Tips for Family Hiking Near San Francisco

Taking to the trails helps families recharge and reconnect. Here’s how one family does it.

By Darya Mead


“Covid Coping” is really a thing; There is only so much Zoom, baking, and Netflix one can stomach. Our family loves to hike and I would venture to say some of our happiest memories and most copacetic moments together are on a trail with a yummy picnic in tow. It gives us time to decompress, reconnect, and discuss important topics, whether it be Star Wars or inequality (the latter is more mom-centric).

Over the years our treks have evolved from toting a toddler in a backpack to us all walking together. Earlier, we found our boys were highly motivated by treats or treasure; today, it is the kids who lobby for family hikes. These outings have taken on profound significance with so much else on hold during our “Lives in the Time of Corona.”

Wherever we travel, we always look for hiking options. Hiking is mostly free, healthy, and great exercise. We adore the Sierras and have done a number of day hikes and 3-4-day backpacking trips in the mountains.  Closer to our home in San Francisco, we are lucky to have Pt. Reyes, Mount Diablo, Mt. Tamalpais, and many local regional and state parks to choose from.

The joys are seasonal. Spring brings a riot of wildflowers and summer has pluses for we SF folks: Getting out of the fog and even taking a swim along the way. In late fall, we often go “mushroom hiking” as my youngest called it. And we often feel like winter is best because it is not so hot and the trails are less busy.

In our city, walking offers a wonderland of activity ideas if you are prepared for some steep inclines. San Francisco is known worldwide for stunning views and hilly terrain. Some streets are so steep that more than 300 stairways exist throughout the city, providing access and shortcuts to areas difficult to reach otherwise. There are the famous routes to Coit Tower where one can catch a glimpse of the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and the now-famous Mosaic Stairs in Golden Gate Heights. Although not as crowded as say, Lombard Street (the crookedest in The West), these top stairwalks can be bustling with climbers.

Instead, grab Adah Bakalinsky’s stairwalk bible, and explore some of the more quirky areas. The book offers up the popular routes, but many of the stairways highlighted are tranquil spots, used only by locals and known only to a handful of people. Most walks take no more than an hour and string a number of staircases in a neighborhood together, with informative descriptions of the history, architecture and flora and fauna of the area.

Together, families can explore the nooks and crannies of this great city. My family often decides on a route and picks a restaurant or café in the area to make our ultimate destination. Some days we just can’t get out of town but want an outdoor activity that feels like a hike. Then we reach for our stairwalk book and pack a few snacks and layers of clothing.

One time it was dumping rain so we each grabbed an umbrella and geared ourselves up for the urban adventure. With each stairwalk, we discover unique and unusual surprises, including hummingbirds, caterpillars, those red and white spotted mushrooms, blackberries, glorious flowers in bloom, secret cottages with magical gardens, never-before-seen views, maniacal exercisers, and even a friendly kitty who followed us for blocks.

Most of these walks can be accessed by public transport on MUNI or BART and all can be great activities for out-of-town guests and spry grandparents. Many walks include benches or vista spots where one can catch one’s breath. These stairwalks are particularly great options when kids are portable, either in backpacks or frontal carriers.

We live relatively close to Skyline Blvd. in the southern side of SF and now with our older son at the University of California at Santa Cruz, we often venture to the nearby mountains for hikes. A big draw is the colorful banana slugs. Many find them gross, but I find them charming, and when the kids were little, we would count them as a way to inspire longer walks.

If I can find banana slugs and amanita muscaria toadstools on a walk, maybe some wild strawberries, I feel like I’ve hit the motherload of forest enchantments. With 2020’s wildfires, it might be a while for those redwood forests to return to their green splendor but they’ll be back sooner than we think – and we’ll be there to greet them.

Tips for a Great Family Hike near San Francisco


Pack for the Microclimates

Whether you head for the hills in an urban or more rural setting, backpacks and hiking shoes are a must, along with hats (to protect from sun and cold) and layers of clothing; we always bring our windcheaters, even on warm sunny days.

Bring a Picnic A blanket for a picnic and easily portable food is de rigueur along with plenty of water; leave some in the car for after. Sometimes we buy sandwiches, but most often we pack a baguette, cheese, carrots, snacks, fruit and some treats and a thermos of hot or iced tea, depending on the season.

Download Maps Beforehand Use a map wherever you go, you can download some onto your phone or pick them up at the visitor centers, ranger stations or kiosks at the trailhead. You can always photograph the one posted on the big sign, often at the head of most trails.

Watch for Wildlife Be mindful of critters, whether big or small. We have seen bobcats and mountain lions, coyotes and egrets and so much more. Be careful and check yourself for ticks and teach your kids about poison oak.

Bribe the Kids Avoid Are we there yet?!”  by setting expectations with the 5-10-year-old set. We often opted for less distance but more outings. I’m not saying it’s always fabulous, but if you make it fun, have lollipops, an Easter egg hunt, a fabulous dinner plan (In-n-Out), or just a genuinely gorgeous trail, most kids can be cajoled into it. I recently read an Outside article that said you can get kids to go hiking more easily by just not calling it “hiking” – just putting on your shoes and starting down the trail.  I would try that with little ones, for sure.

Start Young My best advice? Make hiking something you do with your kids from a very young age; the rewards are endless.  It does take some parental effort, but I have to say it is gratifying now that our kids are older, not only is it something they look forward to, but often they suggest it!


Darya Mead – August 2020

ROAM Contributor   

Growing up in NYC and attending the UN International School gave Darya a head start as a global citizen. But her extensive travel and media experience now takes a back seat to raising two boys in San Francisco. Darya loves the outdoors, cooking, teaching yoga and the fact that her boys have taught her to be a sports fan. Follow her travels on Triporati.


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