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Golden Gate Park visitors may be surprised to learn that this beautiful, lush park’s land was once mostly sand and labeled part of the “great sand waste” on area maps in Gold Rush times. Today, everybody loves Golden Gate Park, and it shows—more than 13 million people each year visit its 1,000-plus acres of public space, which stretches from the middle of the city all the way out to the Pacific Ocean.

Conceived in the 1860s and 1870s, as large urban parks open to the public were just beginning to catch on, this landmark finally began to take shape in the 1880s and 1890s thanks to the skill and effort of John McLaren. Arriving from Scotland in 1887 and armed with a vision, he began landscaping the park. Faced with the aforementioned daunting amounts of sand, McLaren used a new strain of grass called “sea bent,” which he had planted to hold the sandy soil along the Firth of Forth back home. Every year the ocean eroded the western fringe of the park, and ultimately he solved this problem, too, though it took him 40 years to build a natural wall, setting out bundles of sticks that the tides covered with sand. He also built the two windmills that stand on the western edge of the park to pump water for irrigation. Under his brilliant eye, the park took shape.

Today the park consists of hundreds of gardens and attractions connected by wooded paths and paved roads. While many worthy sites are clearly visible, there are infinite treasures that are harder to find, so stop first at McLaren Lodge and Park Headquarters (at Stanyan and Fell sts., at the east end of the park; [tel] 415/831-2700) if you want to find the hidden gems. It’s open daily 8am to 5pm and offers park maps for $3. Of the dozens of special gardens in the park, the most widely recognized are McLaren Memorial Rhododendron Dell, the Rose Garden, the Japanese Tea Garden, the San Francisco Botanical Garden, and, at the western edge of the park, a springtime array of thousands of tulips and daffodils around the Dutch windmill. In addition to the highlights described in this section, the park contains lots of recreational facilities: tennis courts; baseball, soccer, and polo fields; a golf course; riding stables; and fly-casting pools. The Strawberry Hill boathouse handles boat rentals. The park is also the home of the de Young Museum and, across from the de Young, the California Academy of Sciences, which includes the Steinhart Aquarium.

To get around inside the park on weekends and public holidays, a free shuttle service is provided. For a complete list of maps, attractions, gardens, and events, visit golden-gate-park.com. You can enter the park at Kezar Drive, an extension of Fell Street; bus riders can take no. 5, 28, 29, 33, 37 or 71.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.