To experience a hint of what San Francisco was like before it became a vibrant city—golden, rolling hills covered in wild grasses, raptors soaring above—venture to the rarely-trodden southeast corner where you’ll find McLaren Park, from which you will see splendid views and encounter wildlife in the middle of a city. John McLaren Park’s 317 acres make it the second largest park in San Francisco after Golden Gate Park, and it is much more diverse.
Start by going to Leland and San Bruno Streets in Visitation Valley. Leland Street has a funky selection of neighborhood stores, a library, and a post office. Stock-up at Latin bodegas like La Loma Produce and Casa Lopez Produce, where you will find pyramids of fruit, delicious queso fresco (fresh cheese), homemade pico de gallo salsa, and chicken or pork tamales, wrapped and ready to eat on the road; or sample goodies from a to-go box of Chinese dim sum at Happy Family (makers of excellent homemade dim sum); or taste the well-endowed tacos or a sizeable mojado burrito at Nayarit Taqueria; or drink your morning coffee and have a bagel at Joe Leland Café. If you need to change your baby, be warned: there are no restrooms equipped with changing tables.
When you’re ready to ramble with provisions and water, head to Rutland and Leland Streets, where you’ll take a right turn on Rutland, walking north uphill to McLaren Park. Turn left at Wilde Street and continue to the golden mountain (which will be kelly green in the rainy season) of McLaren Park.
My favorite route begins on the upper half of McLaren Park where Wilde Street dead-ends; circumnavigate from the southeast to the southwest, crossing Mansell Street near Persia Street, the outer edge of the park, and continue in a loop from the northwest to the northeast. Mansell Street bisects the park into two halves: the wild, wooly southern side, and the groomed, watered northern side. Both sides have their virtues and should be explored.
From Wilde Street start your journey through McLaren Park by taking a meandering concrete path up the slope towards a defunct observation tower on the top of the hill where Monterey cypress grow. The views are beautiful—at sunrise you’ll see the Bay turn golden and a stream of seagulls riding the airwaves; at sunset you’ll see sinuous tongues of fog creep in from the Pacific, and maybe a moon rising over Bay View Hill to your left; throughout the day you’ll see the spectacular geography of eastern San Francisco, the valleys and communities, the undeveloped San Bruno Mountain to the south, and a sweeping vista of the East Bay. Take notice of the Gleneagles International Golf Course south of you; there’s a friendly bar with drinks and some food. Avoid going further south or you’ll leave the park; instead, explore the paths traversing the upper flanks of the park and keep an eye out for falcons, osprey, hawks, and kestrels, especially if you visit in the late fall to early winter during migration season. With patience, you might spot the rare raptors: the Northern Goshawk, or a turkey vulture. My husband has found coyotes on his evening stroll, and the grasslands are habitats for California quail, raccoons, skunks, and opossums.
You will see the 80 foot blue water tower in the northwest corner long before you arrive there—sit at its base, feel the ocean wind, and enjoy a spectacular view of the Pacific on a clear day. Heading east on the paved trails, you’ll find the reservoir where folks swim their dogs and joggers regularly run. Following eastbound paths, you reach McNab Lake on the lower perimeter of the park, where you can find hummingbirds, crows, sparrows, and Great Horned Owls. You may see an endangered Grey Fox in the riparian habitats of the southeast parts of the park. If you stay further uphill, you’ll reach the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, an impressive hemisphere with hints of Greek architecture, and a public restroom in a nestle of eucalyptus trees and blackberry bushes.
End your hike where you began—making your way back to Leland Street for another chance to buy that fabulous mojado burrito at Nayant Taqueria or eat homemade Chinese food at Happy Family that you passed up earlier in your eagerness to enter McLaren Park. Your dogs will be barking (those holding you up), and you’ll feel accomplished for having explored part of San Francisco that still feels rural and wild.
What and Where?
Joe Leland Café, 28 Leland Ave.
Happy Family, 107 Leland Ave., 333-8999
Nayant Taqueria, 98 Leland Ave., 587-7721
Casa Lopez Produce, 58 Leland Ave., 586-4745
La Loma Produce #2, 65 Leland Ave., 239-7520
Friends of McLaren Park Website with lists of plants and animals: