San Francisco’s knack for efficiency is just one of many unique attributes with which the city charms its visitor. Built to nearly-European proportions at a time before the automobile changed the way we imagined the West, the City by the Bay manages to get things done in an admirably small amount of space. A space roughly the same size, in fact, as central Paris. Still more impressive: San Francisco does all of this while dedicating nearly 20 percent of its scant available landmass as open parkland. Sure, you’re in California—the lure of the state’s stunning natural beauty may be strong, but don’t be in too much of a rush to leave town. Right here, you’ll find a wealth of outdoor adventure. Here are just a few of the best ways to commune with nature, all while keeping the city firmly in your sights. Need a flight? Find the best deals with BookingBuddy.
Go for a walk at Crissy Field A vast restoration project that gave the city its first new major park in an age, this inspired, adaptive-reuse effort on an old military airstrip offers miles of hiking, biking and other recreational opportunities in a variety of habitats including extensive marshlands. You can walk here from the Fisherman’s Wharf/Ghirardelli Square tourist zone quite comfortably, passing through Fort Mason, another decommissioned installation—where refugees camped out in tends following the devastating 1906 earthquake—that’s now equally impressive parkland. Press on as far as you can toward the Golden Gate Bridge, stopping along the way at the Warming Hut, an old army shed converted to a café and bookstore.
Climb up Mount Sutro Steps from Haight-Ashbury and down the end of Stanyan Street—if you’re not already in the neighborhood, you can get here on the MUNI (N-Judah)—a historic trailhead tucked between two houses near the corner of 17th Street leads you up through heavily-scented eucalyptus forest toward the 900-foot summit of this less-celebrated (but spectacular) peaklet sitting right in San Francisco’s famous fog belt. The steep climb into the clouds is not only one of the city’s most invigorating walks, it’s also a firm reminder of San Francisco’s position at the gateway to the cooler, greener (and wetter) Northwest.
Escape to Mile Rock Beach. A few more reliably sunny days and San Francisco might easily be the new Southern California. No, seriously, have you taken the time to explore its beaches? There are only a ton of them. Mile Rock, buried deep inside the rugged Lands End section of the multi-site Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is perhaps one of the most pristine settings you could hope to find within a major city, thanks to its location—getting here requires a decent walk through coastal forest and down more nearly 200 steps. Your reward: a rocky, endlessly scenic cove and, quite often, utter solitude. Start your trek at the recently-completed visitors Lands End visitors center, where park service rangers will typically be able to offer tips and suggestions.
Disappear into Glen Canyon. A canyon you can walk to from a BART station? You bet—and not a tourist in site, probably. This 70-acre preserve, complete with scenic walking paths, is a true hidden gem (hidden from visitors, anyway) just a few minutes on foot from the Glen Park train station, allowing for an almost complete break from the city without putting in much effort at all. Winter and spring are the perfect time to visit, when everything’s nearly Ireland levels of green, making the park’s untouched, pre-human coastal Northern California landscapes seem even more magical than usual.
Get back to the garden at Golden Gate Park There are so many reasons to visit San Francisco’s Central Park (psst, it’s bigger!), but for those who like their nature slightly more manicured, the park is home to the city’s 55-acre Botanical Garden, the perfect place to decompress after a few days of intensive sightseeing. Featuring everything from Japanese bonsai to the towering Monterey cypress trees that help give coastal forests throughout the region their distinct look, the garden sits in a distinct microclimate suitable for growing all sorts of unique and rare flora from around the Pacific Rim. If you can get up early, garden entry is free of charge from 7:30-9:00 each morning. Inclement weather? (Hey, it happens, even in California!) Amend your itinerary and pop into the park’s Conservatory of Flowers, the oldest structure of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, a Victorian gem dating back to the 1870s that nearly met its end back in the 1990s after a series of debilitating storms. Today it’s back, bad and brimming with tropical (and other sorts of) greenery, year-round.
Catch a sunset at Hawk’s Hill Technically it’s leaving town, but only just—the first exit off Highway 101 after the Golden Gate Bridge and a short but dramatic drive up the Marin Headlands brings you to this singular site, offering a 360-degree view of the Bay Area and a chance to look down on all of San Francisco. Take the road as far up as as you can, nabbing a parking spot just before it begins to wind its way back down to sea level. From here, it’s only a short walk (head through the tunnel and out to one of the most stunning, high-elevation sea views you can get in these parts) up the last bit of hill. Even if you don’t drive, find a way to get up here—whether it’s your first or fiftieth visit to San Francisco, if you’ve never been here on a clear night to watch the sunset, you’re missing out, big time. If you’re in the mood to explore further, the narrow, one-way road plunging down towards the coast and out towards Point Bonita is an unforgettable drive, even in low light or inclement weather—you’ll find it hard to believe you’re in such remote territory, so soon after crossing the bridge.