EIGHTY-NINE YEARS ago this month, construction began on one of the great engineering feats of a bygone era. Aided by steam-powered excavation equipment and the able hands of thousands of laborers, the Golden Gate Bridge spawned a new era of architectural ingenuity without knowing it held a future as a leading lady of American prowess.
Today, the suspension cables and support towers primed in “International Orange” paint still inspires awe with both its design and aesthetic. It’s as much a part of the San Francisco landscape as the bay itself, and stands as an iconic symbol of global sophistication.
Spanning the one-mile wide convergence of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay, the bridge adopts a personality akin to the city’s demographics. In the same day it takes on a flavor, a color, a beauty, a menace. It has a warmth and charm that can quickly turn cold and deadly.
Mark Twain once wrote “The coldest winter I ever spent was the summer I spent in San Francisco.” No doubt the northern coastal climes can turn a summer’s day into a shivering November experience.
Last summer I returned to this wonder to document an afternoon and evening of its tortured schizophrenia. As expected, the notorious Bay Area weather performed as if Sigmund Freud had written a screenplay on the complexities of an ever-changing persona. Here, perhaps, is his play, in four parts.
Part 1: Fort Point
In the right conditions, Fort Point is a surfing destination. Hard to believe, but easy to understand when you’re idling near the rocky shore, watching the ocean currents flow under the bridge, make a hard right and swirl into this giant eddy.
Fort Point stood on guard for the Bay Area from the Gold Rush through World War II. It’s now a museum, offering tours to the masses while being nestled just under the bridge, on the southern point.
On this day, it was mid-afternoon and the winds were whipping wildly from west to east. The sea was choppy, and the fog that adds mystery and mood was low, thick and aggressively transient. The temperature was 57 degrees (it’s July!). Visitors bundled up, walking the shore, taking selfies or casting a line.
This was the moodiest of scenes. Foreboding, a cool blue palette, salt water crashing onto the rocks, sending sea spray into the air.
Part 2: Baker Beach
Famous for its unpredictability — if the seas are rough and the tide high, be prepared to be washed out — the views here offer a perspective not always sought after.
You’re west of the bridge, looking in toward the bay. On this day, the winds were so strong that sand was slung into faces (and camera lenses). A tripod was useless, and no images were captured from this location.
While a huge disappointment, a natural abatement was nearby, across the bridge, in a sheltered cove once coveted by the military.
Part 3: The Marin Headlands
Perhaps the most popular tourist area, just when you cross the bridge heading north. It is often crowded and produces the most-seen images of the bridge.
At this location, you’ll find World War II era bunkers erected to protect the west coast from submarines or naval attacks. These are fun to explore. Just expect huge crowds any time of year. The headlands are a great draw to themselves, offering hiking, limited camping and insanely gorgeous views in all directions.
Wishing to avoid crowds during a pandemic, I headed for the final stage, for the play’s final act.
Part 4: Fort Baker, Point Cavallo & The Presidio Yacht Club
There’s some magic here. Fort Baker became a U.S. Army post in 1866 and was active through both World War I and World War II. Its parade grounds and officers’ quarters still stand, offering a nostalgic, military feel to a gorgeous natural cove.
The afternoon and evening light spills over golden hills, as fog hugs the crests and nestles into the canyons like a well-worn scarf.
From Point Cavallo and the yacht club grounds the views are stunning. It’s not just the Golden Gate Bridge, but also the city lights of San Francisco, the Bay Bridge lit like a Christmas ornament and the cargo ships silently slipping through the waters.
Seals playfully dance in the water, fully aware of the audience that cackles and wields smart phones to make videos or take selfies. Boat owners walk the concrete perimeter, unlocking the metal gates that protect their vessels. Fog horns blare, and green and red signals pierce the darkness, offering guidance to captains and crew.
The light, the fog, the sounds of vehicles humming across the suspension expanse. Seals and seagulls, fish flapping and flopping at feeding time, cresting the surface for bugs.
The schizophrenia was on full display here, with the Golden Gate Bridge offering a temperamental display of her wild yet beautiful persona. One image didn’t look anything like the next, even if taken 10 minutes apart.
I stayed until after 11 p.m., letting the mood, color, temperature and atmosphere change by the second. The final image of the night, a 30-second exposure of the Bay Bridge and city lights, captured the essence of Point Cavallo. It produced an inky, velvety foreground of dark blue water. In the distance, the Bay Bridge twinkled while the city lights bounced off a ceiling of fog, creating a cozy blanket over one of the great cities of the world.
Want a new perspective on this amazing city? Head over to the former Naval Air Station Alameda Island, grab a chair on the tarmac and sip the wonderful libations of Faction Brewing Co. I found the Hipster Conformant flavorful and refreshing.
It's Fort Baker. And the proximity to Sausalito, an underrated city nestled on the shores of the bay with elite restaurants and million-dollar views.
Experience the San Francisco Sound of the late '60s with Big Brother & the Holding Company's "Cheap Thrills."