Can You Fly a Drone in San Francisco? (And Best Places to Fly)


If you are a drone enthusiast, San Francisco is definitely an enticing place to fly your drone. But are you legally allowed to do so? And where can you fly your drone in the city? There are several details regarding all these questions. 

Flying drones in San Francisco is legal as long as you follow all FAA and state rules and regulations. If you’re flying a drone recreationally, you first need to register your drone with the FAA and complete the TRUST test. You can only fly a drone in San Francisco City Parks with a permit.

Keep reading to understand local and state drone laws for San Francisco, and to find out some of the best places to fly drones.

Local San Francisco drone laws

Everyone knows that San Francisco has a progressive vibe. However, there has been a lot of confusion on the legality of using drones in the city. One thing that is certain, however, with the San Francisco Recreational and Park Department you could end up paying a $200 fine if you are caught flying drones in a city park without a permit. 

San Francisco has some of the best parks in the country, so it’s understandable that you would want to fly your drone in one of them. Unfortunately for recreational drone pilots, it’s almost unheard of to get a permit to fly in a city park. 

If you want to fly your drone in a city park for commercial purposes, you can apply for a permit with the Film Permit Office (link). 

FAA rules state that you can’t fly over large groups of people, within five miles of an airport, or over stadiums and sporting events. While this will significantly limit where you can fly a drone in San Francisco, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find some great places to fly.

California State drone laws

The following drone laws are a round-up of some of the laws enacted in the state of California. The California State register drafted these rules.

  • SB 807//2016: The rule states that if a first responder destroys a drone that was interfering with them as they were responding to an emergency, they will not be liable for the damage.
  • AB 1680 //2016: You will be charged for misconduct if you interfere with first responders when reacting to emergencies.
  • AB 856// 2015: In this law, you are not permitted to use any aircraft to take pictures or record videos of a person engaged in a personal or familial activity. The legislation was put in place because the press used drones to take pictures of public figures and celebrities.
  • AB 2655//2020: first responders are prohibited from using drones in crime scenes unless they have a valid reason to use them and a warrant.
  • California Department of Parks and Regulations: you are prohibited from using drones in state park cultural preserves, nature preserves, or wilderness sites. Therefore, make sure to always review the state park’s regulations before you fly your drone there. Note that each Park in the state has its own rules and regulations. 
  • PO 925-19-32 //2019: if the Park is part of Orange Coast District, you cannot launch or land drones there. These parks are; Corona Del Mar State Beach, Crystal Cove State Park, Doheny State Beach, Huntington State Beach, San Clemente State Beach, San Onofre State Beach, and Bolsa Chica State Beach.
  • Part 107: Part 107 rules apply to those who are flying drones for commercial use. Meaning you need a certificate to operate your drone and have a commercial drone license.

Federal drone laws

To familiarize yourself with drone laws that apply throughout the US, and in San Francisco as well, here’s a quick summary of the FAA rules and regulations.

  • Ensure that your drone maintains an altitude of 400 feet or lower
  • Never fly your drones near other aircraft because they can cause a crash. Ensure that it is not within five miles of any airport without permission. 
  • Ensure always to give way to manned aircraft and do not fly it above people unless you have authorization.
  • Do not fly near the emergency response activities because you can interfere with the action and become charged for misconduct.
  • Do not operate under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 
  • Avoid flying a drone over stadiums or sporting events.
  • Do not fly a drone carelessly or recklessly.
  • The drone should not have explosives, firearms, or any weapons.

Commercial pilots

If you are flying your drone for business purposes, you must follow the FAA’s 107 Small UAS rule. A section of this rule says that you are required to pass the FAA’s aeronautical knowledge test to get a Remote Pilot Certificate. 

After passing this part of the law, you will also need to get a federal Certificate of Authorization if you want to work with the government and fly drones on their behalf. This allows you to work in the police or fire department. The purpose of this license is to ensure that the pilot knows and follows the set rules and regulations for commercial use. 

Recreational pilots

Flying drones in San Francisco for recreational purposes requires you to follow the FAA’s recreational model aircraft rules. A section of this rule states that if you want to fly a drone that weighs over 250 grams or 0.55 lbs., you must pay $5 to get it registered. 

The state does not allow you to fly a drone at heights over 400 feet, or within five miles of an airport. Also, ensure that the drone is within your line of sight at all times. 

Recreational drone rules 

If you are flying for recreational purposes, it means you are strictly doing it for fun. There are FAA rules that govern just like it does for commercial drone users. The FAA controls these uncrewed aircraft because they cause many safety and security risks from flying them. 

Here is a straightforward review of everything you need to know about recreational drone regulations that are under model aircraft rules;

  • Operate your drone for recreational purposes only. You are prohibited from earning money or profits from it. It means you should fly it for fun and hobbies like when you are on vacation or flying for fun in a local park or backyard.
  • You must register your drone with the FAA, the drone must not weigh more than 0.55lbs.
  • It should be within your visual line of sight so that you can see the drone at all times as it flies. Know where it goes to avoid causing accidents. 
  • Ensure that you are complying with the guidelines set by the community. 

Best places to fly drones in San Francisco

There are many rules and regulations regarding the use of drones in San Francisco. However, that does not mean there are not some great places to fly them. You can easily access these places and get pictures of some of the best attractions in and around the city. 

To clear up any confusion, we mentioned earlier that drones are not allowed in city parks without a permit. This list contains a bunch of parks, but they’re far enough from the city proper to not be classified as city parks. They are drone friendly, and drones can be used here without permits. Just be mindful of other park-goers.

Public Park

Public Park is situated between Pier 35 and 39 in San Francisco. This area is a tiny strip of grass called Public Park. The site is the most incredible place to watch boats, with a marina directly at its front. From Public Park, you can also see Oakland Bay Bridge and many islands. Launch your drone from here and you will be able to take pictures and record videos of some of San Francisco’s most iconic skyline.

Blue Park

Blue Park is situated near Yerba Buena Island in the San Francisco Bay area. The island is also attached to Treasure Island, which is artificial and was designed by the American government in 1936. Here you can enjoy the beautiful skyline of the city and the surrounding area of the Bay. Blue Park is an awesome place to fly because you can simultaneously see the Golden Gate Bridge and the Oakland Bay Bridge. 

Since you are prohibited from flying your drone around the Golden Gate Bridge, you should take advantage of the proximity of this location if you want to film the Bridge. In this Park, you will get to view the Golden Gate Bridge, a total view of the bay area, giving you the best of everything.

Richardson AMA Field

This model airfield is owned by the PCC flying club and is located at Half Moon Bay, California. It is situated directly across the street from the Pacific Ocean shores. Make sure to always check the weather conditions before heading there, as the proximity to the oceanfront can make weather conditions unpredictable. 

The field also has a huge runway which is surrounded by an expansive open area. You can also use your drone to capture numerous views of the ocean in this location.

Empowerment Park

Empowerment Park is located in the eastern part of Lake Merritt in Oakland. It is just outside San Francisco and can offer you the best views of the lake. Empowerment Park is a historic landmark, made famous with its 126 light posts holding up 3400 light bulbs to make a brilliant necklace all around the park. 

This park also has many islands that serve as wildlife reserves. From here you can see different species of birds throughout the year. So, make sure to keep an eye on the birds when flying your drone in this park.

Cesar E. Chavez Park

The Cesar E. Chavez Park stretches out of San Francisco Bay into Berkeley, and measures 90 acres in total. In this park, you get to capture the best views and footage of the three iconic bridges of San Francisco. You can also get the best backdrop videos and photos from here, because the skyline of San Francisco can be seen off in the distance.

Are drones allowed at Golden Gate Park?

Golden Gate Park, the National Park land surrounding the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, does not permit the launch or operation of drones. All National Parks in the US forbid the use of drones in order to protect wildlife, and the interests of all park-goers. Unfortunately, this means that you cannot fly your drone anywhere in the near vicinity of the Golden Gate Bridge.

This doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t get some great drone shots of the bridge. A number of the locations mentioned in the section above will get you some great, although slightly more distant shots of San Francisco’s most famous bridge. 

Is it illegal to fly a drone over the Golden Gate Bridge?

It is not legal to fly a drone over the Golden Gate Bridge for the simple reason that the FAA forbids drone pilots to operate drones over moving vehicles. Even if you were to launch your drone from a boat to be able to get close to the bridge (you can’t launch it from the Golden Gate Park, remember?), you would still be breaking the FAA rule by flying over the bridge.

Though the state banned drones at Golden Gate Bridge in 2014, some irresponsible pilots still fly in restricted areas. Some of these flights, unfortunately, have ended up with a crash. According to the reports, five drones have been destroyed on the bridge since 2014. 

Can you fly a drone in Muir Woods?

The short answer to this question is no. You are not allowed to fly drones in Muir Woods. The National Park Service has control of any flight that takes off and lands on National Park property, including Muir Woods.

The NPS regulates more than 60 rivers, 23 nature trails, many monuments, historical sites, battlefields, seashores, and biking trails. The agency banned the use of drones in Parks in August 2014. According to 36 CFR 1.5, any aircraft is prohibited from flying in National Parks, including drones and model airplanes.

Why are you restricted from flying a drone in Muir Woods?

According to the National Park Service, you are restricted from flying drones in the woods and national parks because drones pose a danger to the staff, visitors, and wildlife. Drones produce some noise which tends to disrupt the calm experience visitors seek when they go to the park.

Note that NPS also uses drones in restricted areas for supervision activities, and search and rescue activities. They also fly them for fire safety, scientific studies, and aerial photography. But these uses are limited to Park Personnel, and you cannot expect to see them in every park because they require approval from the director of the state where the Park is situated.

Penalties for flying a drone in Muir Wood

Violating restrictions of flying drones in the park can lead to a jail term of up to six months or a fine of $5,000. You can also get citations from park rangers who have the authority to ban any future access to the park. 

Can you fly a drone over Alcatraz?

Alcatraz is a part of the National Park Service, and therefore, you cannot launch, land, or operate a drone on it. Flying drones over Alcatraz would be an amazing opportunity to capture aerial photography of a lovely and historic location, but unfortunately, this is not allowed. 

The NPS ban comprises a ban on launching, landing, or operating uncrewed aircraft on both land and water.

Where can you fly drones in the Bay Area?

There are a number of great places to fly a drone in the bay area. These places include:

  • Mare Island and Benicia Community Park 
  • Treasure Island 
  • Toll Plaza, located across the bridge on the Oakland side
  • Vallejo, Benicia, Carquinez Straits, and Martinez. Here you will find unique shots of bridges, ships, refineries, over cities, and open nature shots.

Can you fly a drone on Treasure Island, San Francisco?

You can legally fly a drone on Treasure Island in San Francisco. This man-made island that is part of Yerba Buena Island in the San Francisco Bay area offers some great views of the bigger San Francisco area.

Conclusion 

Adhere to the above drone rules and regulations to avoid running into trouble with the law. We’ve covered everything you need to know regarding drones in San Francisco, including local, federal, and state laws. 

Ensure that you are constantly checking up on local regulations before operating your drones to ensure that you are on the right track and avoid penalties. 

Elizabeth Ciobanu

Editor-in-Chief. Elizabeth is a full-time (homeschooling!) mom of four, and serial entrepreneur in a variety of enterprises, one of which is producing content for Droneblog. If free time existed, she would love to spend more time on hobbies such as flying a drone.

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