McLaren Park,
San Francisco Parks and Recreation,
San Francisco County
In brief:
1.6 mile ramble through San Francisco's largest city park.

Distance, category, and difficulty
This 1.6 mile hike is easy. Trailhead elevation is about 450 feet. This hike descends to about 200 feet, then climbs back to the trailhead.

More shade than sun.

Trail traffic

Trail surfaces
Dirt trails and paved sidewalks.

Hiking time
1 hour.

Nice any time.

Getting there
From Mission Street in the Excelsior District, turn east onto Persia Avenue. Drive about 0.6 mile on Persia. A sign marks the park boundary. Continue on Persia another 0.5 mile (Persia transitions into Mansell at the junction with Brazil -- just continue straight), then turn left onto John F. Shelley Drive. Proceed about 0.6 mile on Shelley Drive, then turn right into a parking lot.

Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:

GPS Coordinates* for Trailhead:
Latitude 3743'20.21"N
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)

Gas, food, and lodging:
Not much within walking distance of the trailhead. Gas, stores, and restaurants on nearby Excelsior streets. No camping.

Trailhead details:
Parking in a paved lot, with more roadside parking along Shelley Drive. No parking or entrance fees. No drinking water or restrooms. Shelley Drive is open from sunrise to sunset. Several Muni bus lines service the edges of McLaren Park, but there is no direct public transportation to the trailhead. There is no designated handicapped parking at this trailhead, although some trails in the park are suitable for wheelchairs. Read about cautions for urban hikes.

Dogs are permitted.

Map Choices and more info:
• Use AAA's San Francisco map to get there.
Trails of the Coastside and Northern Peninsula (map) is a great guide (available from Pease Press).
• This McLaren Park website has additional park info.

View photos from this hike.

Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page

McLaren Park used to have a reputation as a scary urban park, populated (according to rumors) with criminals and garbage. TrailheadAlthough normal city life caution is still in order, the park has been transformed to a safe and pleasant destination for families, dog walkers, runners, and city residents craving a bit of nature. With McLaren's 318 sprawling acres, inside San Francisco city limits only Golden Gate Park and the Presidio have larger recreation footprints. The park's greatest asset could be its topography. Unlike mostly-flat Golden Gate Park, McLaren boasts hills, which make it feel less like a park and more like open space. Although McLaren is comprised of mostly exotic vegetation, with some grassland, new installations of native plants are helping to reestablish a balance.
      Most visitors park on the sides of Shelley Drive, or in a parking lot near a reservoir, then create a hike, walk, or run on a seemingly-infinite assortment of paved and dirt paths. Skirting a reservoirFew trails are signed in the park, and navigating can be a challenge, but after a visit or two I think you'll get a feeling for the lay of the land.
     Start at the parking lot off Shelley Drive, and look for a trail at the lot's northeastern corner. Some steps descend toward a reservoir. Pine, eucalyptus, and cypress initially provide shade, but the path soon drops into a mix of coyote brush, thistles, grass, and fennel, with some introduced landscaping shrubs. Turn right on the paved path heading around the reservoir.
     Alders have been planted on the left, and grass, blackberry, ivy, and a few ceanothus line the slope on the right. The grade is perfectly flat. In spring you might see iris, California poppy, and sweet peas in bloom. TrailAt 0.23 mile, the trail reaches the far side of the reservoir. Two paths depart to the right; one downhill and one uphill. Take the trail downhill.
     The broad dirt trail begins an easy descent, with a grassy slope ascending on the right, and some coyote brush on both sides of the trail. You might see wild radish and poison hemlock in bloom in May. At 0.35 mile, you'll reach a multiple junction. Stay to the left.
     Continuing downhill, the trail draws near the amphitheater, visible on the right. At 0.50 mile, you'll reach a T junction with a paved trail. Turn left.
     The paved trail passes some handicapped parking spots and restrooms (which regular visitors report as always closed). On the left, look for a pretty assortment of flowers. This obviously planted display includes hummingbird sage, California poppy, and sagebrush. The trails winds downhill and splits at 0.56 mile. Turn left and head toward the road. At 0.60 mile, cross Shelley Drive and pick up the trail on the opposite side. Elevated walkway
     Several pleasant picnic tables are sprinkled throughout the area, which is attractively landscaped with mostly non-native shrubs and trees. You'll descend a few steps and reach a fork. Stay to the left. A few steps later, at 0.63 mile, the trail splits again. This time bear right.
      An elevated walkway transports cuts through a thicket of willow. Once the walkway ends, the trail continues to descend to the left. You'll reach a playground and the second pond near the east edge of the park, at 0.69 mile. Follow around the play area, to the left, then skirt the pond on a paved trail. This pond, when my friend Kerstin and I visited in May, was dry, although Kerstin remembers it had some water in the not too distant past. Great swaths of seep monkeyflower were in bloom in May, and a mother duck tended her fuzzy babies in the mud. Past a few picnic tables and a (closed) concession stand, the trail curves left, following the contour of the pond. Ascending through grasslandThere's another attractive display of plants on the right. On the far shore of the pond the trail is comprised of spaced concrete slabs; perhaps this arrangement allows water to drain into the pond from the slope on the right. When you close the loop around the pond, retrace your steps back to the restroom/handicapped parking area near the amphitheater, at 1.17 miles.
     You can turn right, and ascend back to the trailhead, but we decided to explore a little. Stay to the left and pass through the amphitheater, and you'll reach a split under some eucalyptus, at 1.24 miles. Turn right. A rough but wide path ascends somewhat steeply. Look for calla lilies on the left in spring. After a few feet the trail crests. Bear right, then right again.
     You'll be climbing easily through grassland near Shelley Drive. I was surprised to see a few shaggy blue-eyed grass blooming in May, since the hillside is dominated by thistles. In the woods on the return stretchThe trail splits at 1.29 miles. Either way is an option. Bear left. You'll climb a bit, through some pine. The trail splits again, at 1.35 miles. Bear right. Leveling out, the narrow path bisects a eucalyptus forest, where you might see miner's lettuce. You'll emerge at the top of a hill at 1.39 miles. On clear days, Mount Diablo is visible to the east. Go straight, downhill, and at 1.44 miles, the path feeds into a trail a few feet from a familiar junction. Turn left, and at the junction, turn right.
     Once again on a shore of the reservoir, the paved trail sweeps back toward the trailhead. Ascend the stairs to the parking lot.

Total distance: 1.60 miles
Last hiked: Sunday, May 12, 2002