Hi Mountain Chicks! NorCal ambassador, Molly here. Alright, so you’ve made it to San Francisco and amidst all the city lights, drag shows, overpriced restaurants, fellow tourists and concrete hills you require some nature time, as all Mountain Chicks do. Well you’re in luck because the Bay Area is chalked full of national and regional parks with fantastic views with a solid variety of levels.
We really do have it all; Rolling hills, bay views, ocean views, mountains and even an island or two. Being born and raised in the intensely flat Dallas, TX area, it has been and absolute adventure getting to live in and explore this area. I’ve been living here for almost 5 years now and here is a list of my favorite parks. I could go on and on so I’m just going to give you a list of one (or two) parks per section of the Bay: San Francisco, North Bay, South Bay, East Bay and Peninsula. No matter where your home base is while you’re in The Bay, you’ll have a killer park to visit close by.
1. East Bay – Redwood Regional Park & Tilden Regional Park
My current residence is in Berkeley, which is in the East Bay therefore I visit the parks in the East Bay Regional Park District far more often than any other area. Tucked into the hills of Oakland is my favorite park, Redwood Regional. It is home to the largest Redwood forest in the East Bay with a solid variety of trails. Easy trails along creeks, biking trails, and a lot of uphill more strenuous trails as well. Our most recent NorCal chapter hike started at the Skyline Gate Staging Area, we took the Stream trail downhill for about a mile and a half to the Fern Trail which is where is starts to go uphill quite a bit, from the Fern Trail we took the French Ridge Trail all the way up to West Ridge Trial to loop back to the parking lot. The entire loop is almost 6 miles with the last 4.5 mostly uphill…but you’re a badass Mountain Chick so obviously you can do it! The challenge and the beauty made for a really wonderful hike. If we had reversed the loop I don’t think it wouldn’t have been nearly as rewarding and because of the steepness, probably would have been a knee killer. Every hike I’ve been on in this park has been awesome with views of Mt. Diablo, rolling East Bay hills, and always complete with behemoth Redwoods. It is a great alternative to much more touristy Muir Woods.
Another great park for all the Mountain Chick Mamas out there is Tilden Regional which is in the North Berkeley Hills. There are a lot of trail options, although not many of them have absolutely amazed me personally (The Sea View Trail is one of the few I really love). However, there are so many great outdoor options for families with small children. This park has an awesome Merry-Go-Round, a free botanical garden, a steam train…yes a MINI STEAM TRAIN you can ride, a lake (Lake Anza) with a beach you can pay $3 to spend the day at, complete with concessions, and even a free farm where you can go pet animals with your babies! I stumbled upon the (Tilden Little Farm) on accident after a hike in Tilden Nature Area and was so happy to pet bunnies, goats, feed sheep and cows celery and watch the chickens run around. I mean, what a fantastic way to end a hike, am I right?! Be aware though that these places get PACKED with families on weekends but midweek are almost completely empty, so plan your travels where you can take full advantage.
2. North Bay – Point Reyes National Seashore
Some people might not consider this ‘North Bay’ per say but it is so close and so amazing I think it should count. This is one of the most beautiful parks I have been to in California, it is home to Alamere Falls (NorCal Chapter hike #1), one of the few tidefalls on the California coast, meaning a waterfall that drops directly onto the sand of a beach. Fun Fact: You might have seen the most famous one, McWay Falls in Big Sur, as a backdrop on a lot of major credit cards.
There are endless trails in Point Reyes and ALL of them are spectacular. Some of my favorites are the Alamere Falls Trail starting at the Palomarin Trailhead, Chimney Rock Trail, Estero Trail and the small trek to the renowned Lighthouse that takes you back in time….figuratively that is. They all seem to leave you feeling like you are on the edge of an untouched Earth. Keep a look out on any coastal trail for the Farallon Islands, they are home to one of the largest populations of Great White Sharks in the world. There are also many options for backcountry backpacking and camping in Point Reyes but because of its proximity to San Francisco, spots are limited so plan your trips as early as possible and get going!
3. South Bay – Nisene Marks
The South Bay also has a slew of AWESOME parks, especially ones with vast Redwood forests. I picked Nisene Marks out of all of them because I feel it is the less popular among tourists (compared to Henry Cowell and Big Basin…which are also worth a visit). Nisene Marks was the epicenter of the 1989 earthquake that completely rocked the bay area which is kind of a cool thing to check out. Fingers crossed we aren’t due for another big earthquake any time soon… It also has one of the largest Sequoia trees that I’ve ever seen outside of Sequoia National Park.
You can get there by way of a small town called Aptos in Santa Cruz County, which is incredibly cool in its own right. I used to live there so I may be partial but if you do check it out make sure to visit Aptos Street BBQ after your hike for some live jazz and killer BBQ. Anyway, back to Nisene Marks, you can do anything from an easy hour long hike up to a solid week long backpacking trip in the woods. The trails are not that well marked so be sure to bring a map and follow it while you are out there, I got a little lost once back in the day because I wasn’t properly prepared and it took me a while to find my way out! It is also almost completely covered by the shade of the Redwoods which can be chilly sometimes.
Overall this park is super cool and definitely worth a trip if you are in the South Bay. Santa Cruz is a quirky beach town complete with giant Redwood forests to fuel your wanderlust. Head out to Nisene Marks, eat some BBQ and then take a stroll on the Rio Del Mar beach just down the street from the park and call it a day!
4. Peninsula – Montara Mountain, San Pedro Valley Park
The Peninsula is one of my lesser traveled hiking areas but I have to say my Pacifica and Half Moon Bay are two really cool, small coastal cities and are definitely worth exploring all the hiking trails they offer because most of them include solid ocean views. My favorite park is the San Pedro Valley Park, specifically Montara Mountain because you can start in Pacifica and end in Half Moon Bay or vice versa. The trail up to the summit of Montara is easy to fairly moderate towards the top, starting Eucalyptus groves and ending in complete sun with almost 360 views of the coast. If you’ve ever heard of people driving up or down the scenic highway 1 on the California coast, you’ll see part of it by doing this hike. You’ll also see huge chunks of granite in the higher elevation and the rare Montara Manzanita trees that literally only grow on this mountain…which is pretty freaking cool if you ask me. This is also an awesome option if you are in the Peninsula because both Pacifica and Half Moon Bay have solid dining options for before or after your hike. Pacifica even has a Taco Bell ON THE BEACH… not ideal hiking food but still cool.
5. San Francisco – Golden Gate Recreation Area
Obviously anything inside the San Francisco (its only 7 miles by 7 miles is going to be exceptionally full of tourists but some things are worth braving the crowds for. Golden Gate Recreation Area is worth the crowds. Lands End specifically is my favorite. You can hike along the coast to get absolutely spectacular views of the Golden Gate to get that classic San Francisco shot. The trails are also very well taken care of and marked for everyone. I recommend doing the Coastal Trail and making your way down to Mile Rock Beach. There is also an insane labyrinth with great views that is worth a trip too!
I highly recommend getting here early if you are driving because parking can be hard to find once the parking lots fill up and unfortunately it costs about $50 just to park your car in a garage in SF sometimes. I recommend taking public transportation if you are heading into the city but staying outside of it. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system is a really good option and you might catch yourself some free entertainment on the trains.
The Bay Area really is a wonderful place to visit and I hope this list helps any Mountain Chick headed this way! Remember to check out the Mountain Chick NorCal page when you’re here to see if we are doing anything fun!
Happy Travels! Make sure you get your official patch below!