Urban hiking seems like an oxymoron, but hiking in San Francisco is actually a thing. Thanks to its topography and geography, San Francisco has lots of hills, lots of waterfront, and more parkland per square mile than any other city in America. So it has trails up hills, trails in parks, and trails along the waterfront. There are lots of options for hiking in San Francisco.
What San Francisco doesn’t have is a lot of parking, so consider taking public transit. It’s easy and inexpensive and many trails have public transit near both ends — making it easy to hike in one direction. Our related post, San Francisco Excursions using Public Transit provides details about transit maps and apps and fares and ways to pay, and also has specific instructions for the most frequented locations.
This bucket list of urban hiking trails begins with five great hikes, so pack up your Day Bag and take a hike.
- Grandview Park and 16th Avenue Tiled Steps — Magical mosaic tiled steps plus 360-degree views from the top. Moderate hike up 3 sets of stairs (330 steps in all)
- Mt. Davidson — Easy 1250-feet (380 m) hike up to great city views and the iconic 103-foot cross
- Mountain Lake Trail — Trail along the southern edge of Presidio National Park from Broadway Gate to Baker Beach. Easy 2.3-mile (3.7 km) trail
- Golden Gate Promenade — Goes through Crissy Field with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay, and city skyline. Easy 2-mile (3.2 km) on a wide, smooth trail
- Lands End Trail — Beautiful views of the rugged coastline and entrance to San Francisco Bay. Easy to moderate 1.5 miles (2.4 km) one-way with varying trail conditions
Hikes up Hills
Grandview is a tiny one-acre park at the top of a hill in San Francisco’s Sunset District. The trail wraps around the crown of the hill providing great 360-degree views of the city and beyond. The best way to get to the park is up the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, and they are amazing. Both the park and the steps are worth the journey; seeing both of them make this a really special trek.
Grandview Park is at the top of a 666 foot high (203 m) hill near the center of San Francisco. It’s not the highest hill in the city, but it has the best 360-degree views. On a clear day, walk around the trail that circles the crown of the hill and you’ll see the Golden Gate Bridge towers, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco Bay, the city skyline, Mt. Sutro, Twin Peaks, the Pacific Ocean, Seal Rock, and more.
The peak, locally called Turtle Hill, is a remnant of the dune islands that once covered the area. It’s composed of sedimentary rock called Franciscan chert formed in an ancient tropical seabed. It’s also home to native flora and butterflies. The park is small and the only amenity is one park bench, but the views are amazing.
16th Avenue Tiled Steps
The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, are a work of art on what was once an ordinary block-long concrete staircase. The Sea to Stars themed mosaic mural flows from the deep blue sea at the bottom to the brilliant sun at the top. The colors are vibrant, the creatures are whimsical, the sparkling river flows from the mountains to the sea, and the moon shines with inlaid bits of mirror. It’s magical.
It all started in 2003, when a group of neighbors in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood decided to transform their neighborhood’s ordinary concrete steps into a work of art. They pooled their time, talent, and money and designed and crafted what must have been hundreds of hand made tiles. They then formed the tiles into gorgeous glazed mosaic panels and installed them on the risers of the staircase’s 163 steps.
Officially, they are called the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, but they are also referred to as the Moraga Steps, or simply the mosaic stairs or steps.
Getting There: Map, Parking, & Public Transit
The stairs and park are located in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood in the Inner Sunset District. There are three stairways, totaling 330 steps, to get from the bottom of the mosaic stairs to the top of Grandview Park.
Map of Grandview Park & 16th Avenue Tiled Steps
The only parking available is on the neighborhood streets. Parking’s not restricted, but it’s scarce.
For details about fares and ways to pay, visit our related post: San Francisco Excursions Using Public Transit. The bus stop locations are marked on the Google map above.
From downtown, take an N Judah Muni Metro (outbound toward Ocean Beach); get off at 9th Avenue and Judah. From there, take the 66 Quintara bus (outbound toward Vicente & 30th) and get off at the 16th Avenue & Moraga Street stop. Moraga Street ends at 16thAvenue; the stairs are where Moraga Street would be if the hill were not so steep.
To continue to Grandview Park, turn right onto 15th Avenue at the top of the mosaic stairs. Walk about 130 feet (40 m) and take the much shorter, much less interesting, flight of stairs up to the next street. Turn right again and walk about 170 feet (52 m) to the zigzag wooden stairs leading to Grandview Park at the top of the hill.
There are two excellent reasons to visit Mt. Davidson: the sweeping views and the historic cross. At 925-feet high, it is the highest natural point in San Francisco. It has beautiful views of the city and much of the greater Bay Area. It also has a historical 103-foot concrete cross near the top.
History and Controversy
Of course having a cross on public land became controversial. How do you handle having a beautiful and historical cross on public land and still maintain separation between the church and state? It wasn’t easy, but San Francisco’s voters solved the dilemma in 1997 by passing Proposition F. It allowed the city to hold an auction and sell the top of Mt. Davidson Park to a private organization. The Council of Armenian American Organizations won and purchased the top 0.38 acres of the 40-acre park. The Armenian council is now the steward of the top of Mt. Davidson, and they help maintain and preserve it. Easter sunrise services are held there, as they have been since the 1920s, and the cross is also now a memorial to the 1915 Armenian Genocide. This 15-minute video tells the story: Mt. Davidson: San Francisco’s Hidden Treasure.
The trail from the 36 Teresita bus stop to the top and the cross is mostly up hill, but it’s a short and really pleasant trek through the Mt. Davidson Park woods. The distance from the bus stop to the top is about 1250-feet (380 m). A short way up the trail, there’s a generic city park sign; otherwise, there’s no signage of any kind to let you know you’re in Mt. Davidson Park or on the trail to the top.
Getting There: Map, Parking, & Public Transit
Mt. Davidson is near the center of the city. Its slopes are covered on all sides by residential neighborhoods, but the top 40 acres are reserved as a park and are open to the public.
Map of Mt. Davidson
Only on the street but not restricted.
For details about fares and ways to pay, visit our related post: San Francisco Excursions Using Public Transit, and see the bus stop locations marked on the Google map above.
Take any of these four Muni Metro lines (K, L, M, or T) from any downtown station to the Forest Hill station. At the Forest Hill station catch a 36 Teresita bus (outbound toward Chavez & Valencia) and take it to the Myra Way & Dalewood Way stop. The entrance to Mt. Davidson Park is just a few feet from the stop. It’s a really nice uphill stroll through a cypress and eucalyptus forest. The distance from the beginning of the trail to the top is about 1250-feet (380 m).
Hikes in Parks
Mountain Lake Trail is one of several trails in Presidio National Park, and it’s high on my list of favorites. At 2.3-miles (3.7 km), it’s a hardy walk and it has views of eucalyptus and cypress groves, the Presidio Golf Course, and a restored habitat area with a raised boardwalk. It also passes by or near these visit worthy sights:
Lyon Street Steps
If you begin (or end) the trail at the Presidio Broadway Gate, be sure and stop for the great view at the top of the Lyon Street steps. The steps go through a well manicured garden and overlook the Marina District and bay in the distance. It’s a favorite photo op.
This 1,200-foot sculpture, by artist Andy Goldsworthy, is a line of eucalyptus logs laid end-to-end on the forest floor. The line of logs are curved into a stream of s-curves through a grove of eucalyptus trees. Yes, eucalyptus trees are non-native and a fire hazard, but the trees and sculpture create a peaceful and pleasant path.
Garden at Julius Kahn Playground
If you’re a garden lover, this garden alone makes the trail worth hiking. Nick Soumie, a very talented gardener for the Parks and Recreation Department, has, over the last couple of decades, transformed the space along Julius Kahn Playground between the street and trail into a remarkable garden. It’s a dense jungle with a huge variety of shrubs and flowers.
One of only 3 remaining natural lakes in San Francisco, Mountain Lake was, until a few years ago, anything but natural. For thousands of years, it provided fresh water for the local inhabitants, but from the 1800s on, it was terribly abused. It was a dumping ground for unwanted pets and construction projects, including the Highway 1 approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. Overtime, its size and depth were dramatically reduced, and it was horribly polluted and overrun with invasive plants and non-native fish, turtles, and frogs.
The restoration: Beginning in 2012, the lake underwent a huge remediation and restoration project. The cleanup included removing 17,500 cubic yards of contaminated sediment. The remaining native fish, turtles, and frogs were rescued and sent to new homes; the non-native species of plants and critters were removed. Once cleaned, a sophisticated filtration system was installed, keeping the water clean and clear; 14,000 native plants were planted and native fish, frogs, and turtles are being reintroduced.
Parts of the trail are paved but much of it is dirt with gravel or sand. There are some uphill and downhill parts, and some stairs, but most of the trail is fairly level. Signage marking the trail is great in some parts, but not so great in others. You may get off the trail, but you really can’t get lost. You’ll always be within sight of West Pacific Avenue or a major landmark like the Presidio Golf Course or one of the playgrounds.
Getting There: Map, Parking, & Public Transit
Map of Mountain Lake Trail
There’s not a lot of it, but there is free parking on parts of West Pacific Avenue. It’s 3-hour parking between Presidio Avenue and Arguello Blvd., and 2-hour parking across from the Presidio Golf Course.
I prefer public transit so I can walk the trail in one direction and don’t need to backtrack to get my car. Here are the public transit options. For details about fares and ways to pay, visit our related post: San Francisco Excursions Using Public Transit, and see the bus stop locations marked on the Google map above.
- To begin the trail at the Broadway Gate, take a 38 or 38R Geary bus to the Masonic/Presidio Avenue stop. Walk back to the 43 Masonic bus stop on Presidio Avenue at Geary. Take the 43 Masonic bus (Inbound toward Fort Mason) 9-blocks and get off at Jackson Street. Walk 2-blocks to the Presidio Avenue Gate or 3-blocks to the Broadway Gate by the Lyon Street Steps.
- To begin the trail at the Baker Beach end, take a 38 or 38R Geary bus to 25th Avenue. On 25th Avenue at Geary, take a 29 Sunset bus (inbound to Baker Beach) to the end of the line at Lincoln Blvd. and Bowley Street. Cross Lincoln and walk up Pershing Drive to the trail.
Good Things to Know
- Bathrooms: There are bathrooms at Baker Beach at the west end of the trail and at the children’s playground in Mountain Lake Park on the south side of Mountain Lake, and at the Julius Kahn Playground.
- Food plus Bathrooms: The Presidio Café serves food and has really nice bathrooms. The Presidio Golf Course is a public course. The Café is located inside the clubhouse and is right by the trail.
Hikes Along the Waterfront
The Golden Gate Promenade is a wide, flat trail along the edge of San Francisco Bay, and on a clear day there are gorgeous views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Crissy Field, San Francisco Bay, beaches, and the city skyline. The 2-mile (3.2 km) Promenade is wide and smooth enough to walk, jog, bike, or push a stroller. It’s also dog friendly and wheelchair accessible.
There is so much to say about the promenade, that we’ve covered it in more detail in: Golden Gate Promenade — Best walk in San Francisco. The promenade post has more photos, a Google map, and covers these subjects:
- Bits of History and Points of Interest Along the Promenade
- Presidio Trails Map and PresidiGo Shuttle Schedule and Routes
- Getting to the Golden Gate Promenade — parking and public transit options
- Crissy Field Weather
Don’t miss it. The Golden Gate Promenade has a lot to offer — beautiful views, bits of history, fresh air, and exercise — and it’s free.
The Lands End Trail has spectacular views of the rugged Pacific Coastline, the Golden Gate Bridge, windswept cypress trees, beaches, and wildflowers. Parts of the trail are along the coastal bluffs and parts wander through wooded areas. A short spur off the main Lands End Trail takes you to scenic Mile Rock Beach and the Lands End Labyrinth. It’s a great hike with beautiful views.
Because there’s a lot to the Lands End story, we’ve created a post just for the Lands End Hike. It includes a short video, more photos, a Google map, and covers these subjects:
- Why is This Location Called Lands End and is it a National Park, a City Park, or a Coastal Trail?
- Trail Conditions and time and distance
- Mile Rock Beach and Lands End Labyrinth
- Options for Hiking the Lands End Trail (one-way, round trip or shortcut)
- Lands End Lookout Visitor Center
- Bits of Lands End History
- Parking and Public Transit Options and other Important Things to Know
Best Time to Go
If it’s rainy (winter), trails will be muddy and slippery, and if it’s foggy (summer) or rainy, the views won’t be great. Fortunately, there are nice sunny days scattered throughout the entire year, you just can’t predict when. The weather is generally better in the spring and consistently best in the fall. Regardless of when you choose to go hiking in San Francisco, it’s always a good idea to be prepared for anything.
Where to Stay
Discover more things to do and see in San Francisco with our related San Francisco Itinerary post. It has suggested 1, 2, and 3-day itineraries and lists of things to do and see to help you create your own custom itinerary.
Next on the list of hikes to add to this post are the Presidio Bay Area Ridge Trail and the Barbary Coast Trail.