The best hikes in San Francisco


By Michele Bigley, California-based travel writer.

Photography by Getty Images 

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January 2018

From short strolls to muscle-burning hikes, San Francisco isn’t short on opportunities to stretch your legs. Local writer Michele Bigley shares five of her favourite trails. 

The photogenic hike

Feel the wind whip your face on San Francisco’s most picturesque hike, the Coastal Trail: Lands End. Formerly known as Point Lobos, a nod to the ‘sea wolves’ (sea lions) that bark from their perch on the rocks below, this short hike offers stellar views alongside a dash of history.

Explore the world-class Legion of Honor museum and the ruins of the Sutro Baths (a 19th-century bathhouse, which in its heyday could accommodate up to 10,000 people), as you spot sealife frolicking in the waves below. Ascend eastward along the dirt path, skirting the cliffs, to reach the labyrinth at Eagle’s Point and, at the end of the trail, marvel at the epic views of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s worth retracing your steps along the trail to view the sunset with a glass of wine at the historic Cliff House Restaurant.

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March through oak forests laden with lichen, take a pit stop in the wildflower-strewn meadows overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and practice your wildlife photography (deer and bobcats populate the grassy regions) as you stroll along this well-worn path.

The historical hike

Just north of San Francisco, Muir Woods National Monument is a pristine redwood park, which allows visitors to immerse themselves in the grandeur of the planet’s tallest trees. Nearly 10 kilometres of trails weave through this national treasure, once home to Native Americans and now protected as a National Monument. The easiest trail (a 30-minute walk) is the paved interpretive loop, which offers insights into the natural and geological history of the region. 

Avid hikers can ascend through the forest to Mount Tamalpais State Park to be greeted with views of the bay. Keep your eyes peeled for deer and hawks. For longer treks, pop into the visitor centre for a map (mobile phone reception is not good in the park).  

You must make reservations in advance with the National Parks Service for parking and shuttle service and, on summer weekends, the place gets packed with tour buses, so go early. Though if you’re here any other time of the year, you’ll likely find solace beneath these giants. Whatever you do, cap your hike off with a pint and a bacon cheeseburger at Mill Valley Beerworks.

  • Rest weary legs at the historic Cliff House.

    Edge of glory 

    Over the years, Cliff House has played host to big names – think President Grant, Mark Twain and Buffalo Bill – looking to escape from the city. £306 return

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  • Marvel at the towering California redwood trees © Getty Images.

    Walk in the bark 

    The average coastal redwood grows to around 91 metres tall. The tallest known redwood currently stands at a whopping 115.5 metres tall.£382 pp

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  • Take in the views of the Bay from the Oakland Hills © Getty Images.

    Did you know…

    Lake Merritt in Oakland is supposedly home to the “Oak-ness Monster,” having been spotted on numerous occasions since the 1940s. £371 return

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The wildlife hike

The 11-kilometre (one-way) Dipsea Trail is a muscle-builder of a hike. After parking in Mill Valley (just north of the Golden Gate Bridge), for the first two kilometres you’ll ascend almost 700 stairs – and you’re not even at the top of the hills yet. March through oak forests laden with lichen, take a pit-stop in the wildflower-strewn meadows overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and practice your wildlife photography (deer and bobcats populate the grassy regions) as you stroll along this well-worn path. 

Back at sea level, pop into the Parkside Café to sit by the fire and gaze at the rolling waves over a glass of bubbly and some local oysters. If you’re tired, hop on the Marin bus (61) back to Mill Valley and enjoy the windy route along the coastal cliffs.

The locals’ hike

High in the Oakland hills, just a short drive from downtown, you’ll come across the Sequoia Bayview Trail – the perfect spot to be dwarfed by huge redwood trees.  

Locals adore this trail, making it feel crowded on weekends with dog-walkers and families who appreciate the 4.6-kilometre, relatively flat meander through the forest. In spring, wildflowers are abundant after winter rains. And when the trees part, you’ll be greeted with jaw-dropping glimpses of the Bay Area’s bridges and San Francisco looming below the fog-line.  

Afterwards, head to the Piedmont neighbourhood for a tiki-themed drink at Kona Club

  • Explore the mysterious Big Basin Redwood Park © Getty.

    Biting times 

    Big Basin is known for its mosquitoes at various times, so plan ahead accordingly and take plenty of mosquito repellent. 

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The intense hike

Descend from the redwoods to the Pacific Ocean in the Bay Area’s most intense hike – a 16-kilometre trek from Big Basin State Park to Waddell Beach.

Avid trekkers can hike the entirety of this trail (known as the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail), which stretches east to Castle Rock State Park, making it a total of 40-kilometres one way. Most hikers bookmark each end of the trail with a car. Since you’ll likely only have one car at hand, try doing the last third of the trail as a day adventure.

Highlights include the gushing Berry Creek Falls, wildflower covered hills, the majestic redwood trees shrouded in mist, banana slugs slouching towards the ferns, and the pounding surf at Waddell Beach. After you reach the beach, motor south to Davenport Roadhouse for a pint and pasta paired with live music and local art.

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