“San Francisco 49 Mile Scenic Drive”


On Sunday, Allen and I took the 49-mile scenic drive. We figured the streets would be less congested during the Superbowl. (Whatever that is.) Having lived in San Francisco for decades, and noticed the signs everywhere, we’d never actually followed the drive.

I’d recently happened upon a 1958 map published by the Down Town Association of San Francisco, showing the route. Cartoon icons pepper the map, marking Mission Dolores, Coit Tower, Beach Chalet, and “Twin Peaks World Famous View.” More generic drawings depict “Industrial”, “Golf Clubs” and “View of the Farallone Islands”. Some landmarks are long gone, like Fleishacker Pool, Playland at the Beach, and the dry docks at Hunters Point.map1

Starting and ending at City Hall, the drive zigs and zags all across the city. Because the city’s area is advertised as 49 square miles I’d unthinkingly assumed that the route traced the city’s perimeter. A little research revealed that the drive was created in 1938 by the San Francisco Down Town Association to showcase the city’s major attractions and natural beauty during the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. The endpoint was originally Treasure Island, but when the World’s Fair closed, the route was revised, and has been altered several times over the intervening decades.


The look of the ubiquitous sign was the result of a contest with a $100 prize held in 1954. Local artist Rex May, a gay man, submitted the winning design of a seagull in profile on a sky blue background with white and orange text. The simple graphic is perfectly proportioned and aesthetically pleasing, something I hadn’t noticed until we discovered newer, ugly replacement signs with the same elements but different proportions.

We started out at City Hall and immediately got turned around. Impossible to navigate solely by the signage, the drive was challenging even with a guidebook and printed out maps. As long time residents, we could discern (mostly) the reasons for the vagaries of the route. For tourists, there’s nothing to indicate what should they be looking at — or for. With one of us driving and the other navigating, neither of us was able to fully appreciate the experience. We began imagining an app, or even better, a tour guide in a mini van pointing out the highlights of the route. We got about halfway through and at the Cliff House realized we’d had enough. We agreed we’d do the other half another time. Or not. It was lots of fun to explore our own backyard, learning about something we’d long ignored or taken for granted.

I loved this line from the Wikipedia entry: “Owing variously to its length, its labyrinthine route, and the difficulty of driving through a bustling city, the drive remains relatively unpopular with tourists and locals alike.”

2 thoughts on ““San Francisco 49 Mile Scenic Drive”

  1. Dianne Oconnell

    Forewarned! charming account. You obviously weren’t paid off by the Chamber of commerce. Dianne

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Great post, per usual. I seem to have a vague memory of doing this drive back in 1981 , when I lived there for almost a year, but now I know why it seemed a bit underwhelming: I didn’t know what to look at (or for)! The car-rental places in San Francisco should certainly get behind a revised brochure/map, so they can give folks renting their cars a little extra treat for their money. And maybe the revised version could give people a clue about how long the trip would take in one fell swoop, given favorable traffic conditions and good parking karma, for those spots where a driver (especially a newbie to the area) would want to pull over and gawk.

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