The San Francisco Bay Area 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, drive anywhere from a few minutes to a couple of hours, and find a new spot to camp, hike, or explore. After a few years of what we’ll call “research & evaluation” – 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 and (in my opinion)best hikes near San Francisco and the Bay Area! These are all easy to intermediate level hikes that are accessible within a few hours from the San Francisco Bay Area.
Oakland Redwood Regional Park is by far my favorite park for hiking for a few reasons. First and foremost, it’s close – just down the 580, close enough to take an Uber or Lyft. My second reason is that the park is FULL of trails, all with enough variety to keep me interested. There are hikes through the redwood canyons and groves. Hikes next to streams. Hikes through chaparral and brush. Hikes that climb high for a stunning view of the bay and then drop back down into lush canyons again. And they interconnect often enough that I’ve started just showing up without a plan,(which is shocking, given my inability to do things plan-free) and concocting a hike based on a park map at the trailhead, or even making it up as I go and ending whenever I feel like it! Third – the magic of this park is that even though it’s smack dab in Oakland, it feels totally isolated. This hike on the French Loop Trail winds through the redwood canyons, climbing up and down to keep you interested but never very much. Much of the trail is on a ledge high above the canyon floor, winding around hills through redwood groves and ferns. It is a spectacular trail running route, if you’re one of those Olympic goddesses who is able to run more than a 15-minute mile (so jealous). It’s got nice spread out elevation gain and plenty to see. I do this one time and time again.
We chose to do the Vicente Flat hike as an overnight backpacking trip in Big Sur, but without a heavy pack this would make a great day hike. If you’re driving down from the Bay Area, we recommend stopping at Big Sur Bakery for hiking fuel (because as we all know, hiking is just an excuse to eat delicious carbs). The trail begins at Kirk Creek campground and climbs immediately upwards into the hills overlooking Highway One. With sweeping Pacific Coast views all around you, you’ll barely notice the sun and unrelenting climb (well, unless you’re wearing 25 lbs on your back, but the view DOES help). 5 miles up and over a hill and down into a canyon, you’ll reach Vicente Flat. This is the most picturesque campsites I’ve ever been to. There’s a babbling brook, redwoods, and plenty of space for quiet reflection, lunch, and rest. When you’re ready, turn around and climb back out of the canyon to enjoy a downhill hike with more incredible coastal views back to your car. Oh and hey, while you’re down here, why not make it a weekend and stop by nearby Morro Bay?
Oakland is host to a number of gorgeous parks which feature many of my favorite Bay Area hikes. Joaquin Miller Park connects to sister parks Oakland Redwood Regional and Anthony Chabot to encompass a swath of beautiful, accessible redwood forest right in Oakland. These parks are home to some of the best hikes near San Francisco. They’re close enough for me to take a Lyft or Uber there and back again for a reasonable price, which is a huge plus! Despite being within Oakland proper, Joaquin Miller Park feels completely isolated. The trail-head for the Scenic Redwood Loop is a quiet corner in a picturesque neighborhood. Winding through ivy-covered redwood canyons and crossing over streams, you’ll forget that you’re in Oakland. This trail climbs up sandy chaparral to deliver some stunning views of the bay before returning to the welcome cool shade of the redwoods.
The Rubicon Trail is one of the most scenic, enjoyable hikes near San Francisco that I’ve ever done. This hike cemented my love for Lake Tahoe. The hike begins in D.L. Bliss State Park – camp there if you can – up in the granite, pine-topped cliffs. It gradually descends down to the lake, with sweeping Lake Tahoe views the entire time. Once you reach shore level, it passes multiple little private coves which would be the perfect place to enjoy the beach and take a dip. It goes straight through a boat-in campsite, passes through some flower covered meadows, and ends at a beautiful Norwegian style castle, called Vikingsholm, which is a little odd (right? I mean does anyone else find that incredibly random?!) but welcomed after the 4.6 mile hike. Vikingsholm has a beach, tours, and a little gift shop with ice cream, which is the best thing to have mid-way through a long hike. The climb back to the trailhead is every bit as scenic as Lake Tahoe falls away below you. We hiked on a sunny day but found ourselves racing against a thunderstorm on the way out, hiking our fastest and staying just ahead of the rain all the way until the end. It was a blast. I recommend doing what we did, which is immediately driving to Himmel Haus for post-hike cheesy German carbs! (Because – again – hiking and carb eating are a match made in heaven.)
Yet another incredible Oakland hike near San Francisco! West Ridge Trail is an ascent and descent kind of trail, but it’s not terribly difficult. I don’t have elevation gain for this one, but it’s not any more than what I would consider moderate – and trust me, coming from me, that’s probably the equivalent of “I could probably do cartwheels for this entire hike” for most people with minor athleticism. The reward for a sunny ascent is an incredible view of the bay, including the city, all of Oakland, and the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge – and when you turn around, mountains as far as the eye can see! Perfect if you like your hikes to have a midpoint for stopping , taking a rest and enjoying the view.
This coastal hike near San Francisco is SPECTACULAR, and only a couple of hours north of the city. The Tomales Bay hike is 10 miles on the coast of Point Reyes, winding out to the very tip of the peninsula at Tomales Point and returning. There are some climbs and descents spread out over the hike but they aren’t extreme – it’s more the distance than the elevation that is the primary challenge for this hike. For me, the best part of the hike was catching a glimpse of this resident herd of Tule Elk! Most of the time the local Point Reyes Elk just hang out quietly and mind their own business. But during Rutting season, the male Elk all fight each other while the females stand and watch, and then mate with the winning male. It’s epic. We hiked Tomales Bay at the tail end of rutting season – most of the males were rutted out, but we saw a little tired tussling – and saw not just Elk, but also coyote, deer, hawks, wild quail, a fox, and a seal in the harbor. It was the most wildlife filled hike I have ever done.
Sempervirens Falls to Slippery Rock Loop, Big Basin Redwoods State Park
No disrespect to the new growth redwoods in Oakland, but new growth pales in comparison to old growth redwoods. “Growth” refers to the age of the trees – whether they survived the pillaging and deforestation of our greedy timber producing Californian ancestors, or whether they were destroyed and then rose anew, pheonix like, from the wreckage. Big Basin Redwoods State Park is California’s oldest State Park, and it’s filled with old growth redwoods. They are hundreds of years old, huge and cavernous, awe-inspiring and breathtaking. The Sempervirens Falls Hike winds through old growth redwoods before stopping at a beautiful waterfall, climbing up the decidedly no-longer-slippery rock face called Slippery Rock, passing through a historical site, and looping back to the parking lot. It’s not terribly difficult and there’s plenty to see!
Meeks Bay to Crag Lake, Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe
The name “Desolation Wilderness” isn’t exactly what I would call appealing. In fact, it conjures up images of being lost in a murky, haunted forest, possibly filled with rabid bears. Or maybe I’m just paranoid. But I can attest to the fact that it is, in fact, incredibly beautiful and not scary in the slightest. The day we hiked was warm but a little bit foggy, so everything had this beautiful eerie tint which seemed very fitting. We camped at Meek’s Bay right on the shores of Lake Tahoe and did this hike across the street from our campsite. The trail winds up rocky granite cliffs with constant, sweeping vistas of lush pine forest and distant mountain tops. After about 5 miles you start seeing lake after lake. The most picturesque lake – well worth continuing past the initial, inferior lakes – is Crag Lake. At the valley created by rocky mountain peaks, the lake is a mirror reflecting the beauty of its surroundings peacefully on its surface. It is an idyllic midway point for lunch before hiking back the way you came, new views all the way down.