A Guide to Hiking the Bay Area

There are thousands of miles of hiking trails in the Bay Area. See pictures of national parks.
There are thousands of miles of hiking trails in the Bay Area. See pictures of national parks.
Geri Lavrov/Photgrapher's Choice/Getty Images

The trail starts in a thick jumble of redwood and Douglas fir. Since it's only 5 miles (8 kilometers) long, you're not expecting dramatic changes in scenery. But before long, the path leads you out of the forest and up 1,466-foot (447-meter) Barnabe's Peak, where you're treated to sweeping views of the countryside. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mount St. Helens in the north [source: Bay Area Hiker]. And to think you're not on, say, the mighty (and better-known) Pacific Crest Trail, but a modest path in the San Francisco Bay Area -- a spot that's home to more trails than most realize.

The San Francisco Bay Area is the metropolitan region surrounding Northern California's San Francisco and San Pablo bays. Home to more than 100 cities that contain in excess of 7 million people combined, it encompasses roughly 7,000 square miles (18,130 square kilometers) [source: What Is the Bay?]. While there is no central governing body that oversees all of the Bay Area's hiking trails, it's safe to say there are thousands of miles of trail here. The San Francisco Bay Trail alone makes a 500-mile (805-kilometer) loop around the bay, while the 335-mile (539-kilometer) Bay Area Ridge Trail, which winds along the ridges towering over the bay, will eventually contain more than 550 miles (885 kilometers) when all segments are connected [source: Bay Area Ridge Trail, Bay Trail].


Don't fret that you have to be an expert hiker to enjoy these trails. While the two mentioned above are quite long, you can certainly just hike a short segment of either one. And there are plenty of "regular" trails in the Bay Area that run just a mile or two or 10. There are trails to fit every skill level, too. Keep reading to find one that suits your tastes.

Hiking the Bay Area: Trails

One of the best aspects of the Bay Area trails is their wide variety. There are trails in county, state and national parks; trails created from paved road, crushed gravel, dirt and grass; and trails that pass by every kind of scenery imaginable, from the stunning Pacific Coast to towering redwoods. There are so many trail options in the Bay Area, in fact, that it can be a bit overwhelming. But on the plus side, you should be able to find just what you're seeking. Here are a few of the most popular trails [source: Bay Area Hiker].

  • Angel Island Loop Trail. You have to take a ferry to reach Angel Island, the largest island in San Francisco Bay, but it's worth it. The island has a fascinating history: It was once a U.S. Army post and also processed 175,000 immigrants, mainly from China, from 1910 to 1940. The easy, 5-mile (8-kilometer) loop trail overlooks the old Camp Reynolds, an 1863 Army post built to protect San Francisco Bay. It also affords views of Point Blunt, which once held an artillery battery -- and where you may hear and see harbor seals today. The trail winds to the top of 788-foot (240-meter) Mt. Caroline Livermore, where you can gaze at Ayala Cove, Tiburon and the Golden Gate [sources: California Department of Parks and Recreation, Military Museum].
  • Matt Davis-Steep Ravine Loop, Mount Tamalpais State Park. Sitting just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, 2,571-foot (784-meter) Mt. Tamalpais features redwood groves, oak woodlands and stunning views from its peak. There are more than 50 miles (81 kilometers) of trail here; the Steep Ravine Loop via the Matt Davis Trail is one of the most popular. This 7.3-mile (11.8-kilometer) hike from the Stinson Beach Trailhead passes a steep, lush canyon, waterfalls and a wide variety of flora and fauna. It's moderately difficult [sources: California Department of Parks and Recreation, Bay Area Hiker].
  • Coast Trail from Palomarin Trailhead to Alamere Falls, Point Reyes National Seashore. More than 150 miles (241 kilometers) of hiking trails crisscross Point Reyes National Seashore, an impressive wilderness area with more than 1,500 species of plants and animals scattered among its expansive beaches, windswept grasslands and wooded ridges. In summer and fall, yellow jackets can be an issue, although park staff post notices of problem areas. The 7.5-mile (12.1-kilometer) out-and-back trail to Alamere Falls, a 40-foot (12-meter) waterfall, which tumbles into the Pacific Ocean, isn't too tough, although it contains two tricky scrambles near the end, after you pass Pelican Lake -- one a downhill cut through bare rock, and the second a drop to the beach via crumbly rock [sources: National Park Service, Bay Area Hiker, Waterfalls West].
  • Castle Rock State Park. Sitting along the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains, this state park is filled with redwoods, Douglas fir, steep canyons and unusual rock formations. Its 4.7-mile (7.6-kilometer) partial loop trail is never that crowded, so it's easy to enjoy the fantastic scenery [source: Bay Area Hiker].
  • Summit Loop, San Bruno Mountain County Park. An easy 3.5-mile (5.6-kilometer) loop takes you to San Bruno's 1,314-foot (401-meter) summit and back along dirt trails. The trails are well-groomed, although rocky. Still, it's considered a good hike for beginners. Views are good; you can spy downtown San Francisco, the East Bay hills and the Santa Cruz Mountains from the ridge. Spring wildflowers that pop up here -- lupine, manroot and bluedicks, to name a few -- are outstanding [source: Bay Area Hiker].


Hiking the Bay Area: Regions

Mount Diablo in the Bay Area's East Bay region is known for its views.
Mount Diablo in the Bay Area's East Bay region is known for its views.
Bob Cornelis/Photolibrary/Getty Images

One way to determine where to hike is to first decide which region you favor. The San Francisco Bay Area is comprised of the East Bay, North Bay, Peninsula, South Bay and San Francisco. Here's a little info on each:

  • East Bay. This section of the Bay Area lies across the bay from San Francisco and the Peninsula. Its most populous city is Oakland; neighboring Berkeley is famed for its university. Two of its popular hiking areas are Redwood Regional Park and Mount Diablo State Park. The 1,800-acre (728-hectare) Redwood Regional Park was extensively logged in the 1800s, but has been replanted and features a lush forest of 150-foot (46-meter) coast redwoods. The park features a few main trailheads, such as Skyline Gate Staging Area [sources: East Bay Regional Park District, Bay Area Hiker]. Mount Diablo is known for its views; geographers say hikers can actually see more of Earth's surface from its peak than any other peak on the planet, except for Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro. Although most visit this oak-chaparral-grassland park via auto, there are several miles of trail to ramble [source: California Department of Parks and Recreation].
  • North Bay. This section lies north of San Francisco and includes Marin, southern Sonoma, southern Napa and Solano Counties. Head to Armstrong Redwoods and Sugarloaf Ridge state parks for prime hiking. The former has several trails ranging from oh-so-easy to gaspingly difficult, plus accessible pathways and, of course, stunning coast redwoods [source: California Department of Parks and Recreation]. The latter features 25 miles (40 kilometers) of trail passing through oak woodland and chaparral, and contains the headwaters of Sonoma Creek [source: California Department of Parks and Recreation].
  • Peninsula. The Peninsula extends south from San Francisco, across San Mateo County and the northern slice of Santa Clara County. You can't miss the 3-mile (4.8-kilometer) hike at Año Nuevo State Park, where large numbers of northern elephant seals gather. Hikers can watch males battling it out for a comely female seal, and females birthing on the beach. During breeding season (Dec. 15-March 31), you're only allowed in the park on a guided walk [source: California Department of Parks and Recreation].
  • South Bay. San Jose is HQ of the South Bay, which lies south of both the Peninsula and the East Bay. At Uvas Canyon County Park, there are 6 miles (9.7 kilometers) of trail, including a 1-mile (1.6-kilometer) loop along Swanson Creek that will take you past several waterfalls. Some of the trails are quite easy, but those who want to challenge themselves can tackle the steep Nibbs Knob and Knobcone Point [sources: Santa Clara County Parks, Bay Area Hiker].
  • San Francisco. This famous U.S. city is the region's namesake, and sits atop the peninsula. Head for the historic Presidio, a former Army post for three nations: Spain, Mexico, then the U.S. There are more than 25 miles (40 kilometers) of hiking trails here, including the Golden Gate Promenade [source: National Park Service].


Hiking the Bay Area: Weather Considerations

Yes, San Francisco is known for its cool temps and fog. But don't necessarily let that guide how you dress and prepare for your hike. The weather conditions you'll encounter will all depend upon the trail you're on and the season in which you're hiking. In addition, Bay Area weather varies dramatically from mile to mile, as the region is full of microclimates, or small pockets of weather [source: Grant's San Francisco Travel Guide]. In one area, it might be 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) with little wind, while a few minutes away, it's 58 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees Celsius) and damp.

Nevertheless, there are some things to keep in mind regarding Mother Nature. The rainy season is from November to March; there's little or no rain the rest of the year. And despite the wild weather variations mentioned above, overall the average year-round temps range from about 40 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (4 to 21 degrees Celsius), so the weather is never extreme [source: Grant's San Francisco Travel Guide]. What does all of this mean for hiking?


Because the weather can change fairly dramatically from region to region, no matter which trail you select, it's best to carry a few basics with you when hiking, such as a hat, water-resistant jacket, light rain or wind pants, gloves, an extra pair of socks, and an emergency space blanket. And layers are always a good idea, especially for longer hikes [source: Hiking Guide]. You may start out in chilly, foggy weather, then end up with sunny, warm temps that will leave you sweating profusely if all you have are a long-sleeved shirt, pants and a thick coat.

Hiking the Bay Area: Hiking with Kids

Plenty of short, relatively easy trails make it possible to enjoy hiking with kids in the Bay Area.
Plenty of short, relatively easy trails make it possible to enjoy hiking with kids in the Bay Area.
Thinkstock Images/Comstock Images /Getty Images

Hiking is a great family activity, and with the Bay Area's innumerable trails, it's easy to find hikes appropriate for even the youngest of kids. There are also plenty of trails in parks that include nature centers, wildlife habitat areas with native animals, picnic facilities and other amenities aimed at children.

Here are some of the more popular family-oriented trails [source: Bay Area Hiker]:


  • Jewel Lake Natural Trail. Tame enough for toddlers, this Berkeley trail features 750 feet (229 meters) of boardwalk that meander through the woods. Jewel Lake is part of the Tilden Nature Area, which also contains the Little Farm, where kids can see cows, sheep, goats, rabbits and chickens, among other animals [source: Rutledge].
  • Tennessee Valley Trail. This level trail is less than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) long and winds through hilly terrain before depositing you at Tennessee Beach. You're apt to see plenty of wildlife during your trek, such as raptors, deer, coyote and maybe even bobcats, and in spring, the wildflowers are amazing [sources: Rutledge, National Park Service].
  • Land's End Coastal Trail. Situated right in San Francisco, this coastal trail seems so wild, with its windswept cypress trees, crashing surf and barking seals, you'd never know millions of people are close by. Although the Coastal Trail is 11 miles (18 kilometers), it's not contiguous; there's a family-friendly 3.5-mile (5.6-kilometer) loop that's easy to hike [source: Rutledge].

Author's Note

This was the perfect assignment for me, as I'll soon be taking my older daughter out to Davis, California, for grad school. Davis is just an hour from the Bay Area, and I love hiking and trail running, so now I'll know where to go!

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