No one would ever expect a humble wildlife restoration area and prime bird watching territory amidst an established industrial zone, but this is why Heron’s Head Park is truly a hidden gem. The land was to become Pier 98 shipping terminal in the 1970s, but the project never came to fruition. Gradually, nature reclaimed the land, turning it into a salt marsh that attracts hundreds of bird species each year. Such marshes were characteristic of the San Francisco coastline before the 1849 Gold Rush which spurred extensive human development. Thankfully, several San Francisco entities understood the importance of protecting this re-emerging bird refuge and came together in the 1990s to fund the removal of 5,000 tons of debris from the park and expand the marshland. Heron's Head Park officially opened to the public in 1999.
What Makes It Great
At first the park may seem stark, with no trees and only low lying native shrubs. Don’t be fooled - a congregation of birds spices will soon unfold before your eyes. As soon as you leave the parking lot and pass the children’s play area, a wide, flat path will come into view and head out into the bay (0.75mi).
Follow it past the EcoCenter on your left-hand side and then look out over the water between the park and the nearby cargo port on the northern edge of the park; western grebes and spotted harlequin ducks often are seen floating here. Scan the sprawling salt marsh on the southern side for herons, oyster catchers, egrets, clapper rails and other waterfowl. As you head toward the tip of the park, enjoy the native flora lining the path: coyote brush, sagebrush, toyon, ceanothus, blue-eyed grass, and California poppy. At the end of the park, a set of disconnected concrete stairs rests on the uneven rocks. Feel free to stand on them and look out across the bay or take in the unique beauty of contrasts: a peaceful wildlife salt marsh and the bustling industrial cargo ports. Retrace your steps to find your way back to the trailhead.
If you’re interested in learning more about the park and its wildlife, visit the EcoCenter (Wed-Sat, 9:30AM-3:30PM; www.ecocenterhhp.org) or read the information placards placed periodically along the main pathway. As a birdwatcher, you may want to download the port of San Francisco’s “A Field Guide to 100 Birds of Heron’s Head” before your visit.
Who is Going to Love It
Folks in search of a quick break from the daily grind of the city, curious city hikers, avid bird-watchers, and families who would like to teach the younger generation about ecological preservation and the salt marsh ecosystem.
Dog owners will appreciate the small off-leash dog park nearby.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Heron’s Head Park is about 4.6 miles from downtown San Francisco. It’s a roughly a 30-minute trip using a combination of public transportation and walking, or a 13-minute drive. Several Muni lines run down Evan Street and provide good access. If you choose to drive, take Third Street and turn eastward onto Cargo Way. Turn left onto Jennings Street (T-intersection) then right into the free parking area with a couple handicapped parking spots.
A children’s jungle gym, a handful of picnic tables and grills, restrooms, drinking water and a few bike-racks are located at the park’s entrance. Dogs are welcome on-leash; please be considerate of the wildlife restoration efforts and don’t allow your dog to wander the salt marsh.