Natural Highs

"Take anything from us — our cable cars, our bridges, even our bay — but leave us our hills" Herb Caen,1959

Herb Caen was right, of course; the hills are the wind beneath the wings of this city. They make our skyline more striking; they separate our city into unique neighborhoods; they are the reason we have cable cars, and their topography shapes and shifts the fog into wisps and whispers as it drifts in from the Pacific. They also give us needed exercise, and they provide us with eye-popping views. Even a modest apartment like ours is made special by the view we have from our perch on the side of Russian Hill.

There are about 50 hills in San Francisco. Wikipedia lists, and gives the names and elevations, of 47 them. The smallest is Rincon Hill at 100 feet; the tallest is Mt. Davidson at 925 feet. Several of the hills provide wonderful views of the city, bay and beyond. Here are some favorites:

03) From Russian Hill (Can PS S50-5254)

Telegraph Hill

Although it’s only 275-foot high, Telegraph Hill is easily San Francisco’s most beautiful hill. It has great views of the city, waterfront, and bay, but the hill itself is also picture perfect. The earth-tone homes ambling up its sides remind me of Tuscany, and the staircases — and the gardens they meander through — are enchanting, especially the Marchant garden along the Filbert Steps. Then there’s Pioneer Park at the top with its crown of cypress and eucalyptus trees. The trees provide a peaceful, secluded setting, and they also provide habitat for a flock of wild green parrots. And if all that isn’t enough, the hill is topped with our most graceful landmark, Coit Tower.

Telegraph Hill got its name in the mid 1800s when a semaphore was placed on the hill to signal the arrival of ships through the Golden Gate. The top five acres of Telegraph Hill were established as Pioneer Park in 1876; Coit Tower was added in 1933.

04) Telegraph Hill (28Z-1-209)


To get there, take the #39 Coit bus from North Beach or walk one of the flights of steps (Greenwich or Filbert). Parking at the top is very limited and, frankly, the road to the top doesn’t need more traffic.


01) Telegraph Hill (28Z-8-468)02) Telegraph Hill (28Z-8-463)

«««« View of the Bay from Telegraph Hill

«««« View of the Alcatraz from Telegraph Hill

05) Russian Hill (28Z-8-501)

Russian Hill

Russian Hill takes its name from a gold rush era Russian cemetery that once sat at the top of the hill. Now the hill is mostly a residential neighborhood. The crooked section of Lombard Street is on Russian Hill and both the Powell and Mason cable car lines run up and down Russian Hill. There are views of the city and bay from almost anywhere on this 294-foot high hill; the most popular are along Hyde Street — especially at Lombard.


07) Twin Peaks from GV Park (28Z-8-407)06) Twin Peaks (28Z-7-525)

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks is easily the best known of San Francisco’s hills. At 922 feet, it is second in height only to Mount Davidson. The Peaks sit smack dab in the middle of San Francisco and offer spectacular views of the city and the Bay Area. It’s a popular recreation area for hikers, photographers and bird watchers. It’s also a very popular tourist attraction. The vista point provides a 270-degree view on the city and bay. A climb to the top of “pechos de la choca” (breasts of the Indian maiden) expands the view to 360-degrees and includes the Pacific Ocean.

Twin Peaks is flanked on all sides by residential neighborhoods, but fortunately the top 34 acres have been preserved and restored as a natural area. It’s also a protected area for native plants and the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly. It’s home to several bird species and some not-so-endangered species like raccoons, skunks, and opossums.

The San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department has a brochure of the Twin Peaks natural area that provides more information and a map that includes the trails. Click here to download a copy.


09) Grandview Park 2 (28Z-8-440)

Grandview Park (Larsen’s Peak)

Although not the highest point in San Francisco, Grandview Park provides the best 360-degree views. This tiny one-acre park in the Sunset District is perched atop 666-foot Larsen’s Peak, or, as the locals call it, Turtle Hill.

After climbing the stairs to the top, walk the trail that circles the crown of the hill. There are amazing views in every direction. You can see the Pacific Ocean, Seal Rock, the Golden Gate Bridge towers, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate Park, the Bay, downtown, Mt. Sutro, Twin Peaks, and more.

Amenities at this park consist of a lone bench at the very top of the hill and a couple of metal signs that identify the hill’s flora and fauna and describe its geology. This hill is one of a string of four dune islands — remnants of the original sand dunes that once covered this area. The exposed bedrock is Franciscan chert: sedimentary rock that was formed in an ancient tropical seabed. The hill is crowned with Monterey Cypress and eucalyptus trees, and the surrounding park provides a protected habitat “for the endangered dune tansy and Franciscan wallflower.”

Fresh air, exercise, wildflowers, and sweeping views are more than enough reason to visit Grandview Park, but there’s more. If you take the #66 Quintara bus to 16th Avenue and Moraga Street, you’ll find yourself at the bottom of the amazing mosaic staircase. To get to Grandview Park from here, climb the mosaic stairs, take a second short stairway up the retaining wall, then, off to the right, climb the winding wooden stairway to the top. And, when you have time, visit the other three dune islands: The Rocks, Golden Gate Heights Park, and Hawk Hill.

10) Mt. Davidson (28Z-2-354)11) Mt. Davidson (28Z-2-143)

Mount Davidson

I included Mount Davidson in my “Take a Hike” blog last summer, so if this sounds like a repeat — well it is.

At a whopping 925 feet, Mount Davidson is the highest natural point in San Francisco. Its slopes are covered with residential neighborhoods, but, thankfully, the top 40 acres have been preserved as a park and are open to the public. There are no facilities. In fact, we didn’t even find a sign, but there are multiple trails leading to the top. The #36 Teresita bus drops you just a few feet from one of the trails. It’s uphill all the way, but it’s less than half a mile – so it’s an easy walk.

In addition to the walk through the small but lovely cypress and eucalyptus forest, there are two reasons to go to the top of Mount Davidson: the view and the cross. The view is sweeping and stunning. You overlook the entire city and much of San Francisco Bay and beyond. You can see Oakland and Mt. Diablo and much more. At the summit, an enormous 103-foot concrete cross stands at one end of a small open area. The cross is a popular site for sunrise Easter services and has been since the 1920s. Both Mount Davidson and the cross have a long and interesting history.


When it comes to places to see sweeping views of the city and bay, these are the big five. There are other important hills in the city — Nob, Potrero, and Corona Heights, for example — and they will find their way into future blogs.



Giving credit where credit is due: 

City of Hills - By Tom Graham, November 7, 2004

Grandview Park and the Mosaic Stairway - By Gail Todd, February 14, 2008

Mount Davidson  - By Gail Todd, July 2, 2009


© Virginia E. Vail 2012