San Francisco Outdoors

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In the City

San Francisco is one of the world's great walking cities. Practically any neighborhood promises amazement—quirky Victorian architecture, good coffee, better food, fascinating people. And excellent exercise of the steep hill variety. Let's face it, Lombard Street isn't crooked—it's switchbacked, just like any ol' steep mountain trail. Of course, once you reach the top of the hill, there's usually an excellent view.

But since you're reading GORP, you probably wouldn't mind tackling a steep hill or two. Of course there's Russian and Telegraph Hills near downtown, or Pacific Heights if you want to experience a hoity toity neighborhood. But I prefer the neighborhood hills, such as Bernal Heights, Dolores Heights, Upper Market, and Twin Peaks.

Huge Golden Gate Park extends from the edge of the Haight all the way to Ocean Beach. The original terrain of the park was sand dune. In the late 19th century, the city started dumping manure and mulch to encourage development to its west, and planting trees, mostly Monterey Pine, to stabilize the soil. One way to experience the park is to walk or bike along John F. Kennedy Drive taking time out to explore whatever strikes your fancy. At the end of the beach cross over to Ocean Beach, then proceed around Point Lobos to Land's End. The beach at Land's End is clothing optional—so it's your decision whether you want to bother with the extra weight of a bathing suit.

At this point, you're in Golden Gate National Recreation Area territory. Take the Coastal Trail up above Land's End and then over to the Presidio, a former Army base that was reincarnated as a National Park Service facility. While there is an official trail map, look also for numerous unofficial trails. When I was there, I had a good time getting lost—especially when I found myself at the top of San Francisco National Cemetery, where I ate my battered avocado sandwich and gazed out at a stunning view of the Golden Gate, just me and the ghosts.

Marin County

You can cross over to the Marin County portion of Golden Gate NRA on the Golden Gate Bridge, which leaves from a tip of the Presidio. The Golden Gate Bridge offers stunning views, but I prefer to bike it, if only because I get weary of the traffic noise on the bridge and want to get across it faster than just my two feet will allow. Plus, I'm anxious to get to the Marin Headlands. The Marin Headlands are an austere, mystical area, foggy and windblown, reminiscent of the Irish or Scottish coastline. You can almost hear bagpipes and Celtic harps as you wander its grassy hills.

Want to take along your Irish setter—or ordinary McMutt—to complete the picture? Many trails in the Headlands, as well as other areas of Marin County, welcome dogs.

Point Reyes National Seashore is a place for romantic memories—just rugged enough to be dramatic; just far enough from the city to be otherworldly. And just close enough to be an easy, enjoyable drive. I know several people for whom this is their favorite place on earth. And Point Reyes is a place you can approach on your terms, whether it's hiking, biking, paddling, or driving (or any combination thereof).

East and South Bay

While Marin County has its own, distinct identity, the South and East Bay are usually seen relative to San Francisco—you'll never find anybody saying West Bay.

This is all a round-about way of saying that the folks around Oakland, Antioch, and San Mateo can find themselves getting defensive about their home towns. And there's no reason why they should. Contra Costa and Alameda counties have cooperated in developing an East Bay Regional Park System. The highlight in my mind is the Skyline Trail, which extends across the ridge top above Oakland and Berkeley.

The Ohlone Regional Wilderness is that rare treasure: a large roadless area in an urbanized area. The 29-mile Ohlone Trail starts at Mission Peak, but for a shorter hike you can pick up the trail in Sunol or Del Valle Regional Parks—from park to park is 10.4 miles. The trail rambles through an area of rolling hills that are home to gorgeous native plants, golden eagles, deer, bobcats, even mountain lions and a small herd of Tule elk.

Mount Diablo reportedly has the second most far-seeing view of any peak in the world, beaten to first place by no less an adversary than Mount Kilimanjaro. The state park that surrounds the peak seems much more remote than it is, and while the hiking trails are amazing, biking adds a whole different spin.

Coyote Hills offers good biking of different dimensions—just two. The hiking and biking trails through these South Bay wetlands are flat. And what they lack in topography, they more than make up in wildlife, particularly birds. The museum at Coyote Hills has highly recommended exhibits on the natural history of the area and the lives of the Ohlone Indians.

The South Bay is the part of the San Francisco Peninsula that's not San Francisco. To get started here, head to Sweeney Ridge, part of the Golden Gate NRA. Sweeney Ridge sports a good trail system that is popular among both hikers and bikers. One excellent bike ride starts out at Skyline College and ends up in Pacifica. You even get to travel my beloved Highway One for a bit—not recommended for the long haul but a thrill for a short stretch.

San Bruno Mountain is one of my favorite hiking spots. Although only a lowly county park, the views combined with the endemic plant life and the always surprising wildlife rank it as first class. My perfect day would be a breakfast of huevos rancheros in the Mission District, then a short ride on BART to Daly City to catch the SamTrans bus for a day spent on the mountain. Heaven.

Wine Country

Wine—that most civilized of drinks. And wine country touring—that most civilized of vacations. Wine and food are an inseparable pair, and so it's good to pack a little extra in the wallet pocket for restaurant meals when planing a spin through the wine countries of Napa and Sonoma Counties. Alternatively, tote an elegant picnic. Many of the wineries feature inventively landscaped picnic grounds. Highway 29/128 is the classic route in Napa Valley, with many possible sidetrips on rural backroads. By law, unless a winery was offering drop-in wine tours before 1991, tastings are by appointment only. But that's just a matter of calling ahead, that day even, and you'll probably get a little more personal attention than at the tourist mills.

My advice if you really want to explore California wines is to drop by the Castro Village Wine Company (415-864-4411; 4121 19th Street between Castro and Collingwood). This is a friendly store that specializes in California wines, stocking over 400. They have drop-in tastings every weekend, and their selection might give you inspiration on wineries worth a visit.

I actually prefer Sonoma County, and Sonoma County wines, to those of Napa. Both wines and countryside are a little more rugged, a little less precious. Plus Sonoma County has better redwoods. Highway 12 between the towns of Sonoma and Kenwood is a designated State Scenic Route, with many wineries along the way. If you want to get off the beaten track a bit, consider some of the delightful bike rides in Sonoma County's Russian River area to get you deeper into this invigorating area.

Coastal Range

The essence of San Francisco is the coastline, the meeting ground between ocean and land. Heading up or down the coast means not having to cross the Central Valley, which takes several hours and can be tedious. Every American should make the pilgrimage to Yosemite National Park at least once in their lifetime—but since you're already on the coast, why not take advantage of it? If a camping trip is what you're after, Manchester Beach to the north and Butano Beach to the south should more than fit the bill.

Adventurous hikers and backpackers will want to explore the Ventana Wilderness , perched high in the Santa Lucia Range, south of the city in Big Sur country. The vegetation here is stunningly diverse: on a shortish hike you might pass through redwood forest, oak savannah, dense chaparral, and meadow grasslands. Styles Hot Springs is by far the most popular trail—beautiful, but a true scene. If you want isolation, choose anything but that.

Mendocino National Forest to the north has two wonderful wilderness areas: the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel and Snow Mountain. Snow Mountain is a gently rounded crest, barely reaching 7,000 feet. It is the most popular hiking destination in the wilderness, and offers glorious views of the Sierra Nevada and the North Coast ranges. Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel is a lightly visited area at the northern end of the wilderness, hence relatively far from the urban centers.

If you really want to get out of town, the Trinity Alps Wilderness is, in some people's mind, the most spectacular mountain wilderness in northern California. Even from a distance these peaks are inspiring. When you actually arrive on their slopes you'll discover a diverse lake- and river-filled region offering many excellent treks.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 4 Oct 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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