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)!
Psst: Exploring Northern California? We have several posts about our home! Take a look:
- 10 Best Hikes in Southern California
- 8 Scenic Day Hikes in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas and a guide to the Charming Mountain Town of June Lake, California
- The Ultimate Self-Guided Walking Tour of San Francisco
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California 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: 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.
Mori Point, Pacifica
- Miles: 2.5 | Elevation Gain: 400 feet | Guide: Link
This is one of the shortest hikes on this list, but I promise the short trek to Pacifica is totally worth it – plus, it’s only 15 minutes or so from San Francisco.
The trek to Mori Point looks a tad intimidating at first, but there’s a few different ways to get here if lugging up the side of a mountain isn’t in your vocabulary! You’ll first walk on a flat path and then boardwalk regardless, just FYI.
For starters, you can either hike up the side (although it’s quite steep), take the much-longer scenic route around the side of the mountain (gradually making your way up), or simply by taking the grassy Bootlegger Steps up if you don’t mind a bit of stairmaster fun.
You’ve now made it atop the coastal bluffs! Look out for whales, watch the waves crash on the shoreline, and admire the green hills.
And once you’re done hiking to Mori Point, take the Bootlegger Steps down, and voila – you’ve reached the coastal trail! You can either take the (super-easy) boardwalk back to your car, or continue on the path next to the beach to get even more steps for the day.
- Hiking Tip: If you’re looking for wild flowers, plan to visit in early spring! It’s absolutely GORGEOUS!
Once you’ve had enough, drive a few minutes and reward yourself with a Mountain Dew margarita from the world’s most scenic Taco Bell (yes, you read that right) – you earned it!
- Travel Tip: My friend Jess over at A Passion and A Passport has a whole post on more hikes in Pacifica, which you should definitely check out – this whole area is such a hidden gem!
Contributed by Jessica from A Passion and A Passport
Tomales Bay to Tomales Point, Point Reyes
- Miles: 10.2 Guide: Link
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.
- Hiking Tip: This hike is best when combined with a little road trip up the coast and some post-hike re-fueling in Bodega Bay! And y’all know what Tomales Bay and Bodega Bay are known for, right? OYSTERS! Check out our weekend itinerary for a getaway in Guerneville, complete with all you need to know about where to get fresh oysters on the side of the road right by this hike.
French Loop Trail, Redwood Regional Park, Oakland
- Miles: 8 Elevation Gain: 1,534 ft Guide: Link
Oakland Redwood Regional Park is by far my favorite park in Oakland for a few reasons. First and foremost, it’s close – just down the 580, close enough to my house 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. Hiking in the redwoods is one of my favorite things to do in Oakland! That’s uhh … also why there are so many Oakland hikes on this list. Stay #RootedinOakland y’all!
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.
- Hiking Tip: We’ve lived in Oakland for the past 6 years, and we speak from experience when we say that there is a TON of delicious food in Oakland – perfect for fueling up before your hike and re-fueling afterwards. Check out our guide to where to eat in Oakland!
Scenic Redwood Loop, Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland
- Miles: 4 Elevation Gain: 900 Guide: Link
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.
West Ridge Trail, Redwood Regional Park, Oakland
- Miles: 5.4 Guide: Link
Yet another incredible Oakland hike near San Francisco! Look, I’ve lived in Oakland for nearly 10 years, can you blame me for being a little biased? 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.
Palos Colorados Trail in Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland
- Miles: 4.4 | Elevation Gain: 960 feet Guide: Link
This is one of my favorite hikes in Oakland. You’ll start by winding through an ivy-covered ravine along gurgling Sausal Creek and through towering redwoods.
Actually, scratch that: first, you’ll spend a while ogling at the houses in this quiet neighborhood who have GURGLING SAUSAL CREEK AND TOWERING REDWOODS BACKYARDS.
Like, how rich do I need to be to move in here?!?!? To have a redwood park behind my freakin’ house?! Because THAT is my new life goal. Anyway.
After meandering through this lush gorge, you’ll climb up out of the canyon. Bring sunscreen and lots of water, because this bit can get sunny and hot and it’s a fairly steady incline.
You’ll be rewarded for your efforts with more redwoods before climbing back down into – guess what – more redwoods. Hope you like redwoods, cuz what we have here in Northern California, is redwoods.
- Bonus Hiking Tip: If you’re up for a longer hike, you can tack on some extra miles AND have the benefit of not needing to find parking: there’s a trailhead right near Fruitvale Bart Station! We recommend taking a Lyft to the trailhead of Palos Colorados and then hiking all the way through to take BART back home from Fruitvale (and, obviously, stopping for post-hike tacos at Tacos Sinaloa and a caramel-filled Churro from the cart outside Fruivate Station). More details here.
Mount Diablo Falls, Mt. Diablo State Park, East Bay
- Miles: 6 | Elevation Gain: 1,627 feet | Guide: Link
As the name implies, the devil lives here. JK, but see how you feel a few hours in. But in the old days it would give the hikers quite a scare trying to get up here not because of the way it looked, but because of how hot it was. With its intense summer heat, it seems unlikely that there can be any water at all.
But that’s what makes the hike so worth it. When you finally start to hear the sound of the waterfall, you may think that your mind is playing a trick on you. There is no better way to cool off after a long trek than enjoying this water paradise.
Mount Diablo is not just one waterfall, but really a landscape dotted with several of them. From big, gushing monsters to some peaceful trickling mountain streams, you will be delighted by all the opportunities to take a break, cool off and maybe even enjoy a little nap.
It’s a great spot for a picnic once the sun starts to go down in the late afternoon, and the park stays open fairly late in the summer so you can even enjoy the sunset. Just make sure that you exit before the gates are locked.
If you are a little bolder, you can park your car a little further away or just have someone drop you off and pick you up. This is the best way to really enjoy things as long as you are not afraid of having to find your way back when it is a little bit dark! (Again: bring a headlamp! So important.)
Getting up here can be a little bit tricky so make sure you are paying attention to signage. The hike can either be a fairly quick 1.2 miles or 7-mile loop depending on which trails you take, so plan accordingly.
There is no entry fee, but parking is $6 dollars and the gates open up at 8 am. As long as you start the hike by around the time the park opens, then you can make it up to the falls before the heat really sets in.
Contributed By Harry from Hiking Wonder
Alamere Falls, Point Reyes, North Bay
- Miles: 8 | Elevation Gain: 1,351 feet | Guide: Link
Alamere Falls is the only hike in Northern California where you can see where the water drops off a cliff and, a short distance after that, gently streams into the Pacific Ocean.
The trail out to the falls is long, but fortunately, this 8-mile out-and-back is mostly flat trekking. The scenery is nothing short of stunning, beginning with a trail that teeters above a 300 foot-high cliff along the coast and quickly moves into a mix of covered forests and arid shrub-covered landscapes.
The best starting point is at the Palomarin Trailhead. Here you can find restrooms and a big map illustrating all the trails and campgrounds in the area. You can take on the distance as fast or as slow as you please, just remember no bikes or dogs allowed!
There are plenty of resting spot along the way, and it might get a little chilly when in the covered forest so make sure to bring a light sweater along with your water and sunscreen.
When you get out to the falls you will notice it gets a little more crowded and the trail more precarious. Getting down to the beach below requires you to descend a loose gravel trail that drops almost sixty feet, so be extra careful here (and definitely bring your trekking poles).
Once on the beach, take it all in. The beach, the ocean, and the towering cliffs all come together for a breathtaking spectacle. If you manage to be there later in the day, seeing that famous West Coast sunset as it glistens off the cascading falls is a moment that you will surely never forget! (Just be sure to pack in a headlamp for your hike back in the dark! Remember, safety first.)
When you’re ready, take the same path back to the car or, if you decide to camp, to your tent at either Sky or Wildcat Campground. Even better, if you have extra time on the drive back to the city you can stop off at Muir Woods to see the incredible redwoods of California!
Contributed By Harry from Hiking Wonder
Psst: Did you know that during the winter, this area is a great place to see migrating whales? Check out our guide to whale watching in California for more tips!
Dipsea Trail to Steep Ravine Loop, Mount Tamalpais SP, Marin
- Miles: 6.8 | Elevation: 1,700 feet | Guide: Link
This loop has all the best that Northern California hikes offer: sunny beach, towering redwoods, fern and ivy glens, shaded climbs, gurgling creeks, gushing waterfalls, and sweeping views.
Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hikes I haven’t personally done yet, but I’ve hiked at Mount Tamalpais before – hence that stunning photo of me basking in the glory of dawn lookin’ majestic AF (huge thanks to the talented Kristen from Travels and Treats, who took this photo).
Also, Jeremy and I were camping at Mount Tamalpais the very first time he ever told me loved me. While very drunk. And wearing a Batman Onesie. You know what? That’s a story for another post.
The point is, Mount Tamalpais is gorgeous, so let me tell you all about why I want to tackle this hike!
You’ll start on the Dipsea Trail on Stinson Beach in Marin, by far the most stunning beach in the Bay Area (get out of here with that Ocean Beach nonsense). You’ll climb up above the crashing waves admiring views of the ocean all the way, until you reach Steep Ravine Trail.
You’ll ascend quickly (get it, STEEP ravine?) for about 1.5 miles, until you reach a ranger station. Along the way, there will be 2 waterfalls. And you have to climb up one of them. But don’t worry: there’s a ladder. Have fun! To be fair: waterfalls in California aren’t exactly gushing year-round. If you prefer a dry waterfall, hike anytime that isn’t January-March.
After your waterfall summit, you’ll cross the highway and head back down to Stinson Beach via the Matt Davis trail, enjoying those ocean views all the way as the beach draws closer and closer!
- Travel Tip: Pack a picnic in the car to enjoy at Stinson Beach after your hike. Or better yet, take the scenic route back along the Pacific Coast Highway and hit some of the fresh Oyster shacks on the side of the road! We’ve got route details and a few of our faves in this post.
Best Hikes in Northern California
Vicente Flat, Big Sur
- Miles: 10 Elevation Gain: 1,800 feet Guide: Link
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 out-and-back day hike. During our overnight trip in February, the cliffside was covered in bright orange California poppies and other wildflowers, and we could even see whales swimming by in pods out in the ocean!
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. We chose to stay overnight and complete the return trip the next day, but many others that we met were just day hiking.
- Hiking Tip: If you’re driving down from the San Francisco 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). Arrive early so you can snag one of their amazing croissants before they’re sold out! This is also an excellent hike to combine with an overnight camping trip at either Kirk Creek Campground (reservations required) or Vicente Flat (hike in, no reservations required). There’s a great guide on Road Affair with tons more information about camping in Big Sur.
The Tan Bark Trail, Big Sur
- Miles: 6.3 | Elevation: 1,980 feet | Guide: Link
Explore the magic Big Sur on one of its best day hikes: The Tan Bark Trail. The Tan Bark Trail begins in a coastal canyon and then ascends a steep hillside that was burned in a major forest fire back in 2008, climbing through flower-filled meadows interspersed with redwood groves and open hardwood forest.
It peaks at a rusted old house known as the Tin House, which may or may not have been a secret safe house for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
From there, the trail plunges back down the cliffs, treating. you to sweeping, scenic coastal views of Big Sur the whole way down.
This trail has it all and showcases everything that Big Sur and Northern California does best: redwoods (of course), fascinating history, and stunning, jaw-dropping coastal views before descending back down into the redwoods.
Julia Pfieffer State Park is best known for McWay Falls, which along with Alamere Falls is one of Northern California’s two tidefalls – a waterfall gushing straight into the churning, frothy Pacific ocean. It’s stunning, but you can’t actually explore it on foot – the secluded beach below isn’t accessible.
However, you’ll be parking in the same parking lot as the hordes of tourists here to snap photos of McWay Falls, so you might as well go take a look first. Then, head deep into the lush foliage of Big Sur to start your hike!
Rubicon Trail, Lake Tahoe
- Miles: 9.2 Guide: Link
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.
- Travel Tip: After you finish your hike, head to Himmel Haus for post-hike cheesy German carbs, like spaetzle and beer. (Because – again – hiking and carb eating are a match made in heaven.) And throw some bratwurst on there for like, protein. Trust us, it’s PERFECT post hike food.
We also have a Podcast episode all about Tahoe! Towering pine trees, ancient granite cliffs, crystal clear water, cannibalistic pioneers… wait, what? Strap on your snow goggles and come along as we cover the macabre past and enchanting present of this alpine paradise with more ghosts than you can shake a ski pole at.
Listen above or just click here to launch your Podcast app! Oh, and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss new episodes.
Meeks Bay to Crag Lake, Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe
- Miles: 9.3 Elevation Gain: 1200 Guide: Link
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.
Sempervirens Falls to Slippery Rock Loop, Big Basin Redwoods State Park
- Miles: 4.5 Elevation Gain: Minimal Guide: Link
No disrespect to new growth redwoods, 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!
- Important Note: Much of Big Basin’s infrastructure was sadly destroyed in the 2020 wildfires. The redwood trees themselves are fine and should recover soon – redwoods are not just made to withstand fires, they actually thrive in them – but it’s probably going to be a bit before the park is open back up for hiking, and it’s hard to know whether the trails will be the same when it does open again. Check the Big Basin site for updates before planning a trip!
Bonus: 10 Even More Northern California Hikes
Look, there is NO shortage of amazing hikes in Northern California and near the San Francisco Bay Area. But I haven’t done them all, and this post is already pretty darn long.
So, I wanted to share with you the rest of the hikes on my To Do list! I haven’t actually hiked these yet, but y’all know me with my spreadsheets, right?
Well, my Bay Area hiking spreadsheet has been growing since I first moved to the Bay Area and started hiking on the weekends. I hope you don’t mind that I haven’t included a whole write-up for each of these – but after I complete them, I will!
- Fallen Leaf Lake, South Lake Tahoe. 8.1 miles, 600 ft elevation gain. I haven’t completed the full loop version of this hike, but even a partial hike was enough to showcase how stunning this area is! We visited in February and there was snow on the ground thanks to the elevation, but it wasn’t very cold (Tahoe never really is) and the trails were fully accessible. We heard that much of this hike is on a paved road, so if that’s not your preference just turn around instead of completing the loop!
- Mill Creek Trail, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (wayyy up north). 5.6 miles, 250 ft elevation gain, massive old growth redwoods. Near the Grove of Titans, secret location of the largest redwood trees ever discovered.
- Panoramic Hill – Chaparral Peak – Strawberry Canyon Loop, Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve, Berkeley. 5.7 miles, 1,500 ft elevation gain. Conveniently located in the East Bay.
- California Coastal Trail, Presidio, San Francisco. 8.8 miles, 1,300 ft elevation gain. This trail winds along the coast on the western edge of San Francisco, through the stunning Presidio. Get ready for Golden Gate Bridge coastal views, but bring a jacket – fog and cold are inevitable on this side of the city!
- Bear Creek Park Loop, Briones Regional Park Loop, Walnut Creek/Lafayette. 6.6 miles, 1,200 ft elevation gain. Another conveniently located East Bay hike (clearly I have a type). This park is much less popular than Tilden, meaning less crowds!
- Ano Nuevo Elephant Seals Hike, Point Reyes National Seashore, North Bay. 4 miles, flat. Ever seen Elephant Seals? They’re the flompiest, most awkward, weirdest looking animals and all they do is make loud noise and huffalump around on the beach and cuddle and wrestle. We LOVE them! Look up what the elephant seals will be doing before you go on this hike – certain times are better than others, especially winter.
- Joaquin Miller/Diamond Canyon Loop, Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland. 9.3 miles, 1,500 ft elevation gain.Another Oakland hike! There are so many! There’s some overlap between this hike and some of the ones above, such as on Palos Colorados trail.
- Sanborn County Park, Santa Clara, South Bay. 6 miles, 1,500 ft. elevation gain. I actually did this hike. It was nice! Close to Castle Rock, a popular rock climbing destination. Best hiked in the fall.
- Lake Chabot Loop, Castro Valley, East Bay. 9 miles, 800 ft elevation. You’ll be hiking all the way around Lake Chabot (hence the name).
- Mount Tallac, Lake Tahoe. 10.2 miles, 3,500 hikes. This is probably the most difficult hike in this post, but from the hiking I’ve done around Lake Tahoe and in Desolation Wilderness, I definitely think it’s worth it! You’ll be summiting a mountain at 9,700 feet of elevation, so this is a great hike for training for altitude (aka what we should have done before we attempted the Inca Trail).
- Lake Aloha, Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe. 12.5 miles, 1,800 feet of elevation gain. Seriously, I could never get sick of hiking in this area! This hike will take you past 5 (!!) lakes before delivering you at Lake Aloha, where, supposedly, you can swim.
Looking for even MORE awesome Northern California hikes? The Eastern Sierras are a 4-6 hour road trip away from the Bay Area, and the hiking is phenomenal. If you’re a fan of mountains, put these on your weekend trips list!
We’ve also got a guide to the best hikes in Southern California (it only seemed fair.)
Before we leave you to your athletic pursuits, we have several posts about our home! Take a look:
- 12 Amazing, Ridiculous Places to Stay Near San Francisco
- How to Plan a Lake Tahoe Winter Trip (on a Budget)
- The 32 Best Pacific Coast Highway Stops & The Best Highway One Itinerary
Are you strapping on your hiking gear and heading out yet? Which one of these Northern California hikes are you most eager to complete? Leave us a comment below!
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