After we booked our hotel for long, family weekend getaway to San Francisco for Jerry Day, it was up to me to find us some fun things to do…
Not a difficult task when you’re researching family-friendly San Francisco activities, especially with so many world famous tourist sites in the city. But this time it wasn’t so easy. While I love Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghiradelli Square, Alcatraz, Coit Tower, The Ferry Building, Union Square, and all the other go-to San Francisco spots, Brian doesn’t. He didn’t want to do any of the typical touristy stuff on this trip.
There were only two things we knew we wanted to do:
- Visit the California Academy of Sciences
- Go to Jerry Day at McLaren Park
Everything else was up in the air. So I got to work looking for hidden San Francisco attractions and secret spots that would be cool to check out — I wanted to find things we had never done in the city before. After lots of googling, I decided that we would spend one day exploring the Lands End Area and one day exploring Golden Gate Park, and the minute I found out there was a waterfall somewhere in the park, I knew it was going on our list of day trip stops.
Waterfall In Golden Gate Park
Huntington Falls is a 110 foot waterfall that cascades down Strawberry Hill and spills into the man-made Stow Lake. It was the first of two artificial waterfalls in Golden Gate Park.
John McLaren, park superintendent at the time, came up with the plan to incorporate artificial lakes, waterways, and waterfalls in Golden Gate Park after hiking in the Sierras with naturalist John Muir. Huntington Falls was his first project. It was named for Collis P. Huntington, one of the Big Four railroad barons who donated $25,000 to fund the waterfall’s construction. By 1962, Huntington Falls has fell into disrepair and were left that way until a 1984 restoration project costing $846,000 was spearheaded by then Mayor Dianne Feinstein.
Located near the Chinese Pavilion, the lower portion of Huntington Falls plunges off a ledge into the lake, making the rock trail at the base of the waterfall a great spot for photos. Two saircases lead visitors up the sides of the waterfall to a wooden bridge that spans the falls just below the upper cascade. You get a great view of the paddle boats on the lake from the bridge.
Strawberry Hill Island
Strawberry Hill Island is a wooded hill in the middle of Golden Gate Park’s Stow Lake, named for the wild strawberries that once flourished on its flanks. It’s also a great place for family-friendly hiking!
Hiking in Golden Gate Park? Well, it’s more walking than hiking, but you’re still outdoors, getting some exercise:
- There is a pretty flat Lakeshore Trail that wraps all the way around the lake. It was gorgeous and sunny while we were there, so we saw several people running on the trail, families pushing strollers, and others sitting on the benches, watching the birds, turtles, and ducks.
- There is also a trail and staircases on Strawberry Hill, the island in the center of Stow Lake, that take you to the summit. The climb to the summit of Strawberry Hill is quite beautiful, and while mostly obstructed by large trees, it does have fantastic views of San Francisco.
The highest point in Golden Gate Park, at more than 400 feet is Strawberry Hill’s summit. It can be a fantastic, quiet, peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of the noisy city — but that is only when there isn’t a big party with noisy party guests being held at the picnic area, which is what we were lucky enough to find. We just ignored the party and walked the perimeter of the summit, glimpsing through the trees, Mount Tamalpais, the Golden Gate Bridge, and
Also atop Strawberry Hill, you’ll find the old ruins of the Sweeny Observatory. The observatory, which was more of a vista point, was built in 1891 with a grant from wealthy landowner Thomas U. Sweeney. Horse-drawn carriages brought visitors around the lake and up to the observatory to enjoy panoramic views of Golden Gate Park and San Francisco (before trees blocked the view). This tourism continued until the Sweeny Observatory was destroyed in the great 1906 earthquake.
Stow Lake, Golden Gate Park’s largest body of water, is a man-made lake that was created in 1893. Designed for leisure boating, as a promenade for horse-drawn carriages, and as a reservoir for park irrigation, the 12-acre doughnut-shaped lake surrounds Strawberry Hill Island.
The Lakeshore Trail winds around the lake’s perimeter, passing:
- Huntington Falls, a 110-foot artificial waterfall that cascades down Strawberry Hill
- The Golden Gate Pavilion, a Chinese pagoda presented to San Francisco by its sister city Taipei in 1976 as an act of friendship and cultural respect
- Two bridges: the Stone Rustic Bridge, built in 1893, and the Roman Bridge that connect the Lakeshore Trail to Strawberry Hill Island
Today, Stow Lake is a popular spot for families, fitness buffs, outdoor enthusiasts, and picnickers. Stow Lake Boathouse, on the lake’s north shore, rents pedal boats, water bikes, and row boats. It also has a snack bar. The current building, built in 1946, replaced the original 1893 boathouse.
Know Before You Go
- Huntington Falls is located at 50 Stow Lake Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118. It cascades down Strawberry Hill and empties into Stow Lake.
- The closest restrooms are located at the Stow Lake Boathouse at the bottom of the north side of the lake.
- The staircases flanking the waterfall and the hiking trails to the top of Strawberry Hill are easy and family-friendly.
- Consider packing a picnic to enjoy at atop the Strawberry Hill summit, in the Golden Gate Pavilion, or on one of the benches along the Lakeshore Trail as you watch the ducks, turtles, and birds.
- Parking can be sort of crazy, so arrive in the morning, visit mid-week, or just walk on over from your parking spot elsewhere in Golden Gate Park.