San Francisco Barbary Coast Trail Northern Waterfront

The Barbary Coast Trail is roughly 4 miles in length and takes visitors through several of San Francisco’s colorful neighborhoods while exploring the city’s past and present.

This section of our walk along the Barbary Coast Trail begins at Pier 39 along San Francisco’s Northern Waterfront. Pier 39 is a haven for tourists. It is a fun place to see but be careful to manage your time – it is easy for time to quickly pass and there is a great deal in the area to experience.

At the northwestern side of the pier is the boisterous ‘barking’ California sea lions. These pinnipeds ‘haul out’ on the docks to sun and rest. During the winter months, it is possible for the population to reach as high as 600! During this visit, roughly 150 or so sea lion residents were enjoying this bay-side property. From a distance, the sea lions look cute and cuddly, but some of the males can reach weights up to 850 pounds and 7 feet in length! The sea lions have proven to be a revenue generator for Pier 39 attracting thousands of onlookers each year. We enjoyed watching their rest as well as antics including two juveniles playing tag; one wound dive into the water quickly followed by a friend, a second later the first would bolt from the water landing on the pier. The friend would join him and the two would playfully wrestle then chasing each other again. After having our fill of sea lions we walked down the Embarcadero passing colorful and sometimes flamboyant street vendors who sought the attention and tips of admiring tourists. In the distance, we could see our next stop, the USS Pampanito.

The USS Pampanito is a submarine that served during World War II and today welcomes visitors. During the War the Pampanito patrolled the South China Sea sinking six enemy ships and damaging four others. Sometimes her crew was subjected to long hours, depth charges and near misses by torpedoes. Visitors have an option of using a handheld device to help guide them through the sub and learn more about this vessel’s story. I was fascinated to see a tiny galley that was roughly 8 feet long and 5 feet wide, it served 4 meals a day for up to 80 crew members!

My daughter enjoyed the torpedo rooms with polished metal and gigantic sized torpedoes on display. The smell of diesel and oil permeated the air in the sub and I could only imagine how great the smell must have been more than sixty-five years ago.

This was a good visit, but as I entered the mess I remembered a visit eleven years earlier when – as I entered the same room – was greeted by four elderly men who had served about the Pampanito during the war. They were warm natured and jovial about talked affectionately about their service, but also with great respect. It was easy for them to laugh one minute, then have a strong emotional and reverent tone in their voice the next. I do not know if any of these men still return, but the presence of those who served aboard the USS Pampanito during the war still lingers here.

Our next stop was just a few steps down the pier to the Liberty Ship ‘SS Jeremiah O’Brien’ – and it is a treat! This is a wonderful place to play and learn about US History. We stayed an hour and a half and still did not see it all.

A Liberty Ship is a cargo vessel built during World War II to supply forces in Europe and in the Pacific. The Jeremiah O’Brien was one of 2,751 ships that were built for this purpose. The O’Brien served at the battle of Normandy and in the far Pacific, but this ended in 1946 when she was made inactive and ‘mothballed’ with scores of the other ships. Years later she was chosen for restoration and sailed away from the mothball fleet under her own power. Hundreds of volunteers worked tirelessly and returned the O’Brien to her former glory. In 1994 the restored Liberty Ship sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and returned to the Normandy beaches of France to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of D-Day. The O’Brien is only two of such Liberty Ships that remain.

I enjoyed the labyrinth of walkways and ladders in the four-story-tall engine room. The kids loved patrolling the sky and defending the ship against imaginary aircraft with the revolving anti-aircraft guns on deck. These giant guns still pivoted on their turrets, powered by hand cranks and the grit and energy of youthful kids. At the back of the O’Brien, we found an inactive artillery shell that must have weighed 80 pounds and was about 30 inches long. The best part of our visit was the lack of crowds.

Continuing down the waterfront check out the sidewalk cafes and crab vendors who will serve up some cooked Dungeness Crab.

The next stop was the Balclutha, a square-rigged sailing ship (also shown at the top of this article) that evokes a time when white sails powered giant wooden ships over the waves. The interior has been restored and offers a glimpse into the cargo and life of the time. It also introduces you to the cramped crew quarters and the small, but luxurious Captain’s quarters. While on the main deck look for an empty cage as it is the beginning of a scavenger hunt of sorts. One sailor’s old journal talked about pigs getting loose during a voyage and how difficult it was to locate and capture them. This scavenger hunt barrows from his journal entry – your job is to try to find the wayward pig, Sowclutha, she is somewhere aboard. Other historic ships are moored in the area and offer other opportunities to explore some great vessels.

Everyone was ready for a snack so we visited Ghirardelli Square for a quick bite of ice cream. Afterward, we bought Cable Car tickets for a quick trolley trip back to the start of the Barbary Coast Trail at Market and Powell Streets.

>> Read my Ten Tips for Walking the Barbary Coast Trail.

Reference: “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon.

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