1-2-3 Things - Round and Round Stow Lake

Hello Adventurers!

Did you get out for a ride on JFK Drive last week? When we break out the bikes for the season, this is the first place I like to go for a shakedown ride because if something goes wrong, it's an easy stroll back to our car. If you are looking for other good ride opportunities, have a look out for Sunday Streets in San Francisco (although this can get s little crowded depending on the location). We also really enjoy Canada Road down the peninsula, just south of highway 92 which closes on Sunday mornings for cyclists. 

This month we are going to focus on Golden Gate Park, so this week’s adventure finds us at Stow Lake. Having just passed the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake it's interesting to note that Sweeney Observatory used to be on top of Strawberry Hill. Unfortunately it was too damaged and had to be removed, but you can still see the foundation and the reflecting pool at the top and it's a lot of fun to go play urban archeologist liking for the ruins. 

Also let us know if you go, we would love to hear about your trip. Simply reply to this e-mail. And please feel free to forward this to a friend. 


Chief Happiness Officer at kiddiewalks.com 
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1-2-3 Things — Round and Round Stow Lake

Quick inspiration for a day out with the kids around the SF Bay Area

From kiddiewalks.com

  1. Take a boat ride picnic around the lake

  2. Climb the stairs for Huntington Falls

  3. Search for the ruins of Sweeney Observatory

Sweeney Observatory and reflecting pool

Sweeney Observatory and reflecting pool

Strawberry Hill and Stow Lake were man made out of the sand dunes, completed in 1893. Part of the original purpose of building Strawberry was to build an elevated reservoir in order to irrigate the sand dunes and create a park in the “sand district”. The Windmill’s at the western edge would pump water from the ground and push it up to the top of Strawberry Hill (this is now done with electric pumps).  Originally Sweeney Observatory existed at the top of Strawberry Hill, this was more of a vista point than an actual astronomical observatory.  

The Stow Lake Boathouse

The Stow Lake Boathouse

Boat Ride around Stow Lake

We usually like to park by one of the bridges and walk to the Boat House. As you walk along, keep your eye open for larger block stones lining the lake between the outer pedestrian walkway and the waters edge (mostly along the western edge). These stones came from a monastery in Spain (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Mar%C3%ADa_de_%C3%93vila) that William Randolph Hearst purchased with the intention to reassemble at Hearst Castle. Although this plan ended up falling apart the stones found a number of uses in the park (http://www.outsidelands.org/monastery-stones.php), and more recently some of the stones have found a new home in northern California at the Abbey of New Clairvaux where the use of 3D modeling has enabled them to reassemble parts of the original abbey (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbey_of_New_Clairvaux).

We generally grab a paddle boat for an hour, they also offer row boats. When I was a kid they also had electric boats that were a lot of fun. It takes about an hour to paddle around the lake. They offer life preservers, although the lake is really shallow. Quite often we have a bit of a picnic on the boat and take loads of pictures. The Boathouse has recently gone through renovations and there is an eating area where the workshop used to be. You will also find restrooms here. 

Huntington Falls

Huntington Falls

Climb Huntington Falls

Huntington Falls was completed in 1893 with a $25,000 donation from the railroad tycoon. Its a delight for kids big and small to cross the stepping stones in front of the waterfall, then to climb the stairs next to the falls and cross the bridges that run in front of the falls. To hear all that water roar by is really exhilarating. Once you climb the falls, keep heading up the hill to the top and our next destination. 

There are lots of photo opportunities along the way. I like using my phone fisheye lens attachment at the bottom of the falls on the stepping stones to grab a picture of the my kids in front of the whole thing. Trying to get a picture from the top is also fun.

Sweeney Ruins Today

Sweeney Ruins Today

Search for the ruins of Sweeney Observatory (1891-1906)

For 15 years the Sweeney Observatory sat at the summit of Strawberry Hill overlooking the western edge of the city. Funded by a wealthy landowner on the western side of the city, Thomas Sweeney’s observatory (more of a vista point) looked like a smaller version of an ancient roman coliseum. The observatory could not stand up to the force of the 1906 earthquake, it crumbled and eventually was hauled away. Some effort was offered to restore it, instead those funds were diverted to make a reflecting pool for the de Young Museum. 

Its interesting playing urban archeologist at the top finding ancient footings for the grand building and the reflecting pool opposite. Now there are a lot of tall trees that have grown through the foundation and around the summit of the hill, but at the time the observatory was there the hill was newly made and had only minimal foliage around. 


  • The Chinese Pavilion makes for some nice photo opportunities and is fun to stop and take out the sketchbook for a bit.
  • Take a moment and think about the planning that went into the reservoir here originally. For the windmills to pump water up here - can you see them from the top
  • There are two bridges that connect to Strawberry Hill, the Roman Bridge (the plainer one on the North Side) and the Rustic Bridge (the rocky one on the south side with 2 arches). What are the differences you notice between them? 

Feeling Adventurous 

  • Rainbow Falls and the Prayerbook Cross are just a little northwest of the lake - its almost obscured by the trees, but you can climb up and see it.