Sprawling along the California coastline for 60 miles around San Francisco, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) is one of the world's largest urban national parks. The combined sites that make up the park lure both locals and visitors from around the world to some of the best historical sites, beaches and hiking trails in the country. Better yet, all are within easy reach of San Francisco, so day hikes can be combined with a night out on the town or return to that comfy hotel room.
Muir Woods National Monument is one of the last old-growth coastal redwood forests on the planet. The average age of the coastal redwoods here is between 600 and 800 years—and the oldest is at least 1,200 years old. John Muir called the forest (dedicated in his name) 'the best tree-lovers monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.' Such beauty comes with crowds, especially on weekends with sunny weather. Escape them by hitting the 1.2-mile Ocean View Trail, which starts at the valley floor and climbs through the sea of redwoods until you can look down on the huge trees. Complete the loop by turning left onto Lost Trail and then Fern Creek Trail, which gets you back to the entrance at Muir Woods.
Tennessee Valley in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco is not the heavily forested wonder of Muir Woods, however that gives visitors a great opportunity for wildflower and wildlife viewing—from lupines and California poppies to bobcats and red-tailed hawks. The variety of trails here makes the area a favorite of families, especially the Tennessee Valley Trail (4.2 miles, round trip), which meanders through the valley out to Tennessee Cove and the Pacific Ocean. Romantics in search of great sunset views should add this to their list.
The Point Bonita Lighthouse Trail is another Marin Headlands favorite, perched at the end of a half-mile trail on the cliff’s edge. The old lighthouse (reopened to visitors after renovations in early 2012) was first constructed in 1855, and moved once because fog frequently made the light beam impossible to see. While this trail includes some fun elements, such as a handmade tunnel and suspension bridge, it’s quite short. The benefit about hiking in the Marin Headlands is that a handful of trails connect, and from here, hikers can continue on to Wolf Ridge Trail, Bobcat Trail, or Miwok Trail for a longer trek.
At the northwestern corner of San Francisco is Lands End, one of the best lookouts in the city. Its sweeping vistas include the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin Headlands, Pacific Ocean, Farallon Islands, cypress-covered hillsides and views of the ruins of the Sutro Baths. Take in the sights from the Lands End Trail, which traces the California Coastal Trail between Lands End and China Beach (2.5 miles, round trip). Then head inside to the newly opened Lands End Lookout for a look at exhibits on the area’s cultural and natural history.
South of San Francisco, Sweeney Ridge offers a 360-degree view, often including Bay Area mountains: Mount Diablo, Mount Tamalpais and Montara Mountain. It also has the Bay Discovery Site, where the 1769 Portola expedition was the first of the European explorers to get a look at San Francisco Bay. The 5.7-mile round-trip Sweeney Ridge Trail climbs through grassland and coastal scrub to the top, at 1,200 feet. In the spring, riots of wildflowers can be found along the edges of the trail.
For those who want to extend their time in the outdoors, a handful of campsites are available in and around the GGNRA. Four of them are in the Marin Headlands, and include the popular Kirby Cove Campground and the most remote, Hawk Camp Campground. Just outside the GGNRA in Mount Tamalpais State Park are several campsites, as well as the rustic Steep Ravine Cabins and the historic West Point Inn accessed by a 45 minute hike from the nearest road. Rob Hill Campground, the only overnight campsite in San Francisco proper, provides group campsites.
Also check out: Top 10 places to view the Golden Gate Bridge