The best day in any big city is spent hanging out in the parks. I could honestly spend an entire week in Golden Gate or Central Park without doing much else and be perfectly happy. I love the contrast and the visible desperation of a park attempting to cling to its natural state in the middle of a huge city. We build cities and create absolute madness, then we hide out in parks to get away from what we’ve done and to desperately try to reconnect with nature and find some peace. All on our own terms. I often wonder if Mother Nature just watches our ridiculous behaviors and shakes her head in disgust or while laughing at the irony of the poor, clueless creatures, roaming about destroying her and in turn, themselves. Either way, she’s very tolerant, or has a wicked sense of humor to continue putting up with us. Maybe it’s both!
There are so many fantastic options of what to do in Golden Gate Park that you’ll struggle to decide, especially if you have a limited time. The park is 1,017 acres, and rectangular in shape exactly like Central Park, but even larger! There are 10 lakes, roaming buffalo (which are actually American Bison), multiple museums, a breathtaking Japanese Tea Garden, and two Dutch Windmills that date back to 1902, but that’s not it, the list just goes on and on. It’s entire 3 mile distance is literally packed with fun and interesting things to do from one end to the other.
When I visit the park, I like to take it in chunks and move slowly. This is the best way to experience any place. It’s just no fun to be rushed. If I had to chose just one day and my favorite things to do, it would certainly be a picnic lunch and rowing at Stow Lake followed by exploring Strawberry Hill. This is an especially lovely and easy day logistically. If you go on a weekday you can start with a museum or the Flower Conservatory in the morning, and then head to the lake just before or after lunch time to miss the crowds.
Stow lake is honestly such a fun and easy place to go in the park, but it’s not cheap by any means. You will easily spend $50 to buy two lunches and rent the boat for one hour. You can either walk to the boathouse, or drive and try to get a spot in the large, but usually packed, parking lot. They are open from 10am-4pm every day. When you arrive, get in line at the boathouse. All food and boat tickets are ordered and paid for here in the same location. You can select an electric boat, a rowboat, or a pedal boat to rent by the hour. Once you complete the transaction, you will be given a ticket that you hold on to until you are ready for your boat.
Packing a picnic lunch and some wine in your pack would be a fabulous idea, if you have the time. Beer and wine are allowed in all the picnic areas of Golden Gate Park. (I just love San Francisco!) I was out ridiculously late the night before and showed up woefully ill prepared for a picnic, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the boathouse food, and they do sell beer! I had the cheeseburger+bacon and fries, which was so surprisingly good and generous that it blew me away. I had to go back and see what the price was again to appreciate it fully as I’m completely used to overpriced, unsatisfying food generally served at attractions like this. It was a very well spent $11. That combined with the fact that we were really lucky and snagged a spot at the green picnic tables right next to the lake, made for a truly lovely pre-boating lunch experience.
After eating we walked over to stand in line and claim our boat and were also completely surprised at how quickly the line moved. In just a few moments, we were seated in a rowboat and gleefully turning in circles in the middle of the lake while singing “Kiss de Girl”…you know, because sometimes you just have to do these things. 🙂
It’s a good idea to keep an eye on the time as you’re rowing down into each nook and cranny of the lake to investigate things. An hour goes by quickly! It took about 90 minutes to loop the entire lake, which has been built to encircle Strawberry Hill in moat fashion, and I was a bit worried that we might need to pay for additional time. When we finished there was no notice or mention of it upon turning our boat in. We did rush off immediately to go exploring and completely forgot to get our $5 deposit back from the boathouse, but we circled back by after Strawberry Hill and managed to get it just before they closed. So, don’t forget to get your deposit back! I can’t even imagine how much extra money they make from people who forget or just leave because they don’t want to stand in line for the $5 refund.
After you turn in your boat, walk back to the beautiful stone bridge and cross it. Now you are on Strawberry Hill! There are paths all over leading to the top with beautiful views of Golden Gate Bridge and the city. If you stay on the bottom path and make the loop all the way around before going up, you’ll see Huntington Falls, a waterfall (which can be explored and climbed on), and the Chinese Pagoda. Yes, I know, I honestly thought it was Japanese as well, it makes sense since the Japanese Tea Gardens are nearby, right? But, I was quickly set straight by my friend who is fluent in Japanese and reads and writes in Kanji (Never mind the conspicuous sign written in plain English.) This is in fact, a Chinese Pagoda which was donated, along with the beautiful small stone bridge by Taipei in 1976. You can also reserve the pagoda for a wedding, by clicking here.
From here you can look for any viable path leading up. We continued to circle around the lower portion until we found the nice wide walking path. If you happen upon any squirrels, you’ll notice that they come charging at you with no fear and then turn on the cute in an attempt to get food. We saw loads of people feeding them, as well as the ducks, geese, turtles, birds and the fish. Apparently, the “Please don’t feed the animals” movement has yet to take off here.
Once you get to the top of the hill you will see that there are lovely and completely different views from each side. We stopped to take photos in every location that we could, but the best spots were on the giant old, worn smooth, felled trees and the area with a Golden Gate Bridge view. With less people making the climb to the top, this would also be a great area to have a picnic with more privacy and a beautiful view.
All in all, this is an enjoyable, relaxed day out walking and rowing. I would definitely suggest going on a weekday so you have less crowds and make sure you check the weather first!
*The businesses listed in this post are not paying me, or compensating me in any manner for this endorsement. I am simply sharing my own experience and knowledge in the hopes that others can use it to plan a great day in Golden Gate Park as well.