McLaren Park’s Beautiful, Open Space an S.F. Jem

 McLaren Park has something for everyone – two dog ponds keep K-9s gleeful, miles of mountain-biking trails keep the adventurous entertained, playgrounds keep little kids laughing, and benches abound for the pedestrians to stop and take in their surroundings.

The 312-acre park, often touted as San Francisco’s “hidden gem” or “undiscovered park,”  has been enjoyed for generations. On any given Saturday, the park is filled with dog walkers, kids testing physics on the playground’s monkey bars, hikers and photographers – all the park’s neighbors from the Excelsior, Portola and Visitacion Valley. Dogs of all sizes splash and swim in the upper dog pond among the koi fish and great blue herons.

Luci enjoys McLaren Park Photo by Olympia Francis Taylor '18

Luci enjoys McLaren Park
Photo by Olympia Francis Taylor ’18

More and more, the park’s natural and undisturbed beauty have drawn in nature-lovers from all corners of the Bay Area. Bird-watchers and photographers, in search of new subjects,  find photogenic animals and lush landscapes within the park’s hills.

The enduring beauty of the area traces back to the park’s roots. In the early 1900s, the park’s modern vicinity hosted small family farms. In the 1920s, as the explosion of population pushed San Franciscans Southward, the Excelsior, Portola and Visitacion Valley districts developed. Alarmed by the rapid housing developments, local activists took up the cause of preserving the area’s beauty with the slogan “Our People Need This Breathing Space.” The ballot measure to preserve the area lost, but the land was preserved by the Board of Supervisors, who in 1929 dedicated the park to John McLaren (the incredible activist who founded Golden Gate Park).

The Philosopher’s Trail, a well-loved highlight of the park, opened in 2012 and winds through the park’s forests and meadows, presenting 360 degree views. It features several ‘musing stations’ where hikers can catch their breath, take in the skyline, and reflect on the beautiful quote placards placed into rough-hewn stone markers that keep you on trail.

But despite McLaren Park’s pulchritude (beauty), most people not living on the South side of the city have never heard of San Francisco’s second-largest park. Contrary to the much-adored Golden Gate Park, McLaren Park is mostly visited by nearby fitness-lovers and dog savvy locals.

Still, the visitor numbers in McLaren Park are ever growing.  McLaren Heights resident Carlin DeCato states that over her 24 years living next to the park, interest and visitors have increased dramatically. Part of the reason, DeCato cites, is because of the gradual exposure of the park in local newspapers, as well as San Francisco’s increased obsession with dogs and the enduring search for off-leash dog areas in  the city.

McLaren Park has seven miles of walking trails Photo by Olympia Francis Taylor

McLaren Park has seven miles of walking trails
Photo by Olympia Francis Taylor

One big problem continues to loom over the park: a lack of funding. Despite McLaren Park’s natural beauty, some of the man-made infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and the park is not wheelchair accessible in certain areas because of the cracked and mottled pavement.

Part of the reason, as McLaren Heights resident DeCato sees it, is because of the arduous process all potential improvements to the park must go through. Land in McLaren Park is divided between or jointly owned by San Francisco Parks and Recreation, San Francisco Department of Public Works, and the San Francisco Water Department (in the case of the iconic blue water tower).

Any improvement to the park must go through many people: the McLaren Park advocacy groups (Help McLaren Park and Save McLaren Park), the supervisors of the neighborhood that the improvement will affect (the park spans two), and is finally carried out by Parks and Recreation and hardworking volunteers.

But as the number of visitors to the park has increased, so has the number of improvements. In particular, the  Mansell Corridor Project underway creates walking and bike lanes to link the park’s North and South side.

Phil Ginsburg, the general manager of San Francisco Parks and Recreation, explained that “the project involves converting Mansel from four lanes to two lanes, and it will make room for pedestrian walkways and bike lanes all the way from the eastern to the western part of the park. Pedestrian signs and wayfinding signs will be added so that people can navigate the park. It is going to be transformational for the park. Of all the projects that are happening in McLaren park – and there are a lot of them, including the bike ramp, the playground, trail work – the Mansell Corridor Project may be the single project that truly fulfills the promise and the potential of McLaren Park.” DeCato is also enthusiastic about the project, explaining that it will bring a “Crissy Field to this side of the city.” The project is expected to be completed in Fall, 2016.

Hopefully, the rest of the Bay Area will soon discover the ‘undiscovered beauty’ of the park. There will be lots of locals to point you to the Philosophers Trail – or the labyrinth, perhaps.

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