San Francisco is a scenic city. It just can’t help itself. Vistas with ever-changing combinations of bridges, fog, sunlight and water can bewitch and bemuse even the most jaded long-time resident. We all have our favorite beguiling corners of town, but for spectacular 360-degree views, the two hills rising in the city’s very center cannot be beat. (Except, of course, on those days when they are entirely shrouded in fog. Even it has its allure.)
Twin Peaks rises to 922 or so splendid feet, beaten out for highest point in the city honors by Mount Davidson by a paltry six feet. But though Mount Davidson might be tallest, it offers nowhere near the views.
There are many modes of transport to Twin Peaks—by car, tour bus, or even by bicycle. But if you are willing to make the effort, getting to the roof of the city on foot is a uniquely jubilant, exhilarating experience. Though you might think it would be an ordeal to scale mighty Twin Peaks under your own power, it’s really not that bad of a walk—it takes only 40 or 45 minutes. (You might even call it a nice afternoon stroll with a bit of a hike at the end.) To help you on your way, I will outline a route that is both scenic and the easiest climb up the hill. After a certain point, it’s also quiet and almost car-free, allowing a nice separation from the hustle and bustle of the city below.
|Castro Muni Station|
|Walkway from station|
First off, take the Muni underground (or the scenic F-line if you’ve got time to burn) to the Castro/Market Street station. If you’ve never been to the Castro before, head down Castro Street to 18th, then turn right and walk up 18th Street to get your scenic fill. (At Eureka you’ll join up with my preferred route.) If the Castro is old hat and you want a route with the least hill, make a hard left coming out of the Muni station, walk along the walkway that crosses above the station (Market Street will be directly parallel on your right.)
|Golden Winter Ginko|
Cross Collingwood, continue along Market until Eureka. Turn left on Eureka and walk up Eureka to 20th street. On your way you may be lucky and see some vivid golden Ginko trees, their leaves scattered like silent haikus on the ground.
|Your first stairs|
At 20th Street turn right. Now you’re going to really get away from cars. Enjoy the Victorian charm you come across. At the top of this somewhat steep little block (at the corner of 20th and Douglass) you will see a staircase on your left. Take it. You will pass gardens offering blooming plants, even on New Year’s Day (the date most of these photos were taken.)
|Take these, too.|
|Up you go|
At the top you will see another staircase across the street. Take it. At the top of these stairs veer left and walk along (and above) Douglass until Romain Street. Turn right on Romain. Go a block and half admiring small gardens along the way. At Market Street you’ll see a barrier in the center that prevents pedestrians from crossing. But this is not a problem because on your right is a very pleasant pedestrian overpass with an easy curling ramp. Take it up and over Market Street. If you turn around, you’ll get your first glimpse of views but these are minimal compared to what lies ahead.
After the overpass you’re on a lovely quiet block with gardens, few cars and no overhead wires. Take this to Corbett where you will turn left. On your right will be the aptly named Rooftop Elementary School and their sparkling glass tile murals.
|The correct stairs|
Walk along Corbett to Hopkins and then turn right. Yes, Hopkins is steep but it only lasts a block. You may see people who have just conquered Twin Peaks walking towards you. You will know them from the rosy glow of their satisfied faces. At the top of Hopkins, you will see a staircase. Don’t take this! Turn left on Burnett, walk 50 yards, look right, and take the staircase across the street you see there. This is the first of four consecutive staircases you’ll take. This is the trek part of your journey, although not the final hike!
|Someone's always faster|
|The sidewalk speaks|
The four staircases are kept swept and the foliage trimmed, by whom (the city or the neighbors) I don’t know. If you’re lucky someone will leave you sidewalk poetry to peruse. There will undoubtedly be someone ascending these stairs faster than you. (They may even be jogging up them. Your mind will boggle.) That’s all right. Take your time. You’re almost at the top!
After the fourth staircase turn right onto Parkridge. Ahead you will see the first sign of real wildness, what the entire hill looked like once upon a time, a hillside covered with sage and brush. Follow Parkridge to the left as it becomes Crestline and climbs a mild hill. When the road crests, look to your right where you’ll see a sign with a little hiker. It looks like:
Now for the hike part. You are entering the Twin Peaks Natural Area managed by San Francisco Recreation and Park’s Department. These stairs require sure footing, but they don’t last forever. You can pause from time to time, turn slightly, and really see some views.
|Wood ties invite you|
|What's in your way|
|Where you want to go|
At the top, you will come to a path that runs along Twin Peaks Boulevard, the road that snakes around our Peaks. You will see two Peaks in front of you. The one to the north is Eureka Peak and is most popular with tourists. The one to the south, Noe Peak, is right across the street from you, is slightly taller than its twin, and is my slight preference, though both are fabulous. To get to either you will have to get yourself over the concrete barrier and then cross two lanes of traffic. (You might wonder why there isn’t an opening in the concrete barrier that would allow the many people on foot to cross between the two clearly marked hiking paths with ease. You would not be alone in your wonder.) Luckily the cars on this road are few so crossing here is not difficult.
|The final ascent|
Hike up the last set of wood tie stairs. At the top you get your reward--views, views, views, every way you look. You can see four bridges (Bay, Golden Gate, San Rafael, San Mateo), Mt Diablo, Mt Tam and the Santa Cruz mountains. You can see the Marin Headlands, Angel Island and Alcatraz. If it’s clear enough, you can see the Farallons to the west and ocean freighters steaming their way to China. As the sun descends a thousand windows in the East Bay briefly flame red with reflected light. Just after sunset pearls of light appear on the bridges outlining traffic streaming in and out of San Francisco.
You can see:
Be warned: it’s usually windy up here. Proper attire for this walk consists of multiple layers that you can zip and unzip as you warm up or hit windchill. This is a fabulous place for sunsets but the wood tie stairs are not lit, so either bring a flashlight or leave before deep darkness descends. The rest of the way down is quite well lit—even the pedestrian overpass has decent lighting.
It doesn’t have to be a brilliantly clear day to make the walk worthwhile. I’ve gone up half an hour before sunset as the front arms of a storm system moved into the Bay, and then watched the city and lower sky turn shell pink with massive grey clouds lurking above. Fabulous.
|Mission Blue wonder|
And there are other reasons to make the climb. Here, away from cars, city noise and city smells, you have as much as chance as anywhere in San Francisco to be in contact with the indigenous natural world of this tip of peninsula. The air is fresh, and if there are not too many people around, you’ll see and hear many different kinds of birds flitting among the hillside sage and lupine. One of Twin Peaks’ claim to fame is that it is home to the endangered Mission Blue butterfly. In fact, Twin Peaks is one of only five places in the world where the Mission Blue butterfly is known to still exist. Evidently Mission Blue butterflies are considered quite gorgeous by butterfly connoisseurs. Though I have yet to see one (having only recently become a regular visitor to Twin Peaks), since they are most likely espied between March and June I may succeed in the upcoming months.
On your way down, if you want a real “get away from it all in the heart of the city” experience you can connect up with the Mt. Sutro Open Space Reserve to the north where you can hike three or four miles through woodlands so dense only the distant roar of street noise let’s you know you’re still in a city. Or you can go down the way you came up. After you’ve crossed the pedestrian bridge on Romain, the shops and restaurants of Noe Valley lie ten to twelve minutes to your right and the shops and restaurants of the Castro await you ten to twelve minutes to your left. Since you have just conquered Twin Peaks on your own power and stood on the rooftop of San Francisco--an ascent you share with the ancients since humanity first arrived on these shores--you have well-earned the rosy glow of satisfaction and exhilarating memories of adventure that are now yours.