The best hikes in San Francisco

We trekked across the Bay and back to find the best hikes in San Francisco and beyond
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Wally Gobetz
By Radhika Rathinasabapathy and Matt Charnock |

For the days when you feel stuck behind your desk or mired in the glut of devices around you at every coffee shop and café in San Francisco, an urban hike might be just what you need. Some of the very best things to do in San Francisco, this city's urban hikes promise fresh eucalyptus-scented air, open cliffs, stunning views of the ocean, redwood forests and a free workout to boot. So, if you’re feeling the need to escape the city, but don't have time for a full day trip from San Francisco, just step outside and let your feet show you the way. 

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Hikes in San Francisco

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/ Spencer E Holtaway

Marin Headlands

A short hop across the Golden Gate will take you to the 2,000-acre expanse of the Marin Headlands, a veritable nature-lover’s playground. The Headlands are strung with trails of varying difficulty and sights, and you can choose to hug the cliffside along Jurassic rock formations; tread through tranquil woodland; or stroll along protected pebble beaches. Two not to be missed are the Point Bonita Trail and the Rodeo Lagoon Trail. The former starts from Battery Mendell (an excellent vista point in its own right, taking in the Golden Gate Bridge and the city, up to Sutro Tower and Ocean Beach) and winds down to the Point Bonita Lighthouse. Built in 1855, the lighthouse was once only accessible via a treacherous and narrow path around an enormous outcrop of pillow basalt (formed by hot lava eruptions underwater), and a suspension bridge that held only two people at a time. Now, thankfully, you can hike through a tunnel burrowed in the rock, and the suspension bridge holds more than two. The Rodeo Lagoon trail starts from the Marin Headlands Visitor Center and is a gentle loop around the picturesque lagoon. Head clockwise, and as you near the lagoon’s western edge, the dirt track beneath your feet turns into sand and you can hear the surf around the corner. Rodeo Beach is a pebble-covered stretch of half a mile, set in a cove between dramatic basalt cliffs and sea arches. The north side of the trail’s loop runs alongside traffic, but a few hundred feet in you’ll find a couple of picnic tables in a serene spot by the lagoon, with views of the ocean in the background. There are no cafés within the Headlands, so this is a great place to stop with a packed lunch (or a bottle of wine, if you’re so inclined).

Point Bonita Trail
Distance: 0.5 miles
Difficulty: moderate, with some steep sections
Trailhead: Battery Mendell carpark, Fort Barry, Mendell Rd, Northwest Marin, CA 94950
(No pets)

Rodeo Lagoon Trail
Distance: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: easy
Trailhead: Marin Headlands Visitor Center, 948 Fort Barry, Sausalito, CA 94965
(Dogs allowed)

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/ Jason Toff

Muir Woods

The magic of Muir Woods is that it’s one of the only remaining old-growth redwood forests in the Bay Area. Just a few hundred years ago, the elegant, soaring sequoia sempervirens blanketed the peninsula and what is now the Marin Headlands. Once the Gold Rush kicked in, some 95% of the trees were logged for construction in the burgeoning city of San Francisco (including for those pretty Victorian houses). Local conservationists William and Elizabeth Kent managed to save one tract in Mount Tamalpais, and they named it after fellow conservationist and wilderness advocate John Muir. So, expect this to be a transporting experience, as you step into the cool hush of a thousand-year-old forest and the canopy covers you overhead. The forest floor teems with all manner of fungi, ferns and wood sorrel. And Redwood Creek (spawning grounds for Coho and Steelhead Salmon, visible until early March) provides a musical counterpoint to the stillness. Alongside the creek, there are three loops of varying lengths: ½-hour, 1-hour and 1 ½-hours. Further afield, dirt trails run along the canyon and branch off into nearby Mount Tamalpais State Park. The loops are paved (or on boardwalks), but given the amount of fog and moisture hanging in the forest air, the steeper dirt trails can get muddy, so come prepared. A unique sight are the "family circles" of redwoods along the Bohemian Grove Trail, where enormous redwoods grow in circles around a parent root, stooping over in reverence.

Distance: Various trail lengths
Difficulty: easy on the loops, strenuous on the canyon and hillside trails
Trailhead: 1 Muir Woods Rd, Mill Valley, CA 94941
(Loops are wheelchair and stroller accessible; no pets)

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/ techmsg

Golden Gate Bridge

On a bright, sunlit day, the Golden Gate Bridge is a disarming sight, as that elegant feat of engineering straddles the steel blue expanse of the Bay. But why admire it from a distance, when you can get up close and personal? Start at Crissy Field Center (at the eastern end of the beach) and head west along the Golden Gate Promenade. Along this path, you’re level with the waters of the Bay, and Tiburon and Angel Island look almost to be within touching distance. On the beach, off-leash canines splash in the surf with abandon, while expert kite-surfers (and more amateur kite-flyers) negotiate the winds. In the tidal marshes to your left, great blue herons and snowy egrets stalk through the mudflats. Once you reach the Warming Hut Café, pass the building and make a left. Signs mark the way to the Battery East Trail, which will take you uphill. Wind your way up to Battery Lancaster, where an interactive exhibit demonstrates the workings of the suspension bridge and explains why the towers had to be built quite so high. Photo opportunities abound, but a good spot is a shaded area just before Strauss Plaza. Here, you will find a stone slab memorializing Joseph Strauss, chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge, and his vision for a bridge over the bay. (The memorial notes local residents were peeved by the project, worried "it would lower property values, it would ruin the view".) Once you’re on the Bridge, the Bay and the Pacific Ocean will speak for themselves. Apart from spectacular views of the city, you might also catch sight of the Farallon Islands on the Pacific side.

Distance: 3.5 miles
Difficulty: easy
Trailhead: Crissy Field Center, 1199 East Beach, Presidio, San Francisco, CA 94129
(No pets on the bridge, service animals excepted)

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/ Herr Olsen

Lands End

You don’t have to go all the way to Big Sur to catch the stunning landscape of the Central Coast. Lands End offers all the drama of windswept cypresses and cliff faces descending into the crashing ocean surf below, all within city limits. Start at the parking lot by the Lands End Lookout (with a visitor center and café) and take the Coastal Trail heading east. The gentle trail takes you all along the coastline and up to the Eagle’s Point Overlook, a popular vista point and photo spot. Past this point, the sudden appearance of plush rows of houses on El Camino del Mar can be a jarring contrast, and a good sign that it’s time to turn back. Back at the Lands End Lookout, head into the café, grab a hot chocolate and sit on small hidden bench (to the left of the bar, around the corner). Here you’ll find a stunning view of the ocean through the floor-to-ceiling windows, and a quiet moment of contemplation.

Length: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: moderate
Trailhead: Lands End Lookout, 680 Point Lobos Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94121
(Dogs allowed)

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/ Brad Coy

The Presidio

The Presidio has numerous trails criss-crossing its lush, wooded environs, but the Batteries to Bluffs Trail can’t be beat for the sheer drama of its scenery. The trail starts at the Sand Ladder by Baker Beach and hugs the cliffside all the way up to Battery Cranston, by the Golden Gate Bridge’s toll plaza. This is the only trail in San Francisco where you’ll have a pretty much uninterrupted view of the ocean all the way through, and you’ll get excellent glimpses of Land’s End, Point Bonita across the water and maybe even the Farallon Islands on a clear day. The Golden Gate Bridge is also very close, and its presence looms large throughout the walk. As you ascend the gentle incline up the bluffs, your surroundings will alternate between rare native plants and shrubs and 19th century gun batteries, while the ocean surf rolls, folds and crashes below you. This close to the forests of the Presidio, the salty ocean air mingles with the scent of pine and eucalyptus. As a short detour from the trail, head down a set of stairs about 600 feet north of Battery Crosby. Here, you’ll find Marshall’s Beach, a secluded stretch of sand bordered by serpentine (California’s state rock). The beach is frequented by nudists, presumably also drawn here by the seclusion and tranquility. Once you’re back on the regular trail, make sure you reach the end by sunset, to enjoy the stillness as the sun sinks into the horizon and the light sets the Golden Gate Bridge aflame.

Length: 2.7 miles
Difficulty: moderate
Trailhead: Sand Ladder on Lincoln Blvd (between Pershing Dr and Kobbe Ave)
(No pets)

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/ Eugene Kim

Angel Island

The largest island in the San Francisco Bay, Angel Island’s central spot in the bay and its paved perimeter road make it a popular hiking destination on weekends. Its popularity may mean, however, that you'll spend your walk jostling with other walkers, joggers, and cyclists. (We’ve even heard reports of boom boxes en route.) If this isn’t your idea of a peaceful weekend hike, take the road less traveled and head up to the summit of Mount Livermore, the highest point on the island at 788 feet. From the ferry terminal, instead of turning right towards the Visitor Center, head left towards the North Ridge Trail. You’ll soon be on a dirt track and leaving the crowds far behind. The trail winds up at a gentle incline through shady groves of oak and pine, and you’ll catch glimpses of the Bay and its surroundings as you climb. As far as 360-degree views go, the summit of Mount Livermore might just be the ultimate one. Once you’ve reached the top, you can take in three bridges (Golden Gate, Bay, and Richmond-San Rafael), the other islands (including Alcatraz), Oakland, Tiburon, Sausalito and San Francisco. There are picnic tables, so this would be a good spot for lunch with a view. On the way down, make sure you follow the Sunset Trail’s loop around to the Visitor Center (otherwise you’ll end up retracing your steps back along the North Ridge Trail). Take note: Angel Island is well within the path of the fog as it comes into the bay, so time your walk (and your picnic at the summit) accordingly.

Length: 6 miles
Difficulty: moderate
Trailhead: Angel Island Ferry Terminal
(No pets, service animals excepted)

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/ Martin Eckert

Bernal Heights Summit

Bernal Heights Summit is sometimes said to rival Twin Peaks as the best vantage point with a 360-degree view of the city. We’ll leave it to you to be the judge. One thing’s for sure: There won’t be any tourist buses or afternoon fog to interrupt your ascent here—just open grassland and dirt tracks that wind their way up the hill. It’s a short one-mile loop, but it can get steep. You’ll be surrounded by dry grassland most of the year, but after the winter rains, the hill is covered in lush greenery and wildflowers, like Shooting stars, Checkerblooms and California poppies. Bernal Heights Hill is something of an off-leash dog wonderland, so, er, watch your step. While you might not necessarily feel like you've "gotten away from it all," the elevation above the city does give you some breathing space. An advantage of hiking so close to civilization is that, when hunger strikes or the sun burns down too fiercely, food and drink are not far away. Just across the neighborhood’s border with the Mission, a 20-minute walk away, is Al’s Place. It’s newly anointed with a Michelin star, but still manages to radiate its laid-back neighborhood eatery vibe. Yes, it’s hard to snag a reservation, but they do have seats set aside for walk-ins. Take some time post-hike to decompress and mull over an eclectic "snackle" like mushroom broth chawanmushi with apple and pistachio, or brine pickled french fries with smoked apple sauce.

Length: 1 mile
Difficulty: moderate, with steep sections
Trailhead: various spots around the base of the hill
(Dogs allowed)

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