Main Content

City of Hills

San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, November 7, 2004
by Tom Graham

City of Hills
With 50-plus hills, it’s no wonder that San Francisco is considered the second hilliest city in the world, next to La Paz, Bolivia


A hiker climbs Eureka Peak, one of the two hills that make up San Francisco’s famous Twin Peaks, considered by many to offer the best hilltop view of the city.
Chronicle photo by Michael Macor

On a sandy knoll near an outcrop of rock, a dozen people are watching the sunset. A clump of Monterey Cypress and eucalyptus sways in the wind a few yards away.

An amber glow has spread across the Sunset District, which stretches out for miles below — flat as a waffle iron. As the sun inches toward the horizon, the Pacific Ocean reflects a parfait of pastel colors that slowly changes to deeper shades of red and orange.

From a distance, this tree-studded hilltop resembles the shock of hair on Bert the Muppet’s domed head.

Known as Larsen’s Peak, it’s one of the 43 “official” hills in the city – – many of which we pass daily but seldom notice. Over the years, I have passed Larsen’s Peak so many times that my memory of it is all a blur. I didn’t know its name or its history and had never seen the view from the top – – until now.

During the past two years, I’ve made an effort to top every hill I could find, as I continue my quest to walk every street in San Francisco. I feel like “The Nutter Who Went Up a Hill … And Came Down a Hill” — a hundred bloody times. I now know all of their “official” names, locations and elevations, and how these hills define our streets and neighborhoods.

And I know most of the “unofficial” hills as well, which brings the total to more than 50. It’s no wonder that San Francisco is considered the second hilliest city in the world, next to La Paz, Bolivia.

Stairs lead up to the 666-foot summit of Larsen’s Peak, which offers one of the best hilltop views of the city.

Moraga Street, at the base of the hill, parts the stuccoed houses all the way to the sea.

In the foreground, traffic hums along 19th Avenue in a steady stream of headlights and brake lights. Off to the right, the twin towers of the Golden Gate Bridge rise up from behind the tree-lined ridge of the Presidio and stand in almost perfect alignment with this hill. Golden Gate Park, Lincoln Park and the Presidio add greenbelt relief to an otherwise gray palette of streets, sidewalks, telephone poles and houses.

Behind us, to the east, Sutro Tower lords over the landscape like an Erector Set on steroids. And adjacent to it, another dozen sun worshipers appear like stick figures silhouetted against the evening sky on Twin Peaks.

On clear days such as this, you can scan the shoreline from Fort Funston all the way to the Marin Headlands. As the sun goes down, you can see the lights blink on at St. Anne’s, St. Ignatius, Lone Mountain, Temple Emanuel, the Transamerica Pyramid, UCSF and the Laguna Honda Hospital.

Harold Gilliam, 86, sits on a bench below the summit and contemplates the view, which sweeps across the horizon from the pink Parkmerced apartments to Stonestown, Ocean Beach, Seal Rock and the Cliff House.

Gilliam, who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years, comes here often. He remembers one morning sunrise when his shadow appeared to stretch down the hillside all the way across the Sunset District to the Cliff House. “It was the Spectre of the Brocken,” he explains, “an illusion caused by the error of the eye in estimating the distance of a shadow’s length.” Gilliam, who was an award-winning environmental writer for The Chronicle for years before he retired in 1994, said he’ll never forget the apparition.

As I scan the view, distant cargo ships make their way up and down the coast, appearing and disappearing along the horizon. From here you can watch them as they enter and leave the bay.

Larsen’s Peak — and Grand View Park, which surrounds it — is a throwback to the days when all this was a vast sea of rolling hills and sand dunes.

One hundred and seventy years ago, the three-masted ship carrying merchant seaman Richard Henry Dana sailed past this spot. Had you been here then, you would have seen San Francisco before it was “San Francisco” — its hills and valleys and creeks unmasked.

In “Two Years Before the Mast,” Dana described “the remote and almost unknown coast of California” that winter of 1835-36. Noting the “vast solitude of the Bay of San Francisco,” he wrote,”(the) anchorage was between a small island, called Yerba Buena, and a gravel beach in a little cove of the same name. Beyond, to the westward of the landing place, were dreary sand-hills, with little grass to be seen, and few trees, and beyond them higher hills, steep and barren, their sides gullied by the rains.”

The hills are alive

Besides the ocean and the bay, the hills are San Francisco’s most prominent geographical feature. The same forces that caused the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes — the San Andreas and Hayward faults — have shaped the hills, the valleys and the bay itself.

“Take anything from us — our cable cars, our bridges, even our bay — but leave us our hills,” Chronicle columnist Herb Caen once wrote.

San Francisco’s elevation — 61 feet — is posted on roadway signs at the city limits, but how they came up with that figure, God only knows.

The hills actually range in elevation from 100 to 927 feet. While most of the city is built on sand, many of its hills stand on Franciscan or serpentine bedrock.

The largest of them — Mount Davidson, Mount Sutro and Twin Peaks (located in the center of the city) — were once collectively known as the San Miguel Hills because they were part of the Spanish land grant of the same name.

In my quest to walk every street and alley in San Francisco, I have found the city’s hills to be irresistible and irrecusable. They are what make San Francisco San Francisco. Each of them offers a different perspective of the history, culture, geography and architecture of the city.

At the end of Orizaba Street in San Francisco’s Merced Heights is a hilltop rock  formation known as the Shields-Orizaba outcrop. 
Chronicle photo by Michael Macor

Natural neighborhoods

“The hills create natural neighborhoods,” says Max Kirkeberg, a geography professor at San Francisco State University. Kirkeberg, who teaches courses called “Geography of San Francisco” and “San Francisco on Foot,” points out that a majority of the city’s neighborhoods are topographically established by its hills and valleys.

It’s not surprising, then, that dozens of our neighborhoods are named after the hills that define them.

“At the very beginning,” city archivist emeritus Gladys Hansen says, “San Francisco was a very small city and we had only seven hills — which were copied from the seven hills of Rome. There was Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Rincon Hill, Mount Sutro, Twin Peaks and Mount Davidson.

“And the city was very happy with those hills,” the 79-year-old author of “San Francisco Almanac” points out. “As the city got bigger, though, it spread to these other hills. And as people bought that land,” she says, “they named it.

“Hills are really not counted until they’re named,” Hansen notes with the air of someone who’s witnessed the city’s transformation.

Kirkeberg, who has been teaching geography here since 1965, says one of the things he loves about the city is that “it’s small and seeable.” And, he adds, it’s our hills that afford us the opportunity to take it all in.

A hilly journey

When you’re on foot, the hills can get your cardiovascular system pumping. But sometimes the apex of a hill is difficult to find beneath all the asphalt, concrete and stucco.

Sadly, some of the original hills are gone. Others have been excavated down to a nub — like Irish Hill near Potrero Point and Rincon Hill, which has become the landing pad for the west end of the Bay Bridge. Several hilltops have been surrounded by residential development and no longer offer views — at least not for pedestrians — places like Forest Hill, Red Rock Hill and Gold Mine Hill in Diamond Heights, and Mount Olympus.

“Mount Olympus was considered the center of the city,” Hansen says somewhat forlornly. “It’s where Adolph Sutro’s ‘Triumph of Light’ statue was. Now there’s nothing but a bunch of stones marking the spot and garages all around staring at you.”

Old-timers lament that they can’t see the hills like they once could, and it’s true. Some views are surrounded by forests that obscure the hilltop and choke the view.

Many — like Nob Hill, Russian Hill and Pacific Heights — are surrounded by housing development and high-rise buildings, which reduce the dramatic views to four-way intersections and street canyons.

Fortunately, more than a dozen hills are protected as parks. They once all offered 360-degree views of the city. Some of them still do. Others remind us that the beauty is in getting there.

Many hills are littered with rundown and obsolete structures, such as water towers, radio antennas and cyclone fencing. Dismantling these unsightly blemishes would go a long way toward restoring some of the city’s natural character. Development should never have been allowed to impair the view of the crest of our hills. That space, by all rights, should have been set aside as parks for all to enjoy.

Stairways to heaven

Adah Bakalinsky, author of “Stairway Walks in San Francisco,” notes that “grading the streets (was) a primary obstacle in converting San Francisco from a tent town into a city of timbered houses. Some of the hills were completely demolished in the process; others were cut into without much planning. When the task seemed insurmountable,” she writes, “the ‘street’ ended.”

If the criterion for defining a mountain is 1,000 feet of elevation, as Hugh Grant tried to inform those flummoxed Welshmen in “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain,” then every highpoint here would come up short, too.

Despite its name, even Mount Davidson, the highest landform in the city, is only 927 feet. Some might argue, though, that the 100-foot concrete cross on top would qualify it in the realm of the mountain gods.

Even though Webster’s Dictionary tells us a hill is “a natural part of the earth’s surface that’s rounded and smaller than a mountain,” it’s almost impossible to define where one hill starts and another ends.

“If you look at early topo maps, you’ll see that the hills have hills,” says Michael Lampen, Grace Cathedral’s archivist.

Walking just about anywhere in San Francisco — to the market, a friend’s house, school, work, the movies — has its ups and downs.

As a tourist once told columnist Caen, “I love this hilly city of yours. Whenever I get tired of walking around it, I can lean against it.”

If you are walking every street in the city, as I am, you will cover the apex of each of these hills dozens of times.

I have returned to some of them after a 40-year hiatus. And I am seeing many of them for the first time.

“Without these hills, San Francisco would not be recognized as the beautiful city it is,” Hansen says.

As I walk to the top of some of the streets in old familiar neighborhoods, childhood memories are reawakened … of homemade roller coasters skidding along the pavement down Rockwood Court above St. Brendan’s … of that winter day in January 1962, when the view from Edgehill revealed a city blanketed in 3 inches of snow, creating a Thomas Kinkade-like canvas not to be believed.

Rob Lafica of San Luis Obispo takes a photo from a trail atop 666-foot Larsen Peak, which provides amazing views of the Sunset District.
Chronicle photo by Michael Macor.

Return voyage

Like Dana, who returned 25 years after his first voyage, I am getting a bird’s-eye view of the changes that have taken place in my hometown over the past 50 years. In fact, many of them are taking place right before my eyes.

When Dana returned, he wrote: “On the evening of Saturday, the 13th of August, 1859 — the superb steamship Golden Gate … bound up from the Isthmus of Panama, neared the entrance to San Francisco, the great centre of a world-wide commerce …

“We bore round the point toward the old anchoring-ground of the hide ships, and there, covering the sand hills and the valleys, stretching from the water’s edge to the base of the great hills, and from the old Presidio to the Mission, flickering all over with the lamps of its streets and houses, lay a city of one hundred thousand inhabitants.”

With a population now nearly eight times that, and its topography almost entirely paved over, the city by the “vast San Francisco Bay” would probably get a very different reaction from Dana today. The last remnant of solitude can be found on its shrinking hillsides, beaches and parks — the only places where one can still leave a footprint.


The 20 best hilltop views in the city.

1. Twin Peaks

South Peak (also known as Noe Peak): 922 feet. North Peak (Eureka Peak): 904 feet. Spanish called the peaks “Los Pechos de la Choca,” or “the Breasts of the Indian Maiden.” Access trails: top of Twin Peaks Boulevard.

2. Mount Davidson
927 feet, highest hill in San Francisco. Originally named Blue Mountain. Renamed after its surveyor, George Davidson. Identifying feature: 100-foot concrete cross. Trail access: Rex Street and Juanita Way; also along Dalewood Way.

3. Telegraph Hill
284 feet. Other names have included Loma Alta, Windmill Hill and Signal Hill. Identifying feature: Coit Tower. Location: top of Telegraph Hill Boulevard off Lombard and Kearny streets.

4. Bernal Heights
500 feet. Identifying feature: radio antennae. Location: southern end of Folsom Street, surrounded by and above Bernal Heights Boulevard.

5. Larsen Peak
666 feet. Location: Grand View Park. Trail access: stairs at top of Moraga Street and 14th Avenue.

6. Corona Heights
510 feet. Location: above the Randall Museum. Trail access: Roosevelt Way at Fairbanks Street.

7. Candlestick Hill
375 feet. Identifying feature: Bayview Park hill directly above Monster Park stadium. Location: top of Key Street off Third Street.

8. Merced Heights
500 feet. Location: Peaks are located east to west at Summit and Thrift streets, Shields Street and Orizaba Avenue, and Ramsell Street near Shields.

9. Mt. Mount Sutro
908 feet. Named after Adolph Sutro, mayor of San Francisco from 1894 to 1896. Access trail: end of Johnstone Drive off Clarendon Avenue.

10. Alamo Heights
225 feet. Identifying feature: Alamo Square Park. Location: bordered by Fulton, Hayes, Scott and Steiner streets.

11. McLaren Ridge
525 feet. Three ridgetop locations: two hilltops west of John F. Shelley Drive and hilltop south of Mansell Street near John F. Shelley loop.

12. Buena Vista Heights
575 feet. Identifying feature: Buena Vista Park. Trail access: Lyon and Haight streets; Buena Vista Avenue. East at top of Duboce Street.

13. Hunter’s Point Ridge
275 feet. Identifying feature: Hilltop Park. Location: Whitney Young Circle at Progress Street.

14. Tank Hill
650 feet. Location: top of Tank Hill Park. Trail access: Twin Peaks Boulevard at Graystone Terrace.

15. Pacific Heights
375 feet. Location: intersection of Lyon Street and Pacific Avenue.

16. Potrero Hill
300 feet. Identifying feature: blue water tower on top of rock outcropping. Location: top of 22nd and Carolina streets.

17. Lincoln Heights
376 feet. Identifying feature: Palace of the Legion of Honor. Location: hill south of the Legion of Honor off Legion of Honor Drive.

18. Billy Goat Hill
400 feet. Location: near Billy Goat Hill Park, at Castro and Duncan streets.

19. Strawberry Hill
412 feet. Identifying feature: island-hill in the middle of Stow Lake. Location: above Stow Lake Drive off Martin Luther King Drive.

20. Lone Mountain
448 feet. Identifying feature: monastic-looking building on the hill northeast of St. Ignatius Church. Location: hill above intersection of Turk Street and Chabot Terrace.


Clarendon Heights
850 feet. Identifying feature: 977-foot Sutro Tower (highest point in San Francisco). Location: off Clarendon Avenue, take Dellbrook Avenue to top of La Avanzada.

Sherwood Forest
825 feet. Location: top of Robinhood Drive off Lansdale Drive.

Forest Hill
775 feet. Identifying feature: summit water towers. Location: top of Mendosa Avenue off 10th Avenue.

700 feet. Location: Top of Edgehill Way off Garcia Avenue.

Red Rock Hill
689 feet. One of the Diamond Heights hills. Location: off Diamond Heights Boulevard, take Duncan Street to top of Red Rock Way.

Gold Mine Hill
679 feet. Also part of Diamond Heights. Location: off Diamond Heights Boulevard, take Gold Mine Drive to top of Ora Way.

Monterey Heights
575 feet. Location: top of Fernwood Drive off Ravenwood Drive.

Mount Olympus
570 feet. Location: top of Mount Olympus Park, on Upper Terrace off Clifford Terrace.

Castro Hill
407 feet. Location: 22nd and Collingwood streets.

Liberty Hill
400 feet. Location: Sanchez between 21st and Hill streets; 21st between Noe and Sanchez streets.

Lafayette Heights
378 feet. Also known as Holladay’s Hill. Identifying feature: Lafayette Square Park. Location: bordered by Washington, Sacramento, Laguna and Gough streets.

Nob Hill
376 feet. Location: top of Jones and Sacramento streets.

Kite Hill
375 feet. Location: above Yukon Street near 19th Street.

Rob Hill
374 feet. Location: east of Washington Boulevard, between Compton Road and Central Magazine Road, above Rob Hill Campground.

Presidio Hill
370 feet. Identifying feature: lookout tower near Presidio Golf Course. Location: top of Deems Road off Washington Boulevard.

City College Hill
350 feet. Identifying feature: domed Science Building on top of the hill. Location: top of Science Circle on east side of Phelan Avenue, between Ocean and Judson avenues (across from the reservoir).

Laurel Hill
350 feet. Formerly a cemetery for early pioneers. Location: top of hill on Lupine Avenue east of Laurel Street.

Anza Vista Hill
325 feet. Location: top of Barcelona Avenue between Anzavista and Terra Vista avenues.

Excelsior Heights
315 feet. Identifying feature: blue water tower. Trail access: at Mansfield and Burrows streets.

Russian Hill
300 feet. Location: top of Vallejo above Florence Street St. (Russian Hill’s other ridge top is located in Marble Park on hill surrounded by Greenwich, Hyde, Larkin and Lombard streets.)

Presidio Heights
275 feet. Location: on Washington Street, between Cherry and Spruce streets.

Holly Hill
274 feet. Identifying feature: Holly Park. Location: above Holly Park Circle, off Appleton Avenue.

University Mound
265 feet. Location: top of Cambridge Street near Burrows Street.

Washington Heights
260 feet. Identifying feature: Washington High School. Location: top of Anza Street between Geary Boulevard and Balboa Street.

Mount St. Joseph
250 feet. Location: small corner-lot park at top of Bayview Circle off Newhall Street.

Dolores Heights
216 feet. Location: top of Dolores Street at Jersey Street.

Cathedral Hill
200 feet. Identifying feature: St. Mary’s Cathedral. Location: top of Geary Boulevard between Cleary and Gough streets.

College Hill
200 feet. Location: bounded by Mission Street, St. Mary’s Avenue, San Jose Avenue and Richland Avenue.

Sutro Heights
200 feet. Identifying feature: Sutro Heights Park, across from the Cliff House, above the Great Highway. Location: bordered by 48th Avenue, Point Lobos Avenue and the Great Highway.

Mint Hill
150 feet. Identifying feature: U.S. Mint building. Location: above Duboce Street, between Buchanan and Webster streets.

Rincon Hill
100 feet. Identifying feature: western end of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Location: top of Rincon Street off Bryant Street; top of First Street off Harrison Street.

Irish Hill
Originally listed at 250 feet, but all that’s left is a nub of bedrock about 30 feet high. Location: inside PG&E yard at corner of Illinois and 22nd streets.

Schedule a Consultation

Font Resize