When a summer day in San Francisco actually turns sunny, our most popular city parks get packed. You'll dodge Frisbees in Dolores Park, run from busloads of tourists in Golden Gate Park, and put up with troupes of rollerblading dot-moms in the Presidio. For those who enjoy the parks less traveled, here are some of the city's least populated spots, coupled with area vendors who can make a day in the park into an extraordinary summer experience.
Telescoping at Tank Hill
This scrubby little park seated between the high-traffic tourist roost of Twin Peaks and the hopping Castro shopping district doesn't have much by way of botanical splendor. During the arid summer, the 2.8-acre nub offers its scant visitors a handful of crusty plants, some jagged rock outcroppings, and the cement-filled remains of an ancient water reservoir. But that's exactly why the hill is ideal for the undisturbed study of the surroundings. Stop by Scope City (350 Bay at Powell, 421-8800) and pick up a gadget to enhance the view. The place is spilling over with telescopes, spotting scopes, and night vision gear that will make a trip to Tank Hill memorable. With the ultra-powerful Nexstar four-inch Maksutov-Cassegrain scope you'll be able to count the rings on Saturn or read a newspaper in the East Bay. But if the hefty price tag (around $700) is a deterrent, Scope City has loads of more-affordable peeping gear. And regardless of cloud cover (information on which is handily available online at the Clear Sky Clock Web site, http://188.8.131.52/~cleardar/csk/), the views from Tank Hill are always engaging -- just turn the telescope a few degrees Earthward for an intimate view of the neighborhood's other fascinating attractions. Just find the somewhat concealed stairway near the intersection of Twin Peaks and Clarendon, and, ahem, enjoy the view.
Pocket Biking at Bay View Park
The summer of 2004 might well be remembered as the summer of the Pocket Bike. In the last year, the miniature motorcycles have enjoyed a boom in popularity that has brought the charming buzz of their little motors to nearly every San Francisco neighborhood. The little bikes get about 30 miles to the pint (yes, the pint) and can top out at 65 mph. But if the coppers get their way, pocket biking might soon be a thing of the past. The California Highway Patrol and Department of Motor Vehicles are lobbying to have the baby crotch rockets taken off the streets (though it is still apparently legal to race down the sidewalk). In any case, Bay View Park might hold the answer for bikers who enjoy squatting over a petite motorcycle and tasting the open road. The abandoned 26-acre recreation area, which towers over Candlestick Park, has recently been closed to car traffic, leaving a circular paved track that is ideal for pocket bike grand prix. Because of their slightly sketchy legal status, the only proper "store" in the area where you can get a pocket bike is TCS Wireless Inc. (615 Market at Second Street, 357-1300), but it isn't difficult to find independent retailers of the minibikes in the Bayview neighborhood just north of the park. Just listen for the sound of a weed whacker racing down the street and make an inquiry. Most pocket bikes retail in the neighborhood of $350. The most accessible entrance to the park is at the end of Key Street, near the intersection of Jennings.
Dog Paddling at John McLaren Park
It's true that McLaren Park isn't the most uninhabited of urban escapes, but the rolling patch of wilderness is so expansive that it's easy to avoid crowds there. There is a nearly abandoned nine-hole golf course on the south side, acres of picnic area, trails, and strange, '70s-futuristic basketball half-courts. In the northwest corner of the park is a pooch-exclusive, rarely crowded swimming hole just a short walk from a small parking area. To treat your special little snoogims to a first class day at the beach, stop by the nearby Pet Food Express (6925 Mission, Daly City, 650-997-3333) first. There you can pick up just about every aquatic accessory known to dogkind, including this summer's line of Doggles (protective yet fashionable sunglasses for dogs), floating toys, and -- for the protective pet owner -- pet sunscreen and sized-to-fit canine life preservers. But what do dog-quatics experts recommend? A floating stars-and-bars patterned boomerang, which combines patriotic reverence and wet 'n' wild doggie follies in a single toss. The park's best entrance is at Woolsey and University. To get to the dog pond, circle the John F. Shelley Drive loop to the aforementioned northwest-side parking lot.
Rokkaku Kite Fighting at Heron's Head Park
The resurrecting facelift of Heron's Head Park (formerly known as Pier 98) by the San Francisco Neighborhood Parks Council is something of an unexplored miracle. Even though 25 acres of open shoreline was rededicated five years ago, it never draws much of a crowd (except for the rare classroom field trip) and doesn't even show up on most maps of the city. The vast open space offers some unusual views (of the old naval shipyard and power plant at Hunters Point) and has few trees and no overhead obstructions. This makes it the perfect place to play hooky and have a good old-fashioned (as in centuries old) rokkaku kite fight. The object of the traditional Japanese aerial wrestling match is to ground other kites by any means possible -- usually done by cutting through your opponent's line or knocking his kite out of the sky by force. A good kite for this mission can be found at the Windrose Kite Shop (715 Bryant, 278-9463), where in addition to the fighting variety, they have an astonishing selection of unusual Asian kites. Windrose might not have the selection of their famed competitor in Chinatown (The Chinatown Kite Shop, 717 Grant Ave., 391-8217), but true enthusiasts might enjoy Windrose's discerning assortment of kits, just one of which can run into the hundreds of dollars.