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Historic Photos (circa 1930's) of Buena Vista Park reveal the process of creating the trails that cut through the park.

Editorial contributions by Michael Morlin, acting superintendent, San Francisco Parks and Recreation
Current photos courtesy of Elton Pon, public information officer
Historic photos courtesy of San Francisco Parks and Recreation

Buena Vista's bike trails are mapped out in this rendering. There are also 2.5 miles of new rustic trails.

Nestled in San Francisco's famed Haight-Ashbury district is Buena Vista Park, a 36-acre hill with an elevation of 590 feet. It was set aside for park use in 1867 and toward the turn of the century the city oversaw the forestation of its hills. The park afforded a spectular view and soon became the location for annual Arbor Day festivities.

The Buena Vista Park hillside has a sandy base that is in constant need of erosion control measures.

One of the ongoing techniques to deal with hillside erosion is the use of hay. While wattles are used throughout sections of the park, stable-grade hay is used, too. This method of erosion control is inexpensive and effective. Approximately 30 to 40 bales of hay are used annually. The hay is simply spread across areas of the hillside where ground cover is limited and erosion is a concern.

Along many of the pathways, straw wattles have been put into place with ground cover planted on top. The park underwent a massive erosion control and drainage overhaul in the 1970s and 1980s, during which time many of the wattles were put into place. Plants and ground cover have since been established, helping to maintain the stability of the hill.

More recently, on the south side of Buena Vista Park, straw wattles were staked into the hillside. Where the erosion issues are less severe, wattles were placed to hold back small amounts of soil.

A distant view shows this 36-acre park in its entirety.

Built walls line the predominant paths of Buena Vista Park. The paths, originally dirt, were paved with cobblestone quarried in San Francisco. The walls are constructed of marble and granite recycled from vacated cemeteries.

This section of Buena Vista Park, called the Bowl, was a sandy hill that required extensive straw wattling. A ground cover of English ivy was placed atop the wattling to further stabilize the hill.

For more problematic areas, wattling was more intensified to trap large amounts of soil.

Once the wattling was done, ground cover was put into place. Most of the ground cover consisted of English and German ivy. The plant materials are used to stabilize the soil and establish it over the wattle. Ivy, itself, does not stabilize slopes because it has a very shallow, mat-like root system.

One area of the park that was extensively wattled is known as the Bowl. This area of hillside, near one of the pathways, had a reputation for its maintenance difficulties.

"Tons of sand would wash down the hillside and now the Bowl is all shored up," says Mike Morlin, acting superintendent for San Franciso Parks and Recreation Department. "It's a real success story."

An estimated 30 to 40 tons of stable grade hay is used on the hills to assist with erosion control problems.

Essentially, according to Morlin, San Francisco was once covered by sand dunes. The wind would move the sand and the grade created would be on a gradual slope. When the sand would hit areas of elevation, such as the hillside of Buena Vista Park, it would pile up against it.

For nearly a century, the hillside has been maintained with retaining walls, wattles, hay and other erosion control techniques; it is an ongoing project. The east side of the park will see some planting in the near future.

"We're going to be doing the worst section of the park, the east side, where there are extremely sandy soils," notes Morlin. "We're going to get mulch and blanket plant the area. Basically, we're going to do a lot of planting."

From the summit you can see Golden Gate Park, Coit Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, and across the bay to Sausalito and Oakland.

However, most of the park is in much better shape than the east side. "It's very well stabilized. The park requires a lot less maintenance than you might think," asserts Morlin.

Retaining walls were first placed in the park by the WPA in the 1930's.

There are miles of paths winding around the 36-acre hillside. Some of the paths are paved. Much of the original cobblestone that lines the paths was quarried in San Francisco years ago. Other sections of paths and retaining walls were built from marble and granite. The granite came from tombstones moved and vacated in the 1930s. Fortunately, little maintenance is needed on these elements of the park--just the occasional loosening of rock that requires cement masons to remortar the area.

Atop a 590 foot hill is the entrance to the park, originally known as Wildwoods in the mid-nineteenth century. The hilly area was little more than sand and shrubs, but beginning in 1894, John McLaren, the designer of Golden Gate Park, began the forestation of the park. Cypress, eucalyptus and pine trees populate the park.

Prior to its forestation, the park consisted of little more than sand, shrubs and a scattering of trees. At the summit of Buena Vista Park visitors can see a near 360-degree view of the city.

"It was known as Hill Park in 1867 when San Francisco's Committee on Outside Lands reserved the 36-acre, 589-foot-high slope as the first park in the city system. They paid squatters $88,250 to relinquish their claims to the hilltop. After its dedication in 1894, John McLaren supervised the forestation of its hills ... The summit became a view point for visitors and residents and, during the 1906 earthquake, people gathered for five days to watch the fires downtown," writes author Randolph Delhanty 1.

1. Delehanty, Randolph. San Francisco, The Ultimate Guide.Chronicle Books, 1989. Quoted from San Francisco's Neighborhood Park Council,

Photos of the Bowl, the area that underwent an erosion control and drainage overhaul in the 1970s and 1980s.

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May 24, 2018, 4:53 am PDT

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Last Updated 05-24-18
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