What is urban hiking? A Case Study (San Francisco, w/ 2 sample routes)

An activity many still associate only with the wild, untouched throes of Mother Nature, hiking is taking root in urban cores all across our major cities, as well.

Urban hiking is a growing trend among today’s city-dwellers, as a way of staying fit while also discovering otherwise unnoticed pockets of their city.

San Francisco is one such city, unusually rich in urban hikes. “It’s a place that invites locals and visitors to broaden their horizons,” says Tom Downs, author of Walking San Francisco (Wilderness Press). “It invites you to explore well-trodden sidewalks at a slower pace, and to venture off onto the hidden corners of the city.” Tom’s book is about to be accompanied by Rylan Freshour’s Walking Berkeley & Oakland, due out Fall 2015.

The city is also full of green space, some cultivated, others preserved, built around. “The campaign to preserve open space began in the era of John Muir, and the list of Bay Area protected parklands is long and impressive,” explains Jane Huber, author of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: San Francisco (Menasha Ridge Press) and owner/operator of Bay Area Hiker, a hiking guide website to the area.

Here are a few examples of what urban hiking looks like in San Francisco:

The Presidio

The Presidio, at Battery Boutelle, San Francisco, CA (Photo: EPoelzl, Wikimedia Commons)

The Presidio, along with Mission Dolores, was just about all there was to San Francisco during the city’s Spanish period. It was a Spanish military outpost, then acquired by the U.S. military until 1994, when it was turned over to the National Park System.

As a park, it has a lot to offer. Its historic buildings include one of the city’s very oldest structures, as well as many buildings from the Civil War period. During its two centuries as a military base the area was spared the rapid development that went on outside its walls. Thus, along with the historic buildings, an extraordinary swath of nature has been preserved for the leisurely enjoyment of the modern civilian.


The Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge (Photo: Aslak Raanes)

Beautiful Golden Gate Park is a manufactured masterpiece, transformed in the late 1800s from a sand-blown landscape of dunes. Over time, the land has been planted, shaped, and tweaked a million ways, and today GGP’s more than 1,000 acres host an incredible assortment of activities: There are grassy meadows for picnics, museums, sports fields, ponds, and playgrounds.

The park’s paths range from wide and paved to narrow and dirt, and the best place to find hiking in GGP is Strawberry Hill and its surrounding, artificial moat Stow Lake.


Glen Canyon

Glen Canyon (Photo: Mutante, Wikimedia Commons)

San Francisco’s urban continuity is frequently broken by hills topped by outcrops of rock and mounds of soil yielding urban grasses. In the case of Glen Canyon, the city gives way to a deep impression — a gash, really — where Islais Creek supports a rich riparian environment of arroyo willow, elderberry, blackberry, horsetail, monkeyflower, and eucalyptus. A hiker in the rugged canyon might imagine San Francisco during the city’s somnolent Californio days.


Lands End

Sunset at Lands End (Photo: Brocken Inaglory)

San Francisco is oriented toward its bay, but to overlook the coastal trails that run along the cliffs at the city’s western edge is to miss out on some very striking scenery. Trails, some of them slim and rocky footpaths, crook down to secluded beaches and back up to landmark buildings such as the Cliff House and the Palace of the Legion of Honor. The area’s intriguing history manifests itself in captivating ways. The washed-out remnants of Sutro Baths, for example, are a modern ruin looking much like the leavings of a long-gone civilization.

Sample Urban Hikes in San Francisco

(From 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: San Francisco, 3 ed., used with permission from Menasha Ridge Press)

Sample 1: The Presidio – 2 miles

Sample 2: Lands End – 3 miles

 Does your hometown offer hiking within the city limits? If you want to find out, be sure to check out either the Walking series by Wilderness Press or the 60 Hikes series by Menasha Ridge Press, thorough resources for finding hiking close to home.

Walking Berkeley & Oakland will add walks in the Bay Area not included in Walking San Francisco.Tom Downs has lived in Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland, and Berkeley, as well as Chinatown and the Mission District in San Francisco. He is a travel writer who has authored books and articles about New Orleans, Hanoi, and the West of Ireland for Lonely Planet, the BBC Worldwide, and a host of magazines, newspapers, and websites.





Cover imageJane Huber created Bay Area Hiker (bahiker.com) in 1999 to share her love of the region’s natural beauty. A freelance writer and photographer, Jane enjoys volunteering at open-space preserves south of the city in her spare time. She lives with her husband and son in a San Francisco neighborhood with views of Mount Tamalpais and Mount Diablo.

Tanya Twerdowsky
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