At Home, Wellness

Urban hiking: A new way to explore the city

The view of the ocean near the Lands End Lookout above Sutro Baths. PHOTO: Julie Mitchell

Hiking is often associated with a trip to the mountains, but you don’t need to leave the city to find challenging trails that will add steps to your fitness tracker and reveal hidden staircases, plentiful views and vistas, woodsy greenery, open park space, and of course, beaches galore.

Welcome to urban hiking. According to Urban Hiker San Francisco (, this entails “Exploring the stairways, hills, and hiking trails of the city.” What’s the different between a hike and a city walk? A hike involves a longer distance, generally more than three miles, and some serious climbing, which in our hilly hometown is easy — San Francisco boasts over 40 hills, over 630 public stairways, and 70-plus miles of hiking trails.


As with any hiking adventure, it pays to be prepared. While you can buy snacks and water almost anywhere, it’s less expensive and easier to bring your own. Invest in a lightweight backpack to stash food, water, your phone/camera, sunscreen, and most important in our city of microclimates, at least one extra layer — it’s possible to hike for an hour and experience a 15-degree temperature change. And while your smartphone can probably point you in the right direction for city hikes, it doesn’t hurt to bring along a map, too.


While hiking boots aren’t necessary for urban hiking, sturdy shoes with decent support are, as are comfortable socks (and maybe a second pair in your backpack). And because you’re in a city with traffic of all kinds, and seemingly endless construction sites and vehicles, be safe. Cross in the crosswalks, and look both ways. If you are hiking early in the morning, in the evening, or on a foggy day, wear something bright.

Last, sometimes the call of nature is easier to address in nature than in the city. Public parks, playgrounds, and beaches often have free, accessible restrooms; some open spaces and parks do not. Some chain coffee shops are fairly liberal with their restrooms, and you can download apps to your smartphone to help you find locations as well.


A great place to start is “Best Hikes in San Francisco,” by Peter Hockaday (updated in 2015, It includes a map, photos, and a brief description of more than 20 amazing urban hikes. Urban Hiker also lists city hikes. Here are a few favorites:

Lands End: This is probably the most popular city hike offering the right amount of stairs, scenery, and most important, views — the Golden Gate Bridge, bay, ocean, and the ruins of the historic Sutro Baths. You can park near the Palace of the Legion of Honor and complete this dirt trail in about an hour, and there’s a cafe with food and restrooms at the end. The Cliff House and Ocean Beach are just a short walk.

Batteries to Bluffs: A Presidio trail with an excellent view of the bridge, Marin, and the ocean is the trail above Baker Beach. There are multiple sets of steep stairs that wind up and down above the beach. The trail continues all the way down to Crissy Field.

Twin Peaks/Mount Davidson: There are many places to begin this moderately steep, hour-long trail; many people begin at Portola Drive and Twin Peaks Boulevard, and I have started in the Mission. The hike involves city streets and hidden stairways, and you are rewarded by reaching the city’s highest natural point with a 360-degree view.

Mount Sutro Open Space: Park on the street and look for the wooden marker at the trailhead in the hills above UCSF. Beware of poison oak on this woodsy, winding trail highlighted by pine groves and eucalyptus trees. It’s a well-maintained, 40-minute loop.

Glen Canyon Park: Just beyond the park’s recreation center is an open space home to a wide dirt trail along Islais Creek, one of the city’s few free-flowing creeks, and up a staircase into a canyon of wildflowers, red-tailed hawks, and rock formations. There are many trails to explore within the canyon. It’s about an hour-long hike with a loop that starts and ends on Bosworth Street. Hikers with dogs take note: Throughout the city’s parks, and especially in Glen Canyon, there have been many coyote sightings, so it’s best to keep your pups leashed.

Take advantage of the longer summer days by exploring nature in some areas you may not have visited before while also getting a good workout.


Send to a Friend Print