Generally best known for its urbanity and density, San Francisco is also notable for its easy access to beauty and nature. The temperate climate and incessant moisture caused by cool ocean breezes climbing over the peninsula, drawn by the warmer San Francisco Bay waters, makes for a place constantly trapped in spring. Vibrant flowers bloom year round, and in residential neighborhoods, songbirds flit from feeders to trees.
San Francisco was well designed with parks, both large and small, capping the city's many hills. Beaches ring the western and northern shores of the peninsula. These draw surfers when the conditions merit and ample space to lounge on the beach or dip a toe in the water when the sun is out. Golden Gate Park has more to do than can be fit in a weekend, from visiting the bison to spending an afternoon in the Conservatory of Flowers, roaming through the Botanical Garden, or taking out a paddleboat at Stowe Lake.
It's a place of forested heights, coastal trails and ocean beaches, and these 10 spots within San Francisco's city limits (or 11 if you count Golden Gate Park) are the best way to experience what the city has to offer for a great time in the outdoors.
Popular fiction claims San Francisco was built on seven hills, even though there are many more than seven high points on the peninsula. A few of these seven offer impressive views and forested trails that run through designated open spaces. The highest is Mount Davidson, with an elevation of 938 feet. A large concrete cross sits atop the mountain's summit, which is on private property but open to the public. Trails run along the mountain's flanks, and views of the bay are frequent between the eucalyptus trees.
The second highest of these is Twin Peaks, with its North and South Peaks, a road that runs to the summit, and the spaceship-like Sutro Tower at its top. From up here, the views of San Francisco and across the waters to the East Bay are some of the best on the peninsula. Walk or run the roads to the summit for an added workout.
Next in elevation is Mount Sutro, which is surrounded by the Sutro Forest and Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve. Unlike Twin Peaks, this area offers a chance to get into the trees and away from vehicle traffic. Trails run through the open space reserve. The forest is mostly blue gum eucalyptus, and it acts as a cloud forest capturing the mists coming over the peninsula from the Pacific Ocean.
Corona Heights Park is lower in elevation than these others listed here, but what it lacks in height it makes up for in amenities. There is a large off-leash dog area and trails, all with great views. The park gets its name from a rock at the summit that is shaped like a crown. On the park's northeastern side, the Beaver Street Wall is a rare place where people can rock climb in San Francisco proper, although a permit is required to climb here.
Lands End Lookout and Sutro Baths are situated where the Pacific Ocean enters the Golden Gate of the San Francisco Bay. The baths were an area once fed by seawater for public bathing. It burned down in the 1960s, but you can still walk through the scenic ruins today. Visit on a sunny day to get the most of the views from Lands End.
Continuing into the bay from Lands End Lookout is the Lands End Coastal Trail. It runs for 1.5 miles along the highlands above the peninsula's northwestern corner and through forests with views of the waters below. The area is relatively flat for San Francisco standards, and many people choose to run along the trail. Don't miss the side trail down to Mile Rock Beach about half way along the main trail.
The Palace of Fine Arts, in the Marina, was built in 1915 for an international exposition, and its surrounding lake is a popular nesting area for herons, swans and other waterfowl. From here it's a short walk to Crissy Field and along more recovered habitat that now offers runners, walkers and families a beautiful stretch of San Francisco waterfront to explore.
You can walk west along Crissy Field's beaches and paved paths to Fort Point at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. With a good swell, surfers frequent the waves that break in front of the now decommissioned fort. The fort is also open to the public, and trails lead from Fort Point up to the Golden Gate bridge.
The largest of San Francisco's beaches is Ocean Beach, which runs for 3.5 miles of Pacific coastline south of Lands End. Such a large beach abutting the dense residential neighborhoods of the city is a beautiful sight. The peak surfing season at Ocean Beach, in the late fall and early winter, is punctuated by world-class days amidst conditions that can otherwise be rough and choppy. And year round the water is brutally cold. On the warmer, sunnier days, walking the dogs on the beach or lounging on a towel can be nice, but the wind is a regular companion.
On the northern tip of the peninsula, Baker Beach is another popular and amazingly scenic strip of sand. On the rare sunny summer day, the beach changes from a quiet place to one full of people relaxing on beach towels, playing frisbee games and families making sand castles. The views are accentuated by the Golden Gate Bridge spanning the bay to the Marin Headlands across the water. Be forewarned that at Baker Beach's north end clothing is optional, and you will likely find some of the city's free spirits enjoying the natural beauty in the buff.