12 wonders of the Crosstown Trail


The 17-mile route avoids the guidebook spots. Here are 12 must-see destinations

The Crosstown Trail is a true San Francisco miracle: a world-class hiking trail created by a band of citizens, who bypassed government bureaucracy and somehow finished the project in 18 months.

As the trail celebrates its second anniversary on June 5-6, 2021, it’s arguably more popular than ever, coming out of a pandemic that acted as a catalyst for producing urban explorers. The 17-mile trail stretches diagonally across San Francisco, from the southeast edge to the northwest corner, and seems to deliberately bypass all the S.F. tourism guidebook standards and trendiest neighborhoods, proving that there’s so much left in the city to be discovered.

In other words: It’s a San Francisco trail for San Franciscans who think they’ve seen it all.

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Bayview

Candlestick Point State Recreational Area

For locals who thought their cherished Candlestick Point memories ended after the 2015 demolition of Candlestick Park, the very first steps of the Crosstown Trail are an early gift. The trail starts at the lovely Sunrise Point Campground ($35 a night when it reopens). Looking south across the water toward San Mateo and Foster City, it’s the first of many stellar views on the hike/bike across town. As you trek through the wind-blasted trails — it’s as cold here as the last time you received a Giants Croix de Candlestick pin — old Candlestick Park “welcome” signs come into view, bringing back a few hundred memories of ball games, tailgating, Pope visits and Monsters of Rock concerts. Just a few hundred steps into the day, you’re already thinking, “This was a really good idea.”

Visitacion Valley

Visitacion Valley Greenway

The Greenway is a winding climb through six blocks of nature, in maybe the most underappreciated neighborhood in San Francisco. Leland Avenue at the bottom is a great place to get a sandwich (Frisco’s Family Deli set us up right) or coffee (Mission Blue is your first chance to buy a Crosstown Trail T-shirt). Then you’re ascending through a greenbelt that has an eclectic approach to artwork and flora, which is thriving under the constant care of local volunteers. From the mosaic tables and benches to the local wildlife represented in the ironwork to the scores of gardeners you’ll see on the path, Visitacion Valley Greenway is a reminder of the civic pride that still thrives in San Francisco.

McLaren Park

Wilde Overlook Tower

As you walk into McLaren Park, you’ll appreciate the views — the Cow Palace event center, Mt. Diablo, four bridges and downtown San Francisco are all visible from the Wilde Overlook Tower, built in 1981 and closed for most of its existence. (Our urban explorer friend Jef Poskanzer writes on Twitter: “It’s worth rattling the gate, half the times I’ve checked it was not actually locked.”) As you wind through McLaren Park for the first but not last time, make a mental note to revisit Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, a favorite for dog walkers. It’s closed for a $1.5 million renovation, but due to reopen later in the summer and fulfill its destiny as a Stern Grove East for concerts.

Glen Park

Glen Canyon Park

The Crosstown Trail is a recent civic victory, made possible by many pro-environment triumphs of the past. No space has been more crucial to the trail than Glen Park Canyon — a 66.6-acre tree-filled park, which was slated to have a freeway run through it before a group of women started the “freeway revolt” of 1965-1970 and preserved its beauty. Now, it’s a centerpiece of the Crosstown Trail, connecting the lesser-traveled southern parts of the route with the better-known northern portion. It’s also the most transportive portion of the trail, where the urban hike temporarily feels like the middle of nowhere.

Forest Hill

Forest Hill Muni Station

Completed in 1917 as the Laguna Honda Station, Forest Hill Station is now the oldest subway station west of Chicago and a relic from the post-1906 earthquake ambition that brought us San Francisco City Hall. But most in the city have never laid eyes on the Mission-style building. The Crosstown Trail boldly bypasses Twin Peaks and instead brings hikers and bikers near Forest Hill Station, which, after a 1980s renovation, looks like the inside of an old library. The move is also part of the Crosstown Trail’s commitment to transit access, making it easier for travelers to tackle the trail’s five sections one at a time.

Laguna Honda

Laguna Honda Farm and Gardens

The Crosstown Trail couldn’t exist as mapped five years ago, because many of the trails didn’t exist. That includes the Laguna Honda Community Trail System, finished in 2019 thanks to hard work from the San Francisco Urban Riders, a group promoting off-road cycling. The system allows a pathway for the Crosstown Trail, and also provides better access to the Laguna Honda Farm and Gardens, a recently reopened therapy farm that’s home to flowers, a vegetable garden and more than 25 animals. The farm has been around since the 1970s, although Laguna Honda had animals around when it opened as an alms house in 1866.

Golden Gate Heights

Golden Gate Heights Park

Your new favorite park is the kind of well-hidden public space that benefits the most from the Crosstown Trail. Golden Gate Heights Park hosts one of the tallest peaks in the city, with some of the best views of the Westside, plus dog-friendly spaces, wooden steps and even tennis courts. And yet it’s surrounded by houses, in a little-traveled San Francisco neighborhood. Crosstown Trail hikers will be looking forward to Grandview Park and its Hollywood credentials, but Golden Gate Heights Park is the one you’ll walk away from saying, “Wow, I didn’t even know that was there!”

Grandview Park

16th Avenue Tiled Steps

Arguably the most famous spot on the Crosstown Trail, the mosaic stairway is less than two decades old, has already been in TV commercials and on the Netflix show “The OA,” and is a legit San Francisco destination. But it still fits the grassroots vibe of the walk perfectly; a project created and driven by organizers and artists who wanted to do something awesome and lasting for their community. The 163 steps tell a story of inspiration, with the sea at the bottom and stars to wish upon at the top. (Then turn around for the fabulous view.) Worth rediscovering, or seeing for the first time.

Golden Gate Park

Huntington Falls and Sweeny Observatory Ruins

The Crosstown Trail doesn’t linger in Golden Gate Park, using it mostly as a path to the next lesser-known spot. But the trail swings by Stow Lake, Huntington Falls and the ruins of Sweeny Observatory. The observatory was a grand fortress-like structure at the top of Strawberry Hill when it was finished in 1891 in Golden Gate Park. Loved by the wealthy and hated by naturalist park leaders, the structure lasted fewer than 15 years, destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fire. But some of the chunky stone remains are still visible and ringed by Stow Lake. Enjoy the waterfall and look for stone remains near the top of Strawberry Hill.

Golden Gate Park

Car-free JFK

The eastern half of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park went car-free during the pandemic, creating an open space for citizens stuck in their homes — and controversial takes from a pro-car supervisor who equated the open space to segregation. The Crosstown Trail is the perfect opportunity to see for yourselves. The trail passes by the Rose Garden in Golden Gate Park, but we recommend traveling a little farther to the Skatin’ Place, an upbeat roller skating wonderland populated by locals who have been lobbying for a park that’s safer for walkers and skaters and bicyclists.

Presidio

Lobos Creek Valley Trail

The last original creek that flows freely though San Francisco has been treated well by the city’s residents the past few decades, with non-native plants removed and sand dunes restored. Lobos Creek Valley Trail is for hikers only (bikes take a different route) and an inspiring home stretch for the Crosstown Trail. There are wonderful views of the city along this route, but don’t miss the sights around you, including sparrows, butterflies and 133 native plants carefully curated by the teams that restored the trail in the 1990s and first decade of the 2000s.

Lands End

Lands End Lookout

Lands End has been a destination for generations, whether it was trains in the 19th Century heading to Sutro Baths, families enjoying the peak years of Playland-at-the-Beach after World War II, or more recent traditions involving the Cliff House. While all of the above are gone (hopefully the Cliff House will get another reinvention) Lands End keeps getting better and better, with the same views, plus a visitors center, cafe and bookstore that were closed for the pandemic but ready for a comeback. The Crosstown Trail is full of peaks, with none more spiritual and uplifting than a finish line that looks a million miles into the horizon.



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