As I walk around the Mission, stressed out, homework, bills, work and so much more is on my mind. The sun is shining, but it is cool out. Perfect weather for some light hiking. I head up toward Noe Valley, but I know that the upscale shops and rich mothers will only add to my misery. I hang a left and start heading toward a little park that I hardly ever see anyone at.
On Castro and 30th Street lies Billy Goat Hill which has a great view of the city rope swing that throws you out over the edge of the hill and affords a sweeping view of the city. The swing is more like a rope with a loop in it where you can place a foot and stand up, or you can grip tight and hold on for the ride. Whenever I am in need of a clear mind and some good clean fun, I head up to Billy Goat Hill.
As I’m floating over the hill I am reminded that there are many peaceful and pleasant places in the city that offer similar delights. San Francisco is a place full of reserved natural areas that offer beautiful views of the land.
On the northwest side of town, bordering the ocean, the beautiful trails of Land’s End wind through cypress trees, around boulders, and the ocean breeze clears the air of any foul smells. This area, also known as Point Lobos, named so by Spanish explorers for the once thriving sea lion population.
Today the rocky beaches are full of oyster-hunting birds, washed-up debris, and if you look closely at low tide, you can see the shipwrecked remains of three boats that met their ends at the rocky outcroppings lining the coast at this point.
If you are daring enough to leave the main path here, there is much to be explored. Below the path and on the water’s edge, the waves crash in as you make your way over and around rocks. Some are chunks of cement with small rocks lodged in them, left over from the Sutro Baths.
“When I walk down to Mile Rock Beach it makes me think ‘Am I still in San Francisco?’ says Ben Vazakas. “There is a perfect view of the Marin Headlands.”
Vazakas moved to San Francisco just under a year ago. He has been exploring the city’s natural areas ever since. “We have so many here, why not take advantage of them?” he asks. “I go mainly to get away from the hustle and bustle. There is no one bothering you at these beautiful places.”
If you are lucky, you will even stumble upon the old bathroom, now slabs of cement with plumbing and a toilet seat sticking out. Graffiti covers what use to be the walls. While not a typical beach visit, this off-the-trail adventure is full of things to see, and lots to climb over. It is a way to explore the city’s history without roaming around its blocks. Each item washed ashore tells a story of its own, and there is no telling how hundreds of cement slabs ended up along the water’s edge.
For those who prefer to stay on the trails, or close to the parking lot near the Cliff House, 48th and Point Lobos Avenue, there is an expansive parking lot with a few trailheads. The trails are well-maintained and some are marked off with historical signposts telling of the land’s first occupants and how they used each area.
For many San Francisco residents Land’s End is a bus ride or two away. So, for those living southeast of the Outer Richmond neighborhood, Golden Gate Park might provide a more suitable getaway.
Golden Gate Park is about three miles long and half a mile wide. This man-made wonder is roughly 20 percent larger than New York’s Central Park. The park features a variety of activities. From walking along, admiring the shear beauty of the park, to an 18-hole frisbee golf course, to baseball fields, fly fishing practice ponds, wandering water buffalo, baseball diamonds, and open meadows with picnic tables, Golden Gate Park seems to have it all.
“Golden Gate Park is dope, because it has so many things,” says Tiffany Franklin, a long-time city resident. “There are the water buffalo near the lake, waterfalls, museums–it’s like the all-you-can-do park. I go to sit in the sun, enjoy nature, or whatever,” she adds.
On the east end, closer to Stanyon Avenue, the Conservatory of Flowers is a greenhouse that serves as home to roughly 1,700 plant species. Once you gallivant inside you can get lost among a variety of tropical and rare plants. Open Tuesday through Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free on the first Tuesday of every month, otherwise there is an entrance of $5 for students with IDs and $7 for adults.
Jaunt across JFK Avenue to the AIDS Memorial Grove and witness a tribute to all those who have felt the anguish and pain of AIDS in their lifetime. The Grove is decorated with beautiful stone memorials, sloping landscaping, and a variety of plants. If you are seeking a quite place for some reflection, the grove is a great option. Typically during much of the week, there are only a few people meandering through this part of the park.
Golden Gate Park is also home to a few man-made lakes, the DeYoung Museum, Academy of Sciences, Japanese Tea Garden, and many other gardens, polo fields and plenty of paths to provide you peace of mind and an inner-city escape from cement.
“I live across the street,” says Joe Johnson, a lover of Golden Gate Park. “I go jogging there. There are a bunch of joggers so there is a runner’s community. I like to run around the polo fields.”
“I don’t have to pay to go to a gym, because there is a great parcour trail,” adds Johnson. “I like to see all the green of the trees against the blue sky, when the sky is blue of course. The air is really fresh.” Parcour is a type of obstacle course using gravity to help promote fitness.
Even further south of Golden Gate, closer to the Outer Sunset, Ingleside, and West Portal neighborhoods, another great park houses a lake amongst dog play areas and a banquet hall. Pine Lake is one of two natural lakes within city limits.
Stern Grove is also home of the Stern Grove Music Festival that takes place every summer. There are multiple entrances to the Grove, 19th Avenue at Sloat Boulevard provides foot and bike access, but you can drive down and park in a small lot from Sloat. The recreation area takes up 33 acres and stretches from 19th Avenue all the way to 34th Avenue.
Once down inside, enjoy a peaceful stroll around the lake, watch the dogs running around, and sit and consume a good book at the stone, outdoor amphitheater. There are never many people there. Fog rolling in while sun shines down through the tops of the aromatic eucalyptus creates a mystical environment you can almost feel sweep through the area.
East of Stern Grove, and close to a BART stop, Glen Park Canyon cuts through three neighborhoods to reveal the lay of the land before the steep hills and rocky terrain were poured over with concrete. In fact, the first commercial manufacturing of dynamite occurred within the canyon thanks to Adolph Sutro. He was the 24th mayor of San Francisco. The dynamite plant exploded in 1869, killing two, injuring nine, and leveling the entire facility.
The canyon is roughly 70 acres of undeveloped land that is home to the largest remaining free-flowing creek in San Francisco. On the water’s edge willow thickets provides habitat to many of San Francisco’s dwindling wildlife.
Signs warn visitors entering the park that coyotes roam the grounds. Raccoons, skunks, opossums, red-tailed hawks and great horned owls also choose the Canyon as home.
Picnic tables, a baseball diamond, and a children’s daycare center offer landing spots for all-ages at one end of the park. A couple of trails lead away from there up through tall trees, along rocky cliff paths, and down into swampy land as you get closer to the creek. Climb up the rocks and to the edge of one of the many cliffs and enjoy the juxtaposition of the natural land and ritzy neighborhoods.
For those living in the Portola, Bernal Heights, Excelsior and Mission neighborhoods, Bernal Heights Park is a fantastic spot to enjoy sweeping views of the city. On clear days you can see clearly north to the Marina and east in to Oakland.
From the Mission, hike up any street toward the top of the hill on any of the many staricases and garden paths leading to the park.
“Bernal has blackberry bushes at the bottom,” says Will Thompson. “They are fun to eat while you look at the city.” He has been frequenting the hill since he moved to the Mission over three years ago.
About halfway up, above Alabama Street, a mini-park has been constructed with benches, a dog-waste bin, and freshly planted trees. Climb the steep stairs next to beautiful homes and enjoy the expanding landscape the whole way to the top.
“There’s something about hiking to the top of a hill to sit and feel secluded from the world. You can just get the hell away from it all,” says Yvette Montemayor. She grew up living close to the hill and has hung out there since she was a young girl.
“I like to go to the park alone and sit, read, contemplate. Sort out my thoughts,” says Montemayor. “Especially parks like Bernal– that’s a good thinking park. It is off the beaten path.”
Once at the peak, take a walk around the radio tower, enjoy the panorama from the hillside, climb around some rocks, or lay in the grass. The hill is the perfect place to take in the spectacle of the city and get some perspective. Enjoy the scene as dogs frolic, hawks soar overhead, and people make new friends.
“There are all these hawks that fly around and kill rats and other birds,” Thompson recalls, “One time we saw it grab a mouse and drop it. So, we walked over and looked at it. It landed next to a tiny vodka bottle so it looked like it got wasted and passed out. But, of course, it didn’t,” he laughs. “Parks are a good place to make out with chicks.”
McLaren Park is an expansive park full of rolling hills, tall trees, magical meadows, picnic spots, and much more. Walking around this park you can encounter all types of people. There are trails for mountain bikers, families taking short strolls, lovers enjoying picnics, and a little something for everyone.
McLaren is the second largest park within city limits. The park spans 317 acres. It is a hidden gem out past the Portola district, close to the Excelsior, and Visticon Valley. Two large play areas feature tennis courts, basketball courts, soccer fields, children play areas, picnic tables, soccer fields, and seven miles of trails for hiking, jogging, and walking.
“I heard there are buried bodies there,” says Vazakas. “There are great views. Not too many people know about it. Most of the time there is no one there. I like to bike to the top and hang out at the picnic tables.”
A nine hole golf course slopes through the park, a water tower and reservoir shoots up beyond the trees. The blue tower is visible from BART and the freeways. The water tower and reservoir delivers water to the surrounding communities.
The secluded McLaren Park amphitheater is a modern reinterpretation of a Greek-style amphitheater. It is located in a natural slope in the land, allowing different leveled seating to better view the large stage. Just off of Shelley Drive, the amphitheater can hold an audience of 700. On a day the amphitheater is deserted, it is a great place to find some solitude among an ancient looking structure.
Yerba Buena Park is a perfect escape right in the middle of tall buildings, taxi cabs, and over-priced stores. Walk in to the park, take in the fountain, the small pond, and forget that you just stepped off of busy Mission Street. Relax in the park, lay in the grass, and glimpse the tall buildings that surround the open space. This small natural area is perfect for a quick lunch break or a few minutes watching the clouds pass by.
Another place to observe the clouds is between the Castro and Haight districts. Corona Heights is up some winding roads within a neighborhood full of large homes. Enter the small grassy area of the park and be greeted by dogs running around. Walk up the stairs to the right and after a steep, windy, ascent, be greeted by large boulders, handy for blocking the wind, and get an amazing panoramic view of the city. The peak of the area is 520 feet above sea level.
It is home to many of San Francisco’s native reptiles. Many beautiful butterflies can be spotted floating around the area. There are also many varieties of birds who make their nests within the park. The area is protected under San Francisco’s Natural Area Program because many areas of the park are made up of native plant communities.
“Discover a new place you might enjoy, a spot you can claim as your own,” says Vazakas. “Plus, you won’t have to see waves of people at Dolores Park.”
Besides getting some piece of mind and some fresh air, San Francisco’s parks have a lot to offer. They are the last habitats of native wildlife and plant species. For many, they are a sanctuary away from the demands of every day life in San Francisco.