SF’s Aquatic Park

After living in the Bay Area for three decades, I have many favorite spots in San Francisco. One of my top favorites is Aquatic Park.

Located at the west end of Fishermans Wharf, it spans a short beach on the San Francisco Bay.

Owned and operated by the National Park Service, the park is a National Historic Landmark. It’s touted as “America’s Only Floating National Park.”

Here you will find much to keep you occupied with the past and the present.

There are old wooden piers lined with a fleet of permanently moored ships, some that you can go inside.

The Maritime Museum is also part of Aquatic Park. Built to mimic an ocean liner, the museum was built in 1939 as part of the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA). It offers art deco architecture as well as many seafaring exhibits.

The interior of the museum, also known as the Bathhouse building, showcases stunning depression-era WPA murals on every wall. Hilaire Hiler (1898-1966) created the undersea murals.

More info: San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park.

When standing on the museum’s back veranda, one feels like they are on the upper deck of a ship. Surrounded by exquisite WPA tile walls in marine themes, you have an elevated, full panoramic view overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

Aquatic Park also boasts a large grass lawn and ample amphitheater seats with views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.

This is a great place to watch boats, joggers, bike riders, swimmers, tourists, and local residents while gulls cruise overhead.

There is also a municipal pier for fishing enthusiasts.

My favorite thing to do in Aquatic Park is visit the ships.

There are a couple of old wooden piers open to the public that lead to the anchored vessels, including the restored Hyde St. Pier. The piers are a five-minute walk from the museum, and invite visitors to sit on the benches, wander in amazement, or climb aboard the ships.

Before the Golden Gate Bridge was built, Hyde Street Pier was a popular spot for the ferries to transport residents from across the bay to San Francisco.

Standing on these piers you feel dwarfed by the majestic old ships.

Folks who have paid the museum park fee can board the ships.

Walking across a gang plank onto the ship instantly transports a person from land to sea and from the present to the past.

My favorite ship is the Balclutha, an 1886 square-rigger. Built in Glasgow, Scotland, the Balclutha made its maiden voyage to San Francisco in 1887.  It took 140 days and a crew of 26 men to transport the cargo of 1,650 tons of coal.

On deck is the bracing smell of briny sea air, and mast rigs continually clang as the stiff ocean breezes rock the ship.

Other restored vessels include an 1895 schooner, 1890 steam ferryboat, 1890 scow schooner, 1907 steam tug, 1914 paddlewheel tug, and a circa 1890 San Francisco houseboat. I have returned here many times because there are so many boats to explore, it cannot be done in just one day.

The next two photos show the side-wheel paddle steamboat: the Eureka. Built in the Bay Area in 1890, this vessel had many lives ferrying trains and then cars from Sausalito and Tiburon to San Francisco.

Vintage cars from the 1920s and ’30s are lined up on the Eureka, as if they are ready to disembark.

There are great views of San Francisco from the ships and piers, too.

Often a swimmer or two can be seen swimming by, like in this photo’s foreground.

Lastly, Aquatic Park is also a San Francisco mainstay for open-water swimmers. There are local residents who regularly swim the cove for fitness, and it is also popular for training triathletes.

There are numerous open-water swimming events here throughout the year.

The classic San Francisco Bay swim route is a 1.5-mile (2.4 km) plunge from Alcatraz Island to Aquatic Park in 60-62-degree Fahrenheit (15-17 C) water. You have to be a serious swimmer to brave the frigid water, strong tides and currents.

“Escape from Alcatraz” is the most popular swim event in Aquatic Park, named after the mysterious 1962 escape of three prisoners from Alcatraz.

Are there sharks in the bay? Yes, several different species. And seals and sea lions too.

This aerial view of Aquatic Park shows the Maritime Museum (bottom center), the municipal fishing pier (long, curved structure), and the historic ships right of the yellow line. The yellow line indicates the swimmers’ lap area.

Aquatic Park, SF. Photo courtesy Golden Gate Triathlon Club.

Places to adventure within a five-minute walk of Aquatic Park: Ghiradelli Square (shops and restaurants); the Hyde-Powell cable car line; Fishermans Wharf.

Whether you’re steeped in the seafaring days of yore or strolling in the 21st century, Aquatic Park has something for everyone.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

79 thoughts on “SF’s Aquatic Park

    • That is the joy of Aquatic Park, Anneli, you are exactly right. The museum exhibits feature many of the shipping routes and ships that came into the SF harbor, and of course seeing some of these ships and walking inside them is such a thrill. With all your experiences on the open sea with the Captain, I know you would like this SF spot. Many thanks, Anneli.

    • Thanks very much, M.B. I think it’s a cool place too and I hope you have a chance to visit Aquatic Park sometime. With all your knowledge in history, I think you would enjoy it.

  1. The Eureka is the sister-ship of the Berkeley which is on display at the San Diego Maritime Museum. Built in 1898, the Berkeley operated 60 years on the San Francisco Bay. It was the first propeller-driven ferry on the west coast. Able to carry 1700 passengers, it was the largest commuter ferryboat in the United States.

    In 1958, the Berkeley was taken out of service when its owner, the Southern Pacific Railroad, decided to end ferry service. During the 1960’s, it was docked in Sausalito, and served as a tourist stop and gift shop. In 1973, it was purchased by the San Diego Maritime Museum, and underwent a cosmetic restoration.

    The Berkeley was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1990 and California State Historical Landmark in 2000. It is proudly displayed with a variety of historic vessels including the Star of India, the world’s oldest, operational sailing ship.

    In this episode of California’s Gold, “Missing San Francisco”, Huell Howser revisits the Berkeley:

    https://blogs.chapman.edu/huell-howser-archives/2002/01/08/missing-san-fransisco-californias-gold-4008/

      • It was interesting that Huell Howser learned that San Francisco had to decide on whether to save the Eureka or the Berkeley. They chose the Eureka which meant that the Berkeley, most likely, would have been scrapped — if not for the San Diego Maritime Museum.

        The ferryboats transported thousands of refugees across the bay after the 1906 earthquake. Crews worked 24-hours a day even as their own families were trapped in the city. Maybe, one day, you’ll get a chance to visit this historic treasure from San Francisco’s past.

    • The Balclutha is indeed a great ship to board, and I know you would like it there, Jo. Your walking shoes would cover the whole bay front area, and I have no doubt you would find a delightful cake treat too. My warmest thanks.

    • I really like the sailing ship photos, too, Sherry. There are so many rigging ropes, it’s not easy to capture the immensity and busyness of it all, but I think Athena did a super job. And the cable car photo is a delight. Thanks, Sherry, it is always a joy to “see” you here.

  2. An exciting post, Jet. I love that so many old ships have been preserved. It makes history so much more real when you stand on deck and imagine what it was like when they were commercially active. The museum with its murals and nautical architecture fits right in.

    • I agree with you, Eliza, these old preserved ships really do bring history alive. The smells in the lower deck, for example, are still strong after all these years. Until Covid, it was a regular year-end field trip for 5th grade classes around here to have a chaperoned overnight on board the Balclutha. What an excellent and fun learning tool. Many thanks, matey Eliza.

    • You’re right, Craig, it is a calm corner of the city amid the bustle. It’s right next to Fishermans Wharf, but the foot traffic is far less, which I really love. Thank you for your visit today.

    • I do hope you can enjoy the seaside elements of Aquatic Park someday, Val, but in the meantime it was an honor to share it with you here today. Thanks for your visit, much enjoyed.

  3. I love Tall Ships! San Francisco has so many things to see and wonderful places to visit. As always , your blog was interesting as well as informative. Thank you, Jet. πŸ™‚

  4. This brought back some happy memories! We’ll get back there one day, take a little more time to explore this area – I’d love to see the Eureka and the cars waiting to disembark, that would be a real highlight, and I’d have to be dragged away or thrown overboard.
    Thanks for sharing the fun of this big little corner of SF, Jet, I enjoyed it so much.

    • I am smiling at my desk, pc, happy that you enjoyed this vicarious visit to the SF shoreline, and remembering the day the three of us did the whirlwind SF tour. If you do visit SF again, we will have another day of adventures and laughs. But in the meantime, I am glad to share the historic ships in the SF Bay. There are more ships too, yippee. My warmest thanks, pc.

  5. Gorgeous places and amazing photos and I’m so admiring all beautiful photos πŸŒ·πŸ™πŸ‘πŸ»πŸŒ·
    I’m so happy and thankful for sharing this legend ships photos , so inspiring πŸŒ·πŸ‘πŸ˜ŠπŸ‘ŒπŸŒ·

    • Lovely to have you stop by, Michael Stephen, thank you. This park is a real gem and I’m glad I could introduce you to it. That water is so cold, it’s remarkable that anyone swims in it (many wear wetsuits but many don’t). It’s great that you saw a media piece on the swimmers. Thank you.

  6. Exploring days of old when these ships still sailed the seas in photos, story, and memories
    brings us all back to those times. Exciting they must have been very much like
    the story you share with us now! Thank you Jet!

  7. Yes, I am steeped in the seafaring days of yore! In fact, my gold rush book tells several tales of ships going to San Francisco. I am so happy to learn about this place and have out it on my must see list for my next visit.

    • Oh how perfect that your gold rush book has tales of ships headed to SF, Eilene. You will love the Maritime Museum and Aquatic Park. I am glad I could give you a salty taste of it in this post. Thanks so much for your visit.

  8. Sounds like an interesting place – spent a lot of time at Fishermans Wharf during my IT career thanks to all the professional conferences they held at Moscone during those years – never made it to that end apparently. Thanks for sharing.

    • Yes, I feel very lucky to be in the Bay Area for three decades, adventuring the sites that are always entertaining. It is great fun to share them with you, Amy. Thanks very much for stopping by.

    • That’s interesting, Kelly, that you saw a show featuring Aquatic Park. There are many theories about the 1963 escape from Alcatraz, and Aquatic Park is a big part of them. My warmest thanks for your visit.

    • Those tiles at the Maritime Museum really caught my eye, too, Belinda, the colors are so bright and the design is very exotic. I’m glad you enjoyed the maritime post, it was fun to compose. Thank you, Belinda.

  9. Next time I make it to SF, I’d definitely like to visit some of these amazing sights! Thanks for the wonderful information and photos!

    • Dear BS, it was great to have you stop by here today. And the next time you are in SF I would be honored to show you Aquatic Park. I know you and Dan would like it here. Love and thanks.

    • I have great memories of sharing this corner of SF with you, Bill. And the photos we have of you on the cable car are one of the biggest smiles I have ever seen shining on your face. Great memories. I hope sometime you can come back again.

  10. What a fascinating post. So much to do there, all in one place! Love all the boat experiences, especially the ones with the art deco design. Makes me think of Poirot, and the fab mystery you could write that would be set there! 😍
    Cheers,
    Thanks for posting,
    Julie

    • I enjoyed your comment, Julie. Aquatic Park is a very special corner of San Francisco, and great fun to share it with you. I liked your suggestion of a fab mystery I could write to be set there, and in fact my next novel is going to be set in SF. My warmest thanks for your visit.

  11. Thanks for sharing Aquatic Park with us, Jet. I felt like I was touring the place with you. The majestic ships by the port certainly caught my eye and lovely that there’s the opportunity to board the ships if you paid the museum park fee. The ships look in such good conditioned having been around for so long. Must be really quite a few boats since you’ve come back to explore more. Not every day you can get on ships that historic. I’m guessing you might return again at some point for another visit πŸ™‚

    • Oh so nice to have you stop by, Mabel, and I’m glad I could share the beauty and history of Aquatic Park with you. The ships are, as you noted, in good condition. Every so often one will be gone from the harbor, taken to dry dock for more maintenance. We are very lucky to have several different kinds of old ships in SF, to give folks of today a good idea of what it was like in older days. Thanks so very much for your visit.

      • It would be lovely if you could ride the ships out to see. We’ve got this ship called Enterprize in Melbourne – rustic and tall with its sails – and for a fee you can take a trip on it. Always love visiting and learning about your part of the world, Jet πŸ™‚

  12. What fun! I’ve been here many times and yet learned more history/info from you in this post. I confess, I’m not a “ship” person (probably because I get motion sick even just standing on a dock) but I enjoy looking at them. And I really like the murals in the Maritime Museum. But what do I enjoy the most when in this area? Yup, watching the courageous and strong swimmers in the SF Bay. πŸ™‚

    • I so enjoyed your comment, Pam, thank you. I whole-heartedly agree with you: it is very inspiring to watch the swimmers in the bay. The water is numbingly cold, tides are strong and the currents unpredictable; and they share all of it with sea mammals. And yet the swimmers, they just keep swimming. Truly a pleasure to receive your words today, Pam, thank you.

  13. This was a fascinating post for several reasons, Jet. For one thing, I not only missed visiting this park when I lived in the area, I had no idea until I read your post that it exists! I’ve never heard of it. I suppose that’s the best evidence that sailing and all things maritime hadn’t yet become part of my life; if I were to visit now, it would be one of the first places I’d go. I love the old ships. One of my treasured memories is the chance I had to sail aboard the Elissa, the historic ship moored in Galveston. I’d be more than happy for a chance to help maintain the brightwork on any of them!

    • Wonderful, as always, to receive your comment, Linda. I am delighted you enjoyed the Aquatic Park post and that it brought your ship restoring experiences to the fore. This area of the city is not a famous one with tourists or even residents, and that’s partly why I like here it so much. You would love it here, as you say–there’s so much to do and see. Before Covid the Balclutha was an overnight field trip destination for many fifth grade classes, and there was a regular ship shanty singing club that met there on Sat. nights as well. They gathered aboard the moored Balclutha and sang old ship songs! I thought that would be fun, too. How wonderful that you had the thrilling opportunity to sail aboard the Elissa. Cheers and thanks and a yo-ho-ho to you, Linda.

  14. I enjoyed reading about and seeing the beautiful photos of this lovely place I’ve visited with you and Athena! I loved seeing the overhead view!

  15. Love this post, Jet. You make me want to go back to San Francisco. It’s been 15 years since I’ve been there and went for business that time and never got out of the city (although that was fun, too!). When I went there with my husband a few years earlier than that, we had a great time there at the wharf but never went inside the ships. But I loved the energy of the area. And the chocolate! I took a clip of the photo Athena took of the turtle mural inside the museum. My husband loves turtles and I am getting into collage. I think it would make a great birthday gift for him to use that clip as inspiration for a turtle collage as a gift.
    Once again, an enjoyable and inspirational post, Jet.

    • How very lovely to hear from you, LuAnne. The Maritime Museum has about 40 or 50 feet of wall that is tiled in this sealife motif, and it is absolutely beautiful. I’m really glad the turtle attracted you, and I loved hearing about the clip you took. Thanks so much, LuAnne.

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