Number 56 - June 2017
Welcome to "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel's newsletter of fun and interesting things to do in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and Northern California. Whether you are visiting San Francisco or hosting visitors, Blue Heron can provide an unforgettable experience. Visit our website, www.BlueHeronTours.com, to learn more about our private, custom tours.
Five years ago, I wrote a "Rick's Tips" on avoiding the crowds in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Recent years have seen even more visitors to the area, so I think an update is warranted.
An estimated 19 million visitors came to San Francisco in 2016. There are days when it feels like all of them are in the line in front of you. Here are some tips for avoiding the crowds and making your visit to the City by the Bay more enjoyable.
A general travel tip is to try to avoid vacationing when schools are on break if you have that luxury. Many families are tied to a school schedule, so popular tourist destinations tend to be busier during these times and air fares are higher.
Over 1.5 million people visit Alcatraz each year. During the busy season, tours frequently sell out six or more weeks in advance. Tickets to the evening tours often are gone within a few days of going on sale. Alcatraz Cruises, the official concessionaire, releases tickets 90 days in advance of the tour date. You can purchase tickets by clicking here. A few tickets go on sale each morning, but few people want to wait in a long line at 6:00 a.m.
The two Powell Street cable cars are frequently packed during the busy season. Hour-long waits are not uncommon. You can usually avoid the crowds if you ride the cars early in the morning. If you are staying near Union Square, you'll want to get to the end of the Powell-Hyde and Powell-Mason lines at the corner of Powell and Market Streets before 8:30 a.m. If you are staying in the Fisherman's Wharf area, there are usually few people waiting before 9:30 a.m. The wait for the Powell-Mason line, which ends at the corner of Taylor and Bay Streets, is usually shorter than the wait for the Powell-Hyde cable car at Aquatic Park.
Many people try the trick of trying to board one of the Powell Street cable cars a few blocks from the end of the line, but now these lines are long. Better spots to board the cars are the corner of Powell and California Streets and the Cable Car Museum, at the intersection of Washington and Mason Streets, as a good number of folks get off at each spot.
You can always ride the California Street cable car, which is seldom crowded, but the views aren't as good.
Golden Gate Bridge Vista Points
The north and south vista points can have lines of cars extending back onto US-101. On many holiday weekends, traffic is so bad that the vista points are closed to cars from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The south (San Francisco) vista point is the more crowded of the two and has very limited car parking. Do not try to enter the vista point from US 101/CA 1 as you can find a long line of cars in front of you. If you must drive into the vista point, enter from Lincoln Blvd. in the Presidio. On really busy days, even Lincoln can be backed up. I recommend not even trying to find a parking space in the south vista point parking lot. Try parking at the Battery East parking lot, which is a few hundred yards/meters east of the vista point off of Lincoln. Parking is also available west of the vista point at Fort Scott. The vista point is serviced by MUNI bus #28.
When these vista points are full during my tours, I take guests to alternate sites for equally great views. Some of my favorites include Fort Point, Battery East, Crissy Field, and Lincoln Park in San Francisco, and Fort Baker on the Marin County side.
I am continuously amazed at the line of cars extending down the hill waiting to drive the crooked part of Lombard. I've seen the line extend westward on Lombard for as long as four blocks. Two-block long lines are not uncommon on busy Saturday and Sunday afternoons. If you must visit Lombard Street on a weekend, go in the morning when lines are rare.
When I drive down Lombard Street on my tours, I almost never wait as I drive up Russian Hill on Union Street, turn north on Hyde Street, and then right on Lombard to begin my descent down the Crookedest Street in the World. However, you will not be able to make this right turn on busy Saturday and Sunday afternoons when the traffic control officers stop cars from turning onto the crooked part of Lombard. Do not drive south on Hyde expecting to turn left onto Lombard as left turns are prohibited at this intersection.
San Francisco is a great town for food. I have heard the city has over 3,000 restaurants, more per capita than any other city in the U.S. While you can always find a good place to eat at the last minute, the most popular restaurants book out well in advance. Some require reservations up to two months ahead of time. If you want to dine at one of San Francisco's top restaurants, be sure to make a reservation before you arrive for your visit.
Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower
Parking at the top of Telegraph Hill is extremely limited and is prohibited on weekends. The wait for a parking space can easily be 15 minutes or more on the busiest days. Avoid the wait and get some exercise by walking up the hill. If you find the hike up too daunting, take the #39 bus up the hill and walk back down. You can also get a transfer on the bus, so you can go up and down on one fare if you don't spend too much time in Coit Tower.
Lines for the elevator to the top of Coit Tower seem unavoidable during the height of the tourist season. Visitors start lining up before the tower opens at 10:00 a.m. Unfortunately, the stairs to the top are not open to the public.
Walking among the redwoods at Muir Woods is a wonderful experience. However, the parking lots are small. I've seen cars parked on the side of the road 1.5 miles/3 kilometers away from the entrance to the park. To avoid the crowds, visit before 9:00 a.m. or after 4:00 p.m. If you arrive before 9:00 a.m., admission is free. Better yet, avoid parking completely by taking a tour, such as Blue Heron's Those Magnificent Redwoods. Another option is to take the ferry to Sausalito or drive to either Mill Valley or Sausalito and then take Golden Gate Transit's shuttle to Muir Woods. Shuttles generally run during the summer and around Christmas. You can get full shuttle information by clicking here.
Later this year or early next year, the National Park Service expects to introduce a reservation system to control the number of visitors to Muir Woods.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
On weekends and school holidays, the aquarium can have a line to purchase tickets. Avoid the wait by purchasing your tickets from the aquarium's website. Tickets are for a specific date; however, you can enter at any time during that day.
Avoid Napa and Sonoma Valleys on Saturdays during the summer and early fall if at all possible. Traffic can be awful. If you must go on a Saturday, taste at wineries that require appointments. Another option is to visit small wineries that many visitors overlook. You may not be familiar with the winery, but the wines are usually good.
Make your lunch reservations in advance as the most popular restaurants will not have tables available.
If you are driving through the Napa Valley, try to use the Silverado trail as traffic is much lighter. Better yet, visit my favorite parts of wine country - the Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valleys in Northern Sonoma County. The wines are very good and the tasting rooms less crowded. The town of Healdsburg is charming but, even here, a lunch reservation is recommended.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is about the size of the state of Rhode Island, but most visitors limit their time in the park to Yosemite Valley, which is about 8 miles/12 kilometers long and no more than 1 mile/1.5 kilometers wide. With over 4.25 million visitors each year, the Valley can get very crowded.
If you are visiting Yosemite National Park during the busiest seasons, you can avoid some of the crowds by exploring the high country along Tioga Road (CA-120) and the southern end of the park near Wawona. As of this writing, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias is closed for road and trail renovations and not scheduled to reopen until the fall of 2017. The Merced and Tuolomne Groves are open.
When you visit Yosemite Valley, use the free park shuttle to get around. If you are staying in the Valley, park at your hotel or campground and leave your car for the duration of your stay. If you are coming in for the day, arrive early and park at one of the day-use lots. Then use the shuttle to explore the Valley's sights.
You also are likely to find that, if you hike starting in the Valley, the crowds quickly thin out as you walk further from the trail-head. The friendly rangers at the Visitor Center can suggest hikes of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty.
Crowds are bigger everywhere on Saturday. Plan your Saturday activities so you avoid the worst of the crowds.
The National Park Service limits the number of visitors to Alcatraz, so you could visit "The Rock" on a Saturday. Just buy your tickets well in advance.
Crowds are fun at sporting events so, if the home team is in town, check out college football at the University of California or Stanford University. If it's baseball season, the Oakland Coliseum, where the A's play, is easily accessible by BART (our subway) and AT&T Park, where the Giants call home, is a 15-minute walk from Union Square.
The Ferry Building, at the foot of Market Street, hosts a big farmers market every Saturday from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. It's fun to stroll among the high-end food stalls. There's much prepared food available, so have breakfast or lunch at the market. On a nice day, you'll encounter a fair number of people, but Saturday's market is the best.
Get away from the crowds on a sunny day by walking the Land's End Trail from Lincoln Park to Fort Miley. You'll be rewarded with great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Marin Headlands, and the Pacific Ocean.
If you visit San Francisco this tourist season, you'll have a great time. Follow a few of these tips and you'll have an even better vacation.
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