Hiking in Mount Sutro Forest is a different experience than almost anywhere else in San Francisco. It’s heavily shaded under the tall trees. Looking up at the trees, some of which are 100-200 feet high, really gives a sense of being in an old, wonderful place. On a foggy day, it may be the most beautiful place in all the city. The mist wraps the tops of the trees towering overhead while you walk through the trails of a fresh wet forest in its self-contained rain. On weekdays, there are usually few people around, so there’s a sense of splendid isolation amid towering misty trees.
A number of trails go into the woods, from various points around the mountain. Carry a trail map with you, at present there are few maps at the site, though trail markers were added in 2010. If you have a smartphone, Google Maps also shows the main trails.
This map, based on one from OpenStreetMap.org, is good enough for a quick reference. Clicking on it will yield a larger map that can be printed. [Update Feb 2017: The unmarked trail head opposite 101 Christopher Drive has been closed. There’s a new trail that starts next to the pumphouse at Christopher and Forest Knolls Drive; it’s longer and more gradual. We will update the map soon.]
If you are looking for the ethereal cloud-forest experience, pick a foggy day in summer, and go for trails such as the South Ridge Trail, and the top part of the Historic Trail. As a general rule, look for areas where the undergrowth remains dense and the tree canopy exists. Narrower trails are more atmospheric.
The lower part of the Historic trail is quite dry especially around the area where it changes direction from North to West (going downhill). The Fairy Gates Trail, which runs below Medical Center Way past the Chancellor’s house, is one of the driest – it is often dusty even in foggy weather.
Some trails are also accessible to mountain-bikes. (Motorized bikes are not allowed in the forest.) Volunteers at SF Urban Riders help to maintain the trails. The best trails for riding are the Historic Trail and the Fairy Gates trails, others may be too muddy for comfort in foggy weather. (There’s an article here about accessing the Forest from the Forest Knolls neighborhood.)
The Google map’s embedded here to give a sense of the steepness of the slopes:
There’s no stroller or wheelchair access except the paved Nike Road up to the Native Garden (the garden itself has gravel paths, not paved ones). If you want to try that, the best bet is to get a ride into the Aldea campus (to Johnstone and Behr, upper end). A chain blocks further vehicular access, but a wheelchair or stroller could probably get past with assistance. Then it’s paved road with a gradual slope up to just outside the Native Garden, and in fact up to the water tank (the yellow dot below the Garden). For a sense of the forest without actually hiking it, a slow drive down Medical Center Way with windows rolled down is a favorite. The air smells fresh and eucalyptus-y, and the trees tower overhead.
The trails are suitable for older kids, not so much for very little ones who may want to be carried. Some trails – especially Fairy Gates – have steep edges and drops.
Dogs are allowed, though they’re supposed to be leashed. (A plea to dog-people: Please don’t leave plastic baggies of droppings in the forest, they don’t biodegrade even if they’re meant to. They uglify it for everyone else.)
PARKING IS LIMITED
There’s no parking area for the forest; all the parking lots in and around it are for UCSF employees or students. So it’s street parking. Here are the options:
1. Stanyan and 17th. The trailhead starts with a wooden staircase about two houses above the intersection. The area has 2-hour street parking.
2. Clarendon Avenue. This will give access through the Aldea campus to the Fairy Gates Trail or the East Ridge Trail. Parnassus. If you follow Behr Avenue to where it joins the Nike Rd – there’s a chain blocking the road – a new trail starts on the left. (If you park on Clarendon Avenue, be careful to conceal belongings; a number of cars have been broken into.)
3. Christopher or Crestmont. You can usually find unlimited street parking in the neighborhood; the unmarked trailheads start opposite 101 Christopher and 365 Crestmont. These are steep.
4. Edgewood. There’s usually neighborhood street parking somewhere there, and you can access the trailhead at the end of the road.
5. Belgrave. Neighborhood street parking with limited hours. This trail is quite dense; it brings you to the Aldea campus where you can take various other trails.
ENTERING THE FOREST
From the Clarendon Avenue side, trails start within the Forest Knolls neighborhood (street parking) and UCSF’s Aldea Student Housing (no outsider parking).
- The Fairy Gates trail starts just outside the Chancellor’s house on Johnstone.
- The East Ridge Trail starts opposite the new community center further up on Johnstone.
- The paved Nike Road leads up to the Rotary Meadow and Native Garden (a flat open area, at its best in spring), and various trails lead off it.
From Forest Knolls, two trails offer a steep climb up to a cloud-forest environment.
- The South Ridge trail opposite 101 Christopher
- The West Ridge trail opposite 365 Crestmont.
From Medical Center Way, the paved road joining the Aldea campus to Parnassus Avenue.
- The Historic trail
- The North Ridge trail
- The other end of the Fairy Gates trail
- A broad trail (Stanyan Trail, “Kill-trees Trail” connecting Medical Center Way and Stanyan. It ends (or starts) in a staircase just above Stanyan and 17th.
If you’re starting at Parnassus, you can also climb the steps from the bottom of Medical Center Way to the Surge Parking lot.
From Edgewood Avenue (street parking)
- There’s an unnamed (and rather unexciting) trail starting on Farnsworth, at the north end of Edgewood, going through the Surge parking lot. Mainly, it will get you to Medical Center Way.
- At the south end of Edgewood, the lovely-but-steep Woodland Canyon trail connects to Medical Center Way and to Fairy Gates. There’s a seasonal stream that you can sometimes hear in winter running below. This also connects to the trail linking Stanyan and Medical Center Way.
- From Belgrave (time-limited street parking), there’s an access point at the western end of Belgrave. It takes you into the Aldea campus.
CAVEATS AND BEING PREPARED
Waterproof shoes. It’s almost always damp in there, even on a sunny day. On a foggy one, slush on the trails is normal and unavoidable. Wear shoes that can cope. There aren’t many puddles, even on a foggy day, but some of the trails get very wet and muddy indeed.
Update 2010: Some trails are now so wide with undergrowth removal that they can be dry, even dusty. In this condition, on sunny days they become slippery from dust, dry leaves, and gravel, particularly on slopes.
Long pants and long-sleeved clothes. It’s seldom warm enough to be comfortable in short-sleeved clothing. It also helps against poison oak. On foggy days, dress warm and wear rain-gear. Even if it’s dry outside, it will be raining in some areas of the forest.
Allow for mud. If it’s a foggy day, clothes can get muddy. Especially if you kneel down to get photos like the one above.
Stay on the trails. This protects both the forest, and the hiker. Poison oak is an issue. Though not as rampant as in more sunny areas, it is also more difficult to spot amid the greenery.
Careful on very stormy days. Many times, when it’s windy on the bare hills like Twin Peaks, there’s not much of a wind in the forest; the trees block it. But if it’s stormy, there could be falling branches – especially in more open areas of the forest and along the edges.