Great Outdoors

Great Outdoors

1. Angel Island

Angel Island is the biggest island in San Francisco Bay and is also the location of the “Ellis Island of the West,” the immigration station where, from 1910-1940, Chinese were detained until they were cleared to enter the U.S. It also served as a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

But these days, Angel Island is used for recreation. There are 12 miles of roads and trails throughout the island, including a hiking trail to the 781 foot summit of Mt. Livermore. To reach Angel Island, take the Blue & Gold Fleet Ferry and bring a lunch to enjoy the mild climate and ocean air. The best way to explore the island is on foot or by bike.( Bike rentals are available at the ferry dock.) But a good way to get the lay of the island is the one hour Angel Island Tram Tour (415/897-0715, )


2. Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Over 13 million people every year visit the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which contains 74,000 acres of land and water. This huge area is considered the biggest urban park in the world. The National Park Service runs the GGNRA, which includes Aquatic Park and the National Maritime Museum, Fort Mason Center, Marina Green, Golden Gate Promenade (the 3 ½ mile long shoreline biking, jogging and walking trail), Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge, Baker and China Beach, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the ruins of the Sutro Baths, and the Cliff House. The Palace of Fine Arts and the Exploratorium are included along with the Presidio. The GGNRA even extends into Marin County to include Muir Woods and the Marin Headlands. There is a wealth of options for outdoor activities available here. Your best bet is to visit the GGNRA website at , go to the park headquarters at Fort Mason or call them @ 415/461-4700.

3. Marin County Waterfall Hikes

Day hikes in the spring and fall are especially memorable in Marin County when waterfalls are at their height. Hikes can be easy or more strenuous, depending on your physical condition. For an easy 2 mile round-trip hike, take the Cascade Falls trail along San Anselmo Creek where waterfalls appear less than a mile in. (Off of Sir Francis Drake Blvd, in Fairfax, go northwest on Broadway, left on Bolinas Rd, and bear right on Cascade Drive. It’s 1.5 miles to the trailhead gate. Cross the creek footbridge and head up San Anselmo Creek..

Cataract Falls is a moderately difficult 3.5 mile round trip trail through lovely ferns and towering redwoods along Cataract Creek. There are a series of waterfalls along 1.5 miles of the trail and there are views of Alpine Lake. The tough section is an 800 foot stair climb. But if you start at the top of Ridgecrest Drive on Mt. Tamapais, you can hike down. (Just get someone to drive the car to the bottom to pick you up!) The Cataract Falls trail begins past the Alpine Lake dam. In Fairfax, drive from Sir Francis Drake Blvd., northwest on Broadway, left on Bolinas Road. Go 7.8 miles to the dam and park along the road just past the hairpin turn. You’ll see the trailhead on the left. To see another series of cascading waterfalls, take the Stairstep Falls hike, east of Olema. The Stairstep Trail goes along three 40 foot cascades in a “Fern Gully” canyon. The trailhead is at Devil’s Gulch Creek, a mile west of the main entrance inside Samuel P. Taylor State Park. Walk to the Barnaby Peak Trail, then to a footbridge over a creek to the Stairstep Falls Trail which veers off to the left.

4. Muir Beach

A short drive up 101 above the Golden Gate Bridge and 6 miles from the Highway 1 exit for Stinson Beach is the little town of Muir Beach. This is a hidden gem. There are two beaches, hiking trails, wildlife, and even salmon in Redwood Creek. Stop at the overlook on the north end of town with the public restrooms. There are only about 150 homes in the area. The Pelican Inn, with one of the most authentic English pubs outside of Great Britain is located here. This country inn not only has a pub but also servers lunch and dinner. Continue up Muir Woods Road, north on Panoramic Highway to Mountain Home Inn, a fabulous place to dine with breathtaking views of San Francisco Bay. In just a short drive, you can be out of the city in a natural paradise that is a little off the beaten path but feels very far away.

5. Baker Beach

Baker Beach is the city’s most scenic beach but not a great swimming area because of cold water and riptides. Mostly, locals come here on warm days to sun themselves. There is a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge from here. Bring a picnic lunch and enjoy the view but stay out of the water unless you bring a wetsuit, a board and nerves of steel.

6. Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is an urban oasis, a respite from the pressures and noise of the city. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that you’re even in a city when surrounded by the 1017 green, tranquil acres of Golden Gate Park. There’s too much to see and do here to limit yourself to just one day. (The park is open 24 hours.) There are nine lakes, one million trees, a bison paddock, gardens, bridle paths, hiking and biking paths, playgrounds, long lush lawns, bridges, public art pieces, two magnificent museums, and over 20 sports facilities located in a park stretching three miles long and a half mile wide. Almost any outdoor activity can be enjoyed in Golden Gate Park, which is larger than New York’s Central Park.

The Japanese Tea Garden is the most popular attraction in Golden Gate Park. It’s a lovely, picturesque 3.8 acres with flowers, bridges, ponds, a 1790 bronze Buddha, and a teahouse which serves fortune cookies with green tea. See it in the spring when the cherry blossoms bloom.

Containing fifty-five acres of public gardens, San Francisco Botanical Gardens feature over 7,000 varieties of plants, including 17 geographical and specialty gardens, including a Garden of Fragrance, designed especially for the visually-impaired and one of the highlights, a California native plant section. There’s even a redwood grove and a Japanese moon viewing garden. Free. Docent tours are available every day. 415/661-1316

Another spectacular area of the park is the majestic, domed Conservatory of Flowers. America’s oldest wood and glass greenhouse was erected in 1879, modeled after a Victorian London greenhouse. More than 1700 species of plants and flowers from 50 countries are represented. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for kids. Free admission on first Tues. of the month. 415/666-7001

Take the kids to the Koret Children’s Quarter, which opened in 1887, the first public playground in the United States. It went through a $3.8 million renovation in 2007. With a vintage 1912 restored carousel and a hillside slide, kids can ex-spend some energy if they have been feeling cooped up in a car or hotel room.

Do your own thing by taking a boat out on Stowe Lake in the middle of Golden Gate Park or rent a bike or roller blades at Golden Gate Park Skate and Bike just outside the park at 3058 Fulton Street. 415/668-1117. If jogging is your thing, take the Golden Gate Promenade, a paved path that crosses Chrissy Field and runs along the beach with views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The visitor center is a great place to learn about the park and what activities and tours are available. Call 415/751-2766 or 415/831-2700 for the visitor center and 415/263-0991 for tours.

7. The Presidio/Fort Point

The San Francisco Presidio was a military outpost for an incredible 220 years. In 1994 it stopped operations and was transferred from the United States Army to the National Park Service. The entire area includes almost 1500 acres, including a golf course, a national cemetery, over 20 hiking trails and almost 500 historic buildings. This is also a wildlife habitat for over 200 species of nesting birds. The Presidio Visitor’s Center has information on tours and available shuttles. 415/561-4323.

Fort Point has incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge which was built directly over it in 1937. This is the location where Jimmy Stewart rescued Kim Novak after she jumped into the water in the classic Alfred Hitchcock film, “Vertigo.” Fort Point was built to guard the entrance to the harbor and was manned by 500 soldiers until 1900. Now it is an interesting place to visit for the scenery, the old brick fort and Civil War exhibits. Admission is free. 415/556-1693

8. Bike Across Golden Gate Bridge

Driving across San Francisco Bay via its famous bridge is not enough. The experience (and the scenery) goes by much too fast. The best way to “do” the bridge is on foot or by bike. Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals (415/202-8888) and Bike and Roll Rentals (415/229-2000) both operate four locations with very similar pricing for bike rentals. The most popular ride is across the Golden Gate, with the option of riding across and back (under 2 hours, rental cost is $7/hour) or riding across the bridge to Sausalito and Tiburon (2.5 hours one way.) Rental for 24 hours costs $28 for comfort hybrid bikes. Tandem, mountain and electric assist bikes cost more. Kids bikes rent for $5/hour and $20/day. (Bike and Roll offers a special weekday deal: $9.99/day with a 4 day minimum for their basic bike.) For the longer trip, there is the option of taking the ferry back for $55, ferry ticket included, which is a nice option if you would like to include lunch in Sausalito or wine tasting in Tiburon.

9. “Painted Ladies” - Victorian Houses

Alamo Square is within 3 blocks of Haight Ashbury but it is really a world away. Where the Haight is noisy and crowded, bustling with tourists and pseudo hippie types, Alamo Square Park, is a mostly tranquil spot with an incredible vista. People come here for the view and to photograph one of the most recognized sights in San Francisco. The quiet grassy park on the hill has the best views of the most famous Victorian homes in San Francisco. The houses sit on Steiner Street (at Hayes Street) in Pacific Heights, like vintage ladies in their Sunday best. They got a lot of attention twenty years ago when “Full House” used them in the television show’s opening. Also known as “Postcard Row,“ they are a lovely scenic anachronism, especially in the way they contrast the modern city of San Francisco directly behind them. Other neighborhoods may have their own enchanting Victorians, but the setting of these “Painted Ladies” sitting all in a row, facing Alamo Park can’t be beat.

Note: These are private residences. The 1886 Haas-Lilienthal House at 2007 Franklin Street is a Queen Anne style Victorian open to the public. A one hour tour is available. Call 415/567-2020. The website offers a virtual tour. Hours are noon - 3 p.m. Wed and Sat, 11 a.m.- 4 p.m. Sunday.

10. Harbor Cruises

There are two basic competitors for San Francisco Harbor Cruise tourist dollars. The Blue and Gold Fleet and the Red & White Fleet. The Blue & Gold leaves from Pier 39 and the Red & White leaves from Pier 43 ½. They both offer 1 hour Golden Gate Bay Cruises which go along the waterfront, under the Golden Gate Bridge, past Sausalito, by Angel Island and around Alcatraz.

The Blue & Gold charges $20 for adults, $18 for ages 12-18 and seniors over 62. Kids 5-11 are $15. The Red & White Tours are a little more: $24 for adults and $16 for ages 5-17. There is a slightly higher rating for the Blue & Gold Fleet tour, which gets 4 out of 5 stars over the Red & White Fleet tour which gets only 3 ½.

Blue & Gold Fleet : 415/705-8200 Red & White Fleet: 415/873-2900

Note: If you have the time, take the 49-Mile Scenic Drive through San Francisco. The route begins at the intersection of Hayes Street and Van Ness Avenue near City Hall. Follow the blue and white signs with seagulls but be aware that a lot of them are missing. Get a good map and you’ll see nearly all the sights that are in and around the city, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Ferry Building, AT&T Park, Haight Ashbury, San Francisco State University, Alcatraz, the Cannery, Lombard Street, Coit Tower, Palace of Fine Arts, and many other areas of San Francisco. Plan on spending an afternoon on the drive and stopping along the way to take pictures or to investigate what you see. It’s a great overview of San Francisco and a lot of fun, too.

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