photo: sutro tower / wikipedia

Hiking across San Francisco off-road

The ghost of Laguna Honda

I’ve read a few guides to crossing San Francisco off-road through parks, trails and stairs, and they all have way too much street involved. I decided to make my own route, and have the first sections worked out.

This trip is across town from Glen Park to Golden Gate Park, and starts with the Glen Park Canyon to Twin Peaks section, part of the “Creeks to Peaks” trail. I didn’t do the Twin peaks part, instead I ran the Laguna Honda mountainbike trail. These are a couple sections of a planned route to reach the ocean from the Mission District via parks, greenways, and pedestrian staircases.

The ultimate trail route I’m conceiving is a zig-zag, and includes hikes up and down multiple hills starting on street in the Mission through Noe Valley. From Noe Valley up the stairs on Billy Goat Hill, and up a dirt trail through trees to Haas Playground in Diamond Heights ridge which often windy fog-wrapped, and down the west side into Glen Park Canyon. From there, I go through up and over, down the Laguna Honda trail, hike up to the Mount Sutro trailhead, then down the North side of Mt Sutro to Parnassus and through Golden Gate Park to Ocean Beach.

The start was in Glen Park Canyon, reached via the greenway from the village. I occupied a secret picnic table hidden on the hillside in the brush, drank a beer and ate chips and stretched. In the fading light, I set out and ran up the ravine along the creek, through the riparian wetland marshes, up the stairs to the trail above the rock climbers, and finally out the top and across by the turn-off to Twin Peaks.

The western sky still showed vestiges of the sunset but it was basically dark crepuscular. I followed a dirt shorcut towards Twin Peaks, then veered left off through the neighborhood on the west side of the hill, above the Juvenile Hall. This is the upper trail-head start for the Laguna Honda mountain-bike trail system. You can see the ocean at Ocean Beach, and the back side of Twin Peaks and Sutro Tower.

The new Laguna Honda Trails system is behind the Laguna Honda hospital, which threw its garbage down in the ravine for years, so it is basically an archeological dig site, replete with vintage bottles, bedpans, pitchers, and other objects which an OCD homeless person has sorted and piled along the trail.

The park is relatively unknown, and previously abandoned. I know about it because I went there with a friend back in 2000 to get vintage glass jars for wedding vases, and then later scavenging for vintage medical curiosities.

I decided to do the run without a flashlight. And I stuck to that. I’ve ridden the trail there for years, so luckily I have it pretty well memorized. And I spent a lot of time in the woods as a kid, I’m pretty good at tracking and making out trails at night.

So at this point its almost completely dark, I can only see the general features of the land and big trees. Its like Muir Woods, except in the City and without redwoods, and overgrown like it was abandoned after an apocalypse.

I creeped myself out imagining Laguna Honda’s ghosts, bones and rusted bedpans, lurking in the vines and poking up from the mud. Once I got over being creeped out by ghosts from the hospital, my main concern was slipping and falling in the mud.

The mountain bikers hade torn the trail up, and I was running in mud, switchbacks and berms. I could make out textures like grass or bush, and the slight reflections of mud puddles and slick ground. I shuffled down hills, and made my way blindly at times. I was one with nature. I was Kurtz in Africa. If you have to ask why I didn’t use a flashlight, you don’t get it. I made it through to the end, through the heart of darkness, without slipping or encountering anyone.

I emerged to streetlights at 7th Ave by the reservoir, explored an Xmas tree farm along the way, picked up some Pho in the Inner Sunset and went through the Golden Gate park by the Conservatory of flowers — the streets are closed to traffic, and groups of masked park-goers were still wandering in the street. There was a burningman-style fiber-optic light trees and an EL-wire wrapped DJ booth in the middle of the street. I stopped at a bench in the Panhandle and ate my Pho while couples with tallboys and guys on electric skateboards whizzed by.