Wild Places in San Francisco
San Francisco is one of the great walking cities. A stroll down any one of numerous neighborhood main streets is evidence enough of the various social (and commercial) diversions available. Many of these neighborhoods are, in fact, brimming with what makes most neighborhoods great: strings of shops offering various amenities, here and there a café offering outdoor seating, all strung along a location central to a geographically specific area. Strolling down one of these promenades whether for business or pleasure somehow always provides the sensation of, at the least, being out and about.
San Francisco, however, also offers a somewhat unique option for the urban trekker. Out along the outer edges of the City (for it sits like a fist in the surrounding waters, bay and Pacific, offering three shores) there are many open, seemingly wild lands available for hiking particularly on the north/northwest borders of the peninsula. A continuous open shoreline (some admittedly butted up against urbanity, or at least the urban) reaches from the slips below Fort Mason to the Golden Gate Bridge, around the wild cliffs of the headlands on the rim of the City, out to Ocean Beach and on down to Fort Funston (and beyond). There along the bay and around out to the ocean are some of the most beautiful and inspiring urban areas imaginable.
Along the northern edge of the City, Fort Mason sits perched above the bay. The Spanish and Mexicans knew this site as Punta Medanos (Point Sand Dunes). Soon after the defeat of Mexico in 1846, American settlers, some of them prominent citizens, began building small cottages as private homes and planting trees and vegetation upon the dunes. Locals began referring to the site as Black Point for the dark laurel trees growing on the cliffs. After deciding to increase fortifications in 1863, the Union Army repossessed the fort, displaced the squatters, appropriated the existing structures and built barracks around them. These cottages and barracks still stand. When the Army closed Fort Mason (so named in 1882) it became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The GGNRA’s headquarters are located in Fort Mason.
Within the old fort there is a youth hostel which typically houses budget travelers from around the world. This is one of the great, little known accommodations in the City. There are shared rooms and facilities so it is mostly attractive to young people of limited means. As nondescript as the accommodations are, the surroundings are beautiful in the extreme. The grounds alone carry their own small wonders. There is a large garden with numerous attractive plantings but there are also other, wild blooms. In the spring, before it gets too unwieldy and the grounds crew gets around to trimming it back, there is a large clump of wild orchids that grows over the rear stairs of the hostel, their small, delicate, pale purple blossoms cascading down the stairway.
And then there is the setting; poised at it is above the bay, it is breathtaking. In the distance there is the omnipresent Golden Gate Bridge, dominating all before it. Arranged below the fort Aquatic Park is on the right, where the old schooners are tied up at Hyde Street Pier; directly beneath lies the Fort Mason Piers. Alcatraz sits out on the bay with Angel Island behind. In the hills beyond, north to Marin, Mount Tamalpais towers behind the shoulder of a ridge in the Marin Headlands. Below, the houses of Sausalito and Tiburon drape over the hillsides leading down to the water on the north side of the bay. And, to the east, the coastal range of the East Bay hills unfold with Mount Diablo ascending behind them.
Just west of the hostel is a great meadow, called, not surprisingly, the Great Meadow of Fort Mason (scene of the annual San Francisco Blues Festival). This large field slopes downward to the Marina District and affords wonderful vistas of the surrounding neighborhood and the Golden Gate Bridge beyond. At the top of the meadow sits a statue of U.S. Representative Philip Burton that stands frozen in time gesturing out toward the Golden Gate. Burton was in the forefront of the effort to assimilate the abandoned fort into the GGNRA, thus the honorific.
At the end of Franklin Street, behind the hostel, there is a path that leads to a small stairway that descends to an old brick battery built in 1863, another remnant of Civil War days. There is a large cannon mounted here pointing out toward the Golden Gate. It certainly seems like appropriate positioning, what with the commanding vista of the bay. Just below the battery a paved promenade leads to another, longer stairway. At the bottom of this are the old Fort Mason piers: three large piers and four long concrete buildings built upon a filled in cove.
As the United States spread its influence west out over the Pacific, this was an important military shipping outpost. Today it is called the Fort Mason Center and used for various commercial purposes. A world-renowned vegetarian restaurant, appropriately named Greens, is located here. There are also performance art spaces including the Herbst Pavilion, along with various galleries, exhibit areas, nonprofit organizations, as well as schools and small businesses, including the Blue Bear Music School and The Friends of the Public Library used book store.
West of the piers stretches the Marina Green, the great expanse of green lawn that fronts the bay on the northern edge of the City. Just adjacent to the Fort Mason piers is a small collection of slips rented to the public. Past this is a long seawall that fronts Marina Green. In early summer there are great patches of yellow flowers that cover the lawns. Locals and tourists alike congregate here to picnic, fly kites or just promenade. The Marina Green extends for about six to eight blocks and ends at the entrance to the San Francisco Yacht Club. Alongside the club there are private slips where the members tie up their yachts, sail and motor. Consequently, Marina Green is framed by bobbing forests of sail masts on either end with the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands providing a dramatic backdrop.
Behind the green to the south lies the Marina District. A very few blocks of this neighborhood were the subject of much of the national television footage of collapsed buildings and the ensuing fires during the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989. To the national television audience it must have appeared as if the entire City was aflame. The soil beneath this area is extremely vulnerable to liquefaction during earthquakes due to the instability of the underlying soil.
Liquefaction is the property of certain soil types (typically landfill) which causes liquids to separate from solids during the violent shaking of an earthquake. Ironically, the landfill in this area is mostly made up of the debris from the great earthquake and fire of 1906, dumped here to provide surface for the International Exposition of 1915. The Palace of Fine Arts, which was built for that Exposition, still sits on the western edge of the Marina District, all that remains of that glittering triumph proudly presented by a populace raised from the ashes.
Golden Gate Promenade and Crissy Field
To the west of Marina Green, the Golden Gate Promenade begins. This is a project along the Bay Shore that was completed in the 1990’s and is part of the Presidio. It consists of a reconstructed tidal marsh and replanted dunes fashioned in an attempt to restore the area to its original condition. The habitat restoration effort has been a great success. The water birds have returned to the faux habitat and it is now a home (or at least a stopping off point) for numerous water birds: ducks, egrets, herons, the occasional Great Blue Heron and of course the ubiquitous sea gulls. The wide gravel path (approximately 2 miles) that runs through this area attracts myriad runners, bikers, hikers and just plain walkers.
The Promenade extends out along the low dunes to Crissy Field, which is for all intents and purposes no more than a large field raised about six feet above the shore. The Army built the original in 1921 for use by the U. S. Army Air Corps Coastal Defense Force. This was all well before the building of the bridge so the approach was unimpeded. In 1936 it was abandoned and the Army Air Corps was moved inland to Hamilton Field due to the more powerful aircraft, the lack of sufficient space to enlarge and the frequent fog. Seaplanes also used this area and at low tide you can still see remnants of the ramps they employed.
All this unfolds with the Golden Gate looming in the background, overwhelming the scene. Sometimes the winds out here can be pretty fierce, especially when the fog is in, but this only enhances the wild feeling of the place. With the sea churning on the bay and the wind gusting off the ocean right into your face, you can’t help but feel intensely alive. With the majesty of the land and the sea laid out before, eventually the trail leads to the bridge and Fort Point.
Once proclaimed the “key to the whole Pacific coast” by U.S. Military officials, due to its sophisticated coastal fortifications, Fort Point lies strategically at the narrows of the Golden Gate itself and directly beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. The only Civil War-era casemated (vaulted rooms housing cannons) fort built on the West Coast, work began in 1953 and the first cannon was mounted in 1861, the opening of the Civil War. Blasting ninety foot cliffs down to fifteen feet (at the request of the military in their quest to skip cannonballs along the water’s surface, the better to shatter the hulls of enemy ships. True), the Fort’s construction laid the foundation for greater architectural events to follow.
When construction began on the Golden Gate Bridge in 1933, Fort Point was spared demolition due to its excellent design and superb masonry construction. There is a “break” around the fort that local surfers favor. Waves of considerable size form just behind the fort and run for several yards before breaking on the rocky shore. Surfers line up here, particularly on stormy winter days, and can be seen braving a sure dashing on the rocks just for the chance of catching that elusive perfect wave.
Under the Bridge and out to the Coast
About a hundred yards before the point, stairs ascend to meet the bridge. A trail leads off among the old brick bunkers, long buried and overgrown, but with some of the brickwork still visible. After passing through a tunnel under one of these, the trail opens out on one of the great up-close views of the bridge. Once their were great stands of Eucalyptus trees here but the Park Service, at the behest of the “nativists” (those who feel all non-native species, no matter how long they have been growing, are anathema), cut most of these trees down. Still the view of the bridge and the Marin Headlands beyond is quite impressive.
A short climb leads to the trail underneath the bridge, the Southern Tower rising above, sometimes cloaked in fog, other times stretching up towards an impossibly blue sky. After running very close beneath the bridge (the bridge is only several feet above and a real sense of its magnitude is felt), the trail turns more primitive and follows the coast along to the west. The cliffs fall away to the rocky coastline far below and the wind blows more aggressively. After years of being subjected to the winds off the ocean, the Monterey Cypresses are shaped to the cliffs like “ghosts fleeing the sea”*. Few know of this area and only an occasional walker passes with a shared look of a mutual secret.
Through the different seasons the plant life along the shore goes through many changes. In the spring, as the temperatures rise, the grasses which have grown thick and green with winter rains, now push higher, sometimes to shoulder height or above, and begin to bloom. As the spring progresses and the brush grows higher and thicker, the delicate wild flowers add light colors of pure whites, pale yellows and soft purples to the various light shades of springtime green. Dappled among these wherever they can find a foothold with sufficient sunshine, the golden cream color of the California poppy, the state flower, dazzles. Sprinkled throughout are many other wildflowers of myriad sizes and colors. The effect is like something out of a late 19th century art master class.
By summer most of these grasses have gone to seed and now the nasturtium, with its flowers of brightly mottled orange and yellow, begin to outstrip the other vegetation. Still, the poppy manages to continue finding its space. By late summer and fall most of the plant life starts to take on a burnt out look. After all there has been little rainfall (if any at all) since May. Now even the poppy starts to fail and only the hardy nasturtium’s kudzu like vines still cover the terrain. By winter, the Park Service comes in and trims most of the dead vegetation away to await the winter rains and allow the cycle to repeat itself.
© Stephen Alexander 2008
Part 1 of my SF experiences