Bernal Hill provides visitors with a breathtaking 360-degree panorama and clear views of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, downtown, San Bruno Mountain, and the hills of the East Bay. These windswept slopes are still sunny when Twin Peaks is shrouded in afternoon fog. Red-tailed hawks soar overhead, the breeze sends waves undulating through the native grassland community, and visitors hike around the hill’s peaceful summit to escape from the complexities of urban life. As one of the few remaining natural refuges in San Francisco, Bernal Hill is a special place for the city’s human and wildlife inhabitants.
A paved limited-access road and a network of well-defined dirt trails wind around the hill’s flanks and provide access to the summit.
Bernal Hill was originally part of a 4,446-acre land grant awarded to José Cornelio de Bernal, a soldier in Juan Bautista de Anza’s 1776 expedition. The grant extended south from current-day Cesar Chavez Street to Daly City. The Bernal region became a squatter’s paradise over the next several decades, until the Van Ness Ordinance of 1855 decreed that these illegitimate tenants were in fact bona fide landowners and citizens of the city.
In the mid-1800s, as San Francisco began to outgrow the capacity of the downtown district, the Bernal Heights neighborhood emerged. The streets were laid out and many small- to moderate-sized homes were built. A tight-knit community, including many Irish, Scots, and Scandinavians, took up residence in the shadow of the hill, which residents used extensively for cattle and dairy ranching.
One of the most dramatic tales of Bernal Hill took place in May of 1876. The Bernal Heights community caught the California gold rush fever after Frenchman Victor Resayre announced his discovery of gold on the Bernal summit, ore that he claimed would fetch $1 million per ton. For several days the hill was the site of extensive mining efforts, until it was revealed that the original discovery consisted of the considerably less valuable quartz.
During the 1906 earthquake, homeowners in Bernal Heights were some of the luckiest in the city because of the hill’s stable rock. Few homes here were damaged, compared to those in parts of the city that were built on landfill or former sand dunes.
Bernal Hill’s steep slopes support a thriving grassland community, suggesting how much of the northern San Francisco peninsula might have looked 250 years ago. In the summer and fall its grasslands are dry and parched, and Bernal appears from a distance to be a tawny, uninhabitable monolith. The native grasses and wildflowers have dropped their seeds, which wait patiently in the soil for the winter rains to awaken them. By early February, the hill is transformed into a palette of brilliant colors as a multitude of native wildflowers bloom, including footsteps of spring, sun cup, blue-eyed grass, checkerbloom, and shooting star. Native purple needlegrass and red fescue blow in waves from the almost constant ocean breeze.
With a diversity of plant life, an assortment of native animals can survive. More than 40 species of birds are known to use Bernal Hill, including Anna’s hummingbirds, dark-eyed juncos, American kestrels, western meadowlarks, and Townsend’s warblers. These birds forage and hunt in the grasslands in search of a tasty meal of seeds, berries, nectar, or invertebrates. The American kestrel effortlessly hovers above the steep slopes of the hill, waiting patiently for its next meal to reveal itself among the lupines, fragrant coyote mint, and red fescue.
Kestrels, like all raptors, are excellent hunters, aided by their specialized hooked beaks, keen eyesight, swift flight, and curved talons. Any insects, field mice, or small birds and reptiles on Bernal Hill could fall prey to this falcon. As rodents scurry through grasslands, they mark their trails with urine, which absorbs ultraviolet light. Raptors such as kestrels can see UV light, a trait that enables them to track the rodents along these “urine highways” through the grasslands. Smaller rodents such as voles urinate almost continuously, so a kestrel can simply follow the fresh trail directly to its prey.
California alligator lizards and Pacific gopher snakes bask in the sunny warmth provided by Bernal’s rocky outcrops. Other wildlife, such as Botta’s pocket gophers, California slender salamanders, arboreal salamanders, and raccoons, call Bernal Hill home. In recent years coyotes have been spotted at Bernal Hill; this native mammal, once prevalent in San Francisco, had gone extinct from the city but now is making its way back. If you are lucky enough to see one of these elusive creatures, please don’t try to approach or feed it, for its safety and yours. Remember that a fed coyote is a dead coyote: While not normally a threat to humans, coyotes that become too accustomed to being approached can become aggressive. Keep your dog on leash in areas that coyotes are known to frequent, for its own safety. For more information about learning to coexist with coyotes, see Project Coyote.
In 1973, Bernal Heights residents Barbara and Roland Pitschel began organizing volunteer projects on Bernal Hill. Originally the work concentrated on park beautification and trash removal, but gradually the focus turned more to invasive plant removal. In 1980 the group received official authorization from the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department to pursue grassland habitat restoration, the first project of its kind in the city. Today, the Natural Areas Program and the Bernal Hilltop Restoration Project are working together to preserve and restore Bernal Hill’s natural history. Through invasive plant removal, revegetation with native species, erosion control, and biological monitoring, they hope to re-establish the indigenous, healthy grassland ecosystem of Bernal Hill.
If you are interested in helping to continue transforming Bernal Hill into a thriving natural area, please visit our opportunities page for information on volunteering.