Getting Away From It All: Twin Peaks and Mt. Sutro

by Katie Cook

The walk begins at the Castro MUNI Station at Castro and Market Streets. This walk can be customized depending on the trails you decide to take in the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve area.  Following my path below the walk is a little over 4 miles. In addition to exploring San Francisco’s forested areas, this strenuous walk allows you to discover the lesser explored neighborhoods of upper Noe Valley and Twin Peaks.

Exit the MUNI station and make a right onto Castro Street, followed by a right onto 18th. Walk along 18th for approximately 4 blocks and then make a left onto Douglass Street.

You’ll pass by the Alfred E. Clark mansion, also called Clarke’s Folly, at 250 Douglass Street (corner of Douglass and Caselli). Built in 1892, the mansion was originally on a 17-acre parcel of land and was meant to be the Clarke family home. Clarke, a money lender and the clerk to the Chief of Police, built the home for $100,000. However, after the home was built Clarke’s wife refused to move into the home because the home was located in a neighborhood that she deemed “unfashionable.” The home then served as a series of hospitals and sanitariums. In July 1902 the former home was operating as the California General Hospital when a fire erupted under a stairway in the basement and caused the evacuation of the hospital’s 24 patients. The home is now divided into apartments.

Continue walking up Douglass Street and make a right onto Seward Street. Walk up the cobblestone path of Seward Street and continue on Acme Alley.

You’ll pass the Seward Street Mini-Park and the Seward Street Slides.  The Seward Street slides are by far the best slides in the city and are worth experiencing. The Seward Street Slides were built in 1973. In the late 1960s, developers wanted to build a 104-unit apartment building on the land, but neighbors protested and finally won the fight after a 7-year battle. The slides were designed by 14-year old Noe Valley resident, Kim Clark. She designed the slides for the Design the Park contest and her vision for the slides was inspired by slides that were part of Playland by the Sea at Ocean Beach. You can read more about the history of the slides in this 2003  Noe Valley Voice article.

Walk up the Acme Alley stairs to Grandview and make a left onto Grandview. Walk on Grandview until you come to the pedestrian bridge (between 23rd and Elizabeth Streets). Take the pedestrian bridge and cross over Market Street.

Be sure to check out the view from the top of the pedestrian bridge. This is just the first of several spectacular viewpoints along this walk.

At the end of the bridge make a right onto Corbett Street.  From Corbett, make a left onto Hopkins, and then a left onto Burnett. Make a right onto Crestline from Burnett. You’ll find the Twin Peaks trailhead near the top of Crestline. This is a marked trailhead. If you can’t find it look for a staircase on the right-side of Crestline, the trailhead will be almost directly opposite from the stairs.

The first trail takes you up, between the two peaks.

With an elevation of 922 feet, Twin Peaks is the second highest point in San Francisco (Mount Davidson is the highest peak, with an elevation of 928 feet). The North Peak is called Eureka Peak and the South Peak is named Noe Peak. Spanish settlers originally named Twin Peaks “Los Pechos de la Chola,” which translates to The Breasts of a Chola Maiden.

Take the trail up to Twin Peaks until it stops at the barrier of Twin Peaks Boulevard. Turn right and follow the trail as it winds along the side of the road. When the trail ends you can cross over the barrier and take the trail to your right. This trail will take you up and over both peaks. Follow the trail as you walk over the first peak, cross the road, and continue on the trail up and over the second peak. (If you want to shorten the walk, make a right at the Twin Peaks Blvd. barrier and follow the road-side trail as it winds alongside Twin Peaks Blvd. and Christmas Tree Point Road. This trail offers the same great views, but it is less strenuous because it doesn’t take you up and over the Twin Peaks.)

The site from the top of Twin Peaks is one of the best views in all of San Francisco. On a clear day you can see East to the Oakland and beyond, and looking West you can spot the Farallone Islands.

Before Twin Peaks Blvd. was built in 1916, Calvin Eib made history in 1906 by being the first to successfully drive an automobile to the top of the peak. Eib drove his Oldsmobile from the base of the peak to the top in just 2 minutes and 29 seconds. Eib probably couldn’t have completed the feat without the help of his passenger A.C. Wheelock. The 1906 Oldsmobile would routinely stall while going uphill because the gas tank couldn’t pump gas to the carburetor unless the car was level or going downhill. Wheelock had an air pump and pumped gas from the tank to the carburetor as the Oldsmobile climbed the hill.

The trail ends at the bottom of the second peak. Cross Twin Peaks Blvd., head to the right, and walk along Twin Peaks Blvd. for a short while. The next trailhead will be on your left. (If you took the alternate trail along the roadside the trail will end at Twin Peaks Blvd. and you will see the new trailhead directly on the other side of the street.) Take the new trail and walk along the Twin Peaks Reservoir.

After the destruction of the fires following the 1906 Earthquake the city recognized the need for a reservoir that would provide water for fire-fighting purposes. On May 12, 1912 the city celebrated the completion of the Twin Peaks Reservoir. The celebration included live music; two foot races- one in honor of the Eureka Peak (beginning at Castro and 18th Street) and one for Noe Peak (starting at 24thStreet and Sanchez); swimming and diving competitions held in the reservoir; and kite and miniature airplane flying contests. Twin Peaks Boulevard wasn’t opened until 1916, so all 20,000 party-goers had to reach the reservoir by foot. To accommodate the crowds half of the reservoir was left empty and used for grandstand seating while the other half was filled with salt water and used for the swimming and diving competitions.

The Twin Peaks Reservoir.

Walk past the reservoir until the trail ends at Marview Way. Make a right on Marview Way and look for the next trail on the left-side of the road. The trail is unmarked, but the path is well-worn. Take this trail as it winds along the left-side of Sutro Tower and enters the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve.

The trail goes through open fields and heavily wooded, lush forests. Adolph Sutro served as Mayor of San Francisco from 1894-1896 and had a home on Sutro Heights. Sutro also owned The Cliff House and the Sutro Baths, and he was responsible for building the tunnel that runs beneath Twin Peaks. The 977-foot tower was completed in 1972 and serves as a broadcasting tower for several Bay Area TV stations.

Sutro Tower from the beginning of the Eucalyptus grove.

The trail exits on La Avanzada Street. Make a right at La Avanzada and then a right onto Dellbrook Avenue. Dellbrook Avenue ends at Clarendon Avenue. Make a right onto Clarendon Avenue and walk down a bit. Cross Clarendon Avenue when it is safe- Clarendon Avenue has a blind curve and no pedestrian crossing- make a left onto Johnstone Drive. You are now entering Aldea San Miguel Housing and the Interior Greenbelt, property of UCSF.

This land was originally covered with native grasses and flowers, but Sutro introduced the Eucalyptus trees and some pine trees to the area in 1886 during San Francisco’s first Arbor Day celebration. The Eucalyptus quickly took hold and is now the predominant tree in this area. In 1895 Adolph Sutro donated 13-acres of land to University of California San Francisco for the creation of the UCSF Parnassas campus. In 1953 UCSF purchased an additional 90-acres of land and has worked to preserve much of the land for the public’s enjoyment.

Continue along Johnstone Drive until it turns into Medical Center Drive. You’ll pass several trailhead markers, take the East Ridge Trailhead. The trailhead is on the right-side of the road, up the hill from the intersection of Johnstone and Medical Center Drive. You can check out UCSF’s trail map  to customize the remainder of the walk.

The East Ridge trail begins with a series of switchbacks that lead to a peaceful grassy field. This is an ideal picnic spot or a great place to enjoy some sunshine on a rare sunny day.

Follow the trail through the field and back into the Eucalyptus trees. From East Ridge trail you can then take North Ridge trail to Fairy Gates to Lower Historic Trail which exits onto Stanyan Street near 17th Street.

Wild flowers in the UCSF Open Space Reserve.

The thick Eucalyptus and the variety of wild flowers make you forget that you are in the center of a bustling city. Keep an eye out for the altar that has been carved out of the dirt embankment on the Lower Historic Trail. UCSF has over 60 acres of forested that is open to exploration. The clearly marked trails make this an ideal place to wander in a forest without ever getting lost.

If you exited the Lower Historic Trail onto Stanyan, I highly recommend ending the with some gingerbread pancakes at Zazie’s. This popular brunch spot can have a long wait on weekends, but if you get there after 1pm the wait is usually under 20 minutes and you might even be lucky enough to eat under the umbrellas on their back patio. To get to Zazie’s make a left onto Stanyan, a right onto Parnassas, and then a left onto Cole. Zazie’s is on Cole near Carl. Happy walking (and eating)!

Jared Goralnick May 6, 2013 at 6:10 pm

I’ve been looking for an “urban hike” (hate that phrase) in SF for a weekend when I don’t feel like heading to Marin, and this is perfect, especially since it has some fun hidden stairways in it. Thanks for sharing, Katie!

By the way, if Zazie’s has a long line and you want something fresh…walk just a little bit further to Bistro Central Parc in NOPA for their smoked salmon eggs benedict.

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