Golden Gate Park, San Francisco City Guides Walk


San Francisco City Guides offers free walking tours in Golden Gate Park among its 80 unique walks in San Francisco. It's easy to sign up, and some tours do permit walkers to show up, while others have a wait list. While long-time San Francisco residents may believe they're very familiar with Golden Gate Park are likely to see parts of the park they've never been to on the Mid Park Ramble Hidden Gems walk we went on. Here are some of the highlights:

Pre-Walk Email

Our tour guide, Joel, introduced himself in an email he sent to all walk participants who signed up, noting that we'd be walking about three miles, with a total elevation gain of 300-400 feet. The terrain is uneven, so he advised sturdy shoes with a good tread. He noted places to park, and that we might see a coyote, so instructed walkers “please do not bring your dog — especially since there is a chance we might run into a coyote, an animal commonly seen in the Park.” Unfortunately, two of the walkers either didn't read or didn't think the rules applied to them, since they brought their dog, which was frankly a nuisance. If you're that kind of person, don't join these walks, it ruins it for other walkers.


Meeting Location

The meeting place was in front of the Japanese Tea Garden. Our guide was easily visible in a red jacket.


Golden Gate Park Hidden Gems Walk

Even before our walk, our guide showed us several fascinating photos of what Golden Gate Park used to look like in the late 1800s, including during the 1894 Midwinter International Exposition. One of the highlights was the Bonet Tower, designed by French architect Leopold Bonet and standing about a third as tall as the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Adorned with 3200 colored lights, it celebrated the advent of electrical lighting and was one of the most popular attractions, providing elevator rides to the top of the tower. At night, a spotlight from the top of the tower illuminated popular sights in the park, including the Prayerbook Cross, one of the highest points in the park. The Prayerbook Cross commemorates the first service held in 1579 using the Protestant Book of Common Prayer, after the landing of Sir Francis Drake in Drakes Bay in Point Reyes, CA.

Prayerbook Cross Statue, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco


Another little visited and elevated area of the park is the place where the Sweeney Observatory, a Colosseum-like structure, and reflecting pool used to be, atop Strawberry Hill. As it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, all that remains today are stones from the foundations and the circular area where the reflecting pool once was.

Site of the former Sweeney Observatory Reflecting Pool, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco


A structure that is still intact, thanks to the generous renovation paid for by San Francisco's sister city, Taipei, Taiwan, is the Chinese Pavilion, by Stow Lake. It's sometimes rented for wedding ceremonies and photography.

Chinese Pavilion, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Chinese Pavilion, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Pool by Chinese Pavilion, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco


Perhaps surprisingly, given its dry climate, there are several waterfalls in Golden Gate Park. The park's Superintendent and the creator of the park as it is today was John McLaren, a horticulturist who trained in Scotland and was friends with John Muir. Muir took McLaren to Yosemite, which deeply impressed him and encouraged him to include water features in Golden Gate Park.

Waterfall, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco


Even some of the plants in the park are surprising; here's a banana tree, which admittedly isn't doing too well after an unusually cool and wet winter. Apparently last year it was healthier and even produced some small bananas.

Banana Tree, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco


A particularly picturesque spot is the grove of colonial trees, thirteen of them to represent the original thirteen colonies.

Colonial Trees Grove, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco


Nearby is the bronze Pioneer Mother statue, which was originally created for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, before being restored and installed in the park in 1940.

Pioneer Mother Statue, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco


Don't forget the smaller, more whimsical aspects of the park; close to the end of our visit, we were shown one of the little fairy doors, and near it, “druid offerings.”

Fairy Door, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Druid Offerings, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco


Which of these places in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park have you seen?

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10 months ago

My daughter lives in San Francisco and took me to the Park last year. I did see the Chinese Pavilion but was even happier to see the Buddha statue, which tickled me to see it still there decades after my first visit.