Tom Rates Hills: Mount Sutro
It’s been a long time since I wrote about a hill. The last one, Kite Hill, was published back in 2019, before everything.
I decided to restart with Mount Sutro. It’s not, actually, the hill that the famous Sutro Tower rests on. That’s another, shorter hill. Mount Sutro is the second-tallest hill in the city, after Mount Davidson.
Every time I try to hike or run Mount Sutro I have trouble finding it. There are a few trailheads, but I always end up on one of the sides of the park without one. So I got lost for a bit, alternately enjoying the breeze and ever-present cool fog, and suffering from tired legs and an uncomfortable mask. After backtracking twice, I found one of the trailheads hidden near a UCSF conference center. I really do mean hidden: it’s really hard to find the entrances to Mt. Sutro. Maybe because it’s owned by UCSF rather than maintained by SF Parks & Rec. That hasn’t stopped people from supposedly over-using the park by hiking its trails.
Anyway, I got there. I hiked out a bit, took in the geology - some franciscan complex chert - and the foliage - lots and lots of eucalyptus. I was ready to feel a sense of relief, that nature was the all-purpose salve that would unravel a clenched psyche, remind me that the world kept on going. I didn’t. It isn’t the hill’s fault, but it’s going to take more than a hike to reset.
I know it isn’t on this hill, but I should say, I like the Sutro Tower. I liked it before I ever set foot in this city, via Aaron Straup Cope’s drawings, which lovingly refer to it as the space claw. I like, in general, big metal things that loom over cities, like cranes and crosses and the space needle and novelty architecture. It’s not that it’s always beautiful - the tower is, after all, a TV transmitter. But the scale and the mere fact that we, collectively, see the same thing, that we built this one thing – it feels good in a way. In a way it’s that (older) city residents are so opposed to change, that to simply see change is a reminder that the future is real, that occasionally something slips through and disrupts the view for a little bit before it anchors the view.
Anyway - the park. It’s eucalyptus trees and rocky paths and dense foliage. There are few vistas.
I’ve only run Mount Sutro a few times, and it always seemed like everyone was hiking instead of running it. But I think it’s pretty popular for folks who live near UCSF: though the hill is over 900 feet, if you start near the Aldea center, you can string together a pretty comfortable jog. Despite that, the trails for Sutro are very narrow, especially when you’re trying to keep a good radius. Quite a few folks had taken their masks off mid-hike and only put them back on when they passed other people.
It’s runnable, and probably nice if you’re lucky enough to live near it. But as a destination for runners, it’s pretty lackluster.
This is probably one of the least sandwich-friendly hills. There’s basically nowhere to eat a sandwich, what with the narrow trails and threat of erosion if you go off-trail. Plus there are very few places to get a sandwich if you wanted: maybe a few places in the Inner Sunset, but the Inner Greenbelt side is deeply residential.
There’s a Nike missile site there! It looked pretty cool, in a deadly way, when it existed. It no longer exists, and is now grass. The Sutro Tower isn’t there. I don’t know, it’s not very novel.
I’m not a bird-watcher, but the word is that Sutro is a really great place for bird-watching. I can’t be totally sure: SF Rec & Park parks all have professional, scientific research into the local wildlife, and Sutro isn’t one of them. Sutro does have a very active nonprofit group, Sutro Stewards, who help restore native plants and keep an informal checklist of birds that have been encountered there.
Mount Sutro has lots of trees, mostly eucalyptus, mostly planted in the early 1900s.
Californians feel lots of things about eucalyptus. Some hate eucalyptus because it’s non-native, or fear it because it’s flammable, or love it because it’s here.
UCSF came up with a plan to thin the eucalyptus in Mount Sutro to make room for native plants and reduce the fire risk. Predictably, “local residents” threw a fit, and have been complaining for years. UCSF has been gradually removing some of the trees.
The micro-conflicts make up so much of San Francisco’s micro-news. I’m tired of the homeowners obstructing all change universally. I’m tired of trees being a sort of boomer shorthand for environmentalism, from people who will never give up their cars and single-family homes. People who don’t care about expert opinions and insist instead that there’s a city conspiracy to remove trees. It just sucks.
Mount Sutro: it’s tall, and it’s probably nice if you live near it. I’m glad that it’s a nice place for people to hike, that people have been careful on the trails and aren’t causing too much erosion, and that UCSF keeps it open to the public. You can even, sometimes, bike on it!