Monday, August 4, 2014

10 Hikes with the Best Views in San Francisco

A version of this blogpost was originally posted on Thrillist on 7/28/14:

San Francisco’s hills can seem like a cruel joke at the end of a hard workout, a long night, or let’s face it - even with a bag of groceries - but they’re also what makes our city unique. We can’t complain too much about our hills because they give us the views that give others city envy while making us proud to call San Francisco home. Get your ‘pano’ mode ready - here are 10 hikes with the best views in San Francisco.*

1. Mt. Davidson Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 8.53.00 PM.png
In a city of over 40 hills, Mount Davidson is the tallest of them all. The 0.44 mile hike to the top is easy, and you can choose an exposed or eucalyptus-covered route to take you there. Once at the summit, you can soak in the downtown views, or stand at the foot of the 103-foot cross featured in the ransom scene of Dirty Harry. Two popular entrances for the park are on Dalewood and Juanita Way.

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 7.49.14 PM.png2. Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks may be five feet shorter than Mount Davidson, but it shows no sign of an inferiority complex. This is probably the best-known and most-loved view of the city for both tourists and locals. Leave the Christmas Tree Point tour buses behind and climb up Noe or Eureka Peak (yes, they have names) for 360 degree views. You can access the official stairway to Twin Peaks on Crestline Drive.

3. John McLaren Park’s Philosopher’s Way
The city’s second largest park may be out of the way, but it’s still worth a trip. McLaren Park’s Philosopher’s Way is a 2.7-mile loop with impossible-to-get-lost trail markers and a number of “musing stations” with quotations, history, and other park information. An 80-foot blue water tower marks the top of the park where you’ll get views that take you from downtown San Francisco all the way to San Bruno.

4. Presidio Promenade
With 25 miles of trails, the Presidio has enough hiking routes to make up its own top 10 list. There’s no one best trail in this historic ‘hood, but the Presidio Promenade stands out for its views of the Bay, Marin, and Crissy Field. The 2.2-mile paved trail starts at the Lombard Gate and visits the Presidio Main Post and San Francisco National Cemetery before reaching the Golden Gate Bridge.

5. Lands End
Land End may be San Francisco’s most perfect hike. At 3.5 miles round trip, it’s a legitimate workout, and whenever you get tired, you can just pretend you’re stopping to stare at the Golden Gate Bridge. To get a harder workout, follow signs for Mile Rock Beach to visit the Eagle Point Labyrinth. A trip all the way down to the beach and back will cost you 224 steps, but who’s counting?

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 8.00.25 PM.png6. Fort Funston
Located in the southwestern corner of the city, Fort Funston is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). The park’s sandy trails offer expansive views of the ocean and serve as arguably the largest unintentional dog park in the city. A nice two-mile hike at Fort Funston starts in the main parking lot. Take the Sunset Trail past Battery Davis and then take the Horse Trail back to your start.

Photo credit: Brett Lider
7. Stow Lake and Strawberry Hill
Hidden in Golden Gate Park, Strawberry Hill occupies an entire island in the center of Stow Lake. The top of Strawberry Hill is 430 feet tall and is the highest point in the entire park. For a 2+ mile hike, first circle the island then start climbing up. From the summit, you can get views of downtown San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Marin.

IMG_0291.JPG8. Batteries to Bluffs 
This bayside trail is short - 0.7 miles each way -  but still manages to pack a punch due to its large number of stairs. But don’t worry too much about the stairs, there is plenty to distract you. When you’re not gazing at views of the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, or the Marin Headlands, you can learn the history of the gun batteries you pass on the cliffs.

9. Bernal Hill 
Bernal Hill is a highlight of the (relatively) sunny neighborhood of Bernal Heights. Start your walk on the one-mile paved path surrounding the hill. Then take any of the park’s dirt trails to reach the top of the hill where you’ll find Sutro Tower’s smaller cousin, Sutrito Tower. From here, get 360 degrees views of the city including downtown, Twin Peaks, Mount Davidson, the East Bay, and the peninsula. On your way back down, don’t miss these slides.

10. Golden Gate Heights Park
The Inner Sunset’s Golden Gate Heights Park offers unique views of San Francisco. Not only can you see Sutro Tower and downtown, but you can also see the entire length of Golden Gate Park -- from the Panhandle to the ocean. This park isn’t a hike in and of itself, socombine a visit here with a trip to Grandview Park and its two nearby mosaic stairways (here and here).

*Views not guaranteed. Karl the Fog can strike at any time, especially in “Fogust.”

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

So what exactly is urban hiking?

At the start of each Urban Hiker SF tour, we ask our guests if they have ever been on an urban hike before. Most people either shake their head 'no' or give us a slightly confused look. After posing this question to countless hikers, I realized that most people don't have their own definition of urban hiking.

For San Francisco, I normally define urban hiking as "exploring the stairways, hills, and hiking trails" of the city. But there aren't stairways, hills, and hiking trails in every city, so how else can we define urban hiking? I started thinking about this, and wanted to answer the questions of "What exactly is urban hiking, and how does it differ from other hiking and walking?"

Here are a few characteristics that, when put together, create an urban hike:
Bench in Walter Haas Park

1. Urban environment  
This may be stating the obvious, but an urban hike has to be in an urban setting. This is the main characteristic that sets urban hikes apart from standard hikes. On both a standard hike and an urban hike, you might find yourself sitting on a park bench taking in a stunning view. Only on an urban hike, however, will that view be right next to a major downtown area.

Tombstone Wall in Diamond Heights
2. Spirit of Exploration 
Urban hiking (like hiking in general) also implies a spirit of exploration. When you embark upon an urban hike, you're not trying to take the most direct or functional route somewhere. On the contrary, you are aiming to enjoy your surroundings and discover something know, like a stone wall that's made of tombstones or a driveway that's covered in psychedelic ladybugs.

Psychedelic Ladybug Driveway

3. Fitness
Pacific Heights Stairs
To contrast walking and hiking again, a major difference between a walk and an urban hike is that with the latter, you're usually aiming for a higher level of heart-pumping action. With 630+ public stairways, 40+ hills, and 70+ miles of hiking trails, I think San Francisco has any number of your fitness challenges covered. I get out of breath just thinking about many of our stairways. 

And even if you don't have stairways in your city, it could be the pace at which you're walking, or the desire to climb up hills that turns your ordinary walk into a hike.

4. Green spaces
With urban hiking, it's often one's goal to get out into green spaces like parks, hiking trails, beaches, and more. Heading into nature in the middle of the city is part of the true essence of an urban hike. Often though, it's hard to completely lose your urban setting. Don't be surprised, for example, if a 1,000 foot-tall-man-made tower pops into the background. That is only to be expected.

5. Distance
And lastly, there is distance. One might not say that half-mile walk in the woods was a hike. But, you might say you "hiked all over town" racking up 10 miles running errands. Hiking often involves going a longer distance - let's say over 3 miles, but as you might imagine, there is no set distance that clearly divides walking and hiking.

While walking, hiking, and urban hiking have a lot of similarities, they have small differences that also make them unique. What really sets apart a walk from a hike from an urban hike is your own, personal perspective. What's your definition of urban hiking? Where do you live and do you go urban hiking in your city?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Hike All of SF Post 7: Presidio Promenade

I'm on a mission to #hikeallofsf. These are the stories of my hikes.

Hike Name: Presidio Promenade
Distance: 4.4 miles
Elevation: 200 feet
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Time: 1- 2 hours
Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash 

For this #hikeallofSF post, I decided to explore the Presidio Promenade, an easy 2.2 mile paved walk that starts at the Presidio’s Lombard Gate and ends at the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve hiked on many of the Presidio’s 25 miles of hiking trails, and was eager to see some new sites.
An early gift - a first view of the GG Bridge

This is a nice, easy walk suitable for hikers of all levels. The paved paths with minimal elevation are even great for people in wheelchairs or parents with children in strollers. When done as a roundtrip, the hike is 4.4 miles and leaves you in the Marina, an lively part of town for exploring restaurants and shopping.

This hike starts at the Lombard Gate, one of four official Presidio gates. Then you walk through a few buildings and make your way to the Presidio Main Post (pictured at right). From here, you can get your first view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
A paved path through the woods
After walking through the Main Post, you will pass the National Cemetery on your left and continue walking toward the bridge. You will enter a wooded area and then a clearing where you can see a pen that, depending on the time of day, can be filled with police horses. Further on your path, you can read informational plaques and learn the US military history like that of the Buffalo Soldiers. 

Next, cross over a wooden footbridge and continue toward the Golden Gate Bridge. You will pass under overpasses (under construction right now), and get views of downtown San Francisco.

View of Crissy Field - the sculptures have just been removed
After the overpasses, you will get stunning views of Crissy Field and downtown San Francisco. Toward the end of your hike, you will see unobstructed views of the bridge. You can end your hike at the Golden Gate Bridge Pavillion.

Making this a round trip hike
To make this a round trip hike, you can go back the way you came, or to change things up, you can follow the Battery East Trail (also and wheelchair/stroller accessible) to visit Fort Point and Crissy Field. From Crissy Field, you can the return back to Lombard and Lyon where you started your hike. You will see signs pointing you on the right path from the Golden Gate Bridge Pavillion.

Almost all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge

Happy trails!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Hike all of SF Post 6: Lake Merced Loop

I'm on a mission to #hikeallofsf. These are the stories of my hikes.

The Lake Merced Loop at 4.2 or 4.5 miles
Hike Name: Lake Merced Loop
Distance: 4.2 - 4.5 miles
Elevation: <100 feet
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Time: 1.5 - 2 hours
Dog Friendly: Yes, on leash

Hike Description
Lake Merced is located in the Lakeshore neighborhood in the southwestern corner of San Francisco.

The Lake Merced loop is not the most scenic hike in San Francisco, nor it is the most peaceful. Despite these negatives, what I like about this hike is that it carries a certain sense of accomplishment with it. It’s a good enough distance that you’re going to be walking for an hour to an hour and a half, and you get to circle an entire natural lake and bird habitat.

Much of this route is flanked with busy roads - namely Lake Merced Boulevard, John Muir Drive, and Skyline Drive, so expect to hear some level of buzz from the cars whizzing by. As you walk around the lake, you will see housing developments, golf courses, and schools. Unfortunately, much of the paved trail surrounding the lake is block off from the lake thick trees and a tall fence. To get a closer look at the lake, I recommend taking a small shortcut that takes the walk from 4.5 miles to around 4.2 miles. To take this shortcut, you’ll go on the Lake Merced Concrete Bridge just south of Brotherhood Way. Here, you can see the natural beauty of Lake Merced. You’ll see ducks swimming, people fishing, and families picnicking.

Finally, a lake view!

Route Details

As the hike is a straightforward loop, you have the convenience of being able to start it anywhere. There are numerous parking lots and two bus lines that serve the area, so get off where you please and start walking. While many people run this route, feel free to walk, take your time, and sit on a bench or two.

Getting there
  • Public Transit: MUNI Bus #18 allows you to access the western side of the lake
  • MUNI Bus #29 takes you to the northern parts of the lake near the canoe and boat rental areas.
  • For MUNI bus information, call 311. Outside San Francisco, call (415) 701-2311.
  • Parking: There are numerous parking lots near Lake Merced. These include:
    • Lake Merced and Sunset Blvd*
    • Lake Merced and Brotherhood Way
    • Lake Merced and South State Dr
    • Skyline Blvd and Harding Rd**

* This is where I normally start my hike
**This entrance has restrooms and picnic tables.

Lake Merced History
Lake Merced is the largest of the seven remaining natural lakes in San Francisco. At one point as little as 3,000 years ago, the lake was a brackish lagoon that connected to the Pacific Ocean. Over time however, sand accumulations closed off the channel to the Ocean, and Lake Merced became a freshwater lake.

Like many other areas of San Francisco, Lake Merced was originally inhabited by the Ohlone Indians. When the Spanish arrived in San Francisco in 1776, they came across Lake Merced while looking for a place to build the Presidio, their military fort. Lake Merced’s name derives from the Spanish “La Laguna de Nuestra SeƱora de la Merced,” or The Lake of Our Lady of Mercy.

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 10.13.01 PM.pngIn September 1859, the lake served as a backdrop for a duel between David Broderick, a US Senator and David S. Terry, ex-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California. Both Broderick and Terry were Democrats, however, Broderick was an abolitionist while Terry was pro-slavery. The two men had previously been friends, but the relationship soured when Terry accused Broderick of having had a role in his failed 1859 re-election campaign . Terry, on his end, retaliated by issuing inflammatory comments at a convention in Sacramento. To resolve their differences, the two agreed on a duel. Terry won the coin toss to choose weapons, and he selected pistols that had hair triggers. Broderick's first shot discharged early, and he was left open to Terry's shot. Terry hit the senator and he died three days later. Today, you can visit the Broderick/Terry duel site near the southeast portion of the lake. If you want to visit the duel site, the closest intersection is El Portal Way and Lakeview Drive.

In more recent history, San Francisco Recreation and Parks acquired the 740 acres of parkland around and including the lake in 1950. Today, the area is popular for walkers, runners, cyclists, fishing enthusiasts, and golfers (the lake is flanked by three courses: Harding Municipal Golf Course, Olympic Country Club, and San Francisco Golf Club). Much to the chagrin of local fishermen, the golf courses’ irrigation needs have been drying out the lake. In 1994, the lake reached an all time low of 14 feet in depth.  

Recently, California Trout, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving trout, steelhead, salmon and their environment, has intervened to try and save the lake. The Lake Merced Task Force and the Friends of Lake Merced have also come together to join the cause. Water levels are up and water and fish conditions continue to improve.

Happy trails!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Hike all of SF Post 5: We put the "fun" in "Funston"

I'm on a mission to #hikeallofsf. These are the stories of my hikes.

In February,  I wrote about my first #hikeallofsf hike, Fort Funston to the Cliff HouseToday, I'm writing about a second hike around Fort Funston. This hike explores the area's upper trails.

Fort Funston Loop
  • Distance: 2.0 miles
  • Elevation: ~100 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Time: <1 hour
  • Dog Friendly: Off-leash walking is permitted

Hike Description
A view of the Ocean from the trails
This hike is a nice, easy loop that will guide you through a number of Fort Funston’s trails. On a nice day, you get stunning views of the Pacific Ocean to the west and Sutro Tower to the northeast. Even on a foggy day, you can still take in ocean air, and enjoy the sandy landscape littered with ice plants and Monterey cypress trees. 

Route Details
Battery Davis
To embark on this hike, you will
start on the Sunset Trail, a paved and flat trail that departs from Fort Funston's main parking lot. This trail will pass by Battery Davis, and if you continue straight from there, you will be on the California Coastal Trail. While also paved, sections of this path have disappeared under sand drifts. When you see a habitat restoration area sign, you have reached the Coastal Trail’s junction with the Horse Trail (yes, you can bring horses here!). To complete your loop, take the Horse Trail. At first, you will be walking above US-35/Skyline Boulevard. Then, you will head back into first some covered, wooded areas and then some other sandy areas. Before you know it, you’ll be back at the Fort Funston parking lot.

Two colors of ice plans at Fort Funston
Getting there
  • Public Transit: MUNI Bus #18 brings you close to Fort Funston. For MUNI bus information, call 311. Outside San Francisco, call (415) 701-2311. 
  • Parking: Free parking is available at Fort Funston off Highway 35.
Happy Trails, hikers!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Hike all of SF Post 4: Take a Stroll with Sutro

I'm on a mission to #hikeallofsf. These are the stories of my hikes.

Interior Greenbelt and Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve
Hike Name: Interior Greenbelt and Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve
Location: Twin Peaks
Distance: 3 miles
Difficulty: Easy - moderate

One of the best moments on our Urban Jungles tours is when our hikers enter a eucalyptus forest behind Sutro Tower. I love to see people's eyes widen when they discover a vast expanse of green space right in the center of the city. And this is just scratching the surface...

Between the northwest end of Twin Peaks and the southeast end of Golden Gate Park are two parks that combine to form 80 acres of eucalyptus forest, the Interior Greenbelt (19 acres) and Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve (61 acres).

About Adolph Sutro

Eucalyptus Trees on the Trail
These parks were once the private land of Adolph Sutro, the mayor of San Francisco from 1894 to 1896. Before he was mayor, Sutro was a German immigrant and an engineer who came to San Francisco in 1850 to make a fortune in gold. When Sutro's dreams of gold were crushed, he became a tobacconist, eventually owning three stores. Now with dreams of silver, he sold his stores took off for Nevada. His goal was to construct a tunnel that would help drain and mine the Comstock Lode.

More Eucalyptus Trees on the Trail
The tunnel was constructed between 1869-1878, but toward the end of that time, Sutro realized the silver deposits were wearing thin. He immediately sold his shares in the tunnel and made millions. He then returned back to San Francisco and bought up 1/12 of the city's land. One of Sutro’s many land holdings was Mount Parnassus (now Mount Sutro). While this land was once covered in native grasses and shrubs, Sutro began planting the hill with imported eucalyptus trees in 1886 in celebration of Arbor Day. The non-native and invasive eucalyptus thrived in its new location and became the main tree species on the hill.

The parks today
Today, Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve is owned by UCSF, and the Interior Greenbelt is owned by the city of San Francisco. They are both maintained by a volunteer group, the Sutro Stewards.

So I digress...back to the hike!

For a full map of this route, visit:
Route Details
A full map of this route is here:

I recommend starting this hike in the Interior Greenbelt at the stairway just south of 17th and Stanyan. At the top of the stairs, you will find yourself on the Historic Trail. Follow this trail until you reach a main road, Medical Center Way.

Cross the street *carefully* to continue on the Historic Trail. You will now be in Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve. To explore Mount Sutro's summit (909 feet), continue on the Historic Trail until it intersects with the South Ridge Trail. Then take the South Ridge Trail, and make a left onto Nike Road to continue up to the summit. You will know you are there because you will see a clearing as well as informational signage about the park.

Mount Sutro Trail Markers
To get back to your start, take the East Ridge Trail (or the Mystery Trail to the East Ridge Trail) down to Johnstone Drive. Walk down the hill and pass Medical Center Way again. Then, on your left, you will see a UCSF sign for 66 Johnstone Drive. Just behind that sign you will see trail markers again. From here, you can get onto the Fairy Gates Trail, which will connect you back to the Historic Trail and finally to 17th and Stanyan. 

For a shorter variation (red shortcut above)
If you're up for a slightly shorter hike (1.75 miles) that still visits the summit, follow
Historic Trail --> Edgewood Trail --> North Ridge Trail. At the end of this trail, you will be at the Mount Sutro summit. From there follow the same directions to the hike's end.

We hope you'll enjoy exploring this eucalyptus forest in the center of the city. If you go on this hike, let us know what you think by leaving a comment.