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.
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.