Golden Gate Park, located south of the Golden Gate Bridge in western San Francisco, is an urban treasure. The 1,017 acre park stretches three miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, unfurling with eucalyptus, pine, and cypress, lakes and waterfalls, and, of course, museums, playgrounds, and gardens. This 7.5-mile clockwise loop begins at Ocean Beach, winds east on JFK Drive into the heart of the park, and swings back west to the beach via MLK Drive. Highlights include eight lakes, two waterfalls, the Bison Paddock, Golden Gate Pavilion, Arch of Colonial Trees, and Rose Garden.
Once known as “Outside Lands,” Golden Gate Park was miles of sand dunes in the 1870’s when work on the park began. William Hammond Hall, a field engineer who completed the first survey of the land on February 15, 1871, intentionally designed a natural looking park visitors could enjoy year-round. To further his mission, he added winding roads to shelter park visitors from wind, encourage trees to grow, and discourage fast driving. Today the park is 1,017 acres, 18% larger than Central Park in New York City, and host to 13 million visitors each year.
Start your hike from the Ocean Beach parking lot. If you time your hike for sunrise, you may just get a beautiful start to your day! The Beach and Park Chalet across Great Highway is a two-story villa built in 1925. On the top floor is the Beach Chalet restaurant and on the bottom floor is a visitor center (open daily 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.) where you can pick up a map of Golden Gate Park, study exhibits on the history of the park, and see a mural of San Francisco life by artist Lucien Labaudt.
Cross Great Highway to the western edge of the park, marked with a stone entrance. Turn left to cross John F. Kennedy Drive, then make a right, heading east to the Dutch Windmill and Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden.
Built in 1902, the Dutch Windmill pumped groundwater to lawns and gardens in the park, helping green-up the former sand dunes. In the gardens, Icelandic poppies intermingle with vibrant tulips and beds of marigolds. According to San Francisco Recreation and Parks, the best time to see the tulips bloom is March and April.
Continue east on the sidewalk beside the Golden Gate Park Golf Course. At the 0.8 mile-mark, reach North Lake on your left, below a set of stairs. From here you can take an optional 0.6-mile loop around the perimeter of the marshy lake. North Lake is the northernmost of the Chain of Lakes in Golden Gate Park—North, Middle, and South Lake—original lakes from the park’s sand dune era.
Stay straight across Chain of Lakes Drive, continuing east on the sidewalk along JFK Drive. Yellow primrose and California lilac shrubs pepper the border of the Bison Paddock, where you can see bushy bison, the largest living animal native to North America. The San Francisco Zoo staff care for the bison, brought to the park in 1890s to help save them from extinction.
After crossing 36th Avenue, arrive at Spreckels Lake at the 1.2 mile-mark. This flat, mirror-like lake hosts the San Francisco Model Yacht Club in a peaceful setting surrounded by cypress trees. An optional 0.5-mile trail leads around the lake, named for Adolph Spreckels, a former park commissioner and sugar magnate. If the name sounds familiar, it is the same Spreckels family of the Spreckels Organ at Balboa Park in San Diego. The squeaking black birds with white bills are American Coots, talkative birds with funny-looking feet commonly found in Golden Gate Park.
Moseying along, continue eastward along JFK Drive. Colorful flowers liven up the walk as you pass by a disc golf course and Marx Meadow, a valley-like grassy area with picnic tables.
At the 2.0 mile-mark arrive at Lloyd Lake, a pretty lake named in honor of Reuben Headley Lloyd, a former park commissioner. An optional, narrow dirt path circles the lake for 0.25 miles past a marble portico in the northwestern corner. Nicknamed “Portals to the Past,” Alban Nelson Towne’s wife Caroline donated the portico to the park in 1909 after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and a subsequent fire, destroyed their Nob Hill home. Today, it is a tranquil setting for weddings.
Continuing east on the sidewalk underneath Crossover Drive/Highway 1. Rainbow Falls is just beyond the overpass at the 2.2 mile-mark, named for the colorful lights that used to illuminate it. It is an artificial waterfall, with water supplied by nearby Lloyd Lake. Its tippy top is fenced in, so your best viewing bet right here, looking up. I happened to visit on a day SF Recreation and Parks was performing maintenance, hence the falls were “off,” but they are usually on. Past Rainbow Falls, in 150 feet, is an optional detour to the Prayerbook Cross, the tallest sculpture in the park at 64 feet.
Two hundred feet past the Prayerbook Cross sign, turn right to cross JFK Drive, then make a left to continue east towards Stow Lake.
Cross Stow Lake Drive at the 2.4 mile-mark to see the Arch of Colonial Trees. The Sequoia Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution planted this special grove of 13 trees on October 19, 1896 with seedlings from the original 13 states. The trees commemorate the anniversary of British General Charles Cornwallis’ surrender in Yorktown, Virginia on October 19, 1781, effectively ending the American Revolution. The first three trees on your right have grown from saplings planted in 1896: An elm from Massachusetts, a white oak from New York, and a sugar maple from New Hampshire.
After a gentle climb over 0.2 miles, arrive at the Stow Lake Boathouse and restrooms next to the parking lot. Turn left to walk up the hill to the lake’s edge. A map here shows your location on southwestern corner of Stow Lake. There are two loops around Stow Lake: and outer loop along Stow Lake Drive, and an inner loop on Strawberry Hill Island, which we are going to do!
Hike southeast beside Stow Lake for 0.2 miles. Colorful paddle boats are moored near the boathouse that you can rent and take for a spin around the lake beside mallards, coots, and gulls. What I love about Stow Lake too are the calla lilies popping up along the lake’s shore.
At the 2.8 mile-mark, turn right to cross Roman Bridge onto Strawberry Hill Island, then turn left to start a 0.5-mile clockwise loop around the island. Your first stop is Huntington Falls on your right, a 110-foot artificial waterfall. One option is to take the stairs on either side of the waterfall up to overlooks above it.
Beyond Huntington Falls, in 150 feet, is the Golden Gate Pavilion, a Chinese pagoda gifted by San Francisco’s sister city, Taipei, in 1976.
Circling around Strawberry Hill Island, pass the double arches of Rustic Bridge, created 1893 out of chert, a sedimentary rock dug up when Stow Lake was created. Continue your loop under the shelter of tall trees, arriving at a Y-junction. Choose your own adventure: Both lead back to the main trail.
Finish your loop at the 3.3-mile mark back at Roman Bridge. Cross over it, and then turn right. Walk east along Stow Lake’s perimeter, spying the Golden Gate Pavilion on Strawberry Hill Island.
In 0.2 miles, turn left to cross Stow Lake Drive at the eastern tip of lake. Head down the steps and then swing left towards the Rose Garden.
In 150 feet, turn left onto a gravel trail for a special treat. Father-son duo Tony and Rio Powell created a faery door here in 2013, located at the end of the second log. A tiny door opens and inside are little playthings–gems, tiny toys, a small pin, and trinkets. Leave a message inside and you may just get a reply from Tony and Rio on their website.
When ready, continue north, descending to JFK Drive below. Turn right onto paved sidewalk towards the de Young Museum. In 200 feet, take the crosswalk on your left to see the Rose Garden at the 3.7 mile-mark. Created in 1961, the Rose Garden has over 60 rose beds with small placards identifying the blooms. Try mid-May-July to see the garden in full bloom. You can still catch the errant bloom off-season, too.
After visiting the Rose Garden, cross back over JFK Drive and turn left towards the de Young Museum. In 0.2 miles, turn right at the pedestrian access walkway to the de Young Museum and gardens. A swashbuckling figure called “Untitled (Pirate),” by artist Peter Coffin overlooks the Pool of Enchantment on your left.
After passing the Pool of Enchantment, stay straight to cross Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. Descend the stairs into the Music Concourse at the 4.0 mile-mark. Built in 1893 for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, the concourse is a plaza with fountains, London plane trees, and Wych elms. At the southern end of the concourse is the California Academy of Sciences, and on the far western side is the Bandshell, also known as the Spreckels Temple of Music. The subterranean nature of the concourse was to help protect visitors from summer winds.
After passing in front of the Bandshell, stay straight to cross Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. Turn right and walk towards the big palm trees at the Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden in the de Young Museum. It is free (open Tuesdays-Sundays, 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m.). Be sure to walk all the way to the back of the garden to experience artist James Turrell’s Three Gems, a spherical art installation with an oculus in the ceiling, framing the sky.
Return to the sidewalk and turn right, heading southwest on the sidewalk along Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. Pass the Japanese Tea Garden (entrance fee applies) on your right at the 4.5-mile mark, a tranquil garden with koi ponds, pagodas, and ginkgo trees. Makoto Hagiwara, a Japanese landscape designer, created the original teahouse and garden for the 1894 California Midwinter International Exhibition. His family lived there and cared for the garden until 1942, when they, along with 117,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, were forced to relocate to internment camps during World War II.
At the end of Hagiwara Drive, turn right onto MLK Drive. Head southwest along the sidewalk, passing the San Francisco Botanical Garden on your left (entrance fee applies).
Continue southwest on the sidewalk, crossing Stow Lake Drive and passing Mothers Meadow on your right at the 5.0-mile mark. Created for families in Golden Gate Park, Mothers Meadow has a playground, a large grassy area for games and picnics, and a nearby restroom.
Stay straight to continue west towards Ocean Beach. Reach a busy intersection with Crossover Drive, and wait for the walking signal to cross safely. Once across, do a zippy L-shaped turn to stay on MLK Drive: Turn left to take a short crosswalk to the stop sign ahead. Stay straight at the stop sign, continuing west on MLK Drive.
At the 5.3-mile mark, arrive at Elk Glen Lake on your right. An optional dirt path here leads to a 0.35-mile loop around the lake’s perimeter, brimming with tall grass, oak, eucalyptus, and the occasional calla lily.
Past Elk Glen Lake, continue west along MLK Drive. On the opposite side of the street is Mallard Lake, where you can spot ducks, egrets, herons, and small birds on this quieter and more secluded lake.
Continue west past Mallard Lake for another 0.8 miles on the quiet sidewalk bordered by green grass, eucalyptus, and cypress. Stay straight as you cross multiple roads and Sunset Boulevard.
A fountain welcomes you to South Lake at the 6.3-mile mark, and benches here make a nice spot for a rest break. This miniature lake is the southernmost in the Chain of Lakes at Golden Gate Park.
Just beyond South Lake, turn right onto a sidewalk across from the 49-mile scenic drive sign, heading north beside Chain of Lakes Drive.
Head north for 0.3 miles to JFK Drive. Along the way, you will pass a parking lot for equestrians on your right. At the back of the parking lot is an optional 0.3-mile trail around swampy Middle Lake. The dirt trail loop is pleasant, a nice nature break from the sidewalk and vehicle traffic. It loops right back to Chain of Lakes Drive at the end, just before JFK Drive.
At the 6.7-mile mark, arrive at the intersection of JFK Drive and Chain of Lakes Drive. Across the street on the left is North Lake, which you passed earlier in the hike.
Turn left to head west for 0.4 miles beside JFK Drive. Stay straight to cross Bernice Rogers Way, then turn right to continue beside JFK Drive towards the Beach Chalet.
At the 7.5-mile mark, reach the intersection of JFK Drive and Great Highway. Stay straight to cross over Great Highway to Ocean Beach. You are home free! Enjoy the ocean vibes before heading home (or grabbing a bite to eat).
This is an urban hike on asphalt sidewalks, mostly alongside JFK Drive and MLK Drive in Golden Gate Park. There are many road crossings with crosswalks, and a few dirt trails. Road traffic on JFK Drive and MLK Drive, runners, families, dog-walkers, golfers, anglers, equestrians, and Tai Chi enthusiasts are all part of the experience.
There are no campgrounds at Golden Gate Park. The closest is Rob Hill Campground in the Presidio.
In San Francisco, head west on Fulton Street towards Ocean Beach. At the end of Fulton, turn left at the stop light onto Great Highway. On Great Highway, immediately bear right into the Ocean Beach Parking Area. Parking is free and available from 6:00 am - 10:00 pm.