Hiking San Francisco’s hills

High on the hill, it calls to me: Four of San Francisco’s lesser-known peaks make for a strenuous, and beautiful, hike.
The Sacramento Bee, September 20, 2002


Anyone who’s spent any time in San Francisco is familiar with the city’s most famous hills: Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill and Twin Peaks.

But this vertically-oriented city also has a number of lesser-known hills, topped by parks or municipal open spaces, that are well worth the time – and the physical energy – they take to explore.

They are scattered all over San Francisco – there are more than 40 hills within the city’s 49 square miles. And many of them offer spectacular views, assuming, of course, that the city is not socked in by fog.

A handful of these park-hills are clustered in the center of the city, between two of its most popular neighborhoods, the Castro and the Haight, and are easily reachable in a hike of only three miles or so.

“That’s a great area to hike in,” says Samantha Weiss, 38, of San Francisco. “People are so distracted by all the night life and stores that they tend not to notice how beautiful the hills are … and they’re right there!”

Four of our favorite central-city hills easily can be visited in a day, with varying degrees of exertion. (See map on page E5 with our suggested route.) But it’s just as easy to park – preferably in the Castro or the eastern end of the Haight – and “summit” whichever ones you’d like.

And, being set in the aforementioned neighbor-hoods, they’re all close to restaurants (and bathrooms), grocery stores, all manner of shops and even, at the end of your hike, bars.

Castro Street is better than Haight Street for food, but both offer a lot of choices for chow. Particularly on Castro, you’ll find juice bars, cafes and delis as well as restaurants with menus ranging from Italian and Mexican to Chinese and Thai, plus American diner food. And, of course, coffee.

Buena Vista Park

Where: Buena Vista Park occupies a large hill at the eastern end of Haight Street, a few blocks west of Divisadero.

View from the top: The tallest of the four hills we’re visiting, the view from this hill is broken up by trees around the summit, but it does offer views in every direction.

Reasons to go: While not a botanical garden per se, Buena Vista is as beautiful as Golden Gate Park for its trees and other plantings, which, spread over its steep hillsides, give the effect of a giant, natural cathedral.

Cautions: Located near the sometimes-seedy Haight, the park is not advisable after dark. But it is typically safe in the daytime, so take your time here to wander the meandering paths.

Of interest: Established in 1867, this was the first municipal park in San Francisco and was even forested by John McLaren, who later supervised the creation of Golden Gate Park.

Corona Heights Playground

Where: On a rocky outcropping between Roosevelt Way and Castro Street. Enter at the gate off Roosevelt Way as it bends north, then head for the red rocks straight ahead.

View from the top: Corona Heights offers an unobstructed view of all of eastern San Francisco and the East Bay, including downtown and all the South of Market neighborhoods.

Reasons to go: Besides the view, Corona Heights is unique in that it is made almost entirely of red franciscan chert, the petrified remains of the ancient ocean floor, upthrust to this great height.

Cautions: The wind can really whip through here, and the hill is narrow, rocky and uneven, so if you’re bringing children, keep an eye – and hand – on them. And watch out for large poison oak bushes, which for some reason have been allowed to flourish here.

Of interest: At the base of the hill, near the Roosevelt Way entrance, is the Josephine D. Randall Museum, which features children’s artwork and is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. There is also a lovely, broad lawn and a dog run with a view, for dogs of distinction.

Kite Hill Open Space

Where: Off of Yukon Street in the Upper Market neighborhood adjacent to the Castro.

View from the top: With views of neighboring Tank Hill and Twin Peaks to the west, and the Mission and other San Francisco neighborhoods to the east, Kite Hill offers sort of a lower-altitude version of Twin Peaks, the viewpoint that figures in most bus tours of the city.

Reasons to go: This is the sweetest little hill in San Francisco, nestled as it is in a residential neighborhood and relatively protected from the winds that whip most hilltops in the city. It is especially pretty at night, when all the houses and apartments around it glow with homey warmth.

Cautions: This gentle hill offers little of the dangers of a steeper grade, but it is a popular spot for neighborhood dogs, so tread carefully.

Of interest: The relatively treeless nature of Kite Hill means you could, actually, go fly a kite! But retrieving it from surrounding houses and back yards could prove problematic.

Tank Hill

Where: On Twin Peaks Boulevard just south of 17th Street and Clayton. Take the stairs on the north side of Twin Peaks, just before the houses start up the hill.

View from the top: The best! Tank Hill, according to the Web site www.josephstubbscreations.com, is “the most beautiful panorama of San Francisco from any hilltop park in the city,” and it’s true. The hill offers views of northern San Francisco, the Golden Gate and Marin. And Golden Gate Park. And Lone Mountain. And the East Bay. And …

Reasons to go: The feeling of this spot is remarkable, as the wind whips wildly across the summit. At times, you can lean against the vertical rocks with the warm sun on your back while a cool fog blows against your face.

Cautions: This is a delicate ecosystem, and much effort is being put into reintroducing native plants, so stay on the trails – they go to all the best views anyway. And don’t bring the dog!

Of interest: This park was named for the water tank that stood here until 1957, when a larger reservoir was built near Mount Sutro. Sold to developers who wanted to put 20 lots on the hill, it was bought back by the city in 1977 and turned into public space, where thousands can enjoy its special charm.