Built over a series of hills on a peninsula curving out into the Pacific, San Francisco is a beautifully situated city. It is surrounded by a varied natural world, from the islands dotting San Francisco Bay to sandy beaches, giant redwood groves and oak-cloaked mountains. These five state parks are all within a 30-minute drive or short ferry trip from downtown San Francisco, making it very easy to swap the city for wilderness and the bars and restaurants for hiking, fishing and birdwatching.
Easily the biggest island in San Francisco Bay, Angel Island has evolved into a peaceful getaway from the built-up cityscapes that sprawl across the nearby shorelines. Fringed with sunny coves and stretches of white sand, hiking and biking trails run around the island’s rim and criss-cross its interior of evergreen woodland, grassy hillsides and exposed rocky ridges. The island’s leisurely raison d’etre is a relatively recent state of affairs, and remnants of its practical past – as a cattle ranch, military base and immigration station – are dotted across it. Access is by ferry from San Francisco, Tiburon or Vallejo.
Situated on San Francisco’s southeastern tip, Candlestick Point is one of the city’s most popular and accessible relaxation spots, providing panoramic views of the Bay and the hills surrounding it. Originally a vibrant wetland area, it became an unsightly landfill site and, later, straightforward dumping ground for nearby residents, until its establishment as an urban recreation area struck a picturesque balance between the needs of humans and nature. Strong winds make it popular with windsurfers, anglers cast out from two public piers, and a fitness course runs along Candlestick’s shoreline. The area is particularly good for birdwatching during the winter months, when migrant waterfowl stream into the bay.
Rising out of the urbanization of the San Francisco peninsula, San Bruno is a rolling wilderness situated at the northern end of the Santa Cruz mountain range. Hiking trails run up the mountain to a four-mile ridge at its summit, which forms a fabulous natural viewing platform over the San Francisco Bay area. The mountain is a habitat for a number of endangered plants and creatures, including two rare species of butterfly, the Mission blue butterfly and the San Bruno elfin butterfly.
Four miles of broad, sandy beaches look out over the Pacific just south of San Francisco, perfect for sunbathing, walking and fishing. A coastal trail runs along the shoreline, popular year-round with joggers and cyclists, and a horse trail runs parallel to a stretch of it. There’s also a campground with space for both tents and RVs, enabling visitors to stay by the shore as long as they like. The beach is well-known among local birders for its rare Western Snowy Plover colony, and among anglers for its flatfish, sole and herring.
Looming above northern San Francisco is Mount Tamalpais, its slopes cloaked in oak woodland and clusters of giant redwoods. Standing on its peak, hikers can see the Farallon Islands 25 miles out in the Pacific, and on rare occasions the snow-clad Sierra Nevada mountains, 125 miles away. 60 miles of hiking trails run through the park, providing the most extensive walking in the immediate San Francisco area. And there is lots more to explore nearby, such as Muir Woods just to the south, a magnificent forest of coastal redwoods. Between the two you can find a small museum illustrating the history of a railway that used to run up the mountain, known as "the crookedest railway in the world."