Mount Sutro Cloud Forest: Forest report, July 2012

While the rest of the country bakes and burns, we’re having a cool San Francisco fog-belt summer. The other day, strong gusty winds blew the fog blew in from the sea, and we headed up to the forest.

Click on map for larger version

Mount Sutro Cloud Forest is the perfect place on a gray windy day. Inside the forest, the trees and understory – where it hasn’t been cut back – act as a wind-break. On days like this, it’s one of the loveliest and most peaceful places in the city.

It’s a well-kept secret; in two hours, we encountered one jogger and three walkers.

(However, we should warn you to stay away in stormy weather that can knock down trees.)

[Read HERE for hiking information and a map.]


We took the unmarked trail-head up from Christopher. The slope here was dry, but just a short distance in, it got damp. A small yellow bird searched energetically through the understory – probably a Wilson’s warbler, but its rapid moves defeated our point-and-shoot camera, so no positive ID.

The forest looked lush, almost a jungle. Though the blackberry bushes have been trimmed, it wasn’t the devastation we’ve seen before. Perhaps the Sutro Stewards are being respectful of the bird nesting season, which runs through August. A few delicate convolvulus flowers opened trumpets along the path.

The trails are wet on the southern side: the South Ridge trail, the top of the Historic Trail, the non-DEIR trail from the Nike Rd. There were even a few puddles though it hasn’t rained in a while. This is the forest that Nativists have called a fire hazard… possibly the wettest place in San Francisco outside the Bay.

The South Ridge is the largest cut-zone under the planned tree-felling (for which the Environmental Impact Report is currently delayed.)


The Native Garden on the summit was, predictably, dry. It’s also within the fog belt, but has no tall trees to harvest the cloud-moisture, and little undergrowth to retain it. (The green bushes behind are non-native acacias.) The newly replanted meadow was all brown grass and plastic flags, with a few California poppies. But as soon as you leave the Native garden and enter the forest, it’s damp again.

Elsewhere in the garden, a mock-orange was covered with little white flowers. A few oak trees, sheltered from the wind by the forest, have gotten a foothold. Planted some years ago, they are still small compared with the blackwood acacia and the tall eucalyptus.  The new notice-board looks bulky beside them, but unlike their tragic counterparts in Tank Hill, they actually are growing into trees. (Despite numerous attempts, Tank Hill still has no oak trees – just some sad saplings not even three feet tall.)

There’s some trail re-alignment on the East Ridge trail, just above the Student Housing. It’s unclear what the plan is, but it looks like a construction site: dry, dusty and dug up. All the understory is gone. The area also smelled peculiar, we’re not sure why. Maybe red elderberry (aka stinking elderberry)?

Talking of red elderberry, it’s a Native Plant that’s been planted all over the forest and is fruiting now with pretty red berries that birds like to eat.. But if you’re hiking with kids, warn them the berries are poisonous – in fact, the whole plant is. Also, it stinks if it’s picked or crushed.

In the Student Housing area, the Sutro Stewards have taken over the area “Pad #4” where a dorm was demolished. According to an agreement with the community, UCSF was going plant it to blend in with the forest.

“The sites targeted for open space will have retaining walls removed (unless there are geologic or safety reasons for not removing the retaining walls), and will be planted to blend in with the forest.”

Instead, it unilaterally decided to make it available to the Sutro Stewards as a plant nursery. [Read HERE for the whole story: Chainlink and Concrete Aren’t Forest.] It’s not clear by what calculation this nursery can be considered part of the Open Space UCSF has guaranteed. Anyway, the site is now an active plant nursery.

The Gash – a bare patch in the forest between the Nike Rd and Christopher St,  left by the SF PUC when it laid some pipe is visible from the Nursery. It’s finally been allowed to heal. (Earlier, someone kept pulling down anything that tried to grow there, to the distress of neighbors below.) The house on Christopher is still visible through the vegetation, but is a lot better than the barren strip that existed before.

The non-DEIR Trail has also healed somewhat, and a bank of self-sown nasturtiums has brightened some of the newly opened area.


We continued on through the Student Housing to the Fairy Gates trail. Here, the trail is exposed and dry. Still, it’s a lovely trail – entered through a tunnel of trees outside the Chancellor’s house, it hugs the mountainside with a nice view of the vegetated valley below, and passes through a cleft in a big rock – the “fairy gates.”

This part of the forest has many plum trees, heavy now with small red fruit. (We’d mistaken them for cherries, earlier; they’re about the same size.) My companion reached up for a few. “Are they okay?” I asked. I knew UCSF uses no pesticide on the mountain, so that was okay, but I didn’t know how they tasted.

“Sure. I’ve been eating them for years.” They were sweet and ripe. The birds presumably like them too, but there was more than enough to go round – a bumper crop.

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2 Responses to Mount Sutro Cloud Forest: Forest report, July 2012

  1. Dolan Eargle says:

    This is a very fine guide to the Mt. Sutro trails–worth a printout. Thanks.

    Comment on Tank Hill. Some time around 1984, I lived just below Tank Hill, used Clarendon St. sidewalk as a way to work at UCSF. It passes along Tank Hill. The cliff there is steep, and was covered with blackberries and poison oak–very good soil retainers, since nobody wanted to brave it to the top along this strip. Someone with a very warped mind (no doubt a “nativist”) came along and removed all these protective bushes. One month later came a large rainstorm–and the clay on the bluffs came pouring down, covering the sidewalk in overt 6 inches of mud. The City did nothing, so I then shoveled off my way-to-work–dumping the mud over the curb.

    At that time I was raising cork oak seedlings for a lumber company–this was an opportunity to do some local good. I planted along that barren cliffside 12 cork live oaks. Nine of them survived–some now nearly 20 feet tall and some, under the shadow of other trees, not so tall. Two months ago I added 2 more small plants.

    So, Tank Hill does indeed have some live oaks, but none on top. They are not at all “scrubby”. Cork oaks have a cork bark, as you might expect, which is impervious to the infamous oak beetle now destroying much of our live oaks.

    Dolan Eargle (Trees Company)

  2. webmaster says:

    Thanks for your comment. We like all trees, and we’re encouraged that cork oaks are growing on the Tank Hill cliffside. It’ll be great If they are resistant to Sudden Oak Death.

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