Tom Rates Hills: Billy Goat Hill
I’ve long thought of Billy Goat Hill as being the Bernal Heights of Noe Valley: an anchor for a neighborhood. Whereas Bernal rises above the flat, low-built Mission, Noe crashes into Billy Goat, the hill just being the culmination of the neighborhood’s exponential incline.
Like Bernal, Billy Goat is a very functional hill. I’ve never seen it empty. It’s always a little meeting place for people catching up with friends or going on walks with children. It’s a pretty recent addition – only established 1975 – but a relatively successful one.
My gripe with Billy Goat Hill is that it’s not quite a hill. You get to the top, and there’s more hill to go: across the street, another set of steps leads you up to the Walter Haas Playground. Arriving at the playground, you’ll see… nothing. The full vista is obstructed by a row of trees, probably kept there to mute the roaring wind in this part of town. But that isn’t the top either: the peak is a group of bizarre and, in my humble opinion, hideous buildings, buffered by an undeveloped grassy hillside that might eventually house people, hopefully at a higher density.
The view from the hill is pretty spectacular. It’s not in glorious 360°, like Twin Peaks, but it isn’t like seeing a little peek of the city, like Buena Vista. For folks in the neighborhood, it’s probably a wonderful way to unwind, though the mansions in Glen Park probably have better views from their kitchens.
It’s not the elevation, it’s the grade. The approach to Billy Goat Hill is 18-22% grade, which dwarfs, say, my old Twin Peaks route that maxed out at 9%. It’s a level of steepness that, were it not for the length of the roads, merits stairs.
Thanks to CityStrides, I keep track of every road I’ve run and I’m earnestly trying to run 100% of SF (11% done so far). Which means that I’ll run Noe Valley, but needless to say I’m ‘unpumped’ for it. Even the views doesn’t make up for it that much, because you can get much better vistas in Portrero Hill or on Bernal, without running nature’s stair-stepper.
What an extraordinary hill for sandwiches. It’s almost like the city planners designed it specifically for sandwich eating. There’s a bench, and then some well-placed tree roots, and then another bench, and then stumps for sitting. Every place to hang out has an incredible view.
Places to buy a sandwich nearby are lacking, due in part to Noe Valley’s famously-regressive zoning policies. A half-mile radius around Billy Goat Hill captures a lot of 8 million dollar mansions in Glen Park and a lot of 4 million dollar gentrified-in-place Victorians in Noe Valley, but not much of anything else.
It doesn’t have much allure, or much to discover. This is a hill that is what it looks like as you approach it: some grass, a trail, a few trees.
It used to host a swing, which features in many instagrams, but the swing was a sort of community addition, wasn’t good for the tree, and is no longer.
Trees aren’t the reason you go to Billy Goat Hill. There are two big Eucalyptus trees, Blue Gums in particular, that get a lot of attention, and then some coyote bush scrub and some typical invasive species, like wild radish (pictured).
I suppose Billy Goat Hill’s history shows in its current appearance: it was mined, and now has a shallow layer of soil over bedrock (Noe Valley is far from any liquefaction zone). So it isn’t really reforested, and it doesn’t feel like nature has always owned it, or has fully taken it back. Which echoes, a bit: without trees, there aren’t many birds, or shade, or many mammals, according to the city’s 2005 report.