The Wave Organ was one of the primary destinations of our most recent San Francisco day trip, but after the climbing the Lyon Street Steps, we got sidetracked by the gorgeous sandy beach at Crissy Field and ended up walking two miles along the Golden Gate Promenade to historic Fort Point. The unplanned four mile round trip adventure left us starving, so after devouring a picnic lunch at the Marina Green, we headed over to the Wave Organ.
The Wave Organ
The Wave Organ is a wave-activated acoustic sculpture created to amplify and showcase the natural sounds made by water and waves in the San Francisco Bay.
Built on a small jetty in the Marina District in 1986, the Wave Organ was designed by artist Peter Richards and built by sculptor and master stone mason George Gonzalez in collaboration with the San Francisco Exploratorium. It is dedicated to Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium’s founder.
If you visit the Wave Organ, you’ll notice that the design of the musical marvel is random, inconsistent, and a bit odd. This is because the jetty and the terraced Wave Organ were created from pieces of carved granite and marble were salvaged from an old demolished San Francisco cemetery. Organ pipes rise up near benches, seats, and platforms, and dot the walkways, giving visitors many different opportunities to listen to the sounds of waves hitting the pipes—almost as if the bay is playing the giant musical instrument.
How The Wave Organ Works
The bubbling, gurgling, swishing, splashing sounds of the Wave Organ are produced by 25 concrete and PVC pipes that extend into the water around the jetty it sits on. As waves roll in and out, they crash into and around the organ’s pipes. This pushes water up into the pipes and pulls it back out again, changing the amount of air in the pipes, which then changes the pitch of the sound.
Visiting The Wave Organ
The Wave Organ jetty is small and it was packed with people when we arrived. Almost every organ pipe had people crowded around it and almost every spot to sit was taken. Luckily, good things come to those who wait. After about 10 minutes the crowd moved on and only a few people remained.
At first, we thought the San Francisco Wave Organ might be a dud. We made sure to visit at high tide when the wave-made music is supposed to be the best and we sat near the organ pipes, but didn’t really hear anything. But when Natalie stuck her ear right up to a pipe opening, she heard the magical music and we realized two important things:
- Your ears need to be close to the pipes.
- Calm waters and little waves make quiet, subtle music. Rough waters and bigger waves make louder, more pronounced music.
Once we figured that out, all of us had fun sitting in different spots, listening to different organ pipes, and seeing how the water’s music changed based on the pipe.
Before moving on to our next adventures, walking through the Palace Of Fine Arts, exploring Battery Mendell, and visiting the Point Bonita Lighthouse, we grabbed some photos of the beautiful views from this scenic vista point. From the Wave Organ you can see the Marina District, downtown San Francisco, the Presidio, Sausalito, the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point, the Marin Headlands, Alcatraz Island, Angel Island, the hills of the East Bay, and Mount Tamalpais.
Know Before You Go
- The Wave Organ is located at 83 Marina Green Drive, San Francisco, California 94123 in the Marina District.
- It is open all day and is free to visit, but the best time to visit is during high tide.
- The waves make the music, so if the water is too calm, it will be hard to hear the sounds. You need to get your ears close to the pipes!
- The sounds from the Wave Organ are subtle. Sit near an organ pipe and listen carefully for amplified gurgles, splashes, crashes, and trickles.
- Free parking is available in the marina and the walk to the Wave Organ from there is about 0.5 mile. (There will be lots of empty parking spaces close to the organ, but they’re part of the private Saint Francis Yacht Club.)
- Leaving the parking lot in the opposite direction will bring you to Crissy Field, gorgeous views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and a 2.0 mile walk to Fort Point — 4.0 miles round trip.