Like so many other hikers, I left my heart in San Francisco—and the great hiking in and around the City by the Bay is a big reason why. Few cities in the world have such close proximity to the wonders of nature, and to such an array of parks, preserves and special places. My new pocket guide, Hike San Francisco, shares two dozen of my favorite hikes.
While the second-most densely populated major city in the U. S. (after New York City), San Francisco is nevertheless loaded with parks and very hiker-friendly. San Francisco is a great place to live, work and hike and is an ideal destination for the visitor who likes to hike.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Many of greater San Francisco’s best day hikes are in the 80,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area, one of the largest urban parks in the world. The park is not one continuous area, but a diverse collection of compelling locales. In addition to its San Francisco shoreline, the park includes the Marin Headlands north of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay Discovery Site atop Sweeney Ridge, south of the city.
Add Ocean Beach, Baker Beach and Muir Beach, Fort Mason, Fort Funston and Fort Point, Gerbode Valley, Tennessee Valley and Olema Valley, the Presidio, Golden Gate Promenade and Alcatraz Island…Golden Gate National Recreation Area is epic!
The old slogan “Parks are for people” definitely applies to GGNRA. More than 17 million visitors a year are believed to set foot in the area, one of the most visited units of the national park system. Many of these visitors have a grand time hiking without realizing they did so on national parkland.
Hiker-friendly San Francisco
As magnificent, diverse and expansive as it is, Golden Gate National Recreation Area is not the only park in town. Hit the trail to Twin Peaks, Mt. Davidson and Glen Canyon, parks under the stewardship of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. Golden Gate Park offers a thousand acres of gardens, groves and museums as well as a fine trail network for the sightseeing hiker.
And wait, there’s more, much more for anyone who want to hike San Francisco. Angel Island, the “Jewel of San Francisco Bay” and mighty Mt. Tamalpais are two of the finest state parks in the California State Parks system. And there’s more national parkland nearby—the beloved redwoods in Muir Woods National Monument.
And one more reason why it’s so hiker-friendly around here: San Francisco’s far-reaching transit system enables you to reach the start of practically every hike by bus. Check out my story: Hike San Francisco with Transit to Trails.
I wrote HIKE San Francisco to share the best day hikes in the city and along the shoreline, as well as a sampling of the splendid pathways and parklands north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Truly it was a challenge to select the top two-dozen hikes for this pocket guide!
When I led hikes in the area for The Wayfarers, an upscale walking vacation company, response from the hikers (who hailed from across the U.S. and from Europe) in my charge to the City by the Bay was enthusiastic to say the least. So it is with some confidence that I predict that you’ll like, even love, to take a hike in San Francisco.
All that greenery amidst the scenery is impressive. You’ll enjoy great photo ops of the Golden Gate Bridge—from the Coastal Trail and Baker Beach, from the bay shore and the Golden Gate Promenade. And you must make the once-in-a-lifetime hike over the Golden Gate Bridge. (I thought everybody knew you could walk across the Golden Gate, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, even among some well-traveled hikers I’ve met.)
Hike San Francisco for a truly unique experience
What’s unique about hiking San Francisco? A lot, but let’s begin with the city’s famed fog. Sometimes the fog “comes in on little cat feet,” as Carl Sandburg’s poem describes it. Other times, banks of fog roll in rapidly, smothering the city, and vanishing just as quickly.
Fog is an enduring feature of San Francisco summers. The expression, “the coldest winter I ever spent was the summer I spent in San Francisco,” while wrongly attributed to Mark Twain, is nonetheless is as true as it is clever. Among major U.S. cities, San Francisco has the coldest average daily mean, maximum, and minimum temperatures for the summer months.
But there’s a definite upside to all that Pacific air, which keeps temperatures in a narrow, usually moderate range, with the temperature rarely rising above 75 degrees F or dipping below 45 degrees F. With temperatures rarely too hot or too cold, San Francisco is blessed with terrific hiking weather all year long!
San Francisco is famous for its hills, more than 50 of them. The city walker will enjoy the ‘hoods named after the hill on which they are situated, including Nob Hill and Potrero Hill. Hikers head for the less densely populated hills near the geographic center of the city, located southwest of downtown. A newly reconstructed trail leads to Twin Peaks, a popular vista point. San Francisco’s highest summit, Mt. Davidson (925 feet), is topped with a 103-foot tall cross.
The Presidio, transferred to the National Park Service from the U.S. Army in 1994, has been converted from an Army base to a unique area combining educational and cultural facilities with nature trails and beaches. America’s most infamous prison site, Alcatraz Island, is also part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Some of San Francisco’s best hikes are coastal hikes, which explore the northern and western edges of San Francisco’s shoreline. Preserving the waterfront as public domain during the Real Estate Go-Go years of the 1970s and 1980s provided San Francisco with a terrific greenbelt sprinkled with historical and cultural attractions.
While San Francisco’s shore is a lively place and every bit a part of one of America’s most beloved cities, it also offers a feeling of remoteness as well. Hiking San Francisco offers a splendid urban-rural-wilderness collage; natural history and social history is often part of the same hike. From the forested ridges, take in San Francisco’s skyline; from the city, look toward the bold Marin Headlands.
San Francisco remains one of the most beautiful cities in the world because such a significant amount of the natural world has been preserved in and around the metropolitan area. Nature is nearby—in the heart of the city and along its bay and ocean shorelines. With a short drive or bus ride from San Francisco, you can reach trailheads for hikes that lead across dramatic coastal bluffs, through fern-filled ravines and amidst ancient redwood forests.
Hike smart, reconnect with nature and enjoy your hikes in San Francisco.
—John McKinney The Trailmaster