Story and Photos by Stephanie Levin.
San Francisco’s gorgeous gal, Golden Gate Park celebrates her 150th birthday in April. Like many in the Bay Area, I have an intimate relationship with the park, roaming her hidden trails, sniffing and whiffing her medicinal treasures, gazing across the Moon Garden flanked by seasonal fuchsia-flecked camellia blooms and powdery pink cherry trees, each rosy and ripe in the spring, naked and lonely in the winter. Indifferent to the seasons, I never miss a chance to sprint across one of the Botanical Garden’s vast apple green lawns only to be surprised that one abuts massive grandfather redwoods, the entrance to the Redwood Forest, and home to some of the oldest trees in the park. But I digress, have gotten ahead of time, and must take you back 150 years ago to the inception of Golden Gate Park.
One afternoon in 1860, two gentleman, field engineer William Hammond Hall and his apprentice John McLaren, stroked their chins as they gazed out over the wind-swept sand dunes with a vision and meeting of the minds:to metamorphize the dusty dunes into a green splendor, creating one of the most resplendent parks in the contiguous United States. Today, 1117 acres of public park grounds, much of it free to the public, is a dazzling jewel rivaling only Central Park.
I have spent more time in Golden Gate Park than anywhere else in San Francisco. I hobnob with the geese who honk and waddle, the noisy clan claiming the grassy knoll at one of the entrances to the Botanical Garden. On other days, I marvel at the vast lawn, asserting tiny flowers that settle in through spring and summer. But, the crème de la crème of the Botanical Garden is, of course, all the gardens that grow in San Francisco’s micro climate from South African drought plants to the most significant magnolia tree collection outside China, only a few on the 9,000 species that thrive here. There’s a flower for every mood, a plant for every personality, a discovery for every season. As a rambler, I shun maps, though the park has a plethora of printed and posted maps as well as volunteer guides and guided walks.
Amble toward the southwest side of the Botanical Garden and you’ll enter a hip-high stone-curved garden devoted to the senses, the Garden of Fragrance, better known as the medicinal garden. The stone wall is from a 1300 Century Monastery, and the fragrances and aromas shift with the seasons. Mints to delicate Mexican marigold, a natural insect repellent, delight. St. John’s wort, a cure for bruising, shares soil with soft Lamb’s Ear plant. Every plant boasts a fragrance, encouraging touch and smell. The tall statue stationed in the center of the garden is Saint Francis, San Francisco’s patron saint.
If you simply want a subtle park experience or a place to meditate, read a book or escape the crowds that fill the park on warm days and summer months, you’ll appreciate Shakespeare’s Garden, This gentle walled-off garden offers tree-shaded benches and scattred quotes from Mr. Shakespeare’s plays. The garden is a tad off the beaten track as you enter on 9th Avenue and often missed. Shakespeare’s Garden is a favorite venue for small weddings.
Ease on over to the eastern portion of the park to De Laveaga Dell, a park within the park that touches the soul. This is the AIDS Memorial Grove. A signature boulder at the entrance announces the seven-acre diverse walk. Like so many special places in Golden Gate Park, this is lovingly maintained by volunteers.
Here, there are Monterey Cypress and Redwood trees, fern grottoes, brooks and benches. It’s a reflective walk that feels almost sacred. Stroll down the ramp into the circle of engraved names of those lost to AIDS; the circle juxtaposes the fragility of life and the love that maintains it; I think of it as an open air-chapel that opens into one of the most exquisite walks in the park.
Because of the size and shape of Golden Gate Park, it’s easy to miss the McLaren Rhododendron Dell, with a statue of John McLaren to greet you. Located in the center of Golden Gate Park along John F. Kennedy Drive, it is flush with pink and scarlet rhododendrons and a blissful amble that elevates and descend with small secret paths and benches. It can also be accessed from the museum circle. Like many walks, this offers wheelchair access.
There are several entrances into the park, and while you can crisscross it on foot or bike, in my mind, it divides in two with the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences, the Conservatory of Flowers, the Rose Garden and entrance to Stow Lake on the John F. Kennedy Drive side, and velvety fields of large open green-space dotted with little lakes, sports fields and picnics spots on Martin Luther King Drive side. Both areas of the park host well attended concerts from rock to bluegrass. Half of the park is closed to traffic on Sundays, and for those in the mood, there’s free swing dance instruction and music on JFK behind the DeYoung Museum beginning at noon on Sundays.
Conservatory of Flowers: If you are new to the park, and you enter from Fell Street, the dome-shaped, white wooden building reigning over JFK Drive catches your eye. This is the Conservatory of Flowers, the oldest building in the park, and one of the first municipal conservatories build it the country. Age has crowned it with distinction: it is the oldest remaining wooden conservatory in the country, built in 1879 with a glassed-in vestibule and gable roof; it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The elaborate Victorian greenhouse is home to rare, exotic plants, including a stunning orchid collection. In late spring and summer, the Conservatory is flanked by a generous dahlia garden, all volunteer planted and maintained. Year-round musicians, families, lovers and the public claim a plot of space, spreading their blankets amidst the flowers and lawn in front of the Conservatory of Flowers. It’s one of the most joyful places to spend an afternoon.
But Golden Gate Park isn’t all foliage and flowers. Sharon Arts studio, built in 1888 and established as a park and recreation art center in 1968 offers myriad art classes. It’s lodged between the vintage children’s carousel/ playground and the lawn bowling court on Bowling Green Drive in the eastern section of the park. The park is always filled with bicyclist as well as bike rentals, but plenty of other sport options abound. Volley ball, soccer, roller skating, tennis and boating opportunities are scattered throughout the park. For the peripatetic, Golden Gate Park is a dream. Once past Prayer Book Falls on JFK, the foot crowd thins and splendor prevails with the Circle of Lakes, Spreckels Lake, a small herd of roaming buffalo, and in a mile or two more, the ever-changing multi-colored Queen Wilhelmina’s Windmill Garden. Sit and savor this garden with one of the two Dutch windmills, originally used to pump water, before completing your walk with a view of the Pacific Ocean.
Taking your time: don’t expect to explore Golden Gate Park in a day or week, best to bliss-out on one or two sections rather than rush through this beauty, but if you happen to be in San Francisco in April, you’re invited to Golden Gate Park’s 150 birthday party, a large community celebration beginning April 4 and culminating throughout the year as it honors the park’s cultural, environmental, historical and recreational treasures. In preparation statues have been buffed to gleaming perfection, the open-air music pavilion between the art and science museums is undergoing a spectacular facelift, and an illuminated Ferris wheel for heart-thumping views will make an appearance throughout the festivities. Both the Ferris wheel and the free observatory deck in the DeYoung Museum offer a 360-degree view of Golden Gate Park and San Francisco. This is a birthday party not to be missed. Please be advised that some options may be postponed but the park is open to all and ready to celebrate its bounty.
William Hammond Hall and John McLaren would be proud.
IF YOU GO: For more information on the upcoming celebration check out the Golden Gate Park 150th website with this link. Follow these links for the California-Travel page and for other articles by Stephanie.