Northern California's beautiful in any light, but it's hard to beat the glow of a great big silvery moon for ambience. This August, the moon will reach the closest point in its orbit of the Earth, giving us the eye-popping spectacle of an extra-large "super moon." Not in our lovely neck of the woods on August 10th this year? Not to worry: you've got about a dozen chances each year to enjoy a full moon in Northern California, and we’ve got nearly as many ways for you to take advantage of it.
Here are eight of our favorite ways to catch full moon fever in Northern California this summer and all year 'round.
1. Get Zen
The 55 acres of exotic flora at the San Francisco Botanical Garden comprise one of the loveliest and most peaceful areas of the city. But after hours, you can quite literally see this gorgeous oasis in a different light – if, that is, you’re quick enough to snap up tickets for one of the Botanical Garden's popular Japanese Full Moon Walks.
On or around the night of the full moon, expert docents show groups of lucky ticket-holders just how different familiar plants look in the moonlight. The night ends with tea and cookies at the Moon Viewing Pond.
If you go: Stay at one of HI USA's three San Francisco hostels.
2. Take a Hike
Visitors and locals alike have long loved the Marin Headlands for its coastal breezes, abundant wildlife, and panoramic views of San Francisco's iconic skyline. In fact, make your way up to the top of the park's Conzelman Road and you'll recognize the views of the City by the Bay from countless postcards and promo shots. But while the Headlands' views tend to get all their screen time in the bright daylight and juicy hues of sunset, it’s the nighttime when the views really shine.
For an unrivaled spectacle of mother-nature-meets-metropolis, plan a trip to the Headlands for the night of a full moon. The occurrence of this celestial superlative is the only time each month the park opens up the trail to the historic Point Bonita Lighthouse after dark. Sign up for one of the park's free, docent-led full moon hikes and you’ll gain rare access to trails with unparalleled views of the plump moon rising over the Golden Gate. Just be sure to secure your spot early, as space on these popular hikes is very limited!
If you go: Stay at HI Marin Headlands. Even if you're not able to get out to the Headlands during a full moon, you can still take a free sunset hike around the park led by the folks from the hostel on Friday evenings.
3. Go for a Paddle
If you prefer the reflection of the moon on the water to the glare of streetlights, it's time to make your way to Tomales Bay. Just south of San Francisco, this area's famous for its oyster farms, locavore restaurants, charming small towns, and close proximity to the Point Reyes National Seashore. And once night falls, the local offerings only get brighter.
Case in point: local outfitter Blue Waters Kayaking offers regular sunset and "bioluminescent" trips out on the bay leaving from the small town of Marshall. Paddle out on the night of a full moon, though, and you're in for a special treat, as the night and the water take on a fairy-tale glow.
If you go: Stay at HI Point Reyes, located within the bounds of Point Reyes National Seashore, just a few miles from Marshall.
4. Soak in the Views
Ask any visitor to HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse hostel about the best part of their stay and there's a good chance they'll start gushing about the famous cliff-side hot tub. The tub lets hostel guests take a soak while waves crash below and the rotating beacon of the lighthouse flashes above.
On a clear night, the celestial views from the hot tub are stunning; on the night of a full moon, they're magic. For real-time updates on Pigeon Point's room availability during the full moon and beyond, follow the hostel on Twitter @PigeonPtHostel!
If you go: Sign up for your half-hour hot tub time slot when you check in at HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse. The hot tub is available only to hostel guests, and spots are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. The hot tub is open from 4:00 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. and costs $8 per person per half hour; two person minimum.
5. Go Tide Pooling
What's the secret to great tide pooling? The lower the tides, the more ocean inhabitants you're likely to see. And tides reach their lowest points when the moon swells to its fullest, making the days surrounding the full moon the perfect time to get out and peer into the pools.
Some of the best tide pools in California pop up along the coast just south of San Francisco. Check to see when the tide's rolling out and then make your way to the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, just a few minutes from HI Point Montara, or to the string of tide pools just down the road from HI-Pigeon Point Lighthouse.
6. Listen Up
The full moon doesn't just mean low tides are at their lowest – it also means high tides are at their highest. And there's one off-the-radar spot in San Francisco that's been using high tides to make sweet, sweet music for nearly 30 years. Located along San Francisco's waterfront in the posh Marina District, the Wave Organ is an "acoustic sculpture" that gets "played" throughout the day by the waves of the bay.
The project, resulting from collaboration between a senior artist from the Exploratorium and an expert stone mason in the 1980s, is just as interesting visually as it is acoustically. Pieced together using materials from a demolished cemetery, it's the only place in the city to look on granite carvings and marble flourishes while you listen to the ocean singing.
If you go: Stay at HI San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf, then walk all the way down the waterfront to the Marina Green, where you’ll find the Wave Organ tucked away on a jetty behind the harbor.
7. Go Underground
In the 1860s, Sacramento suffered a series of floods so devastating that the city was forced to raise its street level by about 10 feet. While the massive street-raising project created the Sacramento we know today, it also left a warren of disused pathways and caverns underfoot. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, the Historic Old Sacramento Foundation offers nighttime walking tours of the forgotten city beneath California's capital for the 21-and-over crowd ($20). While these tours promise to take you underground and out of the moonlight, a full moon will add an extra-eerie air to stories of the courtesans, crime, and colorful characters from the city's past.
If you go: Stay at HI Sacramento, housed in a beautifully restored historic mansion in the heart of the city.
8. Get Spooked
If you’ve ever wanted to get the low-down on the unsavory side of San Francisco's history – from murder mysteries to lingering ghosts – the best way to start your investigation is by the light of a full moon. Too scared to go out on your own? No sweat: there are professional ghost hunters and history buffs ready to ease you into the spooky world of San Francisco after dark. Try the Haunted Haight tour for some paranormal chills in one of the city's most famous neighborhoods, or the SF Ghost Hunt for a supernatural tour of ritzy Pacific Heights (tours $20 each). If you’re craving even more spooky thrills, be sure to check out our list of the Bay Area's haunted hot spots.