San Francisco is host to a plethora of iconic sites however The City also has a lesser known tourist attraction – it’s the geographic epicenter for outdoor adventure surrounding the bay. Bike culture is big in The City; running is another popular way to get moving outside, and there is endless urban exploration within the city limits to keep one busy for a lifetime. Just outside San Francisco, the greater North Bay and Peninsula are host to numerous state parks and open spaces that provide opportunities for mountain biking, hiking, backpacking, camping, paddling, fishing, and more. If you’re visiting the area and looking for something to do outdoors, this guide will jump start your planning.
Within San Francisco there are a great many excursions that will get you outside for the day; the purpose of this guide is to help you get beyond the general tour book recommendations and put you onto some outings that you can really sink your teeth into. The average tourist may find a walk across Golden Gate Bridge to be a great day spent outside (and it is!), but the average reader of Hike It. Like It. is probably looking for something a little more engaging. With that said, condensing this information into a short guide is not really possible, so think of this as a good start! The bay area is unofficially divided into sub regions. Understanding this is key to making the most of time spent outside, and minimizing time spent driving. Below is a quick breakdown…
Also just called “The City” by locals, San Francisco is the heart of the bay area. It’s a city and its own county! Home of tech start up’s, endless dining options, and outdoor-minded people!
The North Bay
Just over the Golden Gate Bridge lies Marin County, a group of small towns including Sausalito, San Rafael, Novato, and Bolinas. The South and West areas of Marin are similar to San Francisco weather wise and in terms of geography. Cool and coastal places usually with dense vegetation and redwoods along the Pacific Ocean. The East and Northern parts of Marin are warmer with more exposed foothills in proximity to San Pablo bay. Collectively they make up the very diverse North Bay.
Directly South of San Francisco is San Mateo county, a group of small towns including San Bruno, Redwood City, Los Altos, and Halfmoon Bay. The weather is typically cool and can be foggy. The hills are densely forested. Beaches are very typical of the Northern California area – windy and with heavy surf.
Over the Bay Bridge lies the East Bay. Larger cities such as Berkeley, Oakland, Castro Valley make up this area. Arguably more outdoor opportunities await here (enough that it could be it’s own guide) and just as much dining as San Francisco offers.
This area is more Southeast of The City and includes larger cities such as San Jose, Freemont, and Palo Alto. The South Bay is not exactly in the immediate area, but not exactly an all day trek to reach either. It is home to Henry Coe State Park, the largest State Park in California.
Together these regions make up the greater bay area. Life in the bay area is fast paced – work hard, play harder. People here are passionate about everything they do and, despite the booming tech industry and urban development, outdoor culture is huge here. You’ll most likely be recreating in either (a.) National Park (b.) State Park (c.) Designated Open Space. To that end, here are a few links which you may find useful for trip planning:
- San Francisco Open Space
- Marin County Open Space
- Midpeninsula Open Space
- East Bay Open Space
- California State Parks
- National Park Service
This guide will focus on the San Francisco and North Bay areas due to their proximity to each other, in attempts to keep the amount of content under control. Ready? Here we go…
When to Visit
In San Francisco Fall is usually the warmest time of the year, but there tends to be more fog. Spring is also nice; less fog more rain. In summer, the high’s rarely break 70ºF (21ºC). Winters are mild with low temps usually in the mid 40’s (~ 8ºC). Even on warm clear days there’s always a chance for the marine layer to blow in, which can include clouds and fog and can drop the temperature 15 degrees or more very quickly. All in all, San Francisco offers a perfect blend of weather to be out hiking, biking, running, etc… South Marin and West Marin more or less follow San Francisco’s weather patterns. Head just a few minutes inland (San Rafael, Novato) and you will find highs of 90ºF (32ºC) in summer, and lows around freezing in winter. Locations that are only 15 minutes apart by car can have radically different weather conditions; shorts in one place, down jacket in another. Layering clothing is recommended year-round.
Outdoor Folks in San Francisco and Beyond
For a solid go-to blog for outdoor inspiration, Weekend Sherpa is always a safe bet. If in-depth hiking guides are what you seek, then Bay Area Hiker is what you want. Both of these sources feature content from beyond the SF area as well. Finally, you’re likely to be overwhelmed by the variety of food in San Francisco as well so let us recommend SF Weekly for some up to date food tips.
Hike, Walk, or Run
There are no shortage of trails to explore all over the bay area. No shortage of hills either! To get an idea of the intensity of a given trail talk to the Park Rangers or check out the National/State Park website links above. There may not be any high passes in the area, but there can be a lot of up and down… it can be intense out there!
- Lands End Trail: (SF) Catch the ocean breeze while walking among cypress trees and taking in views of the Sutro Baths.
- Fort Funston: (SF) Go for a walk or run and watch the hang-gliders do their thang. The beach is accessible here, but NOT a place to swim.
- Angel Island: (SF) Hop on the ferry and go for a hike, there are several options ranging from 3 to 6 miles.
- San Bruno Moutain State Park: (Peninsula) Rolling hills and great views of The City… lots to choose from.
- Marin Headlands: (North Bay) A great place to go for longer hikes (short as well), views of the Pacific, views of the Golden Gate, military history, and the Point Bonita Lighthouse.
- Mt. Tamalpais: (North Bay) Mt. Tam, as the locals call it, is pure gold. The extensive trails here are loved by trail runners, hikers, and mountain bikers alike. Stinson Beach and Muir Beach are both in the neighborhood and can make good start or finish points.
- Point Reyes: (North Bay) Point Reyes is yet another outdoor treasure. Hikers, runners, and equestrians are drawn to its trails flanked by ferns and redwoods. Tomales Bay and Tomales Point are also close by and worth visiting as well as Point Reyes Lighthouse.
- Tomales Point: The northern most tip of Tomales Bay offers a great ~10 mile round trip hike out to the point of land between the Pacific Ocean and Tomales Bay. Along the way you’re likely to see tule elk, brown pelicans, harbor seals, and other wildlife. The parking area is adjacent to the historic Pierce Point Ranch which you can tour on your own. McClures Beach is also below the parking area if you want to explore (NOT swim).
Cycling and Mountain Biking
Due to the popularity of cycling and mountain biking, most motorists in the area (and even trail runners/hikers) are accustomed to sharing the roads & trails with bikes. Many times you may be given the right of way out of courtesy, even if it was your responsibility to yield – please don’t assume this will be the case though. Always be ready to yield to pedestrians, use the shoulder of the road when you can, and stop at intersections.
- The Butterlap Loop: (SF) A popular 19-mile cycling loop where various groups usually meet up for weekly rides. Usually starting at the ferry building and ending at a bar somewhere with lots of local points of interest along the way.
- The City Loop: (SF) Another popular cycling route, about 25 miles through The City. This one will take you over Twin Peaks which all visitors should try to see.
- Corte de Madera Open Space: (Peninsula) This open space area is popular with mountain bikers (runners too) because of it’s network of trails shaded by large redwood trees and cooled by small creeks.
- Palo Alto Hills: (Peninsula) Twisting roads with intense climbs? Blind corners? Sweeping views? Check! The Palo Alto hills are very popular with masochistic cyclists and others of equal stature!
- China Camp: (North Bay) China Camp is a very popular mountain biking desintaion. The trails range in difficulty with those higher up being more difficult and more technical. The lower trails offer views of San Pablo Bay while the higher trails offer views of San Rafael Bay and San Francisco in the distance. North San Pedro road is also popular for cycling.
- Marin Headlands: (North Bay) Many trails in the Marin Headlands are open to mountain bikers. The rolling hills here will offer a challenge for those with burly legs! The views are excellent and include the Pacific Ocean, SF Bay, and Sausilto waterfront, not to mention the sights of the Headlands themselves.
- Point Reyes: (North Bay) Although the trails at Point Reyes are not open to bikers, biking to Point Reyes Station via Lucas Valley Road (San Rafael/Novato area) or Petaluma Road (Petaluma area) has become a staple of local cyclists. Coffee and pastry is mandatory once in town.
There’s a lot of water to explore in the area. Checking local conditions and doing the proper trip planning should ensure a safe outing. The last thing anyone wants is to find theirself in the shipping lane, being swamped by tugboat wakes, or sucked out of the bays to the open ocean! SF Kayak and Blue Waters Kayaking are a couple of local shops that can provide you with good beta on any trip ideas you may have. They also rent boats if you find yourself in need.
- San Francisco Bay: (SF) The Bay is best left to experienced paddlers, or anyone who is doing a group trip where the group leaders are experienced. Strong currents and large ships are the primary concerns. For those with the experience however the Bay offers a lot to see from McCovey Cove to Angel Island to Alcatraz. Just off the bay you’ll also find excursions, such as Islais Creek, a popular urban paddling tour which is geared more toward beginner/intermediate skill levels. There are plenty of places to put in all around the bay. If in doubt ask at one of the local shops what to expect for any given day/trip. (San Francisco Bay Tide Tables)
- Sausalito Waterfront: (North Bay) Take it easy among the houseboats and waterfront district where you can look across the bay at the San Francisco skyline (when the fog burns off!). Sausalito also makes a good launch point for a tour to Angel Island for those with intermediate experience. Launch your ‘yak at Turney Street Boat Ramp for easy access to the area. (Sausalito Tide Tables)
- Tomales Bay: (North Bay) A great place for all skill levels to play, just avoid the mouth of the bay where very strong currents and rough surf exist. The bay is very protected and kayaks can be launched either from the state park (Heart’s Desire Beach, day use only) or the Miller Park boat launch (across the bay, overnight use OK). It’s possible to camp on the beaches which are only accessible by boat. Reservations are required for camping. Despite the reservation system beaches are not assigned by site, it’s first come first served once you have a permit. The water is warmest in early Fall, which is a great time to plan a trip. (Tomales Bay Tide Tables)
Beaches for a Swim
Northern California doesn’t have as many swimming friendly beaches as SOCAL, however we do have some. The main things to understand are that the Pacific Ocean tends to be cold, has fairly heavy surf, and some beaches have strong currents and rip tides. Swimming in the bays is generally safer, with further from the mouth of the bays being the best bet.
- Crissy Field: (SF) If you’re really needing a swim at the beach, and it has to be in The City, Crissy Field is pretty good. It’s going to be windy and cold – especially during summer, there are no strong currents or surf near the beach, however as you venture further into the water you’ll experience both strong currents and chop. If you’re going for an “open water” experience, know the tides because they really get moving in and out of San Francisco Bay. A visit to the warming shed is highly advised after your swim!
- China Beach: (SF) This is one of the few beaches near San Francisco on the Pacific Ocean that doesn’t have massive surf. It’s a decent spot to swim due to it’s more protected nature. The water is cold, but the scenery is good.
- China Camp Village: (North Bay) Go for a swim near the historic pier of the Chinese shrimp fishermen. The water clarity in San Pablo Bay is about the same as SF Bay (muddy). It is also protected from surf and it can have some fast moving currents when the tides change, it depends where you are, however there are no significant rip currents close to the beaches.
- Stinson Beach: (North Bay) One of the best swimming beaches in the area. Stinson Beach is popular not only because of the gentle slope of the beach, and mild surf, but also because of it’s proximity to town. The Siren Canteen is a good place for a burger right on the beach.
- Heart’s Desire Beach: (North Bay) A favorite spot among locals, nestled in Tomales Bay State Park. The beach is not large but does feature facilities, showers, picnic tables, and amazing clear blue water to swim in. This is also a popular spot for kayakers to put in. There are no currents here to worry about or any surf. A bit out of the way, but a great spot for the day.
Camping and Backpacking
In the US, camping outside of designated campgrounds is considered “dispersed camping”. Generally speaking, dispersed camping is not allowed in any urban environments, designated “open space” areas, or state parks. In the greater SF Bay Area there is no dispersed camping (none) and almost all of designated campsites in the area will require a reservation (usually months in advance) so planning ahead is key if you’d like to camp in the area. If you’re visiting in the Fall or Winter it will be much easier to reserve a spot of course, but don’t assume that getting a campsite the day-of will work out.
- Rob Hill: (SF) A cool car-camping spot in San Francisco at the Presidio. Nestled among eucalyptus trees, it’s a very eclectic SF camping experience, and if you’re staying in The City, it doesn’t get any more convenient.
- Angel Island: (SF) It’s an island so getting there requires hopping on the ferry, or packing your kayak and paddling over to it. This isn’t a backcountry experience, but it’s surely a unique experience that few people get to have. Maybe you’ll be one of them.
- Portola Redwoods: (Peninsula) Another one of our many local State Parks. Portola Redwoods offers both car camping and backpacking. The latter does not afford many hiking options, but if looking toget away from the masses it’s a great way to go among the redwoods and clover lined trails.
- China Camp: (North Bay) A popular spot for families. The campground is about 1/3 mile walk from the parking area. The host provides dollies for those who don’t want to lug their gear on their back. Many who mountain bike in the area also camp here and often kids will be seen riding their bikes through the camground, zooming between the bay trees.
- Marin Headlands: (North Bay) There are a couple of small car campgrounds at the Headlands, and one backpack camp (Hawk Camp). Camping here is close to The City, easy in, and easy out.
- Mt. Tamalpais: (North Bay) The most varried camping options can be found here, and they’re open year round. Bootjack and Pantoll camps are both about 100 yards from the nearest parking. They’re first-come, first-served sites. Steep Ravine campground is also a short walk from parking but reservations are required and they may need to be made 6 months in advance (or more!). There are two horse camping sites as well and these must also be reserved in advance. It might take some persistence, but so worth the effort!
- Sam Taylor State Park: (North Bay) Share a campsite with the raccoons! Samuel Taylor is located in the Redwood forest about 15 minutes from Point Reyes Station. It’s a nice car camping destination with some decent short hikes (1-5 miles) that can be done right from the campground.
- Point Reyes: (North Bay) For coastal backpacking and camping, Point Reyes is hard to beat. There are a handfull of backcountry campsites (all of which must be reserved) connected by a network of trails. It’s not Sierra backcountry-remote, but it does allow for the possibility of multi-day hiking. Wildcat and Coast Camp are both just off the beach but all of the campgrounds are nice.
Getting Outdoors with Dogs
Dogs are a big part of life for many people living in the bay area. The rules regarding dogs vary from place to place and it can get confusing. There are a few things you can count on where dogs are allowed…
- Even if the area is an off-leash area, you must carry a leash and it can be no longer than 6 feet (~2 meters).
- You will be expected to remove your dog’s waste whether bags are provided in the area, or not.
- Dogs are never allowed in water district reservoirs or streams.
- Other than these guidelines, it’s best not to make any assumptions and check the rules of each specific area you plan to visit. The links below should be helpful…
In case of Rain: Outdoors, Indoors
If you’re looking for something to do inside to work out your craving of the outside, here are a few suggestions…
- Climb at Planet Granite: (SF) Lots of top roping and bouldering to be had here. The Crissy Field location is neat, and when their large roll-up doors are open it’s almost like being outside! Be prepared to pass a belay test if you’re planning to do any top rope climbing.
- Walk the Conservatory of Flowers: (SF) If you have an hour or two to kill, strolling through the beautiful greenhouses at the Conservatory is a very nice experience. They often have special exhibits such as carnivorous plants and others.
- Swim and workout at Crunch Gym: (SF) Crunch Gym offers a free day if you simply fill out a form on their website. They have an awesome indoor rooftop pool, maybe the only one around! Get your workout and swim on.
- Swim and workout at SF Fitness: (SF) They offer a free 3-day pass via their website. If you’re looking for a sweet saltwater pool, this is the spot.
- Soak at Archimedes Banya: (SF) It’s a modern, mixed-style (Turkish / Russian / Japanese) bath house and spa. They offer massages, exfoliation, and tons of pampering. Some areas clothing optional, other areas clothing mandatory (co-ed). Sometimes you just need the down time to work those kinks out.
- Explore the Marin Museum of Bicycling: (North Bay) Many people claim that mountain biking originated in Marin County. At the Museum of Bicycling you can go back to the roots of the earliest mountain bikes as well as road bikes from the golden age of cycling.
When you find yourself without a key piece of gear, need some local perspective, or just feel like browsing the shelves, here are some gear shops that should be able to handle your needs.
- Mike’s Bikes: (SF and North Bay) Whatever your cycling or mountain biking needs may be, give Mike’s Bikes a shot at taking care of them. With multiple locations in the area, Mikes will never be too far away from where you are. They also offer rental services should you need a bike on short notice.
- Blue Waters Kayaking: (SF) Whether you need to rent a boat for the day, want to put together a guided trip, or just need a piece of gear, Blue Waters Kayaking can help you out.
- REI: (SF, North Bay, Peninsula) The classic go-to source for all things outdoors. The local stores are San Francisco, Redwood City, and Corte Madera. Most stores offer rental gear as well, including backpacks, tents, and sleeping bags at some stores.
- Sports Basement: (SF) These folks have been a fixture in SF Bay Area for many years now. Always a good source of local knowledge, they’re always hosting events (check out their online calendar), and if you need rental gear they have pretty much everything from bikes to wetsuits.
- Northface: (SF and North Bay) Scenario… you discover that you left that favorite jacket at home, or maybe you just want to look like a Marin local with a down vest. No need to panic, Northface is nearby.
- Patagonia: (SF) Should you need a garment or two while visiting, you will have no trouble finding Patagonia out here.
Food & Cafés in San Francisco
There are far, far too many places to list, just within San Francisco… and they change often. Instead here are a few quick thoughts… If you’re near Golden Gate Park, bike or hoof it over to Velo Rouge Cafe for a Blue Bottle coffee. After a day mountain biking in San Rafael, cruise down to Tacqueria San Jose, right under the 101, for a hearty burrito – or head north and grab a chalice of Belgian style ale from Baeltane Brewing in Novato, a local secret. Going to be near Tomales Bay? If you’re up for a high energy cookout/party then pack your own charcoal, some beer or wine, and go to Hog Island Oyster Co. to shuck and grill your own. Maybe you’re own your way home from Sam Taylor or Point Reyes passing through Lagunitas, in which case stop by Arti for organic Indian fare. If all else fails, throw a rock anywhere in the city and you’re likely to hit a pop up or food truck with some interesting nosh.
Getting Around San Francisco
Going on foot is a great and stress free way of getting around The City. Biking is also very popular. Most locals are use to sharing the roads with cyclists, but they expect you to follow the rules and to watch out for them (especially the taxis)! Going by bike is probably best reserved for those of you who have experience cycling around dense urban environments. The Municipal Transport Agency (which everyone just calls “Muni”) runs all of the cable cars, and those can get you anywhere for a very reasonable fee, and riding a cable car is just a cool experience. BART is another common, if not badly aging, means to get around the city, or even to other parts of the bay area. If you want to try something different, grab a Go-Car and go for a self guided tour at your own pace with a “car” that knows everything about The City! For more standard modes of transport you can hail a cab at any corner or wrangle an Uber driver to swoop you up any where, any time. If you need to get across the bay, hop on the ferry to Sausalito or Tiburon.
Liked this Outdoor Guide to San Francisco, but you’re more likely to visit Stockholm, Helsinki or Tokyo next? Well, you’re in luck! This write-up is part of a collection of city guides compiled at Hiking in Finland. Direct your browser to the Outdoor Guide Directory and check out other outdoor guides from across the globe! -JD