Northern California is a mecca for hikers and lovers of the outdoors. With everything from looming redwoods to scenic coastal views, you could hike somewhere different every weekend and never get bored! Which, for a while, is what Jeremy and I did. We’d grab a rental car (cuz you know, we didn’t have a car – saving up for that year long honeymoon), drive anywhere from minutes to hours away from San Francisco, and find a new spot to camp, hike, and explore.
After a few years of research – I literally have a hike spreadsheet of hikes and weekend trips near the Bay Area, is anyone surprised? – I’ve put together a list of my favorite hikes in Northern California! These are all easy to intermediate level hikes that are accessible within a few hours from the San Francisco Bay Area, from as close as Oakland to as far away as Lake Tahoe and Big Sur (which are technically doable as day trips – but we prefer to stay overnight and turn them into weekend trips instead)!
Table of Contents
Psst: Exploring Northern California? We have several posts about our home! Take a look:
- 8 Scenic Day Hikes in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas, California
- The Ultimate Self-Guided Walking Tour of San Francisco: A Local’s Guide
- The 10 Best Weekend Trips from San Francisco, California: A Local’s Guide
Day Hiking Essentials
Before we send you off on your hike, here are our absolute must-have day hiking essentials. At this point in my life, having fully accepted my status as a complete disaster magnet, I never, EVER go on so much as a mile-long stroll through the woods without this stuff locked and loaded in my bag.
- 50-100oz of water: Seriously, don’t skimp. We have a Camelbak Hydration Pack that fits 100oz of water, snacks, AND has room for the rest of our gear, too.
- Hiking Shoes & Socks: We both hike in Trail Runners (his & hers) rather than heavy duty hiking boots – they’re lightweight and travel friendly, more flexible and comfortable, and they dry super quickly when it rains or after a water crossing, so your feet will stay toasty and try. Pair them with well-made wool socks. Our favorite wool sock brand is Darn Tough: they’re soft, durable, and they come with a lifetime guarantee in the event of holes (that’s how you know it’s real). When things start getting wet, pull a pair waterproof socks on over top of your wool socks to keep your feet dry and blister-free.
- Hiking Clothes: We prefer wool hiking gear thanks to its ability to cool you down in the heat and keep you warm when you’re wet or sweaty. We also always make sure to bring at least 1 layer, because you never know – even in temperate Northern California. We’ve tried a lot of different hiking clothing over the years, and these are our favorite tried and true picks.
- Snacks: A hungry hike is a miserable hike! Always bring a snack, even for a short hike, just in case your hike goes on longer than planned. You want something nutritious, with a good mix of complex carbs, fats, protein, and electrolytes to fuel your body. My favorite hiking snacks are peanut butter filled pretzels, dried fruit (like apple rings or dried mango), and almonds. I’m also mildly obsessed with Clif Builders bars, and bonus, they’re local to Northern California (made in Emeryville, right next to Oakland, fun fact).
- Important Caveat: If you are hiking or backpacking in Northern California, or anywhere with bears, and you find yourself in a situation where you’re having to spend the night somewhere without a bear box, YOU MUST TIE YOUR FOOD UP IN A TREE. Always always always pack a length of rope (we bring a little bit of Paracord) that’s long enough to do a basic tie-up like this one. If you have anything scented with you, tie up your whole darn pack. Anything to put as much distance as possible between you + your delicious smelling belongings!
- Headlamps: After our disastrous night-hiking incident in Cataract Falls, I’ll never hike without a headlamp again. They’re small and lightweight and easily fit in any pack. Bring one. YES, even on a day hike! You never know if you might need it and if you do, you’ll be SO glad you brought it.
- Trekking Poles: Trekking poles are incredibly helpful for difficult terrain or potentially tricky hikes, or if you are a person who is very clumsy (or all 3). I like the Black Diamond trekking poles because they’re lightweight and fold down easily, but they’re super sturdy. They saved my butt on every single hike we did on our year-long honeymoon in South America, while Jeremy – who did not bring trekking poles – injured his wrist and knee as a direct result of not having them. They are a safety tool. Plus, you can wave them angrily at bears, if that’s a thing that happens.
- First aid kit: You need a first aid kit that covers you in the event of a variety of calamities. We happen to be disaster magnets, so we’ve whipped ours out a few times (like once in Oakland when a dog owner thought they were above the leash law and let their obnoxious high-energy terrier run free, which promptly bit Jeremy in the calf). Your first aid kit doesn’t need to be big, but it should have the basics: bandaids, alcohol wipes, waterproof matches, burn treatment, even stuff for stitches. We’ve even got moleskin patches for when you feel a blister coming on, which can easily change your fast pace into a disastrously slow one!
- Never, ever, hike without a compass. If your phone doesn’t get service, if you wander off the trail on accident, or if you’re not good at navigating with things like moss and stars, a compass is the #1 best tool you can bring on your hikes! This one is tiny and lightweight and super cheap. Just stick it in your day pack and forget about it – you’ll be glad you have it if you ever need it.
- Multiple ways to start a fire and filter water: This is a hiking/back-country camping basic, but even on a day hike I recommend at least a little bit of just-in-case coverage. The GRAYL ultralight water purifier is a water bottle + purifier all in one – it’s super handy to have on hand in a pinch. I have a lighter and some waterproof matches tucked into my first aid kit, along with some water purification tablets and this tiny Sawyer water filtration system. Just in case – better safe than sorry, etc. I’m a walking disaster waiting to happen, so I do my best to overprepare 😉
- Always bring rain gear. Because if you don’t, not only will you be miserable if it starts to rain, but you could potentially open yourself up to a host of other health issues, like pneumonia. The Marmot Precip Ultra-Light Rain Jacket (his & hers) is super lightweight and packs down to nothing, taking up almost no space in your pack. Waterproof Socks are also super handy to have, even if your hiking boots are waterproof – you can tuck your hiking boots into them for extremely attractive protection.
- Radio Signaling Walkie-Talkies: Look, I know these are overkill for most hikes, especially a quick 5-mile loop in Oakland. But if you’re going a little further away from civilization – say, Desolation Wilderness, or the Yosemite back country – these just might save your a$$. When I found us lost while hiking in the Andes in Ecuador a few hours before sunset, I wished for these with all my might. Don’t be a statistic about the hiker that wandered off the path, never to be seen again! These bad boys have a 35-mile mountain to valley range, are fully waterproof (and even have a water-activated flashlight, nifty), and have a handy emergency alert button that will sent out a signal the minute you need help. Sure, you’ll probably never need to use them… but think of it as the best insurance policy you’ll ever buy.
Psst: If you’re planning to visit multiple parks this year, we recommend picking up an America is Beautiful National Parks Pass. The pass is valid at over 2,000 National Parks and 10% of the sale proceeds are donated to the National Park Foundation, helping to keep our parks beautiful! The average cost of admission to a National Park is $35, which means that the pass quickly pays for itself after just a few visits. AND you are supporting the National Park Foundation. Win/win!
You can pick up a pass online at REI or in person at any National Park
Looking to buy something for yourself or your favorite hiker? Check out these gifts for hikers under $25.
OK, now that I’ve mommed you a little, let’s get you on the trail, shall we?
Best Hikes in the San Francisco Bay Area
Cataract Falls, Mount Tamalpais Watershed, Marin
Miles: 8 | Guide: Link
This is a really lovely hike alongside Cataract Creek to a gorgeous waterfall in beautiful Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Except we chose this hike to test out our fully packed backpacks for the first time, and then didn’t allow extra time to account for how much more slowly we’d be hiking than usual.
Long story short, we ended up panic-hiking on slippery rocks in the dark, and we genuinely thought we were screwed. But I’ll let you read the whole story here: The Cataract Falls Hike Disaster. Don’t worry: as long as you do the exact opposite of what we did, you’ll be fine 😉 (That’s just like, a general rule of thumb, honestly.)
Cataract Falls is best hiked in the spring, after the heavy winter rains have ceased and given way to blooming wildflowers, a gurgling creek, and gushing waterfalls. If it’s rained recently, consider a different hike – there are some slippery, wet parts that might be difficult.
- Hiking Tip: Bring trekking poles! You’ll be climbing up some steep, slippery stone stairs at the start of this hike and they are VERY handy to help with balance.
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