Urban Hike: Dolores Heights

It’s been spectacular weather here yet again. I follow this garden blog out of Ireland, called Arigna Gardener, and it’s interesting to follow Bridget’s accounts of similar weather patterns happening over there. Nothing we can do about the lack of rain in our parts, so might as well get out and enjoy what we are getting!

Dolores Heights is a really gorgeous hill in San Francisco. I’m fortunate to live on the edge of this hill, though the name really applies to the reaches above my own street, above the western 20th St steps at the end of my block. This was once a steep, rocky crag above the developing neighborhood below, but by the mid-1880’s many homes already covered the knob of rock.

Map of Dolores Heights vicinity, X marks the staircases.

Dolores Heights is bounded by Dolores Street as its eastern limit, the Castro on the north and west, and Noe Valley to the south. The grade of the hill is such that, despite all the streets being ones that continue beyond the hill, their individual blocks here are broken by staircases. You can see by the map that even the Muni J Church streetcar line has to skirt around the flank of the hill just south of Dolores Park, cutting through back yards and reconnecting with Church Street on the other side. Heading south down Sanchez, for example, you hit a staircase at 19th. To reach the next house on Sanchez, you have to go all the way around by Dolores Park and up the eastern side of the hill and hook back. Staircases break up the northern and southern sides of Sanchez Street, and the eastern and western sides of Cumberland, 20th, and Liberty Streets. The view from the top of the 360 ft (110m) summit between 21st and Hill Streets along Sanchez is quite phenomenal, I must say, and worth the huffing and puffing!

Nice variety of Agave, Pittosporum, and Hebe.

The hill is spectacularly gardened. You can tell the residents take pride in their surroundings, and it’s a great place to appreciate well-maintained plants. The staircases were built up primarily in the 1930’s and 40’s by the WPA, and the easement width of the street was left for planting around the stairs and ramps. Many homes are accessed directly via these staircases, and the gardened areas serve as their front gardens. Even the more public-only stairs get fostered by the local residents, though. They maintain the gardens and treat them like their own, adding plants on their own wallet. One guy in particular is a customer at my own job, and I was pleased to easily recognize his plants on my excursion scrambling all over the hill. 🙂

Nice little sidewalk garden with a redwood! Love the little split-rail fence.

The hill is popular among boot-campers, given the number of staircases and steep hills. (Boot Camps are these outdoor exercise herds that run in packs, roaming the steep hills and staircases of cities and towns near you, usually in the pre-dawn hours. They take advantage of getting their cardio workouts using the natural landscape instead of treadmills and stairsteppers…) Dolores Park is at the bottom of the hill, too, and adds another venue to the outdoor exercise, with its playground equipment. I’ve seen firefighter troops running training up these stairs, too, in chains of four to a shouldered fire hose (and looking like they were hating it!).

A beautiful carved memorial bench at the top of the hill.

The hill, as I mentioned, was largely built up already by the 1880’s. As we all know, the 1906 Earthquake and Fire destroyed just about all of San Francisco. The wooden homes hold up fairly well to the shaking, but not to the fire – especially in a windy coastal town like this is. At the northeast corner of the hill, at the uppermost corner of the park, is a golden fire hydrant.

Gold hydrant at Church and 20th.

This hydrant survived the quake, functioning at a time when so many water mains were broken in the City. It single-handedly saved the Victorian houses on the hill from the approach of the fires below. Every year on the anniversary of the quake, the hydrant is ceremonially freshened up with a coat of gold paint and opened up to show it still works. Incidentally, this was a wake-up call to SF that the water mains had all broken. As a step of thinking to the future, they built dozens of cisterns all over the City. These cisterns are made of brick, and generally hold about 40,000 gallons of water each. The bricks stack up, gradually decreasing in diameter like a circular beehive for stability. They are buried in the streets, in intersections all over town! You can see one of them just a block down the street from the hydrant, on 20th St just before Dolores at the top of the park. They are distinguishable by a large single file circle of bricks visible in the pavement of the street, usually about 20 feet diameter. Once you know what they are, you notice them wherever you go.

Beautiful Ginkgo biloba on the hill.

Dolores Park is really the best-used public park on the downtown side of the central divide, and is a great botanical garden of sorts, hosting many species of palm trees. Many events happen there, from SF Opera free shows, SF Mime Troupe, Red Bull Soapbox Derby races, Hunky Jesus, Movies in the Park, beginnings and endings of marches and parades and protests, etc. There’s a playground, terraces for sunbathers, off-leash dog areas, a soccer field, restrooms… It’s a place that’s almost always actives with at least a few dozen people.

Earthquake Shack house in Dolores Heights

After the 1906 quake, the park became a refugee camp for people burned out of their homes. The refugee camps all over town and the beach were built up with little shacks, some of which got relocated to the owners’ lots and incorporated into a larger house. A few of these Earthquake Shack houses survive still, and are now historic landmarks and are protected from change.

The steep streets of the hill are lined with all sorts of plants and planting styles, depending on who has kinda taken over the area. There are patches reminiscent of Japanese gardens, there are rigidly forced formal topiaries, there are bits that look almost wild, there are huge swathes of succulents like Aloe arborescens. And giant redwood trees (Sequoia sempervirens), Norfolk Island Pines (Araucaria heterophylla), Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa), Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata)… The architecture of the hill adds to the varied interest, with homes from the Victorian period interspersed with storybook homes of the 30’s and 1950’s-70’s modernism.

Sanchez Street median between the terrace split.

Median strips are planted up along a terrace that splits Liberty and Sanchez streets onto two levels out of necessity to combat the steep grade, and staircases connect the upper and lower terraces of the streets. Wide plots of sidewalk are also opened up for planting. It’s really a plant-lover’s dream, this here hill. Really worth the Urban Hike!

Sanchez Street Steps – Northern side at 19th Street

This is a concrete staircase that has two curved staircases that meet at a central landing, then continues straight up the center to a higher landing where it again splits to curve up to either sidewalk above. Gorgeous views to the north across Eureka Valley and Hayes Valley and beyond.

Looking up the steps from 19th.

Steps curving upward past a beautiful California Lilac - Ceanothus.

The view northward from above.

Sanchez Street Steps – Southern end at Liberty Street

Short concrete staircase with mature tall trees on either side, nice little peek-a-boo view of downtown to the northeast from the top. Connects the upper terrace of Liberty with a switchback portion of Sanchez.

The southern Sanchez steps, at Liberty.

A garden up the hill from the steps.

Cumberland Street Steps – Western side at Noe Street

Steep red rocky slope planted with Agave and ivy and jade plants, with Pride of Madeira and numerous other changing plantings clinging to the rocks. The staircase climbs a few short steps to a long sloping ramp, then more steps up to Cumberland at the far end. Nice views to the northwest towards Corona Heights and Buena Vista Park.

Agave, jade, and ivy at the western Cumberland Street steps.

View from the western Cumberland steps, looking northwest. Castro's big rainbow flag in the center.

20th Street Steps – Western side at Noe Street

Probably the most boring staircase of the lot. The view to the west is so narrow that it’s nothing to speak of. Mostly, it serves as the front door access to the apartment building that flanks it. It connects the climbing 20th Street with itself, on an upper terrace after 20th makes a switchback half a block south on Noe. It’s a scraggly unkept patch of trees and shrubs. Perhaps I should start stewarding it, since it’s the closest to me!

Looking up from Noe.

The switchback from Noe back onto 20th.

Looking down from above.

Pretty succulent plot in a garden at the top.

Liberty Street Steps – Western side at Noe Street

These are a wide swath of green the whole width of the ascending street, with a long straight staircase right up the middle. Art Deco era apartments line either side of the staircase, which serves as the only access to the front doors. Each apartment maintains a front yard plot up to the stairs. Spectacular views to the west and the looming Sutro Tower and Twin Peaks.

View to Twin Peaks and Sutro Tower, west from the top.

Entrance on the stairs.

Stairs from Noe below.

Passion Vine - Passiflora mollissima - on the steps.

Cumberland Street Steps – Eastern side at Sanchez Street

Second most “bleh” staircase, due to the declining garden. Couple steps, ramp, steps again. The sidewalk at the top of the steps is a full five feet below the grade of the street above, and is separated from the overhead street by a gardened strip. Short staircases along the walk provide periodic access to street parking above. The view is limited but nice, and includes the hills of the East Bay, and downtown SF to a degree.

Eastern Cumberland Street steps, going up to Sanchez.

Nice Canary Island Palm - Phoenix canariensis - in a front yard on Cumberland's eastern ascent.

From the top of the steps to the east.

Split level sidewalk at the top, along Sanchez.

20th Street Steps – Eastern side at Sanchez Street

That switchback of 20th from Noe ends at another staircase after one short block! The view to the east from the top is pretty darn good, though. This staircase is one of the better-gardened of the group. The sides are lined with varieties of Agave and other Mediterranean climate plants, and neighboring yards seem to extend the gardens even further.

The steps, going up from Sanchez. Gorgeous Agave attenuata 'Nova'.

Pretty Agaves!

Neighboring garden on Sanchez at bottom of steps. Love the combo of succulents and Begonias!

Topiary fanatics on Sanchez!

Treehouse at the bottom of the steps, in a private garden next door.

Street gardens on 20th, leading up the eastern slope.

Liberty Street Steps – Eastern side at Sanchez Street

The steep grade of this part of the hill requires that both Liberty and Sanchez Streets get split into two terraces. These terraces are supported by WPA concrete retaining walls about 20 feet high at the highest part, with a strip of garden between. Tall, mature trees intersperse with varied newer plantings for year-round beauty. Lots of Japanese maples in here. Liberty Street from Church Street is split entirely into the two terraces, the lower one being one way uphill, and the upper one being one way downhill. There is a main staircase at the top, but several smaller staircases along the length of the block provide shortcuts for residents to street park on one terrace or another. At the top, Liberty’s lower terraces hooks right onto Sanchez, continuing almost to 20th. A U-turn brings you onto the upper Sanchez terrace, which is two-way. At the top at Liberty, Sanchez has to jog around a switchback (see Sanchez Steps South above), and a left turn onto Liberty continues down that upper terrace back to Church Street. Lotsa steps, lots of garden!

Eastern Liberty St steps between terraces.

Wider shot of the steps.

Cute little strawberry pot plot on the median along Liberty.

Japanese garden styling along the median.

Midway staircase and plot along Liberty.

Succulents and ferns happily cohabiting.

Stump as a wine barrel pedestal.

Tree fern (Cyathea cooperii) in the median.

Beautiful Giant Bird of Paradise - Strellitzia romanzoffskiana.

View from midway along the upper terrace of Liberty, facing northeast towards downtown.

4 responses to “Urban Hike: Dolores Heights

  1. Pingback: Urban Hike: Corona Heights | boZannical Gardens

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  3. Pingback: Front Yard Cleanup (Before and After) | boZannical Gardens

  4. Pingback: Urban Hike: Buena Vista Park | boZannical Gardens

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