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For all its shiny Silicon Valley gloss, San Francisco is still pioneer country — an undulating urban frontier ruled by extremes

Bay, city, mist-backed bridge… Twin Peaks’ panorama is perfection, albeit fairly hard won, preceded by a lung-busting hike up from the Castro just as the morning’s sun starts to burn off the fog and fry the hillsides. The climb up San Francisco’s second-tallest peak follows a trail where successive hairpin bends open out to reveal a string of excuses to stop, breathe, and take in The View: ocean, skyscrapers, harum-scarum switchback streets. Then it’s off again, following the sure-footed lead of Val Hendrickson, a guide at Urban Hiker San Francisco.

This local outfit’s mission: to make an aerobically challenging playground out of the peaks, woods and stairways that populate patches of San Francisco’s undulating urban map, uncovering historical titbits en route. It’s steep. At points, I’m forced to grab handfuls of scrub — which rejoice in such Wild West names as lizard tail and coyote brush. At the top, we stop for a couple of obligatory summit photos and a breather, then I nod to Val and we’re off again, scrambling over the guardrail onto Twin Peaks Boulevard — named for the pair of adjacent hills it traverses — jaywalking swiftly across then dropping into woods flanking a fenced-off reservoir.

They might recall the David Lynch TV series but the peaks aren’t related in any way to his surreal creation. “The name derives from one given by Spanish settlers,” says Val. “Los Pechos de la Choca (‘The Breasts of the Maiden’).” We leave the hallowed mounds to round the reservoir and climb towards Sutro Tower. The antenna-topped peak — at 1,811ft, the city’s highest point — provided hilly San Francisco with its first decent TV reception back in the ’70s, before becoming an icon for kitsch-cool T-shirts. We tramp through Mount Sutro Forest — an old eucalyptus wood on its last legs. It’s a pungent, shady retreat that rolls down towards Haight-Ashbury.

“The trees came with Australian Gold Rush settlers,” Val explains. “They were valuable windbreaks on farms. This was all grazing land back then.” It’s wet underfoot from fog drip and, further along, a spring seeping out of the ground. “It’s hard to imagine people would’ve once trekked all the way up here with buckets and carts to fill with water,” says Val.

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About National Geographic Traveller (UK)

This month, we ditch the jeep to discover Africa from a different perspective. Whether on foot, by boat or hot air balloon, we’re showcasing the continent’s wild side on an active safari across Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and more. We go north of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland; discover Japan’s Tohoku region; and spend a long weekend in Vilnius. Other highlights this issue include Lima, Fife, Budapest, San Francisco and Turin, while our photo story unearths the tradition of gold panning in Costa Rica.