In the 1860s, San Franciscans began to feel the need for a spacious public park similar to Central Park, which was then taking shape in New York City. Golden Gate Park was carved out of unpromising sand and shore dunes that were known as the Outside Lands, in an unincorporated area west of San Francisco’s then-current borders. Conceived ostensibly for recreation, the underlying purpose of the park was housing development and the westward expansion of the city. The tireless field engineer William Hammond Hall prepared a survey and topographic map of the park site in 1870 and became its commissioner in 1871. He was later named California's first state engineer and developed an integrated flood control system for the Sacramento Valley. The park drew its name from nearby Golden Gate Strait.
The plan and planting were developed by Hall and his assistant, John McLaren, who had apprenticed in Scotland, home of many of the 19th-century’s best professional gardeners. The initial plan called for grade separations of transverse roadways through the park, as Frederick Law Olmsted had provided for Central Park, but budget constraints and the positioning of the Arboretum and the Concourse ended the plan. In 1876, the plan was almost replaced by one for a racetrack, favored by “the Big Four” millionaires: Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington, and Charles Crocker. Hall resigned, and the remaining park commissioners followed. The original plan, however, was back on track by 1886, when streetcars delivered over 47,000 people to Golden Gate Park on one weekend afternoon (out of a population of 250,000 in the city). Hall selected McLaren as his successor in 1887.
John McLaren served as superintendent of Golden Gate Park for 53 years.
The first stage of the park’s development centered on planting trees in order to stabilize the dunes that covered three-quarters of the park’s area. By 1875, about 60,000 trees, mostly Eucalyptus globulus, Monterey pine, and Monterey cypress, had been planted. By 1879, that figure more than doubled to 155,000 trees over 1,000 acres (400 ha). Later, McLaren scoured the world for trees, by correspondence. When he refused to retire at age 60, as was customary, the San Francisco city government was bombarded with letters: when he reached 70, a charter amendment was passed to exempt him from forced retirement. He lived in McLaren Lodge in Golden Gate Park until he died in 1943, aged 96.
In 1903, a pair of Dutch-style windmills were built at the extreme western end of the park. These pumped water throughout the park. The north windmill has been restored to its original appearance and is adjacent to a Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden, a gift of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. These are planted with tulip bulbs for winter display and other flowers in appropriate seasons. The Murphy Windmill in the southwest corner of the park was recently restored.
Most of the water used for landscape watering and for various water features is now provided by groundwater from the city's Westside Basin Aquifer. However, the use of highly processed and recycled effluent from the city’s sewage treatment plant, located at the beach some miles away to the south near the San Francisco Zoo, is planned for the near future. In the 1950s, the use of this effluent during cold weather caused some consternation, with the introduction of artificial detergents but before the advent of modern biodegradable products. These “hard” detergents would cause long-lasting billowing piles of foam to form on the creeks connecting the artificial lakes and could even be blown onto the roads, forming a traffic hazard.
A sliver of park at the far east end of Golden Gate Park, the Panhandle, lies north of Haight-Ashbury, and it was the site of the Human Be-In of 1967, preceding the Summer of Love. The tradition of large, free public gatherings in the park continues to the present, especially at Hellman Hollow. Originally named Speedway Meadow, it was renamed in 2011 in honor of Warren Hellman. In 2001, Hellman founded the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival (formerly the “Strictly Bluegrass Festival”), a free music festival held in October. Hellman Hollow also plays host to a number of large-scale events such as the 911 Power to the Peaceful Festival held by musician and filmmaker Michael Franti with Guerrilla Management.