully comprehend when you are staring at a place where hundreds died. It is even harder to discern any truths because the Port Chicago explosion is such an unknown historical event. Our visit was not fun but it was very effective at stirring other emotions. We were disturbed, moved, angered, sympathetic and confused.

The only definitive conclusion we came to was that it should have never taken 50 years for the United States to memorialize the brave 300+ seamen who gave their lives to our country at Port Chicago.

Visiting the Port Chicago N MEM is difficult logistically and emotionally, but the men who died here should not remain forgotten. If you live nearby, a weekend visit makes for a powerful educational experience and is recommended.

TOTAL 46/80

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Danville, Calif.
Visited: June 17, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 204 of 353
NPS Website

Aaaaaaah!WHAT IS IT?
Home where Eugene O’Neill, our country’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright, wrote his last six plays which included Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh.

BEAUTY (5/10)
Eugene O’Neill and his third wife, Carlotta, designed their house in accordance to both Taoist principles and their own personal fancies. The O’Neill’s so-called Tao House is more interesting than beautiful.

Taoist influences include outdoor paths and indoor hallways that turn sharply at right angles. There are false doors, protruding walls and colored mirrors, all designed to keep the bad spirits outside. Some personal touches include recessed windows, spine-tingling masks and dormitory-like white brick walls. It is hard to remove Eugene O’Neill’s soul grabbing black mirror and his frightening devil masks from our consciousness.

The Tao House sits atop the East Bay hills overlooking the San Ramon Valley. The House’s grounds offer beautiful views of Mount Diablo, the area’s highest point.

Eugene O’Neill is undoubtedly America’s greatest playwright but his plays were much more personal than political. His focus was his own inner demons. The tour goes into great depth about O’Neill’s troubling past and fails to analyze his plays and their impact.

CROWDS (8/10)
There are no casual walk-in tourists at the Eugene O’Neill NHS. The mandatory advanced reservations stop that. Instead, everybody on the tour has some sort of interest in Eugene O’Neill. One woman on our tour had been to O’Neill’s house in Connecticut. Her personal knowledge of the playwright enhanced our experience.

O’Neill’s Tao House is located in the Oakland Hills very close to the quaint town of Danville. You cannot drive to the site because it is located within a gated community. As a result, you must arrange your visit ahead of time. The phone number is (925) 838-0249.

A Ranger leads tours of the house twice daily. Meet at the Danville Park and Ride, located just off the I-680 Sycamore Valley Exit, and pile into the NPS minivan. The Ranger chauffeurs you through Danville and up to the House. There are no tours on Monday and Tuesday. Tours fill up; plan accordingly.

Good but not great. Copies of all O’Neill’s plays are for sale as are a few DVD’s and videotapes of his plays’ performances. We wish the bookstore carried plays and/or books written by his contemporaries. We felt lost in a literary sense during our entire stay because of the tour’s emphasis on O’Neill’s life. A more comprehensive bookstore would have helped us place O’Neill among his peers.

Here the Demons Will Be Confused
COSTS (5/5)
Eugene O’Neill Tao House must be visited via a guided Ranger tour. Both the tour and entry are free.

The same tireless spitfire of a Ranger does both the Eugene O’Neill NHS and Port Chicago Naval Magazine N MEM tours. She is amazing and seems to be the only Ranger on educational staff at both sites. Because the tours’ numbers are limited, she is able to avoid being completely overwhelmed.

First, we must embarrassedly confess to never having read an O’Neill play. Before our visit to this Site, our perception of O’Neill was limited to the fact that he had won a Nobel Prize and colored by Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of him in Reds.

NPS assumes, and not unjustly, that if you have gone through the trouble of securing reservations, getting yourself to a Park and Ride lot and allow yourself to be shuffled into a shuttle van that you have at least a cursory knowledge of the man whose home you are about to visit for the next two hours.

By the time the O’Neills built and moved into the Tao House, 35 of Eugene’s plays had been published; three Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize had been won, O’Neill’s greatness as a literary figure well-established. This is the starting point of the tour.

We wandered the gardens and toured each room of the house, learning a little more about O’Neill’s parents, his relationship with Carlotta, his children and his vices with each step. Touring the Tao House gives you an introspective look at the man behind the pen in the setting where he wrote his five most famous and autobiographical works. We learned a lot; we would have learned more had we done a little homework before the tour.

Since Michael occupied the front seat in the van, he used the ten-minute ride both to and from the site to fill in some blanks. Why have O’Neill’s plays declined in popularity over the years? “Well, it’s not fun stuff. Nobody really wants to be depressed, do they?” was the Ranger’s frank response.

Where The Iceman was WrotethFUN (6/10)
Two of O’Neill’s sons committed suicide. He disowned his only daughter because she married an actor, namely Charlie Chaplin. He suffered from a laundry list of unrelated but serious illnesses. One of these, a rare degenerative disease similar to Parkinson’s disease disabled him from the physical act of writing. O’Neill, being an impossibly stubborn man, refused to write at all once he could no longer transfer his words from “head to hand to paper”. He produced nothing in the last ten years of his life. Not exactly fun stuff.

What was fun was the chauffeured drive through a lovely town and up the hills into a gated community, a guided tour of a quirky house whose inhabitants interpreted Tao philosophy to suit their decorative needs and the opportunity to see the writing space and into the psyche of one of America’s greatest artists. Did we mention it was free?

Are you interested in the life of Eugene O’Neill? If you are not, then a tour of his house might not be a day well spent. If you are an admirer, then you owe yourself a visit.

TOTAL 50/80

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Part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area
near Mill Valley, Calif.
Visited: June 8, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 203 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Looking UpWHAT IS IT?
One of the Bay Area’s last remaining ancient redwood groves. These spectacular towering trees were saved from logging interests in 1905 by a local businessman and named in honor of famed conservationist, John Muir.

BEAUTY (8/10)
Walking among the redwoods always astounds. The height defies your life’s knowledge. Trees cannot possibly be this tall, can they? You stare upward, mouth agape, for minutes on end. They have you under their calming spell. The redwoods are so tall and so large that they wholly change the world around them.

The temperature is at least 10 degrees colder; there is no sun. The yellow scrub California hills are transformed in lush Edens. Clovers and ferns line the surface. Yellow banana slugs creep slowly on the trees. The only colors are greens and browns. The blues have disappeared. Every so often rays of sunlight stream through the branches at 45-degree angle, reminding you that an exterior world exists.

Muir Woods became a National Monument in 1908, by Theodore Roosevelt’s proclamation. Its ancient trees had seen a pre-Columbian America but were threatened by civilization’s progress. Congressman William Kent purchased these sacred 295 acres and donated them to the federal government. With hope, future generations will be able bask in these great trees’ wonder.

Teddy’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt also loved these redwoods. In 1945, just after WWII, he requested that the members of the newly formed United Nations meet at Muir Woods and learn from the trees, which he called a “temple of peace”. He wanted the delegates to “gain a perspective and sense of time that could be obtained nowhere in America better than in such a forest.”

FDR died before the UN meeting took place but the International delegates refused to let his idea die. They met in Muir Woods’ Cathedral Grove, dedicating a plaque to FDR’s legacy and honoring his “vision, foresight and determination”.

Fields of GreenCROWDS (5/10)
Get here early in the morning or late in the afternoon if you want a parking spot and, regardless of time, expect to walk the early sections of the loop trail with hundreds of other tourists. Do not get discouraged. Once you reach Bridge 3 (about a ½ mile in) the crowds dramatically begin to thin out. The tourist buses slot a 45-minute visit, so most of the tourists cannot take the full loop into the Cathedral Grove. If you have the time, keep going. You will be rewarded with solitude and time for silent introspection among an idyllic surrounding.

The Muir Woods NM is located in southern Marin County, just a 12 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Approach the Site from U.S. Highway 101.

Click here for what the Park’s website calls “The Most Simple Directions”

They may sound confusing but do not worry. There are many signs that point you in the correct direction. Be aware, the parking lot tends to get very full. We arrived at 9:00 a.m. on a rainy Wednesday morning. The lot was full by 11:00 a.m. A great portion of Site visitors arrived on small tour buses on day trips from San Francisco.

On the weekends, a free shuttle bus runs to the Site from the Marin City Gateway Shopping Center and the Manzanita Park and Ride, both of which are located near Highway 101.

The redwood grove itself is quite accessible. A 2½-mile paved loop trail (mostly boardwalk) meanders alongside the Redwood Creek and underneath the Park’s gentle giants.

The Muir Woods NM’s small size dictates a focused bookstore with a limited number of titles. Sections are devoted to John Muir, the Redwoods, Muir Woods, Muir Beach and Native Americans. The stylish Muir Woods logo finds its way onto T-shirts, sweatshirts, ball caps, framed post-cards and coffee mug. We thought the six-foot tall Redwood Tree Growth Chart was cute.

Big TreesCOSTS (3/5)
Entry is $3 per person, free with the National Parks Pass.

Thousands of visitors and no Rangers.

None during our visit. There is only one naturalist walk a week, no introductory video and no Museum. 1,000,000 people visit this Site every year; why are there so few educational opportunities?

FUN (8/10)
A constant drizzle and skies white with mist and fog transformed Muir Woods NM into a mysterious otherworld, a tropical rainforest sitting high above and seemingly far away from the cities below.

One might expect visitors’ spirits to be dampened as they watch their day of sightseeing get washed out. Not so. A few ponchos were purchased, umbrellas were shared and people plunged into the darker shaded forest to continue their pilgrimage.

Getting caught in the rain seems to open up people’s inhibitions, allowing them to smile and laugh at their soggy selves. We shared a lot of knowing grins with others as we all tried to capture the beautiful redwoods on film while getting the least amount of raindrops on our cameras.

Sites like these, catered to large crowds with minimal time, trying to give the most bang for the touring buck, offer a very different experience. The traditional idea, at least ours, of a National Park brings to mind camping, hiking and immersing oneself in nature over the course of a few days. Muir Woods NM makes this immersion possible for everyone. It just takes 45 minutes here to see some wonderful stuff.

Lush Muir WoodsWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
If you are traveling to the San Francisco area, you probably want to see a grove of ancient redwood trees. The Muir Woods NM is your easiest opportunity. Pockets of redwoods sprout up and down the California coast, but none are as close to San Francisco as the Muir Woods NM.

Even though the Park has only six miles of trails, most of which are boardwalked or paved, both the hardcore hiker and environmental purist are bound to be won over by this heavily traveled but endearing tree-lover’s monument. Muir Woods NM is not an escape from the City or society, in fact, it exists for the urban denizens as a reminder of nature’s strong and fragile beauty.

The Muir Woods speak to the healing power of self-reflection, silence and solitude. It beckons the visitor to continue their outdoor journey. Keep searching. This Park is just the beginning.

TOTAL 47/80

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San Francisco, Calif.
Visited: June 6, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 202 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website; Bookstore Website

Cap’n Gab WHAT IS IT?
Two museums and six restored historic ships representative of San Francisco’s rich sailing history. The Site’s ships are docked along Hyde Street Pier, located near the heart of the City’s famous Fisherman’s Wharf.

BEAUTY (6/10)
Hyde Street Pier is lined on either side with ships of various size, time periods and purpose. The tall rigging of the ship Balclutha is beautiful in its lines and intricacy, but it is hard to keep your camera pointed away from the Golden Gate Bridge, the Island of Alcatraz and the hills of the city, all of which can be seen as you walk through the Park.

The ship-shaped Maritime Museum looks and feels outdated, stodgy even, compared to the vibrancy of the waterfront outside. The numerous sailboats and swimmers(!) spotted along the Bay make for more interesting subjects of your photographs.

A series of panoramic photographs in the Museum illustrate the dramatic transformation of San Francisco from a sleepy coastal town with a few hundred inhabitants to a booming metropolis. It is only a slight exaggeration to say this metamorphosis happened overnight. The Gold Rush in 1849 permanently changed the landscape of San Francisco.

Lured by gold and business opportunities, people from around the world sailed to San Francisco, pulled into its harbors and abandoned ship for the fortunes they hoped awaited them onshore. From this “city of ships, piers and tides” emerged a trading center that adapted to the needs of early homesteaders, a growing nation and two World Wars. The Maritime NHP celebrates the place of the sea and its industries in the history of San Francisco.

CROWDS (6/10)
There is always a large crowd around the SF Maritime NHP because of its outdoor Fisherman’s Wharf located. This section of town, however, is the one part of San Francisco where the local’s never venture. So if you only come here, you have missed much of the charm that makes the City unique. Our visit was not affected poorly by our fellow travelers, but traveling here is like entering Disneyworld. Do not limit your SF stay to only Fisherman’s Wharf.

Floating BalcluthaEASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
If you are a tourist in San Francisco, you probably will visit Fisherman’s Wharf. If you are staying in the City, do not try to drive here. Parking is slim and high-priced. Take a cab or the somewhat reliable SF mass transit system.

The MUNI bus numbers 10, 15, 19, 30, 39, 47 and 49 as well as the Powell-Mason Cable Car all drop you off within steps of the Wharf. There is a handy MUNI bus map located at nearly every bus stop corner in the City. Bus rate is a cheap $1.25 per ride. Be sure to pick up the free transfer.

For the most direct route to the Site, take the Powell-Hyde Cable Car. Its turnaround station is next to the SF Maritime VC, which is located at the corner of Jefferson and Hyde.

The Park’s bookstore lives up to its definitive name, The Maritime Store. There are thousands of sea-related titles. If water is somehow involved in the story, it is probably here. There are almost 40 titles regarding knot tying and an equal amount about model shipbuilding. Also for sale are every fictional WWII Naval yarn and the entire Alexander Kent series.

Keep in mind that only half of the bookstore in stocked with books. The other half sells an incredible array of maritime keepsakes. Ship and lighthouse replicas, reproductions of nautical instruments, woodcarvings, globes, clocks, ink pen sets, ocean liner voyage collectables and more. Browsing the bookstore was more fun and a lot warmer than seeing the ships along Hyde Pier. Mark Twain was right; summers along San Francisco Bay are cold.

COSTS (3/5)
The Maritime Museum and the Visitor Center Museum are free. You can wander down Hyde Street Pier free of charge but there is a $5 fee per person to board the ships. The National Parks Pass does not cover the boarding fee.

There was a Ranger posted behind a desk at both the Museum and the Visitor Center. Oddly, neither seemed too eager to talk. The Visitor Center Ranger sat transfixed, eyes locked onto his computer screen for at least an hour. The free tour of the Hyde Street Pier left a good five minutes before 2:00 p.m., the scheduled time. The Visitor Center film did not end until 1:58 p.m. We thought we would be fine. We raced across the street to the tour departure point and saw no one. We searched, finally finding the group at 2:07 p.m. with the tour more than halfway over. We felt like our time at the SF Maritime NHP was a bother to the staff. It is never nice to feel unwelcome.

Full Steam AheadTOURS/CLASSES (4/10)
Our exploration of the Maritime NHP began at the Maritime Museum since that’s where the bus dropped us off. We expectantly entered what we thought was the center of the NHP and were disappointed to find it practically empty, save for the seniors meeting in the community center next door.

The first floor of the Museum has little more than pieces of wreckage found in the Bay, restored figureheads and a short film playing behind a curtain in a cramped room. We half-heartedly walked upstairs to the rest of the displays. The second floor is where we found the photomurals, displays on whaling and some pretty cool scrimshaw pieces. The third floor, with its “Sparks, Waves and Wizards” exhibit is the place to be.

Here you can sit in a Captain’s chair or get behind the wheel and survey the San Francisco Bay. Which boats are in the harbor today? A helpful binder identifies the most commonly found. Is anything happening out there? Slip on headphones and monitor the radio or watch the radar screen for blips. The third floor exhibits chronicle advances in maritime communication and allow visitors to have a little fun.

A brisk walk took us to the official Visitor Center and the Hyde Street Pier. The current exhibit of leisure boats in the VC looks new, but is slated to be replaced within the next year. We wonder at this quick turnaround since we have seen so many antiquated displays at other NPS sites, badly in need of updating since their Mission ‘66-era installment. Why is the Maritime VC first in line for what seems to be an unnecessary facelift?

The Hyde Street Pier is the meeting place for the free 2 p.m. tour. We recommend getting there early since we missed it. Perhaps we were too busy watching the group of pint-sized skippers and first mates receiving instructions for their overnight adventure on the Alma, one of the Site’s historic vessels. They looked so eager and excited. We were envious.

FUN (4/10)
You would think the SF tourist mecca of Fisherman’s Wharf would be the perfect location for a Maritime National Park. The visitors are here in droves; the cable car turns around here for pete’s sake. Working ships are everywhere and the Alcatraz ferry leaves just a few blocks down the road.

Problem is, when you are at Fisherman’s Wharf you do not want to learn about old ships. You want to be on the wharf, eating chowder in a bread bowl, staring at the sea lions on Pier 39 and browsing through the cheesy souvenir stores. The Wharf is a fun tourist trap; the SF Maritime NHP is a boring lesson.

Unflattering MastheadWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10)
If San Francisco is your vacation destination, you will probably find yourself near the SF Maritime National Historic Park. Its waterfront location between the grassy fields of the Golden Gate NRA and the bustle of Fisherman’s Wharf makes it hard to miss.

There is no reason to avoid the SF Maritime National Historic Park as you stroll along the Golden Gate Promenade. Walk down the pier, stop at the well-stocked bookstore, peek into the ships or even board a few. But if your time in the Golden Gate area is limited, we can think of more essential and entertaining San Francisco sites.

TOTAL 43/80

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