By Gail Todd, SF Chronicle
Second in size only to Golden Gate Park and with better views, 318-acre McLaren Park has been San Francisco’s neglected stepchild. Named for John McLaren, superintendent of Golden Gate Park for an astonishing 53 years, the park is surrounded by the Excelsior, Visitacion Valley, Crocker-Amazon and Portola neighborhoods in the often-ignored southeast section of San Francisco.
Today, McLaren Park is undergoing a renaissance. A new 2.7-mile Philosopher’s Way trail winds around the perimeter of the park, leading you through McLaren’s premier vista spots, scented groves and sunny meadows. Rough-hewn stone arrows guide you along, and 14 musing stations encourage contemplation. Benches and stools hewn from recycled curbstone offer views overlooking the city. Polished black granite markers are etched with bits of history, reminiscence, poetry and images.
Philosopher’s Way is a combined project of the San Francisco Arts Commission and the city’s Public Utilities Commission. Susan Schwartzenberg and Peter Richards are the principal artists, with stonework by master stonemason George Gonzalez. (Richards and Gonzalez were also creators of the Wave Organ in the Marina.)
Download a trail map at www.bit.ly/19ueHA4. You can find restrooms and water across the road from the Overlook Parking area near the tennis courts.
It’s called the Overlook Parking lot because you gaze out over Visitacion Valley with the bay to your left and the Cow Palace to your right. Look for the stone arrow at the trailhead. This is the first of 62 rough granite markers that will keep you from straying off the path.
The trail heads downhill with views of Bayview Hill. Blue-eyed grass, lupine, poppies and wild geraniums pop up on the hillside. If you’re hungry, you can nibble on miner’s lettuce. At a musing station, look across at San Bruno Mountain, crowned with broadcast antennas.
Continue through a wooded area of mostly eucalyptus. Past a large water tank off to your right, you will start climbing uphill and hearing traffic noise. Here the path diverges. To your right is a shortcut trail that leads you back to your starting point. A musing station here overlooks the Cow Palace and displays an image of Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke at the Cow Palace in 1964. To continue on the walk, take the path straight ahead and cross Mansell Street. (Cross carefully, as there is no crosswalk.)
A paved path comes to a lone bench at Visitation Knob. Rest and look out over the Pacific Ocean.
The water tower
After crossing a large open meadow sprinkled with oaks and pine and a beautiful patch of cineraria, the path ascends to the blue, 80-foot-tall art-deco water tower for the piece de resistance of this walk: the panoramic vista spanning San Bruno to downtown San Francisco, with great views of Twin Peaks and Mount Davidson. If you packed a picnic lunch, this bluff is a perfect place to enjoy it.
After descending, look for the reservoir just slightly off the trail. This provides irrigation water for the park, but its claim to fame is its popularity as a swimming hole – for dogs. The trail continues through the woods and comes to a large picnic area with barbecue pits and a dog run area. Across John F. Shelley Drive, traverse a wooden bridge, climb some steps and look to your right to see “Creek Intervention,” a large stone bowl that catches spring water dripping from a pipe. You come to a children’s play area, tennis courts and restrooms.
When you cross Mansell again, you will see the parking lot on your right. But don’t abandon the trail here: Follow the markers to the east side of Visitacion Avenue, coming to a picnic area and lookout point with unsurpassed views of Visitacion Valley. An abandoned observation tower adds a touch of mystery. Continue on the trail back to your car.
If you go
Philosopher’s Way in McLaren Park: By bus: Muni’s No. 29 stops at Mansell Street and John F. Shelley Drive. Walk east on Mansell, and the Overlook Parking lot and the trailhead will be on your right. By car from S.F.: Exit Highway 101 at Paul Avenue. At the San Bruno Avenue stop sign, head uphill on Mansell Street. Continue into the park and make a left turn into the Overhead Parking lot. To avoid freeways, turn onto Persia Avenue from Mission Street. Persia becomes Mansell Street shortly after it enters the park. Continue on Mansell. Shortly after you pass John F. Shelley Drive, you will see the Overlook Parking lot on your right.