The San Francisco Crosstown Trail, a newly imagined 17-mile hiking and biking route that cuts like a sash across the city from northwest to southeast, is a journey through the city’s green spaces. First proposed in the city’s 2014 General Plan as a way to connect natural parks to each other for an “urban wildlife trail experience,” the route came together over a year of committee meetings in 2018. The trail opened, though without signs, in May 2019.
Explore the Crosstown Trail
The Route: 17 miles through San Francisco’s green space.
The Draw: An urban wildlife experience.
To follow it, you’ll need to refer carefully to cue sheets written by the route’s creators and available to print or follow in the OuterSpatial app—cues like, “About 20 yards farther on the right you will see two yellow signs’ and “Walk up this ‘no through’ street and a few yards later, ascend stairs embedded in a concrete wall on your right. Bear left as you ascend.”
Or you can keep your head up and accept some missteps.
I walked the entirety of the trail in the fall, and I admit I missed a couple of cues here and there and added a few extra miles. The reward, though, of 20 miles and ten hours of connected trekking across the city is a spectacular look at the variety that makes San Francisco unlike anywhere else on earth. Also, a whole lot of postcard-worthy views.
The organizers split the trail into five segments, though you can walk or bike it in any order and there’s no strong reason to follow it precisely or even tackle it whole.
»Segment one runs from Sunrise Point in Candlestick State Park to Glen Canyon Park. Along the way it takes in the buzzing, delightful Visitacion Valley Greenway, McLaren Park’s twisting, intellectual Philosopher’s Way, and the veggie beds at the city’s largest urban farm.
»Segment two covers Glen Canyon, where you can stand in the geographic center of San Francisco on a boardwalk over the freshwater wetland of Islais Creek, listening to migratory birds calling in the willows overhead.
»Segment three zigzags around three spectacular view parks—Golden Gate Heights, Rocky Outcrop, and Grandview—where you can catch limitless panoramas of the Bay, the ocean, and downtown; the segment starts or ends with the famed 16th Avenue Tiled Steps and their cousin, the less famed but nearly as beautiful Hidden Garden Steps.
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»Segment four runs from the strip of restaurants on Irving Street east and west of 19th Avenue through a brief natural-highlights tour of Golden Gate Park—Stow Lake and its island, the Pioneer Cabin and Prairie Meadow, the Rose Garden—and out to the gently undulating wind-blocking Park Presidio greenway.
»Segment five encompasses the stunningly restored Lobos Creek Valley in the Presidio, the postcard arc of Baker Beach, the mansions of Sea Cliff, and the tourist throngs hiking Lands End overlooking the gently rolling Pacific.
At a time when the identity of San Francisco is a national political matter—has run-amok late capitalism reduced the city to a playground for the ultra-rich? Has run-amok progressive politics made it a dirty hellhole where no one is safe?—it felt particularly relevant (to me) to spend hours and hours just walking through the city. And yet on this 17-mile Crosstown Trail you cross so few of the things people talk about on Twitter. The route veers as widely away from the tech company towers as it does from the Tenderloin.
It left me wondering: Is the Crosstown Trail, sampling so many habitats and watersheds over such a distance, a vision of “real” San Francisco—or an escape from it?