San Francisco is defined by its hills. They give rise to, even are, its landmarks: Coit Tower, Nob Hill, the cable cars. They are the mirror image of the neighborhoods into which they divide The City. They shape the fog, guiding it away from sunny districts and into others. What better way to know San Francisco than to know its hills?
Several years ago I took a series of walks from my home in the Mission District to the tops of some of San Francisco’s major hills. Behind one day’s goal always rose up the next, a hill I’d seen from the top of the last one or an interesting name on the map. Eventually I wanted to visit all of them; I needed to know what they were; and in the end there was nothing for it but to decide for myself.
Standing on the shoulders of giants
Which is certainly not to say that no-one has made a list of San Francisco’s hills before. They have, and it’s worth looking at what’s already been written on the subject before setting out ourselves.
In the growing genre of lists of San Francisco hills, it’s a tradition to mention the “seven hills of San Francisco”, chalk the idea up to an echo of Rome, and go on to count higher (a tradition I certainly intend to follow). Perhaps there are seven hills that stand out from the rest, but, as Herb Caen notes in his introduction to Hills of San Francisco, no-one can quite agree on which. Lists of seven are likely to include Telegraph, Nob and Russian Hills, around which San Francisco’s oldest neighborhoods grew up, and The City’s highest three hills, Mount Davidson, Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro. The seventh might be anything; perhaps Rincon Hill, perhaps Lone Mountain. Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to seven.
We might turn instead to the highest law in the land, the board of the U.S. Geological Survey which is responsible for standardizing place names used by the federal government. You can see the USGS’s list by going to http://geonames.usgs.gov/pls/gnispublic/ and searching for all of the “summits” in San Francisco County, CA. There are twenty-two; two are in the Farallon Islands — a useful reminder that even the simple phrase “in San Francisco” needs a little definition — and one is an error, a confusion of Lone Mountain and Presidio Hill, both already on the list. Though the rest are a good start, it’s not hard to think of hills that Uncle Sam missed. Just to name a few, the peaks of Diamond Heights and Golden Gate Heights are missing altogether.
The most charming and evocative survey of the City’s high places came in Hills of San Francisco, a compilation of columns from the San Francisco Chronicle published in 1959. It describes each of 42 hills with such a wealth of local detail that its list is still the one most often seen today. A few hills are still missing — among them two in the Presidio and several small hills in Golden Gate Park — and though a couple of entries have hilly names, they aren’t hills at all.
Glady’s Hansen’s authoritative and thorough San Francisco Almanac repeats the list from Hills of San Francisco in its “Hills” chapter (adding the recently-named Cathedral Hill for a count of 43), but then quietly gives a different answer by including many additional hills in its chapter on “Place Names”. Piecing together the two lists gives us the names of almost every named hill in the City. Of the major hills on the mainland, only Rob Hill is missing.
Most recently, Tom Graham, in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, listed the 53 hills he’d identified while walking every street in San Francisco. Along with most of the hills from San Francisco Almanac, Rob Hill is here, as well as a peak or two (Sherwood Forest, Monterey Heights) not seen on earlier lists. Unfortunately, a few names are applied to the wrong places.[i]
So, what can yet another list accomplish besides a few corrections and additions? The most complete source, San Francisco Almanac, is out of print, and it takes some effort to sort the hills it mentions from other place names. And some hills don’t have names, and some have more than one.
When is a hill a hill?
When it’s a lone mountain. That is, if you can walk all the way around it, always looking up to its summit. It’s not so clear cut when hills run together into a ridge, which most of San Francisco’s do. Height alone is not so important: a very small hill may be perfectly obvious, while a string of higher summits may be hard to tell one from the next. It’s easier to call a hill a hill if it’s separated from its neighbors — if, on a topographic map, a contour line or two traces all the way around its summit. Horizontal distance matters as well: the longer a ridge between two summits, the more reasonable it seems to name them differently, even if it doesn’t dip very low between them.
Just as important as topography is the judgement of generations of San Franciscans, manifested in the names they’ve given to the lumps and bumps they live on. The gap between Nob Hill and Russian Hill is only just deep enough for us to tell one from the other if we were starting fresh, but no native would think of confusing them. Considering only geography, one could divide McLaren Ridge into three or four or five features just as distinct from one another as Nob Hill from Russian Hill, but no-one has ever needed to and so we don’t.
But nomenclature too has its traps. San Francisco English may not have the dozens of words for “hill” that Eskimos legendarily do for snow, but it compensates by using the words it has in different ways. While a feature called a “hill” or “mount” or “mountain” is usually just that, a “hill” might also be just a face of another hill, particularly if (like Billy Goat Hill, for example) it stands out because it is undeveloped. Any street can become a “hill” when it heads upwards, and can sometimes acquire a capital H. “Heights” is an even more elastic term: it might mean a ridge, a bluff, an ordinary round hill or even only a slope. The City has a few “Points” (Christmas Tree Point below Twin Peaks, Broom Point and Chicken Point in Golden Gate Park), not projections of land into water but the sharp ends of ridges; some are hills and some not. A “terrace” is usually nothing more than a real estate subdivision, one not necessarily on a height or slope, but many streets in the Mount Olympus area are Terraces. And the single use of “Mound” within City limits gives away the namers’ hesitation, knowing that what they were naming was the merest of elevations.
All of which is to say that poring over neither topographic maps nor lists of place names alone suffices to separate the hills from the flatlands. While I didn’t want criteria that required me to re-survey every summit and ridge in the City, neither did I want to ignore the gaps between existing lists and what was actually on the map and all around me as I walked.
On USGS topographic maps of San Francisco, nearly every named hill in the City is separated from its neighbors by two or more contour lines — that is, the ground between them is no less than 25 feet, and usually more like 50 feet, lower than their tops. On inspection, most “hills” that this criterion leaves out don’t seem like hills at all. I allowed a little leeway for the features traditionally called “hills” and a little less for “heights” and the like, and I raised the bar a bit for summits traditionally considered part of a larger feature. The result was a list that left out only the most suspicious of the usual suspects. Combing the City for unnamed hills that met these criteria, I found only a few; San Franciscans have been very observant about their home.
While the problem is complex enough that no solution will satisfy everyone — my criteria require a little judgement in a few cases; had I chosen completely strict criteria one could in turn differ with those — I’m more than happy enough with the list I came up with to say that I’ve stood on top of every hill in San Francisco. If you’d like to do the same, here they are.
Its summit is Alamo Square Park.
Bounded by Turk, Masonic, Geary and Divisadero.
In Golden Gate Park, south of Rhododendron Dell.
South of the intersection of Bayshore Blvd and U.S. 101, encircled by Hester Avenue, Lois Lane crosses its summit.
At the southeast corner of the City, on Candlestick Point, between Interstate 280 and Candlestick Park.
A.k.a. Bayview Hill.
Its summit is Bernal Heights Park, bounded by the Boulevard of the same name.
Sometimes humorously known, alluding to its many lesbian residents, as Nanny Goat Hill. Precita Heights is the eastern end of the same ridge.
Buena Vista Heights
Its summit is Buena Vista Park, bounded by Buena Vista Avenue West.
In Golden Gate Park, across Martin Luther King Jr. Drive from Mallard Lake.
Its summit is at Pacific & Lyon.
The west end of the ridge of Pacific Heights. Named for the cannon that once stood at the southeast corner of the Presidio.
In Golden Gate Park, west of the Conservatory of Flowers.
Its summit is on Collingwood just north of 22nd Street.
In Golden Gate Park, across John F. Kennedy Drive from the Conservatory of Flowers.
A.k.a. Lawn Point or Favorite Point.
City College Hill
North of Ocean Avenue and west of Interstate 280, its summit is crowned by City College’s Science Hall.
The site of Sutro Tower.
A.k.a. Sutro Crest.
Bounded by Mission Street and St. Mary’s, San Jose & Richland Avenues.
This hill would have been merely the eastern end of Fairmont had it not been separated from Fairmont Heights by the Bernal Cut around 1862. St. Mary’s College, for which College Hill was named, opened in 1863.
The rocky peak between Buena Vista Heights and the Castro District.
Its summit is around 21st Street between Noe and Sanchez.
A.k.a. Noe or Sanchez Hill. Liberty Hill is its eastern end. 22nd Street between Church & Vicksburg, with a 31.5% grade, is one of San Francisco’s two steepest streets.
Northwest of Mt. Davidson, its summit is ringed by Edgehill Way.
Between Mission Street and McLaren Park, its peak is at France and Madrid Streets.
The easternmost peak of Diamond Heights. Its summit is on Everson Street near Digby.
Billy Goat Hill is part of its northern slope.
The southernmost peak of Golden Gate Heights. Two water tanks and a broadcast tower mark its summit at the west end of Mendosa Avenue.
Hawk Hill, above Hoover Middle School, is its southwest slope.
On Yerba Buena Island.
Several hills in San Francisco have been called Goat Hill or Billy Goat Hill or Nanny Goat Hill at one time or another. Hillsides too steep for houses were heaven for goats.
Gold Mine Hill
Diamond Heights’ central peak. Ora Way runs over its summit.
Grand View Hill
This bare northernmost peak of Golden Gate Heights interrupts Moraga between 14th and 15th Avenues.
A.k.a. Turtle Hill.
In Golden Gate Park, north of Children’s Playground.
North of the fountain in Golden Gate Park’s Strybing Arboretum.
Site of the Heidelberg Castle in the 1894 Midwinter Exposition.
The hill, southwest of Bernal Hill, whose apex is Holly Park, bordered by Holly Park Circle.
Hunter’s Point Ridge
The eastern of the Hunter’s Point neighborhood’s two hills. Its top is on Whitney Young Circle near Hilltop Park.
A.k.a Stony Hill.
The low hill south just south of Lone Mountain. Its summit is on the University of San Francisco campus between Fulton, Parker, Golden Gate and Masonic.
A remant of a once much larger hill at 20th and Illinois Streets.
Grand View Terrace and Corwin Street dead-end at this undeveloped hill northeast of Twin Peaks.
See also Merced Heights.
Its top is Lafayette Square.
The eastern peak of the ridge that is Pacific Heights. Cathedral Hill is its southern face.
The highest peak of the four of Golden Gate Heights. Sunset Heights Park, between Quintara Street, 14th Avenue, Rockridge Drive and 12th Avenue, marks its summit.
Lupine Avenue runs along the top of this hill.
The Palace of the Legion of Honor sits atop this hill in Lincoln Park.
The main building of the University of San Francisco is at the top of this hill between Turk Boulevard, Parker and Anza Streets and Masonic Avenue.
On Maintop Island in the southease Farallon Islands.
At the east end of Martha Avenue in Glen Park.
Stretches from the blue water tower above La Grande Avenue at its west end to Interstate 280 in the east end.
McLaren Ridge has eight different summits of varying degrees of prominence, but only one has a name: Visitacion Knob, McLaren Ridge’s highest point, just west of the intersection of Shelley Drive and Mansell.Street. University Mound is the area on the northern slopes of McLaren Ridge to the west of the University Mound Reservoir.
Comprises three summits: that in Brooks Park at its west end, the highest, Shields/Orizaba Rocky Outcrop (one of San Francisco’s finest and least-known views), and that at the intersection of Thrift and Summit Streets.
A.k.a. Ingleside Heights. Merced Heights and Ingleside Heights sometimes refer to the north and south slopes of the same ridge. The western summit is also known as Kite Hill. The Columbia Heights neighborhood is around the eastern end of Lakeview Avenue.
Between Duboce Avenue and Webster, Hermann and Buchanan Streets.
Mint Hill was created by the Market Street Cut and truncated when the New Mint was built.
Southwest of Mt. Davidson, between Rosewood and Fernwood Drives.
San Francisco’s highest hill is topped by a colossal concrete cross.
Stanford Heights is a neighborhood on its southeastern slope.
Rises up behind the horseshoe pits in the northeastern corner of Golden Gate Park.
The traffic circle at the end of Upper Terrace marks its summit.
Its north face is the Ashbury Heights neighborhood.
Mt. St. Joseph
The summit is bounded by Topeka Drive, Bridgeview Avenue and Newhall Street.
Its peak is at the west end of Behr Avenue.
Parnassus Heights, site of the University of California at San Francisco, is on its north slope.
The summit of San Francisco’s most famous hill is around the intersection of Clay and Jones Streets.
A complex hill between Route 101, 17th Street, Interstate 280 and Cesar Chavez Street, its highest point is around the reservoir at 22nd and Wisconsin Streets.
The eastern part of Bernal Heights, with summits at the intersection of Rutledge and Franconia and on Peralta between Ripley and Esmeralda.
In the Presidio between Presidio, Washington and Arguello Boulevards and West Pacific Avenue. A reservoir is at its top.
Red Rock Hill
Red Rock Way marks the top of this northernmost peak of Diamond Heights.
Its apex at First and Harrison Streets is crowned by the One Rincon Hill skyscraper.
Between Washington Boulevard and Hunter Road in the western Presidio.
Its twin summits are marked by George Sterling Park and by the architecturally important block of Vallejo Street west of Jones. Filbert between Hyde and Leavenworth is San Francisco’s other steepest street.
Robin Hood Way runs along the crest of this shoulder of Mt. Davidson.
Golden Gate Park’s largest hill rises out of Stow Lake.
This bluff above the Cliff House still preserves the ruins of Adolf Sutro’s estate.
The undeveloped outcrop at the east end of Twin Peaks Boulevard.
Site of Coit Tower and Nob Hill’s rival in fame.
On Southeast Farallon Island.
A.k.a. Lighthouse Hill, Beacon Hill.
The pair of round hills with a single name at the center of San Francisco.
Christmas Tree Point, north of the northern Twin Peak, is the site of the viewing area.
This low bluff in the Portola District is the site of the same-named reservoir.
Despite what earlier sources say, there is no summit in the tract west of the reservoir. But the steep edges of the reservoir site, along with tradition, keep University Mound on the list.
Washington High School, between Balboa, 32nd, Geary and 30th Avenue, tops this broad hill in the Richmond.
The hill at the back of Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden.
The ridge in Golden Gate Park between Lincoln Way, Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Kezar Way.
A hill in the San Francisco dump, south of Little Hollywood Community Park, its highest point is at the south end of Tocoloma Avenue.
It’s hard to suggest a name for this one. Hollywood Hill would be a fine name, but Bayshore Heights to the north of the neighborhood displays more of its character and is already named. Dump Hill is not likely to be a popular choice.
A hill in the Bayview District entirely occupied by the Alice Griffith, or Double Rock, housing project, roughly bounded by Fitzgerald Avenue, Cameron Way and Griffith Street.
Double Rock itself is just off shore in South Basin. What more likely name for the hill which overlooks it than Double Rock Hill?
A knob in Visitacion Valley along whose crest Pasadena Street runs.
The hill and street correspond so closely that this could be nothing other than Pasadena Hill.
A substantial undeveloped hill in Visitacion Valley between Geneva, Brookdale and Sunnydale Avenues and the Crocker-Amazon Playground.
A hill at the east end of Noe Valley whose peak is on Dolores Street at Jersey Street.
It would be hard for this hill to inherit a street name: Dolores Street crosses two hills and its name is more or less used for the other, and the stretch of Jersey that climbs and ends atop this hill is not a busy one. Perhaps it’s time to bring back the name of John Horner (whose land holdings, still known as “Horner’s Addition” in city records, became Noe Valley) and call this Horner’s Hill.
The Noe Valley hill at whose summit is the Duncan-Castro Natural Area.
Dominating much of Noe Valley as it does, it’s remarkable that this hill remains unnamed. As this narrow hill runs generally along Duncan Street, and as there’s already a Castro Hill, Duncan Hill would be a natural name for this one.
Golden Gate Heights’ unnamed peak is just north of Larsen Peak and bounded by Aerial Way, Funston Avenue and Pacheco Street.
Its west face is Rock Outcrop Natural Area.
The hill in Golden Gate Park atop which stands Prayerbook Cross.
I don’t know what one would call this hill other than Prayerbook Cross Hill, but I haven’t seen that name used.
*Heights are from USGS maps. I give the exact height when the USGS map has it, otherwise the height of the highest contour line surrounding the peak. Thanks to Jeff Harter for correcting many of the heights.
The lay of the land
San Francisco has no less than 74 hills. There are 71 on the mainland, of which 63 have names and eight do not, plus Goat Hill on Yerba Buena Island and Maintop and Tower Hills on the Farallons.
Many of these hills are familiar. Even the least-known major hills (Fairmount, Rob Hill) have already been listed in at least one earlier source. The length of the list comes from a handful of less-frequently-mentioned minor features such as the small hills around Mount Davidson, those in Golden Gate Park, hills on islands and hills without names. It’s also worth mentioning a few hills whose absence makes the list a bit shorter.
Details of Golden Gate Park have often been neglected by San Francisco geographers. In many ways it’s a world apart from the rest of the City. Many of the undulations of its underlying sand dunes have been preserved, both hills and depressions, sometimes seeming such a jumble of topography that individual features are hard to discern. The park’s undeveloped nature and winding paths also draw one’s attention away from particular peaks and valleys. But the names of its hills are particularly rich in associations — Heidelberg Hill, the site of the 1894 Midwinter Fair’s Heidelberg Castle; Hippie Hill, the front lawn of Haight-Ashbury, and so on — and they certainly deserve their place.
Most of San Francisco’s islands don’t contribute to the list at all. Although Angel Island and Red Rock Island lie partly within San Francisco, their summits do not. Alcatraz Island is entirely within City limits, but has no hill which can be distingushed from the island itself. Neither do any of the named rocks fit the notion of a hill. Only Yerba Buena Island and the Farallons have elevations with their own identities.
As populated and thoroughly studied as San Francisco is, perhaps it’s not surprising that nearly all of its hills have names. Only a few, many in less-visited corners of the city, do not. I’ve included here only the handful of unnamed features I’ve found which are unquestionably hilly and not part of some other feature. (I have been so bold as to suggest names for some of them, the names which have stuck in my own head, partly in the hope that someone who knows better might be inspired to correct me.) Although there are many more less-distinct prominences which might have rated as hills of their own if San Francisco’s residents had conferred names on them, any survey which primarily considers topography will not find many more candidates.
And what of the old friends who have gone missing? One can’t think about criteria for which unnamed features might be worth considering without realizing that a few of the features included on previous lists of hills come up short. For the most part these are simply cases of the same peak, or different slopes of the same peak, being given different names. Cathedral Hill is the south slope of Lafayette Hill, Billy Goat Hill is part of the north slope of Fairmount, and Parnassus Heights sits on Mount Sutro’s knee. On the other hand, some ridges don’t appear on the list but their constituent hills do: the well known place names of Pacific and Golden Gate and Diamond Heights make way here for the individual hills of which they’re made.
Everyone lives in their own world of their own making; everyone lives in their own San Francisco. How you see and think of and call — and count — things depends on where you go and what you see and do there. Maybe you know of a hill I don’t; I’d be happy to hear of it. Maybe some of the hills here are new to you; why not go exploring, and add something new to your list.