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The Best Bay Area Hikes for Spotting Wildlife

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An elk stand on green grass and a blue sky in the background.
Tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore. (Galen Rowell/Getty Images)

From coyotes to monarch butterflies and river otters to banana slugs, the Bay Area — and California more widely — offers an incredible array of wildlife and biodiversity on our front doorstep.

And if you have loved ones visiting for the holiday season, it’s a great time to get outdoors on a hike to see the many species of slimy, furry, majestic animals California has to offer.

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California is home to over 30,000 species of plants and animals — and over half of them are in the Bay Area alone. The state is a hotspot for biodiversity thanks to its Mediterranean climate, our huge degree of latitudes and the wide range of habitats for plants and animals. With our soaring mountains and low-valley deserts, we also have the greatest range of elevation of any state.

A banana slug eats from the soil in the Big Basin area of the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“Those latitudinal gradients also create all these different climates for different plants and animals to live in as well,” said Alison Young, co-director of the Center for Biodiversity and Community Science at the California Academy of Sciences.


The Bay Area has many different ecosystems, from oak woodlands to shrubby chaparral, grasslands and redwood forests, said Julie Andersen, senior wildlife biologist at Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. Each area hosts unique animal species, from acorn woodpeckers to kangaroo rats, burrowing owls, banana slugs and migratory birds. We are also located along the Pacific Flyway, a major flight path for migratory birds in the Americas, extending from Alaska to Patagonia.

“Learning how to coexist with nature, providing pathways for wildlife, and being respectful will hopefully allow our amazing wildlife species to continue to thrive,” Andersen said.

All this means that we’re spoiled for choice in the Bay Area and beyond for hikes that offer the chance to see a wide range of wildlife. And as for where the experts themselves favor, Young, a marine biologist, said she especially loves exploring the different tide pools in the Bay Area. Nudibranchs, seastars, and anemones are some of her favorite finds when out tide pooling, like those at Duxbury Reef, Fitzgerald Marine Reserve or Pillar Points and Mavericks Cliffs Trail. (Mark your calendars for the best times during the day to enjoy tide pools around the holidays, according to Young: The weekend after Thanksgiving, on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the day after Christmas.)

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“When I talk to people about tide pooling, everyone’s always like, “Oh, like it’s great, but you just have to wake up so early in the morning. I just can’t do it.” But this time of year in the winter, our low tides are actually in the afternoon,” Young said.

For an optimal tide-pooling experience, Young advises people to look for low tides between -1.0 feet and -1.4 feet on tide charts like Saltwater Tides or NOAA Tide Predictions. She also advises folks to wear rubber boots or shoes with good tread to avoid slipping.

Emily Otstott, a graduate student at San Francisco State University, searches for nudibranchs in the tidepools at Pillar Point, just north of Half Moon Bay, California, as part of her work for the California Academy of Sciences. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

Keep reading for a list of some favorite Bay Area trails from the California Academy of Sciences and KQED staff that showcase our magnificent biodiversity. Be sure to download the iNaturalist app, log your sightings, and have a great time admiring our wonderful wildlife. You can also consult our map of the best wildlife hikes around the Bay Area:

Wildlife hikes in San Francisco

San Francisco has been replenishing the bison herd in Golden Gate Park since the late 1800s. (Erasmo Martinez)

Wildlife hikes in North Bay

North American river otter (Lontra canadensis). (C. Dani and I. Jeske / De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images)

Wildlife hikes in East Bay

A view of tall redwood trees seen towering above.
Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park is a sprawling forest featuring redwood groves and rare wildlife, as well as trails, picnic areas and campsites. (John Hudson Photography/Getty Images)

Wildlife hikes in South Bay and on the Peninsula

  • The Franklin Point Trail in San Mateo leads to dunes and magnificent empty beaches. Once on the lookout, you might be able to get quite close to elephant seals. There’s also a chance to see whales, dolphins, and seabirds around.
  • During a low tide, the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in San Mateo is a great place to enjoy the tide pools. You can see sea creatures like nudibranchs and sea stars.
  • The Mindego Hill trail in the Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve is a favorite location for bobcats and rabbits. If this strenuous hike is not for you, another recommendation is the Ancient Oaks trail — a great place to see woodland birds.
A northern elephant seal along the California coast. Elephant seals come out of the water to molt between May and July and to breed between December and April. (Frank Schulenburg/flickr)

Beyond the Bay Area

A monarch butterfly rests on a plant outside.
A monarch butterfly lands on a plant growing in the schoolyard at International Community School in Oakland on Oct. 20, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Tell us: What else would you like an explainer on from KQED?

At KQED News, we know that it can sometimes be hard to track down the answers to navigate life in the Bay Area in 2023. We’ve published clear, practical explainers and guides about COVID-19, how to cope with intense winter weather, and how to exercise your right to protest safely.

So tell us: What do you need to know more about? Tell us, and you could see your question answered online or on social media. What you submit will make our reporting stronger, and help us decide what to cover here on our site and on KQED Public Radio, too.

This story was originally published on November 24.


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