Oak Woodlands Natural Areas

Coast Live Oaks in the Golden Gate Park Oak Woodlands

While most of Golden Gate Park has been landscaped with lawns, flowerbeds and other ornamental features, a few remnants of San Francisco’s oak woodlands still exist in this world-renowned park. The northeast corner of Golden Gate Park is home to some of the oldest coast live oak trees in San Francisco.

What's New

Oak Woodlands Trails Improvement Project Team Wins Partnering Award

Last week, the Golden Gate Park Oak Woodlands Trails Improvement Project team, comprised of staff from Rec and Park and Public Works as well as the contractor, Yerba Buena Engineering & Construction, Inc, was honored with an award for partnering. Partnering is a requirement for City teams and contractor staff … Continue reading

New Trail Through Oak Woodlands Dedicated to Phil Arnold

SAN FRANCISCO –San Francisco Recreation and Park Department today unveiled its new main trail through the Oak Woodlands of Golden Gate Park, dedicating the scenic path to Phil Arnold, a longtime advocate for local parks, open space, and recreational trail opportunities. The Phil Arnold trail provides a primary, continuous nature … Continue reading

Oak Woodlands Trails Improvement Project Updates

Here are a few updates on the Golden Gate Park Oak Woodlands Trails Improvement Project: We are getting very close to construction completion! Many of the trail segments are completed and open for use Way finding signage will be installed in the coming days Look for habitat restoration planting in … Continue reading

First Portion of Improved Oak Woodlands Trail Open for Use in Golden Gate Park

Happy to report that the first section of new trail (of many sections!) is open for use in the Oak Woodlands of Golden Gate Park.  If you would like to try it out, please click here with that area called out in white bubble, with note.  Trailside restoration / erosion … Continue reading

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Natural History

Acorns, the fruit of oak trees, develop from the ovary of a single pollinated female flower. Oaks don't have showy, colorful blossoms like other flowering plants that rely on insects for pollination. Instead, pollen is carried by the wind from male to female flowers. Since the wind can be unpredictable and scatter pollen in many directions, oak flowers produce large amounts in order to maximize acorn production.

The oak's path from acorn to tree is a difficult one. In order to sprout, the acorn must escape predation from many animals. Gray squirrels and scrub jays are voracious predators and wide-ranging dispersers of acorns. Scrub jays may bury several thousand acorns in one season. By hiding, and sometimes forgetting about, their acorn caches, these animals are inadvertently "planting" future woodlands.

In order to sprout, acorns must either land or be hidden by animals in a place that is not too shady, hot, or dry. Good spots include layers of decomposing leaves and cracks in the soil at the edge of existing oak trees. From the time when the acorn germinates until it becomes a young tree, it is susceptible to drought and herbivory (browsing by deer, insects, and other animals). New leaves are especially tasty to animals, but if too many are removed, the tree cannot make its own food through photosynthesis and will starve. As a result, many plants have evolved to produce tannins and other chemicals distasteful to herbivores. Although some oak leaves are consumed by animals, the tannins discourage them from eating too many, allowing saplings to survive.

A world of ever-present creatures thrives among the shadows of an oak woodland. The acorn crop comes in the fall when other food sources dry up and many animals must put on fat for the winter. There are several species of birds known as sapsuckers that drink from the phloem (vascular tissue which transports sugars throughout the tree) just below the bark. Western harvest mice strip the bark and Botta's pocket gophers eat the roots of saplings. Insectivorous bird species such as brown creepers and nuthatches scour the trunks, branches, and leaves for the many insect species residing in oaks.

Cultural History

Oaks were essential to the survival of many Native American groups. An acorn mush or soup was a dietary staple to at least three-quarters of the California tribes, including the Ohlone people, who occupied what is now the San Francisco peninsula. The harvesting of acorns, which have great nutritional value, was done with ceremony and celebration. Acorn soup was cooked by placing acorn flour and water in a watertight basket with hot stones. In the Sacramento Valley, Native Californians made a dense acorn bread that kept for months.

Oak trees provided more than just food. Native Americans used the tannins to make a dye for decorating and softening animal skins and baskets and, in some tribes, for tattooing. The tannins were also used to treat a variety of ailments, from fevers to gastrointestinal problems. From the Native Americans, the European and Mexican settlers learned to use oak bark for tanning hides and oak charcoal to extract lime and make mortar, plaster, and fertilizer. Oak wood also made a fine fuel; few other trees provide the heat value of a cord of seasoned live oak.

Before European settlement, the area that is now Golden Gate Park was part of one of the largest inland-reaching sand dune systems along the western shore of North America. It stretched seven miles from Ocean Beach across the peninsula to the present-day Financial District. The western areas near the ocean were covered with constantly drifting sand. Toward the eastern end, rock outcrops and ridges provided a protected environment in which oak trees thrived. Despite their rich biological diversity and stark beauty, the dunes did not meet the European aesthetic for park land. In 1870, William Hammond Hall submitted a plan to Mayor Frank McCoppin to tame the sand dunes and "fit a graceful curvature" to the natural topography. Using horse manure, the park designers transformed the ever-shifting sand into stabilized, arable soil. The actual dune reclamation project began in 1872 with the planting of grasses, lupine, and various trees. The introduction of nitrogen-fixing species such as lupine allowed ornamental trees and shrubs to survive. Fortunately, the park was "built" around the oak woodlands, and today they remain a unique feature of Golden Gate Park and a historic remnant providing clues to an earlier ecosystem.

Golden Gate Park’s facilities and uses have changed throughout its history. The California Midwinter International Exposition, which lasted for six months and had over 2 million visitors, was held in the park in 1894. In 1906, thousands of refugees from the earthquake and fire took up residence in the park. The California Academy of Sciences moved to the park in 1910, and Kezar Stadium, the Beach Chalet, and the Steinhart Aquarium were among the facilities added in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Trail Map

Sand was transported from Sierra Nevada glaciers by rivers and debouched outside the Golden Gate, where strong onshore winds blew it across the northern tip of the city all the way to the Bay.  Radiolarian chert outcroppings support a different biological community than the sand supported.

Coast live oak and toyon trees grew on the chert in small groves in an otherwise nearly treeless peninsula.  Because these areas were already wooded, William Hammond Hall did not landscape them when he designed and landscaped Golden Gate Park, but left them as wild areas.  He wanted the park to be “…an urban pastoral retreat, a semblance of nature.”  The trees were cut down for fuel, especially during the homeless encampment after the 1906 earthquake, but they resprouted and the groves include trees which grew from these sprouts.

Three miles of asphalt and dirt paths wind through the Oak Woodlands and connect to the extensive trail and road network within Golden Gate Park. Oak Woodlands Trail Map- Links to pdf trail mapThis part of Golden Gate Park can be accessed from The Conservancy of Flowers, JFK Blvd, Stanyan Street between Fulton Street and Fell street  and also between  and  6th Ave and Stanyan Street  along Fulton. Parking is widely available around the park and throughout Golden Gate Park. Muni lines 5 and 33 stop along the park.