San Francisco


Walking the Golden Gate Bridge

I’d delayed my visit to San Francisco by a few days, spending time in Point Reyes and Silicon Valley, but I’d also figured out a more suitable way to travel into the city: taking a train from Mountain View downtown. For $7 each way, I was able to circumvent the parking, traffic and driving nightmare of the city – definitely worth it.

I didn’t have too much in the way of plans: I wanted to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, and see Fort Point and San Francisco Maritime National Historic Site. Otherwise, I didn’t have much in mind. Mostly, to keep walking. Thankfully, compared to Seattle and Portland, I was able to amble aimlessly around the city, rather than worry about the van.

My walking route: red outbound and green coming back.

San Francisco felt like a cross between New York and Seattle, with good weather. The parts I saw had the same energy and density as NYC, but with the geography and aesthetics of Seattle. I think it’s my second favorite city I’ve seen so far (favorite: Reykjavik!).

I started by angling for the waterfront, to see the ’embarcadero,’ because I knew it would be easy to keep my bearings near the water rather than in the confusion of unnumbered streets. The embarcadero is a sort of park/gallery area along the water, similar to the west side highway and shore in NY. It was nice, but felt a bit sterile.

Lombard Street – the crooked section is in the distance, with lots of gardens

Next I angled in to see Lombard St, famous as ‘the crookedest street in the world.’ Along the way I stopped at a cafe for what I thought would be a quick bagel. It turned out to be a bagel with eggplant, feta, onions, oil, and pesto. It was amazing, and maybe the exact opposite of a bagel in NY (slow, required a fork, very fancy, the bagel itself mediocre with awesome toppings).

Then I walked up Lombard Street. Most of the street is straight but there’s a crooked section on one of the hills. It’s a cable car stop and it seemed a busload of Japanese tourists had stopped here (at 8:30 in the morning). The street seemed to take it in stride: the gardens were meticulously maintained and everything in its proper place. In truth it was a little overdone – a tiny Stepford. The streets of San Francisco are famously steep; everyone studiously turns their tyres into the curb when they park, in case their e-brake fails. The steepest streets have cars park so they aren’t on an angle, like they’re in a parking lot.

A pile of sea lions. There were at least 4 times this many there.

Then I walked north on Hyde along the cable car tracks (they hum ominously) to the waterfront. Because I arrived before the park opened, I walked down the famous Fisherman’s Wharf. This is the San Francisco equivalent of Times Square, with a nautical theme (if you see a Ripley’s Believe It or Not or wax museum, you know you’re in a tourist area). I liked seeing it, but also was glad that it was mostly empty of tourists. The highlight, for me, was seeing the docks covered with sea lions – probably a few hundred dozing just 30 feet away from the main wharf. Some of them were playing – chasing each other in the water, sumo wrestling trying to push each other off the docks, and so forth. They made a constant barking sound and the noise was immense. Interesting, biologists are unsure whether sea lions (and seals) are descended from the bear or weasel families; in any event they acted like dogs.

The lower passenger deck of the Eureka

When the park was open, I headed over to the San Francisco Maritime NHS. This is a set of boats ‘essential to the history of San Francisco,’ and it includes a timber schooner, tugboat, steel sailing ship, and, my favorite, a ferry. I particularly enjoyed the ferry because it was in use through the 50s, but retained the same elegant art deco style from the 30s – the same style you see in old pictures of Penn Station, that’s mostly been erased from public areas. This was an auto ferry so there were some classic cars of 30s vintage as well. There were working coin-operated stereoscope viewers, probably dating from the 30s, which of course I had to try (“THE GREAT 1906 EARTHQUAKE AND FIRE: Authentic! Vivid 3-D! Do not miss seeing these unusual pictures.”)

The Balclutha, a sailing ship. Swimmer in the foreground, Alcatraz behind the ship. The Eureka and a timber schooner are also visible.

The area is enclosed in piers that form an ellipse around a section of port and beach; there were people swimming in the water here, right between the park’s boats. Looking North, Alcatraz was visible. This was a surprise to me, too. I knew Alcatraz was near San Francisco, but the island dominates the waterfront view. It must have been strange living here when the prison was operating, knowing these maximum security prisoners were right there. Wouldn’t you dwell on that? Not that they might escape – just having a prison always on your mind, like a cloud across the sun on an otherwise cheerful day.

Fort Point, below the Golden Gate Bridge

Next I crossed over the first North-South ridge, through the marina area (sterile; pastel; tropical) to the Presidio. The Presidio is a sort of park compound containing a variety of sights: the Walt Disney museum, a national cemetery, a beach, an open field, and so forth. Honestly, I couldn’t find any sort of theme to the place (college? military base? park?), which is vast. It forms the southern anchor of the Golden Gate Bridge. Before I checked out the bridge I wanted to see Fort Point.

Seals, parasailers – even a helicopter flew below the bridge!

Fort Point was on the northernmost tip of the peninsula and the southern edge of the Golden Gate before the bridge was built. Scheduled for demolition, Joseph Strauss redesigned the bridge to preserve it. It’s now also a National Historic Site. For its time (the 1850s) it was considered state-of-the-art, but it was determined to be obsolete during the Civil War (as similar sites on the East Coast proved incapable of holding up to bombardment). It never saw action. A major innovation for the construction of the bridge itself was to put up safety netting (they only thought of this in the mid-1930s!) This saved 19 lives; those who it saved joined the ‘Halfway to Hell Club.’

I liked this graphic design on the bridge. Sinister?

The bridge is actually directly above the fort, and there’s a set of trails leading up to it, all with stunning views. On the bridge, there are six lanes for traffic bracketed by two narrow lanes for people and bikes. When I started across bikes and people were all crowded on one side, each going both directions. It was hectic and frustrating – I looked constantly over my shoulder for bikes bearing down on me. I felt like I was in Amsterdam. At some point they transferred bikes to the other side (the ocean side of the bridge, rather than the bay side) and it became much more enjoyable. The bridge is 1.7 miles across, so the walk constituted more than a stroll, but with pleasant weather, a stunning view of the city, and the waves below dotted with boats, parasailers and windsurfers, it was very relaxing.

Crissy Field, with the city in the background.

Back on the San Francisco side, I stopped at Crissy Field, an open park, to relax. Boy, it was a relief to take off my shoes and socks and let my feet breathe! There were huge steel statues in the park, and nearby was a ‘trampoline gym and cafe.’

After that it was getting dark, and I kept going towards the Caltrain terminal. I definitely passed through a few streets of ghetto around Leavenworth that made me very nervous (15 guys standing around aimlessly on the corner; overheard conversation: “Hey man, you know where I can get some pain pills?”). I also saw someone walking a pig on a leash.

In the end I walked 24 miles around San Francisco, my longest ‘hike’ to date. I really enjoyed the city and would love to come back, I feel I only got to see a very small section and missed some highlights entirely – Chinatown, Haight-Ashbury, Golden Gate Park.

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