A morning outing to Lands End provides about as much wilderness as can be found in San Francisco; the beauty is so stunning, it's easy to miss the ghosts. But walk a few minutes under the thick mantle of Monterey cypress and they'll appear. Prop yourself against the crumbling walls of a concrete pillbox on Mile Rock Beach and watch the fog slide like gray silk over the Marin Headlands. Listen for black oystercatchers whistling on the rocks, just beyond the protruding spar of a shipwrecked freighter. Search for coyote prints and blooming irises behind the torn-metal monument to the USS San Francisco, battered but unsunk at Guadalcanal.
The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy has been raising a few more of those ghosts. A new amphitheater and trailhead opened last fall at Merrie Way, which hosted an amusement park in the late 1800s, among the diversions that stretched from Fleishhacker Pool to the Sutro Baths. Interpretive signs also memorialize a steam train that carried visitors to these western dunes. Now the conservancy is planning diversions of a different kind: Over the coming months, staff and volunteers will plant 20,000 native plants to improve wildlife habitat.
The human-made amusements have long since succumbed to fires and mud slides and encroaching populace, but their ghosts, along with others from a bygone San Francisco, are still here, amid the cypress and the blowing fog.
Getting there: Take the Great Highway north past the Cliff House. Parking available at Lands End and Fort Miley.
Hike by David Carroll, originally published in the January 2009 issue of Bay Nature magazine