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13 fascinating facts you didn’t know about the Presidio

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Home to the only overnight campsite in San Francisco—and so much more

A forest with tall green trees. A girl walk on top of a snaking wood sculpture.
A girl balances on the sculpture Wood Line by artist Andy Goldworthy. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Photo by AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

The park and former military base at the northern tip of San Francisco may be famous (remember the titular 1988 crime-drama with Meg Ryan and Sean Connery?), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some secrets that lurk behind its fancy gates.

The national park, which is also a National Historic Landmark District, features more than 870 buildings, 470 of which are historic. It’s well known that the Walt Disney Museum and a weekly Off the Grid picnic party call this place home. And the Presidio Theatre reopened a few months ago after a years-long $40 million revamp. But at various points since 1776, it’s been home to soldiers, park rangers, former Soviets, and ghosts.

Here are 13 fun facts you might not know about the park.

1) The Spanish began to build a fortified village called El Presidio de San Francisco in 1776. El Presidio and Mission Dolores (constructed at the same time) were the first institutions built in what would become San Francisco.

2) The Presidio has a history of coastal defense spanning more than 200 years. It was continually used as a military base by the Spanish, Mexican, and American armies over the course of 218 years. The Presidio remained under US Army control until 1994, when it was transferred to the National Park Service.

3) Rob Hill Campground, the only overnight campsite in San Francisco, is located at the Presidio’s highest point above Baker Beach in a eucalyptus grove.

4) Today the Presidio is covered in urban forests. Most of the trees, especially the eucalyptus, were planted by the Army back in the 19th century, and some folks were not happy about it.

5) Presidio cavalry troops (including some of the African-American regiments nicknamed “Buffalo Soldiers”) served as park rangers protecting and maintaining Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon national parks before the establishment of the National Park Service.

Police holding shut a large gate while protesters trying to force their way in.
Military police surge against the iron gate of the Presidio on April 6, 1969, closing them to demonstrators.
Photo by AP Photo/Sal Veder

6) In 1968 a prisoner attempting to escape from the Presidio’s military stockade was shot dead by a guard. A few days later, 27 prisoners staged a sit-in, singing “We Shall Overcome.” But the Army cracked down on the protesters and charged them with mutiny. The first prisoner to be convicted was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, prompting an outcry in the media.

7) Before its rehab and conversion into the Presidio Landmark apartments in 2010, the 1931 Presidio Public Health Service Hospital sat vacant since 1988. Even though it was closed up, ghost hunters used to break in. They claimed you could hear footsteps, see reflections of light, and sometimes feel a cold draft. Apparently the SFPD believed them, because they supposedly wouldn’t set foot inside. Unsurprisingly, there haven’t been many ghost reports since the renovation.

8) The final resting place for hundreds of animals owned by families that were stationed at the Presidio, the pet cemetery dates back to the 1950s. Dogs and cats claim the most number of the cemetery’s 424 handmade headstones. There are also birds, rodents, and reptiles interred here as well, along with fish and one pet known as “Mr. Iguana.” According to the National Park Service, there are no official records for the site, meaning it probably began with the families themselves, with authorization from one of the commanding officers.

A nurse tucking in a young toddler in a cot.
A nurses tending to one of the 55 Vietnamese orphans, who had just flown in from Saigon, of Herman Hall at the Presidio Army Base in 1975.
Photo by AP Photo

9) In 1975, the Presidio became the first stop for 1,300 refugees from Vietnam. The controversial Operation Baby Lift airlifted infants and toddlers orphaned by the Vietnam War to the US for adoption by American parents. The Army agreed to house and feed the children until permanent homes were arranged, converting the drill hall into a nursery.

10) A pro-democracy foundation run by former Soviet president Mikhail S. Gorbachev opened an office in the Presidio in 1993. It was pretty symbolic and meaningful at the time—the Soviet Union had fallen only two years earlier, and the Presidio was still officially a military base until 1994.

11) The Presidio is home to the largest collection of British artist Andy Goldsworthy’s public works on public view in North America, including Wood Line, the snaking wood piece on Lover’s Lane, and the towering Spire.

12) It has a bowling center with 12 lanes. Why not?

13) Mountain Lake, which can be found here near Lake and Veterans Boulevard, is one of San Francisco’s three remaining natural lakes. The other two being Lake Merced and Pine Lake.