Living in San Francisco, we hear it all the time: good-natured ribbing about the nearly 50 hills this city's built on; griping about the hamstrings of steel one has to develop to get around SF on foot; literal huffing and puffing at the top of Lombard or Fillmore Street. As much as the hills are an iconic part of our fair city, after a while, it can be tempting to swear off any walking route that takes you up an incline.
But even in a city famous for its hills, there are few that stand out; a few that will make even the most reluctant urban hiker want to lace up his walking shoes. So grab the camera, stretch out those legs, and get ready to feel the burn, because we're about to explore some of best hillside hikes in San Francisco.
Bernal Heights Park
Just on the other side of the city's trendy, young Mission District sits a very different kind of neighborhood. Bernal Heights is the kind of residential quarter where kids ride tricycles down the sidewalks and adults walk dogs past quaint, single-family homes. The neighborhood itself is perched on a hillside (hence the "heights" in the name), but getting to Bernal Heights is only half of this climb. Once you find yourself amid the neighborhood's playgrounds and porches, keep walking up, up, up. When the pavement ends and the dirt paths begin, you'll find yourself at Bernal Heights Park. A footpath circles around and up the side of the park's main feature: another hill, this one covered in grass and earth rather than houses.
This urban hike's popular with joggers, strollers, and anyone looking to reward their physical effort with a peerless view. At the top of a hill, beneath an old radio tower, those who conquer the hill can take in 360-degree eyefuls of the city skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, and hills of the East Bay. And the sights don't stop there: dozens of species of birds inhabit Bernal Hill, as do lizards, raccoons, and sometimes even coyotes.
Oh, and don't worry about getting bored on your way back down to the flatlands: After you exit the park, make your way to the corner of tiny Esmeralda and Winfield Streets, where a miniature, slope-side park is hidden amongst the trees. You'll notice a pair of slides running down the side of the hill, with sheets of cardboard strewn everywhere. The cardboard's left there by kids of all ages who like to slip it under their seats and race their buddies, side-by-side, down the slides.
Less hillside hike than vertical garden path, Napier lane is one of a kind in this city – and possibly in the world. This hidden residential "street" isn't actually a street at all, but a long, wooden staircase carving its way through the well-tended gardens of Telegraph Hill. Flowers, ferns, trees, and old-school wooden homes on either side of the stairs will make you feel as if you're sneaking through a hundred suburban backyards. You may even catch a glimpse of Telegraph Hill's famous wild parrots, which frequent this urban oasis.
If you're still feeling strong after reaching the top of the Napier Lane steps, continue making your way up Filbert Street and you'll run into one of the city's better-known hillside attractions: Coit Tower.
16th Avenue Tiled Steps
It's easy, sometimes, to forget that San Francisco lies right on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. It's easier to remember this fact, though, when you're standing at the top of a hill and watching the foamy lines of the crashing surf below. Take in the waves, along with the colorful rooftops of the city's Sunset District, from Grandview Park, and you'll quickly see how the little hilltop haven got its name.
Believe it or not, though, the aptly named park isn't the biggest draw in climbing the hill that starts where 16th Street meets Moraga Street. Instead, the real attraction is a veritable mosaic mural on the hillside. A 163-step stairway climbs the hill beneath Grandview Park, and back in 2003, neighbors and artists decided it was time to pretty it up. They covered the stairs in hand-made, ocean-themed mosaic panels in 2005; the stairway's been known as the "16th Avenue Tiled Steps" ever since. Taken in from afar, the entire stairway looks like a hand-painted waterfall tumbling down the side of the hill; up close, you can see that each and every tile is unique and whimsical in its own right.
If you find yourself at the intersection of 17th and Stanyan Streets in SF's Cole Valley neighborhood, you may notice a surprising sign. Perched next to a discrete set of wooden steps, the sign asks you to be quiet and considerate of the neighbors while entering the forest. That's right: while entering the forest.
Mount Sutro, a green peak smack-dab in the middle of the city, is known for its 200-foot-high eucalyptus trees, planted by one-time SF mayor Adolph Sutro. And thanks to the often-foggy weather in this part of town, those trees can take on an otherworldly beauty. Even in the summer, fog often hangs around the treetops, giving hikes here a mystical, "walk-through-the-clouds" quality. (Check out a map of Mt. Sutro's trails here).
If your endorphins are still pumping after these hillside hikes, we've got plenty more outdoor adventures for you in the SF Bay Area. Get even further off the beaten path with our top hikes in the Bay Area's national parks, walk among the giants with a visit to a redwood forest, or keep it urban by uncovering San Francisco's secret open spaces.
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