Off-the-Beaten-Path: The Weekender's Guide to Outdoor Adventure around San Francisco

A view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the ever-inviting Baker Beach.
A view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the ever-inviting Baker Beach. David McSpadden
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One of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, San Francisco also is a paradise for the outdoors-minded traveler. The City by the Bay boasts as many options for adventures as there are types of enthusiasts who enjoy them, from casual recreationists to pro triathletes to trail-loving hippies. The city’s varied geography—the Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Bay, and several mountain ranges—beckon as a collective, world-class outdoor playground.

And that’s not to mention the 47 hills of the city itself, as well as Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, a former Army base whose trails and towering redwoods provide a pristine oasis in the urban landscape.

Take a simple stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge, embark on an overnight backpacking trip in the Marin Headlands, tackle the singletrack terrain where mountain biking was born, paddle through marine sanctuaries or through the challenging waters of the San Francisco Bay, and reward your efforts with a post-excursion pint of Northern California beer, followed by a meal in one of many top-notch restaurants in SF’s world-renowned culinary scene. No matter what appeals to your adventurous taste, you can find it here. The only challenge? Fitting it all in over a weekend.

Where to Get Caffeinated

A barista pulling a shot of espresso at Sightglass Coffee.
A barista pulling a shot of espresso at Sightglass Coffee. Alejandro de la Cruz

San Francisco’s cousin to the north, Seattle, may have more street cred for its coffee scene. But SF boasts its own bean-tastic array of options for getting your java fix. In fact, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, a franchise with stores in nine states plus the District of Columbia, got its start in Berkeley in 1966—five years before a little chain called Starbucks was founded in Seattle. Following a run or ride at Crissy Field or the Presidio, stop by Peet’s recently renovated, 2,500-square-foot location in the Marina, which features local art and reclaimed wood countertops.

While Peet’s numerous locations make for a convenient caffeine break anywhere in the Bay Area, hardcore aficionados head to Blue Bottle Coffee. Its first outpost was in Oakland, but Blue Bottle’s locations—and reputation for brewing top-of-the-line coffee—quickly spread; it now has five cafes in San Francisco. Another highly regarded name among local java geeks: Sightglass Coffee, which has locations in SoMa (its palatial flagship) and the Mission, as well as a presence at the Farmer’s Market at the Ferry Building on Saturdays. Expect to put up with some hipster attitude, but it’s worth it for one of best cuppas in the city.

Where to Hit the Trail

Relaxing after a trail run in the Marin headlands, with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline in the background.
Relaxing after a trail run in the Marin headlands, with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline in the background. Stephanie Settimi

Simply put, San Francisco is heaven for hikers and trail runners, with world-class terrain in the urban landscape as well as in Marin County to the north, as well as in the East and South Bay. Don’t get too caught up perusing all the possibilities—an easy in-town trek at Land’s End Trail or a daylong excursion in the Marin headlands—instead, just pick a spot and go. Wherever you choose, you’ll be rewarded with plenty of San Francisco treats: awe-inspiring coastal and bay views, serene redwoods, and waterfalls. Count on some sore quads the next day, unless your selection is of the rare flat variety.

In town, you can’t go wrong with the beautiful trails of The Presidio, a former Army base that’s now an urban playground for San Francisco’s active types. Recommended picks are the 3.1-mile Southwest Hills trail, a loop that will take you past a scenic overlook, restored sand dunes, and Baker Beach; a 2.5-mile section of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, a planned 550-mile loop tracing the highest points around San Francisco Bay; and the 4.3-mile Golden Gate Promenade, a waterfront route that leads right to the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Another must-do, in-town option is the Land’s End Trail, which offers spectacular views of the bridge and the rugged coastline (but you’ll have to ascend and descend dozens of steps on this one, so keep that in mind).

Within easy reach of downtown is Mount Tamalpais State Park, which has 50 miles of trails that connect to a larger trail network. The Matt Davis Trail is nirvana among trail runners, a roughly eight-mile route with grueling climbs, giddy descents, and a midway point at the Pacific Ocean. For a more leisurely outing, check out Muir Woods National Monument, whose 540 acres include dozens of old-growth redwoods, some as high as 258 feet and as old as 1,200 years. Weekends can be crowded, so shoot for a mid-week visit if possible.

Where to Go Climbing

Three climbers head out to the boulders at Stinson Beach
Three climbers head out to the boulders at Stinson Beach Jake Wheeler

Whether you’re a newbie climber or hardcore rock jock, you’re sure to find something that suits your fancy in San Francisco. In addition to nearby world-class outdoor terrain, the city is home to some of the best climbing gyms in the country, including Mission Cliffs and Dogpatch Boulders (both under the Touchstone Climbing umbrella) and Planet Granite, whose convenient location at Crissy Field makes it a great option for combining a few hours in the gym with outdoor pursuits around Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

To test your skills in an outdoor setting, Stinson Beach, in Marin County, and Mount Diablo, in the 20,000-acre Mount Diablo State Park near Danville in the East Bay, are easily accessible spots for bouldering and rope climbing, respectively. At Stinson Beach, head to the south end of the beach to reach a number of boulders strewn across the sand. The double-peaked Mount Diablo spans climbing areas called Pine Canyon and the Boy Scout Rocks. Lower Boy Scout Rocks is home to one of the Bay Area’s most popular routes, the 90-foot Amazing Face (5.9+). The sandstone formations of 6,000-acre Salt Point State Park, about 90 miles north of San Francisco, are a favorite among the climbing set, with more than 20 sport climbing routes, most on Sentinel Rock, and 30 boulder problems. Many routes are for advanced climbers, with ratings of 5.12 and up. Check the tide schedule and plan accordingly.

Farther afield is Yosemite National Park, about a four-hour drive from San Francisco and the playground for some of the world’s most elite climbers. The Yosemite Mountaineering School is a superb resource for beginners, or for those who’d rather gawk at the action from terra firma, simply sit with a pair of binoculars and watch the climbers inch up 3,000-foot El Capitan.

Where to Paddle

Ships along Marina Blvd with the city of SF in the background.
Ships along Marina Blvd with the city of SF in the background. John Menard

Situated on a peninsula, San Francisco is a paradise for paddling enthusiasts. While the bay itself can be notoriously challenging, calmer waterways provide an array of experiences for all levels. The abundance of state parks and protected lands also means it’s easy to turn a day trip into an overnight excursion. Wherever you’re headed, though, keep in mind that the city’s infamous foggy, windy weather can play a big factor on your excusions.

Experienced paddlers can play tourist-on-the-water by putting in at Aquatic Park, a launching point to see San Francisco landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and Angel Island. It’s not for beginners, however, with strong currents and heavy boat traffic; keep an eye out for seals (and swimmers) too.

Calmer waters can be found at Islais Creek, on the southeast coast of the city. Put in at a small dock off Third Avenue and travel north to AT&T Park or south to the site of the former Candlestick Park. One recommended route is a 7-mile round-trip from the put-in to Mission Creek, passing massive cargo ships, piers, and dry docks into a serene, protected waterway lined with houseboats. On San Francisco Giants home games, pack a cooler and head for McCovey Cove, just outside AT&T stadium, where a flotilla of fans waits in kayaks for a chance to snag home run balls. About 55 miles north is Point Reyes National Seashore, where novice and intermediate paddlers can tool around the calm estuary, while more experienced ones can test their skills exploring Drakes Bay from Chimney Rock to Limantour Beach.

Where to Unwind

A typically large and eclectic crowd at Zeitgeist
A typically large and eclectic crowd at Zeitgeist Dennis Yang

Fortunately for Bay Area adventurers, San Francisco’s culinary scene is a sport in itself, with a buffet of breweries, outdoor bars, and a head-spinning selection of incredible restaurants of every ethnic following imaginable. Even better: SF’s laid-back vibe means that you can show up to most places in your workout gear and fit right in.

In the city, several spots offer a nod to the city’s rich bike culture, including Mojo Bicycle Café, a delightful mashup of café and full-service bike shop near Alamo Square, and Velo Rouge Café, a bike-themed spot that serves up tasty lunch and breakfast dishes. Velo Rouge’s dishes all have, cycling-centric names, like the Leipheimer Breakfast Burrito, for example, and Le Tour Salad, topped with berries, corn, and turkey (no word on whether the latter is a subtle reference to Lance Armstrong, perhaps?). To mingle with hardcore bike messengers, there’s no better spot than Zeitgest, a no-frills beer garden on the edge of the Mission, for numerous beers on tap and legendary Bloody Mary's.

Across the bay, post up at Sam’s Anchor Café in Tiburon. (Make a day out of it by renting a bike in San Francisco, riding over the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito, parking at Sam’s for a while, and then taking the ferry back across the bay with your bike instead of huffing and puffing it on a full stomach. Buy your return ticket ahead of time to ensure you get a spot, especially on weekends.) You may have to battle for an outdoor table at Sam’s with uppity Marin types from sailing circles, but the laid-back scene, lip-smacking seafood cioppino, and views of the San Francisco skyline make it well worth the effort.

And for perhaps the cheapest, most convenient lunch you can pop into a backpack, the almighty burrito rules in the Mission district—wherever you choose, you really can’t go wrong.

Where to Get a Good Night’s Rest

Inside a waterfront cottage at Nick's Cove.
Inside a waterfront cottage at Nick's Cove. Chuck B.

Since San Francisco is such a popular tourist destination, there’s no shortage of great hotels for visitors to choose from. However, the city’s notoriously expensive reputation also extends to its accommodations, which usually run upward of $200/night, higher on weekends, holidays, and when there’s a conference in town. Fortunately, the city’s outdoorsy inclinations also means there are some great finds for the adventure-minded traveler.

Nestled in the heart of the Marin Headlands, close to miles of hiking and trail running options in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is the HI Marin Headlands Hostel. Beds in group rooms run from $28/night, while private rooms start at $82, with a large shared kitchen and a spacious, clean lobby that has a Ping-Pong table and pool table. For a well-worth it drive north up California 1 along the coastline, head to Nick’s Cove, a collection of 12 cozy cottages set right on the water about 50 miles north of San Francisco. Rooms, which feature a handsome nautical vibe, start at $225 in the offseason and run considerably higher during the spring/summer. (Make it a smart splurge by bringing some friends and choosing one of the cottages with a pull-out sofa.) Savor sunset with an adult beverage on the dock before heading to a meal at the property’s outstanding on-site restaurant.

For in-town accommodations, another well-worth-it splurge just steps from numerous outdoor pursuits at Crissy Field is the Inn at the Presidio, an infinitely charming, 22-room boutique property that once housed Army officers. Weekends are often booked far in advance, with rates starting at $310, but that includes breakfast, evening wine and cheese, and ideal proximity to the city’s outdoor and urban offerings.

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