San Francisco's parks are part of the reason the Bay Area feels like paradise to those of us who live here. Although the entire Bay Area is a bounty of wilderness and protected areas, even within the bounds of the city, parks and green spaces offer an opportunity to explore diverse terrain and habitat.
The options are endless, ranging from a bike ride in the Presidio and along Crissy Field, to bird watching in the restored wetland areas at Heron's Head Park, to enjoying panoramic views from the top of Grand View Park.
Born out of sand dunes in the late 1800s, Golden Gate Park today is a rich blend of gardens, play spaces and museum culture. The new de Young Museum, San Francisco’s fine arts icon, opened to rave reviews in 2005, and the California Academy of Sciences is right across the way. The Park Chalet at the west end provides entertainment and is just across the Great Highway from Ocean Beach. In between are walking and bike trails, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, Stow Lake, and the resident herd of bison.
Walk from the east end of Golden Gate Park to Ocean Beach, and you'll feel a bit like Magellan making that last turn around the Cape. Where Golden Gate Park will lull you with its shaded trails and vegetation-bound lakes -- emerge on the west side and the horizon pops open -- literally. At that point, it's just you and the Pacific. And more than three miles of Ocean Beach alongside the Great Highway. It's a great place to stroll and to cool off on San Francisco's warmer days and to spot the endangered Snowy Plovers who scuttle along the shoreline. On the beach's north end you'll find the legendary Cliff House restaurant and the remains of SF's landmark Sutro Baths.
Aquatic Park is a number of parks in one. It's the aquatic playground of Dolphin Club members who brave the Bay's ice waters for their swims. It's also home to San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, a treasure zone of San Francisco's maritime history and historic ships.
Crissy Field, in the Presidio, is a former airfield and success story of habitat restoration. The tidal marshes, grasslands and cypress trees followed asphalt removal, hazardous waste clean up and hours upon hours of volunteer efforts in cleaning and planting. Crissy Field Center was seeded and opened to the public in 2001. On a sunny day, the aesthetic of the Bay, the bridge, and views to the city and Alcatraz are spectacular.
For more than 200 years, the beautiful land of the Presidio was a military post. In 1994, the Presidio was transferred to the National Park Service and is now home to businesses, non-profit organizations, walkways, secluded green spaces, and a growing number of restaurants and recreational venues. The Presidio is an absolute must with visitors. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the night lights of the Palace of Fine Arts showcase San Francisco at its best.
Lands End and the Lands End trail offer some of the most spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge. These green spaces at the edge of the Outer Richmond incorporate nature trails, beaches, and historic artifacts:
Access to the Lands End Trail is easy, with parking off Point Lobos Avenue (for the Sutro Baths area) -- also at the Legion -- and then at Eagles Point, the 32nd Avenue entrance to the Coastal Trail.
Bordered on one side by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and on another by the Museum of Craft and Folk Art as well as the new Contemporary Jewish Museum-- Yerba Buena Gardens is a lush green space in a hub of a busy arts district. (See the Guide to San Francisco Museums for more area museums.)
Dolores Park is near the old Mission Dolores, established in 1776 as Misión San Francisco de Asís -- and today, a popular visitors' destination. The park itself is almost 14 acres and is the site of many events throughout the year, including the free summer series Dolores Park Movie Night.
If you're a first-time visitor to San Francisco's Mission District, don't miss the stunning murals you'll find throughout the neighborhood.
Alamo Square Park
The Alamo Square Park website has a photo taken during the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. It's a photo you may see often if you peruse archival images of San Francisco -- of people watching the city burn, from the grass of Alamo Square Park.
The park, which is now part of Nopa, is known for its postcard row of "Painted Ladies" Victorian homes. Even if you've never traveled to San Francisco, chances are you've seen this camera-perfect shot as a still or as a backdrop in film. It's a great place to take a rest and enjoy the view if you're walking through the Haight-Ashbury area.
Buena Vista Park and the nearby Corona Heights Park are two refuges of wilderness in the midst of urban grid. At Buena Vista Park, you may see a variety of raptors, including Red-tailed Hawks and Cooper's Hawks. The park also has tennis courts and a children's playground.
You can hike up into Buena Vista Park from Haight Street -- on dirt trails with an occasional set of terraced steps. Or you can begin at the top of the park from the Buena Vista Heights neighborhood, off Buena Vista Avenue East.
Washington Square Park
Washington Square Park is at the heart of North Beach, surrounded on all sides by the neighborhood's famous Italian eateries, gelato shops, and the general buzz of human interaction. It has survived at this location for more than 150 years -- in spite of various development threats. It's the site of the North Beach Festival and other events throughout the year, as well as a popular place to grab some sun or eat outdoors during lunch hour.
Stern Grove and Pine Lake Park
Stern Grove is the site of the free, summer-long music series -- the Stern Grove Festival. But the park is much bigger than its outdoor amphitheater (pictured here). Stern Grove and the adjacent Pine Lake area cover more than 60 acres with some wooded terrain and shaded trails. The park also has amenities like tennis courts and picnic tables.
McLaren Park is more than 300 acres of walking and running trails, athletic fields, tennis courts, playgrounds, waterways (lake/reservoir), trees, meadows and abundant wildlife habitat. The park is also home to the Jerry Garcia Amphitheatre where the annual Jerry Day celebration takes place.
McLaren park is one of the Bay Area's many park successes -- where volunteers helped revive a neglected park through habitat restoration projects and community diligence.
Heron's Head Park takes its name from the park's shape as seen from the air. It's part of a project which aims to create a 13-mile corridor in and around San Francisco's southeast sector, connecting points along the waterfront in a green belt.
Heron's Head Park is 24 acres of wetlands with a path leading out into the Bay. There are views to [protected] wetlands where you can see a variety of birds, especially in the winter months.
Fort Funston, just south of the city's Ocean Beach, is a dog-walkers' paradise with a hilltop dog park and views of the Pacific. You can hike along the bluffs and sand dunes, on groomed trails, and take paths that veer toward beaches below. There’s a large and diverse population of flowers and plants. You may see a variety of birds, rabbits, hawks and other wildlife. Kites and hang gliders lift off from the cliffs at Fort Funston and the old military batteries make for interesting exploration.
Cayuga Park is an unlikely destination, tucked under a well-traveled section of BART track. But what draws people into the 11-acre sanctuary is the striking wood carvings, created by the park's caretaker, Demetrio Braceros.
If you link to the photo gallery, you won't be as taken aback as if you walked in cold. Still, it's difficult to describe the mood created by this park's sculpture garden, juxtaposed against the industrial feel of the area.
Be prepared to climb if you want the reward of Grand View's vista. You can drive to a spot near the base of the park, but part of the joy is the journey up stairs and trails to the peak view.
Grand View Park is a gem tucked into the hills above the Inner Sunset District. There's a panoramic view from the top, and if you leave by way of the western stairs, and into Golden Gate Heights, you'll travel down a camera-worthy mosaic stairway descending through a garden area.
On the top of a hill in Pacific Heights that offers sweeping bay and city views, this park has tennis courts, rolling lawns, a dog park, a newly revamped playground that offers endless fun. It's also home to the first astronomical observatory on the west coast, built in 1879.
Corona Heights Park
With some of the best views in the city, this park above Buena Vista boasts a beautiful wildflower population and a dog park that has sweeping skyline views. Beware of poison oak, which provides shelter and good to numerous bird species but will give you a very irritating rash. Wildflowers include California poppies, Douglas Iris and mule's ears.