I have lived all over the beautiful and diverse state of California. With beaches, mountains, deserts, and redwoods, California has it all!
Across the Golden Gate Bridge From the City
If you've got a few days to spend in the San Francisco Bay Area, that's great news, but if you've had your fill of the city and want to explore a few of the natural wonders of the region, you won't have to go very far. Literally less than a half hour from Fisherman's Wharf, just across the bay, is beautiful Marin County, with plenty of parks and outdoor recreation. It's a whole other world.
I will tell you a little bit about the terrain, and facilities at some of my favorite Bay Area trails and campsites. I'll even let you know if you can take your dog along.
Some of the Best Hiking and Camping in the Bay Area
- Golden Gate Recreation Area and Marin Headlands
- Mt Tamalpais State Park
- Samuel P. Taylor State Park
- Tomales Bay State Park
- Point Reyes National Seashore
Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Marin Headlands
- There are four different campgrounds in the park
- Campsites are rustic with no water available and only portable toilets or pit toilets
- Dogs are allowed on many of the trails, and there are even designated areas where you can have your dog off-leash, but under voice command. However, they are not allowed in the campgrounds.
- There is also a hostel located within the park
Just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, you will find the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Marin Headlands. They offer plenty of hiking trails and fabulous views of The City and the coast.
It is probably the best vantage point there is for photographing the Golden Gate Bridge. It offers access to beautiful, serene and romantic Rodeo Beach, a black sand beach which is dog friendly and out of the wind (oh yeah, this is the bay area, be prepared for wind and/or fog). There is an amazing view of the bay, boats, the bridge and The City.
There are two historic military forts on-site, Fort Barry and Fort Cronkhite. The views from the top where the old bunkers are is a sight you should not miss; it is a fantastic place to watch the sunset.
Point Bonita Lighthouse
The Point Bonita Lighthouse is still an active lighthouse. It is open to visitors, but the hours are limited to Saturday through Monday from 12:30 - 3:30 PM. There is an old suspension bridge leading to the lighthouse. Sometimes you can see whales in the bay from that vantage point.
During the Cold War, there were a total of 280 Nike missile-firing sites in the US. The Marin Headlands is home to the only restored Nike missile site in the country. It has been turned into a museum documenting the Cold War. Visitors can go down a missile elevator to an underground vault where missiles were once stored. It is open Wednesday through Friday, 12:30 to 3:30 with guided walks every hour.
It would be easy to spend several days exploring the Golden Gate Recreation Area, and The Marin Headlands.
Mount Tamalpais State Park
- Camping is available in Tamalpais State Park
- The campground does not allow pets
- There are water faucets and flush toilets but no showers
Mount Tamalpais is a Marin County icon, affectionately known by locals as Mt. Tam, it offers a great variety of trails with varying environments and levels of difficulty. It has everything from grassy rolling hills, to steep waterfalls and ancient redwood groves. You can drive up almost to the top of Mt. Tam, and then walk the rest of the way, up to the very top. On a clear day, you can see amazing views of all three of the bridges across the San Francisco Bay.
A popular hike is the Matt Davis - Steep Ravine - Dipsea trail loop. This hike has everything from waterfalls, ponds, and meadows to redwood forests and incredible views of the ocean.
Matt Davis Trail is fairly steep at the beginning, and mostly wooded, beautiful, almost surreal. You'll see plenty of other hikers on this trail. Breathtaking views of the coast and forests await you at the top.
Steep Ravine Trail is rocky and wet which makes walking more difficult. There's a special, dark stillness, and it's cool and green under massive redwood trees with moss-covered rocks and trickling streams.
On Dipsea Trail you'll hike along grassy hilltops and enjoy lush wildflowers and coastal vistas.
Samuel P. Taylor State Park
- Dogs are allowed to camp as long as they are kept on a leash and kept inside the tent or RV at night.
- The campground offers flush toilets and hot showers
If you want to go a little further inland, possibly to escape the fog and wind, you might want to try Samuel P. Taylor Park. It's less than a two hour drive from San Francisco. Just take that scenic route north up Hwy 1, and make a right at Sir Francis Drake Blvd., follow it for about 5 miles and you'll find yourself in Samuel P. Taylor Park.
Samuel P. Taylor State Park has 2,700 acres of redwood trees, 600 of which is old-growth forest. It offers hiking, picnicking and camping.
There is a nearly level, paved, three-mile bike trail going through the park, and there are picnic areas for day use. It is an easy hike up Mount Barnabe thanks to a network of fire roads and hiking trails in the park.
The campground at Samuel P. Taylor park is designed for car camping, it's perfect for large groups or families with children. It's in a beautiful, lush, redwood grove, so there is plenty of shade in the summer months which can be quite warm. It still gets chilly at night. A creek runs through and there is a swimming hole about a mile from the campground.
You are really not going to have to rough it too much, it's only about 15 minutes from a market. You may find that you're a little close to your neighbors, but there's a strictly enforced no noise rule at 10:00 pm, so at least they won't keep you up. The raccoons that regularly raid the camp ice chests might though, so make sure you secure your food.
Tomales Bay State Park
- Dogs are not permitted on the beaches or trails
- There is no camping allowed in the park
Located about 30 miles north of San Francisco, Tomales Bay is a large, unspoiled, shallow water, coastal bay. The park is open for day use only. It has varied topography including hills, meadows, marshes, and forests, as well as secluded caves and beaches. You can hike the trails, swim, boat or sea kayak. You may want to visit Jepson Grove, one of the best virgin groves of Bishop pine left in California.
Point Reyes National Seashore
- Dogs are not allowed on the hiking trails
- No car or RV camping is available in the park
- Backcountry camping is available on Drakes Bay and in Phillip Burton Wilderness year-round, but it is accessible only by hiking, biking or horseback. Camping on the west shore of Tomales Bay, can be accessed only by boat or kayak. These backcountry campsites are in high demand, so make your reservations early.
- There are other, privately owned, campgrounds outside the park where car and RV camping are available.
Point Reyes National Seashore offers plenty of opportunities for hiking, boating, biking and fishing. It's an excellent place for observing birds and other wildlife. Pt. Reyes is a refuge for two severely threatened species that have made amazing recoveries, the Northern Elephant Seal and the Tule Elk. The oyster farms in and near the peninsula are a popular destination.
Being Prepared Will Make Your Trip More Enjoyable
Make sure to dress in layers when hiking or camping in the Bay Area, the weather is unpredictable and the temperatures will drop quickly at night. Don't forget water and sunscreen, and watch out for poison oak. If you are planning on camping be sure to make reservations.
Don't Forget to Make Reservations for Camping
Reservations for CA state parks (Mt. Tamalpais, Tomales Bay and Samuel P. Taylor Park) can be made online any time. You can reserve a campsite up to 7 months in advance through the website. Call toll free 1-800-444-7275 or visit the website at www.parks.ca.
For National Parks (Golden Gate Recreation Area, and Point Reyes National Seashore) go to www.recreation.gov.
State and National Parks Near San Francisco
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Sherry Hewins
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 04, 2018:
I would love to spend some time in these parks and the national seashore. Other than Muir Woods we have most often had wineries in mind when leaving San Francisco headed north. Your photos and descriptions are lovely.
Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on June 16, 2016:
A redwood forest creates its own climate and ecosystem. The temperature under those trees is much cooler than the surrounding area. Giant ferns and moss make it look like something out of a storybook, and the ancient trees themselves inspire a sense of awe. They are very special, I hope you get to experience that at some time in your life.
Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on June 15, 2016:
The terrain at the parks you feature here are so varied. I've never seen a redwood in person. I can only imagine how majestic they are. The shot from Barnabe Fire Road looks like a post card. The view must be breathtaking from that vantage point.
Great article, Sherry. Thanks for taking me on this journey.
Judy Specht from California on May 17, 2016:
Awesome overview of some of the bay's best.