San Francisco’s Trail Blazers

Illustration of a man walking on a trail with his dog, surrounded by colorful wildflowers.
Decades of volunteer labor, advocacy, and efforts from local organizations have built today’s network of trail systems linking San Franciscans with their green spaces. Illustration by Shruti Sharma.

How the city’s urban hikes came to be.

When Bob Siegel moved to San Francisco some forty years ago, the Bay Area Ridge Trail through San Francisco was mostly mapped on city streets, because that was the easiest way to get through city bureaucracy.

“I kept noticing signs saying I was on a ridge trail, but I was on a sidewalk,” Siegel recalled. In researching the trail, he learned of the San Francisco Trail Advocacy Group (TAG) and jumped in to help devise a new “preferred route” that moved the trail off sidewalks and rerouted it through city parks and local trails. Today, the Ridge Trail is almost fully connected through San Francisco, largely avoiding sidewalks despite its urban environment. The San Francisco section runs from Lake Merced on the southwest side of the city, over Twin Peaks and into Golden Gate Park, and through the Presidio and across the Golden Gate Bridge in the northeastern corner. It links to miles of trails in Napa County and the North Bay, stretches down to Mount Umunhum on the Peninsula, and crosses over into the East Bay. 

Byways like the Ridge Trail and the San Francisco–specific Crosstown Trail evolved through years of collaborative effort from volunteers, advocacy groups, nonprofits, and the city recreation department. Today, these groups continue to push for multiuse trails that balance preservation and access. They also advocate for more inclusive design of parks in SF’s underserved communities.

This is a story of San Francisco’s literal trailblazers—the volunteers who helped build our beloved network of walking paths and designed urban hikes that connect us to new communities. Without their innovation and efforts, we would not be enjoying the green spaces that gracefully clutter the Bay Area as we do today.

An Inspiring Beginning

The Ridge Trail started as an inspired vision: to link Bay Area parks together into a trail system that could connect communities and green spaces from San Francisco all the way to the Sierras, according to Bay Area Ridge Trail executive director Janet McBride.

“People pondered over maps and decided on an original route,” she said. “The initial plan was to link four hundred miles in about five years—to improve user experience across all of the bay’s parks and trails but also to link habitat corridors to improve ecosystem health.” 

There have been significant route changes over time to accommodate different types of property conflicts, and while there are challenging gaps still to fill, there are more than 400 miles currently connected out of the planned 550-mile route, McBride said.

Volunteers play a massive role in identifying and advocating for “connecting trails,” or urban trails that connect larger trail systems, which often take less intensive infrastructure and city resources.

The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department has long had a robust team of volunteers working to complete nontechnical trail construction and maintenance. Six years ago, Rec and Park formed a dedicated natural resources division to focus on maintenance and preservation of the city’s trail system, Lisa Wayne told me. She was the open space manager at Rec and Park for nearly fifteen years before landing her current job as a land and watershed manager for the Crystal Springs Reservoir in San Mateo.  

“Bob [Siegel] has been one of those primary people I’ve been working with the entire time I’ve worked on trails. We’ve stood shoulder to shoulder wielding Pulaskis and McLeods,” Wayne chuckled, referencing trail construction equipment used by volunteer crews.

Discoveries in Mount Sutro and Beyond

Ben Pease, a local publisher and cartographer and chair of the San Francisco Trail Advocacy Group in the early 1980s, remembers the beginnings of the Ridge Trail. “We tried to figure out how to use existing paths and sidewalks initially,” he said, because that was the most feasible route through the city. In 1992, Pease found what would become a crucial trail linkage. While scouting for routes near Mount Sutro, he discovered the Lower Historic Trail in the Interior Greenbelt. 

At first, Pease said, “I couldn’t tell what [the Historic Trail] really did, nor did I have the connections or confidence to figure out how to open up the passage to Stanyan Street.” The linkage was nearly abandoned when a Rec and Park scout caught a nasty case of poison oak investigating the area. Luckily, Pease joined forces with the Sutro Stewards, a volunteer group dedicated to preserving and improving trails on Mount Sutro. Together, they were able to uncover and rededicate the Historic Trail as the connection that finally moved the Ridge Trail off of sidewalks between Twin Peaks and Golden Gate Park.

Pease credits the volunteer trail-building efforts of the Sutro Stewards as well as the use of the newly rediscovered trails by neighborhood walkers and bikers as key to opening the larger trail system. These official and unofficial volunteers helped establish the path through Mount Sutro to Stanyan Street (near 17th) and create a new entrance to the Mount Sutro trail system at Clarendon Avenue.

The Ridge Trail now stretches over four hundred miles across the Bay area, including thirteen miles through San Francisco, about two-thirds of which routes hikers through city and county parks and trails.

Another consequential discovery was made in 2014 by Nick Bear, a volunteer on the leadership committee of San Francisco Urban Riders (SFUR). SFUR has been actively advocating for and volunteering to construct more bike-friendly trails for many years. Bear was working his day job as a city water resources engineer when he stumbled on historic maps showing a trail system through the property behind Laguna Honda Hospital. He investigated further and found that some of the more remote trails that led away from the hospital had been blocked off, possibly to ensure patients remained in sight of the staff. Bear and a group of SFUR volunteers got to work.

“It was a lot of effort, clearing the blockages of large branches and garbage that had collected there,” Bear said. Now the Laguna Honda trail network has signage, offers clear access for bikers and hikers, and charts a continuous path through a large natural area that serves as a key link in the Crosstown Trail. The increased usage has the added benefit of encouraging more volunteers to support the trails’ maintenance.

Preserving Ecological Diversity Through Designated Trails

Prior to the designation of official routes, the Presidio was crisscrossed with informal social trails created by people following a previously tread- upon path, according to Michael Boland. Boland is chief park officer for the Presidio Trust and has worked with the trust for more than twenty-one years. “For decades the public came to explore this very old base and walked wherever they wanted,” he said.

But indiscriminate use can really harm a site. To protect the historic site’s ecology, Boland and his team began constructing a trail system in the early 2000s, just a few years after the site was demilitarized in 1994. They started the design process by watching people move through on different social paths to determine the most popular routes. Today’s Presidio trail system often follows those preferred paths and ties into regional trails.

In addition to creating designated paths, the Presidio team also wanted to preserve the more than four hundred native species of plants and animals—especially those that are endangered and threatened—living in the Presidio. “The military filled in creeks and marshes, and we’ve been restoring them,” Boland said.

By the end of 2022, the Presidio team expects to fill gaps in their trail system so that hikers will be able to go from the Presidio Wall Playground to Crissy Field via the Tennessee Hollow Trail without hitting any pavement. 

Parks and Trails for All

Mapping trails across San Francisco has revealed a disparity in park and trail access between the wealthier areas of the city and underserved communities. City and community organizations are engaging in efforts to tackle this issue for future generations, building trails in the Bayview and other neighborhoods that have historically lacked access.

“We’ve struggled to help direct people to the best ways to use the outdoors, especially as density has increased in the city,” said Amber Hasselbring, executive director of Nature in the City. Her organization has partnered with city government agencies to develop a “green connections plan” to help connect disadvantaged communities to San Francisco’s trails and parks system. 

Back in 2012, Hasselbring, Siegel, and a handful of others began to dream of a new trail running through previously disconnected neighborhoods of San Francisco. Finally, in 2018, Siegel led a small group of volunteers (including myself, Pease, Hasselbring, and current SFUR chair Matthew Blain) in the creation of the Crosstown Trail, delegating the design of trail maps and route descriptions, launching a website, and hosting meetings at his house (and even over Zoom, during the pandemic) to establish events to promote the trail’s use. 

The seventeen-mile Crosstown Trail spans the city from its southeastern corner in Candlestick Point State Recreation Area to its northwesternmost point in Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s Lands End, making a crooked X with the Ridge Trail. 

“We didn’t create anything, really. It was all already there. We just showed people how the trails and spaces could be connected,” Siegel said. The Crosstown Trail was officially dedicated in June 2019, and recently celebrated its third anniversary with a weekend of volunteer-led hikes in June of 2022.

Meanwhile, in one of the city’s largest green spaces, the Presidio Trail team is also striving to increase access by gathering feedback and designing its new parks and trails for diverse communities.

“It’s not about making BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] into ‘park people.’ It’s about centering on their interests and their various ways of connecting with nature and the parks,” said Andrea Tacdol, community partnerships manager for the Presidio Trust. 

She gave the example of Presidio Tunnel Tops, the park’s newest addition. To develop plans for the site, the Presidio Trust received community feedback from thousands of people and attempted to design a space that everyone could enjoy. The new park serves as a launch point for many of the Presidio’s trails and provides intergenerational and indoor spaces, barbecue grills, picnic tables, and a calendar full of events. 

SFUR, Nature in the City, and other groups are also helping bring underserved youth and families into green spaces across the city. YMCA’s YBike, for example, helps lead local children on bike routes and trail maintenance volunteer days, to get them comfortable and excited to explore. 

“If you get kids outside, riding and volunteering on trails, it’s really eye-opening for them,” said Matt Dove, director of Presidio Community YMCA bicycle programs.

Embrace Your Nature Geek

On the foggy first Saturday of June 2019, I took the 38 Geary from my Tenderloin apartment to its terminus at Lands End. I was there to help lead the inaugural Crosstown Trail adventure from north to south with a group of eager learners (who even helped me read the maps I’d helped create). We bumped into dozens of other Crosstown Trail hikers heading northwest on the route. Leading people through existing trails into areas of the city they had never seen and up hills they would not have otherwise climbed was one of the best days I’ve ever spent in San Francisco.

For those who’d like to be more engaged with their park and trail systems, or who would like to get to know their city in a new way, the best advice I’ve encountered comes from volunteer Karen Rhodes. Rhodes also helped build the Crosstown Trail and is a member of the SF TAG, among other outdoor adventure groups.

“Feed your inner geek!” she proclaimed. “I am kind of a walk geek. I collect information and use that to inspire my treks.” She recommended reading blogs such as and; following the work of the San Francisco Arts Commission; taking free City Guides tours sponsored by the San Francisco Public Library; getting involved in organizations such as Latino Outdoors; and picking up a copy of Adah Bakalinsky’s Stairway Walks of San Francisco.

“Every neighborhood in San Francisco has something to offer, to explore, largely thanks to those who’ve come before,” Rhodes said.


Carrie Sisto is a freelance reporter who has been covering Bay Area news and events since 2016. She recently relocated to Los Osos, California, to work in San Luis Obispo County’s Planning and Building Department.