Located in the heart of San Francisco, Golden Gate Park is a colorful whirlwind of flowers, people, and whimsical design. The rectangular park stretches over three miles wide and sees 24 million visitors annually.
The park was created in the 1860s as a response to New York City's Central Park. Originally designed by a 25-year-old civil engineer named William Hammond Hall, the park was carved out of an area of acrid sand dunes known as Outside Lands (now the name of a music festival that takes place in the park).
Today, it is a marvelous oasis that is home to everything from bona fide Picassos in the De Young Museum to thousands of rare species of fauna in the Conservatory of Flowers.
Like every park, however, Golden Gate has its secrets. Here are some of the lesser-known legends, mysteries, and hidden gems of Golden Gate Park.
1. Tiny Fairy Doors
Fairy door golden gate park
If you look hard enough around Golden Gate Park, you might just discover some tiny fairy doors among the glittering flowers. Here's a hint: Two are hidden in trees in the courtyard between the De Young Museum and Cal Academy, and two can be found in logs located east of the Japanese Tea Garden by Stow Lake.
The fairy doors were apparently planted there years ago by someone named Tony Powell and his son Rio, who wanted to add a bit of magic to the park. Upon seeing a hollowed-out hole in a eucalyptus tree, they decided to take action. "We decided it ought to have a door," said Powell. "And I wanted it to be authentic — a real working door that would actually contribute to the beauty of the tree and maybe inspire people to notice the magic that was already there."
Today, many children often gather around the fairy doors and leave notes for the magical creatures waiting there. "We had no idea there would be lines of kids waiting their turn to peek in the door and see if they might spot a fairy," said Powell. "It's been pretty amazing for me, getting to see the joy and inspiration we help to create. In wanting to show some people a little magic, I ended up witnessing a miracle myself."
2. Bison Paddock
Bison Paddock San Francisco
Golden Gate Park's Bison Paddock is home to a number of hulking bison. Over the course of its 100 year history, the park has seen some 500 bison born and bred within its pastures. Today, the park is home to one of the longest-running efforts to rear bison in captivity.
3. The Ghost of Stow Lake
San Francisco Loch Ness Monster
Golden Gate Park has been the site of various kinds of hauntings over the years, but nowhere is more haunted than Stow Lake. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, in 1908 a young man spotted a "thin tall figure" by the lake. "It was wet and it seemed to shine," he said. "It was barefoot, I didn't notice the face. I was frightened and anxious to leave." Since then, hundreds of people have reported similar sightings.
4. The park was once a refugee camp
Golden Gate Park refugee camp
Following the earthquake of 1906, which killed some 3,000 people and displaced 400,000 more in San Francisco, the park served as a temporary refuge for an estimated 40,000 people. Refugees camped throughout the park, and some even built log cabins during their stay as the city tried to rebuild.
5. The giant cross behind Rainbow Falls
Prayer Book Cross
Dedicated in 1894, the Prayer Book Cross commemorates Sir Francis Drake's landing at nearby Drake's Bay, where he used the Book of Common Prayer for the first time in the United States. Standing 57 feet high, the Celtic cross is mostly hidden, nestled behind Rainbow Falls and along John F. Kennedy Drive. (The cross's location next to a waterfall ostensibly named for gay rights is a fun little factoid to note).
6. The remains of 1101 California St. at Lloyd Lake
1101 California St.
Looming above the blue-green waters of Lloyd Lake is an elegant pillared structure that's a bittersweet piece of San Francisco history. The structure is the portico of Alban Nelson Towne's 1101 California St., Nob Hill house, which was almost completely devastated in the 1906 earthquake. Today, the portico — the last remains of the house — is a structure known as "Portals to the Past" that presents a solemn window into grandeur that once was.
7. The water flowing uphill at Gravity Hill
As you head towards the ocean at the end of Golden Gate Park, you might see a peculiar site. Located next to a pine tree is what appears to be a stream of greenish water... flowing upwards. It's an optical illusion known as a gravity hill, an odd little phenomenon where the slope of the stream against the nearby path makes it seem like the water is moving towards the sky.
8. The carousel that graced the 1939 World's Fair
Golden Gate Park carousel
Golden Gate Park's carousel was built by the Herschell-Spillman Company and installed in 1914. It later appeared as one of the premier sites at the 1939 World's Fair on Treasure Island. The carousel's gorgeous design makes it a destination for all kinds of children and children at heart.
9. Buried treasure?
searching for buried treasure in Golden Gate Park
In 1982, the author Byron Preiss published a book called The Secret that told of 12 ceramic casques buried in parks around the US, each containing precious jewels collectively worth around $10,000. Since then, many have tried to solve the labyrinthine riddles laid out by the book — but few have been successful. Only two have been found in the 40-odd years since the book's publications, yet most believe that there is definitely a casque hidden somewhere in San Francisco.
Preiss died in 2005, but the search goes on. A 2018 request to search for buried treasure in the park led the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department to create a new program for so-called "Treasure Rangers," who still frequently show up to dig in the park.
According to the book, the casques were planted by the Fair People — a race of nature-dwelling creatures whose existence is threatened by humans. In the story, they flee the Old World for the New World and leave a series of casques containing their precious "wonderstones," and they promise that if humans find all the casques, they will reveal themselves to us all. Will they creep out of the park's faery doors or walk out of the lake? Time will tell... but in the meantime, the mysteries of Golden Gate Park live on.