Sparkling Pacific coastline, giant redwood forests, prehistoric rockscapes and the mighty Yosemite National Park: much of California’s sublime natural world is within easy reach of San Francisco. John Muir, the great nature writer, traveled from the city into Yosemite and was so deeply affected by his experiences there that he devoted much of his later life to campaigning for the preservation of Californian wilderness. Here we’ve gathered together five phenomenal national parks around San Francisco, so residents and visitors can follow in Muir’s footsteps and take inspiration from California’s forests, mountains and ocean.
Head 40 miles up the coast from San Francisco and you’ll come to the pretty, wild and varied shoreline of Point Reyes National Park. Here, the Pacific laps gently up sandy beaches and crashes against pale cliffs, while fragrant pine forests provide shelter from the Californian sun. The area has an eventful human history, stretching back at least 5000 years, when the area was inhabited by Coast Miwok people. And in the 16th century, English marine adventurer Sir Francis Drake described landing on a shoreline that flooded him with nostalgia for Kent’s White Cliffs of Dover, which many historians believe was Point Reyes.
This forest of mighty redwoods has a long history as a place of shade and sanctuary for residents of North America’s west coast. Used by Miwok communities for shelter and raw materials, it grew with Californian settlement into a popular tourist destination. In the early 20th century, a local couple bought the land and named it after the great naturalist John Muir, determined to keep California’s rapidly expanding population from damaging this peaceful and bio-diverse woodland. Today it’s a wild paradise just beyond the bounds of the city, the forest floor carpeted with ancient ferns and the canopy alive with birdsong and the bustling of many creatures.
There is something distinctly prehistoric about Pinnacles, a rock-strewn display of millions of years of tectonic movement and volcanic activity. The immense power of these geologic forces has sculpted a jagged landscape of spires, boulders, monoliths, canyons and caves on the lower slopes of the Gabilan Mountains. Visitors can hike through these sharp-edged formations, tackle a handful of famous rock climbing challenges, and delve into the area’s cool-damp talus caves. Look out for Californian condors gliding overhead, and for white-tipped woodpeckers attacking the region’s grey pines.
Yosemite National Park is a huge and dramatic wilderness, a patchwork of swaying meadows, shadowy forests and granite cliffs unfurled across the heart of California. Rivers and great waterfalls cut across this landscape like silvery veins, while humans can foot through it on over 800 miles of hiking trails, entering the varied habitat of bobcats, red foxes and black bears. It’s a little further from San Fran, 160 miles to the east, but this still means that one of the US’s great wild regions is only a three-hour drive away.
Backdropped by the rough and rugged landscape of the Sierra Nevadas, Sequoia is a land of giant redwoods, including the world’s biggest tree by volume, General Sherman. Visitors can wander among the immense trunks of Giant Forest Sequoia Grove, and even drive their car through a fallen redwood at Tunnel Log. Alongside this vertiginous woodland, hiking trails run through meadows and canyons, and there is also a subterranean world to explore, at its most spectacular in the marbled hallways of Crystal Cave.