In a city famous for its hills, San Francisco’s highest peak, 938-foot Mount Davidson, remains largely unknown to both city residents and visitors alike. Yet for those of us living in the patchwork of residential neighborhoods that cluster around it, collectively referred to as “West of Twin Peaks,” Mount Davidson is a familiar part of the landscape and a treasured refuge from city living.
Thanks to its obscure location in San Francisco’s foggy south-western quadrant, Mount Davidson is a quiet and peaceful place, free from the busloads of view-seekers that descend upon popular tourist sites like Coit Tower and Twin Peaks. Most days, you will find only a handful of locals on its wooded trails: runners, cyclists, parents, kids, dogs and nature lovers of all stripes.
I’ve been coming to Mount Davidson on a regular basis ever since we moved to San Francisco in 2008, our home about one mile away from its base. It’s a favorite spot of mine to walk and clear my mind, most recently on a warm and sunny day earlier this week.
Leaving my house in Mount Davidson Manor — which, oddly enough, neither borders nor has views of its namesake — I set an uphill course on foot through Monterey Heights and into San Francisco’s tiniest neighborhood, Sherwood Forest. The homes along the way are an eclectic architectural mix ranging from mid-century modern ranch houses to stately Tudor-style mansions, many perched on steep hillsides overlooking the sometimes hazy, often foggy, but today sparkling blue Pacific Ocean.
I pause briefly to watch the progress of construction workers at a vacant lot possessing such a view; the $2,100,000 house that used to be there unfortunately had to be demolished when it started to slide down the hill over a year ago.
I’m hot, sweaty and out of breath by the time I reach the top of Robinhood Drive, an exceptionally steep street even by San Francisco standards, which then dips down gradually to the Mount Davidson park trailhead at Lansdale Avenue and Dalewood Way.
It’s a relief to enter the cool shade of the forest with its thick canopy of soaring eucalyptus and cypress trees, the air fresh and earthy. The forest floor is a tangle of lush, green growth, rejuvenated by seven months of heavy, drought-busting winter rains: feathery ferns, creeping ivy and large sprays of pale blue forget-me-nots with their tiny yellow centers. Birds flutter and sing through the trees and I hear the distinctive chip sound of an Anna’s hummingbird, a year-round inhabitant of the forest.
These trees, however, are not native to San Francisco, owing their existence largely to children. Formerly named Blue Mountain for the lupine, irises and California lilac that grew there, Mount Davidson was treeless until the 1880’s, when its then owner, San Francisco real estate mogul, Adolph Sutro, recruited schoolchildren to plant saplings on its western slopes. Among the diverse species he planted, the Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus, known as “California’s tallest weed” has proved to be the hardiest, now dominating Mount Davidson’s forest.
When the mountain and its trees came under threat of development in the 1920’s, it was again schoolchildren, led by the president of the Commodore Sloat Elementary School PTA (a position I currently hold!), Maddie Brown, who saved them. The story goes that Maddie arranged for students to flood a San Francisco Board of Supervisors hearing with wildflowers gathered from Mount Davidson, convincing the city to block the development plans and later take steps to make the mountain a city park.
A battle is once again underway over the fate of Mount Davidson’s trees. As part of a larger plan for managing the city’s natural areas that aims to restore native habitats, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department plans to cut down 1,600 of Mount Davidson’s eucalyptus trees in the coming years. Neighborhood activists and other opponents of the plan, however, question the city’s “native plant agenda” saying it would dramatically transform the look and feel of Mount Davidson for the worse and have numerous other negative consequences.
While the issues involved are complex and I cannot claim to fully understand them, it makes me sad to think about the loss of so many of the majestic trees that make this place so special. Foreign invaders though they may be, no one can deny the beauty and serenity they provide.
I continue up the dirt path through a tunnel of leafy blackberry brambles to a flat, open area at the top of the hill. As always, the view from here, stretching from Mount Tamalpais in Marin, across downtown San Francisco, through Oakland and over to San Bruno Mountain to the south, forces me to stop, stare and try out the pano feature on my iPhone for a few long minutes. On the rocky hillside below, clusters of cheerful California poppy burst orange amid the grass. No matter how many times I come here, the scenery never gets old.
The huge, white cross on Mount Davidson’s summit is not new to me either, but I nevertheless walk over to take a closer look at it this morning. Shooting up through the trees a short walk from the vista area, this 103-foot concrete and steel structure and the land around it was purchased by the Council of Armenian Organizations for Northern California in 1997, after its ownership by the city was ruled by courts to violate California law.
It is the fifth in a series of crosses originally built here during the 1920’s and 1930’s, this one constructed in 1934. A small plaque at its base memorializes the 1.5 million victims of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, and today is covered with wilting flower wreaths brought here on Armenian Genocide Memorial Day a couple weeks ago.
Before leaving the woods and heading back out into the warm sunshine, I take a moment to look up into the trees one last time and breath deeply in the peace and quiet. Being in nature always has a way of lifting my spirits. How lucky am I, a non-native myself, to live in a city where I can walk to such a place and enjoy Pacific Ocean views on the way back home? Very, very lucky indeed.