A Guide to San Francisco's Lesser-Known Parks
By Liv Combe
Lots of us have a soft spot in our hearts for Dolores Park – the endless people watching, the carefree feeling you get from polishing off a few beers before dark, and the resulting sunburn from a day spent Instagramming the blue skies and palm trees. These days, with half of the park closed for renovations through early 2015, I’ve been feeling hard-pressed to find other green patches to spend my weekend. But never fear – San Francisco, with more than 220 parks within city limits, is hardly lacking in nature-y spaces. Here’s a roundup of some (not all) nice, grassy spots (with a view) to get weird at this summer.
Where It's At: Moraga and 14th Ave. in the Sunset
You might have noticed this little hill peeking over the top of the Sunset as you head west along Golden Gate Park toward Ocean Beach. Also known as Turtle Hill, Grand View Park is fairly small but all the better for it – it’s mostly unknown by tourists and offers a pretty spectacular 360-degree view from the solitary bench up top of the 666-foot hill. Instead of heading straight up the hill, take the mosaic stairway up from 16th Avenue and Moraga Street.
Pro: When you’re done with the view, you’re close to the Inner Sunset’s ethnic food hub. Feast away.
Con: Since there’s only one bench up there, things can get kind of crowded if you feel like a scenic overlook at the same time as someone else.
Where It's At: Gough at Washington in Pacific Heights
Much like the nearby Alta Plaza Park, this almost 12-acre green space has expansive lawns, clusters of trees, tennis courts, and a playground. Lafayette Park is up on a hill and well worth the walk to this side of the city – you’ll look out over the Marina and Alcatraz Island to the north and Buena Vista Park and Twin Peaks to the south. A little history for you: Refugees from the 1906 earthquake camped in Lafayette Park and watched San Francisco burn in the ensuing fire.
Pro: In Pacific Heights, you say? It rarely smells like pee up there.
Con: In Pacific Heights, you say? Lots of richer-than-thou families up there.
Corona Heights Park
Where It's At: Roosevelt Way at Museum Way in the Castro/Corona Heights
Depending on what part of the city you live in and how accustomed you are to trekking up hills, the walk up Corona Heights will seem like a thigh-bursting urban hike or a brisk walk up a few stairs. Just south of Buena Vista Park and north of Twin Peaks, Corona offers particularly expansive views of Potrero and the southern half of San Francisco. Expect lots of dogs off their leashes and families visiting the Randall Museum, a center owned by San Francisco Recreation & Parks for interactive arts and science exhibits with classes like woodworking and ceramics.
Pro: Parking lot! Bathrooms!
Con: There’s a fair amount of poison oak (leaves of three, leave it be). Keep your wits about you.
Pine Lake Park
Where It's At: Sloat Boulevard and Vale Street in Parkside/Sunset
Way out in western San Francisco is Pine Lake Park, home to one of the last remaining natural lakes in San Francisco. A trail takes you around the water and connects to the rest of the park, made up of steep slopes covered in trees and open, grassy fields. Like many parks in the city, prepare to find yourself surrounded by dogs.
Pro: Consider this a chance to explore a new part of the city. When you’re done at the park, check out what the Outer Sunset has to offer.
Con: You have to go all the way to the Outer Sunset.
Where It's At: Minnesota at 19th Street in Dogpatch/Potrero Hill
Flat and square, this grassy park lined with redwood trees is filled with families and barbecues on the weekend. The park was gifted to the city from the Esprit Corp. that once owned it, providing a bit of green space in the quickly developing hood.
Pro: Can’t make it on the weekend? If, like many other people, you work in Dogpatch, this can be your new lunch spot.
Con: The park is right by 280, so there’s a fair bit of noise from traffic passing by overhead.
Where It's At: Stow Lake Dr. in Golden Gate Park
With 1,017 acres of trails, fields, lakes, and beaches to explore, Golden Gate Park is one gigantic urban wilderness. But Strawberry Hill, the park’s highest point, is one of the most private spots. It takes walking a mile into the park, crossing a bridge over Stow Lake, and going up a winding path to get to the top of Strawberry Hill; people rarely wander up there offhandedly. The most crowded it will get is when groups of octogenarians meet up for Tai Chi.
Pro: On a clear day, it’s a great spot to watch the sunset over the water. Nab your spot on the west-facing rope swing.
Con: You have to go all the way back down the hill to get snacks.
Mount Davidson Park
Where It's At: Myra Way in Diamond Heights/West Portal
Probably one of San Francisco’s most overlooked spots, Mt. Davidson is the city’s highest natural point. As you climb up the west side of Mount Davidson, the dense vegetation and (typical) fog make you feel like you’re in a rainforest. Follow the trails to the top and choose from two lookout points.
Pro: That scene from Dirty Harry was filmed here!
Con: Secular hill. Not a con so much as a weird fact: The gigantic concrete cross on top belongs to the Council of Armenian-American Organizations of Northern California.
John McLaren Park
Where It's At: Mansell Street at John F. Shelley Drive in Excelsior/Portola
Three hundred twelve acres of meadows, grasslands, and wetlands (you’ll want to stay out of those) make John McLaren San Francisco’s second largest park. There’s something for everyone here – a golf course, an amphitheater, picnic areas, dog parks, seven miles of trails, and ponds. Choose your own adventure.
Pro: With everyone headed to Golden Gate Park, you’ll have acres of John McLaren to yourself.
Con: Historically, there’s been a fair bit of crime in the park, but hasn’t that been so most places? Don’t go in alone at night and you’ll be fine.
Tank Hill Park
Where It's At: Clarendon Avenue at Twin Peaks Boulevard in Cole Valley
Named after the water tank that used to sit on its peak, this tiny spot will get you views from Point Reyes to the Golden Gate Bridge and down to Bayview Hill. After climbing up Tank Hill’s 650 feet, Instagram away at the park’s lone green bench overlooking the city. Prepare for all your friends wanting to know where you found this spot.
Pro: The same view as Twin Peaks without the busloads of tourists.
Con: By tiny, we mean tiny at fewer than three acres.
Where It's At: Folsom Street at Precita Avenue in Bernal Heights
Much like Duboce Park, Precita Park is a relatively flat slope of grass filled with dogs and kids, and is even bordered by Precita Park Cafe, the sister to Duboce Park Cafe and Dolores Park Cafe. A peaceful haven from the relative chaos of the lower Mission at just three blocks from Cesar Chavez, this park is perfect for picnicking, slack lining, and throwing around Frisbees – that is, Dolores Park lite.
Pro: So close to PizzaHacker and El Rio. Your evening is basically planned for you.
Con: Word on the street is that excessive dog poo is an issue. Make sure you don’t set your blanket on something unseemly.
Billy Goat Hill
Where It's At: 30th Street at Castro in Noe Valley/Diamond Heights/Glen Park
With a short .2 miles of trails to the viewpoints, climbing Billy Goat Hill is relatively little effort for a huge payoff – you can see all the way to the Bay Bridge and across to Oakland and Berkeley. The hill flattens off at the peak; cross over to Beacon Street and you’ll be in Walter Haas Park and Playground. Two parks for the price of one? Where do we sign?
Pro: If you’re feeling daring, try one of the two rope swings at night – it takes you out over an edge, and all of San Francisco is lit up below you.
Con: Footing can be a little iffy. Don’t try coming up here in flip flops.
Where It's At: Le Conte Avenue in Bayview
While there are lots of hilly outlooks in the middle of the city, they become more rare the farther out you go. Head to Bayview for sweeping views over the entirety of San Francisco and the Bay. Around 1900, the area was almost lost to development for homes for the über-wealthy; it was deemed too far from downtown and the plans were dropped.
Pro: Some of the most diverse plant and animal life in the city are in this park.
Con: Not the most central of locations.