San Francisco, taken from San Bruno Mountains Summit Loop Trail Photo: San Mateo County Parks
San Francisco, taken from San Bruno Mountains Summit Loop Trail (Photo: San Mateo County Parks)

Happy Trails: Five Reasons Fall is the Best Time to Hike in the Bay Area

Happy Trails: Five Reasons Fall is the Best Time to Hike in the Bay Area

Newcomers to the Bay Area, here’s an important tip: Just as summer is winter around here, fall is totally summer. In fall, the weather gets much hotter, there’s less wind, the sky is deep blue, and you can tell it to the tourists all you want and they'll never believe you. Longtime Bay Areans are happy to let out-of-towners more or less have summer, because we know about September and October, the real (don’t say “Indian,” it’s tacky) summer. And that’s why we absolutely glory in autumnal walking, whether it’s on the awesomely steep city streets, or on some of our world-class trails and parkways.

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If you’re a hiking newbie, it’s a good idea to use the Sierra Club’s Hike Ratings to help you decide which ones are best for you. But basically, bring water, wear comfortable shoes, be aware and courteous, and you’re off to a world of fun. (Another word to the wise: Summer ends precisely at 4:30 p.m. October 31st, the exact moment it’s too late to thematically incorporate a large parka into your Halloween costume. Sorry.)

Kids on the Ridge Trail
Kids on the Ridge Trail (Photo: Joe Navratril)

The Bay Area Ridge Trail

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The one that’s everywhere, including some residential streets in SF.
When complete, the Bay Area Ridge Trail will be a 550-plus mile system stringing together 75 parks, a slew of historic sites, and a wide variety of communities, all connected to the incredible ring of mountains around our incredible bay. Today, over 350 miles of mountaintop trails are built, dedicated, and in vigorous use. Many miles of trail are also designed for wheelchair users. Magnificent views for all! One favorite segment inside city limits starts at the top of Twin Peaks, climbs down past a hidden reservoir at the foot of Sutro Tower, runs through some extremely steep residential streets, and heads for Mount Olympus, the little jewel of a hilltop park at the exact geographic center of the city.

Heron's Head Park
Heron's Head Park (Photo: Liz Henry)

Heron's Head Park

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The short one
Some people think industrial wastelands are romantic. Many such arty types also, maybe secretly, love birdwatching. Is this you? Do you like to take short, windy walks through bizarre landscapes only to find strange metaphors at the end of a spit, while simultaneously adding a lesser scaup to your life list? Everyone walking in this desolate (yet meticulously maintained and excellently ecocentric) no-one’s-land is carrying a camera, and why not? Go ahead, wear black. All black. While hiking. If this is you, Heron’s Head is your place. Alternatively, if you just want a beautiful place to take the dog on a short leash-walk, or use the small-dog park, or attend an event at the kid-friendly EcoCenter, then Heron’s Head is also for you.

San Francisco, taken from San Bruno Mountains Summit Loop Trail
San Francisco, taken from San Bruno Mountains Summit Loop Trail (Photo: San Mateo County Parks)

San Bruno Mountain

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The wild one
San Bruno Mountain has its own dedicated group of environmentalists looking out for it, that’s how special it is. The obsessed volunteers of the San Bruno Mountain call the park a “3,600-acre island of biodiversity surrounded by a sea of urbanization,” aka “the wilderness in San Francisco’s backyard.” Nine main trails, from the mostly flat Bog Trail to the Ridge Trail with its 564-foot elevation change, thread through this South San Francisco treasure. And take it from someone who found out the dumb way: Leave the dog at home.

Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks (Photo: Melissa Loesgen, courtesy of SF Rec and Parks)

Twin Peaks

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The iconic one
The newly pedestrian and cyclist-friendly landmark is no more or less spectacular than it was before, but now hikers and bikers no longer have to cede the way to drivers who sometimes seemed to be acting out childhood Matchbox-car fantasies. The road around the two summits, once a figure-8, now hosts soft human bodies on the Eastern-facing, city-viewing side, and fast-moving metal machinery on the Western, ocean-facing side. This is especially stress-relieving for longtime San Francisco walkers after years of paranoiacally hugging that white cement foot-high divider while looking over their shoulders and trying to enjoy the view at the same time AKA walking right on the road. One tip: while there, be like the lupine-loving Mission Blue butterfly, and, as the website suggests, “Expect strong winds.”

Rat Rock
Rat Rock (Photo: Courtesy of the Friends of China Camp)

China Camp

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The hidden one
On the Bay side of San Rafael sits a marshy strip of land, largely protected from the wind. For many years it functioned as a successful Chinese-American shrimping village, whose charming small homes and work buildings are still onsite. Today the whole area is a stunning park with tons of shorebirds, a small walk-in campground, and maybe the best picnic areas on the entire Bay. A major bonus are the two extremely small islands: Jake’s Island is a charming, mysterious marsh-enclosed green bump. The impossible-looking Rat Rock, a cream-colored jut with a crown of scraggly bushes and maybe three and a half fearless trees may be too small to hold humans, but it’s pretty in-demand as a nesting site for geese. If you’re lucky, you may catch the lovely replica sailing ship the Grace Quan on the water, as well; the Friends of China Camp volunteers maintain the shrimping village and run plenty of kids’ programming and lectures.

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