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Sutro Stewards 10th Anniversary: Reflections From Our Beginning

The Cat

It was Fourth of July weekend in 2007 and I found myself out on the Fairy Gates Trail chipping away at a massive rock outcrop. I was attempting to create a safe passage over the existing jumble of rock by creating a small shelf to walk across. It was an unusually warm morning for July in San Francisco and I was soaked in sweat. The rock I was chipping away at was incredibly hard to split, brittle, and unforgiving, yielding just flakes and dust with each heavy blow. It was radiolarian chert, and Mount Sutro is one massive piece of it (

Mid-morning a couple of hikers approached me and asked how to get to the summit. I gave them directions to follow a sketchy trail along the fence line from Johnstone and Medical Center Way up to the summit. I was surprised to see them again just 20 minutes later, and even more skeptical of the encounter they described to me. They had climbed the trail along the fence line (what is now the Lower East Ridge Trail) and as they reached the intersection of the Mystery Trail they hesitated. The Mystery Trail looked far easier than the steep vertical route to the summit, but as they rounded the first corner they encountered “a large cat with a long tail” basking in the sun. They were visibly shaken and I was skeptical. I said, “We have some good sized feral cats around here because people feed them.” Their response was, “No… this was the size of a large dog.” They looked incredulously at me and stomped off down the trail. By Monday there had been several additional sightings, by residents of the Aldea housing, of a mountain lion roaming around on Mount Sutro.


Mount Sutro remains to this day one of San Francisco’s hidden-in-plain-sight gems. Whether you are a frequent visitor or have looked at it from afar, it is an oasis in the center of our dense urban population. I was fortunate to grow up across from the forest, in the secluded central suburb of Forest Knolls. Just a couple of years before my parents purchased their home, the area had been covered by a thicket of eucalyptus, a large remnant of Adolph Sutro’s Rancho San Miguel land tract which he had planted with trees in the late 1880s. Along with the other kids in the area, I explored the forest, probed the fence line of the high security NIKE site at the summit, built massive tree houses high in the eucalyptus, and constructed platforms to launch our bikes off out on the South Ridge. There is no question that my early experiences on Mount Sutro created a strong desire to allow others to share in the experience that Sutro’s forest had held for me.

With my mother and sister in front of our Christopher Drive home

The Gift

In 2001 UCSF published the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve Management Plan following three years of workshops and meetings with the community. UCSF had listened carefully to the public’s desires in creating the plan and it reflected a call to begin a focused effort to improve access along with sustained improvements to the neglected environment. In 2004 the University received a gift from the Rotary Club of San Francisco, a grant of $100,000, to turn the former NIKE radar site at the summit into a native plant meadow. The gift was accepted and thus the first modern effort to manage the Mount Sutro Open Space was under way. The Trail Center was invited to become involved in 2004 and worked with local volunteers on the first trail realignment on the North Ridge with the goal of creating improved access via trail to Rotary Meadow at the summit, rather than the long hike up the steep roadways. It was during the planting and trail projects when the founding members of the Sutro Stewards met and discovered they shared a common vision: creating trails and linkages between some of San Francisco’s central open space areas.

The Discovery

At the time the new North Ridge Trail was being finished, Ben Pease and I were attempting to find a route that would lead down to the campus on Parnassus. There were many acres of unexplored forest between the North Ridge and the campus below. We figured that while we were looking for a trail route we should also be looking for any unusual plants along the way. With that in mind, we invited Jake Sigg from the California Native Plant Society to accompany us down through the dense forest and understory on the North and West slopes of the mountain. It was exhausting work pushing through dense stands of underbrush on slopes exceeding 45°.

We had found the beginnings of some possible trail routes when we stumbled down a very slippery slope to a narrow flat area where we paused to rest. Suddenly, Jake exclaimed, “Fairy bells!” We were standing alongside a plant that was thought to be extinct in San Francisco. We also realized that the narrow flat area where we were resting continued to extend across the steep hillside in two directions. Was it an old road, or a trail, and if it was, would we be able