Yes, There Are Places to Hike in San Francisco

Jun 26 at 6am

Are you a tub of lard who spends hours in an office chair clicking deeper and deeper into the bowels of the interwebs until your eyes blur and your wrists throb? Do you only venture outside on a hurried quest to cram takeout down your throat before your lunch break is over, or just as the sunshine is dying on the horizon at each day’s end? I know your existence seems bleak. I feel your pain. But I’m also here to help you fight back.

Because sitting too much can literally kill you, here are nine hikes just past the front door of your San Francisco apartment that – in addition to wowing you with their breathtaking tranquility and ability to make you forget you’re in a major metropolitan city – will make you never want to go into the office again (just don’t hold me responsible if you get canned for playing hooky). Oh, and all you’ll need is a pair of good running shoes and some form of hydration for all of these urban adventures. 

Bernal Hill

Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous uphill climb, depending on route

Time: 40-minute loop trails

Dog friendly? Dogs allowed, off-leash OK

What you’ll see: A breathtaking 360-degree city view, kite flyers, dogs, a red rock maze at the base

Don’t deny it: You spend a lot of time wailing about how small San Francisco is. We all do. But if you ever want to feel suddenly tiny in our beloved city, head to the top of Bernal Hill. You can park along Bernal Heights Boulevard, or hike up any Bernal Hill side street to get access to the paved and dirt trails that flank this hunk of stone. Basically anywhere you start, you can carve about a 40-minute loop out of any of the 26 acres of pathways and end up back to your starting point. 

If you want to take it easy, follow the paved road that winds up toward the radio tower that sits atop Bernal like a crown. From there, it’s a 100-foot walk to the very top. If you want a shorter and much more strenuous route, find the rocky path on the hill’s west side and head straight up; if you find yourself unsure of your footing, just ask yourself, “What would a mountain goat do?” You can also walk up Bernal Hill from its east side. Once you reach the windswept summit, get ready for your reward. Bernal’s 360-degree views of San Francisco all the way to Daly City, Oakland, and Berkeley are so vast, you’ll wonder where the hell all those damn houses, streets, and people came from anyway. Over the course of your Bernal excursion, you’ll see lots of people taking the required look-at-me-I’m-hanging-out-on-Bernal photos and sharing bottles of wine in the tall grass. And, the happiest dogs you’ll ever see will be prancing all over the hill’s gentle slopes and curves.

Lands End

Difficulty: Easy, mostly flat until you begin the steep but safe descent to Sutro Baths

Time: 1-hour out-and-back trails

Dog friendly? Dogs are permitted, leashed or under voice control

What you’ll see: Wild views of the Pacific Ocean (and Marin and the Golden Gate Bridge on a fogless day) and the historic Sutro Baths and ruins.

When you lay eyes upon the wild seas cresting against the rocks from the high, wind-carved cliffs of Lands End, that’s when you’ll realize the immensity of this world. What lies beyond seems almost too wild and infinite to comprehend. It’s enough to make you feel a little crazy. But find solace in the fact that you can always walk back to your car and head for civilization again in just about an hour. The easy, flat out-and-back trail starts from the Legion of Honor (where you can park), goes through some tree-laden walkways to the cliff side of Lands End, and ends at Sutro Baths, if you wish to connect these two destinations for a full 2.9 mile hike. If you bring a dog, keep him on leash, especially as you get nearer to the water; you don’t want him getting too close to the murky sludge at Sutro Baths. Lands End is popular – you’ll find a mixture of tourists and fellow city dwellers alike marveling at the ocean view.

Mount Sutro

Difficulty: Easy to moderate climb and descent, just be wary of poison oak

Time: 40-minute loop, depending on how many trails you want to connect (all are very clearly marked)

Dog friendly? No rules are posted, but keep your dog on a tight leash if you bring one, because there is poison oak everywhere

What you’ll see: Huge eucalyptus groves, a sunny meadow at the top, and even a brief glimpse of Sutro Tower through the trees at the summit

Mount Sutro sounds as imposing and as imperious as its neighbor Sutro Tower, but it’s not. This leafy labyrinth is more like a gorgeous, woodsy backyard for the UCSF student housing that dots the surrounding area. Keep that in mind while you’re parking. You’ll be tempted by the mini parking lots (owned by UCSF) just past the intersection of Clarendon and Johnstone closer to the trail’s head, but you’ll have to find a street spot and walk uphill to the start of the hike on the east ridge, marked by a small wooden marker. If you bring a dog or a kid, keep both close – there’s poison oak everywhere (and the appropriate signage to keep you from trailblazing and subsequently lighting your skin on fire with the diabolical foliage). 

The 1.8-mile, 40-minute looped path is well kept, not at all crowded, and full of mini hairpin turns that wind through quiet eucalyptus and pine groves until you get to a small clearing, which is actually the summit. Be sure to say hi to Sutro Tower on the next hill over before heading back down the shady path to the road below. All paths are clearly marked, and one cryptically called “Mystery” is well worth the short detour. 

John McLaren Park

Difficulty: Easy to moderate ascents and descents over both paved and dirt trails

Time: 40-minute loop trail starting and ending in the parking lot off John F. Shelley Drive

Dog friendly? Dogs are allowed, off-leash OK

What you’ll see: Happy dogs swimming in the reservoir, the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, meadows, pine and eucalyptus trees, McNab Lake full of happy ducks  

This area of Visitacion Valley is the stretch of green on the map of San Francisco I always forget about until someone mentions how sketchy he or she thinks it is because of its proximity to Bayview. Well, that’s about as far away from the truth as saying San Francisco’s tech bubble will never pop. This 312-acre park feels about as massive as it sounds, so you’re sure to be either surrounded by people (playing with their ecstatic dogs, mostly) or completely alone at any given point. 

Drive into the park from Mansell Street onto John F. Shelley Drive and park in the lot about 0.6 miles in. For a 1.6-mile, 40-minute easy loop, take the shaded trail to the reservoir, walk around it on the paved path, then head down the sunny dirt trail past the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, across Shelley Drive until you hit an elevated wooden walkway shaded by trees. You’ll pass adorable, duck-friendly McNab Lake on another paved walkway. Then walk upwards through the trees, around the reservoir, and hit the parking lot again. Truthfully, you could probably spend days exploring John McLaren Park – every little bushwhacking adventure you find would be totally worth it.

Glen Canyon Park

Difficulty: Easy at the beginning, then moderate once you hit the grassy canyon

Time: 1-hour loop trail, starting and ending on Bosworth Street

Dog friendly? Dogs allowed, but keep them on-leash; coyotes have been spotted numerous times in Glen Canyon Park

What you’ll see: Extremely impressive eucalyptus groves, more blackberry bushes than you can count, red-tailed hawks, wildflowers, and rock outcroppings that are a blast to climb all over

One of my new favorite little slices of the city is the tucked-away Glen Canyon Park. Once you park at the end of Bosworth Street, you’re greeted by towering eucalyptus trees and birdsong ringing out like church bells, giving the whole beginning of the hike a spiritual, reverent vibe. If you’ve got kids, they’ll love the playground at the start to the right of the wide dirt path. If you’ve brought your dogs along, keep them on-leash (aside from it being the official rule, there have been many coyote sightings here). Still, your dog will have plenty of opportunity to make friends with the dozens of other pups who come here with their owners. 

Once you pass through a shaded portion of the 0.9-mile loop parallel to blackberry bush-lined Islais Creek, you’ll ascend a short stairway and enter the canyon itself, which is chock-full of sun-kissed tall grass, a rainbow of wildflowers, and outcroppings of rock (make sure to climb a few!) dotted with wild succulents. Hawks soar overhead and houses line the ridges above – it’s the perfect mixture of Mother Nature and urban sprawl. There are many narrow dirt paths crisscrossing the canyon, so it’s kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure book. The aforementioned playground and roads are never too far away, but it’s so easy to immerse yourself in the allure of this hike. 

Mount Davidson

Difficulty: Moderate dirt trails all the way to the top

Time: 1-hour, there-and-back trail, or a loop, depending on which routes you connect

Dog friendly? Dogs permitted, off-leash OK

What you’ll see: City views all the way to the East Bay on a clear day, a front row view of Sutro Tower and the Mount Davidson cross

Mount Davidson has an almost epic feel to it. As soon as you park (there are many starting points to this hike, so use a map to help you decide which is most convenient) and venture a few feet into a formidable forest of mighty eucalyptus and pine trees, the feeling that you’re in San Francisco will melt away (I started at the steps just off Lansdale Street near the 36-Teresita Muni line). You are, after all, at the city’s highest natural point, and this moderate (though at times steep) one-hour, there-and-back (make it a loop if you connect different trails) one-mile hike has a dramatic, untamed aura about it to match. The wind rushes through the high canopy of the trees, leaves fall from above, and branches drape themselves over the gently zigzaggy dirt walkway. 

The bizarre, behemoth cherry on top? The cross at the peak built in 1934 now serves as a memorial to Armenian genocide. Unexpected? Yes. Poignant? Yes. Though there are others (kids and dogs included) milling about (I even encountered a mountain biker!), the whole experience is rather peaceful – you get positively lost in the unobstructed, sweeping views of the glittering city below and  the East Bay beyond. From the cross, you can walk along a rather windy, open path to a slightly lower vantage point that makes you feel like the King of the World. 

Lobos Creek Valley Trail

Difficulty: Easy, a mixture of elevated boardwalk and sandy paths

Time: 30-minute loop trail

Dog friendly? No dogs allowed

What you’ll see: Sandy dunes, a delightfully spooky forest of Monterey cypress and pine, colorful coastal shrubbery, and butterflies

Park in the Baker Beach parking lot and hop across Lincoln Boulevard to get to the well-marked start of Lobos Creek Trail. This was the easiest stroll of the bunch (and that’s exactly what it is: a stroll). Why? Because the first section of this under-a-mile excursion is an elevated boardwalk (stroller and wheelchair accessible, even!) that winds through low, colorful, beachy shrubbery. The second part is an easily navigable sandy path amidst spooky, spaced-apart trees that head up a few hundred feet before descending back down to the Presidio Trust complex. Walk 0.1 mile along Lincoln Boulevard, and bam, you’re back at your car in about 30 minutes. 

Keep your pup or child close to you along the boardwalk (there are signs warning to keep off the sensitive surrounding habitat). On a weekday, this walk will be mostly deserted (though there are mansions and Presidio apartment complexes on either side of you), but on a warm day when everyone you know is at the beach, Lobos Creek Trail will be full of humans exploring this shoreside enclave. 

Inspiration Point

Difficulty: Easy, ranging from a mixture of sandy trails, dirt paths, asphalt roads, and concrete walkways

Time: 1.5-hour loop, starting and ending at the Inspiration Point lookout area

Dog friendly? Dogs permitted, on-leash only; you’ll be near a lot of busy roadways

What you’ll see: Andy Goldsworthy’s Spire (constructed from Monterey cypress trunks), redwoods, charming brick houses, fennel, blackberry bushes, eucalyptus, meadows (some are under restoration), and views of the city’s northeast corner all the way to the East Bay on a clear day

This is less of a hike and more of a mini-tour spanning various (and sometimes confusing) connected paths that form a massive loop through the Presidio, both starting and ending at the Inspiration Point lookout area. There are so many different parts to this hike. You’ll start on the Ecology Trail just off the lookout, walk under huge redwoods, on sunny dirt paths surrounded by grasslands under restoration, down major asphalt roads full of cars, up the concrete path of Lovers’ Lane, and past a cute kid’s playground and baseball diamond. When you get back onto busy Arguello Boulevard and see Andy Goldsworthy’s ominous yet stunning Spire, you’ve reached the end of this 1.5 hour, 2.9-mile “hike.” 

Both kids and on-leash dogs won’t get bored on this multifaceted tromp of the Presidio’s south side – just be sure to have a map on your phone in case you get turned around.

Fort Funston

Difficulty: Easy, though it’s all on sand (which can be difficult for some); Sand Ladder Trail is steep, but short

Time: Depending on how much you want to explore, your hike time can be anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours

Dog friendly? Dogs are permitted off-leash under voice control, except for the 12-acre enclosure on the northwest side, where equestrians and hikers share the Bay Area Ridge Trail segment

What you’ll see: The most ecstatic dogs on earth, endless views of the Pacific Ocean, old fort ruins, plenty of California poppies, and some red-tailed hawks.

You know that song “Heaven Is a Place On Earth”? That is basically a dog’s theme song for Fort Funston. At the southernmost end of San Francisco, Fort Funston’s beach and cliffs soaring high above are like the holy grail for dog owners in the city, but even if you don’t have one of your own, it’s a gorgeous place to load up on vitamin D. There’s street parking along John Muir Boulevard or in the parking lot, but if you’re going on a weekend, prepare to act aggressive – it’s usually packed, especially if it’s a fogless day. 

The sandy trails, surrounded by low beach shrubs and random clusters of trees, go all over, so hiking time can range anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours, depending on how much you want to explore. If you want to head straight to the beach, start at the southwest corner of the parking lot, go toward the ocean and look for the Sand Ladder Trail at the edge of the bluff. Don’t be distracted by the ocean views; it’s called a ladder for a reason – it’s a steep way down. Follow the obvious, worn path that heads to the ocean. For the potentially difficult climb back up, you might want to use a map on your phone to find the best way. Keep all of this in mind if you’re thinking of bringing the kids along. 

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