San Francisco Outdoors

An Activity Guide for California's Golden Gate
Page 1 of 5   |  

It's hardwired into the place, the most gloriously diverse natural setting of any American city. As the natives would say, it's a high vibe thing—nothing to do with tolerance, which is usually nothing more than a kind of grudging passivity. San Francisco encourages people to embrace the new, the different, the quirky. This goes for outdoor recreation as much as for the tattooed and pierced folks who fill the city's expresso dispensaries. If there's anywhere to try something you've been dreaming about, it's here in the City by the Bay and her sister lands. And then go and have an excellent cappuccino afterwards.

San Francisco Bay defines the economy, and hence the history of the region. The Golden Gate opens onto a natural harbor that attracted the Spanish settlers in the 18th century. Later San Francisco became the major port of the California Gold Rush of 1849. The wallop of capital brought by the Gold Rush gave San Francisco a jumpstart start over any other west coast city. San Francisco enjoyed a century-long reign as the West's busiest port, which goes a long way in explaining the rich heritage of Victorian architecture that makes the city such a pleasure to wander through today.

Decidedly post-industrial, San Francisco's shipping industry plays second fiddle to neighboring Oakland's container port. Tourism is the biggy now, followed by financial services.

Chrissy, my San Francisco haircutter, suggested one day between snips that part of the reason San Francisco was so laid back was because the land has no residual memory of starvation. . . Could be. For the area's indigenous peoples, Ohlone, the bay wasn't a source of wealth because it was a port but because it was an estuary. The great Sacramento River flows into San Francisco Bay through San Pablo Bay, bringing with it nutrients from California's Great Central Valley. Before settlement, the bays were lined with vast expanses of wetlands teeming with mollusks, fish and birds. Crab salad and shrimp cocktails are still signature San Francisco dishes—even though these days that luscious pink and white mound on your plate was probably flown in from Alaska.

Hills and mountains surround San Francisco Bay. The north-south Coastal Range runs just east of San Francisco, blocking cool ocean air and containing the heat of the Sacramento Valley. California's famously rugged coast is in full dramatic character along the Marin Coast and the Golden Gate, then mellows out along the city's flat Ocean Beach before reemerging in craggy form south of the city in Pacifica. The topography of the city itself is famously hilly—rows of houses clamber along (steep) staircases instead of streets.

You'll be faced with an embarassment of riches in deciding where to go . No other city has as much adjacent and nearby land protected from development. Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore bolster the region's northwest corner, boosted by an system of state and county parks, and open space easements. The San Francisco Watershed protects a big chunk of the hills south of the city. Some five years ago, the Nature Conservancy aacquired 61,000 acres of ranchlands along the region's southeast corner to lay the keystone for a buffer between the Bay Area and the urbanizing Central Valley.

All that open space makes for lotsa, lotsa choices in deciding what to do . Tromping up and down the city's hills should leave you in good shape for tackling the hiking trails that lace the region. The Bay and coastline can't be beat for sea kayaking. And there's still plenty of fish, particularly in San Pablo Bay and the adjacent Sacramento Delta. If the area excels in one particular sport, it's biking. The bike-friendly regional trail system combines with a bike-friendly public transportation system—the best and most extensive in the U.S.

As for wildlife, all you have to do is start walking, and you'll spot something amazing. You'll encounter seals and shorebirds near the water, deer and other animals in some of the most unexpected places, soul (and bird) feeding native vegetation just a few steps away. In the spring, after San Francisco's mild but wet winters, count on colorful displays of wildflowers to chase away the winter blahs.

But as a good San Franciscan, far be it from me to dictate. All I can hope to do is toss out some ideas, and then give you other resources to discover your own favorites.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 14 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


park finder
step one
Where are you going?

step one
What do you want to do?

+ More Activities

GEARZILLA: The Gorp Gear Blog

Receive Gear Reviews, Articles & Advice

Preview this newsletter »

Ask Questions