San Francisco’s China Basin and Potrero Hill
This urban hike visits part of the waterfront that runs south along the Embarcadero from the Ferry Building, turns inland at China Basin and through the park that runs along the Mission Creek Channel. In contrast to the busy northern Embarcadero, this route is generally peaceful and quiet (unless there is a Giants game the day you go). From there, this route takes you from the flatlands up through Potrero Hill to climb steep stairways — including stairs connecting twisty Vermont Street (“the other Lombard Street”). Sights along the way include birds and butterflies, houseboats, community gardens, unique stairways, and Bay and city skyline views.
Places visited: San Francisco Bay waterfront, China Basin, Mission Creek Channel, Potrero Hill stairways
Approximate length: 7 miles (see Notes for shorter option)
Hiking time: 3-4 hours
Map: see Google Map below
Terrain: Mostly paved; flat to Potrero Hill, steep stairways and streets in Potrero Hill
Transit Schedule: BART
Start Point: Embarcadero BART
End Point: 16th/Mission BART
Getting to the start point:
- From San Francisco, take Muni Metro J/K/L/M/N/T or BART to the Embarcadero station.
- From the Peninsula and South Bay, take a San Francisco BART train to Embarcadero station. If you are closer to Caltrain, take Caltrain north to Millbrae, transfer to BART and take a San Francisco train to the Embarcadero station.
- From the East Bay, take a San Francisco BART train to Embarcadero station.
- From the North Bay, take Golden Gate Transit Route 70/80 or 10 to San Francisco. Get off at Mission and 1st Streets, walk north one block to Market Street, turn right on Market, and to the Embarcadero BART station.
- The first part of this hike is mostly flat, whereas the Potrero Hill section is much more challenging. If you would prefer to take a leisurely stroll, turn around at the end of Mission Creek Park and return the way you came from Embarcadero BART. This walk is approximately 5 miles round trip.
- Several options for food can be found at the start of the hike and in Potrero Hill, and numerous restaurants can be found near the hike’s end at 16th and Mission. A Safeway is located a block off the route near the start: when you turn right on 3rd Street after passing behind the ballpark, continue straight and turn left at King Street. The Safeway market is on this block. When done, continue on King Street, turn left at 4th, and resume the route as it heads over the 4th Street bridge. A Whole Foods market is located a block off the route in Potrero Hill: After turning left onto De Haro from 16th Street, turn right at the next block, 17th. Turn left at the next block, Rhode Island; the Whole Foods is in this block. When done, continue on Rhode Island, turn left at the next block (Mariposa) and right at De Haro to continue on the route.
- The Mission Creek Conservancy has some photos of wildlife you might want to watch for along Mission Creek. The Oakland Museum of California has a map and information about the Mission Creek Watershed.
- Exit Embarcadero BART and start walking towards the Bay on Market Street (you will see the Ferry Building ahead of you in the distance).
- When you reach the Embarcadero, cross all the way to the sidewalk in front of the Ferry Building and turn right.
- Walk south along the wide, paved path along the waterfront. There are plenty of places to stop along the way to enjoy the views. Keep an eye out for bicycles along the path.
- Continue along the waterfront once you pass the Bay Bridge.
- When you reach the boat harbor, veer left to stay along the waterfront.
- Pass the boat harbor and veer right and behind the ballpark.
- Turn right at 3rd Street and then make a quick left on Berry Street. (It’s safest to cross at the crosswalks at 3rd and Berry, as cars may be traveling at high speeds along 3rd Street.)
- Turn left at the next block, 4th Street.
- Cross the 4th Street bridge.
- Immediately after crossing the bridge, turn right at the path to start through Mission Creek Park.
- Continue along the path that parallels the channel, stopping if you wish at benches or on the lawn.
- Continue on the path as you pass Mission Creek’s remaining houseboats on your right.
- At the end of the path is a community garden. On the weekend, the garden may be open if plot owners are present. Be sure to ask first if you wish to wander through this garden or the other community gardens encountered on this route.
- From the garden entrance, turn left and out to the street, which is 6th Street. At this point you are heading away from the channel, not on the street that parallels the channel back in the other direction.
- Turn right when the street ends at the UCSF campus, then turn left shortly at the next block to continue south on Owens Street. (At the time of my last visit, there construction was happening in this zone. Be prepared for a possible detour from this route. If you end up detouring through the campus, find your way to 16th Street and turn right to continue the route.)
- Turn right at 16th Street.
- Cross under the freeway and continue straight on 16th Street for several blocks.
- Turn left at De Haro Street.
- In four blocks, turn left at 19th Street.
- Turn right at the next block, Carolina St.
- Continue straight on the stairs at the end of the street.
- Cross 20th Street and continue straight on Carolina Street.
- Turn left at the next block, 22nd Street.
- Cross Wisconsin Street.
- At the end of the street, head down the stairs on the right.
- Turn right at Arkansas.
- Before continuing on Arkansas, you may wish to explore the path that heads around the community garden (the Connecticut Friendship Garden) for a view out across the Bay. It could be a bit muddy or overgrown here, depending on the time of year, but the views make this detour worthwhile.
- When ready, head back on the path and continue south on Arkansas Street.
- Pass Madera Street on your right, and the Potrero Hill Recreation Center on your left.
- Turn right at 23rd Street.
- Cross Wisconsin at the right-hand sidewalk and then head straight and down to continue on 23rd Street.
- At the next block, Carolina, veer slightly left and then right to cross this divided street. Then head slightly right and left to continue on 23rd Street.
- Turn right at the next street, De Haro.
- Cross 22nd Street.
- Left at the next block, Southern Heights.
- Right at the next block, Rhode Island Street.
- Left at the next block, 20th Street.
- Left at then next block, Kansas Street.
- When Kansas ends, continue past the dead end sign and down the stairs. Here you head through an area of lush plantings and then down a driveway.
- Turn right at the street 22nd Street.
- Cross Kansas and continue on 22nd Street as it veers right and becomes Vermont Street.
- When you get to a very twisty part of Vermont Street, take the series of stairs that continues straight to connect the curves of Vermont Street. Here you will see other stairs to your left that go towards the park to the left of Vermont. You could choose to go this way as well, but I recommend getting the full Vermont Street experience on your first trip.
- When stairs end and you see a parking area ahead of you along Vermont, turn left and into McKinley Square Park.
- Head out to the far edge of the park and turn right along the path (or feel free to explore the park on different paths).
- At the north end of the park, head around the Potrero Hill Community Garden and continue north along San Bruno Ave.
- Cross 19th Street and continue on San Bruno Ave.
- At the next block, make a soft left an past the Benches garden (which officially opened in early 2010) and park.
- Cross the freeway and head down the path off-ramp to the street.
- Turn right at the street, Utah.
- Turn left at the next block, Mariposa.
- Continue on Mariposa for several blocks until you reach Harrison Street.
- Turn right at Harrison.
- Turn left in two blocks, at 16th Street.
- Continue on 16th Street for five blocks, to Mission Street and the 16th/Mission BART station. Congratulations, you made it!
Getting from the start point to the end point:
16th and Mission BART is four stops south from the Embarcadero station (the start point) along the San Francisco line. To get back to Embarcadero BART (to return to downtown SF and for those heading back to the North Bay), take any East Bay train (Pittsburg/Bay Point, Richmond, Fremont, or Dublin/Pleasanton), and get off at Embarcadero. For the East Bay, board the appropriate East Bay train at 16th and Mission BART. For the Peninsula and South Bay, take an SFO/Millbrae train from 16th/Mission BART.