The quintessential San Francisco place to walk?
Some might say Ocean Beach or Land’s End. Others Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, Market Street or even across the Golden Gate Bridge.
I’d disagree. Those are haunts, for the most part, heavily laden with tourists, commuters from the provinces, and have a mob feel to them even when you’re hiking down a cypress lined path at Land’s End catching glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge between breaks in the trees.
There’s only one place you can soak up what makes The City what it is — San Franciscans who live there. And that’s the place were ingenuity and vision transformed 1,017 acres of sand dunes into the Golden Gate Park.
Granted there is a lot of traffic that slices through the half mile wide park especially on that frustrating piece of rolling urban crawl known as California Highway 1. And there are a lot of fee-based attractions — the Academy of Science, the DeYoung Museum of Modern Art, and the Conservatory of Flowers as well as high profile concerts — that manage to pull a lot of people into the three-mile wide urban oasis that stretches from Ocean Beach to the Haight-Asbury neighborhood.
That’s the reason the official visitors’ count for Golden Gate Park is pegged at 13 million annually.
But the real joy besides the relative solitude you can enjoy the lush acreage dotted with tens of thousands of trees is the fact you come in contact with people who actually live in San Francisco.
They’re usually fleeting encounters — a simple exchange of “hi” when you pass — or maybe a prolonged minute or so chat when you are stopped soaking in the botanical beauty that is Golden Gate Park. It’s not that San Francisco residents aren’t friendly; it’s just that Pier 39 et al aren’t where you are going to find them.
That said a trip to Golden Gate Park is really about sharpening your senses for nature.
That sounds crazy given you’ll end up driving 90 minutes or so one way in the best of weekend traffic conditions to take what is essentially a hike of sorts in a city of 870,000.
But when you consider what surrounds you in terms of trees, shrubs, and plants it’s an amazing celebration of nature. There are some 800 species of plants grown in the park’s nursery complex where 3,000 individual plants are taken and planted throughout the park in a typical week.
Granted, Golden Gate Park is essentially a large garden given it doesn’t meet the suburban criteria these days for a park — a couple of trees with a lot of flat ground covered with grass and a basketball court or jungle gym added for good measure.
It was designed as a respite from the urban jungle. Walk for a few minutes down one of the paths crisscrossing the park and you can forget you’re in a place where parking a car on the street is about as stress free as a full-scale IRS audit.
Speaking of stress-free parking, your best place to ditch your car for an extended walk through the park is in the Ocean Beach parking area across the Great Highway across from the windmills.
You can map out loop routes of less than a mile to easily eight miles plus and never get bored from what you see. Even a straight-forward walk around the perimeter — the park on one side and the street and tight rows of homes on the other can be a different venture.
But if it is varied scenery you want, stick to the trails.
And while it’s true many of the best things in life are free, plan on spending a bit of cash if you’d like to enjoy two truly unique treats gleaned from nature — the five-acre Japanese Tea Garden that is the oldest public Japanese Tea Garden in the United States — and the Conservatory of Flowers.
The Japanese Tea Garden is near the de Young Museum. The garden features classic elements such as an arched drum bridge, pagodas, stone lanterns, stepping stone paths, native Japanese plants, serene koi ponds and a Zen garden. Cherry blossom trees bloom throughout the garden in March and April.
Admission for adults is $12 while seniors over 65 and youth ages 12 to 17 are $7. Children 5 to 11 are $3 while those 4 and younger are free.
You can find more information at japaneseteagardensf.com.
Perhaps the most unique feature of Golden Gate Park from the standpoint of nature is the Conservatory of Flowers.
The Conservatory of Flowers opened in 1879 and is is one of the world’s largest conservatories, as well as one of the few large Victorian greenhouses in the United States. The 12,000 square foot structure of glass and wood in the finest Victorian tradition houses 1,700 species of tropical, rare and aquatic plants.
A recap of some of the unique features as noted by the City of San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department:
*SPECIAL EXHIBITS ROOM: Every six months the special exhibits room changes its gallery. Oftentimes the exhibits include model trains as well as models displaying the topic of presentation. Galleries vary from California fairs to tropical island survival.
*POTTED PLANTS GALLERY: The Potted Plant room holds various unusual plants. The pots and urns that hold the plants were created by various artists from around the world. This room is maintained at hotter temperatures to accommodate the needs of the plants.
*LOWLANDS GALLERY: The Lowlands Gallery contains plants from the tropics of South America (near the equator). This room also contains plants that produce more well-known products such as bananas, coffee, and cinnamon. The room is usually kept around 70 F with a very high level of humidity through the use of a frequent system of misters, as the Lowland Tropics typically get 100–400 inches of rain each year and are located in elevations from 3,000 feet to sea level.
*HIGHLANDS GALLERY: The Highlands Gallery contains native plants from South to Central America. Its plants collect moisture from the air, and from water that drips from the trees above. Due to its drastically higher elevation (3,000–10,000 feet), this room is kept cooler than the Lowlands Gallery (around 65°F) and is kept at a very high level of humidity through the use of a misting system, as the Highland Tropics typically receive 200 inches of rain per year.
*AQUATICS GALLERY: The Aquatic Plants room is similar in conditions as those near the Amazon River. As such, many carnivorous plants that thrive in hot, humid environments grow throughout the room. The soil is mostly lacking in nutrients and the carnivorous plants are kept very moist by condensation of the water in the extremely humid air. The room also contains two large ponds, one holding 9,000 gallons of water, and the other holding half as much. Both ponds are kept at 83 F and are maintained using beneficial bacteria, filters, water heaters, and solutions to prevent algae buildup.
The Conservatory of Flowers is closed Mondays. It is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with the last ticket sold at 4 p.m. Admission is free on the first Tuesday of each month.
Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for youth 12 to17 and seniors over 65 as well as college students with ID cards, $3 for children 5 to 11, and free for those 4 and under.
For more information go to conservatoryofflowers.org.