San Francisco Outdoors

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Just as New York City is the workaholic center of the world, San Francisco is slacker Mecca. Just think of all those famous refuseniks of the work ethic—the Beats, the Hippies, the Punks. Here more than anywhere else they're cultural heroes. Everywhere you turn there's some ocean or hillside vista beckoning for you to quit the keyboard and go play outdoors. So while you may be picking up a paddle or backpack, rather than a writing pad or a beat-up guitar, you'll find yourself turning your back on productive activity every chance you get. Here's a run down of GORP's top picks for what we hope are many hours spent having fun.


I've got a game for you—take a blown-up map of the San Francisco Bay Area, put a bottle in the middle, and spin. Chances are good that the bottle will point to someplace fun to hike. And if you take the hike, chances are it'll leave a much more lasting impression than any second grade birthday party kiss.

Seems like we always come back to the Golden Gate Recreation Area, which has scores of good trails. On the San Francisco side, the trail system at the Presidio makes the most of unbeatable natural assets: rugged coastline, surprising views, interesting historical sites. The discussion on where to put the main ridge trail was been a tough one, mostly because there were so many close calls about what would be the most spectacular way.Marin County's Marin Headlands has got to be one of most magical place in the world. Austere, with far reaching views, it's a place to go for inspiration. Mount Tamalpais, affectionally called Mount Tam by the locals, is another local favorite. Besieged on summer weekends, it calms down a lot during the week. The Cataract Trail on its eastern slopes is a good, easy introduction to Mount Tam's charms. Next door at Point Reyes hiking doesn't get much better, with dozens of trails to choose from, from easy to strenuous and even some backpacking options.

For a walk in the woods, you can't do much better than Muir Woods, home of the BIG trees.

If you want to go the distance, the Bay Area Ridge Trail circles the ridgeline for a breathtaking 400 miles. The East Bay Regional Park District manages 55 parks covering 88,000 acres, featuring Chabot, Tilden, and Del Valle regional parks, several Bay wetland habitats, and a chain of six parks connected by the 31-mile East Bay Skyline National Trail, a nice-bite size challenge.


Every Friday for the last decade an event called Critical Mass takes over the streets of downtown San Francisco. Although the just-a-big-street-party quotient has grown, the participants are trying to make a serious point about shifting transportation emphasis away from public automobiles and over to environmentally and community-friendly bikes and public transportation. This bike orientation extends beyond downtown San Francisco, too.

Biking in the city can be sublime. Some good, relatively flat areas to explore include Golden Gate Park and the Panhandle, the Mission District, and the Embarcadero waterfront park.

As for other, less conveniently level neighborhoods, low gear ratios—and good brakes—are essential. San Francisco bikers develop strategies for circumventing the steepest inclines, which means that the fastest, safest route to a given destination may not be as the crow flies, even if the crow were oriented to a grid system. One strategy is when you find yourself faced with a seemingly unsurmoutable hill is to head sideways for a bit and see if you can pedal around it. And don't be ashamed to get off your bike and walk it. I used to live at the top of a hill on which the sidewalk turned to steps. Believe me, after a long day I didn't even bother with the low gears.

Cross city limits and life really opens up. Check out our San Francisco Bay Area Biking Guide for ideas for out of the city pedals.


Fishing around the San Francisco Bay Area is satisfyingly diverse. Fishing opportunity ranges from the miles of shoreline, more than two dozen piers, 50 lakes, and a goodly number of creeks. Your best chance at catching one of the big boys, such as Golden Gate salmon or striped bass, is to take a boat out for some deep sea fishing. You can even practice your fly rod casting in Golden Gate Park. Fishing is a way of life in the Delta region, next door to the San Francisco Bay Area. An intricate system of waterways and wetlands, the delicate ecology of the Delta provides a rich environment for fish and birds. Depending on when and where you go, you can try for striped bass, sturgeon, salmon, catfish, and large mouth bass.


San Francisco is the urban wildlife watcher's paradise. Northern Californians practically invented whale watching as a sort of secular religion. Every winter, throngs of people head to the beach to reverently train their binoculars on schools of whales off the coast. Ano Nuevo State Reserve, south of the city, is a particularly prominent temple of whale watching and a rookery for elephant seals, huge Goliaths that can weigh almost a ton. Nearby Butano State Park makes a good base camp for a trip to Ano Nuevo, as well as offering its own wildlife charms.

The Oceanic Society leads enjoyable boat trips to the waters around Farallon Island National Wildlife Refuge. Not only are you likely to see humpback whales, but the birdwatching is astounding, even to non-birders in the bunch. Although only authorized scentists can actually land on the islands (you probably wouldn't want to muck around in all that guano anyway), you get close enough to witness the largest nesting seabird colony in the lower 48. The Farallon's population is 150,000 birds strong, representing twelve species. The largest known population of ashy storm-petrels, and half of the world's Brandt's cormorants and western gulls, live and breed here. Keep your eyes open for puffins, a comical bird sure to delight anybody, but especially children.

Coyote Hills is the place to witness the wildlife of the San Francisco Estuary. The facility has excellent biking and hiking trails, and an inventive environmental education center, which is always something to warm the cockles of any wildlife lover's heart. If you're lucky, you might observe white pelicans. For more wetlands fascination, roll over to San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex or the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge, two more primo examples of estuarine habitat.

True to form, you can't beat Point Reyes National Seashore as all-around facility for almost any activity except maybe dog sledding. An astounding 430 species of birds have been spotted on this peninsula, 45 percent of North America's species. If you're on the prowl for wildlife views, don't overlook the tidal pools or the oceanside rocks for seals and sea lions. And out by the lighthouse, train your binoculars out to sea for gray whales.

There's many more wildlife watching venues. But a final recommendation for those who are wildife lovers and sybarites. Make your way out to the Cliff House, perched on Point Lobos, the westernmost point on the San Francisco peninsula. There you'll be treated to a good bar, decent food, and spectacular views of crashing waves on the rocks below and migrating whales out to sea—a true San Francisco experience. Seal Rock, which is right below the Cliff House, is a haulout for Steller and California sea lions.


Is camping an activity?

No! That's the point. There's something great about going out to someplace beautiful, pitching a tent, then staying put. OK, maybe a little ambling to some rock, where you stop and stay put some more while you watch the birds come and go as the sun moves across the sky. The trick is finding someplace beautiful.

You can camp right in the middle of San Francisco Bay on Angel Island State Park . This is a spectacular setting, a great place to while away the hours watching boats pass in the harbor and the spectacle of city and open space that is the bay. You can camp among the redwoods at Butano State Park , south of the city. The state park offers some pleasant rambles among the trees and across creeks and such, but nothing too strenuous. Plus its near Ano Nuevo State Reserve, which offers excellent wildlife watching. Venturing north, Manchester State Beach is all things to those who like it wild and windy. Manchester is just the place for moody beachcombing, and if you can muster up the ambition, hiking and wildlife watching along the creeks and rivers that flow through the area, or steelhead fishing in the Garcia River in January and February.


Add it up: Ocean plus bay plus estuary equals primo sea kayaking. Angel Island is probably the most popular destination. You can circumnavigate the island, exploring its many interesting coves. And with a permit you can spend the night. Other excellent kayaking spots include the wetlands in the south bay and San Pablo Bay, which has some mighty fine deep sea fishing.

Things really open up along the Marin Coast. Drakes Estero at Point Reyes National Seashore and Tomales Bay are excellent sheltered spots. If your thing is the open water, there are many, many possible trips along the Marin coast.


California is blessed with two world class climbing destinations; Yosemite National Park, during the summer, and Joshua Tree, during the winter.

For that spring and fall in-between time, many Bay Area climbers scale the rocks at Pinnacles National Monument. Careful though, the rock here is brittle volcanic brecia. Pinnacles is a place known more for staying in shape for meeting the bigger challenges.

In the city, Mission Rocks Climbing Center is a magnet for other climbers. They offer lessons, a children's program, and other climber services.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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