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13 fascinating facts you didn’t know about Golden Gate Park

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Coyotes and bison live here

A curved wooden bridge in a lush and green park.
Wooden Bridge at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.
Photo via Shutterstock

On April 4, 1870, Golden Gate Park, which measures 1,017 acres, opened to the public, quieting skeptics who said a park could never be built atop San Francisco’s sand dunes.

Since opening nearly 150 years ago, the city’s largest park has played host to the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894, herds of bison, the birth of the Summer of Love movement, and countless stoners getting blitzed at Hippie Hill. And while some of the park’s mainstays are well-known—e.g., the AIDS Memorial Grove, Japanese Tea Garden, its many lakes—there are many other tidbits just waiting for you to rediscovered.

Here are 13 of our favorite lesser-known facts about Golden Gate Park.

  1. A 25-year-old designed the park. Civil engineer William Hammond Hall was only 25 years of age when he designed Golden Gate Park, helping create the Panhandle along and the two main drives.
  2. The man who designed Central Park was briefly considered. Frederick Law Olmsted was initially considered as the Golden Gate Park architect, but he disliked the desolate location and felt the massive sand dunes made it impossible to build. He was wrong.
  3. Moose, caribou, and antelope once galloped here. The American bison, who can be found in the park, weren’t the only beautiful beasts to roam the grounds. Moose, caribou, antelope, and even zebras used to meander around the park over the years.
  4. Bisons and coyotes still call the park home. In 1890, a bison cow and bison bull were transported from Wyoming and Kansas to Golden Gate Park. More were added, and the herd at one point reached up to 30. On the canine front, more than 100 coyotes live in San Francisco, but there have been more sightings in Golden Gate Park than any other spot in the city.
  5. It once served as a refugee camp. Following the 1906 earthquake, many San Francisco parks, including Golden Gate Park, housed displaced residents whose homes were destroyed by the infamous quake and fire. An estimated 40,000 denizens lived in the park inside tents, log cabins, and earthquake shakes, some of which can still be found in the city today.
  6. Of the park’s 22 statues, only one is of a women. And it’s of a fictional female one too, a circa-1914 statue of a pioneer woman with her two children, located by the Stow Lake Boathouse.
  7. A statue of John McLaren, who hated statues, can be found in the park. The noted horticulturist, who served as superintendent of Golden Gate Park for 53 years, despised statues. He did everything in his power to not have any grace the park grounds. But in shady San Francisco fashion, he was later presented with a life-sized statue of himself for his 65th birthday. Embarrassed by the garish thing, he hid it away. After his death, the statue found a new home in Golden Gate Park, where it still lives today. Rude.
  8. It’s home to the oldest yacht model club in the country. The San Francisco Model Yacht Club dates back to 1898 and is believed to be the oldest such organization in the United States. The city built the clubhouse in 1937, which contains one of the world’s largest vintage free-sailing-model collections.
  9. It’s also home to the first public playground in the country. Originally called the Sharon Quarters for Children, today’s Koret Playground was the first public playground in the United States. The park contains five playgrounds spread across the length of the park.
  10. It has waterfalls. Two, to be exact: Huntington Falls, located near Stow Lake, and Rainbow Falls, found at John F. Kennedy Drive near Crossover Drive. Both are manmade and can be turned off for cleaning.
  11. There’s buried treasure here—probably. In 1982, Byron Preiss buried a dozen ceramic vases encased in plexiglas in parks across North America. Each one contains a key that could be redeemed for one of twelve jewels (estimated to be worth $1,000) Preiss kept in a safe deposit box in New York. The key to finding the vases was to match one of twelve paintings to one of twelve poetic verses, found in his puzzle book, The Secret; solve the resulting riddle; and start digging. It is believed that Golden Gate Park holds one of these casques. Over 100 treasure hunters have tried to hack this 37-year-old riddle to no avail.
  12. The first tweet for an early version of Twitter was sent from the park. In 2000, after Jack Dorsey wrote some code that let him have an e-mail reposted to as many people as he wanted, he walked through the park and entered the e-mail addresses of several friends into the software, and wrote a missive with the subject line, “I’m at the Bison Paddock watching the bison.” While it failed to impress his friends, it later helped refine and form what we know today as Twitter. “I quickly learned that, first, no one else had a mobile e-mail device, so the system was kind of useless,” Dorsey told Vanity Fair in 2011. “And secondly, no one really cared what I was doing in the park.”
  13. A huge cross can be found behind the foliage at Rainbow Falls. Some of you really need god and it shows: Check out this circa-1894 cross, measuring 64 feet, making it the tallest monument in the park.