Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach

The eastern end of Golden Gate Park

The eastern end of Golden Gate Park

There is a certain sadness accompanying the fact that you only get to experience something once with new eyes. After that, it becomes ordinary and commonplace.

I’ve wanted to parcel out my exploration some in order to make the newness of San Francisco last as long as possible, but having ventured today to the western part of town (known for many years in SF history as the “outside lands“) in Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach, I have some comfort in knowing that there remains plenty left to explore and that it’s not likely to become dull anytime.

I’ve seen many of the great urban green-spaces in Europe (and some great ones here at home), but nothing quite like Golden Gate Park. As Gary Kamiya (author of the “Cool, Gray City of Love” book I am reading) notes, it took him decades to really begin thinking he knew the park. And indeed, while incorporating many of the elements of other world-famous parks, it is wholly unique in some aspects. (Read more on the park history here.)

Some parts of it (like the deYoung museum and the pavilion where a World Expo once was held) have high tourist traffic and an almost carnival-like feel with fountains and random monuments scattered around. Other parts are largely public, recreational spaces, reminiscent to me of Regent’s Park in London, where the city goes to play soccer or tennis or Frisbee, or where the hippies go to drink and smoke pot. But remarkably, a significant portion of the park remains wilderness with hidden trails leading to almost primordial-looking grottoes for quiet reflection and solitude (save the occasional passer-by).

I approached the park from the southeast corner, taking my usual route to work on the N-Judah line. The first thing I encountered was Hippie Hill, which abuts Haight Street. Apart from a few guys playing bongos, though, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of hippies. I had imagined arriving to find some sort of time warp to the SF of the Sixties with flower children frolicking around the fields. There were also a ton of tennis courts nearby (which I hope to take advantage of at some point, though they were very crowded today).

As I kept walking, I passed a few botanical gardens and could hear what sounded like some sort of event going on in the northern part of the park with lots of cheering. However, I was mainly seeking a nice spot for reading and reflecting. I found one on top of a hill, but someone was playing 90s hip-hop not far away and it was hard to concentrate.

As I kept walking, I approached the de Young Museum and went in for a view from their panoramic observation tower.

View of Sutro Tower and Parnassus (including UCSF) from the deYoung museum

View of Sutro Tower and Parnassus (including UCSF) from the deYoung museum

Since it’s hard to go anywhere in SF without stumbling on a remarkable view of something, I didn’t spend a lot of time, but did enjoy seeing the UCSF hospital looming in the south.

I decided to forgo the museum exhibitions because of 1) the $30 ticket cost (I can get in free if I go with a member, some of whom I happen to know); 2) the fact that Keith Haring’s art does not particularly interest me; and 3) I was itching to get out and explore more of the park with the day already winding down.

It was a good decision as I found myself approaching Stow Lake, where people were paddle-boating around the in the shimmering mid-afternoon sun. I kept walking until I was able to cross over to the island in the lake where Strawberry Hill is located. After making my way past a waterfall to the top, I finally found the quiet place I had sought to stop and read up on the park’s history in my book. Not only was it a peaceful spot with picnickers and another great view (see below), but a trio of musicians was playing some wonderful ambient music that ranged from Civil War ballads to Train and the Lumineers on guitar, accordion, violin (or maybe cello–forgive me, Drew) and what seemed like it might have been a melodica.


View from atop Strawberry Hill (with Golden Gate Bridge in the distance)


Gardens in the park


Waterfall on Strawberry Hill

Paddlers on Stow Lake

Paddlers on Stow Lake

I remained on the hill for a while, reading and enjoying the music, but with evening closing in, it was getting cold and I found myself getting hungry. I made my way down the hill and started the challenge of trying to find the path back to civilization. There were a few detours along the way. Walking around the lake and northward to exit the park into the Richmond district, I stumbled on another waterfall with a large cross at the top. I found my way to the top and caught it in the perfect light.

Artist painting the scene at Stow lake.

Artist painting the scene at Stow lake.

Impressive cross on top of a hill in the park

Impressive cross on top of a hill in the park

Finally, after much wandering, I made it out to Fulton Street and north into the Richmond District. This is a largely suburban area with a cool vibe of an emerging hipster scene. While it has been a refuge for much of the Asian population (and a hub for good, low-budget dim sum, which I enjoyed for an astoundingly affordable $11), there were people clustered around a coffee shop on Balboa Ave., and also a record store (a rare sight these days) and movie theater with a 1950s-esque flashing marquee sign.

To get back home, it was necessary to first go catch the 18 bus east to the end of the city and south past the park in order to again catch the N-Judah line (which runs the entire latitudinal span of SF). This presented the opportunity to check yet another sight off my list: Ocean Beach. Another surprise about SF is that it is so much oriented on the eastern (Bay) side that it often seems to ignore the giant ocean to the west. I made it to the beach as the sun was setting, and stunning colors abounded to find it, oddly, somewhat secluded, with only one big group of 20somethings drinking in a group. It was different from the East Coast beaches in many ways, with bonfires and camping, plus it was a lot longer walk and a graffiti-covered embankment that reminded me of the Berlin Wall. The distinct salt-water smell was present, but only faintly so, Yet the ribbons of color on the horizon–seeing the sun set (not rise!) over the ocean was the most impressive part.

Ocean Beach at sunset

Ocean Beach at sunset

It was a remarkable way to cap off the day. I didn’t stay long as I was considering heading downtown to meet with friends, but when I was returning to the bus stop, I noticed there was a Safeway across the street.

Now, to get to the nearest grocery store from the apartment involves walking several blocks through an undesirable area, so instead I decided it would be easiest to do my shopping there and take it back on the train. Overall, it was easier traveling all the way across town with the bags on the Muni than braving the junkie-laced, human-feces-smeared distance between me and the nearest one to the apartment.

That will certainly be one of the benefits of moving to the easternmost part of town, the area known as South Park, which is a block away from the Giants ballpark and convenient to a Safeway (plus a lot safer in general).

On a sidenote, unrelated to my Saturday adventure, I was able to see the UCSF campus at Mission Bay for the first time on Thursday at an open house reception. Like the Outer Lands of the west when they first took root and became more than barren dunes, there are a lot who can still remember the Mission Bay area as nothing more than a big dirt pile. But the new hospital (opening next week), could play a big part in boosting that area. The campus is gorgeous, and its new, top-of-the-line facilities stand in stark contrast to the aging feel of the Parnassus buildings.

Next up on my list: the Palace of Fine Arts, which Matt describes as his version of a West Coast Rotunda. Stay tuned.


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