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History of Mount Sutro

Mount Sutro’s Cultural History

Mount Sutro is a prominent landmark located in the center of San Francisco. It plays a significant role in both the cultural and natural history of San Francisco and continues to offer some mystery and intrigue to those willing to explore its lush forest and century-old trails.

The story of modern-day Mount Sutro begins in the early 1800s. Its slopes of rich native coastal scrub and grasses are located at the northernmost tip of the San Miguel Range, an open and sparse set of hills in the center of San Francisco. These hills, including Twin Peaks and Mt. Davidson, formed the division between the small settlement of Yerba Buena and the Outside Lands, as everything to the west of the hills was referred to. Named Blue Mountain at the time, its steep North Ridge formed the most significant landmark from the town and most points on the Bay including the mouth of the Golden Gate.

The first official landowner of the modern-day Mount Sutro property was José de Jesus Noe, the last Alcalde (Mayor) of Yerba Buena. It was on December 23, 1845 that Governor Pio Pico granted Noe ownership of Rancho San Miguel.

Adolph Sutro, an immigrant from Prussia, traveled to the western United States in 1850, anxious to make a fortune in California’s Gold Rush. After selling his interest in a Comstock mine tunnel, he settled in San Francisco and proceeded to purchase real estate throughout the city. At one point Sutro’s land holdings consisted of 2200 acres, totaling approximately one-tenth of San Francisco. Most of his holdings were in the undeveloped land west of Twin Peaks. The largest single acquisition was the 1,200-acre parcel of Rancho San Miguel.

The Rancho San Miguel property began at present-day Parnassus Avenue and extended south and west all the way to Ocean Avenue. Except for a few farms, the land was very much in its natural state of sand covered by fragrant native coastal shrublands. Adolph Sutro began planting his property with eucalyptus, cypress, and pine. Within a couple of decades, he transformed the hills into a forested plantation. Many years after his death the mountain was renamed in Sutro’s honor.

Mount Sutro Rediscovered

In 1998, at the urging of its campus neighbors, UCSF embarked on a program to create a management plan for its Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve. In the year 2000, a series of public meetings were held, and, with much community input, the result was an award-winning open space plan to serve as a guide to the long-term restoration and management of the 61 acres above the Parnassus Heights Campus.

The Mount Sutro Management Plan balances the following key principles:

-  Ensure public safety and property protection

-  Improve the health of the forest

-  Protect and expand native plants

-  Enhance wildlife habitat values

-  Maintain scenic quality

-  Improve public access


In 2003 the Rotary Club of San Francisco donated $100,000 allowing implementation of the first phase of habitat restoration, Rotary Meadow, a native plant garden located on the former NIKE site at the summit. Fast forward to 2005 when, during survey work for a proposed new trail, a very old trail was discovered instead. This was the beginning of a year of discoveries, as volunteers attempted to determine the route of what is now called the “Historic Trail” believed to have been built in the 1880s.

Beginning in September 2006 a talented group of local volunteers met with UCSF and proposed the formation of a stewardship program that would address some of the goals of the Open Space Management Plan. With the approval of the University, the Mount Sutro Stewards was formed. The Steward’s approach to addressing the unmet goals of the management plan would take two directions. First, they would restore and improve the trail network allowing for easier navigation through the densely wooded area creating a greater experience for the adventuresome. The second was to begin habitat restoration allowing some of San Francisco’s locally rare plant colonies a chance to survive, regenerate, and potentially thrive.

The program became an instant success! With regular stewardship days scheduled, large numbers of volunteers began to arrive monthly. The first major effort was to rehabilitate the Historic Trail and restore some rare native plant colonies from the thick stands of invasive ivy and blackberry. Over the first twelve months, volunteers contributed over 5,000 hours of labor to the stewardship program and the Stewards received a San Francisco Beautiful Award for the effort in 2007.


Today, the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve is an ecological oasis in the heart of San Francisco’s urban environment. The work continues to this day with continued recognition and newly forged partnerships allowing for strong bonds among the Stewards, the University, and the surrounding communities. Our partners in this volunteer effort include One Brick, SF Urban Riders, Nature In The City, Rotary Club of San Francisco, and the California Native Plant Society along with continued generous support from UCSF.

Mount Sutro’s Natural History

The Pacific Ocean is visible less than three miles to the west, but the 900-foot elevation gain means that Mount Sutro directly catches the cool coastal winds and fog. While much of the Bay Area experiences a hot and dry summer, Mount Sutro is more likely to be cool and damp. The abundant summer fog contributes to the mountain’s microclimates and its plant and wildlife communities. The summer experience on Mount Sutro can be similar to that of a tropical forest, with Sutro’s eucalyptus harvesting measurable precipitation from the fog-laden atmosphere during a 24-hour period. On the north-facing slopes, a lush mosaic of deciduous elderberry, ocean spray and pink-flowering currant still thrive while hidden among many non-native plant neighbors. These communities harbor salamanders, over sixty species of songbirds, owls, including the great horned owl, hawks, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and possums.

The north-facing slope near the top of the mountain harbors a special plant assemblage composed primarily of nootka reedgrass (Calamagrostis nutkaensis). This dense prairie community needs the extra moisture afforded by the combination of northern aspect and higher elevation. The botanically diverse coastal prairie garden (Rotary Meadow) at the summit also supports many native wildflowers, including a late-blooming rare species, the San Francisco gum plant,

(Grindelia hirsutula var. maritima). Chert is the bedrock that is exposed in the many dramatic rock outcrops on Mount Sutro and on many of San Francisco’s hills. This common San Francisco red rock is part of the Franciscan geologic complex, a mélange of many rock types including sandstone, shale, basalt, and serpentine. Chert was formed in the South Pacific from the sequential deposition of dead and decaying microorganisms called radiolaria, whose silica skeletons hardened together to form the rock. Over millions of years of plate tectonics, the radiolarian chert migrated up to the Bay Area from its origins at the equator. 110 million years of geological history are reflected by the layers of deposition of radiolaria, which can be observed under a microscope. One meter of sequential chert layering equals approximately one million years. Check out the obvious red rock chert layers on your climb to the summit!

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