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Old Mt. Sutro, Reborn!

by Emmet McDonagh

Mt. Sutro – where is that?

This is a question that I often get from San Francisco natives and long-time residents. After over 20 years spent growing up high up on Sutro’s southern slope, even I didn’t know precisely until recent years, although I knew that it was somewhere in that dense forest up behind UCSF.

The summit of Mt. Sutro lies in Sutro Forest, which is to the south of UCSF’s main campus at Parnassus Heights, west of Cole Valley, east of the Inner Sunset, and north of the Sutro Tower and Twin Peaks.

Mt. Sutro is San Francisco’s fourth highest summit at 904 feet. Nearby Twin Peaks and Mt. Davidson are much more visible, partly due to the remnants of Sutro’s Giant Forest, which completely surround the pinnacle of his namesake peak. The forest never covered Twin Peaks, and its border still runs in almost a straight north-south line near Mt. Davidson’s summit.

In recent years work has been done to improve trails and bring back native plant species – instead of the thousands of blue gum eucalyptus from Australia! – to the area around Mt. Sutro’s summit. In 2003 and 2004, countless volunteers helped to plant a native plant demonstration project on the summit after it was cleared of the blue gums.

The views at the summit are partially blocked by the dense eucalyptus forest on its slopes, but the peacefulness at the mountaintop is definitely a special treat. Wildlife is returning – one can hear the constant chirping of birds and rustling in the bushes from small critters, and see large birds hovering above for food. A lot of the native ecosystem of the area diminished in the years after the planting of the dense eucalyptus forest, which prevented sunlight from reaching the forest floor. Without many small plants and shrubbery to feed on, the lowest members of this ecosystem’s food chain weren’t doing very well, and without them larger plants and animals had an even harder time surviving in the area.

Every first Saturday of the month for half a day, volunteers with the Mt. Sutro Stewards perform trail and gardening work. New trails are formed and old ones are fixed and sometimes found. Native plants are planted and smaller invasive plants are removed and replaced with native seeds. The eucalyptus might stay to a certain extent, especially since they often stop the fog from the ocean from reaching neighborhoods to the east like the Castro and the Mission.

Nowadays as I walk around the summit area and the forest on early morning or early evening walks, I sometimes get lost even when it’s clear – but often the thick dense fog is settling in the forest. I actually find the fog to be quite refreshing! As one of the many volunteers, I hope not only that the work continues to improve the overall health of the forest as a thriving natural habitat, but that more folks hear about the work and come up to experience this special gem in the middle of the city. The volunteers want our work to benefit both the local ecosystem and the people who come to explore the summit area.

Due to the dense eucalyptus forest and its tall trees, the exact point of the summit still won’t be visible, but the general area will be as easy to find as it has been for many years. The summit and the surrounding remnants of Sutro’s Giant Forest will most certainly be remembered by many. Some may even recall the Nike radar station that stood atop the mountain during the early years of the Cold War.

So come one, come all – maybe I’ll even see you while on one of my walks or at a volunteer work day!

More information can be found at www.nature inthecity.org/mtsutro.php -- the trails are not currently marked, so print out the map if you want to walk around Mt Sutro.

City Guide Emmet McDonagh is a native and current resident of San Francisco’s Forest Knolls neighborhood.

Visit the City Guides website to read our past article on the reservoir system in the Sutro Forest, “In Case of Fire, Look to Twin Peaks,” by Greg Pabst.

Photo credits: Current photo of Mt. Sutro, Emmet McDonagh. Sutro Forest courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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View of Sutro Forest taken in 1928

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Current view of Sutro Forest in the fog.

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