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The Jewel of the City

Beautiful, peaceful, and intricate, Golden Gate Park is San Francisco's treasure.


The folks who live around San Francisco, like the ones around New York, refer to the local metropolis simply as the City. And when you ask these same people what you should do with, say, just one day in the City, most of them say you should at least go to the Park.

There of plenty of parks in San Francisco, of course, and there are more than plenty of other things to do there, too. It's the best city in America. But when people in the City refer to the Park, they mean Golden Gate Park. As one man told me, "The Park is the jewel of the City."

And so I went, one day, to Golden Gate Park. But before I tell you about my visit, I need to tell you a little about the Park. It's 1,017 acres, or about three times the size of Overton Park. But a list of all the stuff to see and do in Overton Park would fill a couple of paragraphs at best; the same list for Golden Gate Park would fill the rest of this column.

In 1870, when the City bought the land, it was all sand dunes. For that reason it is considered a world masterpiece of landscape architecture. It's peacefully magical, or perhaps magically peaceful, considering it's surrounded by the City. Its winding roads are lined by magnolias and cherry trees and rhododendrons and oaks and elms and fragrant eucalyptus. Seemingly every bend in every road brings you to another meadow or garden or place of interest. The Shakespeare Garden is not far from the Moon-Viewing Garden and the Succulent Garden and the Garden of Fragrance; the archery field is between the golf course and the windmill, which overlooks Ocean Beach.

The beach was my ultimate destination when I fought my way through the panhandlers of Haight Street and into the Park, passing under Uncle John's Tree and alongside Peacock Meadow. No sign of any peacocks, but I was told they used to be around. I could have turned right for the Conservatory of Flowers, but I saw on my map that there was lawn bowling to the left. I found it on Bowling Green Drive, and there were well-dressed old men actually bowling on the perfectly manicured lawns. They were speaking what sounded like Italian and looked as if they might have been there for 50 years.

Just past that, I came to a big playground with a restored 1912 carousel, beyond which was the site of the old Kezar Stadium, former home of the 49ers before they moved, in a decision that haunts the City to this day, out to cold, windy, foggy Candlestick Park. If you've ever seen the Dirty Harry movie where Clint Eastwood shoots the fleeing bad guy and then stomps him in the middle of a field, that was Kezar Stadium. It's just bleachers now.

I turned right and ducked through some trees to walk over Whiskey Hill, just to say I did so, then headed for the Botanical Gardens. They've got 7,500 kinds of plants in 70 acres there. It turns out that the Shakespeare Garden is filled with plants mentioned in his plays -- lots of roses -- and the Garden of Fragrance has plants designed to be touched, labeled by signs in braille. The nearby Japanese Tea Garden, built in 1893, is the oldest such garden in the U.S. By this time I had an overwhelming sense that the Park wasn't like any other.

I did a loop around the John Muir Nature Trail and wound up at Stow Lake, which just might be the prettiest place in the park. Tree-covered Strawberry Hill rises on an island in the middle of the lake, and the water is covered with ducks and swans and, when I was there in springtime, flower petals and leaves. Families and kissing couples rent paddleboats and miniature motorboats and cruise Stow Lake, and I watched them across the lilypads from the Chinese Pavilion on the island.

I then ambled along John F. Kennedy Drive, past Karl Marx Meadow, and between Lloyd Lake and Elk Glen Lake. There are almost 20 lakes in the Park, if you include the fly-casting ponds. Yes, fly-casting ponds -- I had to go check them out. Right next to the Angler's Lodge are three ponds with floating rings for targets, and while I was there a half-dozen guys were casting their flies at them. Definitely not like any other park.

Spreckles Lake was even cooler than that: Here, people sail their remote-control model boats. There was one kid racing a 4-foot battleship around, but even he yielded space to the older gents with their vintage sailboats. They were gearing up for the regular weekend regatta, and the intricacy and accuracy of the boats' movements were astounding to me. There's a little museum with some of the boats on display, and in their fineness and attention to detail, they are really works of art.

Past the Polo Fields, where you can rent a horse and ride the 12 miles of trail within the Park, I came across the Bison Paddock. Bison within the city limits of San Francisco! On the north side of the bison is a meadow set aside specifically for dog training. (One guy was trying to get his young border collie simply to sit still for 30 seconds or so. The dog, last I saw, was winning.)

By the time I got to the golf course I was so into the spirit of the Park that I felt I had to play. For five bucks I rented a set of irons from a guy and chatted briefly: about how the Giants have stunk ever since they lost Will Clark and what a terrible place Candlestick is to watch a ballgame. "Man," I remember the guy saying, "that Will Clark sure had a sweet swing, didn't he?"

The same could not be said about your travel columnist's golf game on that day, so we'll skip the details except to point out that on the nine par-3 holes, I used eight different clubs to tee off with. Even the course is designed beautifully.

With memories of three-putts still in my head, I walked past the Archery Field and ducked through some trees, sprinted across the Great Highway, and ran, now barefoot, onto Ocean Beach. The Pacific Ocean was thrashing the place with wind and surf, so I turned back to the Park, where I saw a building with a sign that read, "Beach Chalet Brewing Company."

It's almost as if whoever built the Park were able to look into the future and read people's minds. And thank goodness they did. The Park might be the Jewel of the City, but it's also a national treasure.