An Enchanted Forest in the Middle of the City

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A forest in the heart of San Francisco? It’s hard to believe that a natural oasis could exist right under our noses. Embarking on an outdoor adventure with your city-slicker kids is as easy as parking your car and climbing a flight of stairs. With densely packed eucalyptus trees and pristine views of the city, Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve offers a quiet escape from the city and a major calf-toning workout. Throw on your trusty hiking shoes and make the trek out to San Francisco’s Cole Valley neighborhood to explore this remarkable hidden gem.

Located behind UCSF Medical Center on Parnassus, the first saplings of this 61-acre forest were planted in 1886 by a group of schoolchildren at the behest of SF legendary tycoon Adolph Sutro (of Sutro Baths fame). Left largely untamed for years, this forested oasis, owned jointly by UCSF and the city of San Francisco, was given a major face-lift in 2011. With trails including Historical, Mystery Ridge, and Fairy Gates, there are miles of adventure throughout this lush preserve.

How to Do It
First, Check out this link for a printable map. There are multiple trails and entry points. Most of the paths aren’t particularly stroller-friendly, but with a bit of maneuvering and some major biceps, some of the shorter trails could be navigated with a decent baby jogger. Parents with babies and toddlers may find the excursion more rewarding with backpacks and front packs.  (This is an awesome trek for new mommies hoping to burn off some extra calories!)

At 17th and Stanyan, just past Grattan playground in the Cole Valley neighborhood, you can enter via stairs. This access point requires a good deal of uphill walking and the trail itself is fairly bumpy with the occasional twisted root and errant rock, but there is usually parking available in the neighborhood.

Up the hill from 17th the Belgrave entry offers easier on-foot access, though street parking is more limited. This trail also leads more directly to the Aldea Housing area, which is a hub for other trail-head including the paths to the Native Garden.

A good bet for coming with the kiddos is the Edgewood entryway. There is usually some street parking but it is very close to public transit lines (though there is an decent incline here).

While you can’t park at the Fairy Gates trail-head, there is a paved road, Johnston Drive that you could get dropped off at, or try parking on nearby Clarendon (note this is a busy street). Fairy Gates trail is one of the rockiest so ditch the stroller for this one. You can also get to the East Ridge trail from the same spot.

The Nike Road up to the Native Garden is paved, but you cannot drive right up to it. Avoid the West Ridge and South Ridge trails with the under-five crowd. It is steep and pretty narrow. More details of hiking each trail can be found by clicking here.

What to Pack
The trails are maintained, but you won’t find many facilities in this park so pack plenty of water and snacks. There are restrooms at the Aldea Center in the UCSF Aldea Housing complex but they aren’t always open. Grattan playground has restrooms, as does the campus near the Milberry Library. Budding naturalist will benefit from a journal or sketchpad, and don’t forget your camera and binoculars. There are more than 40 species of birds living in this neck of the woods, including Great Horned Owls!

What to Wear
Layers—peel them off up when your huffing up the hill and put them back on when the fog comes creeping in. Hikers and tikes alike will require sturdy shoes as the trails can be rough and dusty or muddy depending on the time of year. There are hazards including poison oak and blackberry bushes, so longer pants are a better bet than shorts. And don’t forget to wear fairy wings, elf ears, and/or pith helmets!

Where to Eat
Hungry hunters will enjoy one of the many restaurants in the hopping 9th and Irving area of the Inner Sunset. Try Pluto’s or Nann and Curry or check out this article for suggestions on kid-friendly digs in nearby Cole Valley.

Good to Know
Poison Oak Warning! Do not go off the path and if you take a dog, which is allowed, do not let them off their leash. It forest may look innocent and lush, but those leaves-of-three are lurking there ready to ruin your day/night/week.

Go Beyond
SF City Guides offers free, guided tours of Sutro Forest. Follow this link to find out when the next one is happening. You can also take Belgrave to nearby Tank Hill where sweeping views of the city rival those of Twin Peaks. (Note the path up is semi-steep and rocky.)

Getting There
If you are driving keep in mind the various neighborhood parking guidelines. There is no public parking in the Aldea San Miguel housing complex. You can park at the (paid) UCSF garage on Parnassus. The 6 Parnassus and 43 Masonic both run along Parnassus Avenue and the N Judah runs a block away. The 37 Corbett, which you can catch at the top of Market Street near Castro, will take you up to 17th in Cole Valley, just two blocks from the 17th street trail-head.

What trails have you hiked in Sutro Forest with your Little Ones?

–Amber Guetebier

Photo credit: Amber Guetebier

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