Crissy Field and the Presidio: A Favorite Place on Ronosaurus Rex’s Bay Walk

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(Andy Goldsworthy’s Wood Line, Photo by Ronosaurus Rex)

Walking through the forested Presidio, it’s easy to imagine that San Francisco was once covered with trees. Not so! Its sandy, shifting soil supported mostly low, ground-hugging plants, such as dune strawberry and lupine. One of the best places to see what San Francisco looked like before its transformation is the tidal marshes of Crissy Field, the first of my favorite places in my walk around the San Francisco Bay.

The Presidio has a long history, encompassing seasonal villages of the Ohlone Indians, a Spanish Imperial Outpost (established at nearly the same time as Mission Dolores, the first European settlement in the bay area), a military base on the Mexican Frontier, a U.S. Army Post, and now mostly public parkland. (Read more about it in “A History of the Presidio” by the Presidio Trust.)

The Presidio is full of interesting things to see and do: historic military buildings, including the Civil War era Fort Point, excellent museums, like the Walt Disney Family Museum, amazing art by the likes of Andy Goldsworthy (see “Andy Goldsworthy’s Art in the Presidio”), and nature trails that will leave you wondering whether you are still in a major city.

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(Image from “First in Flight: Crissy Air Field” from The Presidio Trust.)

Undoubtedly, one of the most spectacular spots in the Presidio is Crissy Field, once a military airfield, the earliest air defense station on the west coast and a site of aviation milestones, including the first flight across America in a single day. I imagine that Crissy Field was not an easy place to land a plane, considering the wind and fog which regularly pours through the Golden Gate. In fact, the field is named for Major Dana Crissy, killed during the First Transcontinental Reliability and Endurance Test.

Crissy Field Before Restoration

(Crissy Field Before Restoration, Image from the National Park Service.)

Beginning in 2001, asphalt was pulled up, and the airfield was turned into 28 acres of grass (“Making a Great Public Space”), a great place for a picnic with incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands, Angel Island, and Alcatraz. Crissy Field also has a beautiful beach and a couple of good cafes, but my favorite part of Crissy Field is the 20-acre lagoon and tidal marsh.

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Since non-indigenous settlers arrived, they have been filling in the bay, removing the wetlands, and straightening out the shoreline. More than a third of the bay was filled in, and there were actually plans to fill in 60%! 90% of the wetlands around the bay was removed as “wasteland,” literally “land that is wasted” because it was not useful for humans, but they failed to see the importance of these marshes for cleaning the waters of the bay and for 250 species of migratory birds, as well as other wild life. After a century and a half of effort to remove the wetlands, we are now working to restore marshlands. (Read more about it at Savethebay.org and in my upcoming post “Ecology and Ronosaurus Rex’s San Francisco Bay Walk.”)

Crissy Field Lagoon

(Image from ESA Association.)

You can now see a typical tidal lagoon at Crissy Field with many plants that are native to California. To be honest, the restoration of native plants first seemed to me a questionable project, the reason being that is seems anti-immigration (after all, I am not native to the region either). It also supposes that there was a time when the bay area had a stable set of plants. Actually, the flora of the bay area has changed constantly over the millennia.

The process was greatly speeded up, however, when several fast-growing invasive species like beachgrass and ice plant were introduced to San Francisco to hold down its sand. Although it has a beautiful flower, the ice plant completely crowds out all other plants, as you can see in this picture from Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. The plant is not useful for local and migratory animals, so it also reduces the amount of wildlife in the bay area.

Half Moon Bay State Beach

(Image from Ray Latham’s photo album on Debate.org.)

Thanks to thousands of people who donated time and money, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the National Park Service, and  Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, you can visit this “natural” gem. Since the restoration of wetlands at Crissy Field, birds and wildlife have been returning. You may be able to see the Great Egret, the Great Blue Heron, the Caspian Tern, and the Brown Pelican, among many other species. I will be writing a series of posts on my favorite places around the San Francisco Bay, but Crissy Field and the Presidio are definitely some of my favorites. Check them out!

(Read more in “Ronosaurus Rex’s Walk Around the San Francisco Bay.”)

Vibrant Habitat Three Years Later

(“Vibrant Habitat Three Years Later” from the National Park Service.)

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