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 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiolarite).
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
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.
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 to use it with a rare plant growing right in the center? We were able to follow the path for a fair distance heading south before we called it quits for the day. We had located a sizable colony of fairy bells (Prosartes hookeri) that were not on the path and we were both excited and confident that the discovery was significant. We had just accidentally discovered what we now call the Historic Trail.
We could barely contain ourselves and quickly began to share the discovery with others and the University. It was impossible to determine where this “trail” began or ended due to the impassable underbrush. Despite our best efforts there was no record of this trail to be found on any maps available from the University archives. A small group assembled weekend after weekend and followed the trail, hacking and tunneling through the thick blackberry, which was 15 feet deep in areas. Among the discoveries the trail yielded were substantial dry walls, retaining walls made of stacked chert that supported many sections of trail as it passed around the large rock outcrops.
Historic Trail drywall
Late in 2005 we approached the University and were able to show the newly discovered trail's route, which led from just above the Woods parking lot on Medical Center Way, all the way out to the tip of the South Ridge. This was about a half mile of trail that ran across the North and West slopes of Mount Sutro and could easily guide hikers to the summit. We sought permission from the University to restore this trail using volunteer labor. This marked the formation of the Sutro Stewards.
The Historic Trail before restoration work began
We were granted permission from UCSF and spent the next six months preparing to restore the trail. UCSF purchased tools and undertook the task of cutting through dozens of huge eucalyptus trees that had fallen across the trail over many decades. We finally decided we were ready and scheduled our first volunteer event on Mount Sutro for Saturday September 2, 2006, and the official launching of the Sutro Stewards program.
Quite honestly, I never expected that 10 years after we launched the program I’d still be welcoming volunteers to participate in trail and habitat work on Saturday mornings. I had expected the University to use the management plan to move forward with the schedule of improvements that the public had agreed to in 2001. I never expected to witness the severe decline of the eucalyptus forest that we have seen in recent years or the host of new problems that have accompanied this turn of events.
Recognition is a sweet reward for our team and our volunteers!
Much of the vision that our founding members shared has been completed as we've reached the milestone of our tenth year of operation. We have succeeded in creating San Francisco’s finest singletrack trail system. We have established a solid conservation program and built our own native plant nursery to raise local species for our conservation work. We have educated well over 1,000 volunteers a year in an effort to create awareness of the significance and value of our remaining urban open space areas. Lastly, we continue to advocate for the long-term management of Mount Sutro for public health and safety, increased biodiversity, wildlife habitat enhancement, and community engagement. The significant resource Mount Sutro provides for people and wildlife right in the heart of San Francisco needs to be improved and maintained for future generations.
So what comes next? Stay tuned for my next installment of Sutro Stewards 10th Anniversary: Where We Go From Here.
Executive Director, Sutro Stewards