San Francisco's enchanting Golden Gate Park dazles with vibrant gardens, museums, and delightful trees.
Nobody would have been more surprised by Golden Gate Park than America’s preeminent 19th-century landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. Asked to design a major park in San Francisco, the creator of Central Park in Manhattan declared in 1866 that no “pleasure ground” in the booming but still raw city could ever compare with those of New York or London.
“It would not be wise nor safe to undertake to form a park upon any plea,” he wrote, “which assumed as a certainty that trees which would delight the eye can be made to grow near San Francisco.” Even great men are sometimes wrong. Today, this refuge of trees, museums, lakes, gardens, and athletic fields—which runs 3.5 miles from the tip of its slender Panhandle to the crashing surf at Ocean Beach—is indeed a pleasure ground.
“Golden Gate Park is San Francisco’s escape valve from urban stress, whether you’re looking for nature, recreation, or culture,” says Andy Stone, who has worked there as a gardener and section supervisor for 25 years.
A visit is both a personal and a communal experience. In my own three-plus decades in San Francisco, I have strolled, biked, skated, and paddled a boat there. I’ve picnicked in spring under blossoming cherry trees outside the Japanese Tea Garden, played baseball well and soccer poorly, courted the love of my life, fed ducks, flown kites, and heard soaring Italian arias and down-home bluegrass tunes. I’ve admired New Guinea tribal carvings at the park’s de Young Museum and African penguins at its California Academy of Sciences. I think I know this place, yet it continues to surprise me.
Creating Golden Gate Park was no walk in the park. Back in the 1860s, the site was part of one of the West Coast’s largest dune systems, a wilderness known as the Outside Lands. Enter two men: William Hammond Hall (no relation to this writer), a visionary civil engineer, and John McLaren, the Scottish horticulturist whom many consider the father of the park.
Beginning in 1870, Hall conceived a plan that put park amenities toward the eastern end, near areas of San Francisco that were already settled. He also figured out how to stabilize the sand and make the soil arable, coming upon a solution almost by accident. After noticing that barley spilled from a horse’s feed bag sprouted in the sand, he sowed quick-growing grasses along with native lupines and other species, covered the mixture with topsoil and manure, and planted seedling trees.
The job of repeating this process countless times fell largely to McLaren, who became superintendent of the park in 1890. During his 53-year tenure he greened the Outside Lands to develop the natural feel of the park, oversaw the planting of thousands of trees, tested species to find out which ones would flourish, and fought to keep buildings, memorials, and statues at bay.
“Creating the park was a feat of mammoth proportions,” says historian Christopher Pollock, author of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park: A Thousand and Seventeen Acres of Stories. “It took 40 or 50 years before it looked like it now does,” he says, “and in the beginning it’s not clear anyone really understood the scale of what they were getting into.”
Many of Golden Gate Park’s best-known attractions are still packed into its eastern half. The 1878 wood-and-glass Conservatory of Flowers, a whitewashed Victorian wedding cake and the park’s oldest structure, crowns a hillock of grass and flower beds. Among its 1,700 species of tropical flora is Victoria amazonica, a six-foot-wide Amazonian water lily that made its North American debut here in the 1880s. The Japanese Tea Garden, a 3.25-acre slice of idealized Japan complete with a hedge clipped to resemble Mount Fuji, was originally part of the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition in the park. After a yearlong refurbishment, Children’s Playground reopened in 2007 as the Koret Children’s Quarter, allowing a new generation of San Franciscans to hurtle down its two concrete slides before heading next door to a carousel built in 1912.
Facing each other across the Music Concourse, the new de Young Museum building and the even newer California Academy of Sciences structure carry on a vivid architectural conversation. Cloaked in its intriguing skin of perforated copper, the de Young shows its collection of art from the Americas, Africa, and Oceania along with blockbuster exhibitions such as Birth of Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, which opens May 22. Italian architect Renzo Piano’s remake of the 156-year-old science academy—a natural history museum as well as a renowned research facility—features walls of special superclear glass. Even when you’re inside the building, as Piano said just before the 2008 reopening, “you feel like it’s a continuation of the park.” It has been a hit: An astounding 2.2 million people checked out its planetarium, rain forest, Philippine coral reef, and other attractions during the first year.
In the park’s eastern half, you can play racquetball, paddle a boat, toss horseshoes in the newly revitalized horseshoe pit, or run laps at Kezar Stadium. At the 55-acre San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum, more than 7,500 species flourish in specialty gardens that range from a misty Mesoamerican cloud forest to a native California landscape. Those seeking a contemplative escape can head for the redwoods at the heart of the National AIDS Memorial Grove. “The miracle of the grove is the way visitors come to connect with people from their past as well as their present,” says John Cunningham, the grove’s executive director. “We’ve had memorial services here, but also weddings where the ground is covered in rose petals.”
The wilder lands west of Crossover Drive might just be my favorite part of the park. Weekend crowds are lighter, except when megaconcerts draw throngs to the central meadows or the Polo Fields (which in early 1967 hosted the Human Be-In, a huge gathering that foreshadowed San Francisco’s Summer of Love). Vistas lengthen here, and you feel there’s more room to breathe. But then you’ll round a corner to find a buffalo staring at you from the Bison Paddock, or locals putting for par on the nine-hole golf course or sailing model yachts across Spreckels Lake. At the Archery Field, you may hear the whiz-thunk of arrows finding their targets. And though the Golden Gate Park Stables are closed for restoration, you can often glimpse sleek-coated horses at the Frederick C. Egan Memorial Police Stables, home of the San Francisco Police Department’s mounted unit.
“When you work the park from 10 feet high on a horse, people are drawn to you,” says Stan Buscovich, a retired patrolman and mounted officer who now trains newcomers to the unit. “No one ever petted my patrol car on Sixth Street.”
Two windmills and the Beach Chalet anchor the park’s far western end, where the air smacks of ocean salt. Built at John McLaren’s insistence, until the 1930s the windmills daily pumped up to 1.5 million gallons of water, drawn from belowground, onto reclaimed dunes. The 1902 North Windmill is now purely decorative, its sails turned by a motor; the garden at its base explodes with 10,000 tulips that bloom in spring. Renovation of the 1905 South Windmill is ongoing, its dome now back in San Francisco awaiting weatherproofing and reassembly after being refurbished in the Netherlands.
The Beach Chalet, built in 1925 as a lounge, changing house, and restaurant for ocean visitors, fell on hard times before it was finally restored and reopened in 1996. Its lobby glows with Works Progress Administration murals of life in 1930s San Francisco, including a panel in which John McLaren, seated near the Conservatory of Flowers, accepts a redwood sapling as a 90th birthday gift. McLaren would live another six years, and though blind toward the end, he still followed progress in his beloved park. After his death in 1943, his body lay in state at San Francisco’s City Hall and his funeral cortege snaked through Golden Gate Park—tributes rarely bestowed on a private citizen, from a city that owed McLaren a debt of gratitude for its wondrous green haven.
GOLDEN GATE BY THE NUMBERS
Size 1,017 acres, 174 acres larger than New York’s Central Park
Visitors About 13 million annually, more than any city park in the United States except Central Park and Chicago’s Lincoln Park
Play areas 3 for children, 4 for dogs
Sporting fields & facilities About 20, including those for soccer, tennis, fly casting, pétanque, horseshoes, and lawn bowling
Birds About 200 resident and migratory species
Specialty gardens 10, including plots devoted to fuchsias, rhododendrons, roses, plants mentioned in the works of Shakespeare, and dahlias (San Francisco’s official flower)
This article was first published in May 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.