Into the urban wild


Although we’ve lived in the city for nearly 10 years now, I’ve never been to the top of Strawberry Hill in the center of Golden Gate Park’s Stow Lake, an emerald doughnut of water where you can rent over-priced paddle boats and dinghies.

Skip the boats. The free hike is too much fun.

Note: If you’re going with a 4-year-old girl who screams with terror every time she watches the Wonder Pets (the Wonder Pets! The animal world’s most docile show tunes-loving superheroes!), I’d also skip any city legends about ghost nuns roaming the grounds for matins every night or the haunted specters of turn-of-the-century suicides come back to ceaselessly mourn the loss of their souls. Just a suggestion.


It took us about an hour to slowly make our way to the top of the hill, which rises to about 400 feet. We started at the lake boathouse and twisted around to one of the stone bridges to reach the island, feeding ducks and geese along the way. My wife hates geese because when she was a child, one of them turned on her and started biting. Our daughter had a similar experience on this hike, and she spent the rest of the day casting sideways glances at the wild birds, as if they might turn on her at any moment. I spent the rest of the hike thinking about Dana’s response once Emme told her what happened: “Yes child, I understand. Have you ever heard of the devil? He is made of geese.”


From the looks of them, I think Dana has a point.


Just beyond the bridge, Emme spotted a turtle digging in the dirt along the path. She grabbed my leg and then wordlessly pointed. We crouched down in silence for a long time, watching the turtle lay eggs. Later, I told her about a book I just read — The Story of Edgar Sawtelle — and how the main character and his dogs ate turtle eggs to survive in the Wisconsin outback. The story put an unnecessary edge on the quiet miracle-of-life moment we had just witnessed, and the child made me promise I wouldn’t dig up the eggs for breakfast. (See note above about over-sharing with your 4 year old.)


We continued the hike and were nearly at the top when Emme spotted a spray of tree stumps. She spent a few minutes jumping between them, while I enjoyed the view of the city skyline in the distance, a few skyscrapers rising above the cover of park trees. San Francisco is filled with parks and I always enjoy the feeling of getting lost in the city — there is a perfect blend of urban and nature here, and the hike to the top of Strawberry Hill personifies this.


Back in the 1890s, one of the landowners in what would become the Sunset District built an observatory on top of the hill — a castle-like fortress where people could take in the city and the surrounding wilds. It was supposed to be “earthquake proof” and so naturally it crumbled after the 1906 quake and is now a small series of pocked ruins and steps. Emme was pretending she was a mountain goat, scampering from pock to pock, when a mom and her three kids happened upon us. The kids saw Emme and wanted to imitate her, and so we all spent the next 20 minutes listening to their mother scream, “Be careful! No! Don’t step there! Be careful!” Even Emme started staring at the woman, as if to say, “Just freaking let your kids play, lady.” I would normally go on a tangent about how loud and obnoxious city parents are, how over-protective and nurse-maidy. But about five minutes later, while crouched above a gopher hole, I saw the sand suddenly shift and screamed while clutching at Emme. The shrieks turned heads and I felt only shame when my daughter said, “Calm down, daddy, it’s only a gopher. Geez.”


I’m not sure if Emme has a memory like an elephant or I just have the memory of a sieve, but either way she keeps bringing up things I’ve promised to show her, such as how to light a fire. Although I have a vague memory of telling her the broad strokes of “To Build a Fire,” I’m pretty sure I’d never promised to show her how to burn down a city forest. So I compromised, showing her the implements required for a fire but not working hard enough to actually light one. Someday she’ll figure out it takes a solid 30 minutes of effort to get anything that even remotely resembles heat.


On the backside of the hill, we climbed down the steps at the side of Huntington Falls, a man-made waterfall that leads to a series of stepping stones. The stones were a great treat and we spent a long time jumping about, pretending to almost fall in the water before the other came to the rescue.

We had a great time feeding the ducks, running from geese and gophers, climbing forgotten ruins and risking our bodily warmth while skipping at the edge of the cold water. In the end, we hiked around for nearly three hours, stopping for wild blackberries and fennel or just to marvel in silence at something, such as the turtle eggs or the juvenile red tail hawk we saw perched in a tree. If you’re going on this hike, I’d recommend bringing a lot of bread for the birds and to prepare to spend more time than you think: There are miracles everywhere. And maybe, if you’re lucky, ghosts.


  1. If we ever make it back to sf we’re going there. But maybe we’ll leave out the ghosts. Seriously, this is awesome.

  2. That hike looked awesome!
    It is great that you are able to share these experiences with your children. It is truly a blessing!

  3. I’m pretty sure satanic attack geese wouldn’t be considered a blessing but the rest of the day might. Thanks. And yes, I can’t recommend this hike enough. We’ll be going back for sure.

  4. lol…speaking of satanic attack geese, at one of the parks here in wichita, the geese mecca of the free world, Ella and I saw one with a bent wing. It promptly hissed and gave chase and we ran screaming down the beach…ell screaming “holy shit! Scary shicken!” the while way down the beach. Good times…

  5. Love this. (And I like the boats, but man oh yes are they expensive!)

  6. Samantha says:

    Geese are indeed the evil workhorses of the dark lord. I can see why she and Dana would be freaked by them, but I guess they’re at least not GOATS! (Ha, gotcha.) I can’t wait to visit and do this hike. Is there ice cream nearby? Thanks for this. Seriously.

  7. debinsf says:

    Yay for Strawberry Hill, boo for the icky geese! I cannot freakin’ believe you saw a turtle laying eggs. It IS like you’re on Little House on the Prairie. Except it’s little house on a hill in a man-made lake in the city. But it’s close and it’s what we’ve got. When she get’s a little bigger (crike! Just a LITTLE bigger! send her to Treefrog Treks day camp in the park for a week or two. They trek those kids to all kinds of freaky nooks and crannies of the park that probably even YOU don’t even know and they get to meet the gardeners and stuff. It’s super fun and then she can show you places and tell you some goofy sf stories. Glad you had a great time. Gotta love this weather, eh?

  8. Fire! That’s pretty cool u at least showed her how. It’s a skill.

  9. Janelle says:

    What a great day!

  10. Hey, I’ve been there. Agree the paddle boats are expensive but they were kind of fun. Next time we will make it to the top of the hill, sounds like a lot of fun.

  11. Deb, cannot wait for those camps! They sound so fun. And Samantha, I actually don’t know if there’s ice cream nearby. We usually end ice cream days at our beloved bi-rite in the mission. Thanks all. We love going on hikes and I’ll be posting more of them on the photo page soon. Our new year’s resolution was to hike more, and I have to say that we’re doing a fair job of taking advantage of all the city and region have to offer.

  12. I cannot believe how big Emme is. How lucky to have these kinds of adventures, minus the geese. Geese scare the hell out of me. I’ve seen geese chase and attack a man holding a bag of bread. Talk about biting the hand that feeds!

  13. On my to do list!

  14. She IS getting big — ridiculously big. And seriously, why do these things have to chase when the bread is literally being handed to them? They rank up there with goats in my personal book of animal demons.

  15. Gail M. says:

    Great SF hikes: lands end/sutro homesite, glen park, twin peaks. Maclaren park is kind of fun, and San Bruno Mountain is just outside the city and fantastic.

  16. Those stepping stones look fun and dangerous at the same time, but not bad dangerous, just fun dangerous. I bet the kids love ’em. Nice hike.

  17. Looks like so much fun! I’ve made the mistake of renting the pedal boat with my 4 year old before at that little pond. Oy. Next time we will just hike!

    Have you checked out Tilden Regional park over in Berkeley? We spent some time there last weekend & it was awesome! DAYS worth of stuff to do!

  18. How fun to see turtles, what a great day.

  19. Sounds like fun! And seriously, seeing a turtle lay eggs really may be a miracle. What incredible luck!


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