Sacred Places of San Francisco: the Cathedral

My dear friend Andrew calls it his Cathedral, and I agree. Though it is certainly not a cathedral of stone and arches, of gargoyles and ethereal music, this place of mysticism and beauty is a different kind of sacred. It is a cathedral of towering eucalyptus trees, their scent of dust and spice spreading like a flavorful cloud across the floor of a basin made of sheer rock faces, jutting straight up into the sky at a staggering angle. Narrow paths meander their way straight up these rocky cliffs, teetering on the edge of exhilaration and vertigo. In the rainy season, sunny days (which are never more than a day apart) make the green grasses on the expose hillocks sparkle and glow with a virescent glow. Any slight breeze makes the grasses wave, flutter, and almost take on a life of their own- a dance-like undulation. Bright wildflowers like oxalis, field mustard, and monkey flower wave their bright yellow heads in greeting. Walkers, dog walkers, and runners teeter on the edge of the exposed paths. Outcrops cry out to geological nerds with their rusty, ivory banded surfaces. In the basin, meandering amongst the lush eucalyptus forest, bubbles Islais Creek, one of the only locations in the city where it is allowed the space to smell the fresh air and sing its babbling song. Islais Creek and its entire watershed is for the most part hidden below asphalt streets, buildings, even other parks in 11 San Francisco communities. Here, in its place of refuge and peace, it shows its face.

This place of beauty and tranquility, of wildness and rugged barrenness, is called Glen Park Canyon. Nestled between Glen Park, Diamond Heights, and Twin Peaks, it is best viewed in its entirety from the bustling and 40mph street of O’Shaughnessy. If you think to look, you can have the chance to see the maze of browns, greens, and yellows and smell the eucalyptus perfume while inhaling your neighbor’s exhaust on a meandering drive up the twisting hill. Or, for a more intimate look, you can venture inside the canyon.

You may first stumble across this park from the Glen Park neighborhood while walking to the end of Chenery Street. If you enter from this side, you will take your company with mothers and their children playing in the Rec Center playground. You may see a little league game in progress or hear the whistles of a soccer practice, set below the fluttering eucalyptus branches.

Or you may enter from O’Shaughnessy and begin a meditative walk under the canopy of trees, reminiscent of a tunnel or a forest embrace. You breathe deeply, inhaling the rich, lung-filling smells of spicy eucalyptus and damp earth. The eucalyptus trees tower on either side of your path, reaching into the sky. The ground is littered with a carpet of the crescent-shaped leaves. Light streams through the particles floating in the air, creating shafts of striped light on the ground.

You emerge from this path with other park-wanderers who stick to the bottom of the canyon, safe beneath the forest canopy. But you depart quickly as you choose a path on your right. It heads straight up. After a couple minutes of climbing, you mutter to yourself, wondering why you took this “high road.” Your muscles are straining and protesting as you seem to walk almost vertically. But then you reach an overlook and this is your reward.

You turn around to see the canyon laid out before you, a blanket of green shadowing the paths and creeks below, a sort of ceiling of branches and leaves. Even the outcrops are softened from this height, surrounded by yellow blushes of wildflowers and waving grasses. The sun is slowly setting behind the Portola hill as traffic winds its way up O’Shaughnessy on the other side of the canyon from you. The sky is tinged with light pink and purple, echoing the pastel of zigzagging houses in the Excelsior neighborhood in the distance. Even farther behind this, the everpresent expanse of water speaks for itself- the San Francisco bay. The sky is wide, an open bowl overturned on this hidden gem.

And then you turn around, turn your back on this place of beauty and solitude. You emerge in the back of another public park and the loneliness of the wind whipping through the canyon disappears. You slowly walk into civilization, in the form of fathers and sons playing catch and the back of a Safeway parking lot, leaving your hidden refuge for another afternoon.

Glen Park Canyon

looking East, with the canyon below


8 thoughts on “Sacred Places of San Francisco: the Cathedral

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  3. Beautiful, Katie! You use language so well and your images, both verbal and photographic, are truly evocative. I’m so glad you found my blog and alerted me to yours!

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