Perched near the geographical center of San Francisco in the city's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, Buena Vista Park is a breath of fresh forested life in the middle of an urban center. Stately mansions and Victorians line the park's perimeter, making it just as enjoyable (and as much of a workout) to take in the sights from outside as from within, though if you want to get lost in a fairyland of towering trees, greenery, and occasional fog, there's no better place.
San Francisco's Buena Vista Park began as “Hill Park” in 1867, at a time when the city was still reeling from the Gold Rush and the city's notorious Barbary Coast was in full swing. It earned the moniker Buena Vista (“good view” in Spanish) in 1894 and is the city's oldest park and its third largest, a lush hillside stretch of 37 areas culminating at a 575-foot-tall peak. The park became a gathering spot for local residents and visitors to watch the goings-on downtown following the 1906 earthquake, and in the '60s was a stronghold of the hippie counterculture movement (in fact, at one point rocker Janis Joplin only lived a short block away on Lyon Street).
These days the park remains a comfort zone for neighborhood's transient population who — although often congregating in groups — keep pretty much to themselves. San Francisco's N Judah MUNI line runs beneath the park, which with its dense stands of oak, toyon, eucalyptus, and other tree species is one of the city's most heavily-forested places.
What to See and Do
There are plenty of wide paved paths that rise and fall as they wind through the park, and secluded dirt side trails that often have stairs to make Buena Vista's steep slopes a little easier to manage. Banana slugs are a common sight along the paths during spring, when there's still a lot of moisture in the air. The park even has a few resident coyotes (an especially good thing to be aware of when walking your dogs). Buena Vista's a good place for spotting birds such as Western Scrub Jays (often mistaken for Blue Jays), Chestnut-backed Chickadees, and Allen's and Anna's hummingbirds — which often appear on the southern side of the park where a newer boardwalk runs through an area of restored flora.
There's a small lawn atop the park's central peak where you'll often find people practicing yoga or strumming their guitars. Several look-out points and benches provide ample spots to enjoy Buena Vista's great views, which include downtown San Francisco, San Francisco Bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge.
The park is home to two public tennis courts and a restroom on its northern end, as well as a playground for kids.
Along with a floral peace symbol above the stairs on the park's northeast corner, one of the coolest things you'll find in Buena Vista are the pieces of headstones that make up some of the pathway gutters. These slabs were left behind when San Francisco relocated its cemeteries to Colma, and WPA workers recycled them for use in the park during the 1930s. You have to really pay attention to catch an engraving or two, but it can become a sort of game to seek them out.
Just south of Buena Vista across Roosevelt Way is Corona Heights Park, an almost natural extension that provides even more incredible views of downtown SF and comes alive with colorful wildflowers during spring. Red-tailed hawks are a common sight flying above the park's rocky peak and catching sail on its seemingly endless wind.
Location and Facilities
The park rises on a steep slope above Haight Street between Buena Vista Avenue West and Baker Street/Buena Vista Avenue East, and is easily reachable along MUNI's 7-Haight and 6-Parnassus bus lines. The shops, bars and restaurants of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood begin just west of the park, and including places like neighborhood gastro-pub Magnolia's — with its home-brewed beers and delicious fried pickles — divey jazz bar Club Deluxe, and bowling alley-sized Amoeba Records, home to everything from rare bluegrass albums to the latest Travis Scott CDs.
It's easiest to find parking on the park's eastern and western boundaries leading up the hillside, though be prepared to park perpendicular. Buena Vista's official hours are 5 a.m. to midnight.