From Cult Film To The Courtroom, Mt. Davidson Park Takes Center Stage

Every step to the top of the city’s highest natural point invites a creeping sense of excitement and suspense, whether the trek is the first or the fiftieth. Scaling the mountain through an enchanted forest to the monumental cross at the summit suggests a procession, an escape portal, or at the very least, the promise of sweeping views.

Just off Robinhood Drive, one of several access points to Mt. Davidson Park is found at the junction of Dalewood Way and Lansdale Avenue on the edge of the Sherwood Forest and Miraloma Park neighborhoods.

A dirt trail gradually rises up the south side of the mountain, stepping and channeling through a dense canopy of eucalyptus and Monterey cypress. Teasing with potential for panorama, the trail bends and winds its way around the mountain’s eastern edge, then pops out of the trees and delivers on its promise.

Sweeping views from Mt. Davidson Park. | Photo: Laura Thompson/Hoodline

The offering is an expansive eastern view that takes in Mt. Tamalpais, San Bruno Mountain and everything in between. The hills of Twin Peaks seem within arm’s reach, rising up 922 feet - the second-highest natural point in the city.

This hill tops out at 938 feet and was once called Blue Mountain by noted scientist and surveyor George Davidson, after the lupine and Douglas iris that carpeted its slopes in the spring. Davidson was a charter member of the Sierra Club, and is known for building the first astronomical observatory on the West Coast in 1879 at Lafayette Park. The peak was named in his honor in 1911.

Jacqueline Proctor, a writer and historian, is a resident expert on the mountain, authoring the book San Francisco’s West of Twin Peaks and the essay Adolph Sutro’s Urban Forests: Influences and Lasting Benefits. She also maintains MtDavidson.org, which chronicles the history of the mountain and its surrounding neighborhoods.

Beginning with the question of why three-quarters of the mountain is forested and rest is not, we learn that ownership of the hill was once divided between Adolph Sutro on the forested west side and Leland Stanford on the rocky east side, roughly marked by the skeleton of a now dead Eucalyptus tree.

This Eucalyptus tree once marked an historic property line at Mt. Davidson Park. | Photo: Laura Thompson/Hoodline

Before it was developed, San Francisco was essentially treeless, with coastal brush and grasslands forming the predominant vegetation. Adolph Sutro, a former San Francisco mayor and philanthropist best known for the creation of Sutro Baths, significantly transformed the city in the late 1800s by planting a huge forest of cedar, pines and eucalyptus trees across over 1,000 acres of his land, including Mt. Sutro and his portion of Mt. Davidson.

Proctor’s research shows that by the time of Sutro’s death in 1898, he owned over one-tenth of the city, encompassing 12,000 acres on the west side from Baker Beach to Lake Merced. He willed a portion of his land to his heirs, including the Mt. Davidson property, stipulating its use as an educational trust. But his descendants preferred to have the option to sell the land and convinced the California Supreme Court to invalidate his will.

Mt. Davidson in 1887 before tree planting by Adolph Sutro. | Photo courtesy of MtDavidson.org

Developer A.S. Baldwin purchased the property from the Sutro estate and began to construct the residential neighborhoods at its base. One of his marketing schemes was the blazing of trails up the mountain he owned to showcase the area to prospective homeowners.

The experience of hiking to the peak captured the attention of YMCA director James Decatur in 1920, inspiring him to collect donations to build a 40-foot wooden cross at the summit and, along with Grace Cathedral, organize the first Easter sunrise sermon on Mt. Davidson in April 1923. Over 5,000 people attended the first ceremony and the annual service continues to this day.

The first Easter sunrise service on Mt. Davidson was held in April 1923. | Photo courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
Easter Sunday service in 1941 attracted over 75,000 people to the summit of Mt. Davidson. | Photo courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

According to Proctor, the collective actions of Sutro’s forest, Baldwin’s trails and Decatur’s sunrise gatherings led to efforts to preserve the mountain as public open space. Beginning in 1926, Madie Brown, a local resident and State Park Commissioner, initiated what became a three-year campaign for the city’s acquisition of Mt. Davidson as a public park.

As a result of her efforts, the city purchased the first 20 acres of the mountain in 1929, and an additional 6 acres at the summit were donated to the city by Baldwin’s widow in 1932. The eastern treeless portion of the park was added in sections after 1941, bringing the property to its current size of a little over 40 acres.

The trail and stairs lead to a vista point at the edge of the forest in Mt. Davidson Park. | Photo: Laura Thompson/Hoodline

To explore the forested area of the park and to reach the summit, more climbing is required from the wide open expanse of the mountain’s east side. Wooden stairs lead to a vista point, offering an even higher vantage across the city. Here, the trees part, forming a narrow entrance framed by a cathedral of canopies. Entering this passage, the cross comes into view, looming directly ahead, but somehow this breathtakingly large 103-foot cross hides among the trees.

This cross is actually the fifth installment, built in 1934 out of concrete and steel after the previous wooden crosses succumbed to torching by vandals. It looks essentially the same as it did when it was erected. A dramatic scene unfolded here in the 1971 film Dirty Harry when Harry Callahan encounters the villain Scorpio at the base of the cross. As expected, a fight ensued.

A famous scene from the 1971 film Dirty Harry takes place at the cross in Mt. Davidson Park.

Another fight was on the horizon. For many years the cross was a prominent icon seen during daylight from throughout the city and reportedly visible from 75 miles away when illuminated at night. Lighting the cross proved controversial and was a contributing factor in the filing of a 1990 lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union and others objecting to the city’s ownership of the religious symbol.

After a long court battle, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in 1996 that the city’s ownership of the cross was a violation of the California Constitution's No Preference Clause guaranteeing "...the free exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference." The court order directed the city to either destroy the cross or sell the land.

Citizens groups rallied to save the cross, a designated historical landmark, and in November 1997, San Francisco voters approved the sale of 0.38-acres on Mt. Davidson Park’s summit including the cross, to the Council of Armenian Organizations for Northern California for $26,000. Once again, the summit was privately owned but this time with an easement securing the land in perpetuity as public open space.

The cross and summit of Mt. Davidson are owned by the Council of Armenian Organizations for Northern California. | Photo: Mike Murray

A plaque memorializing the 1.5 million victims of the 1915 Armenian genocide was installed by the Council at the base of the cross. As directed by the court order, illumination of the cross is limited to two times a year. It shines on the hill on Easter Sunday and April 24, Armenian Genocide Memorial Day.

Earthen trails spiral out from the summit in several directions, leading down into the dense woodlands. To walk through this urban forest is to be transported to another place. City sounds are overtaken by birdsong and wind through the trees.

Works Progress Administration era stairs step through the forest of Mt. Davidson Park. | Photo: Laura Thompson/Hoodline

Mt. Davidson Park is one of 220 parks managed by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department and a designated Natural Area, recognized for its highly valued natural resources including an extensive urban forest, native plant species, wildlife habitat, vistas, trails and remnant historic landscapes.

The Natural Resources Management Plan is a 20-year vision for natural resources in the city's 32 designated Natural Areas.  The final draft plan was released and adopted by the Recreation and Park Commission in 2006 and the environmental review process required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) has been underway ever since, receiving over 1,000 public comments so far.

In Mt. Davidson Park, the Natural Resources Management Plan proposes to more clearly define the trails on the rocky east side and improve the habitat for the native plants that exist there. It also calls for the removal of 1,600 blue gum eucalyptus trees over 15 feet tall within the next 20 years. The purpose is to open the understory and allow light to reach the native coastal scrub and reed grass communities that exist on the forest floor. There are 11,000 trees in Mt. Davidson Park's 30-acre urban forest. According to the plan, tree removal would impact a 9-acre area, primarily located within the interior portions of the woodland.

But some residents and organizations have submitted comments into the public record that the plan's recommendations for Mt. Davidson would result in significant negative environmental impacts. There is concern that removal of the trees and other actions outlined in the plan could lead to degradation of the park's aesthetics, cultural resources, biological resources, hydrology and recreation.

The final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was released by the San Francisco Planning Department last month. On Thursday, December 15, a joint Planning Commission and Recreation & Park Commission meeting will be held to consider certification of the Final Environmental Impact Report for the Natural Resources Management Plan. The meeting will be at 1:00 p.m. at City Hall in Room 400. Comments can be provided at the meeting or directly to the Commissioners at Recpark.Commission@sfgov.org and Commissions.Secretary@sfgov.org.

Getting there: The primary park entrance is at Dalewood Way and Lansdale Avenue near the MUNI 36 bus stop. There are several informal access points from neighborhood streets around the perimeter of the park. Street parking is available; there are no restrooms, and the park is not wheelchair accessible.

Never miss a story.

Subscribe today to get Hoodline delivered straight to your inbox.

History of mt davidson cross controversy and urban forest