What you need to know about hiking in San Francisco – including the best trails, what to pack, and tips for your next hike!
“Of all of the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” -John Muir
San Francisco is often synonymous with picturesque victorians and iconic bridges, but did you know that San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area, has some of the best hiking trails in California?
If you’re looking for a respite from the city hustle, here’s a local’s guide to the best hiking in San Francisco and its neighboring regions.
How to Prepare for Hiking in San Francisco
Whether you are a fully seasoned backcountry hiker or someone with less hiking experience that just wants to get out into nature, we would like to offer you some reminders about what to wear and what to pack before your hike.
Most importantly, the San Francisco Bay Area is prone to unforeseen climate patterns that you will want to know about.
And while the climate of the Bay Area is generally considered very mild, the key to hiking in San Francisco is to bring layers.
Having a base layer, a middle layer, and an outer layer will prepare you for the variety of temperatures you might encounter.
We’ve provided you with some examples for layering:
You might be thinking, “why would I need all of that if I am visiting San Francisco in the summer?”
Well, the average temperature in San Francisco mid-summer is only 57 degrees Fahrenheit – i.e. it’s usually a bit more on the chilly side in the city.
The city itself and its sister counties to the north, south, and east can have unpredictable weather – even in the middle of summer. Be sure to check the forecast before your hike to help you decide what kind of layers to bring.
And if you’re still planning your trip to San Francisco and have not yet confirmed a date – we highly recommend coming in the fall, as September to November is when you will find the city’s warmest temperatures and clearest skies.
More tips on layering can be found here.
Reminders when hiking near San Francisco:
- Bring plenty of water. San Francisco’s tap water comes from the Sierra Nevada mountain range and is one of the cleanest municipal water sources in the United States.
- Bring snacks. SF Bay Area based health food companies such as Cliff Bar sell their delicious products in most supermarkets and convenience stores.
- Read the signs at trailheads. Hiking in and around San Francisco is typically very safe, but there might be important information about poisonous plants, such as poison oak – a local adversary here in California.
- Take only pictures, leave only footprints. Californians are well-known for being environmentally conscious – damaging vegetation or littering is highly frowned upon.
Best San Francisco Hiking Trails
Though measuring at only seven miles by seven miles, San Francisco does not have a scarcity for hiking spots, walking trails, and scenic vistas.
Whether hidden amidst one of San Francisco’s 47 hills, or aside its breathtaking coastline, San Francisco’s hiking trails provide a much needed source of rejuvenation for locals and tourists alike.
If you’re only visiting for a few days and you’re short on time, we suggest heading toward the sea to Lands’ End.
Of all the hiking places in San Francisco, the Lands End hike is the most quintessential with its breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge and its rocky cliffs that drop vertically to the crashing Pacific Ocean waves.
This 3.4 mile trail will also take you to some of San Francisco’s most historic sights such as the Sutro Baths (the ruins of an early 20th century swimming pool complex), and the shipwrecks of old cargo ships that are partially visible at low tide.
Batteries to Bluffs
Not far from Lands’ End you can also find the Batteries to Bluffs Trail, on the westernmost edge of San Francisco’s historic Presidio, with equally gorgeous views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
This hike is considered easy and is less than two miles out and back. Keep in mind that unlike the Lands’ End Hike, the Batteries to Bluffs Trail does not allow dogs.
While the Batteries to Bluffs Trail is probably the most scenic amongst hikes in the Presidio, you’ll also find a series of other hikes snaking their wake through the historic area.
Other Hikes in the Presidio
The Bay Area Ridge Trail, the Ecology Trail, and the Lovers’ Lane Trail are just a few examples of the trails that make some of the best walks in San Francisco.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the area, the Presidio is an old military fort spanning over two square miles that is now a National Historic Landmark and part of the the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
If you’re interested in learning more about the local history, Dylan’s Tours offers informative and entertaining guided tours that will give you in depth information about the Presidio and other important places in and around San Francisco.
Golden Gate Bridge Hike
The last trail necessary to mention in this area is the Golden Gate Bridge Hike that takes you from Baker Beach to the Golden Gate Bridge.
This is a 6.3 mile trail that takes you along the bluffs and to the southern side of the historic bridge that, yes, allows you to cross it on foot. The bridge itself spans 1.7 miles, and is a must-see for any visitors to San Francisco.
San Francisco Hikes with the Best Views
If you’re looking for more of a vertical challenge and a view of the city, we recommend summits such as Bernal Hill or Mt Davidson.
Both hills offer remarkable views of the San Francisco Bay Area, including sights such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, downtown San Francisco, and the East Bay Hills.
The Bernal Heights Park Trail is about one mile in length and is a mostly exposed hike. If you’re exploring SF via public transit, this hike is also accessible by BART at 24th Street Mission Station.
Mt. Davidson, at 938 feet, is San Francisco highest peak, yet offers slightly less visibility than Bernal Heights. Locals know the peak as “the hill with the cross”. If you hike Mt. Davidson you’ll discover the giant 103 foot cross erected among the trees.
This hike is great if you’re looking to get lost in nature and forget that you’re in the center of a city – but be careful, you could actually get lost on Mt. Davidson as its trails are unmarked.
Best Public Parks in San Francisco for Short Hikes
Aside from the spectacular vistas of San Francisco, one can also find a wealth of public parks to explore.
Golden Gate Park is the city’s largest park with over a thousand acres of land. The park is actually 20% larger than Central Park in New York and is home to various gardens, lakes, playgrounds, and miles of walking trails.
San Francisco’s oldest park, Buena Vista Park, is located near the famous Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
Buena Vista Park offers both views of the city as well as lots of foliage that makes for a nice shaded walk on a sunny day.
Each trail that winds through the park is less than one mile long, making this park ideal for visitors that are just looking for a leisurely stroll in a natural setting.
San Francisco walks such as this one are also perfect for those who enjoy sightseeing in less touristy areas.
Muir Woods and Marin County Hikes
By far, the most alluring piece of nature for visitors to the SF Bay Area is Muir Woods, a 554 acre forest of federally protected old-growth coast redwoods.
The Muir Woods National Monument sits in a secluded canyon about 12 miles north of San Francisco. Visitors will find not only the serenity of being engulfed by the tallest and oldest trees in the world, but also plenty of historical information.
For example, visitors can learn about the peace conference of 1945 that gave birth to the United Nations – which took place in this very group of trees!
Muir Woods holds six miles of trails with loops that take only 30 minutes to loops that take much longer and connect to Mt. Tamalpais State Park.
So whether you prefer a strenuous hike or a brief walk in the woods, Muir Woods makes an ideal destination for any nature-lovers visiting the Bay Area. It is also one of our favorite hikes in San Francisco.
If you’re wondering how best to get to Muir Woods from San Francisco, we’ve compiled a list for you here of the best (and worst) ways to get to Muir Woods from the city.
Dylan’s Famous Tour also offers bus tours and bike tours by top-notch guides that will take you directly from the city to Muir Woods – and provide you with loads of unique knowledge about local California culture, ecology, and history.
Our next pick for hiking north of San Francisco would have to be the Marin Headlands, the stretch of coast that lies just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Marin Headlands, along with Golden Gate Park that we previously mentioned, is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
This means that the area is federally protected for its impressive ecology and important history. You’ll find that the Marin Headlands has a significant history with both indigenous tribes and the American military.
What’s special about the Marin Headlands is the vastness of the region. There are over 50 miles of trails that vary from challenging uphill hikes to less arduous coastal paths.
Many beautiful beaches are also accessible through these trails. And if you are lucky enough to visit on a clear day, you can see stunning views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.
If you’re visiting in the spring the Marin hikes are also excellent for viewing wildflowers, so be sure to squeeze this gorgeous spot into your trip itinerary.
Hiking in the East Bay
The abundance of East Bay hiking trails draws hikers from all over California. While being a heavily urbanized area, the East Bay contains significant acreage of regional open spaces – and it’s all very accessible by car or by public transit.
Listing all of our favorite East Bay hikes would be tedious work, but we’ve gathered a few trails that would certainly be considered as some of the best hiking in Northern California.
The most well-known area to hike for locals is Tilden Park in Berkeley. Tilden Park is popular because its 2,079 acres provide more than just hiking trails – you can also visit the botanic garden, which hosts the world’s largest collection of California native plants, or even go swimming in Lake Anza.
This is certainly the spot for you if you have children with you, as Tilden Park also has family-friendly attractions, such as a merry-go-round and a steam train.
Or, you could simply enjoy the 39.41 miles of trails that take you from scenic viewpoints down into lush fern-covered ravines.
Either way, Tilden Park is never a disappointment.
Mount Diablo State Park
A necessary addition to our list of the best hiking in the East Bay is Mount Diablo State Park.
With a summit of 3,849 feet, one can see as far as the Golden Gate Bridge to the west and the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the east on a clear day.
The state park has a wide variety of trails that can start from either the base of the mountain or from the mountain’s peak.
Mt. Diablo even has an area of sandstone deposits nicknamed “Rock City” that attracts climbers and boulderers to its scramble-friendly rock formations.
Because Mt. Diablo is a state park, it also has camping options for those who are looking to stay a few days.
Redwood Regional Park
A bit farther south into Oakland is Redwood Regional Park. This hidden forest had once fallen victim to the logging industry in the 1800s, but today remains a protected area with miles of trails for public use.
Hiking through the serene groves of Redwood Regional Park, you would never know that you were still in the eighth most populated city in California. This is another one of the best hikes in San Francisco that we recommend!
Hiking in the South Bay
Once again, we’ll find that some of the best hiking trails near San Francisco are part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
This time we are looking at the region south of San Francisco. Like many of our favorite San Francisco trails, we’ve selected the most impressive and concurrently historic spots.
Sweeney Ridge, an area of paved trails in the beautiful seaside town of Pacifica, takes you from a coastal shrub covered summit to a variety of spectacular viewpoints that overlook the Pacific Ocean and the San Andreas Reservoir.
Because the paths are paved, this is one of the only hiking spots in San Francisco we’ve listed that is accessible for street bikes. Dogs are also welcome here, so the atmosphere of this area is quite high energy.
McNee Ranch State Park
Heading south toward Half Moon Bay is McNee Ranch State Park. This coastal park has an 8 mile partial loop that will work your glutes with an uphill climb.
Your effort will be rewarded though with views of the mountains that tumble down toward the Pacific Ocean and even a waterfall if you are visiting in late winter.
*Note: If you’re looking for friends to hike with in the city, we’d recommend the following hiking tours – San Francisco Hills and Hidden Gems and the Presidio Hiking Tour.
Beyond San Francisco
We’ve provided you so far with a list of the best hiking trails in San Francisco and other great Bay Area trails – most of which are easily reachable with public transit, bike, one of our recommended tours, or an inexpensive Lyft/Uber.
It is worth noting, however, that only a stone’s throw from the San Francisco Bay Area lies, not only some of the best hikes in California, but some of the best hikes in the world.
Yosemite National Park, only three hours from the SF Bay Area, is internationally regarded as one of the most sacred natural settings on the planet.
The park receives about four million visitors annually from around the world that come to see its granite cliffs, waterfalls, and giant sequoia groves.
As for hiking trails, you could spend the rest of your life in this park and never complete every trail.
Yosemite is also the starting point of the world famous John Muir Trail itinerary.
If don’t want to worry about getting to Yosemite on your own, this is one of our favorite group tour day trips to the national park – Yosemite in a Day Tour.
Big Basin & Henry Cowell
An hour or two south from San Francisco are the Santa Cruz Mountains. Here you will find huge state parks such as Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
Both parks are recognized for their acres of ancient redwood trees and miles of hiking trails. These are also parks that offer camping options for a perfect weekend getaway!
There are also an abundance of Bay Area hiking groups and meetups such as the San Francisco Hiking Club or REI Co-op’s All Out Bay Area.
These resources are for individuals or groups that want to explore the best hikes around San Francisco with other like-minded outdoorsy people.