By Eileen Keremitsis, Special to The Chronicle
Above the Haight is Buena Vista Park, San Francisco’s heavily forested hill and a favorite with dog walkers. It’s as old as its famous near-neighbor Golden Gate Park, and both have significant stands of coast live oak forest – a refreshing retreat from urban life.
Buena Vista Park started out as a sand dune with some chert outcroppings. (After a winter rain, you can see the sand slip out along pathways in the park.) In the 1880s, a few eucalyptus trees and Monterey pines were planted. John McLaren, the longtime superintendent of San Francisco’s parks, was responsible for more systematic planting in the early 20th century. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration paved a number of paths and lined gutters and retaining walls with dressed marble and granite from recently demolished local graveyards.
But it’s largely thanks to neighbors and school groups that today’s Buena Vista Park is so lush and woodsy. As the original plantings began to die in the 1970s, residents planted more than 3,000 trees, mixing age and type to create a more sustainable environment. Volunteers spend the first Saturday of every month weeding invasive ivies and other weeds that threaten the forest.
The paths that meander up and down Buena Vista Park lead you under a canopy of oaks, redwoods, pine, cypress and eucalyptus. Where the paths are wide, you’ll see butterflies flit between monkey flower, ceanothus, fennel and dandelion. Squirrels – hunting for and hiding acorns – are omnipresent, as are jays.
A walk in the park
To start your walk in the coast live oak forest, enter the park via the steps off Haight Street across from Lyon Street. Walk up and to the right, then turn left on the main path just above the children’s playground. Turn right (uphill) at the next major crossing, then right again. Look up, of course, but also down, because it is along this route that you’ll see the WPA handiwork of dressed-stone gutters. If you get to a little a clump of redwood trees, walk just beyond and keep your eyes open for a few remaining legible grave markers. Continue a short distance further, and views open up to St. Ignatius Church and beyond to the Golden Gate and Marin headlands. If you choose the uphill path whenever two paths cross, eventually you will get to the summit, with a grassy knoll where dogs check in with one another and people catch their breath and check out the view.
If you’d prefer, choose your own way. There are a dozen entrances to the park – all going uphill. The meandering paths make the park seem larger than it really is; if you ever feel lost, just walk downhill and soon you’ll be on the streets again.
Re-entry into city life
When you’ve had your fill of the park’s paths and vistas, ease your transition back into city life by taking a slow meander around the park’s periphery. You’ll see a variety of homes, from modest to immense. An unmatched pair of white Art Deco apartment buildings bracket the park – one on Buena Vista East and another on Buena Vista West (my favorite).
Several larger institutions have also found their homes here. These historic buildings have been repurposed for modern life. The brick facade of what was formerly a Christian Scientist church at 1250 Haight St. was recently converted into senior apartments. The elegant, turreted Victorian house at 21 Buena Vista East was once home to the Buena Vista Sanatorium. The old St. Joseph’s Hospital (355 Buena Vista East) is now a condo complex; the nuns’ dormitory next door has become the Buena Vista Manor assisted-living center. In the triangle between Waller Street and Buena Vista West, the pink buildings that used to house the St. Francis Girls’ Directory and Orphanage now house a branch of Walden House.
Good to know
The paths inside Buena Vista Park aren’t marked, but it’s difficult to get lost. Buena Vista is a favorite with dogs, and most are well behaved and on leash. The park also has tennis courts and grassy stretches with benches for lounging on a sunny day (at the south side across from Buena Vista Manor, and at the northwest corner of Haight and Buena Vista West).
To arrive at one of the Haight Street entrances to Buena Vista Park, take Muni Nos. 6 or 71 lines from downtown San Francisco. (The Nos. 24, 33, 37 43 and N-Judah stop nearby.) To start your walk on the uphill side of the park, take the No. 37 bus along 14th Street from the corner of Church Street, going away from Market Street.
Urban Outings are presented by Greenbelt Alliance, the Bay Area’s advocate for protecting open spaces and creating vibrant places. To suggest an Urban Outing, contact Eileen Keremitsis of the California Historical Society and author of “Frommer’s 24 Great Walks in San Francisco.” (Gail Todd will return.) To find out more about Greenbelt Alliance’s work, go to www.greenbelt.org.
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