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Alcatraz at Night: View of the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. Photos by Will McGough.

A Walking Tour of San Francisco: Urban Hiking at Its Best

How does the saying go? It’s the journey, not the destination?

I wonder how many people buy into that as it relates to travel – I feel a lot of vacationers would disagree with the saying, even with today’s conveniences. Not many people enjoy cramped flights, long drives.

And seriously – when you ask someone how their trip was, it’s very rare that they begin by explaining how the plane ride stole the show. In fact, it’s the destination that inspires most people to put up with the hassles of traveling, not the other way around.

It’s a little different for us nomadic ones –- we don’t separate the two, the journey and the destination – it’s all rolled into one.

Planning my trip to San Francisco from Southern California (Santa Barbara), I decided to drive instead of fly (I wanted to have a car in the city). Once I committed to the drive, I was presented with two options: Five hours of going straight on Highway 101 or eight hours of twists and turns on Highway 1 (coast).

I could talk about other sayings, something about the road less traveled – but I’ll leave that for high school graduation commencements.

Santa Barbara to San Francisco: Best Drive of My Life (Thus Far)

I picked up Route 1 in San Luis Obispo and took it through Morrow Bay, then drove past Hearst Castle and the famous elephant seal breeding grounds in San Simeon.

Highway One near San Simeon
Highway One near San Simeon

The cool thing about the drive (other than the constant ocean view) is that you hop from small town to small town, each with its own swagger – from the outdoor paradise that is Big Sur to the $9.50 toll to drive through Pebble Beach.

I found an awfully nice spot for a bite and a drink – it’s called Nepenthe and it’s right on Highway One in Big Sur and overlooks the beautiful water, the jagged cliffs and the waves that crash into them.

A coffee, a beer, brunch, lunch, or dinner, it doesn’t matter –- stop in and check this place out as you pass through.

Once that mellows you out, cruise up further into Big Sur and check out Pfeiffer State Park. There are beautiful trails through the thick, burly redwoods (which, FYI, are 500-700 years old), and I did a quick hike (about a mile round-trip) to Pfeiffer Falls.

Tip: It’s ten dollars to enter for the day, but you can park on the side of Highway One and walk in for free. There is a turnout just past the park entrance on the left.

Highway One near Big Sur
Highway One near Big Sur

As I walked out of the park and back to the car, the breeze was blowing in off the cool Pacific water, passing through the pines along the rocky coast – the air crisp and smelling clean and fresh as if it was winter, as if it wasn’t in the seventies and I wasn’t sweating from the hike.

I would recommend something like this when tackling this drive – something to get you out of the car and into the breathtaking display of nature.

I mean – it doesn’t make sense to take the scenic route and rush.

Urban Hiking: Rock Your Camelback Over Concrete

I started in Union Square and walked up Mason Street to the top of Russian Hill, then turned left on Filbert and walked uphill to Hyde Street. It was absolutely stunning how the view changed with each block – around every corner was a glimpse of something spectacular: Portraits of Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge, Telegraph Hill, and the Golden Gate Bridge -– not to mention the rolling hills of the city, the Victorian-style houses descending downward from my vantage point.

View of Golden Gate Bridge from Russian Hill
View of Golden Gate Bridge from Russian Hill

It was urban hiking at its finest – a really interesting experience for me. It made exploring the city a pleasure – the view from the top gave me great perspective.

I hiked around for about two hours – once on Hyde Street I walked north to Lombard St (this is the top of the “most crooked” section of the street). Lots of tourists, but worth a quick stop – it’s truly something I’ve not found in any other city.

I had worked up a bit of a thirst and appetite, and I walked south on Hyde, crossing over Filbert and wandering into the Nob Hill area of the city (see map of neighborhoods).

I stopped in at the Hydeout – a totally local corner bar where everyone seemed to know the bartender. I was accepted and chatted with the locals and enjoyed an Anchor Steam (local San Fran beer).

They didn’t serve food, though, and I was forced to continue my journey. At the recommendation of the bartender at Hydeout, I pulled up a stool at the counter of Nob Hill Grille and had a lamb burger with pico de gallo, cucumber slices, avocado, and spicy aioli.

View of the San Francisco skyline from Alcatraz
View of the San Francisco skyline from Alcatraz

Two thumbs up – the locals were coming in and out, ordering lunch to go – but I hung around and chatted with the server.

When I told her I was going to visit Alcatraz later that night, she was surprised. She said she thought it would be too scary at night.

Alcatraz at Night: If You Do One Touristy Thing…

Although it would have been appropriate if the server was correct (given my visit’s proximity to Halloween), that simply was not the case.

“Alcatraz at Night” is much more than a tour and an amazing experience – but far from a haunted house.

It’s true what the prisoners said: The real torture of Alcatraz was looking out the window and seeing the skyline, the dazzling bridges – hearing the sounds of freedom blow across the bay.

Welcome to Alcatraz
Welcome to Alcatraz

The boat ride to and from Alcatraz Island was almost worth the ticket price it itself ($49) – we left at sunset and watched it nestle down behind the Golden Gate Bridge. The lights of the Bay Bridge began to glow, and Telegraph Hill looked incredible against the purple colors of the darkening sky.

As for the on-island experience, I enjoyed the audio tour. It was a little crowded in the jailhouse, but not overwhelming – you can predict the flow of things and get some space when needed (and you can pause the tour and restart it later if you want). The tour lasts about an hour, and then you are free to roam around and check out the property.

After you hear some of the stories on the audio tour, I suggest you go sit outside, take in the views from the island. Maybe think about how insane it was that the correctional officers’ families (children included) lived right there on the island –- steps away from America’s most dangerous criminals.

Golden Gate Park provides plenty of places to find peace.
Golden Gate Park provides plenty of places to find peace.

Golden Gate Park: Central Park’s Big Brother?

Pop quiz: What are the three most visited city parks in the United States? New York's Central Park (30 million visitors/year), Chicago's Lincoln Park (20 million/year), and Golden GatePark (13 million/year).

Easy, right? But here’s something I didn’t know: Golden Gate is larger than Central Park (as is Lincoln Park).

New York gets all the love –- but the city by the bay stands tall, offering more comfortable weather and a sprawling park that dead-ends into the ocean.

There are a lot of noisy things in the eastern section: The California Academy of Science, Japanese Tea Garden, flower conservatory, other museums, etc.

View from the stage at the B.R. Cohn Winery
View from the stage at the B.R. Cohn Winery

The real joy, though, is the ability to completely escape the city – to feel like you aren’t surrounded by concrete. Stow Lake (dead center of park) was enjoyable to walk around, plenty of benches and not overcrowded. And the further west you walk, the more you interact with the inviting landscape.

Final fact: There are over a 1,000,000 trees in Golden Gate Park.

B.R. Cohn: Rock ‘n’ Roll in Wine Country

All right – maybe sipping wine on a white tablecloth isn’t your thing – but how about vibing out to a classic rock show hosted by the manager of the Doobie Brothers surrounded by the vistas of the Sonoma Valley wine country?

Unfortunately, I just missed the annual charity event this year at B.R. Cohn Winery in
Glen Ellen (it was in September). The lineup? Doobie Brothers, Sammy Hagar, Joe Satriani, LynyrdSkynyrd, among others, all performing on a stage that overlooks the rolling hills of grapes.

The wine was fantastic (the dessert wines especially), but something tells me if you check out next year’s show (Oct. 6 and 7, 2012), the booze will be the last thing on your mind.

Cheers!

 

Will McGough

 


Will McGough is a freelance writer and GoNOMAD travel blogger who lives in Santa Barbara, California. He covers travel and writes fiction on his website, wakeandwander.com

 

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