Best Non-Strenuous Urban Hikes
Northern California might have arguably the world’s gentlest climate, but the terrain can be as rugged as anywhere. If you haven’t ascended Mt. Tamalpais north of Marin or Mt. Diablo out near Danville, you’re seriously missing out. As a nice alternative, hilly San Francisco’s many parks contain extraordinary vistas and secret spots that you don’t have to sprain an ankle to get to.
Every third car commercial seemingly films a luxury sedan negotiating the curves of Twin Peaks Boulevard, but hiking up to San Francisco’s best-known lookout on foot is the most rewarding way to arrive. There’s any number of ways to get to the top via city streets; just keeping heading upwards from the Castro MUNI station, or try the dead-ends that line the bottom of the hill – they often contain a half-hidden staircase that’s perfect for a light workout. Twin Peaks Boulevard’s superlative views of downtown and the entire bay are worth the slight panting.
After the U.S. military ceded the Presidio to civilians in the 1990s, restoration began on the trails that snake through the eucalyptus groves and WWII-era batteries within the park. Sure, the fog can sneak up on you quickly in summer and one of the beaches is clothing-optional, but you can’t get any closer to the Golden Gate Bridge than the Bluffs-to-Batteries Trail above Baker Beach. If you’re not in the mood for the moderate climb, the narrow road that leads from Crissy Field to Fort Point – sea level all the way – is as historic as it is stunning.
Although it seems that the middle of San Francisco is nothing but hilltops, in the very center lies a mysterious crevasse: Glen Canyon. Not to be confused with the national park in Utah, this 70-acre, dog-friendly urban idyll may have steep walls, but the floor can be hiked by almost everyone. Amid the rock formations and hundred-year-old structures runs one of only two natural streams left in the city, making it a lush habitat for native vegetation and endangered species year-round. The southeast entrance, blocks from the Glen Park BART station, is easily found, but the trailhead behind the Diamond Heights shopping center offers the more startling views.
Bernal Hill is romantic, but it’s crawling with people. For a little more solitude, head for the next hill south: John McLaren Park, located between Portola and Excelsior. While its eastern flank overlooks the more industrial section of town, the thick woods that make up the second-largest park in San Francisco (after Golden Gate Park) keep the wildflower dells shrouded and human interference to a minimum. An easy grade and access from all points make McLaren the best secret spot for a combination hike/picnic in the grass. It’s so secluded you could even take a nap.
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