It’s summer in the San Francisco Bay Area! OK, not really. But it sure feels like it these days. The famously foggy City by the Bay and its surrounding areas can get downright chilly during the real summer months. But many of our late-autumn and early-winter days bring the kind of sunshine and clear skies that just make you want to get outdoors. Luckily, the Bay Area has thousands of acres of National Parks to help you do just that. Read on for the skinny on the best places to get out, get active, and maybe even get a tan in the Bay Area this season!
Point Reyes National Seashore
This seaside haven just 30 miles south of San Francisco boasts nearly 150 miles of trails. Whether you’re after an intense day-long hike, a bicycle ride, or a leisurely coastal stroll, this national park has you covered. On the easier side, the short, paved Earthquake Trail lets you explore the famous San Andreas fault zone over the course of about half a mile. The Chimney Rock Trail, at about one-and-a-half miles, will give you spectacular views of the ocean and the bay. Plenty of other trails will take you straight to lagoons, beaches, and forests.
You can easily spend several hours or an entire day on more intense hikes at Point Reyes. The most popular trail in the park will lead you on an eight-mile trek through forested Bear Valley, right down to the Arch Rock beach overlook. Before you go, check out a guide to some of the most popular hikes in the park, ranging all the way from one to 22 miles long. No matter which you choose, keep an eye out for the 1,500 species of plant and wildlife that call this national park home.
If you go: stay at HI-Point Reyes. The only lodging within the boundaries of the national seashore, this hostel is a perfect jumping-off point for your wilderness adventure.
A national park located right inside San Francisco city limits, Fort Mason is historic, green, and salty-aired. Once an army post perched at the edge of the San Francisco Bay, today Fort Mason offers a quick, easy retreat for city dwellers and visitors alike. Relax in one of the park’s sprawling meadows, take a walk along paved waterfront paths with stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge, or go for a self-guided historical walking tour past buildings that have been around since before the city’s famous 1906 earthquake.
After acquainting yourself with Fort Mason, keep walking east and you’ll make it all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf. To the west, meander through Crissy Field – a favorite for locals with dogs, footballs, and baby strollers – along the beach, and all the way over to the base of the Golden Gate Bridge.
If you go: stay at HI-Fisherman’s Wharf. Housed in a couple of Fort Mason’s many historic buildings, the hostel offers visitors a tranquil retreat in a natural wonderland without leaving the city.
Just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, the Marin Headlands beckon visitors with towering bluffs and serene landscapes. The Headlands were once home to Coastal Miwok Native Americans, but by the late 1800s the U.S. military had identified the peninsula as a strategic protection point for the San Francisco Bay. Today many of the old military buildings and fortifications remain right alongside coastal flora and fauna, making this a favorite spot for local history buffs and nature lovers alike.
The Headlands sit on a peninsula jutting out into the water, so even at the best of times, the weather can be unpredictable (be sure to dress in layers and pack a rain coat). But choose the right day for your trip and the pay-off can be huge: unobstructed views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate, sightings of everything from deer to turkeys to raptors, and the sound of surf crashing against the bluffs as you overlook San Francisco’s urban skyline.
Whether you’re up for hiking, biking, or beach combing, chances are the Headlands have a trail (or several – many of the trails in the park interconnect) for you. Trek out to Kirby Cove or Hawk Hill for panoramic Golden Gate views, or pack a picnic and stop for lunch at Battery Wallace before continuing down the Point Bonita Trail. At the end of the trail, pay a visit to the still-active, 150-year-old Point Bonita Lighthouse.
While in the Headlands, don’t forget to stop by the Marine Mammal Center, the Headlands Center for the Arts, or the kid-friendly Bay Area Discovery Museum. You can also get an inside scoop on the Headlands’ best visitor attractions from HI's own Samantha Stones.
If you go: stay at HI-Marin Headlands. Housed in a converted military hospital and an old military mansion, the hostel provides easy access to all the history and nature the Headlands are famous for.