Here in the S.F. Bay Area, the days have been so mild with daytime temperatures in the 60s and 70s, it’s hard to believe that it’s almost Thanksgiving. However, when it starts getting dark at 5 PM, and colder, we realize we have to work a bit harder to fit hikes into our shorter daytime hours.
This reminds me that I have much to appreciate about where I live, why I try to support environmental causes, and how grateful I am for the thousands of people here who work to protect our environment.
In particular, I am reminded of the importance of the regional parklands around me, which…
provide hundreds of miles of trails that I can hike.
bring ever-changing displays of flowers, trees, and other plants.
have quiet places to clear my head and exercise my body.
inspire my writing and photography with its scenic beauty.
support wildlife—from ladybugs covering entire branches; herons stalking their prey; hawks soaring overhead; flickers hammering cavities in tree branches to build their nests.
offer the opportunity to gain perspective on our place on this earth.
allow free, or inexpensive, visits to all who want to come.
And, people are instrumental in what happens…
by envisioning the setting aside of parcels of land to create parklands.
when they work to acquire properties that would otherwise turn into developments.
by volunteering to help with fund-raising, to interface with the public at the kiosks and gift shops, and by organizing work parties for weed control.
when they become park employees that build fences and picnic tables, clear out invasive plants, repair storm damaged trails and roadways, and educate park visitors.
by voting in tax measures to support and improve our parks
Galen Rowell, photographer, climber, author (1940-2002) in Bay Area Wild: A Celebration of the Natural Heritage of the San Francisco Bay Area wrote, “The San Francisco Bay Area holds the most extensive system of wild greenbelts in the nation, with more than 200 parks and other protected areas lying within forty miles of the city.”
While I certainly haven’t done every possible hike in the San Francisco Bay Area the following 10 parks and trails have yet to fail me: 1. Mount Tamalpais State Park: Steep Ravine and Matt Davis 2. Point Reyes Ntl. Seashore: Pierce Point 3. Marin County Parks: Cascade Falls 4. Marin County Parks: Mount Burdell 5. El Corte de Madera Preserve: Tafoni and more 6. Mount Diablo State Park: Mount Diablo 7. Mount Diablo State Park: Mitchell Canyon 8. Diablo Foothills (EBParks): Diablo Foothills 9. Sunol Regional Park: Camp Ohlone Road 10. Coyote Hills Regional Park: Tuibun, Bayview and more
Marin County Mount Tamalpais State Park: Steep Ravine & Matt Davis
7 miles round trip, elevation gain 1,781. You’ll find redwoods, waterfalls and cascading streams, wildflowers, views back toward the Pacific Ocean, and a fun ladder to climb on this hike from Stinson Beach to Pan Toll Campground and back.
Mount Tamalpais State Park: Steep Ravine & Matt Davis.
Trail summary: Begin on Stinson Beach’s Belvedere Avenue or from the Stinson Beach parking lot if there is room (no fee at present). After carefully walking a short distance along Hwy. 1 from your parking spot, find the trailhead of the Dipsea Trail. Follow the Dipsea about one-half mile, crossing a less busy road (and parking area), to find the start of the Steep Ravine Trail.
These directions will ascend Steep Ravine and descend Matt Davis in a counter-clockwise direction. Some people prefer to do the two trails in the opposite direction, but I prefer walking along the stream uphill and to climb up the ladder–which is one of the trail’s highlights.
No matter how you do this hike, you will find it a memorable one. You’ll ascend through different eco-systems. Initially, you’ll go through grassland with scrubbier vegetation such as California Bay, coyote brush, lupine, cotoneaster–and poison oak. From a few spots, you’ll be able to look back down and see your progress and delightful views of Stinson Beach and beyond.
Continuing on, you’ll climb multiple sets of somewhat steep, stone steps curving uphill. Following Webb Creek uphill, you’ll cross several bridges over rapidly flowing and cascading water. You’ll pass giant rocks as you move through the woodland of Douglas fir, California bay, Redwood, and canyon and coast live oaks.
You’ll arrive at the base of a wooden ladder, 10 feet high, right next to a waterfall with a pool at the bottom. Because it can be slippery, it’s safest to face the ladder when climbing.
At Pantoll, your turn around point, you’ll find a parking lot, campground, restrooms, and a small ranger station. Maps, trail descriptions, and info on park activities are available. Nearby picnic tables make a good place for a lunch break.
To return on the Matt Davis trail, cross Pantoll’s parking lot and Panoramic Highway and find the trail marker for Matt Davis/Coastal Trail. You’ll start on a gradually descending dirt trail through a fir tree forest. You then hit a stretch of open grassland with great views of the surrounding hills and out toward the ocean. There’s a seasonal march of wildflowers; In July, we saw Muriels’ Spear, Sticky Monkey Flower, and Lupine.
Then what could be a very steep descent is made much easier by the many long switchbacks. Please LNT–though it may be tempting, don’t cut your own switchbacks/shortcuts because it causes erosion!
In July, there was not a huge amount of water in the streams, but it was obvious that during the rainy season the streams along Matt Davis Trail would be surging down the steep channels.
When you come out of the final patch of forest and hit the pavement, turn left to make your way back down to the main highway and to your parking place at or near Stinson Beach. Click here for AllTrails map.
If you are looking for more to do, spend some time in town. Stinson Beach National Park has one of the best beaches in Northern California for swimming. The tiny town of Stinson Beach has many shops and restaurants to explore. Browse the well-thought out selection at Stinson Beach Books, try the fish tacos at the Siren Canteen, and look through the art galleries.
Point Reyes Ntl. Seashore: Pierce Point Trail (aka Tomales Point)
9.7 miles out and back, but within the first couple of miles, you are almost guaranteed to see tule elk, birds, and wildflowers, so you can shorten the hike if you wish. The views along the narrow peninsula are spectacular–Tomales Bay to the east, Bodega Bay to the north, and the Pacific Ocean on the west.
Point Reyes Ntl. Seashore: Pierce Point Trail.The historic Pierce Ranch operated from 1858-1973 and shortly afterwards the National Park Service began some rehabilitation.
Visitors can do a self-guided tour where interpretive signs describe the history and function of the various buildings–the main house, a schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, barns, dairy houses, and many other structures.
Trail summary: For about 3 miles, you will be on wide, dirt, maintained trail. The final 2 miles to the point is labeled “unmaintained,” but numerous narrow dirt/sandy trails continue on. Stay well away from the unstable cliff edges along the way and at the point. When you do reach the tip, you may see a line of pelicans gliding by, cormorants on nearby Bird Island, and harbor seals frolicking in the pounding surf below.
Details:No matter where you start from, it’s a long drive out to the ranch, so be sure you have plenty of gas, and take drinking water and snacks. There are no fees charged for park entrance or parking. The trail is totally exposed so wear sunscreen or other sun-protection even on overcast days.
Spring brings wildflowers, summer can be foggy when much of the rest of the Bay Area is hot, fall is elk mating time, and winter can be muddy.
Restrooms: Just before the end of the Pierce Point Road you will see a paved road leading downhill to McClure’s Beach. A short distance down, there are restrooms. (Note: the short 0.4-mile (0.6-km) McClure’s trail to the beach is currently closed due to mudslides and unstable cliffs. 3/22/19) Click here for park info.
Cascade Falls, Eliot Nature Reserve. Marin County Parks, Fairfax. 3 miles out-and-back. Easy. Best in winter or spring shortly after a rain, which gives the stream a boost. Delicate wildflowers in springtime. Excellent for young children and beautiful enough to be enjoyed by any age.
The most direct and easiest trails to follow (especially if the alternative trails lead to the part of the wide stream with no bridge) are the Cascade Fire Road and the Cascade Falls Trail.
Cascade Falls, Eliot Nature Reserve. Marin County Parks, Fairfax.
Trail summary:Approximately 1.5 miles roundtrip, rated easy. This is a lovely little park with a 20-ft. drop waterfall that is particularly nice after a rain in the spring. According to naturalists, “this is one of the best places to see nearly every species of reptile and amphibian that reside in Marin.” It also has the endangered Steelhead Trout. A great park for kids, as well as adults, to explore, but there are narrow sections unsuitable for strollers.
Details: From the end of Cascade Dr. in Fairfax, continue straight along the paved road of the residential neighborhood to enter the park and continue onto the wide dirt road (the Cascade Fire Road), and then follow the narrow Cascade Falls Trail.
Limited parking–be prepared to walk the quiet street through the neighborhood to the trailhead and watch posted signs for various parking restrictions. No restrooms or water–pick up supplies in Fairfax 1.5 miles previous. Dogs on leash only. Click here for info including maps.
Mount Burdell, Mount Burdell Open Space, Marin County Park, Novato.
A lovely 5.2 mile loop rated moderate. The highest point is Mt. Burdell, which is 1,558 ft. — an 1,118 ft. elevation gain.
Good on a mild winter or fall day, better even on a spring day when the grass is green and the wildflowers are out. Summers can be very hot and there is little shade so be prepared with plenty of water if you choose to undertake this hike on such a day.
Mount Burdell, Mount Burdell Open Space, Marin County Park, Novato.
When we made this hike in the spring of 2018, we were treated to a gorgeous rainbow over the valley, while we stayed perfectly dry on the ridge.
Trail Summary: Enjoy not only the grasses and wildflowers, but also old oak, buckeye, and bay trees as you ascend from the trailhead at the end of San Andres Drive in Novato. From the gate, make a counterclockwise loop starting on the Deer Camp Fire Road, then take the Cobblestone Fire Road to the highest point along the trail. From that point atop the ridge, you’ll notice an old stone wall that was built by Chinese laborers in the late 1800s. Look down into Novato Valley and the Petaluma River, and across to fantastic views of the Bay Area.
Your descent on the Old Quarry Trail will be rather steep– hiking poles are recommended. Turn onto to San Carlos Fire Road and then Michako Trail to return to the trailhead.
Open year round, no fees. No restrooms or water on site! Dogs are allowed, but should be on leash or under voice control at all times.
Those looking for a longer hike have plenty of options starting with hiking down onto the east side of the hill into Olompali State Park, which not only has great hiking, but also interesting exhibits about the earliest inhabitants of this region.
Follow link here for more about Olompali. “A project is underway to build several structures representative of a Coast Miwok village. The village will be used as an interpretive and educational site. Visitors to the park can see two kotchas (houses), one made from redwood bark and another made with bundles of native tule reeds.”
San Mateo County
El Corte de Madera Creek Preserve, Tafoni and more, Woodside
Moderate four-mile loop using the Tafoni, Fir, El Corte de Madera Creek Trails. This lovely hike through the redwoods also has a couple of unique features. One is a commemorative marker to those who died in a plane crash here in the 1950s. Another is the intriguing sandstone Tafoni sandstone formation, which is about 1.5 miles out from the Tafoni trailhead.
El Corte de Madera Creek Preserve, Tafoni and more, Woodside
The plane crash occurred in October 1953 when a DC-6 was trying to land in San Francisco after a long flight. Unfortunately they were in heavy clouds and fog. Eight crew members and eleven passengers died. The hike will take you to the park’s Vista Point where you will find ocean views, a single picnic table, and the commemorative marker.
The Tafoni formation is described by the NPS: “honeycomb weathering or ‘swiss-cheese rock,’ tafoni are small, rounded, smooth-edged openings in a rock surface, most often found in arid or semi-arid deserts. They can occur in clusters looking much like a sponge and are nearly always on a vertical or inclined face protected from surface runoff.” (Click here for more about tafoni.)
Interestingly, in El Corte, you are not in “arid landscape,” you’re in the midst of a redwood forest–which provides welcome shade on hot summer days. And Instead of “desert cottontails, black-tailed jackrabbits, and lizards,” you are more likely to see banana slugs and a few mule deer.
Trail summary: From the Skeggs Point parking turnout on Skyline Boulevard, walk north, and cross the road to reach the trailhead. Avoid Fir Trail (Upper) and stay slight right onto El Corte de Madera Creek Trail. Shortly after, you’ll be able to turn left and onto Tafoni Trail (Upper). (Pick up a map for this and to see some of the many other trails you can do another day.)
About a mile along on the Tafoni Trail, turn slightly right to follow the Fir Trail, and head downhill to the Vista Point. You’ll soon reach the site with the commemorative plaque to those who died in the plane crash. (The actual site of the crash is along the nearby and relatively steep, Resolution Trail. If you decide to extend your hike to view the site, remember that it is illegal to remove any artifacts. The crash site is about halfway along the Resolution Trail on the west/downhill side.)
Retrace your steps to the start of the Fir Trail. Turn left and again onto the Tafoni Trail. You’ll soon come to a spur trail, on the right, where you’ll go through a wooden gate to see the Tafoni site. (Please follow the directions to stay off the rock as you walk around admiring the unique, delicate formation.)
Return to Tafoni Trail and turn right. Continue strait for approx. one mile. Turn right again and follow the El Corte de Madera Creek Trail up to a climb a series of bridges up the hillside and to your beginning point.
Location: Skyline Blvd, 9 Miles south of 92, Woodside. Trails can be muddy after rains. You may be sharing the trail with off-road bicycles, so stay alert. Download PDF map here.
Note: There are many other popular hikes along the peninsula that I have yet to hike. Highly recommended by many are those in Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve, which is just north of El Corte de Madera and along Skyline Blvd.
Contra Costa County
Mount Diablo State Park: Mount Diablo, Walnut Creek
As mountains go, Mount Diablo’s summit isn’t terribly high, 3,849 feet, but it is the highest peak in the Bay Area. It also–if you pick the right day, generally in winter or early spring after rain has cleared the skies–offers outstanding views. On a clear day you can see not only the surrounding valleys and hills, but also the Sierra Nevada 135 miles to the east, Mount Lassen 185 miles to the north, and the Farallon Islands, 27 miles west of San Francisco.
Mount Diablo State Park: Mount Diablo, Walnut Creek
There are a number of options to reach the summit of Mount Diablo’s main peak. The easiest is to drive to the paved parking lot near the top, walk up a few steps and into the visitors’ center. There, you can peruse the good collection of books, maps, sweatshirts, and other items for sale. Then, take a few moments to look at the exhibits and go up a few more steps to the observation deck.
However, I recommend the Juniper and Summit Trail Loop for a moderate, 3.7-mile loop with 1,000 ft. elevation gain. Here you’ll find gorgeous wildflowers in the spring and amazing views anytime that it isn’t foggy!
Trail Summary:The Juniper and Summit Trail Loop. Park in the Juniper Campground at the Diablo Valley Overlook. Start on the Juniper Trail headed south, which will take you in counter-clockwise on the loop on the western side of the mountain.
After parking, cross over the paved Summit Road and continue uphill on the unpaved, single-track. You will be passing the Old Pioneer Horse Camp as you climb.
To return to the trail head in Juniper Campground, cross the Lower Summit Parking Lot and pick up the Juniper Trail at the western end of the lot.
If you want to add even more miles and elevation, you could take a short detour from the Summit Trail at its most north-easterly point and take one of the trails (see map link below) and add the Mary Bowerman Trail loop (rated easy) or one oft the out and back to the peak trails adding 0.7 – 2 miles to your hike while circumnavigate the peak. Download Bowerman trail guide here.
Details: There are two entrances to the park from Walnut Creek–North Gate and South Gate and either will take you to the Summit Road, which leads to the Juniper Campground and the Visitor Center atop Mount Diablo.
The roads are narrow and winding; they are also heavily used by bicyclists so allow plenty of time to make this drive. Parking fees required (or free with California Parks pass). Camping is available, click for reservations here.
Mitchell Canyon/ Back Creek Loop, Mount Diablo State Park, near Clayton.
Strenuous, some hills, about 7 miles, 1700-foot elevation gain. On this beautiful hike, you’ll pass through narrow canyons, groves of groves of Coulter pines, birding areas, rugged mountain scenery, and enjoy expansive views. In the spring, you’ll find that the shaded north exposures are alive with a succession of wildflowers.
Mitchell Canyon/ Back Creek Loop, Mount Diablo State Park, near Clayton. Even a short out and back walk into Mitchel Canyon is rewarding–especially during the cooler months when the wildflowers are in bloom and Mitchell Creek is at its best.
Trail summary: Follow Mitchell Canyon Trail to Deer Flat, turn left (east) at the junction and continue steeply up Meridian Ridge Road to Murchio Gap. At Murchio Gap, descend on the Back Creek Trail to the Bruce Lee Road, then to the Coulter Pine Trail then turn left (west) and follow the Coulter Pine Trail back toward the trailhead.
Details: Mitchell Canyon Parking area (no fee) is at the south end of Mitchell Canyon Road in Clayton, CA.. There are restrooms and water available at the trailhead and a couple of picnic tables. The Visitor Center is open Saturdays and Sundays only. Mar – Oct hours: 8 am to 4 pm; Nov – Feb hours: 9 am to 3 pm. Click here for maps and more info
Diablo Foothills Regional Trail (EBParks), Walnut Creek
This challenging hike of 7 miles, elevation gain 966 feet, begins in a neighborhood. Passing into the park, you will soon enjoy walking through oak woodlands, rolling hills, rock outcroppings, and a seasonal creek. My favorite time to do this hike is springtime–or anytime that it is not hot!
My favorite part is Pine Canyon–even though I have yet to see the resident peregrine falcons there, you can see their white guano (droppings) on the cliffs below their nests. The cliffs themselves are actually in neighboring Mount Diablo State Park and portions of other trails that enter the park from the canyon are closed seasonally to protect the nesting birds.
Diablo Foothills Regional Trail (EBParks), Walnut Creek This hike was one of the featured trails in the 2018 Trail Challenge program run by EBParks.
Trail Summary:From the Livorna Staging Area, cross Livorna Road, and turn right onto Serafix Road. Then, turn left immediately through three fence posts and onto the Alamo Trail. Continue on Alamo Trail up the hill to a gate. Pass through and continue uphill past the next trail marker. (You will see a water tank alongside.)
At the next trail marker turn right onto Hanging Valley Trail. At the next intersection, turn right onto the Briones-to-Mt. Diablo Regional Trail. Shortly, you will pass through the gate that divides EBRPD parklands and Mt. Diablo State Park.
Reaching a fork in the road, stay to the right. At the next trail post, turn left onto Little Yosemite Trail. Follow Little Yosemite Trail as it winds along the hill and follows the seasonal creek. Cross the small wooden footbridge and continue straight. The trail will become Stage Road Trail. Follow Stage Road Trail to the left for about .75 miles. Turn left onto Fairy Lantern Trail, to Buckeye Ravine Trail.
Buckeye Ravine Trail will lead you steeply through the narrows of two hills. At the plateau, make a left at the next trail post onto Mokelumne Coast-To-Crest Trail. At the next immediate fork in the road stay to the left and stay on Mokelumne Coast-To-Crest Trail for .81 miles.
Turn right at the next trail post onto Hanging Valley Trail for .34 miles. At the next trail post make a left, continuing downhill on Alamo Trail. Follow Alamo Trail back to the Livorna Staging Area.
Details:Bring water! Toilets at the start. Dogs are not allowed in Mount Diablo State Park and this route goes through both Mt. Diablo State Park and Diablo Foothills Regional Park. Free trailhead parking.
Camp Ohlone Road, Sunol Regional Park, Sunol. Hike to Little Yosemite
Short and sweet, this moderately-easy hike that can be extended if desired. Approximately 3-4 miles out-and-back. Best after rain, hot in summers, but lovely anytime (just don’t expect the 2,425-foot drop of Yosemite Falls.
Trail summary:Enter the park from Geary Road and proceed to the kiosk. Entrance fee charged on weekends (free entry with regional park’s pass.) The road passes the Visitor’s Center and other park buildings on the left as the road continues. This hike begins at the end of the road, but you can park in any of the paved lots as you drive in.
From the last parking lot, pass through the gate and cross the wide bridge–you’ll get an idea of how much water will be at the falls by how much water is flowing under the bridge!
Continue on the wide dirt and gravel Camp Ohlone Road through a valley to reach Little Yosemite (Unless you leave the road, there is no way to get lost!).
There are often interesting birds to be seen–woodpeckers with their bright-red heads spiral around the trees pecking for insects or acorns. Small sparrows run through the cropped grass alongside the trail. Stellar Blue Jays flit through the trees and Red-tailed hawks soar above.
You’ll see a variety of plant life–grassland, wildflowers such as lupine and poppies, brush such as sticky monkey flower and coyote bush, and mature oak and sycamore trees.
As you proceed, you will see single track trails alongside the wide road that more closely follow the banks of the creek. Take the time to explore some of them.
Little Yosemite When you reach the picnic tables and outhouse on the left, you’ll know you have arrived at Little Yosemite. As the name suggests, this does not rival the falls in Yosemite National Park, but it is still a beautiful spot with weathered serpentine and sandstone outcrops. Here you can stop for photos, perhaps climb down to water’s edge, or have your picnic lunch.
It’s worth continuing another 0.6 miles further into the park on the road–the canyon widens and you’ll find the “W” tree, a rocky scrambling area, and come to the wider part of the creek that flows through a wonderful row of very old sycamore trees. You’ll come to a locked gate–the road continues on to a permit-only group area–so it’s time to turn back.
Details: It’s worthwhile to stop at the Visitor’s Center either before or after your hike to see the displays and gift shop. Depending on the season, you might see a live tarantula or gopher snake in one of the display cases.
Drinking water and toilets are located by the Visitor’s and at the trailhead.
Driving: From Hwy. 680 near Sunol, exit on Calaveras Rd. and turn east. Take Calaveras Road until you can make a left onto Geary Road. Address: 1895 Geary Road, Sunol, CA
Tuibun/Chochenyo/Lizard Rock/ Bay View/Soaproot/Red Hill/Nike/Bay View again. Coyote Hills, EBParks, Fremont.
Coyote Hills Regional Park, Fremont
A moderate loop of 4.77 miles that takes you on the Bayview Trail around the Coyote Hills where you’ll see the evaporating salt ponds of San Francisco Bay. You’ll also walk a marsh area–often teeming with waterfowl. and other birdlife. Coyote Hills is a unique park that sits where Alameda Creek flows into San Francisco Bay, and is considered sacred by the Ohlone Native Americans.
A unique park with lots of history. Glimpses of the past along the paths leading through the marshes. Bring binoculars for viewing the waterfowl and other birdlife. Enjoy the colors of the former salt ponds as you walk alongside S.F. Bay. This region is considered sacred by the Ohlone Native Americans whose ancestors lived here.
Trail Directions: Begin at the Quarry Staging Area and head north to cross the road and turn right onto Tuibun Trail. Hike about 1/2 mile back toward the park entrance/pay station. Turn left onto Chochenyo Trail. Follow Chochenyo for .82 miles as it winds through the marshes. Then, turn right, then left, to stay on Chochenyo, and then turn right onto Lizard Rock Trail. Turn right at the intersection onto Bayview Trail.
Pass Red Hill Trail and its intersection (on your right) as you continue to follow curving Bayview Trail. Hike .97 miles. At the trail junction of Soap Root and Bayview, turn left onto Soap Root Trail. Follow Soap Root .32 miles to Red Hill Trail. Turn left onto Hill Trail. (The first peak on Red Hill Trail is called Glider Hill. The second peak, Red Hill, is the highest point at Coyote Hills – 292 feet.)
Stay on this trail for .56 miles, then turn right onto Nike Trail. Hike .24 miles to reach a different portion of the Bayview Trail, which goes past the Visitor Center and back to the Quarry Staging Area (0.5 miles). Turn right into the staging area.
Details: Note that dogs are not allowed on the Chochenyo Trail or in any marsh area. They are allowed, on-leash, elsewhere. There are several other trails at Coyote Hills ranging from easy to moderate. The visitor center often has programs featuring information and crafts of the early Ohlone.
You can walk along the bay and amid four shell mounds (piles of ancient debris). Tours of a 2,000-year-old village site with re-created structures are available by reservation at the visitor center at 510-544-3220.
Trails are not not shaded, so be prepared with sun protection and drinking water. There are two water fountains, one at the beginning and towards the end of the trail. There are also restrooms in the Visitor Center.
Directions: 8000 Patterson Ranch Rd, Fremont. Coyote Hills, on the edge of San Francisco Bay, and just north of the Dunbarton Bridge. From I-880 in Fremont, take Highway 84 west. Exit at Paseo Padre Parkway, turn right, and drive north about one mile. Turn left on Patterson Ranch Road and proceed into the park.
This hike was part of the EBParks 2017 Trail Challenge. Click here for more info.
I hope you enjoy some of these hikes. We are very lucky to have so many great trails in the S.F. Bay Area. For more trails, check out the Nifty Ninety Peaks posts. Click here.