I know a lot of hikers can turn their noses up at so-called “urban hikes.” I’ve never really understood that, myself. I enjoy a totally unplugged weekend in the Sierra Nevada but I also know I can walk out my front door and spend a great day in Griffith Park a lot more often and have an equally lovely (if different) day spent outside. Well, those who have never done a solid urban hike before have a new reason to head to San Francisco — the recently-completed Crosstown Trail.
San Francisco’s Crosstown Trail is a project that’s been at work for about a decade, aiming to connect a hiking route from the southeast corner of the city to the northwest. Organized by a number of volunteer, neighborhood, outdoor, and mobility groups, the route was plotted in 2014 but didn’t start becoming a reality until 2018.
Today, the Crosstown Trail runs a little over 17 miles one-way from Candlestick Park to Land’s End. My partner and I were in San Francisco for his birthday this weekend and we decided to take a crack at this ambitious route just to see how far we could get. We ended up hiking the entire route, and now not only do I have a better understanding of the geography and neighborhoods of the city, but I also am incredibly impressed by the city’s park and trail system.
Hiking the Crosstown Trail
The trail begins in Candlestick Park, with views of the Bay and an impressive (if still in-progress) restoration of native plant life. Fair warning that this area is definitely the roughest stretch in terms of amenities and natural beauty. The Candlestick Park stadium was demolished in 2015 but a proposed redevelopment was suspended in 2018, so the whole area is a bit of a mess right now. But you can still feel completely surrounded by some lovely views …
After this, the Crosstown Trail does a really exceptional job of weaving its way through neighborhoods you probably haven’t visited in San Francisco. You’ll wind through twisting neighborhood gardens full of native plants. You’ll explore a restored canyon watershed and hike on a recently revived trail system beneath a dense forest canopy. You’ll climb up residential staircases and climb down famous mosaic staircases, enjoy the view from towering dunes and watch birds and boats cruise lakes in Golden Gate Park. You’ll see the rugged coast of Land’s End and oh yes, that famous bridge, too.
The Crosstown Trail is about 45% roads and sidewalks, 15% paved off-road paths, and 40% trails and can be hiked in either direction. There’s about 2600 feet of gain overall, but we definitely enjoyed the fact that as we hiked northbound and got closer to the ocean, those coastal breezes helped keep the temperatures down on a bright, sunny day of hiking.
If you are not up for hiking the entire 17 mile trail in one day like we were, the trail also has plenty of transit connections to hop on or off whenever you’ve had your fill. And just like any good long-distance trail, the official trail site breaks the trail into five different sections if you’d prefer more bite-sized versions.
I’ve already mentioned the trail doesn’t really have signs. So you might be wondering, “well how the heck do you find your way around?”
The official Crosstown Trail website has tons of up-to-date resources, including a smartphone app, downloadable maps, and GPX files for the hiking and biking routes that can all be snagged for free at the trail’s Plan Your Trip site.
We used the Outerspatial smartphone app the site recommended and while it was occasionally a little wonky, it worked well and helped guide us on some potentially confusing trail junctions. Even for urban hikes, I caution hikers to not rely solely on smartphones. Print out the paper maps if you can, or at the very least be sure you pack some extra charging power with you.
Is Hiking the Crosstown Trail Worth It?
San Francisco is my partner’s favorite city in the world. He’s visited more times than he can count, and the Crosstown Trail took him to so many places he had never seen before. I don’t know S.F. quite as well, but hiking this route gave me a much greater appreciation for the city’s communities, neighborhoods, and park system. And yes, the views along the entire route were spectacular.
If you’re into parks and trails and how they work in towns and cities, it’s also an inspirational example of how to do a project like this the RIGHT way. Although the route is still relatively new, I do expect more and more trail-related infrastructure popping up along the way. Wayfinding signs, hopefully, but also stores with maps and guidebooks, trail-related food and refreshments, and other trail activations and art projects, too.
I am really glad I got a chance to hike this route and can’t wait to see how it develops in the coming years. And more importantly, I hope its success can inspire other cities to follow suit with their own routes!