Go on an Urban Safari in San Francisco

Golden Gate Park bison

When you think of urban animals, what comes to mind? Pigeons on the sidewalks? Creepy crawlies in the subways? 

How about bison grazing in fields, wild parrots perched in trees, or dolphins frolicking under bridges? If that second scenario seems a little far-fetched to you, it's not. At least, not in San Francisco. In our Great Urban Outdoors, a surprising number of exotic animals make their homes in some pretty unexpected places. On your next trip to the City by the Bay, get in touch with your wild side with an urban safari, courtesy of some of our favorite San Francisco species.

American Bison

Golden Gate Park, believe it or not, is a home where the buffalo roam. An enduring symbol of the Wild West, buffalos (also known as American bison) first made their way to San Francisco in the 1890s. Long before the city had a zoo, it kept an odd collection of animals, from bears, to elk, to buffalo, in Golden Gate Park near what's now the California Academy of Sciences. In 1899, the bison were relocated to today's "bison paddock" near the park's Spreckles Lake. 

Although the original population of bison was brought in from Wyoming, the buffalo you'll find in the park today have a very particular lineage: they're the descendants of a herd given to Dianne Feinstein, former mayor of San Francisco (and current U.S. Senator), as a birthday present from her husband in 1984.

dolphinDolphins and Porpoises

You might associate dolphins and porpoises with more tropical climes, but as it turns out, they're just as happy in chilly San Francisco as we are! 

Your best chance of seeing bottle-nosed dolphins in the city is to head straight for the Golden Gate. Spottings are frequently reported from Fort Point, a Civil War-era fortification overlooking a cove just underneath the southern end of the bridge. Sightings have also been made at Crissy Field, an easy walk down the waterfront from HI San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf.

Similar in look but smaller in size, you can also spot harbor porpoises in the Bay with a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. The porpoises have recently reentered SF's wildlife landscape after a decades-long disappearance. While they were once frequent visitors to the Bay, they started disappearing during World War II. In the 1940s, the waterway between the Golden Gate's towers became a popular shipping lane, increasing traffic and pollution in the water, and the porpoises disappeared. The city began cleaning the water back up in the 1970s, though, and 40 years later, the porpoises started making their way here once again. Today, you can see them by taking a stroll across the famous span a few hours before low tide. Make sure to pay close attention near the Northern and Southern towers, where you'll have the best shot at seeing the little guys swimming and leaping in and out of the water. 


ParrotsThe "wild parrots of Telegraph Hill" are one of the city's most beloved – and most mysterious – wildlife populations. Made famous by an eponymous 1996 book and 2003 movie, the flock of cherry-headed conures is believed to have descended from a group of escaped (or released) parrots imported decades ago from South America. There are several hundred of the birds in San Francisco today, and you can see (and hear) them year 'round if you're in the right place at the right time. 

One of the best places to see them is at Fort Mason, where you'll also find HI SF Fisherman's Wharf.  Just head out the front door of the hostel first thing in the morning and you'll find them filling the branches of a couple of eucalyptus trees near the building's entrance. Later in the day, the parrots get as far down the waterfront as the Embarcadero. In the early evening, you can hear huge numbers of them calling to each other from the tall, elegant poplar trees at Sue Bierman Park.

Pier 39 Sea Lions

Sea Lions 

Undoubtedly the city's most famous wild animals, a population of sea lions has been flocking to the harbor just behind the Pier 39 shopping center for decades. And although their presence may seem like a convenient ploy to bring in shoppers, they actually ended up here quite naturally. Back in 1989, after the Loma Prieta earthquake, a small number of sea lions found their way to Pier 39's K-dock. Within a year, the population had grown so much that the Marine Mammal Center was called in to study the pinnipeds and help make them feel more at home. By 2009, the sea lions' numbers had grown to nearly 2,000, and their little urban colony had become an iconic San Francisco must-see. 

To see the sea lions for yourself, hop on a Fisherman's Wharf-bound cable car from HI SF Downtown, or take a walk east along the waterfront from HI SF Fisherman's Wharf.

Sea Life

Alcatraz sea lifeIf you're planning a trip out to Alcatraz during your next visit to San Francisco, make sure you leave yourself some extra time to explore the island's natural splendor. While it's the legendary former prison that draws most visitors to this island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, "the Rock" is also home to a surprising amount of plant and animal life. At low tide, venture over to the southwest corner of the island to discover the sea creatures that wash up in tide pools. Then, continue on the trails that wind throughout the island and keep your eyes peeled for sea birds including snowy egrets, black-crowned herons, and Brandt's cormorants. 

Want to see more of the Bay Area's wild side? Try popping across the Golden Gate Bridge to HI Marin Headlandsfor a visit to the Marine Mammal Center, exploring some of the state's best tide pools in Point Montara, or whale watching along the Northern California coast. Wherever you roam, there's an HI hostel to use as a base camp for your own urban safari!


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Stay at one of HI's three San Francisco hostels.