Buffalo in Golden Gate Park

Although the name of this popular Golden Gate Park attraction suggests you will encounter a gang of buffalo, you will actually have the pleasure of viewing the behavioral patterns of the American bison. Located next to Spreckels Lake, pieces of history lumber across an enclosed field of green. Since the 1890s, the bison have become a treasured tradition about the park, serving as a remembrance of the illustrious Wild West.

bison bufflo in golden gate park

The History of the Buffalo Paddock Bison

In the past, an assortment of animals, including bears, goats, and elk, roamed about a free-range environment. Small herds of bison also called Golden Gate Park their home. In 1890, a distinct bison cow and one bison bull were transported from the rolling Great Plains to the urban paradise of the Golden Gate Park. Hailing from parts of Wyoming and Kansas, the cow was named Sarah Bernhardt, while the bull was called Ben Harrison. The Park Commission beamed with pride as such possessions roamed about their land.

At first, the bison were positioned east of where the new Academy of Sciences will stand. As time passed, some bison were transported to where they can be found today during 1899. Over the years, more and more bison residents began to find their way to the Golden Gate Park Buffalo Paddock, including three from the Yellowstone National Park in 1905. Before you knew it, the herd showcased 30 bison in 1918.

bison historyThroughout the years, the herd overcame a bout of bovine tuberculosis, which led to the transfer of seven members of the Golden Gate Park family to a different location in San Francisco. Ironically, they were “exiled” close to the San Francisco County jail in San Bruno. The bison you see today at the paddock are actually descendants of 1984 birthday presents given to the mayor, Dianne Feinstein by her husband.

By the time the bison of Buffalo Paddock first arrived in Golden Gate Park, they were close to becoming a majestic memory. Their meat, hides, and fur prompted years of greedy slaughter by European settlers. But through a successful captive breeding program, more than 100 calves were produced from the group residing at Golden Gate Park. In 1998, this allowed the total number of bison in North America to surpass the 200,000 mark.

Finding the Buffalo Paddock

When it comes to your first time enjoying a visit to the Buffalo Paddock, you might be flabbergasted with the spectacle of these rather large creatures. Situated about John F. Kennedy Drive, the paddock is easily accessible when coming from the Anglers Lodge. To reach this entertaining attraction, you should head for the western end of the park, where a large fenced-in region holds the prized vision. This splendid sight is also located close to North Lake, as well as the corner of Chain of Lakes Drive East.

Understanding Bison Behavior

To get an idea of the way bison behave, you should know that the position of their tail greatly alerts others to what the creature is doing or thinking he or she will do next. For instance, when the tail is in a relaxed position, the animal feels undisturbed. This position may also be used to scare away pestering insects.

When the tail is slightly raised, the bison is displaying mild excitement. As the animal fills with nervousness, the tail will arch, often followed by a bowel movement. When the tail is raised in a vertical position, a bison challenge may arise. This tail position may also occur between competing bulls during the mating season. If you notice that a bison is bucking, this may signify playful movement or at times a quick reaction to the unknown.

The grooming of the bison is accomplished through the rubbing their head, neck, and shoulders against tree trunks and branches (watch movie below). They are also known to “wallow,” which is the act of rolling back and forth in a sunken section of dry ground. It is believed that this behavior provides comfort, as well as serves as a defensive technique to avoid battling against another.

Another common sight the bison will surely participate in while you visit is grazing. Bison eat a diet of grasses and weeds, which is accomplished in a continuous motion to avoid overgrazing their space. The Golden Gate Park grasses and weeds that the bison dine upon include their favorite options of Bermuda grass, Kikuyu grass, and Kentucky Bluegrass. Among other selections, additional edible bison delights include Rescue grass, Jimsonweed, Lawn daisy, Himalaya berry vines, Wild Daisy, Knotweed, Redroot Pigweed-fireweed, and Curly dock.

Overall, don’t expect a grand show of movement and daring feats when visiting the bison. They tend to keep to themselves and really don’t engage in any exciting activities. They appear in the standing position for most of the day and sometimes sit about. If you are lucky, one of the bison may slowly travel from the field to the corral. Can’t find the bison at first glance? Travel towards the right side of the enclosure to seek out the residents who have a habit of hiding behind a mound. As you move about the edge of the fence, several large specimens should become visible.

Contact Details

Address: Within the Golden Gate Park, the Buffalo Paddock is situated off of John F. Kennedy Drive in the north/west corner of the park. Heading between 41st Ave and Sunset Blvd/36th Ave will bring you closer to this destination.

Interesting Fact: Although you may not have the chance to observe, bison are known to reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.

15 Responses to “Buffalo in Golden Gate Park”

  1. Dave
    May 16, 2011 at 4:51 am #

    Travelled 7,000 miles from Australia to Golden Gate Park hoping to see the Bison , tour guide said only three left ,not worth the effort to try and see them (apparently in an inaccessable area ?!!)Enjoyed rest of Golden Gate Park especially California Academy of Sciences

    • Sarah
      September 2, 2011 at 12:47 am #

      Hi Dave,

      As a local, I felt like it was pretty easy to catch a great look of these beautiful animals each morning on my park run. They often come very close to the fence, so you can see them in full detail too!

      Glad you enjoyed the rest of the park regardless :)

      • Gene Goddard
        October 22, 2011 at 11:40 pm #

        I’m relieved to hear that Sarah as I’am coming to San Francisco in December and really want to see those amazing Bison can’t wait.

    • Jack H
      February 4, 2012 at 5:59 am #

      I was looking at the buffalo today fri 2/3 and I can see quite clearly through my binoculars. I noticed that there is something very unusual on the right rear flank about half way to the back area. It appears that there is a parasite, possibly laid by some species of fly. typically the female fly will deposite their larva underneath the skin and the larva grows and develops there. It is extremely detrimental to the Bison. He needs help.

      • Terry
        September 24, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

        Did you contact the Parks and Rec dept.? I hope they independently noticed it and addressed it, but I doubt your comment here would be noticed by the right people.

  2. Tony
    June 22, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

    When I went out west I had the pleasure of checking these animals out. They are amazing and not in the sense that they run around and interact but just how they’ve stood the test of time. I definitely recommend checking them out if you’re an animal lover.

  3. giulia
    November 22, 2011 at 5:03 am #

    does anybody else remember the Rabbit Enclosure at Golden Gate Park in the 1960’s?

    • Bob McDowell
      December 1, 2011 at 3:26 pm #

      The “Rabbit Enclosure” near the Childern’s Playgound was stoped in the 1980’s when some people broke into it and stole the rabbit for food.

  4. JBC
    January 15, 2012 at 1:08 am #

    My husband and I didn’t know about the bison when we visited for the first time so were quite surprised to see dozens roaming about. All we could say was, “bison, bison, bison!”

    • DUO
      January 28, 2012 at 8:17 pm #

      Glad to see JBC’s post. I had heard that more bison were “here,” but were being quarantined for a short while. Has anyone else seen the “new” members of the herd? If so, approximately how many bison are now in the Park?

  5. Mary
    January 31, 2012 at 11:06 pm #

    I was in the city last week and had the opportunity to visit the Bison Paddock. I was fortunate to meet a man who had volunteered in the exhibit for many years. There are currently 9 female bison on exhibit, 3 adults and 6 calfs. The man told me that they only have females now because they were breeding so well and had no where to send all the offspring. I guess that’s a good sign for the future of the species!

  6. Hersch
    February 5, 2012 at 12:32 am #

    In addition to the 3 surviving adults, 6 new young buffalo have been added to the herd. My friend and I went to see them on this sunny winter day. They are a bit more active then the adults, and even got the adults to mosey about more than usual.

  7. Donna
    October 14, 2012 at 6:26 pm #

    Does GGP have wheelchair day rentals?

  8. Happy Gilmour
    February 19, 2013 at 4:41 am #

    Does anyone know if Alfred Hennesey, still volunteers?

  9. Frank
    February 24, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

    “Their meat, hides, and fur prompted years of greedy slaughter by European settlers.”

    That would largely be the descendants of European settlers, aka Americans who were residents and/or citizens of the United States of America. Most of the slaughter of American bison occurred long after the United States had come into being and controlled the regions in which the bison were being slaughtered.

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