Tom Rates Hills: Buena Vista
This is the first of a series of San Francisco hill reviews. Buena Vista is my neighborhood hill, only a few blocks from my apartment in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood. I’ll answer the question of whether it’s any good, and then proceed to cover as many of San Francisco’s 42 hills as I can.
Buena Vista is named ‘Good View’ in Spanish, and it just about delivers on that name. Compared to the top-of-the-world, unobstructed views from Bernal Heights or Twin Peaks, the narrow window through which you can peer out into the rest of the city feels different, and much less epic. In any other city, it’d be a centerpiece, but in San Francisco mostly it makes me imagine what the hill was like before the many trees were planted, almost entirely obscuring the rest of the world once you enter the park. I appreciate the trees for that, that it feels like a park you’re in, not just on.
The park is heavily seeded with coast live oak, cypress, a little bit of redwood. All of them are beautiful, even if they’re almost all introduced on purpose and bear some of the hallmarks of human planning – right now, that means that too many of the trees are roughly the same age.
Buena Vista contains quite a few of the controversial, easily-recognizable eucalyptus trees. You can see quite a few stumps from trees already removed from the park.
There are a few good secrets in the park. As detailed in 99% Invisible’s episode The Modern Necropolis, Buena Vista’s paths are lined with headstones from relocated gravesites, some of which were carelessly placed face-up and still show the names and dates of people previously buried in SF.
Beyond trees, there’s a great variety of flora in the park, like these wild Himalayan blackberries.
What kind of flowers are these? I’m not sure.
Another novelty of this park is just how unexpectedly big it is. Even people who live in San Francisco have been surprised how this friendly neighborhood hill is around 570 feet tall - even taller than Bernal Heights.
Plus Buena Vista is made of sand. I read this in the 2011 SF Recreation & Parks review: the hill is made almost entirely of Sirdrak sand. I’ve walked up it many times by now, and though I noticed the sand, but never imagined that it could be made of sand. It’s made of sand.
Buena Vista is not a great park for running. The longest path you can chart across the hill is barely a half mile, and many of the routes to the top involve stairs. I walk up this hill really often but only run it when it’s on the way to something else - there’s not much satisfaction in tackling such a high grade to lose all the elevation immediately.
I highly recommend this hill for sandwich eating. If you can claim the bench at the top of the hill, it’s one of the best view + eatability combinations you can achieve. Even if you can’t get that golden bench, there are plenty of places near the top to eat a sandwich.
It’s also very accessible from a sandwich shop — I recommend Dragon Eats in the Haight for an excellent vegetarian Banh Mi.
Buena Vista is a unusual neighborhood gem. The trees, the very sandwich-friendly bench, and its multiple novelty points make it a solid choice for showing out-of-town folks a bit of San Francisco. I really recommend reading this 2011 project review PDF from the SF Recreation & Parks department if you want to dive deep into the very neat ecology and geology of the place.