Places to Get a Little Nature in San Francisco

Aug 02, 2012 at 12am

One of the best parts of living in San Francisco is the awe on the faces of your out-of-town visitors. Sometimes this is after seeing more, um, skin than they bargained for at the Folsom Street Fair (or at Dolores Park, for that matter). Just as often, though, it’s because you’ve brought them to some colossal, wind-whipped bluff with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the thundering Pacific sparkling in the setting sun.

Yep, you tell yourself, watching their jaws drop, this is where I live.

Me, I’ve traveled all over the world, but I keep coming back here. There are plenty of practical reasons for that, but when people ask me why I love this place so much, I usually offer this reason first: The landscape. It is so crazy beautiful.

In that spirit, here’s a roundup of some of my favorite spots in the city to hug a tree or three – and to snag a view so stunning that even locals have to catch their breath.

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If you’re looking for an urban escape, Golden Gate Park – a good 20 percent larger than Central Park, as San Franciscans don’t mind pointing out – is a no-brainer, of course, but let’s face it: It’s a jungle out there. There are more nooks and crannies in this swathe of green that cuts from the Panhandle to the ocean than I could name or have even found, but that’s exactly what makes it so appealing. Some of my faves:

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Although you can still hear Fulton Street traffic rumble by in this grove near the Rose Garden, it’s still eerily gorgeous and regal the way redwood groves always manage to be. Take a seat on that fairy ring of stumps, wander along the fragrant paths, and imagine you’re in Humboldt for a minute.

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In the middle of Stowe Lake, this spot has it all: winding trails, clusters of California poppy, and views – the sunset, the Golden Gate, and the lime-green lake dotted with giggling couples in paddleboats. If sandy dirt isn’t your thing, there are even a couple of picnic tables.

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Like Speedway Meadow, but, well, littler, this narrow strip near South Lake and 41st Avenue covers up the city sounds with birdcall, since it’s lined on both sides by thick walls of brush. It’s a great place for a picnic, a dog, a Chuckit launcher, and an afternoon nap – either on the grass or tucked into one of those hollowed-out thickets that make you feel like you’re a kid playing Watership Down (unless, that is, someone wrapped in a sleeping bag is already in there with a bottle of Southern Comfort).

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Head south along Ocean Beach for a few miles and you’ll spill onto Sahara-like dunes and staggeringly enormous bluffs. Wind and sand whip through your hair; dogs and joggers tear down a wide, epic beach. I like to find a sandy crevice up on the bluffs between the blankets of ice plants and peer down at the beachcombers or look up at the hang gliders. (Fort Funston is one of the nation’s premier hang gliding spots. Let that ocean wind hit your face full on and you’ll understand why.) Like a lot of San Francisco’s hikes, this wild chunk of land was once part of a series of coastal batteries that housed Navy guns. Now the most dangerous thing you’re likely to see is a dog off-leash.

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My favorite angle of approach to Lands' End is from the Sea Cliff side, where the path winds up and down wooden stairs lined with ferns and eucalyptus, keeps a constant view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and eventually skids along pebbly precipices that lead down to the glistening Pacific. In 2004, Eduardo Aguilera built a labyrinth out of stones here – just the kind of peace and love offering you’d expect in a city like San Francisco. Look up, check out a full panorama of the Marin Headlands, and don’t forget to look down: Crowds of surfers with a superhuman tolerance for cold could be catching the breakers just beneath you.

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Sure, some of the shores north of Baker Beach are best known for their nude patrons and typically go by other names less innocuous than “Marshall’s” (Nasty Boy, anyone?), but if you head down the Batteries to Bluffs trail when it’s not prime sunbathing weather (um, like 363 days a year), chances are you’ll feel pretty isolated. This is a great spot to bring a date – it’s the kind of stunning, wave-crashing cove with a gorgeous view of the Golden Gate that people are thinking of when they say, “I enjoy long walks on the beach.” And hey, what if there’s a naked guy behind a rock? You never know, it could be a conversation starter.

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Tucked in the shadow of Twin Peaks, Tank Hill may feel less dramatic, but what you lose in altitude you gain in privacy: This flat-topped hill ringed by eucalyptus feels like a secret enclave. Find it by either a wooden staircase on Twin Peaks Blvd. or a path on the opposite side of the hill that scrambles up from between colorful, old-timey San Franciscan homes. Named for a water tank that was built in 1894 and rendered obsolete by a bigger reservoir in 1957, Tank Hill was purchased by the city a couple of decades later to save it from private development. Now, it ranks high on San Francisco’s long list of gorgeous viewpoints (aka “Places to Go When You Need to Figure Shit Out”). Bring a journal, grab a seat on the rocks, and contemplate that sunset spreading across the towers of USF.

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If you ever had a dog and lived in the Castro or the Upper Haight, chances are you know this spot well. Just beneath the “heights” part (huge, craggy rocks with staggering views) is a flat, grassy dog run. But if you want to bring your hiking shoes and scramble up the stairs and dirt paths that run to the top, you can ogle the fog pouring across the Sutro Tower, the miniature-looking skyscrapers downtown, or the pastel residences of the Castro. There’s even a sign pointing to where you can spot the Castro’s iconic rainbow flag. At the turn of the twentieth century, Corona Heights was a rock quarry flanked by a brick factory; now it’s just a rock, flanked by the Randall Museum. This wide vista is something you can’t get from the ironically named Buena Vista Park a few blocks away.

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It may not be as well known as all the other hills, but Mt. Davidson is actually the highest point on the San Francisco skyline and offers views to match. Make your way along mossy stone steps and a forest totally blanketed in ivy and you won’t miss the summit’s most salient characteristic: a gigantic cross. The 103-foot monolith was originally erected in 1934 when the city’s population was homogenous enough to think it was cool to build the world’s then-biggest cross on public land. The city has since sold the top 5.62 acres to the Council of Armenian-American Organizations of Northern California in order to uphold the separation of church and state. Religious symbolism aside, though, the trill of birds, the pretty paths, and the fantastic view of the Financial District (so quaint from far away!) make for an awesome way to break a sweat and leave your workday behind.

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Often overlooked by those who don’t live in the neighborhood, Glen Canyon is a surprising patch of country in the southern part of the city. On one end, you’ve got a wide corridor of eucalyptus, on the other, big, jagged rocks that, if you’re ready to pant, you can clamber up to grab a view of the whole canyon. You can hang out by a little creek that runs the length of the park, pick wildflowers from hillside meadows, or jog along leafy paths shaded by overarching tree trunks. Rumor has it there’s even a family of coyotes who’ve set up shop here. Fun fact: In 1868, Glen Canyon Park was the site of the first commercial dynamite factory in the United States, but it blew to smithereens a year later (go figure). Now the park is just a pretty great place to bring kids, dogs, your new crush, or your new camera.

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For those canine-loving Bernalwood fans who live in the neighborhood precisely because of its country-in-the-city feel, this is their hill, and they love it to death. (As one Yelper, Nancie T., puts it, “If heaven does exist, I can only hope it'll be like Bernal Heights Hill, where friendly dogs roam freely and humans, both young and old, are happy and content.”) But anyone who’s ready for a lung-zapping climb can head this direction for yet another stunning view of both the city and the bay. Get ready to breathe hard; it’s steep. But that makes it all the better for watching fireworks, sailboats, or stars, and for finding a hidden spot halfway down the grassy slope to snuggle with your sweetheart (or dog or bottle of bubbly). It’s practically a 360-degree view, if you circumnavigate the top, too, so spread out – there’s a whole lot of hill to choose from.

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Weather permitting, you can check out these spots anytime, but it’s particularly great if you can do it off-peak (from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday; it helps with the feeling of urban escape if you aren’t rubbing elbows with quite so many neighbors). For more background and step-by-step information, check out San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks website, the San Francisco Parks Alliance, and Bay Area Hiker.

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