By Laure Latham
With microclimates and every single kind of landform from coast to mountain via prairies and marshes, the San Francisco Bay Area offers some spectacular places for hiking with children. From short and flat with playground to challenging with historical landmarks, any trail can be tailored to fit the age and ability of your children. Here are a few suggestions to get your exploration started. Lace up your boots and get out of this door!
Before you go:
- Always pack layers, climates change rapidly
- Pack water and enough snacks to get your family through the expected hike
- Learn how to identify
and keep your kids in the middle of the trail
- Have fun and set realistic expectations! Kids love being outside but they might not be ready for a marathon.
Despite its urban character, the City by the Bay hides amazing trails steps away from public transit stops and major commercial arteries. Take Cole Valley and the UCSF neighborhood. Climb a long flight of steps and you will reach the
, a unique cloud forest of eucalyptus trees planted by Adolph Sutro in the 1880's. The trail system was recently improved, so print the
online and check it out.
Fancy Bay views? The Presidio’s
Golden Gate Promenade
is legendary amongst San Francisco families. What child hasn’t waded in the lagoon over by
East Beach even on a foggy day, even with a toddler-sized wetsuit? The combination of a shallow lagoon next to bathrooms, a café, and a parking lot make this one a winner. The Golden Gate Promenade is a walking trail that connects Aquatic Park to Fort Point in 4.3 miles (one way) but you can walk from East Beach to the Warming Hut and back for a 3 mile short version (ideal for strollers, all flat).
Where to start in Marin but
? This almost-level trail in Mill Valley offers one of the easiest hikes to a cove in Marin. Almost flat to the end, it is a good starter hike for dynamic toddlers and surprisingly easy despite the 4 miles. A popular family destination, it can be crowded on sunny weekend days, so arrive early to find parking.
The first section of the trail is paved and turns to dirt after 0.5 mile, meandering through meadows and low hills covered with chaparral. The finish with a salt-water pond and a sandy cove is a great reward for brave young walkers. P.S. Don’t forget your sand toys.
Muir Woods National Monument
may be hell in the summer because of the crowds, but it’s a surprisingly zen hike in the fall and winter when tourists are away. Explore a grove of giant coastal redwood trees along the boardwalks, relax on the benches to listen to the sounds of the forest and grab a cup of hot chocolate at the café at the end. This 1-mile hike is perfect terrain for strollers and toddlers but all ages love the majesty of the grove.
Do your kids love animals?
Año Nuevo State Reserve
is famous for its colony of elephant seals that returns every year to its beaches for breeding. During this period, from December 15 to March 31, the place is so popular (hundreds of thousands of people come to watch this reality mating show) that reservations are required and visitor numbers restricted. You can reserve an elephant seal walk
to observe these noisy sea giants. On the way back, stop in Pescadero at
Phipps Ranch Country Store
to discover an astounding array of dried heirloom beans, and at
Harleys Goat Farm
to taste succulent goat feta cheese, goat cheese raviolis, and flower-decorated fresh goat cheeses.
With a jungle of rocks to climb and an easy 1-mile loop from the parking lot,
Castle Rock State Park
is a blast for junior climbers anytime. From the parking lot, turn left on the path that rises up the hill and turn right at the top to head towards massive boulders. You can’t miss them, they’re big. Going around Castle Rock and its numerous caves will take you as long as your kids want to stay to explore these mineral labyrinths. Pack a picnic lunch, there is no food nearby.
Tilden Regional Park
in Berkeley has got to be the number 1 choice spot for all East Bay residents. What’s not to love? This park features an old-fashioned carousel, an animal farm, a lake to swim in (when it’s warm outside), a botanical garden, and a miniature steam train that draws “oohs” and “aaahs” from train lovers of all ages. The simplest hike at Tilden Park is around Jewel Lake next to the farm and runs only 0.9 mile. Make sure you bring carrots, celery stalks, and lettuce in your day pack to hit the farm and feed the animals after the hike.
From the parking lot, make a right on Wildcat Creek Trail, a wide road and veer left on a boardwalk after 100 yards. This short elevated boardwalk crosses a quiet marsh where your dynamic preschoolers can search for frogs and flying insects. The lake awaits you just at the end of the boardwalk and is a good place to picnic or rest before returning to the parking lot. If you don’t have a stroller, try returning via the Upper Rat Pack Trail, which is somewhat hilly and runs along the lake and creek.
Right on the Bay,
Coyote Hills Regional Park
in Fremont is a fun walk in two different ecosystems. Along the Bay, kids can walk or bike on paved trails and admire views across the Bay. Next to the visitor center, elevated boardwalks make great hiking trails above natural marshes where you can observe waterfowls and local wildlife. If you have an amateur of things with wings at home, drop by the Nectar Garden. Adjacent to the Visitor Center, this garden is planted with species that would attract local birds and butterflies.
Other East Bay family-friendly parks include
and the Crab Cove Visitor Center,
Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve
In his book Last Child In the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, author
writes: "If getting our kids out into nature is a search for perfection, or is one more chore, then the belief in perfection and the chore defeats the joy. It's a good thing to learn more about nature in order to share this knowledge with children; it's even better if the adult and child learn about nature together. And it's a lot more fun."
Quality time is a luxury in our hurried lives and a hike on new trails is the best time you will have as a family, even if it’s foggy or rainy outside—that’s what rain jackets and boots are made for.
Laure Latham is the author of the family travel blog
and writes for several Bay Area online publications. Her book “Best Hikes with Kids in the San Francisco Bay Area” comes out in 2011. Follow her on Twitter @frogmomblog.