It’s summertime, so that means I’m lacing up my hiking boots and hitting the trail. Since I’m training for my trek to Half Dome , I’m putting in more miles and exploring a lot of new spots in the Bay Area.
If you plan to visit northern California and are looking for superb coastal views, cliff drop-offs, seal sightings, and getting lost in the redwood forest, read on for some of my favorite hikes.
Rodeo Beach Trails
If pressed for time and looking for a quick jaunt out of San Francisco, head over the Golden Gate Bridge to the first exit, Alexander Valley, and head towards the parking lot at Rodeo Beach.
For a rewarding journey and destination, hike south to the Point Bonita Lighthouse. After parking along the road, just before the main Rodeo Beach parking lot, you’ll cross a bridge where you can watch birds scouting for food in the lagoon.
Or you can linger on the beach to ponder at the surfers braving the cold Pacific Ocean waters. Brrr! Then head left down the beach to reach the trailhead. You’ll start on a dirt path and wind up for awhile until you are treated with some spectacular views of the coast and rocky outcrop formations.
Then continue south until you meet up with the main trail signs for Point Bonita Lighthouse. From here, it’s a short, but steep, 0.5 mile down.
Make sure you check the lighthouse hours, as I arrived too early on a Saturday morning and discovered that the tunnel to access the bridge didn’t open until noon.
Hello, anybody home?? Knock, knock?
That didn’t discourage me though. I explored nearby coastal side trails and stumbled upon old military batteries covered in street art and deer grazing on grass.
Starting at the Rodeo Beach parking lot, take a right up the hill and follow the signs for the Coastal Trail. There are a few trails that split off from each other, so you can choose how far you want to go. For a good 7 mile loop, you can connect the Coastal Trail, Tennessee Valley Trail, Old Springs Trail, and Miwok Trail.
My friend and I took the Coastal Trail north and paused at a wide opening with cliff views running north and south. As we approached the edge, we were treated to a surprise.
A fisherman was dangling his line to a staggering distance below. I didn’t think he’d have a chance in heck to catch a fish from that height. But soon enough, we saw him straining against the line and furiously trying to reel something in. As I squinted far down, it appeared he had snagged something on his hook — a big clump of seaweed? But no, as he brought it higher up the cliff face, I could see something flapping and flailing in the air. When he finally reeled it all the way up to the top, he proudly posed with his bounty: a rockfish.
I leaned in a little too close to take a picture and almost got smacked in the face as the little guy swayed on the fishing pole struggling to be set free.
After our fish adventure, we hiked up the Coastal Trail to some wooden steps (great workout for the backside) to discover more military structures covered in street art.
We then circled back down the hill to explore the Marine Mammal Center, a rescue and rehabilitation hospital for marine mammals. It’s a treat to watch the animals up-close as they glide in their pools and get fed by the staff. Unfortunately, there has been an increasing number of sea lions dying on the California coast, so the center has been busy nursing starving pups back to health. On the day we visited, almost 300 California sea lions and elephant seal pups were onsite.
After our hike, we headed back to the parking lot to retrieve our car. But you can enjoy a picnic on the beach or go to nearby Farley Bar for a post-hike beverage.
Pantoll Station to Muir Woods
The parking lot at Pantoll Station is a hub for many trailheads. That said, it gets very busy very early, so if you want to find a parking spot, don’t get there after 9am on a Saturday! Pick up a free map at the ranger kiosk to guide you on your hike, as the many criss-crossing trails can get confusing.
To start your journey among the redwoods, begin at the Alpine Trail, at the north end of Pantoll Station. Enjoy the shady tree coverage and the mostly downhill trek as you make your way towards the Muir Woods visitor center. You’ll cross over many wooden bridges, but water might not be flowing depending on the season and drought conditions.
When you reach the main entrance to Muir Woods, stop there for lunch, browse through the visitor center shop, and ask a docent questions about the majestic trees. Then wander along the Main Trail wooded boardwalk and whisper in hushed voices in Cathedral Grove.
Then it’s time to gather your strength, as the way back is mostly up hill. Hello buns of steel!
Luckily, you can grab a beer on tap, listen to live music, eat an authentic British pub meal, or just laze about on the grass at the nearby Pelican Inn. Shhh…this is one of my favorite hidden gems in the area. But just between you and me, you should really check it out.
Pantoll Station to Stinson Beach
The Matt Davis & Steep Ravine trail is probably my favorite hike in the area, and I’ve done it several times. I usually start at Pantoll, hike down to Stinson, then take a break to grab lunch at one of the cute eateries or pack a picnic lunch for the beach. Then I head back uphill to Pantoll to finish the hike. Many people like to start at Stinson so they end the hike on a downhill, and then do a victory meal in Stinson.
The great thing about this hike is that it gives you a taste of all of the micro-climates and beauty of the surrounding area. You don’t have to choose between the redwoods, the beach, waterfalls, jaw-dropping views, or exposed grasslands — you get them all wrapped up in one perfect 7-mile loop! And if you’re looking for a bit of a kick-in-the-pants-get-your-heart-pumping workout, then this is your trail.
Sadly, I lost my pictures from the most recent hike I did here, so you’ll have to trust me that this provides truly some of the prettiest scenery around. So I guess that means I’ll have to hike this loop again sometime soon to update the post with photos (oh, darn!).
Cushing Memorial Theater to Mill Valley
If you’re looking for something unique to do in the Bay Area during the summer, you must see a play at the outdoor Cushing Memorial Theater. You can incorporate some exercise into the day by taking a free shuttle up the mountain, and then hiking down to Mill Valley after the play is over, like I did. Or if you’re really ambitious, you can hike both ways, but just make sure to plan your time accordingly.
This summer, the play in production was Peter Pan. It was one of the coolest things I’ve done to date in San Francisco. Nestled high up near Mount Tamalpais, you can bring your own picnic or buy food from the festival booths, and then set up camp in the circular stone amphitheater to enjoy the show. Get there early to get a good shaded spot with a view, or pay for the more expensive ticket, otherwise you will melt.
After the play, it feels good to stretch your legs on the hike down to Mill Valley. You’ll pass the historic West Point Inn, with far-reaching views of the mountains and the city. Next you’ll go past the picturesque Throckmorton Ridge Fire Station and Mountain Home Inn. Then the trail takes you through the trees and down the many steps of the Dipsea Trail, where you can ogle at the homes woven into the forest surroundings.
Do you have a favorite hike in Northern California that I *must* know about? Please share!
ABOUT: Nikki is an official Outbound Ambassador. She’s an outdoorsy adventurer who marvels at natural wonders, world cultures, and really old stuff. She’s talented at climbing mountains, making crafts, and eating cheese and chocolate. When she’s not off exploring the world, she’s uncovering off-the-beaten path adventures in California. What to read more from Nikki? Visit her website here: www.NikkiNearAndFar.com