Hidden San Francisco: The Enchanting Strawberry Hill

School of Dentistry

The Inner Sunset is surrounded by three mighty hills—Mt. Sutro, Turtle Hill (aka Grandview Park) and Strawberry Hill—all three of which are widely under-appreciated. If you are not yet a devotee of hill walks, perhaps Strawberry Hill is the best one to start with.

At just over 400 feet tall, it is the easiest walk, and being located in the eastern half of Golden Gate Park, access from either 19th or 9th Avenue is quite easy. 

Besides offering views of downtown and the Marin Headlands, which are available from the tops of all three of the Inner Sunset hills, Strawberry Hill has a number of unique features which, when experienced together, create an almost surreal outdoor experience.

As the days grow long, and the air warms and flowers blossom, there has never been a more ideal time to explore this loveliest of local hills.

The entire hill is surrounded by the moat-shaped Stowe Lake. This man-made lake defies the most fundamental quality of lakes in that you must walk uphill to reach its banks.  It is a strange sensation to crest a short but steep hill and find a body of water hovering above the surrounding land. Turtles and ducks frolic in the reeds. Great blue herons stand elegantly in the rushes, orange light glints through the mist as the sun sets through the willows.

As you gazes across the serene paradise, you’ll notice another fantastical water feature: a stream that originates near the summit of the hill and cascades down the hill’s steep east side into the lake. Having no watershed above, this waterfall magically appears as if from the sky itself! Set in a craggy (artificial) rockery and lined by tree ferns and flowers, magic may as well be swirling in the spray. At this point, the circum-island path crosses the stream below the falls in the form of large flat rocks.

The idyllic scene is made more merry by the many peddle-boats and row boats that drift by dreamily. They can be rented from a small boat center on the lake’s north shore, but if you squint your eyes they seem to be from a far-away time and place, from a society with a much slower pace of life.

These colorful water craft and the paved path along the entire lakeshore reminds me of city parks found throughout China. In fact, a Chinese pavilion is perched above the water on the edge of Strawberry Hill.  A gift from Taipei, Taiwan, the curved roof and marble benches are much less ostentatious than the nearby Japanese Garden, but in its modesty the Chinese pavilion creates a more authentic experience and, with fewer visitors, a more peaceful one.

The hill itself is no longer covered by wild strawberries like it was a century ago. However, ascending to the top through an open cypress forest, a wide path circles around the knoll making a complete 360 degree spiral, which is, while perhaps less magical than the waterfall, certainly unusual and charming.  And on the very summit hikers will find the mystical ruins of an old stone observatory, which was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.  The remaining stone wall forms a semi-circle, which looks like it could serve for pagan animal sacrifices, and for all we know it does, although no permits are available for such events.

While virgin goat slaughtering may be rare, the summit is a special place for another animal of greater delicacy and beauty: the butterfly.  The summit of Strawberry Hill, already surrounded with surprises, is apparently a butterfly mating spot. Yes, sordid butterfly sex-parties occur amidst unknowing guests enjoying what they believe to be a landscape of innocent beauty. According to the plaque, butterflies, because their daily commutes take them far from each other, need to agree upon a spot to meet and mingle. Thus they engage in behavior called “hill-topping,” whereby they all just fly up and up till they reach a local high point in the topography—in the case of Golden Gate Park, this high point is Strawberry Hill.

The paths onto the island-hill are graceful stone arch bridges, one on the east and one on the west, which are also reminiscent of a distant time and place. To cross these bridges is to cross into a mystical land that you will not soon forget. You may go to Strawberry Hill for the waterfall, for the pavilion, for the wildlife or for the views. You may go for an animal sacrifice if you wish. I don’t care why you go, but go you must.