How to Walk to the Top of Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks is the highest point in San Francisco with a view. Tall buildings with rooftop view areas have never really caught on in San Francisco, because Twin Peaks is much higher, and the view is much better! Twin Peaks is free, but you have to get there. If you have the time, one of the most enjoyable ways is to walk. If you follow roads the route is very long, but it is much shorter following stairways. Here is the shortest route from an accessible tourist area to the top.

It is easy to get to the intersection of Market and Castro Streets, so we will start our walking tour there. You can take the historic F-Market streetcar line from downtown or from Fisherman's Wharf to that intersection. It is the end of the F line. Or you can take the K, L, or M lines in the Muni subway under Market Street. Get off at Castro Station.

The intersection of Castro and Market is at less than 200 feet (60m) elevation. You will be climbing to 900 feet (270m). If you are not in top shape for hiking, plan to take it slow and stop to smell the flowers. You will pass a lot of them! This hike, one way, is under two miles (3km) in length, but it will seem longer than it is to inexperienced walkers, due to its elevation gain.

Walk south (downhill) on Castro Street. You'll pass the Castro Theater in the first block on your left. It is one of the few successful one-screen theaters left in the city. They've made it successful by screening a mix of eclectic films that attracts large crowds. A Wurlitzer organ is installed in the theater, and between the two main features each night, an organist plays to theater goers' delight.

The first two blocks of Castro are commercial, and quite touristy. They are the last commercial property you will pass. If you're a bit hungry, pick up a sandwich at the deli across the street from the Castro Theater. Or get a snack in any one of several nearby shops. Resist the temptation to eat now, and bring your lunch along. The ascent will be a lot more enjoyable if you don't have a full stomach. You can picnic at the top!

In one block you will come to 18th Street, and Castro begins to go uphill. To paraphrase the saying, "It's all uphill from here." Go one more block to 19th Street and turn right. The first street you come to is Collingwood, and just beyond it there's a school on the left side of 19th. Take a look at the school's ever-growing collection of murals. Some are painted, while others are made with glass fragments and cat-eye marbles. The murals celebrate the joys of reading, of math, and of other activities, and they are beautiful works.

Just past the school, turn left (south) on Diamond. Don't let the monstrous ascent ahead of you scare you, you will just be taking the long first block, which is the less steep of the two blocks you see.

At 20th Street, turn right and go west on 20th Street for two short blocks.

The street will appear to only turn right as it changes its name to Douglass. But Douglass also goes left, for pedestrians. See the stairway? Take it upward, and as you do, note the six story building on your left. Despite its number of floors, it has no internal stairways. Each level just comes out to rapidly rising Douglass Street, the stairway you are on.

At the top of the stair, cross the narrow street that you find there making a curve. Take a short stair flight up to the corner of the house you see there, and go to the left. You will be walking south on Douglass now, but about 15 feet above the level of the street.

Very quickly you will come to Romain Street. Turn right on it and follow it for its entire three block length. Between the second and third blocks, you'll be taking a spiraling pedestrian overpass to get you over Market Street. The way you came from Castro and Market to here was shorter than following Market, by the way, because Market meanders. Enjoy the flowers on Romain Street! Its final block is particularly colorful, with many owners decorating their front yards with gardens of flowers.

When Romain ends, turn left (south) on Corbett Street. Above you on the right is the Rooftop School. After the school you'll pass a half dozen or so residential buildings, and then you'll come to Hopkins Street. It's only one short block long, but what a block! Turn right onto Hopkins, and look back as you climb. Imagine losing your brakes on this street, and then imagine living in the gray house at the bottom of the hill at 881 Corbett Street. Twice this house has been smashed into by runaway cars, and in one instance the car went clear through the house with its hood protruding through the wall on the back side. You can imagine what happened after that - a major remodel followed.

At the top of Hopkins you will see a stairway but don't take that one. Look off to your left, down Burnett Street and spot a stairway at the bend. Take that one.

As you climb, you will cross a back alley, then a street with a double yellow line (cross it), then another back alley, and finally a street. It is Parkridge. Follow it to the right and very soon you'll come to Crestline. Curve around to the left. You'll see parkland on the right. You're to the Twin Peaks park at last! But you still have some climbing to do. (While making this curve, walk on the right side. The usual wisdom of staying to the left is dangerous here due to restricted visibility.)

Follow Crestline and notice the numbers on the buildings on the left. Don't take any of the rough trails you might see right away. Follow the street until you've passed #80, and just before #74 you'll come to the trail you want to take, on the right. You'll know you've found the right trail because it has stairsteps made of wooden railroad ties within a few feet of the road.

At this point note the bus stop on the left side of the street. It is the highest bus stop in the city. You could have taken a bus, the "37 Corbett" from Castro and Market to here. (You'd have caught it where unused tracks connecting to the historic F-line are about to plunge into a tunnel on the north side of Market.) But think of all you saw walking, that on the bus you would have missed!

Anywhere on trails above Crestline, be sure you don't touch any poison oak. It contains the same irritant chemical (urushiol) that poison ivy has. Look for this plant with its dark green shiny leaves everywhere in this park and let it be. In the fall its leaves turn red and then they fall off in winter. So don't touch any "twigs" in that season, either. Poison oak is a bush, so contact with all the various grasses you see on these peaks is okay.

Take the trail up until you come to a 30 inch (75cm) high wall. Just before you step over the wall, note where you are, especially if no trail sign is to be seen. (Signs seem to come and go here.) You will need to return to this spot when you come back down. Straddle the the wall and step onto the perimeter road. Be aware that this is a one way road with all traffic coming from your left.

You have two choices now. This is TWIN Peaks, and thus the number two. The perimeter road forms a figure "8" around the two peaks. The south peak is less frequented by tourists so it is more unspoiled and less trampled. It is the one in front of you. The north peak is off to your right.

Go right after you cross the wall whichever peak be your choice, because the access trail to both peaks comes down to the middle of the figure "8" that the road makes between them, a large asphalt area you'll see to your right.

If it is nice and you want to linger, such as to eat your lunch, of course do it on the top! If it is windy, from the top of the south peak, note a rock outcropping you can walk down to, toward the east (toward downtown). Surprising shelter from the wind can be found there.

You will find more people on the north peak if you choose it, but on this peak there is no place that provides shelter from the wind. The north peak lines up perfectly with Market Street and you can see it for its entire three mile run from Castro to the Bay, where the Ferry Building with its clock spire can be seen.

From either peak, look out over the ocean to the west. If it's a clear day, you can see the Farallon Islands, a bird sanctuary 25 miles (40 km) off the coast. Sweeping northward from there, the top of the Golden Gate Bridge (orange in color) can be seen. The gray bridge near downtown is the Bay Bridge, and downtown Oakland can be seen to the south of this bridge on the other side.

Beyond the north peak lies the tourist vista point. From the north peak there's a trail down the north side that will lead to it. There's a toilet there and sometimes a vendor serving snacks from a truck. But more often than not there is no food available.

The tourist vista point is on an outcropping of land called Christmas Tree Point, because early settlers cut trees there. The north peak is called Eureka Peak and the south peak is called Noe Peak. At least they were decades ago. Few know of those names now.

When you're ready to leave, return to the point by the wall which you made a point to remember. If you want to take the bus down the hill, on the way down, look off to your left below to see if a bus is parked on the curve. If it is, when you get to the street don't wait at #74 Crestline. The reason is that that is the end of the line, and the bus driver is taking a break after passing there. Instead, retrace your steps around the parked bus down onto Parkridge and find a bus stop on the right, just before you come to the stairway on the left. (San Francisco bus stops are often marked with yellow paint on a pole or on the street surface, so don't expect to see a sign.) The bus will pick you up there and take you to Castro and Market. Daytime buses come every fifteen minutes weekdays and on the hour and half hour weekends.

But if you're up to it, by all means walk! Retrace your steps, and you'll be surprised at how much shorter this walk seems when you're going down!

I walk to the top of Twin Peaks frequently. If you see a longhair with a long white beard and wearing a bandanna along the way it's probably me, so say hello!

Copyright © 2000-2010 Bill Choisser, All Rights Reserved