San Francisco’s Oldest Residents


Words: Ruby Perez
Photos: Alejandrina Hernandez, Andy Sweet & Ruby Perez

The below information is a personal commentary by Ruby Perez on each location. She sat down with SF State’s Chair of the Department of Geological Sciences Karen Grove to discuss the city’s rich topography.

San Francisco defies the odds — one of the most culturally and economically influential cities in the world is spread on a topography that was created a billion years ago on the ocean floor. The hills, just as much as the Transamerica building or the Golden Gate Bridge, are a defining characteristic of the Foggy City. Urban dwellers scale the hills with ease and leave the tourists huffing and puffing in the dust. It brings us a certain kind of pride and a mild fear as we think about our city’s wildly steep and descending hills and predisposition toward earthquakes. Long ago our city was in constant motion, being bent and tilted, while others shifted and rose. Although the forces that were doing the work are now gone, the artwork that is our city’s topography remains.

The birth of our city began when the seafloor (made up of serpentinite and basalt) was created at a mid-ocean ridge and moved toward the continent. Micro-organisms (radiolaria) and mud fell through the water and collected at the seafloor, while at the same time, sand eroded from the continent and flowed down to greet the organisms and mud. The ocean crust with overlying sediments slid beneath the continent, and lifted up to become the rocks we see today in San Francisco. Corona Heights, Twin peaks, Tank Hill, Bernal Heights, Grand View, and Mount Davidson all share the same creation process.

It certainly is a geological masterpiece, and it’s time to appreciate them for all that they are. The following locations are very special in their own ways, and after a little sweating, they become the perfect place to enjoy how visually stunning our city is. Some are lush, cool, and covered with foliage, while others are mostly defined by harsh bedrock. However they all serve as the defining characteristic of the place many of us call home.

1. Tank Hill
Tank Hill was first named after the Clarendon Heights Water Tank which was built in 1894 by the Spring Valley Water Company. However after its discontinuation, the area became open to the public. Underlain by Franciscan chert bedrock, the hill features rock outcroppings that, like the hill itself, was formed on the ocean floor around 130 million years ago. Visitors will notice how smooth and shiny the outcropping are, and realize that they can serve as perfect seating to view the city. Tank Hill is San Francisco’s oldest natural feature and is the most stunning location to catch a view of the Golden Gate Bridge as well as the Bay Bridge. At night, the area is a glowing orb in which the rainbow colored lights of the Castro can be seen as well as the electrifying colors of the signature Coke sign that sits along Highway 101 — this place would give Twin Peaks a run for its money.

2. Billy Goat Hill
There is nothing quite like experiencing the rush of doing something very dangerous. Adrenaline fills the veins as we contemplate something that is possibly very stupid, like swinging from a rope swing at the edge of a very steep hill. Covered in green grass, Billy Goat Hill is the place to visit when you want the view of San Francisco and a dose of danger. A eucalyptus tree sits atop the hill toward the very edge with a rope attached. Sometimes the more cautious civilian will cut down the rope in order to guarantee safety, however the rope is always replaced by those who want to feel the rush of soaring midair over the city.

3. Mount Davidson
Mount Davidson is the highest natural peak in San Francisco, standing at an impressively high elevation of 928 feet. The view from Mount Davidson portrays the southeastern part of the city, stretching along downtown to Portola Drive. The hike up is a little more strenuous than the others, but worth the journey regardless, because hidden behind the tall green grass and array of thick trees is a massive white cross. The cross may look familiar, because it was notoriously featured in the 1971 classic Dirty Harry.

4. Grand View
The raving and praising about neighborhoods such as the Mission or the Haight are nothing new. But often times other San Franciscan neighborhoods are left out, leaving them to be forgotten or written off as unexciting. Although the Sunset hardly sees any sun, and some argue fun, it is the home to one of the most magnificent of views: Grand View. Situated at the tippy-top of 16th Avenue, Grand View features a long and winding staircase that is covered in a colorful mosaic that runs to the top. The view is stunning, with Ocean Beach stretching far and expansively into our city’s signature fog.

5. Bernal Heights Hill
Are you a fan of the Sound of Music? Have you ever wanted to burst out running Julie Andrews style belting out ‘The hills are alive, with the sound of music’ while dancing like that star you’ve always desired to be? An expansive, green, mossy hill, Bernal Heights Hill is the kind of place that would be the perfect location to do just that. The view stretches from the Bernal Heights neighborhood, downtown, to Sutro Towers.