Paying it Forward: Sutro Stewards Volunteers Keep Our Mountain Accessible

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Mt. Sutro is the most amazing backyard any urban university could ever want.  Right in the middle of San Francisco, students and neighbors can enjoy 61 acres of eucalyptus forest, replete with rocky outcrops, a summit meadow, miles of trails and even a seasonal creek.  The mountain has experienced many changes throughout the last 150 years, including being owned by two different San Francisco majors, but only recently has it truly become the sparkling emerald of the San Francisco park system.            

The current set of trails that hikers and bikers enjoy today has been greatly improved in the last seven years, almost entirely due to an industrious volunteer group called the Sutro Stewards, founded in 2006.  Their latest efforts include a new Stanyan Street trailhead, which leads up to the Historic Trail traversing high on the west slopes, and the lovely summit meadow, an urban paradise filled with sunshine and birdsong. 

While this tireless group certainly has sponsors—the Rotary Club, UCSF and others—thousands of hours of labor are all provided by volunteers.  Students are often too busy to hike up the Sutro trails let alone to help build one, so the assemblage of volunteers is mostly comprised of residents. 

However, one can’t study ALL the time, and helping build trails or propagate plants is a perfect break for busy pre-professionals.  With the Sutro Stewards, a student can do three great things—spend time in nature, get some exercise and give back to one’s community—all in a single morning. 

Joining the work parties doesn’t require any experience or even an RVSP.  Every first and third Saturday of the month volunteers meet at 9 a.m. at the Woods Lot, halfway up Medical Center Way.  Craig Dawson, long-time local resident, hiker and leader of the Stewards, greets everyone and then divides the workers into teams.  A nursery full of everything from native columbines to coast redwoods has been built to supply the planting projects.  A truck full of trail building tools is unloaded at various sites around the mountain for trail projects.  The work is fun, the folks are friendly and the session is always followed by good pizza and even better beer (recently Lagunitas IPA and Redhook Audible Ale) at the Aldea Center.

Third-year dental students Max Jensen and Ramon Gutierrez joined last month.  Their group removed weeds from the summit meadow and then improved water drainage on the North Ridge Trail.  “I had a great time, got outside and got a work-out.  I’m going to come again,” said Max. 

Dawson says he would love to see more participation from UCSF students.  The long-range plan for the forest includes more trails and the need for plant stewardship is as great as ever, so there will always be plenty of work for spirited volunteers.  Damon Lew, from the Office UCSF Community Relationships, reports on one future project: “a new trailhead to Sutro from the western side of campus . . . is in the early stages of planning.  In fact, this new stairway/trailhead is mentioned in the upcoming Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) . . . So keep an eye out, it should be happening soon.”

Recently a small trail was built on that west slope of the mountain which was not approved by either UCSF or the Sutro Stewards. While perhaps well intended, renegade projects like this do not ultimately help improve access because they are not up to the safety standards required for an urban trail, said Dawson.  Hikers eager to see more trails on Mt. Sutro should let the Office of Community Relations know that they support plans for better access and then channel their zeal for trail building into Sutro Steward volunteer events.

Yet while some may be overly enthusiastic, it is astounding how many folks have never felt the joy of exploring our backyard forest.  You may think you’re not a hiker, but experience just once the afternoon light filtering through the silvery tree trunks, listen for a moment to the wind in the leaves, close your eyes and hear the birds, smell the earth. Soon you’ll be walking up the mountain more often.  And then before you know it, you may even want to join the Stewards and help to maintain our beautiful and unique preserve. 

For more information on Mt. Sutro history, a detailed trail map, or upcoming volunteer days, see