Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park

San Francisco, CA

Golden Gate Park

What's larger than New York's Central Park, once consisted of sand dunes, is now covered with more than one million trees and is bison-friendly?

Golden Gate Park -- the ultimate haven away from urban chaos -- was deeded to the people in 1870 out of the prescient notion that San Franciscans would one day feel overcrowded. This foresight proved invaluable, as 75,000 people now visit the park on an average weekend.

Finding the land was the easy part. Someone still had to make grass and trees grow out of sand dunes blasted by harsh oceanside winds.

The person to do it was John McLaren, a brazen Scotsman and ardent nature lover. He arrived in San Francisco in the 1870s, and by 1890 he had established grass, trees and numerous plants in an environment most thought too barren for lush foliage.

The first buildings came with the Midwinter Fair, a sprawling expo and carnival meant to boost the economy and increase tourism. S.F. wanted to prove that it had culture -- so a fine-arts museum was built. To prove that outdoor activities could be pursued, horse stables and vast, un-landscaped greens were preserved. And to showcase the exotic and quirky atmosphere of the city, several theme areas were developed, including Cairo Street, Japanese Village and an Eskimo habitat.

The fair succeeded at what it set out to do. Millions of people visited San Francisco, business boomed and locals found renewed pride in their formerly sand-covered park.

The Park Today

Though the park has seen changes over the years, what remains today is a testament to the will of the city to preserve a place to play, relax and grow culturally. The new de Young museum is sure to bring a new wave of visitors, as the re-opening of the Conservatory of Flowers did in 2003. The music concourse has been improved and re-opened in mid-2006, around the same time the Murphy Windmill was returned from the Netherlands for repairs. The California Academy of Sciences is due to re-open in 2008. The old horse stables, closed in 2001, may be renovated starting in 2007. And a new, temporary disc golf course is being evaluated in late 2005 for long-term feasibility.

Getting There

Muni offers convenient connections to the park from transit stops throughout the city. Muni riders with Fast Pass or transfer receive a $2 discount to the de Young Museum. Use's transit trip planner for specific directions.

The de Young museum's Web site has fairly thorough directions to the park. Note that John F. Kennedy Drive is closed to automobile traffic Sundays from Transverse Drive to McLaren Lodge. Parking: The Music Concourse Garage is open 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m. every day, and costs $2.50 an hour during the week, $3 an hour on weekends (bicycle parking is free). The entrance is at 10th Avenue and Fulton Street. There's also time-limited parking along JFK Drive, MLK Jr. Drive and side streets within the park.

Sights and Culture

California Academy of Sciences: The academy expanded so much in its 150 years that it outgrew its site in the park, and so it is rebuilding, replacing it with a dazzling structure designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano. The redesign will include a new Steinhart Aquarium, Morrison Planetarium and modern exhibition spaces. But construction for the new $370 million museum, which is slated to finish in 2008, means that the science center must relocate for a time. So the academy has moved to a new building at 875 Howard St. (between 4th and 5th), and plans to remain there until the new building is finished. (-SF Chronicle and SF Gate)

New California Academy of Sciences will have the nation's largest living roof (9/05)

Conservatory of Flowers: Since 1879, locals and visitors have marveled at San Francisco's Conservatory of Flowers, the oldest glass-and-wood Victorian greenhouse in the Western Hemisphere and home to more than 10,000 plants from around the globe. It was badly damaged by a 1995 storm and closed to the public for eight years, and is finally open again after a $25 million restoration. The plant life is spectacular. Located beneath the conservatory dome, the warmest and most humid section of the building, is the conservatory's prized century-old imperial philodendron. The east wing houses the Highland Tropics collection and aquatic plants display (including real lily pads that can hold the weight of a small child), while the west side is dedicated to seasonal flowering plants and educational exhibits (the first, all about plant pollination, features 800 live butterflies that will flit about among the visitors.) Signs are kept to a minimum so visitors can simply soak up the beauty. Located at the eastern end of the park, just off Conservatory Drive. For visitors' information, see their Web site.

Garden of Shakespeare's Flowers: Designed in 1928 by the California Spring Blossom and Wildflower Association to honor the plants and flowers mentioned in the Bard's poems and plays. Obsessed fans can play"name the work" as they pass each of the 150-odd specimens. At Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Middle Drive East. Free.

Japanese Tea Garden: Many people's favorite part of the park, this was originally built as part of the sprawling Midwinter Fair. Begun by an Australian in 1894, this intricate and private (depending on the season) complex of paths, ponds and a teahouse features native Japanese and Chinese plants. Also hidden throughout its five acres are beautiful sculptures and bridges. Makato Hagiwara, a Japanese gardener whose family took over the garden from 1895 to 1942, also invented the fortune cookie. The garden is located just east of Stow Lake, between JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. drives. For Tea Garden admission info, call (415) 752-4227.

Tea Garden's radiant foliage invites quiet reflection

M.H. de Young Museum: Sixteen years after the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked the old museum and made it a seismic hazard zone, the new de Young reopened on October 15, 2005. In addition to the newly installed permanent collection of American, African, Oceanic, American Indian, New Guinea, Maori and Filipino art on the first and second floors, visitors can see treasures from Egypt's Golden Age in special exhibition galleries.

The cafe crafts sustainable, artistic fare from local ingredients, in a bright space where diners can gaze out onto the sculpture garden and the Japanese tea garden nearby.

Enter the museum directly from the new 400-car underground garage, which is accessible via tunnel from Fulton Street and 10th Avenue and costs $2.50 an hour during the week, $3 an hour on weekends. Or you can park elsewhere and come in through the huge open front entrance on Tea Garden Drive.

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and until 8:45 p.m. Friday. Admission is $6-$10, free for children younger than 13 and for all on the first Tuesday of the month. Muni riders with Fast Pass or transfer receive a $2 discount. The museum courtyard, cafe, store, sculpture garden and tower can be entered without admission fee. 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, (415) 863-3330. (Web site.) (-SF Chronicle)

San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum: Begun in 1937 with WPA funds and charitable donations, this 70-acre horticultural extravaganza entices the senses with more than 6,000 plant species. The garden of fragrance -- with signs in Braille -- brings flowers alive with scent alone. The main entrance is on Ninth Avenue at Lincoln Way. Also accessible from the Japanese Tea Garden through the Friend's Gate. Free guided walks are given daily at 1:30 pm. The Gardens are open weekdays, 8 am-4:30 pm and weekends and holidays, 10 am-5 pm. Free. (Web site)

Sports and Recreation

Archery: An archery field lies just north of the golf course. Complete equipment packages can be rented at the nearby San Francisco Archery Shop. The field is located on Fulton Street between 45th and 46th avenues. The shop is at 3795 Balboa St., (415) 751-2776. (Web site)

Basketball: Highly competitive and energetic games are always going on in the Panhandle, located at the eastern end of the park on Masonic Street, between Oak and Fell streets.

Biking and Skating: Due to the long, narrow layout of the park, you may want to tackle it on wheels. It doesn't hurt that the seven miles of paved trails lead you by lush waterfalls and gardens. Keep in mind that JFK Drive (the park's major artery during the week) and some other streets are closed to auto traffic on Sundays, making cycling safer and more fun.

Equipment can be rented at:

Stow Lake Bike & Boat Rentals, 50 Stow Lake Dr., (415) 752-0347

Golden Gate Park Bike and Skate: 3038 Fulton St., (415) 668-1117

American Cyclery: 510 Frederick St. and 858 Stanyan St., (415) 664-4545

Avenue Cyclery: 756 Stanyan St., (415) 387-3155

Park Cyclery, 1749 Waller St., (415) 221-3777

Skates on Haight, 1818 Haight St., (415) 752-8375

Dog Runs: There are three areas for your canine friend to frolic with other dogs in: the southeast section bordered by Lincoln Way, Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and 5th and 7th avenues; the northeast section off Stanyan Street, between Hayes and Fulton streets; and the western section, bordered by MLK Jr. and Middle drives and 34th and 38th avenues. There is also a dog-training area at 38th Avenue and Fulton Street.

Fly-Fishing: The fly-casting pools near the buffalo paddock are considered some of the best in the country, though there are no fish in the rectangular ponds. Members of the Golden Gate Angling & Casting Club can use the WPA-era Angler's Lodge. Near JFK Drive and 36th Avenue, (415) 386-2630.

Golf: A nine-hole public golf course is located at the west end of the park. The clubhouse entrance is near 47th Avenue, between JFK Drive and Fulton Street. (415) 751-8987.

Handball: Whether you prefer indoor or outdoor courts, the park has 'em, two of each. Reservations are not necessary, and the courts are open every day. Located on Middle Drive East, between MLK Jr. and Bowling Green drives.

Horseback Riding: CURRENTLY CLOSED. (Chronicle article)

Horseshoes: Players must supply all equipment. Located off Conservatory Drive.

Kezar Stadium: The 10,000-seat stadium includes an all-weather track for public use. Teams can reserve the field for various sports. 755 Stanyan St. Call the Recreation and Park athletic office at (415) 753-7032.

Lawn Bowling: The San Francisco Lawn Bowling Club manages three greens and offers free lessons. Contact the club for information and reservations. Located at Bowling Green Drive, between Middle Drive East and MLK Jr. Drive, (415) 487-8787. (Web site)

Lindy in the Park: Swing dancing every Sunday (weather permitting), from 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Free beginner's lesson at 12:30 p.m. (No event October 16, 2005) On JFK Drive between 9th and 10th avenues. (Web site)

P'tanque: This French bowling game, similar to bocce, has a small but devout following in the Bay Area. Players must bring their own equipment. The court is located opposite 38th Avenue.

Spreckels Lake: Model boats motor and sail at this artificial lake at Kennedy Drive and 35th Avenue. For more info, see the SF Model Yacht Club Web site.

Stow Lake: This beautiful lake, the largest in the park, is popular with fly fishers and amateur boaters. It also serves as the park's principal reservoir. Paddle boats and rowboats can be rented at the northwestern side of the lake. (Call (415) 752-0347)

Surfing, sea-lion watching, sunbathing and beach combing: Ocean Beach is a great place for all of those activities; unfortunately, swimming is discouraged because of dangerous riptides. Nonetheless, the beach is still a beautiful and stunning place to watch the waves crash over imposing cliffs. Located at the end of the park, near the Cliff House.

Tennis: Twenty-one courts are located at the eastern end of the park. Reservations are not accepted for weekday play, but they are for weekends and holidays. See the Rec & Park Web site for more info.

Team Sports: Playing fields and times must be reserved for most team sports. Prices and time allotments vary, so call (415) 831-5510 (for soccer, football, baseball and softball) or see the Rec & Park Web site for more info.

Disc Golf: The 12-hole course at Marx Meadow is considered temporary and will be re-evaluated in October, 2005. Check the San Francisco Disc Golf Web site for updates. On JFK Between 25th & 30th avenues.

Ultimate Frisbee: Games usually spring up at Speedway Meadow. Some games draw big crowds, and all skill levels are represented. Check out the San Francisco Ultimate Club Web site for more info.

Other Sights and Activities

AIDS Memorial Grove: Built and maintained by volunteers, this solemn spot offers a chance for reflection. At the intersection of Bowling Green Drive and Middle Drive East. (415) 750-8340. (Web site)

Arts & Crafts: Adults and children can take classes in ceramics, painting, metal arts and drawing at the Sharon Art Studio. Located near the Children's Playground at the far eastern end of the park, just north of Kezar Drive.

Beach Chalet and Park Chalet: This Spanish-style two-story building, designed by famed architect Willis Polk and opened in 1925 as a changing room for people dipping in the ocean across the street, fell into disrepair for decades before being reopened in 1997 as a brewpub and restaurant. The downstairs serves as the Golden Gate Park Visitor's Center, and showcases Lucien Labaudt's WPA-era frescoes. The Park Chalet is a new, glass-enclosed casual restaurant and bar at the back. A stone fireplace warms diners on foggy nights, while retractable glass walls that face the Dutch windmill and trees in Golden Gate Park open when the weather is nice. (-SF Chronicle/SF Gate) 1000 Great Hwy. (at Fulton), (415) 386-8439. 1000 Great Highway (between Fulton and Lincoln streets), (415) 386-8439. (Chronicle reviews: Beach Chalet, Park Chalet) (Web site)

Birding: For a great guide on what you might see and when, see this page on the San Francisco Field Ornithologists Web site.

Buffalo Paddock: Small herds of bison have made their stoic presence known since 1892, when the park was a free-range zoo of elk, bears, goats and other animals. Next to Spreckels Lake.

Children's Playground: The 1912 Herschel-Spillman carousel is the main draw, but there are also swings, slides and other kids' favorites. The carousel is open daily Memorial Day through Labor Day, and Friday-Sunday the rest of the year. Hours are 10 am-4:30 pm year-round. Located at MLK and Bowling Green drives, (415) 831-2700. (Web site)

Golden Gate Park Band: The Golden Gate Park Band has been playing free public concerts on Sundays in Golden Gate Park continuously since September of 1882. In April 2006, they'll resume performances at the Music Concourse. (Web site)

McLaren Lodge: Located at Fell and Stanyan streets, this elegant building was built in 1896 to house John McLaren. It is also one of the oldest Mission-style structures in the City. Today, it houses a park information center and an ornate, classic meeting room. It's also the site of the annual Golden Gate Park tree lighting in early December (call (415) 831-2782). Open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (415) 831-2700.

Music Concourse and Pavilion: Built in 1899 as part of the Midwinter Fair to promote California, it's closed until 2006 for a much-needed facelift.

Opera in the Park: In September, SF Opera's annual free outdoor concert features arias and operatic excerpts by current artists of the San Francisco Opera, accompanied by the acclaimed San Francisco Opera Orchestra. In Sharon Meadow.

Picnic Grounds: There is almost nothing more pleasant than a sunny day picnicking in the park. If you have a large group, reserving a spot could make the day hassle-free, as long as the weather cooperates. Barbecue pits are located between Marx Meadow and Speedway Meadow, near JFK Drive; (415) 831-5500 or see the Rec & Park Web site.

Rose Garden: Designed in 1961, the garden highlights hybrid tea, floribunda, grandiflora and miniatures -- the so-called "modern" roses. They're at their best from Mother's Day to Father's Day, around July Fourth and from around Labor Day through Columbus Day. Located between Fulton Avenue and John F. Kennedy Drive at Park Presidio Boulevard. (-SF Chronicle/SF Gate) (Chronicle Article)

Portals of the Past: A front porch standing without a house, reflecting in a still lake below -- that's all that remains of a wealthy Nob Hill house destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. It is the only public memorial to the disaster in the City. At Lloyd Lake, between JFK Drive and Cross-Over-Drive.

Rhododendron Island: The nearly 1-acre, sunken bowl next to Spreckels Lake was restored by a huge team of volunteers in 2004, and now forty cypresses and stone pines provide shade for 400 rhododendrons. They bloom once a year, with different varieties showing color between February and May.

Statues: Most of them are cleverly hidden in inconspicuous locations because John McLaren, the gardener who tended Golden Gate Park for more than 50 years, did not care for statues. In fact, he hated them so much, it is rumored that he took the one that sculptor Earl Cummings created of McLaren himself and hid it in the stables, where it was not discovered until after his death in 1943. Pick up a map to the monuments at the Japanese Tea Garden or McLaren Lodge and begin your scavenger hunt. (-SF Chronicle/SF Gate)

Strawberry Hill: This naturally formed island in the middle of Stow Lake is 428 feet high, thus affording great views of the surrounding park, the Golden Gate Bridge and Mt. Tamalpais. A good day hike, with lush foliage, trees and an artificial waterfall.

Windmills and the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden: Two historic windmills sit at the west end of the park. The Dutch (North) Windmill was completed in 1902. The Murphy (South) Windmill was built in 1905 and was the largest windmill of its kind in the world. Both fell into disrepair, but only the north windmill was repaired in 1980, when the adjacent tulip garden was also planted. (The tulips bloom in February and March.) Thanks to funds raised by the Campaign to Save the Golden Gate Park Windmills, in 2002 the cap of the South Windmill was shipped to the Netherlands for restoration, and has since been repaired and returned. (Chronicle Article)
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