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

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Day on the Southern Trails of McLaren Park

            To experience a hint of what San Francisco was like before it became a vibrant city—hills covered in wild grass, raptors soaring overhead, butterflies alighting on lupines—venture to the rarely-trodden southeast corner where you’ll find McLaren Park with its magnificent views and wildlife. 

The lovely southern side of McLaren Park

        John McLaren Park’s three hundred and seventeen acres make it the second largest park in San Francisco after Golden Gate Park, and it is far less impacted by human touch. Mansell Avenue bisects the park into two halves: a wild and wooly southern side, and a far more groomed and irrigated northern side. Both sides have virtues and should be explored, but the southern side is the gem, the wild-at-heart.

Adventure Begins on Leland Avenue
            Start by taking the Third Street Light Rail from downtown San Francisco, disembarking at Leland Avenue and San Bruno Street in Visitacion Valley. Leland Avenue has a funky selection of neighborhood stores, a gorgeous library, and a post office. Stock-up at the Latin bodegas like Leland Avenue Market and Casa Maria, where you will find pyramids of fruit, delicious queso fresco (fresh cheese), homemade pico de gallo salsa, tamales and sandwiches; or sample a huge plate of Chinese noodles at G and L Bakery; or buy a sizeable mojado burrito at El Buen Sabor Taqueria; or drink your morning coffee at Eat Drink Play. For the best experience, bring sun block, hiking shoes, snacks, a printed map, and water. Coming soon is Eire Trea, a combination Eritrean and Irish place. 

Up the Visitacion Valley Greenway
Herb Garden in Greenway
            When you’re ready to ramble, start at the Hans Schiller Plaza on Leland Avenue, which marks the beginning of the Visitacion Valley Greenway, an award-winning series of small parks that are perhaps the best in San Francisco. There are port-o-potties at the plaza, but a block up Leland the remodeled library has brand-new bathroom facilities. 

           Walk your way through the Greenway, moving uphill through the Community Garden with its path bordered by flowers, the Herb Garden in bloom with lavender and a hillside of roses, the Children’s Play Garden with its grassy field and playground, the Agriculture Garden with rosemary pressing against the fence, and finally the Native Plant Garden with the most impressive amount of lupine flowers I have ever seen. 

              You will emerge on Tioga Avenue at the northernmost point of the Greenway. Walk to the parallel street, Wilde Avenue. Where Wilde intersects with Ervine Street, one block to the west, you will find one of the most sublime and humble entrances to McLaren Park.

The Southern Trails of McLaren Park

My favorite route begins where Wilde Avenue meets Ervine Street and dead-ends at McLaren Park. You have two choices: go up the meandering concrete path to the defunct observation tower where Monterey cypress trees grow at the top of the hill, or go to the end of Ervine Street and take a right turn onto a narrow dirt trail that traverses the southern flank of the hill. (Note: If you have a stroller or a small child, you might choose the concrete trail, as the dirt trail is uneven and has a steep pitch.)

The views are beautiful from either trail—there is the spectacular geography of southeastern San Francisco with its valleys and hills, like Bayview Hill, the sleeping giant of San Bruno Mountain to the south, the peaks along the East Bay, and Mount Diablo to the east. Wind and moisture funnels down Geneva Avenue, which cuts between McLaren Park and San Bruno Mountains, making phenomenal low-cloud patterns. 

At sunrise the San Francisco Bay turns golden and a stream of seagulls ride the airwaves; at sunset sinuous tongues of fog creep in from the Pacific. Many a night I’ve sat with friends watching Venus chase the sun down, or the moon rise over Bayview Hill, with stars winking overhead.

Explore the dirt trails running along the southern sides of McLaren Park, through grassland and groves of blue gum eucalyptus and Monterey pine. Find the wide east-west fire road on the far side of Visitacion Avenue, a street that runs north-south. The fire road starts almost directly across from Visitacion Valley Middle School, and take it all the way to the Excelsior where you can find a beautiful little community garden and soccer fields.   

Of important note is Philosopher’sWay, a new series of trails in the park with granite markers pointing directions, and some plaques with environmental quotes engraved on them. 

You can find some of the Philosopher’s Way trail system leading off of the fire road. There is a controversial plan to have a disc golf course in this area, which might impact hiking, especially with children. Please research this, form your opinion, and speak up.

            In the many years I’ve wandered around McLaren Park, I have never encountered a coyote, but my husband has seen them twice on evening jogs. Common sense tells us to leave wildlife alone, and the same respect and distance should be followed in a city park. 

          According to Friends of McLaren Park, there are more wild birds than any other animal here. Keep an observant eye out for falcons, hawks, kestrels, and if you are really lucky, a great horned owl (my husband saw one once; me, never—I must be looking at my shoes), especially if you visit in the late fall to early winter during migration season. 

            The bird list on the Friends of McLaren Park shows at least three different species of hummingbird, warbler, flycatcher, gull, hawk, sparrow, heron, and blackbird in the park (though some only in the riparian areas on the north side). Winning combinations of luck, observance, and silence might allow one glimpses of wild animals like raccoons, skunks, grey fox, and opossums, all who have been noted as living in grasslands and woody areas of the park; yet the animals I’ve seen in McLaren Park by and large, when I see them, are human and dog.

Casey Allen discussing flora
            McLaren was originally grasslands and scrub, according to Casey Allen, president of the Yerba Buena Chapter for the California Native Plant Society, on a recent walk. There are quite a few native species in McLaren Park, according to Allen, such as owl’s clover, coast live oak, purple needlegrass, lupines, and coyote brush. Coast buckwheat, the host plant for the larval stage of the Green Hairstreak butterfly, is one of the most important natives; a good amount of it grows alongside the paved trail leading uphill from Ervine and Wilde.

            The Monterey pines and eucalyptus are invasive species, as well as wild radish, French broom, ice plant, acacia, poison hemlock, Siberian grasses, and many more. Invasive species can easily be found along the roadsides from the “edge effect,” where passing cars help transport seeds from the swirling air. Some of the edible non-natives include wild mustard, wild radish, and Himalayan blackberry. 

           Casey Allen has the good idea that two goals can be accomplished (eradication and nourishment) if we could devise recipes for edible harvests of the invasive plants.

Other Features
Jerry Day Festival in August
            There is much to explore in this park, so the following is a partial list of possible destinations: Herz Playground and Coffman Pool, a phenomenal pool with cathedral ceilings and a glass wall (Visitacion and Hahn Streets); Yosemite Marsh, the start of a creek that is now covered by homes and streets; the 80 foot blue water tower with views of the Pacific on a clear day; the reservoir for dog swimming; McNab Lake with nesting ducks and coots, and the adjoining Louis Sutter Playground (University and Woolsey Streets); tennis and basketball courts (along Mansell); Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, an impressive hemisphere with hints of Greek architecture, and a public restroom in a nestle of eucalyptus trees and blackberry bushes; and the peace signs dug into the earth on a northwestern knoll, relatively close to the spiral labyrinth on top of a hill that looks over downtown, Mount Tamalpais, and points north.

Trail’s End
            End your day-hike where you began—making your way back to Leland Avenue for another chance to buy a mojado burrito or some homemade Chinese food 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.

Note about Urban Hikes in General
            Living in a city makes me crave the outdoors, and the more remote, the better, I tend to think. Give me flowers and fields, forests and craggy hills, and all the while the comfort that I’m close to any convenience. However an urban hike is still in a city and subject to any of a city’s problems. For this reason, I recommend:
--Hiking with another adult.
--Carrying a cell phone.
--If you have trepidation, follow your intuition and leave the hike for another day.
Fire road left, trail right

Relevant Websites
Note: This article was published in Visionary: A Journal of San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley, summer 2012. A shorter version of this article was first published in 52Days.com, October 2009.

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