Mount Sutro Cloud Forest Hike
It’s been a foggy summer, and here in the Fog Belt, it’s been like living inside a cloud.
It’s the perfect time, if you like mysterious ethereal forests, for a walk in our neighborhood Cloud Forest. On a foggy day, it may be the most beautiful place in all of San Francisco .
So for those who haven’t done it before… here’s my personal guide to the forest.
There are several ways to approach the forest from our neighborhood, but I’ll divide them into the Adventurous and the Easy. On foggy days, you could describe them as Wet and Dry. Generally, there’ll be few people on either set of routes (though maybe a few more on the Easy ones).
THE ADVENTUROUS ROUTES
The two routes that lead directly from Forest Knolls are what I call adventurous, for two reasons.
First, access is very steep, especially for the first part of it. It involves scrambling up a trail. It’s not inaccessible by any means – I’ve been up there with neighbors in their sixties. But … it’s not a walk in the park. Also, it’s easier going up than coming down it, so you might plan a route that returns by a less steep path.
Second, on foggy days, it leads into the deepest Cloud Forest. This is actually my favorite part, but it’s Wet. The ground can get very slushy indeed, and I often return with much mud on my shoes and jeans. Sometimes, the narrowest trails can become boggy.
The first route starts with a few steps opposite 365 Crestmont. On the map, it’s the West Ridge Trail. It’s narrow and you may need to go carefully, moving back blackberry stems as you go. (And be aware there may be poison oak around.)
The second is the access to the South Ridge, opposite 101 Christopher, between the lamp-post and the chain-link fence (fenced radar site) hidden among the bushes. It may even be a little steeper.
There’s also another access point on Crestmont, about halfway between these two, but I think that’s maybe unofficial. It seemed to have more poison oak, too. And finally, I have sometimes scrambled up the Gash left by the SFPUC’s water-pipe replacement (on Christopher) but I don’t recommend it because it’s very steep. It brings you to the Aldea campus.
THE EASY ROUTES
The “dry” routes, which are still lovely but don’t feel as wild, start out in the Aldea Student Housing. If you want to drive up, you can sometimes find parking on Clarendon Avenue next to the campus. There’s no public parking on the campus itself.
Here again, there are two options.
1) If you go uphill on Johnstone and then along Behr, you will come to a chain blocking vehicle access. That’s the Nike Road, and it’s wide and paved. If you follow it to the top (this is a pretty short route) , you will find the Native Garden, officially the Rotary Meadow. It’s about 3 acres of shrubs, (which are green this time of the year) and grass (which is brown). It has wide gravel paths, and is surrounded by the forest. You can investigate some paths with an easy out if it becomes too steep or slushy.
2) The second option is the Fairy Gates trail, which starts on Johnstone, right in front of the Chancellor’s House. (That’s the very elegant house opposite the lower intersection of Johnstone and Behr. Do stop to notice the stand of redwoods right there…) This trail is pretty dry, not too steep, and quite broad except where it goes between two rocks (the “Fairy Gates”). It used to be more wooded in feeling, but some trees have been removed on either side and it’s now very open except at the beginning. It offers views of the forest in the ravine below, and has nasturtiums blooming along parts of it. It ends on the road through the forest, Medical Center Way. Though that is open to traffic, it has sidewalks. Also, not much traffic goes that way, especially not now when the bottom end is closed for construction. [ETA: It’s reopened. Watch out for cars, but there’s still not much traffic.]
If you feel like checking out the forest a bit more, the bottom part of the Historic Trail is also relatively dry, though if you follow it to the top it takes you back into the clouds. The Edgewood Trail will take you down into the Edgewood neighborhood. It’s steep but not very muddy. This area has some huge trees and interesting terrain.
3. [ETA June 2011: There is a new trail now from Stanyan (just above 17th) that climbs up to Medical Center Way. Of course, you can also take it in the opposite direction. Though it’s a climb, it’s quite broad and easy to hike. Its bottom end starts with a wooden staircase between two houses; the top end connects to Medical Center Way.]
These are many other trails, of course. Exploring the whole mountain probably wouldn’t take more than 3-4 hours. The rule of thumb is that in areas where the forest canopy is open and the undergrowth thinned, the trails tend to be dry (and sometimes slippery with dust and dry leaves). Where it’s closed, and the undergrowth remains, it’s usually damp or wet (and sometimes slippery with mud). Dress warm on foggy days, and expect it to be quite cool even on warmer ones. I always wear long sleeves, jeans, socks and walking shoes I can get muddy. (It also helps in case of poison oak… haven’t been hit by it yet, in all the time I’ve wandered around in there.) There’s a checklist here.
Despite all these warnings, this is a pretty accessible forest. To me, it’s completely worth it to be among those tall trees, their tops in the gray mist while inside the forest it’s fresh and green in the dimness. Birds don’t sing much in the fog, but there’ll be the odd tweet or rustle. Sounds get muffled. Usually, there are few people around. It’s the wild part of the woods. If it’s twilight, you might hear or see the Great Horned Owls. For those who enjoy a little walk on the wild side, one of the best features of Forest Knolls is the forest.