San Francisco hosts a variety of exceptional hiking trails. Guidebook author Alexandra Kenin shares her favorite hikes at ocean beaches and parks throughout the city, along with the best hikes and walks for children and dogs.
Alexandra Kenin is the author of the recently released guidebook Urban Trails: San Francisco. I first ask Alex questions about why San Francisco has so much appeal for hikers and walker of all stripes, and why she wrote the book. We then discuss her favorite hikes near the ocean, the best hikes for enjoying nature and solitude, and the best hikes if you have kids or dogs.
Why Is San Francisco Such a Good City for Hiking and Walking?
On the surface, hiking and cities don’t seem to go together, but when you dig a little deeper, you can see that they can be a perfect match. There are a number of reasons San Francisco in particular is a great city for hiking and walking. In our city of just under 47 square miles, we’ve managed to squeeze in 220+ parks and some 70 miles of hiking trails. This means if you live in San Francisco, there is probably a trail (or at least a park) within walking distance of your home.
The city’s geography—namely our numerous hills—gives hikers a great workout and great views. And San Francisco is both scenic and historic. On the scenic side of things, you can walk on sand dunes, through cypress and eucalyptus forests, on oceanside and bayside trails, or climb hilltops to get sweeping city views. And on the historic side of things, you walk through neighborhoods or look at buildings that tell the story of the Spanish and Mexican settlers, the Gold Rush, or the 1906 earthquake and fire.
Why Did You Write Urban Trails: San Francisco?
In 2014, as one of my New Year’s resolutions and as a goal to see more of San Francisco, I decided to identify and hike every trail in San Francisco. I also wanted to start blogging about these hikes. With some quick internet searches, I found hikes all over the city…
I discovered there are 24 miles of hiking trails in the Presidio. There are also four ultra-long trails that are over 500 miles long that pass right through San Francisco (The Bay Trail, the Bay Area Ridge Trail, the Juan Bautista de Anza Trail, and the California Coastal Trail). I found sandy trails, and eucalyptus-lined trails, trails hidden throughout 1,017 acre Golden Gate Park—trails where you could barely see any trace of the city around you.
As I started writing about these trails, I realized there was no single resource for documenting where you could go hiking in the city. In my research I found Bay Area hiking guides and San Francisco walking guides. The Bay Area hiking guides were great, but they all required a car and I didn’t have one. The city walking guides were great, but they explored dense neighborhoods and didn’t delve into green spaces.
Thus was born the idea for the book Urban Trails: San Francisco, a single resource for hiking in the city that residents and visitors alike could use and enjoy. The book features 50 routes, 40 of which are right in the city of San Francisco. There are long and short routes, easy and challenging ones. There is something for hikers of all levels!
How Easily Can San Francisco Hikers and Walkers Take Public Transportation to Trailheads?
A great thing about hiking in San Francisco is how accessible every single trail is. Every hike in Urban Trails San Francisco is accessible by public transit, whether it’s with BART or MUNI. And in the writeup for each route, readers will be able to see which bus or train to take to the hike start. A fun fact is that I wrote the entire book without owning a car, so I have tested the public transit options (and ride sharing options) myself!
What Are Your Favorite San Francisco Ocean/Beach Walks and Hikes?
Lands End Trail (Hike 2)
This stunning cliffside walk is the quintessential SF ocean walk. The 3.3-mile round trip highlights some of the best aspects of San Francisco. At times, you get long, uninterrupted views of the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin Headlands. At other times, you are just slightly shielded from the coast by cypress and fragrant eucalyptus trees. A quick detour off the route brings you to Mile Rock Beach where you can explore an elaborate stone labyrinth laid out on a finger of land jutting out over the bay.
Batteries to Bluffs (Hike 3)
This gorgeous bayside trail just north of Baker Beach is just 0.7 miles long, but still manages to pack a punch due to the 470 steps along along its way. But don’t worry about the stairs—there is a lot to distract you from them. There are gorgeous views of the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Marin Headlands—and you can learn about the historic gun batteries you encounter on the cliffs.
Pier 39 to the Golden Gate Bridge (Hike 10)
This easy, flat 4.4 mile stretch of the Bay Trail is a great way to explore San Francisco’s northern waterfront including Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, Fort Mason, the Marina Green, and Crissy Field. If you like Golden Gate Bridge views, this is a great walk for you.
What Are the Best San Francisco Hikes to Enjoy Nature and Solitude?
Philosopher’s Way in John McLaren Park (Hike 17)
The Philosopher’s Way is a 2.7-mile loop hike around John McLaren Park. Hikers are guided on the path by series of stone pillars etched with arrows. In addition, you encounter a number of “musing stations”—plaques with quotations, park history, photographs, and more on this route that passes through grasslands, eucalyptus groves, and a redwood grove.
Interior Greenbelt and Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve (Hike 13)
This short, but steep route takes you on a round trip journey to and from the summit of Mount Sutro (elevation 908 feet), one of San Francisco’s seven major hills. The two shady, cool, and peaceful forests of the Interior Greenbelt and Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve are an untapped wonder and have clearly marked and well-maintained trails that make them easy to visit. At many points during this walk, there are no traces of the surrounding urban landscape, making the route the perfect escape for those who want a little wilderness inside to the city.
Presidio Bay Area Ridge Trail (Hike 26)
When I think of the Presidio, I think of history, nature, and art. And when I think of the Presidio Bay Area Ridge Trail, I think of it as a “greatest hits” route that involves all three of these elements. You’ll get your dose of military history on the Presidio Main Post and at the National Cemetery Overlook. You will take in large-scale art at Andy Goldsworthy’s Spire (100-foot-tall wood sculpture). And you will stroll through two stretches of eucalyptus and cypress forest—with almost no trace of the city around you.
Land of Lakes (Hike 12)
This route takes you on a grand tour of nine of Golden Gate Park’s 10 lakes in under six miles. While you may know Stow Lake, Lloyd Lake, or Spreckels Lake, you will explore Mallard Lake, Metson Lake, and other lakes you may not have heard of yet. In addition to the lakes, you’ll meander through dirt trails, around the bison paddock, and into the disc golf course.
What Are Your Top San Francisco Trails for Families With Kids?
Stow Lake and Strawberry Hill (Hike 11)
This hike is a great way to explore Golden Gate Park. Little ones and their parents can do a flat loop around the lake. Those with older kids can climb 425 foot-tall Strawberry HIll, the tallest point in the park where you can see views of the Golden Gate Bridge. When you’re done hiking, you can rent paddle boats or stop at the Japanese Tea Garden for a snack.
Presidio Promenade (Hike 23)
Presidio Promenade is a relatively flat 4-mile stroll that takes you from the Presidio Main Post to the Golden Gate Bridge and back. It’s stroller friendly and takes you near a Yoda statue, police horse stables, and the bridge, with great views of Crissy Field below your path. After the walk, you can bring the kids to the Walt Disney Family Museum on Presidio Main Post.
Lobos Creek Valley Trail (Hike 22)
The one-mile Lobos Creek Valley Trail is a great intro to hiking for little kids. The first half of the hike has a boardwalk for parents with strollers. The second half gets you closer to nature, taking sandy trails through a grove of cypress trees.
Sunset Stairway Stroll (Hike 40)
This is a route I created to explore the Sunset district’s stairways. Since this route is super hilly, I’d recommend not doing the second half of the route, but instead just visiting the two mosaic stairways featured at the beginning.
What Are the Best San Francisco Trails for Dogs?
Fort Funston (Hikes 1 and 4)
Fort Funston is by far the best hiking area for dogs in the city. It is an off-leash paradise with sandy trails on the ocean level and then 200 feet above the ocean. There can be literally hundreds of dogs here at a time and there is a lot of space for them to roam free.
Pier 39 to the Golden Gate Bridge (Hike 10)
This walk with stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge also features a number of off-leash dog areas along Crissy Field. Check the National Park Website for current dog regulations.
Pine Lake to the Panhandle (Hike 16)
This 5.6-mile stretch of the Bay Area Ridge Trail starts in with a walk through Pine Lake and Stern Grove, which both feature off-leash dog areas.
What Are the Best San Francisco City Walks/Hikes to See Architecture and Historical Sites?
Barbary Coast Trail (Hike 32)
The Barbary Coast Trail is a historical trail that commemorates the rollicking period between the Gold Rush and the 1906 earthquake. It winds through the streets of Chinatown, Portsmouth Square, North Beach, the Embarcadero, Fisherman’s Wharf, and San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, with some 170 bronze medallions embedded in the sidewalk guiding you along the way.
A Stroll with Sutro (Hike 6)
This easy, two-mile loop celebrates one of San Francisco’s modern founding fathers, Adolph Sutro, with a visit to three attractions named after him: the Sutro Baths ruins, Sutro Heights Park, and the Sutro Dunes—plus a fourth attraction owned by him, The Cliff House. This route in the northwest corner of San Francisco is also a great place to take in ocean views.
Old Mission Road (Hike 31)
The Old Mission Road hike takes you on a stroll through history on a path that was regularly used during San Francisco’s Spanish Period in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The walk starts at Mission Dolores which was built in 1791 and heads to the Presidio, which was a military base for the Spanish, Mexican, and American armies for over 200 years.
Where to Buy Urban Trails: San Francisco
Urban Trails: San Francisco is published by Mountaineers Books, one of the largest and most prestigious publishers of outdoor books in the world.
About Urban Trails: San Francisco Author Alexandra Kenin
Alexandra Kenin grew up in Wyckoff, New Jersey and is proud to be Jersey girl.
She studied French and business at Georgetown University, then spent a few years working and playing in New York City. While living in New York, she took a fateful vacation to San Francisco, which influenced her to move to the City by the Bay.
But… before making it out west, she had some more work to do. She earned an MBA from the Wharton School and an MA from the Lauder Institute, both at the University of Pennsylvania.
After graduation, she moved to San Francisco and worked as a Product Marketing Manager at Google for nearly five years.
After leaving Google, she began exploring the city, eventually coming up with the idea for her urban hiking tour company, Urban Hiker SF. Urban Hiker SF explores the stairways, hills, and hiking trails of the city. Since 2012, they have toured with thousands of hikers from dozens of countries.
Alexandra is passionate about travel and tries to visit a new country every year (she’s up to 50 so far). When she’s not traveling or out on the trails, she lives with her partner Brett, her dog Jodie, and her son Dylan in San Francisco.
Her second book, Urban Trails: East Bay will be published by Mountaineers Books in spring of 2020.
Questions for Alex? Thoughts and opinions about hiking and walking in San Francisco?