A Crash Course on SF’s New 14-Acre Park: Presidio Tunnel Tops

The 14 facts you need to know about the national park site ahead of opening weekend

July 12, 2022 8:15 am
A view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the new Presidio Tunnel Tops park
Tunnel Tops opens to the public on Sunday, July 17.
Presido Tunnel Tops

Part of San Francisco’s great charm is the fact that it’s a peninsula city, meaning no sprawl. Limited room for new development has its downsides, but it also inspires a high degree of creativity when it comes to working with what’s already there. In the case of the city’s newest park, Tunnel Tops, this meant making rather exciting use of the land above the Presidio Parkway tunnels, installed in 2015 to replace the seismically unsound Doyle Drive.

“​​By reconnecting Crissy Field and the Main Parade, the Tunnel Tops knits back together the Presidio, which was split in two by [Doyle Drive] for almost a century,” says Jean Fraser, CEO of the Presidio Trust

When the park opens to the public on July 17, guests can walk between the two areas like the Presidio-based soldiers used to, enjoying the park’s scenic overlooks, picnic spots and playful outpost along the way. 

In honor of the park’s 14-acre size, here are 14 facts about San Francisco’s newest park. 

1. Yes, it’s only 14 acres but…

Tunnel Tops is the newest addition to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a collection of National Park Service properties including Alcatraz, Muir Woods and Ocean Beach and totaling 114 square miles. “I like to think of these 14 acres as an incredible gateway to that 114 square miles,” says Chris Lehnertz, president and CEO of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy

2. The park is designed to be inclusive

From major art projects by local BIPOC artists to a welcome sign recognizing the original Ohlone residents, Tunnel Tops aims to be an inclusive national park space. “It’s important to recognize that national parks have historically not been welcoming places for people of color, largely due to systemic racism and environmental racism,” says Oakland-based Favianna Rodriguez, an independent artist with the Presidio Activators, which was tasked with developing events and activities that will create a sense of connection to the new park. 

3. It evokes nature found in the Presidio

From benches shaped like driftwood to climbing structures resembling the nests of the hooded oriole, every facet of Tunnel Tops has been inspired by the environment that surrounds it. The benches are actually made from cypress trees felled in the Presidio, an annual culling that keeps the forest healthy. And look out for the large oak tree that was found fallen in the Presidio that kids can play on in the outpost — now every child can know what it feels like to climb a tree.  

4. It’s totally free

There’s no cost to enter, nor any added cost to use any of the on-site facilities. Picnic benches, the campfire, barbecue pits, the outpost, the field station — all of it is free for everybody. Lehnertz explains that this was in part a response to community feedback about the challenges of life in an increasingly unaffordable San Francisco: “We heard a lot from the community early in the process about how challenging it is to raise a family in San Francisco, how incredibly expensive everything is, and that there just aren’t that many wonderful things that you can come and spend the day doing.” 

5. It offers a classic national park experience

Not every city dweller can get to Yosemite or Yellowstone, which is why so much of Tunnel Tops emulates the traditional national park experience. The campfire circle is the most evocative example of this ethos, and a perfect place to enjoy San Francisco’s classic summer fog. Up to 75 guests can share the firelight while a park ranger gives educational talks. 

A playground at the new Tunnel Tops park in San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background
Bring your kids, bring your dogs or come for a solo stroll.
Presido Tunnel Tops

6. Dogs are welcome

While many national parks expressly forbid dogs, Tunnel Tops welcomes leashed pups. There are even waste bags available at the Presidio Plaza entrance. 

7. Four overlooks offer spectacular vantages on San Francisco’s most notable sights

There’s much to see from Tunnel Tops beyond the features of the park. “The park’s 360-degree horizon captures the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Presidio, Alcatraz and downtown San Francisco,” says Richard Kennedy, the park’s lead designer and senior principal at James Corner Field Operations. It’s also fun to look out over the tunnels to see the cars passing underneath. 

8. Public transportation access is actually not that bad

Transportation infrastructure is already in place for Tunnel Tops, meaning no pesky trial-and-error phase as the park gets underway. The free PresidiGo shuttle actively serves this area from downtown San Francisco, including the Transbay Terminal. 

9. It shares a designer with the High Line in NYC…

James Corner Field Operations designed the instantly iconic High Line in New York. In 2014, they landed the Tunnel Tops job. Their approach? Don’t overdo it. “​​The art of park-making in this incredible setting is to keep things simple, to practice restraint so as to not detract from or overwhelm the view, and to carefully choreograph paths and features so that the power and beauty of the site is revealed and heightened as one moves through the space,” Kennedy says. 

10. And 10,000 S.F. community members helped

The design professionals weren’t the only ones consulted on this park. Input from more than 10,000 community members helped shape Tunnel Tops, and children from the city tested it out in person prior to opening. 

The Campfire Circle at Presido Tunnel Tops park in San Francisco, California
Campfires, barbecue pits, picnic benches — it’s all free for visitors.
Presido Tunnel Tops

11. Presidio history can be found throughout

After coming into service as a military base in 1846, the Presidio was decommissioned in 1989 and handed to the National Park Service five years later. Several historic buildings remain, like a circa-1900 guardhouse that now houses the Presidio Visitor Center. Another beautiful historic building will become the Tunnel Tops restaurant. 

12. There are 180 native plant species

Drought-resistance was the most important quality for plants at Tunnel Tops, which meant that many Mediterranean species found a new home in the park. As guests move from the Presidio Plaza down towards the waterfront, the plants become entirely species native to the Presidio — 180 of them, to be exact.

13. Creating Tunnel Tops was a group effort

Two federal agencies managing the Presidio — the Presidio Trust and the National Park Service —  and the nonprofit Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy shared one goal: to make national park experiences accessible to all in San Francisco. Tunnel Tops was able to give life to this dream after the GGNPC raised $98 million from many generous donors, including San Francisco families like the Benioffs and the Reillys. 

14. The park has been in the works for nearly 30 years

In 1993, it became clear that Doyle Drive would not endure another 1989-level earthquake. Presidio Parkway replaced Doyle Drive in 2015, with tunnels beneath the Presidio replacing open highway — presenting city planners with the opportunity to unify the two previously separated pieces. Nearly 30 years later, Tunnel Tops makes good on that once-distant ambition.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.