What it's like to hike San Francisco's best trail — and its worst – San Francisco Chronicle

On a recent Monday evening, I walked the final leg of San Francisco’s Crosstown Trail, taking in sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge, watching flocks of pelicans fly by, and admiring a stunning sunset from Lands End. It was one of those “I can’t believe I get to live here!” moments.
The next Monday, I walked the paved loop around Lake Merced, leaping in shock at bursts of gunfire from the San Francisco Police Department’s shooting range, hearing the endless drone of loud cars zooming right next to me and feeling defeated by the long line of RVs where homeless people live next to a huge city-owned golf course. I couldn’t wait for the walk to be over.
Two Monday walks — one beautiful, one blah — showed off the best and worst of San Francisco. Call it the Trails of Two Cities.
The Lake Merced Loop runs past traffic, chain-link fences, a gun range and RVs housing homeless people along Lake Merced Boulevard in San Francisco.
The Chronicle’s data team recently crunched rankings from AllTrails.com to determine the best and worst hikes in the Bay Area, and I got to delve into the San Francisco-specific findings.
We’re fortunate to live in a major international city that’s filled with gorgeous trails cutting through parks, over hilltops and alongside beaches — and none of them, according to AllTrails anyway, are bad walks.
Even the Lake Merced Loop, the lowest-rated city hike, still scores just over four stars out of five — or a solid B. Its 4.5 miles of pavement are flat, easy and fine. Like going to Denny’s for breakfast. Forgettable, but it gets the job done.
The Crosstown Trail, on the other hand, scores a 4.7, nearly as high as it gets — making it not only the most popular San Francisco hike, but the ninth-most-beloved hike in the Bay Area. It’s like getting morning croissants at Arsicault Bakery: special, memorable and simply divine.
Conceived by some smart, outdoors-loving San Franciscans, the Crosstown Trail debuted on June 1, 2019, National Trails Day, with the support of small businesses, City Hall and nonprofits. It traverses 17 miles from the southeastern tip of the city to the northwestern one.
The 17-mile Crosstown Trail cuts through Strawberry Hill in Golden Gate Park.
I walked the whole trail over three weekends in the spring, seeing parts of the city I hadn’t explored much before — like the Visitacion Valley Greenway, the trails behind Laguna Honda Hospital and the stately neighborhood of Forest Hill — as well as more famous destinations, like the tiled staircases of Grandview Park, the Rose Garden in Golden Gate Park and Baker Beach.
If you just want a relatively quick taste, the last 3.8-mile stretch is magnificent, cutting through the Presidio, Seacliff and Lands End. On Oct. 17, I got to help lead that portion for Manny Yekutiel’s All Out SF, a weeklong celebration of the city. The walk ended with a picnic of Champagne, cheese, crackers and fruit just as the sky turned a dazzling gold.
“Mother Nature responded to the Eventbrite,” joked Angelina Polselli, events manager at Manny’s. “She said, ‘I know. I heard.’”
Some far more ambitious people than I had walked the entire 17 miles that day, starting in the dark with headlamps at Candlestick Point. One of them was Luke Spray, who co-hosts Roll Over Easy, a Thursday morning community radio show with a very pro-San Francisco vibe. I asked him how he felt after an entire day of hiking.
“Pretty spectacular, and not just because of these amazing cheese plates,” he said, noting he loved seeing how neighborhoods he’d visited before fit together in one long, fun chain across the city. “That’s what this trail does — it continuously gives you surprises.”
Views from the top of the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps along the Crosstown Trail in San Francisco.
Surprises are in short supply on the Lake Merced Loop, which always has the lake on one side and whizzing traffic on the other and is entirely flat.
I take that back — I was surprised by gunfire as I walked past the cops’ shooting range and by the severity of the stench of the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant. (Longtime San Franciscans will remember the 2008 ballot measure to rename the facility after George W. Bush. It failed after opponents pointed out that the name change would unfairly denigrate the sewage treatment plant.)
My walk began in the parking lot to the north of the lake, where a giant statue of colonizer Juan Batista de Anza — bearing a plaque mentioning former Gov. Ronald Reagan — looms overhead, pigeons perching on his hat and covering him in white streaks.
I walked with a friend who’s a very good sport, but we couldn’t hear each other very well over the constant thrum of traffic. The roads around Lake Merced have long been among the city’s most dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists, and we saw a memorial to 14-year-old Madlen Koteva, who was struck and killed by a driver on John Muir Drive in 2019. Fresh flowers, an angel statue and blue butterflies sat at the site of her death.
Hours after I passed by the small memorial, a driver speeding at 60 mph on a nearby residential street in the Sunset struck and killed a woman in a crosswalk, bringing the city’s traffic death tally this year to 29. That’s already more deaths than in all of 2021 and just shy of the 31 deaths in 2014, a figure considered so dire, it prompted city officials to announce Vision Zero, a plan to eliminate traffic deaths by 2024. They’re failing miserably.
The Lake Merced Loop is the lowest-rated trail in San Francisco, according to reviews on AllTrails.com — though it still gets a decent four stars out of five.
Erica Kato, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said Madlen’s death prompted the agency to install three raised crosswalks, which she said have lowered speeds significantly. The agency is working on more improvements in the area.
Around the bend sat another pressing San Francisco issue in sharp relief. Scores of rundown recreational vehicles — with charming, beachy names like SeaBreeze, Sunflyer and Dolphin — were parked along Lake Merced Boulevard, with homeless people living inside them without access to electricity, water or sewage hookups. On the other side of a chain-link fence sat Harding Park Golf Course, 163 acres of city-owned land dedicated to golf and one of five public golf courses in the city. (The city even owns a sixth, located in Pacifica.)
Golfers, get your angry email juices flowing because I’m just going to say it: It’s a bad use of huge expanses of land in a city that desperately needs more housing and a bad use of water in a state grappling with drought.
A flyer for a meeting to discuss a vehicle triage center for the RVs — where inhabitants could access bathrooms, showers and other facilities — flapped under one vehicle’s windshield wiper.
The 4.5-mile Lake Merced Loop in San Francisco is flat and paved — just not particularly scenic.
Emily Cohen, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said the department is “actively looking” for an RV site on the city’s west side. It currently operates just one in the entire city — at Candlestick Point.
Ron, one of the RV inhabitants who declined to give his last name, said he’s been homeless since developing cancer and weathering a nasty divorce. I told the San Francisco native what I was working on and asked his opinion of the Lake Merced Loop.
“It isn’t good — it’s really one of the worst,” he said. “It’s just dull.”
Edwin Brouwer, out for his morning stroll, agreed, calling the trail “just OK.” He said he doesn’t like the loud traffic, but uses it because it’s close to home. To be fair, it also has nice views of Lake Merced, where people paddleboard and Lowell High’s Dragon Boat team practices.
The Lake Merced Loop has at least two defenders: Susie DeSouza and her dog, Mojo, who walk it a couple of times a week.
“We love this trail — we do!” DeSouza said, noting that it’s flat and good for bird-watching. “This is just my basic, quick, easy walk. It gets it done.”
But she said she when has more time, she goes farther afield. Her favorite walking trail? Lands End.
My thoughts, still filled with gorgeous views and a golden sunset, exactly.
Sunset views from Lands End Lookout at the end of the San Francisco Crosstown Trail, as seen on Oct. 24.
Heather Knight is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: hknight@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @hknightsf
Heather Knight is a columnist working out of City Hall and covering everything from politics to homelessness to family flight and the quirks of living in one of the most fascinating cities in the world. She believes in holding politicians accountable for their decisions or, often, lack thereof – and telling the stories of real people and their struggles.
She co-hosts the Chronicle’s TotalSF podcast and co-founded its #TotalSF program to celebrate the wonder and whimsy of San Francisco.