For a scenic and interesting end-to-end trek through Golden Gate Park, walk, run, or bike the 3.4-mile trail along JFK Promenade and JFK Drive. There’s so much to see along the way.
Golden Gate Park is a gorgeous place filled with gardens, lakes, meadows, groves of trees, two waterfalls, two world-class museums, and even a small herd of bison. There are numerous paths winding around and through the park’s 1,017 acres (4 sq km) making it a great place for a walk, run, or ride a bike.
The trail recommended here goes through the full length of the park from Stanyan on the east end to the Great Highway and Pacific Ocean. It follows paths along either side of JFK Promenade and John F. Kennedy Drive.
It’s one of the best things to do in Golden Gate Park because it passes through some of the most scenic areas and passes by several interesting sights. The trail is open to everyone and is totally free. It’s one of my favorite San Francisco trails.
Here’s what’s in this post:
- Trail at a Glance
- Trail conditions and time needed
- Part of JFK Drive is now car free and called JFK Promenade
- Golden Gate Park maps
- Interesting things to see along the route
- Golden Gate Park weather
- Golden Gate Park free shuttle
- Parking and getting to and from the trail on public transit
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Trail at a Glance
|Distance (1-way)||3.4 miles (5.5 km)|
What’s up with JFK Promenade and JFK Drive? The section of JFK Drive between Stanyan and Transverse Drive is officially and permanently car-free. It’s renamed JFK Promenade and both the street and the paths on either side are reserved for people (and pets). The section between Transverse and the Great Highway is still called JFK Drive and still has traffic and parking.
About the Trail and Conditions
It’s not obvious from either the official park map or Google maps, but the entire length of JFK Promenade and JFK Drive have wide, paved paths on both sides of the road. There’s no signage on the paths, but the road is well marked. Pick a side and follow the path; change sides whenever you wish. The paths are in good condition and are nearly flat with a few slight uphill and downhill parts.
The entire trail recommended here, is on these paths, or in the case of the Promenade section, on paths and/or the road. This trail doesn’t have a name, but it’s certainly popular. On my recent end-to-end hike, there were always a few runners, walkers, and bikers, even though it was midday, midweek, and midwinter.
How Long Does it Take to Walk from Stanyan to the Great Highway?
It’s 3.4 miles (5.5 km) from end to end. If you walked nonstop, I’m guessing it would take about an hour. It takes me 2-3 hours because I make lots of detours and stops along the way. I loop through Tree Fern Dell and check out the art along the promenade and look for birds and turtles in Spreckels Lake and try to get better photos of the bison in the Bison Paddock. It’s a journey.
Two Golden Gate Park Maps
- San Francisco Parks Department downloadable map: showing the locations of important features like restrooms and also marking the locations of the park’s many attractions, points of interest, and recreational facilities.
- Interactive Google map (linked below): with the trail along JFK Promenade and JFK Drive is plotted with a red line and interesting sights along the way are marked with red pins. Click the pins for brief descriptions.
Other Activities Along JFK Promenade
There are other activities on the promenade as well. I saw people roller skating at Skatin’ Place and playing ping pong at a table in the middle of the promenade. I’ve read there are cornhole boards and other games available, and sometimes live music and even a beer garden. Plus, there is seating everywhere. I saw about 100 bright yellow Adirondack chairs placed in and around the promenade.
Interesting Sights Along JFK Promenade and JFK Drive
This trail goes by or through several of the most scenic parts of the park. Here are some of the places you’ll pass along the way:
1. Conservatory of Flowers
This beautiful glass Victorian greenhouse contains a great collection of rare and exotic plants, including orchids. The greenhouse was modeled after London’s Kew Gardens and was completed in 1879. If you choose to visit the conservatory, there is a modest admission fee.
2. Tree Fern Dell
The towering Tasmanian tree ferns look and feel like a primordial jungle. Star Trek fans might be interested to know this is the Genesis Planet where Spock’s coffin landed in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
3. Rose Garden
The Rose Garden has at least 50 beds and a huge variety of types and colors. The best time to is between Mother’s Day and the end of July.
4. Lloyd Lake
This is a small lake just west of Transverse Drive, and it has an interesting feature called Portals of the Past. It was the portico of a Nob Hill mansion that was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Now it stands as a memorial commemorating the earthquake.
5. Spreckels Lake
This lake was added to the park in 1904 at the request of the San Francisco Model Yacht Club. The shallow lake was created specifically for model boat enthusiasts, and it’s open to both power and sail model boats. The SFMYC holds special events or regattas on the lake.
6. Bison Paddock
It’s true! There really is a small herd of bison in Golden Gate Park and there has been since 1894. It’s an all-female herd so replacements are brought in from time to time. They have a big paddock and seem perfectly content to just eat or lay about all day.
7. North Lake
This long narrow lake goes nearly all the way between JFK Drive and Fulton Avenue, and it has trails on either side. I’ve taken the trail on the east side (between the lake and Chain of Lakes Drive East), and it’s a lovely walk. If you’re running out of time or just plain tired, it’s also a quick route to Fulton Avenue where you can catch a 5 or 5R bus back downtown.
8. Dutch Windmill and Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden
Dutch windmill is one of two installed in 1904 to pump groundwater for irrigation. It no longer works, but it is a designated landmark and it’s a beautiful sight in the garden. The Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden surrounds the windmill. As you might have guessed, it’s named after Netherlands Queen Wilhelmina. The garden seems to have flowers year around, but the tulips bloom best mid-March to mid-April.
Scenic JFK Drive
This is an especially beautiful part of the park and the section of JFK Drive between Transverse and Chain of Lakes Drives is part of San Francisco’s 49-mile Scenic Drive (Source). Just beyond the Dutch Windmill and Tulip Garden, JFK Drive and trail ends at the Great Highway. Ocean Beach and the Pacific Ocean are just across the road.
Golden Gate Park Weather
The best weather overall is in the fall when there’s less fog than in summer and less chance of rain than in winter. But there are gorgeous days scattered throughout the year. My last two walks through Golden Gate Park were midday, midweek, and midwinter. I took most of the photos in this post in January or February.
Free Golden Gate Park Shuttle
The park operates a free shuttle service that loops around JFK Promenade and the Music Concourse. The Music Concourse is where the California Academy of Sciences, de Young Museum, and Japanese Tea Garden are located. For more about times, stop locations, and a downloadable shuttle map, check out the park’s shuttle site.
Getting to/from the Trail on Public Transit
The bus routes listed here are to get to and from the ends of the JFK Promenade/Drive trail:
- Getting to the east end of Golden Gate Park: Take the #5 or 5R Fulton bus (toward Ocean Beach). This route begins at the Transit Center and travels along Market, McAllister, and Fulton. If you take a #5, get off on Fulton at Stanyan. If you take a #5R (rapid), get off on Parker and walk 1-block west to Stanyan. From Fulton and Stanyan, walk south on Stanyan to the park entrance where Fell Street enters the park.
If your starting point is near Civic Center, another option is to take a 21 Hayes and get off on Hayes at the Stanyan stop. Cross Stanyan, turn left and walk to the park entrance (I cut through the McLaren Lodge driveway). The 21 Hayes gets you closer to the JFK Promenade, but it runs less frequently.
- Getting back from the west end of Golden Gate Park: Catch a #5 or 5R Fulton bus (toward the Transit Center). From the intersection of the Great Hwy and JFK Drive, walk 1-block north on the Great Hwy to Fulton and then 1-block east on Fulton to the stop across from La Playa Street.
If you’re not familiar with San Francisco’s public transit system, you’ll likely need more general information like fares, ways to pay, apps, and maps. We have those details covered in getting around on public transit.
Parking in Golden Gate Park
- Free Parking is available on many streets in the park. The good news is that there are about 4700 spaces and they don’t have time limits. The bad news is that parking can be a challenge on weekends and holidays, especially during big events like Outside Lands and Hardly Strickly Bluegrass.
- Paid Parking is available in a large garage under the Music Concourse. There are two entrances: 1) On the north side of the park the entrance is on Fulton at 10th Avenue. 2) On the south side of the park the entrance is at Concourse Drive and Martin Luther King Drive. It’s very convenient, but it’s not cheap. I was recently there with grandchildren and paid $32 for about 4-hours.
Where to Eat
After walking 3.4 miles, you might be hungry and thirsty. If so, the Beach Chalet & Brewery is located at 1000 Great Highway, and it’s very near the Dutch Windmill.
There are actually two restaurants in the same building. Beach Chalet is on the second floor overlooking the ocean. Park Chalet is on the back patio with both indoor and outdoor seating. I’ve been to both several times over the years and have always enjoyed them.
The ground floor of the building also houses the Golden Gate Park Visitor Center. Its walls are covered with depression-era murals, which were painted by artist Lucien Labaudt in 1936-37. The murals are called “San Francisco Life” and since they were painted during the depression, the scenes don’t actually represent life as it was. They were meant to inspire San Franciscans to seek a better life.
Golden Gate Park is such a beautiful place with so much to see and do. I never get tired of going there and my grandchildren love it too. For more trails and other things to do in San Francisco, checkout:
- San Francisco Itinerary for 1, 2, and 3-Days
- San Francisco Parks and Gardens
- Hiking in San Francisco
About the Author
Ginny Vail is a travel writer who loves travel planning, sightseeing, photography, and videography. She’s visited all 50 states and traveled around the world. Her articles focus on discovering places to go, sights to see, and details about when and how visit them.