The west end of Golden Gate Park has often played second fiddle to the glamorous east side — with its sparkling Academy of Sciences and prestigious de Young Museum. The west end, however, has many charms and scenic lakes well worth exploring, and, not least of all, west-end attractions are free.
What you’ll find
Enter the park at John F. Kennedy Drive along the Great Highway, just south of Fulton Street. The restored Dutch Windmill is on your left surrounded by the beautiful Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Gardens. Completed in 1903, it provided irrigation water to the park. Today the windmill and gardens are enjoyed for their quiet appeal.
Continue on John F. Kennedy Drive past the golf course and the soccer fields, jogging left at the stop sign to stay on JFK Drive. You will soon come to marshy North Lake on your left, which is the first in the “chain of lakes,” one of Golden Gate Park’s most popular birding spots. Here you may find herons, ducks, kingfishers and egrets. A path around North Lake offers solitude, rustic views and benches to rest on. Several short paths lead directly to the water.
Continue on JFK Drive to the bison paddock on your left. The almost extinct bison (buffalo) were brought to the park by park founder John McLaren in 1891, and have been a popular attraction ever since. Sadly, it is getting harder to see any bison in the enclosure, as there are only a few aging females remaining in the herd.
Past the bison paddock is Spreckels Lake, as carefully manicured as North Lake is wild. Here generations of model yacht enthusiasts have sailed their creations, and you will undoubtedly see some intricate miniatures as you stroll by. The San Francisco Model Yacht Club runs frequent events on the lake. Check their Web site for the schedule. In the west end of the lake a concrete turtle sticks out of the water. It is usually covered with real turtles basking in the sun.
Now, retrace your steps on JFK Drive, noticing the lovely rhododendron and azaleas planted in the center of the drive. Passing the anglers lodge and the casting pond, you will come to Chain of Lakes Drive East. Turn left (south) to pass the two remaining lakes in the “chain” — Middle Lake and South Lake. Both lakes are picturesque and worth exploring.
Turn right (west) on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, which fronts South Lake. A short path leads to a children’s playground complete with a wooden ship perfect for fantasy pirate voyages. Before you exit the park on MLK Drive, you will pass the Murphy Windmill, now being restored. Like the Dutch Windmill, the Murphy Windmill once supplied water to thirsty Golden Gate Park.
After the walk
You can stroll north along the Great Highway to the historic Beach Chalet (1000 Great Highway) designed by Willis Polk. Inside, view the fresco murals by French artist Lucien Labaudt. Painted during the Great Depression, the murals depict scenes of San Francisco life. You can have an informal outdoor lunch at the Park Chalet or walk upstairs for a view and a more elaborate (if touristy) dining experience at the upstairs Beach Chalet restaurant.
To mingle with the locals, stroll south along the Great Highway two blocks to Judah Street for coffee at the popular Java Beach Café (1396 La Playa St.). Here you can jostle with the overflowing crowd drinking espresso, eating hot subs, reading newspapers and surfing via the Wi-Fi. For more gourmet dining, stop in at Outlanders (4001 Judah St.) ,where you can get a full meal or a Sunday brunch.
The Nos. 18 and 5 Muni buses stop at La Playa and Fulton streets. The Nos. 31 and 38 Geary (Ocean Beach) buses stop at Cabrillo and La Playa, one block north of the park.
By car, head west on Fulton Street until you get to the Great Highway. Unmetered four-hour parking is available along the Great Highway.
Photo: Carolina Madruga via Flickr