Golden Gate Park reached a milestone on April 4, 2020.
And for the rest of the year, San Francisco will continue to celebrate Golden Gate Park’s 150th Anniversary with plenty of fanfare and activities, including 150 improvement projects the city has planned for the park.
While you wait for the next event to kick-off, let’s take a moment to recognize the rich, cultural history of Golden Gate Park, one of the most-visited parks in the United States.
Besides its illuminating union of science, art, recreation, flora, and fauna, the park is at the center of many record-setting highlights and “firsts” for the City of San Francisco (and the U.S.). We’ll also point out the many ways in which Golden Gate Park attracts roughly 24 million visitors annually to its 1,000+ acres of natural splendor.
Prepare to learn something new about Golden Gate Park.
In 1870, William Hammond Hall, the first State Engineer of California, accepted a topographical challenge many skeptics deemed “impossible.” His mission: transform 1,013 acres of sand dune-heavy land, from an unincorporated area of the San Francisco Peninsula, into a public park that modernizes the city (similar to what Central Park did for New York City).
Hall surveyed the landscape, designed a plan, and laid the groundwork for the glorious park we have today. He brilliantly tamed the area’s beach sands using strategic irrigation, fences as wind barricades, and appropriate seed- and soil management (including innovative mixtures of organic matter, manure, and topsoil).
The 25-year-old was appointed Golden Gate Park’s first superintendent in 1871 after the park’s successful completion (which he did not create alone). A Scottish-born horticulture specialist, who studied his craft at the Edinburgh Royal Botanical Gardens, also played a defining role.
John McLaren, dubbed “the man who planted a million trees,” is responsible for turning the park’s once-barren landscape into an inviting display of native grasses, flora, and foliage. McLaren dedicated his life to Golden Gate Park, eventually serving as its superintendent for 53 years and living on the grounds at McLaren Lodge until his death in 1943.
Fun Fact: McLaren’s statue is located near the Rhododendron Dell entrance (home to his favorite flower).
The First (and Most Photographed) Building in Golden Gate Park
The San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers is a botanical garden and greenhouse boasting a rare and exotic plant collection that includes Dracula orchids, carnivorous pitcher plants, and 100-year-old Cycads. Not only is the Conservatory (completed in 1879) the oldest building at Golden Gate Park, it’s also the oldest, public, wood-and-glass conservatory in North America.
America’s First Playground
Koret Playground (originally the Sharon Quarters for Children) is one of five playgrounds at Golden Gate Park; however, this one specifically is particularly special. Established in 1888, historians widely recognize this children’s playground as the first public playground in the United States. Its main attractions consisted of swings, slides, and goat-led cart rides.
The playground is much different today, and underwent an upgrade in 2007, adding signage, a wave-shaped climbing wall, and rope structure (among other things). Still going strong is the park’s dual concrete slides (an instant, childhood memory-maker best attempted with cardboard to soften the slope).
Visitors can also whirl around on the park’s very own Herschell-Spillman Carousel—a historical gem made in 1913 that’s known for its carved “menagerie” of colorful animals and detailed, painted panels (Bay Area landscapes, in this case).
A Birthday Gift to Golden Gate Park
American bison have been a fixture at Golden Gate Park since 1891, at a time when the species faced a threat of extinction. Developers wanted to pay homage to the Wild West by adding these majestic creatures to the park.
The bison ramble about a designated paddock (or enclosed meadow), which you can find off of John F. Kennedy Drive, in the northwest corner of the park.
To celebrate Golden Gate Park’s 150th birthday anniversary, a gift through the San Francisco Zoological Society was made, which added five yearlings to the herd in March 2020. Over the last 120 years, hundreds of bison calves from Golden Gate Park have helped the species to thrive.
Fun Fact: All the bison at Golden Gate Park are female.
World’s Fair Flair: The California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894
The California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894 played a significant role in Golden Gate Park’s growth. Not only did the park host the first world’s fair in the U.S. west of the Mississippi, but many of the leftover structures (such as bronze sculptures and monuments, like the 60-foot Prayer Book Cross) helped shape the park’s presence further, including:
The Japanese Tea Garden
The Japanese Tea Garden is the oldest public Japanese garden in the U.S.
Visitors often come to experience its peaceful pagodas, Zen Garden charm, stepping stone paths, koi ponds, arched drum bridge, and the scent of azaleas and cherry blossom trees.
The M. H. de Young Memorial Museum
The Fair’s Fine Arts building is now the de Young Museum (home to American art, international costumes and textile arts, and global artworks). Initially holding exotic curiosities and oddities at the Midwinter Fair, this site is now one of the top ten most visited art museums in the U.S.
Unlikely Attractions at an Urban Park
The north and west ends of the park are where two windmills reside.
In 1902, the mills were a cost-effective solution to hydrating the land without having to pay the local water company’s steep prices. In their heyday, these structures pumped 1.5 million gallons of underground water daily to irrigate Golden Gate Park. It’s been nearly a decade now since the windmills have served their original purpose, replaced by electric water pumps in 1913.
The Murphy Windmill and Dutch Windmill (paired with the brightly colored blooms of the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden) are mesmerizing fixtures at the park, which also add character to the Dutch King Day festivities observed in April.
A Sanctuary for the Displaced After the 1906 Earthquake and Fire
When an earthquake caused fires to rage for three days throughout San Francisco in 1906, tens of thousands of residents were left homeless. Many found shelter at Golden Gate Park in tents and small wood barracks designed by Superintendent McLaren, dubbed “Earthquake Shacks.”
Portals of the Past serves as a small memorial for this historical tragedy.
It primarily features the front entryway of an 1891 Nob Hill mansion ruined in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
Its grand columns are on display at the edge of Lloyd Lake (along John F Kennedy Dr. in the west end of the park).
The Record-Smashing Bay to Breakers Race
Bay to Breakers is one of the most highly anticipated footraces in the U.S.
Started as a way to uplift the city after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, this annual event holds a notable distinction—the longest, consecutively-held race (over a given course and length) than any other footrace in the world.
The race has been around since 1912, and is quite the source of entertainment, especially since many participants (and onlookers) come dressed to impress…in an array of wild and crazy costumes (think Batman, bananas, and barmaids)…for the 7.53-mile course.
From 1986 to 2010, the race officially held the title (and was featured in the Guinness Book of World Records) for the world’s largest footrace, with 110,000 participants.
The Bay to Breakers race begins at the northeast end of downtown San Francisco (right by the Bay) and runs through the city to a finish line at the Great Highway (near the Pacific coast), where breaking waves crash onto Ocean Beach—hence its name. In between, participants race along the Panhandle and through the western end of Golden Gate Park.
Other Golden Gate Park races and runs include:
- Monthly events held by the Dolphin South End Runners
- Thanksgiving Turkey Trot
- The second half of the San Francisco Marathon
Home to One of the Largest Museums of Natural History in the World
The California Academy of Sciences is a one-of-a-kind attraction—the only natural history museum in the world that shares a space with an aquarium, a planetarium, and a glassed-in rainforest dome—all of which co-exist under a living roof covered in more than 100 native plant species.
The Academy got its start on Market Street in 1853, but its history as a state-of-the-art museum doesn’t truly begin until its official dedication at Golden Gate Park in 1916.
Home to the Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability, the LEED Platinum-rated Academy now manages a collection of 46 million scientific specimens from across the globe.
The Academy maintains one of the world’s largest coral reef exhibits and also houses unforgettable residents, from African penguin chicks to a rare albino alligator named Claude.
Attractions and Events for Virtually Everyone (especially Nature Lovers)
You name it, and the park delivers.
Golden Gate Park attractions and events offer something for everyone—history buffs, science enthusiasts, artists, hikers, bikers, music fans—and is an absolute treat for nature lovers.
The San Francisco Botanical Garden (formerly Strybing Arboretum) dates back to 1940 and now consists of 55 acres of open spaces and landscaped gardens that feature over 9,000 kinds of plants.
The Garden also offers educational programs for children and adults, hosts monthly plant sales (the largest in the Bay Area), and houses the Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture, as well as the Garden Bookstore.
The San Francisco County Fair Building (or Hall of Flowers) is close to the main entrance of the S.F. Garden, and hosts many events throughout the year, including the Vintage Paper Fair, Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair, and World Veg Fest.
Golden Gate Park has plenty of natural spaces to explore, including meadows, trails, groves (see the tallest type of tree in the world at Redwood Grove), lakes, and hidden gems, such as Shakespeare’s Garden and “Gravity Hill,” a stream near Lloyd Lake that looks like it flows uphill.
The Human Be-In and the Summer of Love (1967)
A celebration of personal freedom and empowerment known as the Human Be-In (held January 14, 1967, at Golden Gate Park’s Polo Fields) forever ties San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood history to a social phenomenon labeled the “Summer of Love.” What started as a gathering of beat generation poets and jazz hipsters would later that year, inspire the “hippie” (or “flower child”) 60s counterculture that would profoundly make its mark across America.
Take Pride in Golden Gate Park’s LGBTQ History
In 1970, a “gay-in” at Golden Gate Park is what led to the onset of the Pride movement in San Francisco, where the local LGBTQ community marched through the park and surrounding neighborhoods in an event now referred to as Christopher Street Liberation Day.
Golden Gate Park is a Recreational Paradise
Over the years, the number of things to do at Golden Gate Park has grown:
- play basketball at the Panhandle,
- score a home run at Big Rec field,
- rent a rowboat at Stow Lake,
- run the track at Kezar Stadium, and
- raise a racket at the Golden Gate Park Tennis Courts.
Fun Fact: Tennis courts have been in existence at the park since 1894 (a multi-million dollar renovation is currently in the works, as we speak!).
The park is also home to a fly-fishing and casting club, archery range, golf course, disc golf course, horseshoe courts, and the oldest municipal lawn bowling club in America (established in 1901). Last but not least, the park provides plenty of adventurous terrain for visitors on bikes, skates, rollerblades, electric scooters, and Segway rentals.
Party with the Best of Them: The Outside Lands Festival
The Outside Lands Festival is the largest independently-owned music festival in the U.S.
Golden Gate Park holds this annual, three-day music festival in August. The event features dozens of singer-songwriters, bands, musicians, comedians, and visual artists, as well as endless delicacies from local food-, beer-, and wine-vendors.
The Festival started in 2008 and has since drawn crowds of over 200,000 people to the park.
In the past, ticketholders have come to enjoy exhilarating performances by the likes of Radiohead, Black Eyed Peas, Kendrick Lamar, Paul Simon, Metallica, Elton John, Childish Gambino, and Lizzo.
Other annual Golden Gate Park festivals and special events to look forward to: Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Comedy Day, Opera in the Park, Pacific Orchid Expo, Spring Eggstravaganza, 4/20 at Hippie Hill, Flower Piano, and the Tree Lighting at McLaren Lodge.
The Park Has a Signature Band
How many parks do you know has a musical entourage of its own?
The Golden Gate Park Band has been around since 1882 (that’s 138 years already!).
The GGP Band holds free, public concerts on most Sundays, from April to October.
Performances range from folk music and patriotic programs to Big Band energy and Broadway show tunes. The band also collaborates with other groups to include singers, costumed dancers, and music of different ethnicities and cultures, such as Armenians, Italians, Hungarians, Mexicans, and Ukrainians.
Celebrate Golden Gate Park’s Anniversary with a “Ferris Wheel” Ride
It’s been nearly 130 years since the park has seen a Ferris wheel, but as part of Golden Gate Park’s 150th-year celebration, the tallest traveling observation wheel, the SkyStar, has come to San Francisco.
Unlike the Ferris wheel enjoyed during the California Midwinter Fair of 1894, the SkyStar holds riders in enclosed gondolas, and fittingly lifts passengers 150 feet into the air!
For now, the observation wheel is on a concrete pad at the northern edge of the Music Concourse (opposite the bandshell, and between the de Young and Academy of Sciences), where it will remain until the full reopening of Golden Gate Park and resumption of the park’s 150th-anniversary festivities—all delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.