Somewhere between a walk and a hike (a wake? a hilk?), this little jaunt spirals around Stow Lake and up to the top of Strawberry Hill.
Distance, category, and difficulty:
This 2.2 mile spiral hike is easy. The first section is flat and wheelchair/stroller
accessible. The second section has steps and short rolling stretches over dirt. Total elevation change is about 130 feet.
Mixture of sun and shade.
Dirt and paved trails.
Nice any time. No views when foggy, but lovely just the same
From northbound 19th Avenue in San Francisco (just as you enter Golden Gate Park), turn right onto Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. After 0.2 mile, turn left onto Stow Lake Drive. Follow the road around the lake, past the boathouse, and where the road splits, stay to the right. Park near the yellow gate on the right.
From southbound 19th Avenue in San Francisco (in Golden Gate Park), turn right onto Crossover Drive. After 0.1 mile, turn left onto Transverse Drive, and left again onto John F. Kennedy Drive. After 0.4 mile, turn right onto Stow Lake Drive, and where the road splits, stay to the left. Park near the yellow gate on the right.
Get public transit directions:
511.org (enter Stow Lake Drive for destination)
GPS Coordinates* for Trailhead:
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)
Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, pay phones, stores, and restaurants in surrounding neighborhoods. No
camping. When open, the boathouse provides snacks.
Small paved parking lot and additional side of street parking around the lake. Designated handicapped spots. Restrooms and drinking water near the boathouse. No parking or entrance fees. The trail
is suitable to wheelchairs. There are no paper maps offered. This trailhead is within walking distance of
public transit -- SF Muni bus lines run nearby. Read
some cautions about urban hikes.
Dogs are permitted on leash (note additional dog regulations posted along the trails).
The Official Story:
SF Parks and Rec Stow Lake page
Map Choices/More Information:
This hike is described and mapped in 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: San
Francisco, by Jane Huber (yup, that's me, the creator of this website). Order
this book from Amazon.com. .
The Walker's Map of San Francisco, by Pease
Press is perfect for this hike.
Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page
Beautiful Golden Gate Park is a manufactured masterpiece, transformed in the late 1800s from a sand-blown landscape of dunes. Over time, the land has been planted, shaped, and tweaked a million ways, and GGP's more than 1000 acres hosts an incredible assortment of activities: there are grassy meadows for picnics, museums, sports fields, ponds, and playgrounds.
The park's paths range from wide and paved to narrow and dirt, but there is little actual hiking to be found. Many areas of the park offer lovely strolls, and if that's what you're after, consider the Arboretum and North Lake. Park visitors can get a sense of our native landscape in the Golden Gate Park oak woodlands section (just north of the Conservatory of Flowers), but the trails in that part of GGP are short and can feel a bit creepy.
My favorite GGP destination for hybrid walk/hike is Strawberry Hill, which is perhaps better known for its surrounding man-made moat, Stow Lake. A flat paved trail rings the lake, and dirt paths and stairs wind up and down the hill, allowing walkers to create a variety of exercise routes. The hill and lake offer excellent city bird watching with frequent surprises, like glimpses of great horned owls, redtail hawks, and great blue herons.
Start at the yellow-gated bridge on the lake's north side. For a quicker walk, you can head right over the bridge, but to get the most out of your excursion, begin walking east on the paved trail (following in the same direction as the one-way park road). The trail is a popular route for walkers and stroller-pushers. Look to the right for a view to one of the lake's small tree-dotted islands. Common waterfowl, including American coots and mallards are year-round natives around the lake. You will also likely see (and hear) Canada geese, Brewer's blackbirds, pigeons, and crows. I was surprised once to come across a soft-shell turtle along the trail -- must have been dumped here, as is the fate of some muscovy ducks who have been "retired" at the lake. The paved trail curves around the east edge of the lake, offering great views across the water to manmade Huntington Falls and the Chinese Pavilion. On the south shore at 0.58 mile, you'll pass one of GGP's treasures, Rustic Bridge, constructed in 1893. This pretty little bridge crosses the lake and connects to Strawberry Hill, but our route continues straight around the lake on the paved path.
Traffic noise from Transverse Drive (out of sight to the west) is heavy here, as the path bends north and heads towards the boat house area. Look right to the lake's largest island, where great blue herons commonly nest in spring. Pass the boat house (or stop here for a bathroom break, food and drink, or a boat rental) and now follow the path east. At 1 mile, you'll reach the walk's starting point, at the yellow gate. Turn right across the bridge.
At the end of the bridge turn left onto the dirt trail. For now ignore the stairs and paths that head uphill to the right, continuing on the flat trail as it passes the bottom of Huntington Falls, a popular destination for wedding photos, and passes through a grove of planted redwoods. After you pass the Chinese Pavilion the path bends right. There are typically tons of squirrel beggars along the trail here. At 1.35 miles, you'll pass the other side of the stone bridge, continuing on the dirt path, which sweeps slightly uphill to the right and reaches an unsigned junction at 1.45 miles. Turn right, and after a few steps uphill, right again.
The wide dirt trail climbs gently through some monterey pines, which block most of the views south. At 1.70 miles, the trail flattens at a junction. Steps head back downhill to the right. A wide trail doubles back toward the left, heading to the hilltop, but continue straight on the trail which runs along a tiny fenced reservoir.
Lucky, sharp-eyed hikers might get a glimpse of great-horned owls which often nest in the trees in this part of Golden Gate Park. I seem to be blind to them, but many more skilled birders spot them during nesting season and sometimes after the birds have fledged. The trail is level along the reservoir, but then climbs again, passing a grove of toyon and coast live oak on the left. At 1.83 miles, pass a set of steps on the left and continue straight.
As you make the final push to the hilltop, notice surprisingly tall and sturdy pines and cypress trees along the trail. At 1.90 miles, the trail reaches the flattened top of Strawberry Hill. An interpretive panel prompts visitors to look for butterflies here, and sure enough, there are commonly swallowtails, admirals, and ladies fluttering about in warm sunny weather. Turn left to admire a partial view north to the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands. The rocky rubble on the east side of the hilltop is the remains of an observatory that was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake. When ready follow a sandy path west along the crest of the hill. The path descends through a cluster of native shrubs, including lizardtail, coyote brush, lupine, and native blackberry. Buckwheat blooms here in summer. Old stone steps drop to a junction with the fire road, at 1.96 miles. Turn right.
Retrace your steps back to the junction at 2.08 miles. Turn left onto a trail (with a green handrail) that quickly descends and forks. Bear left and go down more steps to a junction, at lake level, at 2.17 miles. Retrace your steps back across the bridge to the trailhead.
Total distance: 2.20 miles
Last hiked: Thursday, September 13, 2012