Bernal Heights Park from above. (Courtesy Todd Lapin/Flickr)

Bernal Heights and Ice Cream Delights

Today, Bernal Heights retains the feel of a hill-bound village, albeit an urban one, nestled inside the southeastern reaches of the metropolis that is San Francisco. Part of this neighborhood’s autonomous character stems from the physical boundaries of freeways and fast, wide streets that surround it: Cesar Chavez Street to the north, Highway 101 to the east, Interstate 280 to the south, and San Jose Avenue to the west.

The first known inhabitants of Bernal Heights were the Ohlone Indian tribe. Spanish colonists, who arrived in 1776, displaced the Ohlone after they founded the Mission San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores). One of those first Spanish settlers of the Mission was Juan Francisco Bernal. In 1839, Jose Cornelio Bernal, the youngest of Juan Francisco’s grandchildren, received a 4,400-plus acre land grant from the Mexican government — the Rancho Rincon de las Salinas y Potrero Viejo, which made up 20 percent of modern-day San Francisco. Jose’s family home was at the site of what is now St. Luke’s Hospital, and it was for him that the neighborhood was named.

On our three-mile long, staircase and hill-filled walk on Feb. 19, you will join Bernal Heights resident Ellen Campbell and Walk San Francisco to explore both the current geography and community as well as the history of this unique, and (mostly) walkable neighborhood. Bernal Heights was mostly farmland and dairies inhabited primarily by Swedish, German and Irish immigrants until around 1906, when cheap land and the neighborhood’s bedrock foundation welcomed the first big wave of residents. That second wave of immigrants followed after World War II. With the arrival of the automobile, Bernal Heights became home to a diverse mix of Italian, African-American, Native American, Latino, Chinese, Filipino and Hawaiian San Franciscans.

You’ll start the walk in the commercial heart of Bernal Heights on Cortland and quickly discover the first of the nearly one dozen staircases on this invigorating hike. Fortunately, not all the staircases will be ascents — the walk will take you both up and down a series of steps from Franconia to Harrison (including the not-so-scary Zombie steps), before you make the climb to Bernal Hill.

An open space and radio tower now crown the most prominent feature of the neighborhood. This folded hill is the result of tectonic plates converging with one another around 150 million years ago, when the Pacific plate slid under the North American plate to “wrinkle up” layers of San Francisco’s local sedimentary rock: radiolarian chert. You can spot these folded layers by their distinctive red color.

But Bernal Hill’s grassland summit offers more than geological interests from jasper, clay and serpentine deposits, as it plays home to a number of native flora and fauna, including the California poppy, opossums, skunks, a variety of raptors (such as the American kestrels, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, great horned owls) and — now and then — even coyotes.

After Bernal Hill, you will take Winfield (one of the many streets named after military officials and events, attributed to the fact that Bernal Heights was subdivided into smaller lots by Army Engineers during the Civil War) to enjoy the Esmeralda Slide, as a final descent to wrap up your walk.

Additional stops include the Faith Street overpass, Precita Park, an historic ice cream shop (cash only), and the community garden at Prospect Avenue.

Your walk begins and ends at Martha’s Coffee Shop (easily accessible by the 24 Muni).


Historic Bernal Heights and Ice Cream Delights Walk

When: Sunday, Feb. 19, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Where: Martha’s Coffee Shop, 745 Cortland Ave.

Info: Walk space is limited; $10 minimum donation to Walk; RSVPs required at

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