"All good things are wild and free." --Henry David Thoreau

Monday, March 1, 2010

Bernal Hill and Cortland Avenue

Bernal Hill

            There is something about Bernal Hill that has always made me happy since childhood, whether in the summer and fall when the hill is golden as any northern California hill, or in winter and spring when grass turns the hill a luxurious green in contrast to the valley of concrete, mortar, and glass that the city appears to be.  Bernal’s thirty-something acres are almost in the nucleus of the city, more or less hemmed by Mission Street to the east, Cesar Chavez Street to the north, I-280 to the south, and US 101 to the east; these coordinates place it in the banana belt where you will mostly encounter sunny weather instead of fog. 

The Baby Factor
            Bernal Hill is a hike for any age: babies sport strollers can cruise Bernal Heights Boulevard, a pedestrian-only one-mile road that winds up the hill; babies in slings and older children can traverse the Boulevard with their parents, as well as explore the very top of the hill and walk along the crest on a dirt path that runs east-west.

            There are a plethora of shops and restaurants on Cortland Avenue but most do not have baby-changing tables in the restrooms; if you need to change your baby, patronize Progressive Grounds Café or Maggie Mud Ice Cream Parlor. While on Cortland, check out Chloe’s Closet, a fantastic second-hand baby gear and clothing store.
In the early nineteenth century this land belonged to the Spanish cattleman, Don Jose Cornelio Bernal, and then passed hands to a Frenchman who sliced it into lots that Irish immigrants bought. Its bedrock was virtually unaffected by the 1906 earthquake, and its stability lured folk to build cottages for survivors and construction workers. World War II brought black home-owners who worked in the naval shipyards, the 1960s brought political activists and hippies, and currently there is some amount of gentrification as evidenced in some expensive restaurants; Bernal’s blue-collar tradition remains at its foundation.

Your Day Begins
            Start your day on Cortland Avenue where you can stock up on picnic foods or enjoy a drink and a meal on the sunny patio at Progressive Grounds Café, one of the few businesses on Cortland with a baby-changing table in the restroom.

            Walk north up Anderson Street for a quarter mile until you reach Bernal Heights Boulevard, a circular drive with small, free parking lots on the north and south sides. You have about a mile to walk on the circular boulevard, half of which is pedestrian only. People let their dogs off leash here; on the weekends the place boils with mutts as they scamper and pop and gallop everywhere.

            At the very top is radio tower among a clump of trees on a windy hump; perhaps you’ll find the owls that live there, or see kestrels and hawks gliding on the breeze. This is a perfect place to sit and identify landmarks from the Golden Gate to the Bay Bridge, Mount Diablo to Mount Tamalpais, and a score of San Franciscan neighborhoods. If you are goat-footed and sure of your step, and have either a walking child or a baby in a sling, traverse the hill’s rocky spine extending to the east onto round, grassy lumps that remind me of the cover illustration of a boy standing on a desolate planet from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book, The Little Prince. Take care with walking on the dirt trails—they can be slippery even on a sunny day.

I’ve never encountered mammals besides humans and dogs on the hill, but Bernal is home to raccoons, opossums, and skunks. For a while, folks sighted a coyote and perhaps he’s still there. At least one pair of Great Horned Owls nest in the clump of trees at the apex, and one frequently spies hawks and kestrels soaring above.

Sunset is one of the loveliest times on the hill as witnessed on the very top where the panoramic city is spread out at your feet. Notice the changing colors of sky and hill, the emergence of stars and moon, the temperature change, the arrival and departure of birds.

            At the end of your day, treat yourself to ice cream at Maggie Mud’s where the spectrum ranges from dairy free to full fat goodness. If you and your child still have energy to burn, cross the street, go behind the library, and check out the Bernal Heights Playground.            


Ø Farmer’s Market and Flea Market
If you visit on the weekend, take a jaunt to the southern flank of the hill so that you can buy fresh produce at the Alemany Farmer’s Market on Saturday (6 am to 3 pm), or look for an odd bauble or collectable at the Alemany Flea Market on Sunday (7 am to 3 pm).

Ø Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema in October
In October you can watch a movie at the outdoor cinema; not all films are child-appropriate, but some are, like this year’s documentary on a pair of owls that live on Bernal Hill.

Ø Fiesta on the Hill
Also in October is the Fiesta on the Hill, a no-booze party lasting several days. Even if you hanker for a cold beer, your child will be drunk with happiness to ride ponies, dance to live music, get touchy-feely in the petting zoo, convince you to buy a pumpkin from the patch, and laugh to see you volunteer for the dunk tank.

Ø San Francisco Illegal Soapbox Society
Around Halloween weekend you might find the soapbox derby going on from 1 pm to about 5 pm. I’ve been once as a member of the holler-happy crowd, and marveled at the crazy speeds the soapboxes reach; I imagine an old-enough child would thrill at watching the wild race (and promptly beg the parents to build a soapbox derby car in the garage). This is a booze-friendly event—in fact one of the rules for car construction demand at least one beer holder per soapbox.


Maggie Mud (903 Cortland Ave., 415.641.5291)

Progressive Grounds Café (400 Cortland Ave., 415.282.6233)

Good Life Grocery (448 Cortland Ave., 415.648.3221)

Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema (http://www.bhoutdoorcine.org/)

Fiesta on the Hill (http://www.bhnc.org/fiesta)

Farmer’s Market and Flea Market  (100 Alemany Boulevard at the junction of I-280 and 101 on the south side of Bernal Hill; 415.647.9423)

San Francisco Illegal Soapbox Society (no specific website, but here’s an article about it: http://upcoming.yahoo.com/event/304454)

Bernal Heights Playground (Cortland Ave at Moultrie Street, just behind the library)

Businesses WITHOUT a baby-changing table: Martha & Brothers Coffee, the Moonlight Café, Liberty Café (as of 10/2009, they have plans to add one, date yet to be determined), Little Nepal Restaurant, and Good Life Grocery.


Public bus: 24 Divisadero; 67 Bernal Heights.
By car northbound: From US 101, exit Alemany Boulevard; left on Bayshore Boulevard; left on Cortland Avenue; continue to the top of the hill. Parking is metered on Cortland but free on side streets.

By car southbound: From US 101, exit Cesar Chavez Street; go on Bayshore Boulevard lane; travel south on Bayshore to Cortland; right on Cortland; continue to the top of the hill. Parking is metered on Cortland but free on side streets.

Free parking: If you park near Cortland, you’ll have a quarter-mile of an uphill walk before getting to the grassy hilltop.  There is a parking lot on the south side of the hill, at Anderson Street and Bernal Heights Boulevard. The parking lot on the north side, where I prefer to park and then walk in a large circle, is at Folsom Street and Bernal Heights Boulevard.

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