Anyone cruising north into San Francisco on the blighted 101 freeway will notice a wind-swept, semi-wooded hill pressed against the bay, shadowing Monster Park Stadium, looking desolate, wild, and unexplored. This is the forty-four acre Bayview Hill in the too often-overlooked southeastern quadrant of San Francisco. Some of its best features are the panoramic views of the city, sweeping from Twin Peaks to downtown to the Bay Bridge, Mount Tamalpais, Mount Diablo, San Bruno Mountain, and the glistening expanse of the bay. Given its isolated location—although ironically in plain view of thousands of passing motorists—and a single access road, Key Avenue, this is a truly secret hike; since it is not a popular walkway, it is one of the most diverse natural resource areas in the city.
The Baby Factor
There is a one-mile hike that circles the top of the hill; the “trail” is an old paved road that a chunky-wheeled stroller could manage. Although you’ll begin with a steep uphill for a quarter mile, my husband and I hiked it with a thirteen-day-old baby in a sling. Sport strollers with chunky wheels could manage just fine. We encountered a small family with a six-year-old girl (intensely curious about peeking at our baby!) who hiked like a champion. Given the isolated location of the park and its infrequent visitors, I recommend that at least two adults hike together. People tend to allow their dogs off leash, but the two dog owners we encountered leashed their pooches when they saw my husband, baby, and I coming up the trail.
Bayview Hill is made of broken bedrock and silica rich mud interlayered with beach sand buried and baked to form chert and sandstone layers. Before the Spanish arrived, this was the stomping ground of native Ohlone people and home to grizzlies, elk, wolf, and deer. Tenuous reminders of these days are evident in native bunchgrasses that have survived the centuries, like California brome (Bromus carinatus) and June grass (Koeleria macrantha), which elk and deer ate. The hill became a park in 1915, but the city has sliced and diced it, shoveling away large sections for Monster Park, the football stadium to the east, and the dump to the west across the freeway. Current erosion from the days of rock quarrying continues to threaten certain sections of the park, mostly in the northern area.
Your Day Begins
Start your day by packing picnic food, water, sun protection, and hiking gear since you won’t find stores, restaurants, or restrooms up there. The closest public bathroom is in Candlestick Point Recreation Area (drive down Key Avenue, turn right on Jennings Street, right on Jamestown Avenue, driving along the football stadium until reaching Candlestick Point on the other side) or at Gilman Playground. My husband and I merely changed diapers en route to the top of Bayview Hill, sitting in the shade of blue gum eucalyptus.
There is one paved, circular road (which I call the “trail”), accessible by car for park officials but traversable by foot for others. Access it by driving up Key Avenue to the car barrier, park, and start your hike. You’ll go uphill for a quarter mile or so; stop to look over your shoulder at the unfurling view, take photos, notice the solitude, the blue scrub jays in the oak trees. You’ll reach a forest of blue gum eucalyptus and pines on the crest, and there’s a three-quarters of a mile loop around the apex of the hill. On the south side you'll find a snag, a large, dead tree on the top of a rise; this is a good opportunity to discuss with an older child how dead trees provide vital habitat for many insects and birds like woodpeckers and nuthatches. Watch for the relics of old staircases and retaining walls built by the WPA decades ago, while being conscious of the fragile plant and animal species, and treading carefully through the different habitats of grassland, forest, and scrub. If you charge down unofficial trails with eyes half-shut, you could bowl into patches of poison oak.
Bayview Park is home to many animals, including the typical San Francisco raccoons, mice, pocket gophers, striped skunks, and Virginia opossums. Lizards and salamanders slither about, and you might see several harmless snakes basking in the sun, or eeling through the grasses like garters—maybe even the Pacific ring-neck snake, which diets on earthworms and the like, and whose tail corkscrews when it is threatened. If lucky, you might see the endangered Mission Blue butterfly (Icaricia icarioides missionensis), with blue or brownish wings bordered in black, fluttering on one of the lupine plants it needs for survival. More common is the small Acmon Blue butterfly with black spots and an orange splash on its delicate, silvery-blue wings.
Bird watching is quite good with the likelihood of spying various raptors, including great horned owls, noisy scrub jays, and kestrels. A positive aspect of the plentiful blue gum eucalyptus trees on the apex of the hill is that they provide nesting for several species of hawk. There are also smaller birds such as sparrows, meadowlarks, and wrens; goldfinches and nuthatches breed here.
There is plenty of plant life to appreciate. Besides the ubiquitous, invasive blue gum eucalyptus trees, you can find Coast live oak, mostly in the southeast part of the park. Seek out the native, sensitive Islais cherry (pronounced is-lay, the Ohlone word for cherry) with coin-shaped, serrated-edged leaves.
If you adventure here in the spring or summer, keep watch for the rare coast larkspur (Delphinium patens), a sun-loving perennial with violet colored, star-shaped blossoms. According to San Francisco Recreation and Parks, Bayview Hill is the only place left in the city where you can find it. Also look for San Francisco collinsia (Collinsia multicolor), the San Francisco Blue-Eyed Mary, an endemic plant that has been destroyed in other local habitats. It’s a shade-loving herb with serrated leaves and clusters of pale lavender, multi-lobed flowers which bloom in the spring. You find it in the southwestern section of the park. At the trailhead on Key Avenue, there is a waterproof chart of wildflowers that bloom in the spring here.
Bayview Hill is a wonderful place to hike and picnic; you can imagine yourself in an eagle’s aerie, lifted above the traffic and chaos of the city. Hopefully the native plants and animals will survive and thrive in the future; for now, appreciate them with meditative awareness and share this park with people you love. Come here seeking open land, plants, and animals—not people or conveniences.
What and Where?
Bayview Park Brochure:
San Francisco Recreation and Parks Natural Areas Program:
Candlestick Point State Recreation Area (where you’ll find a public restroom):
(Giants Drive at Gilman, across from Monster Park)
(Giants Drive at Gilman, across from Monster Park)
Heading south on 101:
-Exit towards Cow Palace / 3rd Street
-Follow signs for 3rd Street / US 101 N / Bayshore Blvd N
-Stay right at the fork, follow signs for 3rd Street / Bayshore Blvd S
-Left on Bayshore Blvd
-Continue on 3rd Street
-Right at Key Avenue
Heading north on 101:
-Exit 429B / 3rd Street
-Right at Key Avenue