I live on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, smack-dab in the center of the action—where streetcars rumble past my window and the towering office buildings of the Financial District are less than a mile away. Since relocating from the Midwest, a couple things have struck me about this city: its walkability—despite the hills—and how readily its people embrace green space and rooftop bars.
The latest venture in combining these is the Crosstown Trail, a nearly 17-mile walking and biking route through San Francisco’s various parks and communities. Its southeasternmost trailhead lies in Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, extending diagonally across the city to Lands End, the scenic northwest point nestled between Ocean Beach and the Golden Gate Bridge. The trail, officially opened on June 2, includes both quiet corners—such as Little Hollywood, the Visitacion Valley Greenway, and Lobos Creek—as well as well-known landmarks, like the grand Golden Gate Park and the Moraga-16th Avenue tiled steps.
Up for a challenge, I laced up my hiking boots and took a whack at completing the whole trail in one day. I started at 9 a.m. and ended at 4:30 p.m., heading south to north. It’s doable, but it’s a doozy. There are currently a few maps along the route to guide you in the right direction, with the Crosstown Trail Coalition planning to add more in the future. Currently, a virtual map of the trail is available on a helpful hiking app called Outerspatial. It’s divided into five sections and includes downloadable step-by-step instructions. You can access the trailhead by public transit (the nearest stop is about a mile away from the trailhead), but it’s easier to use a ride-share company, such as Uber or Lyft. Whether you give the whole trail a go, or hike just part of it, make sure to hit these highlights.
Candlestick Point State Recreation Area to Glen Park
Candlestick Point State Recreation Area
Formerly a landfill in the post WWII-era, Candlestick Point State Recreation Area is now a quiet park sitting on more than 150 acres. It features stellar views of the bay and distant East Bay hills—when the notorious fog isn’t impeding your view, that is. There are plenty of camping, bird-watching, windsurfing, and fishing opportunities here. Time your visit perfectly like I did and you might spot a sea lion bobbing close to shore.John McLaren Park
About an hour in, I made it to John McLaren Park. Dating from 1928, the park spans more than 300 acres and includes approximately seven miles of walking trails. Its name comes from the Scottish horticulturist, who was also known as the “grandfather of Golden Gate Park” for serving as its superintendent. The highest point sits at 515 feet, overlooking the park’s McNab Lake, Yosemite Marsh, redwood grove, and expansive meadows. On the north side of the park, catch an excellent view of downtown and the rolling hills covered in rows of houses.
Glen Park to Forest Hill
Glen Canyon Park
Glen Park is a residential area of the city, but the canyon itself feels like a sanctuary, as if there isn’t a man-made structure for miles. In fact, the tree canopy over the canyon and lack of people suggested I had left the city completely. About an hour walk from John McLaren Park, Glen Canyon Park covers 60 acres and includes an extensive network of easy-to-moderate hiking trails, as well as a portion of the Islais Creek, which was an essential water source for the indigenous and immigrant communities beginning in the late 19th century.Section 3
Forest Hill to Judah/16th Avenue
Small but mighty, Grandview Park, located approximately a 90-minute walk from Glen Canyon Park, may have one of the best views in the city. Granted, the majority of the downtown skyline is obstructed by Forest Knolls, a hilly and green neighborhood centrally located on the peninsula. However, the panoramic view includes Lake Merced to the south, the Sunset District and Pacific coastline to the west, and, on a clear day, Point Reyes to the north. You even get a peek at the Golden Gate Bridge above the hills. The park sits atop Franciscan chert, 140-million-year-old rock, and is home to the hairstreak butterfly, one of only two places it’s found throughout the city.
Judah/16th Avenue to Geary/Park Presidio
Golden Gate Park
You could spend a whole day in Golden Gate Park and only scratch the surface. However, the Crosstown Trail takes you right by Stow Lake, where paddle-boaters frequently make their rounds, and Strawberry Hill, a 430-foot knoll that hosts aerial views, a waterfall, and a temple-like pavilion where impromptu performances often take place. It’s about a 30-minute walk from Grandview Canyon, past the rainbow-colored homes of the Sunset District. With more than 1,000 acres in total, Golden Gate Park is larger than New York’s Central Park and attracts 13 million people per year, making it the third most visited park in the United States, according to the Golden Gate Park website.
Geary/Park Presidio to Lands End Lookout
Lobos Creek Valley Trail
Just as the hills of the city had done me in for the day, the mile-long trek through Lobos Creek Valley came through flat as can be. I had made it to the Presidio, a former military post that is now a national park site located approximately 30 minutes from Golden Gate Park. Nature is at your disposal here, and the Lobos Creek Valley is no exception. After a major restoration project in 1994, the valley was returned to its original dune ecosystem, reintroducing native plants and animals to the habitat. The trail here also connects with the California Coastal Trail and Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail.
Located on the north coast of San Francisco, connecting the Pacific Ocean to the bay, Baker Beach is known for its top-notch views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands, and Lands End. Only steps from the Lobos Creek Valley trailhead, the beach sits at the base of the Presidio, where dramatic serpentine cliffs give way to turquoise water. Spread out a blanket (remember to bring stakes because it can get pretty windy), or explore a bit of the 1,200-mile Coastal Trail, which picks up just behind Baker Beach. Heads up: The northern end of the beach is popular among the city’s nudist community.
From Baker Beach, walk 30 minutes to the northwesternmost point of San Francisco, also known as Lands End. It’s a mixture of history and nature, with plenty of Golden Gate views to spare. There are a number of detours along the 3.4-mile hike, offering scenic views of the rugged coastline, Mile Rock Beach, and Lands End Labyrinth, which was constructed by San Francisco artist Eduardo Aguilera. On the western side of Lands End, you’ll find remnants of the Sutro Baths, which were built by former San Francisco mayor Adolph Sutro at the end of the 19th century as a massive indoor swimming complex. Keep your eye out for ship remains off the coast, war memorials, and remnants of Fort Miley, which was acquired by the U.S. Army in 1893 and used for defense during World War II. >>Next: The Best Stops for a Road Trip on the Pacific Coast Highway