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Hikers in San Francisco Bid Happy Trails to the Urban Jungle

Find hiking trails and breathtaking scenery on an outdoor adventure in San Francisco.

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With more than 73,000 acres of magnificent terrain at San Francisco’s doorstep — 5,000 of those acres within city limits — hiking enthusiasts can go on a day-long walkabout and still make it back to civilization in time for the opera.

Just minutes away from downtown San Francisco and easily accessible by public transportation, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) has become the most popular park in the United States National Park system, hosting more than 20 million hikers, bicyclists, campers and tour-goers each year. By comparison, Yosemite National Park — which celebrated its centennial in 1990 — hosts three million visitors annually.

Stretching across the coastal areas of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties, the park lands by the Pacific offer scenic riches for serious backpackers and Sunday strollers alike.

The approximately 12 miles of trails within San Francisco’s city boundary wrap around the western and northern waterfront, hugging some of the most photogenic curves along the Pacific coastline and bay shore. Although only seven percent of the GGNRA’s total acreage lies within the city limits, it draws over 50 percent of the GGNRA’s total visitors.

At Fort Funston, in the southwest corner of the city, all members of the family can comfortably take the moderate-to-easy trails, ride horseback, picnic, hang-glide, or just observe the scenery from the spectacular wooden viewing deck.

Or they can take a walk. Heading north, the San Francisco headlands are five miles away along Ocean Beach, the city’s widest and longest expanse of sandy shore. Popular for seaside drives, brisk jogs, and sunset walks, Ocean Beach was once a vast sand dune wilderness.

Walking north to the Cliff House, visitors can explore the grounds of this oceanfront complex of restaurants and shops, poke around in the ruins of the once-elaborate Sutro Baths, then continue on the moderate Land’s End trail to the Golden Gate Bridge. This four-mile stretch offers stunning views of the fabled harbor entrance to San Francisco Bay and the celebrated 1.2-mile suspension span.

East of the bridge, the National Park Service created a 3.5-mile footpath between Fort Point, a Civil War-era fortress, and Aquatic Park. This partly paved Golden Gate Promenade follows the waterfront against a backdrop of sandy beach, bay water, greenbelt and the ever-resplendent Golden Gate Bridge.

On the northern side of the Golden Gate in the Marin Headlands and West Marin Coast area, the bulk of the park’s 100-plus miles of trails traverse diverse terrain.

At GGNRA’s northernmost reaches in Olema Valley, ridge and valley floor trails offer moderate to strenuous hiking with steep ascents leading to oceanview ridgetops. Few rest rooms and picnic tables are available on this largely undeveloped land. However, those willing to "rough it" will find visual rewards in the pastoral landscapes of forested canyons, tree-lined ridges, open grassy slopes, and historic buildings. For more information, visit http://www.nps.gov/goga/planyourvisit/olema-valley.htm.

Immediately southeast of Olema Valley, Mount Tamalpais has been a favorite destination for hikers since the 1880s. The highest peak in Marin, "Mt. Tam" is the perfect vantage point for sweeping views of the Marin Headlands, the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco, and— on a clear day — the mountains of the Sierra Nevada 200 miles away. Trails through both State and National Park land dip into redwood valleys, wind across open grasslands, and follow ridgelines from summit to coast. Call 415-388-2070 for trail information.

In the heart of Mt. Tamalpais State Park is the enclave of majestic, virgin redwoods that moved Joseph Strauss, builder of the Golden Gate Bridge, to entreat: "...Sink down, oh traveller, on your knees. God stands before you in these trees." Muir Woods is accessible to all, including the disabled, by a gentle, paved trail that loops through the towering grove. For a more challenging workout, hikers can expand their walk to include moderate to strenuous side-trails. Call 415-388-2595 for trail information or visit http://www.nps.gov/muwo/index.htm.

Serious hikers opt for the backcountry any day. For them, the extensive network of trails in Gerbode and Tennessee Valleys in the Marin Headlands is a wanderer’s paradise, traversing grassland and coastal chaparral. The wilderness is rich with wildlife here, and it is not uncommon to spy a black-tailed deer, bush rabbit, red-tailed hawk or other bird of prey on a day’s outing. Even a bobcat or two may make an appearance on a nice spring or summer day.

To round out the hiking experience, what could be better than spending the night under the open stars? With advance planning and reservations, backpacking in the Marin Headlands can be an exhilarating experience.

Several campsites are available throughout the GGNRA, a few of them accessible only on foot. For example, Hawk Backpack can be reached via a three-mile trail in the hilly backcountry above the Gerbode Valley. Ideal for trying out the family’s backpacking skills, Haypress Backpack in the grassy, coastal valley north of Tennessee Valley is an easy .75 miles from the trailhead and parking lot. There is no water at these campsites, and fires are not allowed. Call 415-331-1540 for Marin Headlands information and campground reservations or visit www.nps.gov/goga/marin-headlands.htm.

If the thought of a night spent in the wild seems too rustic, then consider the handful of hike-in restaurants and inns in the Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Beach areas. Contact the Marin Headlands Visitor Center for more information about these private establishments: 415-331-1540 or visit http://www.marintrails.com.

On Angel Island State Park, overnight campers have the island to themselves after the day-trippers leave on the last ferry. The five-mile hike around the island provides spectacular views of the San Francisco skyline and bay. Visit www.angelisland.org for more information.

In the heart of San Mateo County south of the city, an excursion to Sweeney and Milagra ridges yields incomparable views of the South Bay, the Pacific coast, and the region’s mountain ranges. It was here that Spanish explorer Captain Gaspar de Portola first sighted the San Francisco Bay. A four-mile loop takes visitors to the historic site on Sweeney’s 1,200-foot-high crest, where Portola discovered this "enormous arm of the sea" over 200 years ago. For more information call 415-561-4323 or visit www.nps.gov/goga.

Rangers throughout the GGNRA regularly conduct nature walks, historical walking tours, environmental field trips and school group programs. For schedules, advice, and trail information — including details on hiking connections to adjacent public park lands such as the GGNRA’s sister national park, Point Reyes National Seashore — stop in at a ranger station.

To plan your trip, visit www.nps.gov/goga/planyourvisit or call 415- 561-4700.

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