Urban Hiking: Civic Center to Ocean Beach through Golden Gate Park

As someone who doesn't live in San Francisco, this city can feel pretty huge. Seven miles from one end to the other? Thanks, I'll take a bus. But seven miles up in Point Reyes National Seashore? That's a great hike!

Inspired by Erinne's recent 8-mile urban hike from the San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf Hostel across the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito, I planned my own trek through the city. Starting in Civic Center Plaza near the City Center Hostel, I hiked 6.5 miles due west through Hayes Valley and Golden Gate Park, ending at Ocean Beach overlooking the Pacific.

The hike was easy, mostly on sidewalks (and some well-defined trails in the park), and with the exception of the first uphill mile, it was mostly flat. The journey really highlights San Francisco's dedication to preserving green space within the city, as well as the creative uses of that space, from hilltop overlooks to a bison paddock to a world-class art museum.

And it helps put this city's manageable size in perspective -- you could probably speed through the hike and be at the beach in just a couple hours. Or take your time, smell the roses, check out Strawberry Hill, the Japanese Tea Gardens, or the de Young Museum's summer Picasso exhibit, and be back at the hostel by dinnertime.

Mile 1: Hayes Valley

Leaving the massive buildings and Beaux Arts architecture of Civic Center Plaza, the most interesting route west goes through Hayes Valley, a cute district full of boutiques, cafes, yoga studios, and Victorian buildings. I usually see Hayes Street from my car, as I commute from the East Bay to my San Francisco office, and I am always jealous as I pass all the people, young and old, who gather here for coffee or breakfast in the sun while I'm stuck in the car. Today, I'm one of them, and as I watch commuters drive past, I couldn't be happier.

As Hayes Street heads uphill, the shops taper off and tour buses appear on all sides as they approach Alamo Square. The Painted Ladies -- six pastel Victorian houses standing in front of a gorgeous view of the downtown skyline -- are hard to miss, since everyone on the Alamo Square hill is taking photos of them, but be sure to turn around to see them as you walk up the hill. Even better, snag a sandwich to go from the nearby Alamo Square Cafe and picnic in the park! While you're there, check out the "secret" shoe garden near the bathrooms at the center of the park: the gardeners have filled abandoned shoes of all sizes with flowers and succelents.

Mile 2: The Panhandle

Walking west from Alamo Square, you have two options: continue straight ahead toward the Panhandle -- a narrow extension of Golden Gate Park filled with eucalyptus trees, dog walkers, and baby strollers -- or head four blocks south to Haight Street to add Buena Vista Park and the hippie Haight District to your hike.

Since I visited the Haight a few months ago for a story focused on that district, I opt for the Panhandle route, and am met pleasantly by the open arms of the William McKinley statue at its entrance and the gorgeous scent of eucalyptus (this is one of my favorite smells) as I walk through.

Mile 3: Entering Golden Gate Park

The grass is greener, the air clearer, the people tanner, and the mood lighter as soon as you enter Golden Gate Park, an enormous oasis of gardens, lakes, and attractions in the center of San Francisco. Tiny trails head off John F. Kennedy Drive (the northern thoroughfare across the park; Martin Luther King Drive runs parallel on the southern side of the park) toward rhododendron gardens, tennis courts, and all sorts of tucked away places I can only imagine.

My first stop is at the halfway point of my hike: the de Young Museum. I wish I had time today to check out the Picasso exhibit that's here from Paris for the summer, but fine art is not the only reason to come here: there's an elevator running up the museum's nine-story tower to a top-floor observatory.

It's free. And the view is nothing short of spectacular. Whatever else you do in Golden Gate Park, don't miss the chance walk around this glass-walled observatory, with views of nearby gardens and the living roof of the California Academy of Sciences next door, and to the north, the ocean and the tips of the Golden Gate Bridge's orange spires.

In the gift shop before I leave, I almost purchase a $3 map of Golden Gate Park -- and I spend the rest of my trip wishing that I had. There are map placards throughout the park, but having a map at hand pointing out every little quirky side trail and attraction would have been a really great addition to my hike.

Mile 4: Stow Lake

Since the Japanese Tea Garden next to the de Young Museum charges a entrance fee after 10 a.m. ($7 for non-resident adults), I decide not to head inside -- besides, as the day wears on the weather is getting chillier, and I want to get to Ocean Beach before the evening fog sets in! So I pick a trail toward Stow Lake, where I find young people and families rowing boats in the narrow "moat" around Strawberry Hill, the large island in the middle.

If the whole thing feels a little man-made, that's because it is. Once covered in sand dunes, Golden Gate Park was greened over in the late 1800s as part of the city's plan to create something akin to New York City's Central Park. Leading up to the Midwinter World's Fair here in 1894, many of the park's current attractions were built, including the Japanese Tea Garden and the original de Young Museum (the current building was completed in 2005).

Mile 6: Bison!

OK, I had heard there were buffalo inside Golden Gate Park, but I didn't really believe it. I mean, why on earth would there be bison in the middle of a city? But they're there, sure enough, in an enclosure maintained by the nearby San Francisco Zoo. There aren't many that I could see, and this certainly isn't Yellowstone, where you can get within charging distance of one of these huge creatures, but it's kind of neat nonetheless.

A short walk past the bison paddock is another thing that doesn't seem to belong in San Francisco: a Dutch windmill. Surrounded by tulips in the spring, and by wine-sipping picnickers during my visit, it's a brief detour before exiting the park at Ocean Beach.

Trail's End: The Beach Chalet

I couldn't have timed my arrival at Ocean Beach any more perfectly. Though it's cloudy and the wind is cold, the fog has held off -- and it's still happy hour (3-6 p.m. and after 9 p.m.) at the Beach Chalet overlooking the water. (The Park Chalet downstairs has a similar menu, but is set in a garden.)

I order a glass of sauvignon blanc and a bowl of the seasonal soup (corn chowder -- amazing!), and relax with my tired feet up on the booth seat across from me.

I think I'll take the bus back downtown...

(The MUNI 5 line runs along the northern edge of the park and into downtown SF).

Planning Your Trip

I said it once, but I'll reiterate: don't skimp on the $3 map. Sold at the de Young Museum (and elsewhere in the city and park, I'm sure), it gives a history of the park and points out every trail and hidden attraction throughout.

Other resources include the official Golden Gate Park website and the San Francisco Chronicle's guide to Golden Gate Park. The Chronicle also has a guide to Hayes Valley (and the Haight, if you take that route).

Check out the map I created to show my approximate route through the park -- make your own urban hiking map and share it with us via Facebook!

This story was written by Sarah Trent, the marketing and communications coordinator for Hostelling International's eight Northern California hostels. She lives in Oakland, across the Bay, where she's raising chickens on her burgeoning urban farm.


Check out photos from my hike on Flickr.

If You Go 

Check out the map I created to show my approximate route through the park -- make your own urban hiking map and share it with us via Facebook!