Hover Setting


Silicon Valley Starter Trails

Typical view from Lands End
Typical day at Lands End, San Francisco, Summer 2018

Silicon Valley Starter Trails

There is one question that I get asked more than any other: What are my favorite hikes?

Skip to the list

"What are your 'must hikes'?" asks an avid outdoor adventurer visiting the SF Bay Area for a couple weeks. "Where can I go to get back into hiking?" asks someone else who used to hike as a kid and just relocated to Silicon Valley. "Where do you hike to see redwoods?" "I've already hiked Big Sur, what next?"

You can and should research online or with apps. AllTrails is the current front runner. I use TrailForks for mountain biking. You should absolutely visit Big Sur if you haven't already - it is exemplary, pristine Northern California coast. I like to plan on a long drive time to enjoy the coastal roadway, stopping to photograph McWay falls and choosing a hike depending on the season, hike length and what's open.

Online, there are a lot of great local groups across social networks. On Facebook, groups like Bay Area Hikers get frequent trail reports (with photos) of local hikes. At various times you'll get blasted with images from Lake Del Valle, wildflowers on Table Mountain and calla lilies near Big Sur. These among the regulars like Mission Peak, Mt Tam and Coyote Hills. This group gets inundated with questions about which hikes are best given the current conditions (weather, wildfire, new to town) and have a wealth of knowledge if you search through prior posts. Just take a moment to read posting guidelines (sometimes the group moderators have already posted resources for recommended hikes).

Other websites for local or regional land management groups often have great resources for trail conditions and discovering hikes. On the Peninsula we have the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) as well as many city and state park agencies. There is a Bay Area Ridge Trail project with a wealth of resources. There are also other interest groups that have hiking information, such as the Boy Scouts of America group and their local Golden Gate Area Council (the Highlander program has some great hikes).

When someone asks me about my personal favorites, I first try to group my recommendations into (a) how far it is to drive to the trail head and (b) how strenuous the hike is. Many factors play into how strenuous a hike can be - everything to mileage and elevation gain, to exposure and lack of shade, to trail conditions and how easy it could be to get lost.

Silicon Valley Trails List:

  1. LANDS END in SF*
  2. Purisima Creek off Skyline
  4. Cascade Falls in Mill Valley*
  6. Dawn Falls
  8. Uvas Canyon*
  9. Pinnacles
  10. The Dish*
  11. Huddart Park
  12. Henry Cowell
  13. Mt Umunhum
  14. BIG SUR
  15. Montara Mountain
  16. Black Mountain
* Starter trail
Signature trails are in ALL CAPS

Easy drives in or near the Bay Area:

My favorite hike is Land's End in San Francisco. Good for someone just beginning to hike and the views (on a clear day) are breathtaking. I remember hiking there on my birthday in 2018, gazing out into the deep blue of the Pacific, looking at the red-orange span of the Golden Gate Bridge, and watching large airplanes from Travis or Moffett cruise by overhead.

"Now we just need a whale jumping out of the ocean. Then it would be perfect," I said out loud.

No joke, at that exact moment a pod of whales started to breach in the waters right below us. Strangers nearby, who were in earshot, turned towards me with looks of shock and amazement. I shook my head. What a day.

Another starter trail is to hike the ever popular, paved Stanford Dish loop trail (or simply "The Dish"), at the Stanford campus.

The best place to experience redwoods is Muir Woods. Marin can be a bit of a drive to get to. I'm biased because I grew up in Mill Valley, but there is a somber, humbling feeling that pervades like mist along the soft paths of duff and throughout the dappled rays of light. Every hour is Magic Hour in Muir Woods. That is, as long as you are lucky enough to figure out the logistics.

Alternatives to view coastal redwoods closer to the Peninsula include several of the Open Space Preserves off Skyline (Highway 35). Preserves such as Purisima Creek or El Corte de Madera Creek. Just know that many of these hikes off Skyline start at the top; you hike down first and then back up. I love going to Purisima Creek, with plenty of layers that I repeatedly peal off and put back on and lots of water. Grab lunch at Alice's Restaurant for a fantastic post-hike treat. Huddart Park gets an honorable mention - just be prepared to pay for park entry if you visit via the main road - as does the old growth redwood groves in Henry Cowell.

For more general hiking, Mt Tamalpais ("Mt Tam") has a lot of great trails to explore: Hike The Dipsea or drive up to East Peak for a short hike around the summit and views of the surrounding hills, the watershed, Marin Headlands and the city beyond (or the sea of fog below).

Willie Goat atop East Peak, Mt Tam
Me at East Peak, Mt Tam in 2001

Want to climb a mountain? Mission Peak is very popular, and rightly so. My favorite is via the Ohlone College trailhead (another pay for parking lot). It is a dog friendly trail and can be incredibly crowded at the very top. It's another hike where you should bring lots of drinking water and ideally time it so that you are not climbing up during the heat of midday (many people try to catch sunrise or sunset at the peak along with a photo at its famous sighting post).

Mt Umunhum is an interesting climb to a summit with a unique, skyline defining structure on top. I like Montara Mountain (starting from the Pacifica side, or from Gray Whale Cove with the dog) and Black Mountain (via Monte Bello for me).

If it's the shoulder season, head over to Pinnacles. It's great to explore when it's not oppressively hot. We've seen plenty of wildlife (condors, tarantulas, rattle snakes and even a wounded fox) and love exploring the caves when they are open.

Bagging waterfalls? Uvas Canyon is a bit of a drive, and I believe now requires reservations, but it's beautiful. Uvas is great if you want a pit stop en route to Monterey or Carmel. Cascade Falls in Mill Valley is a super short hike, but perfect if you want lunch downtown and a stroll to a nice waterfall spot. Dawn Falls is not bad either.

Longer drives, to the Sierra Nevada and thereabouts:

Tahoe's the easiest, as long as you plan around high traffic times, and Yosemite is the best. If you head to Yosemite, visit the valley and then hike the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls. It's a classic. Then drive over to Glacier Point, but stop before you get to the end: check out Sentinel Dome which is a nice, short hike and higher up. The panoramic views are spectacular.

Panoramic view from Sentinel Dome, 2018

If you have more time, drive up through Tuolumne Meadows and clamber up Pothole Dome for a great view of the meadows and Cathedral Peak beyond. Just try to build in time to drive a little bit further for a pit stop at Olmsted Point.

Our favorite hikes are in South Lake Tahoe. However, the major highway and surrounding forests were greatly impacted by the Caldor Fire. It might be a long time until they recover and we're able to enjoy hiking Horsetail Falls off Hwy 50 or head up to Twin Lakes from Wright's Lake again.

If you drive further up the lake shore (or down, if coming from 80) we loved hiking up Mt Ellis. Just beware of the popular false summit. We also never miss a chance to hike down to Vikingsholm at Emerald Bay or up to Eagle Lake.

The call of the island at Eagle Lake is strong. The last time we were there, my daughter took a float and made it to the island. Seeing her sun on the rocks at this mini paradise, I decided to swim out. My wife and our friend both encouraged me. They even offered to time me, taking bets on if I could beat 1 minute. It didn't look too far.

I jumped in and started very strong. Then after a bit, I looked up to see how far I still had to swim. Oh man, still so much lake. I immediately lost steam and gently cruised through the water which got increasingly deep and cold. I heard faint laughter from the shore behind me. The island was great! But I borrowed my daughter's float for my return trip. The deal I made with her meant I then had to turn right around and bring back two floats. Good times.

Willie Goat with two floats on Eagle Lake
Me with two floats heading to the island on Eagle Lake

Even longer drives:

Our favorite national park in California is Lassen. We have been lucky with our visits. Sometimes smoke is at lower elevations and clear air up in Lassen. Or we arrive and setup camp to find that there is a dark sky celebration happening that night. I highly recommend hiking up Lassen Peak or up Cinder Cone.

Cinder Cone is such a unique experience because at the top you can hike down into the crater and back up to the rim to look out across the rainbow dunes and otherworldly landscape. The actual hike feels different, too. It feels like you are hiking up sand - very frustrating but also rewarding.

View from Cinder Cone summit
View from the top of Cinder Cone, Lassen NP, 2001

Stop on your way, or make a separate trip, to hike among the many waterfalls in the Mt. Shasta area. Mossbrae Falls (not sure if there is any legal access, but it's very popular), Faery Falls and the McCloud river are all beautiful. Lower McCloud falls has some great rock jumping. If you want a little more strenuous hiking, head over to Castle Lake and up to Heart Lake for breathtaking views of Mt Shasta.

One of our favorite family trips was to Sardine Lake in Lakes Basin, not far from Graeagle. The Bear Lakes loop, swimming in Sand Pond, it was beautiful against the backdrop of the Buttes. Someday we plan on making that grueling ascent to the stairs atop the Sierra Buttes.

We also love Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park. But now we are really pushing the mileage to get there. And you get into Eastern Sierra territory which is exquisite from, well from Twin Lakes and the Sawtooth Range all the way down to Bishop Creek Pass and beyond I guess.

Happy trails!
© all rights reserved | Privacy Policy