I’d wanted to travel the entire West Coast of the USA, from California to Washington, ever since I’d seen the 16 day coach trip in the Cosmos travel brochure. I’d obviously mentioned it to Stacey as it was her idea to do a section of it for our summer trip in 2015 under our own steam. Whilst road trips are our norm now, this was only the third one but easily the longest and most complicated to plan.We decided to do the trip from San Francisco down to San Diego so we would be on the “ocean-side” of the road. But to be honest, being eight feet closer to the ocean in the car didn’t really make much difference. It would be just as easy to do the trip from San Diego and travel north.
Our first day was our busiest of the whole trip which maybe wasn’t the best idea given I was struggling with eight hours of jet-lag. But hey, there were places to see and we had our carefully planned itinerary to start. Well we tried to start it, but when the sat nav says turn left and left is blocked by a big wooden barrier saying “This road isn’t open until 10:30 AM” and it’s the only way to the first thing on the itinerary… well it didn’t bode well for all the careful planning we had put into the trip.
Golden Gate Bridge
We quickly switched the sat nav to the next thing on our list and decided to come back to the first sight later. So, a little earlier than planned, we headed across the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s not the biggest or longest bridge in the world, it’s not even the longest of its type and it’s not as red as I expected. It’s certainly an iconic San Francisco landmark though and maybe a bucket list item to be crossed off?
At the end of the bridge we immediately exited the highway in order to take in the scenic overlook and if you position yourself just right you can see right down the centre line of the bridge, which we thought made for an interesting photo. We also enjoyed the skyline of San Francisco across the bay and, of course, the famous Alcatraz prison island (even if it was foggy).
But we didn’t just cross the bridge to cross the bridge- we were here to visit some of the World War II batteries that were built here to protect the San Francisco Bay from Japanese invasion.Though, as there are also batteries on the south side of the coast, maybe just maybe, we DID cross the bridge just to cross the bridge :-).
Our first stop was Battery Spencer which bore a striking resemblance to similar allied and axis gun emplacements we had seen in Europe. If you walk to the southernmost tip of the battery you get another great view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Driving further round the headland, with a couple more stops for views of the bridge cloaked in some mist that had rolled in, we arrived at Battery Wallace. This battery was enclosed in a bunker to protect it from anything other than a direct hit on the gun. Again this was a similar design to other batteries we had seen in Normandy and elsewhere.
Heading back to the bridge to see if we could now visit our “first” sight of the day, we went through “five minute” (so called because the lights take five minutes to change) or Baker-Barry Tunnel and oh how I wish I was in my car and not a rental. Only a single lane of traffic can go through the narrow tunnel at once, and it would sound oh so good with a nice engine note to enjoy…
Arriving back at the entrance to our “first” stop of the day the wooden barrier was now gone and we could drive down to Fort Point. Not only did this fort look like an interesting place to walk around, its position directly UNDER the Golden Gate Bridge definitely added to its attraction. We were looking forward to seeing the bridge from a very different perspective, towering over what was a decent size fort when it was built.
The fort was constructed between 1853 and 1861 as a defence against any attack on San Francisco Bay and sadly was due to be demolished in order to build the Golden Gate Bridge. Thankfully the Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss recognised the importance of the fort and designed a special arch that allowed the bridge to clear the fort and allow it to remain standing.
If you want to ascend to the roof of the fort, then be prepared to climb plenty of stairs. It’s three stories up, but worth the effort and you can take one flight of stairs at a time and walk around the perimeter of each floor to ease the pain. There are some small exhibits and the odd cannon to see as you explore, but the bulk of the fort is empty. It was its unique position that attracted us; we kept catching glimpses of the bridge from different perspectives. Then once on the roof you are directly below the bridge towering above you. It sure makes a decent size fort feel quite tiny.
San Francisco Bay
Leaving the fort and bridge behind we headed into San Francisco – a process that took longer than it should have due to the fact that every single intersection appeared to be a four way stop. There certainly seemed to be a lot more of them than in other cities in the US. We had intended to drive down the twists and turns of Lombard Street, but sadly we hit another roadblock and they were only allowing people to drive down it if they lived there, so we had to scratch that from our itinerary. Instead we parked up at our reserved parking (Anchorage Square Garage) and headed to Fishermans Wharf to find something for lunch.
We initially looked for something quick, but the lines at places like In and Out Burger were crazy. In and Out Burger still makes me think that the burger might come back out as fast as it went in, rather than they serve you quick! So instead we went to Cioppino’s, which whilst delicious was way more expensive than we had planned. I think we spent almost as much on lunch as we did on food for the next few days!
Cable Car Museum
After lunch we wandered around Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, taking in the sights and sounds for a while. We had then intended to use the uniquely San Francisco cable cars to get to the Cable Car Museum but the line to pick up a car would have meant queuing for about an hour we estimated. There were plenty of cars so I can only imagine it was a shortage of drivers? Or that they can only run so many cars at once for some reason? Whatever the reason it meant they couldn’t load up and get people away quickly enough. So, after a quick conflab, we decided to walk off dinner and make our way on foot to the museum. Climbing a San Francisco hill or two will certainly burn off all those pasta calories!
The museum is well worth a visit, as it not only contains some old cars and a lot of information, but is also the location of the engine house and you can see the machinery that pulls the cable. The cable is pulled in a huge loop around the streets and is what the cable cars grab onto in order to move. It’s also, of course, where the name comes from. All of the mechanics of their operation and history are explained in the excellent museum. Now knowing how they worked we were even more keen to experience one, so we waited at the nearby stop to catch a car back to Fisherman’s Wharf.
Riding a Cable Car
We were starting to think we would miss out on riding a cable car when the first car arrived fully loaded, but thankfully the next car squeezed us on and headed off. It’s certainly an experience to ride a cable car, but the most impressive thing is the skill required to drive one. Dealing with grabbing the cable smoothly, applying the brakes and watching out for traffic. They don’t have right of way so they have to obey the same traffic signals as cars. It really showed the skill required to be a cable car driver.
Arriving back to where we tried to catch the cable car, I am sure some of the people who were queuing when we left were still waiting for a car! OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration but we must have saved a good 40 minutes (and seven bucks each) and we DID still get to ride.
We then headed back to the shoreline to visit the USS Pampanito, a World War II Balao class submarine. The sub saw service in WWII where it sank six Japanese ships and damaged four others. The tour was very interesting and because there is not a lot of room in a submarine, you follow a one way path through it and then walk back along the top to avoid congestion. If you’ve never been on a sub, it’s a worthwhile experience. You get to see the torpedo room, the galley, the crew bunks etc. and, of course, the head.
We then had a little downtime to relax before we headed out to our final stop of the day so we enjoyed wandering around the attractions of Fisherman’s Wharf and the surrounding area. We spent some time watching some sea lions relaxing in the sun, walked around the arcade which was full of classic games, visited a bakery that tempted us with these interestingly shaped breads, and watched the streetcars passing by. Maybe one day we’ll be back to ride them.
Having enjoyed some of the delights of San Francisco, it was then approaching the time to catch the ferry to visit our last stop of the day… Alcatraz.