How I See San Francisco: National Park Service Ranger Michele Gee
A Bay Area native, and a descendant of Chinese immigrants that came through Angel Island, Michele Gee has a unique perspective on the City and the Presidio in her role as Chief of Interpretation and Education for the National Park Service at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Michele has worked for the San Francisco Conservation Corps and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy before her current role. She has lived in the North Beach, Sunset, and Panhandle neighborhoods, and now lives in the East Bay with her husband and son. Here, Michele shares some thoughts with us on how she sees San Francisco.
Tell us about your current role with the National Park Service.
I oversee the visitor centers, exhibits, social media, interpretive and education programs, community outreach, and volunteers. It's a 24/7 job and keeps me on my toes. At the Presidio, I work with staff and partners to ensure everyone has access to our public lands with the ultimate goal of providing visitors with transformative park experiences through interpretation, storytelling, and dialogue.
What’s one thing you’d like to share about the Presidio that most people may not know?
The Presidio is like an onion: you can keep peeling back the layers and find more and more. Not only is the park home to amazing and endangered wildlife, but it’s steeped in nearly 250 years of history and culture, and it’s the traditional homeland of the Yelemu Ohlone. There’s a museum at the historic Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center run by the National Japanese Historical Society; the Fort Point National Historic Site, where rangers can take you on a candlelight tour; and miles of hiking trails through coastal wetlands, scrub, and historic forests. There’s so much recreation available in the Presidio, from golfing to kite sailing to volunteering, and more.
What makes the park a special part of the San Francisco community?
I meet people all the time that have a connection to the Presidio; they were either born at Letterman Hospital or had a father who was stationed on the Presidio. I only recently found out that my great uncle is buried in the San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio. As a colonel in the Army, he was the highest ranking Japanese-American officer at the time. These ties connect the Presidio to so many families, but the Presidio is also deeply intertwined with the city itself. Lover’s Lane in the Presidio was established in the 18th century. It was a footpath used as a shortcut by Spanish soldiers and missionaries to get from the Presidio’s Main Post to Mission Dolores. After the 1906 earthquake, the Presidio became a refugee camp for 16,000 people. Visitors today can visit two earthquake cottages in the park. People jog, bike, camp, and gather in the Presidio daily, and San Francisco residents enjoy showing it off to visiting friends and family.
What makes the Presidio stand out from other national parks?
The Presidio is the convergence of so many things: recreation, natural beauty, historic landscapes, wildlife habitat, land and the bay, international visitors and locals, both young and old alike. The Presidio is also in the heart of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. You can look out from the Presidio’s outlooks and see other lands that encompass this park, including Alcatraz and the Marin Headlands. There’s such diversity within the park. What also makes the Presidio special is that it’s set within a large urban area. This means there’s never a shortage of talented artists and creative organizations to partner with to create interesting and dynamic programs and events.
You grew up in San Francisco. How have you seen the Presidio change over the years?
In 1997, I was part of the early restoration efforts at Crissy Field. I remember the trash, the pavement, and the blight in the Presidio. I also remember when most buildings in the park were vacant and dilapidated, and there were invasive plants everywhere. Even though the Army base had closed down and it had become part of the national park system, most people did not come visit the Presidio—and when they did, they often got lost. Today, the Presidio has been completely transformed, and there’s always something new to discover and something exciting to do in the park.
What are some must-dos for a first-time visitor to the park?
If you’ve never been to the Presidio, the first thing to do is to stop into the Presidio Visitor Center. This visitor center opened in 2017 and helps visitors navigate the park, learm about activities, and provides the context for why the Presidio is worth a visit. The interactive digital media table is my favorite part. You can touch a picture of a person, place, or thing and it provides you with information and displays its connection to other people, places, and things. You can keep connecting, reading, and discovering all sorts of fascinating stories.
What’s one event in the Presidio that you particularly enjoy?
Pasados del Presidio is an annual event in June that commemorates the establishment of the Presidio and the cultural roots of the Ohlone, Mexican, and Spanish people. Descendants of the Juan Batista Del Anza expedition return each year to recognize their ancestors. Kids and families can enjoy the hands-on activities, storytelling, dance, music, and more.
Do you have a favorite spot in the park to take a perfect photograph?
I love hiking the California Coastal Trail, which runs along the western edge of the Presidio. The setting is iconic northern California, with its rocky coastal bluff, native blooms, and Monterey cypress trees that have been shaped over time by the wind. The sound of the waves crashing below you, the wind in your face, and the dew from the fog creates a one-of-a-kind experience. You also pass several historic gun batteries, which serve as strong reminders of the Presidio’s previous role in coastal defense.
Any favorite places to take your son in the city?
I have many fond memories of Japantown growing up. My mother and grandmother used to take me there to buy mochi and shop in all the cool stores. It’s still a fun place to take my son, especially when there’s a special event like Origami Palooza or the Cherry Blossom Festival. I have a collection of lucky cats, so it’s always fun to window shop and occasionally add to my collection, order a bento box, and just hang out in the Peace Plaza.
What's a good place beyond the bridge that visitors should be sure to experience?
Yosemite National Park is one of my favorite places to go, especially in the winter. The park is spectacular when Yosemite Falls is surrounded by snow and ice, and the frazil ice at Yosemite Creek is really cool to watch. The park is less crowded in the winter, which I also prefer.
Hear more from Michele in our Facebook interview here.