Outdoor sculptures in a national park? It is not the first thing you think of at a former military post, but here at the Presidio, a 1491-acre national park in San Francisco, are four intriguing sculptures: Earth Wall, Spire, Wood Line, and Tree Fall. Made out of natural materials found in the Presidio, the sculptures are Andy Goldsworthy’s reflections on the Presidio’s history and its transition into a public park. Art aside, the counter-clockwise loop travels through a beautiful historic forest, buildings, and trails, with views of the San Francisco Bay.
Andy Goldsworthy is a British site-specific artist who creates sculptures out of natural material like tree branches, leaves, and clay. Through his art, Goldsworthy makes thought-provoking connections between humans and nature. He believes we all leave a footprint in the natural world, and he thinks about how we are tied to a landscape. As an artist, he travels the world making artwork designed for people to think about a place, its history, and their interaction with it. Like nature, his pieces shift and generally deteriorate with time.
At the Presidio, Goldsworthy was fascinated with the Presidio’s historic forest and how the landscape changed as it grew from a modest Spanish adobe fort or “presidio” to a west coast command center for the United States military. From the late 1880’s to 1910, the U.S. Army planted 100,000 Monterey pine, Monterey cypress, and eucalyptus trees to serve as a windbreak, to define the boundary of the Presidio, and to promote the power of government. Many trees are nearing the end of their lifespan and some have died from being planted too close together. So in 2003, the Presidio began a reforestation plan to replant small plots of trees at a time. As of 2014, they have planted over 3,500 trees. All four of Goldsworthy’s sculptures feature tree branches sourced from the Presidio, and each evokes feelings about the Presidio’s humble origins and the present.
Are you still with me, or have I lost you in all my art fawning? Even if you are not into sculptures, there is a lot to see at the Presidio. The hike starts at the Presidio Officers’ Club, the historical heartbeat of the Presidio, climbs the Ecology Trail through a beautiful redwood and eucalyptus forest, visits Inspiration Point Overlook with a view of Alcatraz and the San Francisco Bay, and rounds out with a jaunt on Lovers’ Lane, the oldest trail in the Presidio. You have options to branch off to Mountain Lake, or explore the Main Post beyond the Presidio Officers’ Club, too.
Speaking of which, let’s begin our hike at the Presidio Officers’ Club, with bronze cannons cast in 1673 guarding the entrance. Stepping through the entryway, friendly docents are happy to point you in the direction of Earth Wall. (Hint: follow the black footprints on the floor and turn right at the red-painted corridor.) You can also pick up a free Andy Goldsworthy brochure with a trail map for your hike. Be sure to ask the docents for the booklet that tells the story of how Earth Wall was built—it is a cool thing to take with you to the sculpture and flip through as you look at it.
So, what is it? Earth Wall is Andy Goldsworthy’s fourth and latest sculpture. Created in 2014, it is a half sphere of eucalyptus branches that was buried in an earthen wall and then partially excavated by hand. It represents the excavation of the Presidio’s past—discoveries of adobe foundations from Spain’s original presidio, Ohlone artifacts, and other important remnants from people who resided on these grounds. There is an actual Archeology Lab at the Presidio Officers’ Club, and as of November 2018, you can take a tour of the lab or even see archaeologists at work excavating the original presidio in Pershing Square near the Presidio Officers’ Club.
Now that you have seen Earth Wall, step back out into the sunshine and turn right on Moraga Avenue. Head southeast towards the Inn at the Presidio, a red brick building built in 1903 that opened as a hotel in 2012. The Inn was the first hotel in the Presidio, and during the U.S. military base period was the former sleeping quarters for unmarried military officers.
Turn right at the Inn’s corner on Funston Avenue towards the Inn’s parking lot. In the back, you will find the Ecology Trailhead, where you will pick up the Ecology Trail towards Inspiration Point. As we were hiking, my friend Julie said it was hard to believe this lively, sheltering forest is located in the middle of San Francisco—it really is that pretty. Climb 200 feet on the wide dirt path surrounded by redwood, eucalyptus, and serpentine grassland, following signs for 0.6 miles to Inspiration Point.
Arrive at Inspiration Point at the 0.7-mile mark to views of Angel Island, the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz, and the Palace of Fine Arts. When ready, take the sidewalk along Arguello Boulevard south towards the Presidio Golf Course. Cross Arguello Boulevard on the crosswalk, then turn right onto the Bay Area Ridge Trail. Hike 500 feet northwest to reach Spire, the second sculpture on this hike at the 1.0-mile mark.
Spire is Goldsworthy’s first sculpture in the Presidio, created in 2008. Thirty-seven Monterey cypress tree trunks are bound together, standing 97-feet-tall. It mimics the shape of a tree, the shape of nearby church spires, and the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco. The sculpture honors the U.S. Army’s forestation of the Presidio in the late 1800’s, and the reforestation effort currently underway to rehabilitate and rejuvenate the forest. It will slowly fade into the forest as the young Monterey cypress trees planted around it grow. It is incredible to see forest’s progress when you look at early pictures and videos of the sculpture in 2008, now surrounded by growing cypress trees.
Retrace your steps back to Arguello Boulevard and cross back over to the Bay Area Ridge Trail/Mountain Lake Trail. Turn right and hike south on the Mountain Lake Trail, staying on the curbside dirt path as it curves east, paralleling West Pacific Avenue. It may seem a little bit confusing—there is a Mountain Lake Trail sign across West Pacific Avenue—but stick with the dirt path you’re on. The trail across the road heads west towards Mountain Lake, and for this hike, you want to stay east towards the Julius Kahn Playground.
Enjoy the gentle 100-foot descent among eucalyptus, arriving at a colorful explosion of flowers at the Julius Kahn Playground. Beyond the playground is a great big field, a nice spot for a picnic or a rest. Continue east on the trail next to the field, climbing 100 feet next to West Pacific Avenue. Pop out at a tiny parking space that’s an alternative trailhead—see Notes below—and stay left onto the shoulder of West Pacific Avenue. Cross the Lovers’ Lane trail to an overlook for Wood Line at the 1.8 mile-mark.
Wood Line, located between Lovers’ Lane and Presidio Boulevard, traces the path of a former Monterey pine grove in the eucalyptus forest. The pines did not survive, leaving a lane-sized gap in the forest. Goldsworthy envisioned “drawing the space” with fallen eucalyptus trees. The sinewy line of branches snakes over 1,200 feet and is Goldsworthy’s second sculpture in the Presidio, created in 2010 and 2011. Children and adults can stand on, play, and interact with the sculpture.
When ready, continue northwest on Lovers’ Lane, so-named because soldiers stationed at the Presidio used to walk this path to meet their sweethearts in the city. At the north end of Lovers’ Lane, cross the Presidio Boulevard and then turn left onto the sidewalk. In 325 feet, arrive at a stop sign for Funston Avenue. Stay straight to cross Funston and Mesa.
After crossing Mesa, turn right onto the sidewalk. In 100 feet, turn left onto another sidewalk between the white concrete buildings with red tile roofs. Building 39 on your left and Building 38 on your right were built in 1940 as part of the Works Progress Administration. Their Mission style white walls and red tile roofs are a nod to the Presidio’s Spanish history. After World War II, Building 38 became the headquarters for the Sixth U.S. Army, who oversaw the deployment of Army Reserve Units to the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
After admiring the buildings, turn left onto the sidewalk along Keyes Avenue. In 125 feet, turn right onto a crosswalk to cross Keyes Avenue, Graham Street, and Anza Avenue towards the small, white, square building with a red tile roof—congrats! You have made it to Tree Fall!
At the 2.7-mile mark, step into the former powder magazine with four-foot thick stone walls and a domed roof. Inside is a large eucalyptus branch, recycled from the New Presidio Parklands Project, suspended from the roof and covered in clay from the Presidio. Tree Fall is Goldsworthy’s third sculpture in the Presidio, created in 2013. Like Wood Line, Spire, and Earth Wall, this sculpture speaks to the relationship between nature and the modern world built around it. It is Goldsworthy’s first indoor sculpture.
When ready, head southwest for 0.1 miles on Graham Street, crossing Sheridan Avenue and passing Pershing Square on your right. Cross Moraga Avenue and turn left to return to the Presidio Officers’ Club, finishing your 2.8-mile loop.
Goldsworthy was fascinated with the Presidio’s history and how its landscape evolved over centuries. It is not only a transformation from planting thousands of trees; it is the transformation of the human footprint on this land: the Ohlone people, Spain, Mexico, U.S. military, and currently the Presidio Trust and National Park Service. The landscape is still transforming today into a modern public space. Goldsworthy honors the Presidio in an artistic way—in a way people can see and interact with his art and in a way that honors an outdoor space and its history. He makes us think about how landscapes are altered with time, about our connection to spaces, and, perhaps, our own impact as well.
- There is no admission fee for the Presidio.
- Earth Wall and Tree Fall are located inside of Presidio buildings and are subject to operating hours. Earth Wall is open when the Presidio Officers’ Club is open, so check their website for current open days and hours. As of November 2018, Tree Fall is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and weekdays by appointment.
- A brochure with detailed descriptions of each sculpture and a trail map of this hike are available at the entrance desk inside the Presidio Officers’ Club and online here. The Presidio also offers guided tours of the sculptures. Check the Presidio events calendar for upcoming tour dates.
- Public restrooms are available at the Presidio Officers’ Club, Presidio Golf Club, and Julius Kahn Playground.
- Leashed dogs are allowed on Presidio trails.
- Free PresidiGo shuttle service runs throughout the park and from downtown San Francisco.
- Most parking lots in developed areas charge a fee, but here are a couple options for free parking along this hiking route: Presidio Golf Club (near Spire) and West Pacific Avenue (near Wood Line).
- Here are YouTube videos about the sculptures: Earth Wall, Spire, Wood Line, & Tree Fall
- For a real taste of Goldsworthy as a person and an artist, I recommend Leaning into the Wind. It’s a quiet, contemplative documentary that takes you through Goldsworthy’s process for creating sculptures. It briefly features Tree Fall and Wood Line.