Haight Ashbury and Golden Gate Park Walk
Cradle of the hippy movement, and one of the world’s largest parks
In the geographical heart of San Francisco, the streets of Haight-Ashbury are lined with large and graceful Victorian homes originally occupied by middle-income families. By the 1960s, these had become low-rent apartment houses that attracted many young people – the start of what was, by 1967, being described as “the vibrant epicentre of America’s hippie movement.” Although the evidence of Haight-Ashbury’s pivotal role in the counterculture remains, today the area is in the throes of upward mobility. The houses are more likely to be luxurious bed-and-breakfast inns than communal pads, while Haight Street’s remarkable collection of vintage clothing stores draws shoppers from far and wide.
The walk described here is a simple one along Haight Street, taking in the most stately of the Victorians and the most interesting of the shops, before continuing into Golden Gate Park: one of the world’s largest urban parks and filling the three miles between Haight-Ashbury and the ocean, dotted by lovingly tended gardens and the locations of two exceptional museums.
Start: Junction of Haight and Baker streets. Sharply rising stairways and paths penetrate the jungle-like foliage of Buena Vista Park, where redwoods, oaks, eucalyptus and pine trees (grown from seedlings planted in the 1880s) are entangled across a hillside. The ascent is eventually rewarded with excellent views across the city. Facing the park are several of the city’s most ornate Victorian houses. Fanciest by far, the 1895 Spencer House, 1080 Haight Street, has a remarkable three-story corner-turret rising from its square base to become octagonal before culminating in a conical roof. Also worth a look, the Spreckels Mansion, 737 Buena Vista W., was built in 1897 for a sugar mogul and was utilized during later periods by writers Jack London and Ambrose Pierce, and by the legendary San Francisco rock group, the Grateful Dead. Far less architecturally distinguished, the oldest house in San Francisco stands inconspicuously three blocks away at 329 Divisadero Street, built in 1850. It is worth detouring back if you have time.
Walk west along Haight Street and you pass the ultra-hip cafes and eccentric vintage clothing shops that form the core of today’s Haight-Ashbury. The best places to hunt down vintage, bizarre, or just unusual and cheap, men and women’s apparel include Held Over Too, number 1537, strong on 1950s sartorial favourites; and Buffalo Exchange, number 1555, another rummagable stock of interesting togs.
Haight Street is also a happy hunting ground for books on the psychedelic Sixties: browse among the local history shelves at The Booksmith, number 1644, a new title stockist, or for a real blast of the past, visit Pipe Dreams, number 1376, purveyors of giant-sized rolling papers, water pipes and other paraphernalia designed to heighten smoking pleasure.
The northern end of Haight Street runs into Stanyan Street, beyond which lies the 1,000-acre Golden Gate Park. To the right as you enter the park, the sandstone McLaren Lodge was the home of the park’s first superintendent and earliest guiding light, John McLaren. Scottish-born McLaren fought sand dunes and city bureaucrats to create the park according to his vision and lived here from 1896 until his death in 1943. The building now serves as the park’s administrative offices and supplies park maps and information. Continue along John F. Kennedy Drive and the Conservatory of Flowers appears on the right fronted by lush, floral gardens. This is the oldest building in the park, built in 1878 to a design borrowed from London’s Kew Gardens. Slightly further ahead, on the left side of John F. Kennedy Drive, the Rhododendron Dell is the first of the park’s many secluded gardens and groves and the only place in the park where you’ll find a likeness of John McLaren: a statue here depicts him holding a pine cone. Weave along the narrow lanes through the 20-acre dell and emerge close to the Music Concourse, scene of the California Midwinter Fair of 1894, intended to restore confidence after the previous years’ economic slump.
On the north side of the concourse, the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum had its origins in the Midwinter Fair and, due to the efforts of Michael de Young, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, gradually evolved into a respected art collection. Some major European names are represented, but the museum’s strength lies in its gathering of American arts and handicrafts from colonial times to the 20thC, taking in the folk art of religious communities such as the Shakers, the artists of the American West such as Frank Remington, and the 1910s Arts and Crafts movement. In 1966, the museum acquired Avery Brundage’s acclaimed collection of Asian art, now housed in a wing of the main building. Only a fraction of the immense collection can be displayed at one time, but few people will be disappointed. Beside the museum you will find another survivor of the 1894 Midwinter Fair, the Japanese Tea Garden. An elegant conglomeration of winding pathways, azaleas, cherry trees and carp-filled ponds, the garden has a bronze Buddha, cast in Japan in 1790, at its centre. A San Franciscan-Japanese, Makota Hagiwara, created the garden and maintained it until he was interned during the Second World War.
Directly west of the Japanese Tea Garden, the tree-covered Strawberry Hill rises in the centre of Stow Lake. Several paths wind their way to the hill’s 400-foot crest. If the climb doesn’t appeal, continue instead through the Friend’s Gate into the Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, where a series of specially designed plots have much to please the eye and, with the herbs of the Garden of Fragrance, also the nose.
The buildings on the concourse’s south side belong to the California Academy of Sciences (www.calacademy.org), a privately run institution founded in 1853 which moved here in 1916. Devoted to natural history and the natural sciences, the academy is often packed with school groups. Highlights include simulations of the earthquakes which rocked San Francisco in 1865 and 1906, and the excellent Steinhart Aquarium, filled with 14,000 creatures of the deep.
Two more miles of Golden Gate Park lie to the west, mostly taken up with sports facilities – archery, angling, riding, and even a nine-hole golf course. Anyone on a Sixties pilgrimage, however, will want to gaze over the Polo Field, scene of many mythologized rock concerts and communal LSD trips during the halcyon days of hippiedom. In 1991, 200,000 people gathered here for a free concert to mark the sudden death of seminal rock promoter Bill Graham.
Half a mile from the start of this walk, the east side of Alamo Square is formed by the 700 block of Steiner Street and the “painted ladies” – a row of six superbly maintained houses erected by developer Matthew Kavanaugh in the 1890s. With the modern skyline of the Financial District behind them, the painted ladies are among the most photographed private residences in the city.
Sixth of the 21 Spanish missions founded in California, Mission Dolores was completed in 1791 and stands at 320 Dolores Street in the heart of San Francisco’s predominantly Spanish-speaking Mission District. Within the thick adobe walls, which helped the building survive the 1906 earthquake intact, a small museum stores remnants from the earliest days and the intimate chapel is rich in atmosphere. The 1913 Basilica next door, which now serves the spiritual needs of the local community, has a grander facade but a much less interesting interior.