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The Strange Magic of Mount Davidson
There are many odd things in San Francisco. One of my favorite oddities in this city is a relaxing little place called Mount Davidson. It is a small spot with a short hike and a scenic view. It also happens to be the home of a monstrously large cross. You can’t see this cross from the city but it’s a historic landmark that has been here for quite some time. Standing at the base of it inside of the forested mountain makes you feel tiny and there is something magically strange about that experience.
The Cross on Mount Davidson
The strangest thing about this natural spot is the manmade cross that is located here so let’s talk about that first. It was first built in the 1920’s. Three different versions of the cross were built and burned down within the span of a few years. Fires were common on the hills here during that time so it’s no surprise that there was some natural fire damage to the original crosses but it’s interesting to note that there were also some arson fires that damaged the structure. The existing cross was built in the early 1930’s and is made from concrete and steel so there’s no burning this one down!
The cross is huge. It is over one hundred feet tall. For a long time this cross was a well-known place where people went on Easter. Apparently people still go here on Easter but it’s not nearly as popular as it once was. For about thirty years starting in the 1940’s there was an Easter service held here that was actually broadcast nationwide by CBS.
The cross has caused a lot of controversy in the area over the years. Many people say that it’s a cool historic landmark that should be preserved. However, many other people say that it’s a religious symbol and that it has no business being on government land since we’re supposed to have a separation of church and state here. It’s true that it was originally erected by Christian groups. The problem was essentially solved in the 1990’s after several civil rights groups sued the city over the issue. The city ended up auctioning off the part of the land that holds the cross so that it’s not owned by the city anymore (although the rest of Mount Davidson is). It is now owned by The Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California. They purchased it in 1997 for $26000 for the purpose of memorializing the victims of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Ten years later the plaque commemorating this significant event was stolen (it weighed over 150 pounds!) and had to be replaced.
So the cross is just a really fascinating thing both in terms of its history and in terms of its visual impact. From the base of the cross, it feels like you are very small. One hundred plus feet is quite tall! And in fact, the peak of Mount Davidson is the highest natural peak in this city of hills. However, this historic landmark is hidden within trees and between hills so you don’t actually see it from the rest of the city. That kind of fascinates me.
The Rest of Mount Davidson
You definitely cannot miss the cross if you go to Mount Davidson. However, the rest of the mountain itself is interesting as well. It’s a 40-acre hill with a few small hiking trails. They aren’t wild or extensive but they wind through forested areas that are really quite pretty. There is an impressive eucalyptus forest here for those of you who know your trees. There are also blackberries growing here, which is neat to see. And of course while you’re up at this peak you’ll be able to see really great views of the surrounding city.
The walk on the main trail (which is partially a fire road) is only about a half mile long. If you want a steeper or more challenging walk then start towards the base of the hill and keep your eye out for the stairways that lead upwards. (The entrance to the park is towards the top of the hill.)
There is no parking lot for Mount Davidson but it’s possible to park along the side of the street near the entrance to the forested area. It is also possible to reach the area via public transportation by using the #36 bus line.
A Few More Interesting Tidbits
A few more fun things to know about Mount Davidson:
· Mount Davidson is actually located near the spot that is the geographical center of the city. It isn’t anywhere near the city’s downtown so this confuses people. If you’ve ever wondered where San Francisco’s center is, this is more or less it.
· San Francisco is one of the cities of the world that claims to have been built on seven hills. Mount Davidson is one of those hills.
· Mount Davidson was featured in the film Dirty Harry. It reportedly took a solid month of attempting to film before there was a night with little enough fog to get the scene done.
· There are various events held at the cross on Mount Davidson. In addition to the annual Easter ceremony (when the cross is lit up) there are banquets, memorial services and walking tours here.
· There are beautiful homes in the neighborhoods surrounding the park. Take the opportunity to walk or drive around and check out some of the architecture and landscaping that is so pretty here.