There shouldn’t be a park here. That’s what Frederick Law Olmsted, the legendary designer behind New York’s Central Park, told San Francisco bigwigs in 1865, when they first approached him about creating an equally grand park in their city. The frontier metropolis, he said, was too windy and sandy to support even a tree.
And yet, here it is. Born 150 years ago, Golden Gate Park is a delightful surprise, 1,017 green acres in the heart of one of the densest cities in the United States. It’s a welcome reprieve from the urban jungle, a place where San Franciscans can toss a Frisbee, row a boat, and joyously decompress.
“The best urban park in America,” says Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. Ginsburg’s position might make him seem biased, but trust me—he’s right. The park has been my family’s beloved backyard for nearly 20 years. It is beyond compare.
Ignoring Olmsted, legislators approved the park’s development on April 4, 1870. But the proposed site was wilderness, mostly giant sand dunes dotted with tangles of scrub oak. Luckily, two intrepid San Franciscans—park surveyor William Hammond Hall and horticulturist John McLaren—rose to the challenge.
“They planted trees to block the wind,” explains Ginsburg, discovering that “by mixing barley with sand, they could get things to grow.” In two years, the duo planted 22,000 hardy saplings. Today, the park is verdant with redwoods and rhododendrons, conifers and camellias.