San Francisco on Foot: 5 Fun Hikes for Families

Jun 10, 2019

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When families book a trip to San Francisco, the first tourist stops that come to mind are likely cable cars, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. But what about stretching your legs and getting some exercise while visiting the City by the Bay?

Hiking the hills, trails and streets of San Francisco with kids can be a ton of fun while still allowing you to take in all the famous sights. We’ve been to San Francisco more times than we can count, and our family has walked (and walked) some great routes.

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So many gorgeous views of the San Francisco coastline from The Presidio.
There are many gorgeous views of the San Francisco coastline from The Presidio.

Here are a few of our favorite hiking trails in San Francisco with kids:

The Presidio

Occupying premium land at the entry to San Francisco Bay, The Presidio was originally settled as a Spanish fort in 1776. The US Army took over in 1846. It’s now not only a vast urban park and recreation area with hotels, restaurants, activities and an amazing Walt Disney Family Museum, but also a breathtakingly beautiful place to hike. There are thick woods, grassy fields, beachside paths and everything in between.

The California Coast Trail in San Francisco
The California Coast Trail in San Francisco’s Presidio park is beautiful in spring.

With at least nine formal hiking paths within The Presidio, there are choices for all ability levels.

Interspersed throughout the well-marked trails are points of interest, often with historical markers to help visitors understand the significance of this land in California’s past.

Our family likes the California Coast Trail, a relatively easy walk from near the Golden Gate Bridge along the ocean cliffs. Along the way, the sights of the bridge, ocean liners coming into port, flora and fauna are all breathtaking.

  • Level: Easy to moderate
  • Total length: 2.4 miles
  • Duration: 50–60 minutes

The Waterfront

Another great family hike is the super-easy walk along the San Francisco Bay waterfront from the San Francisco Giants’ Oracle Park to Fisherman’s Wharf. Years ago, there was a big ugly freeway overpass that ran from the Bay Bridge along the waterfront. Now that it’s gone, the wharves and walkways along the bay are beautiful, open and inviting.

Start at Oracle Park (open to the public for tours when the stadium is not in use) and walk to the bay’s edge. Heading west, you’ll come to the architectural beauty of the Ferry Building, which has dozens of local artisan food stalls inside if you are feeling a bit peckish. Continue west and you will soon reach the Exploratorium at Pier 15, a hands-on children’s science and art museum like no other (admission is $29.95 for adults 18+; $24.95 for seniors 65+, people with disabilities, teachers, students and youth 13-17; $19.95 for those 4–12 and free for kids 3 and under). Further on is Pier 39, San Francisco’s most visited tourist attraction and home to carousels, an aquarium, 3-D rides and more (some attractions carry a fee).

Just west of Pier 39 are the ferries to Alcatraz and then you are steps from Fisherman’s Wharf. Famous for its rough-and-tumble history, tasty seafood restaurants and sourdough bread, the Wharf is a great place to rest and have a little snack. Take in the fishing boats, shops and restaurants before heading back to your starting point.

Fisherman
Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco is always colorful and never boring.
  • Level: Easy
  • Total length: 2.9 miles
  • Duration: 1 hour plus (you know you’ll want to make stops for fun along the way!)

The Bridge

One of the most recognizable structures in the world, the Golden Gate Bridge arches across the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Joining the city to Marin County on the other side, the Golden Gate offers a great hike for those not bothered by heights. Start at Crissy Field, where there are wide grassy fields and parking spots. There are pedestrian walkways specifically for hikers interested in crossing the bridge, with bicycles crossing on a different lane. It’s about 0.75 miles from the parking area to the bridge.

As you walk across the bridge, look up and admire the engineering of this famous span which opened in 1937. The amount of steel and cable used is so massive, plus the bridge is constantly being painted its signature color all year long. The views of the city skyline and bay are expansive, and on a clear day, it’s possible to see the Berkeley and Oakland Hills, Alcatraz and many other points around the bay. The walk across is about 1.7 miles. On the other side, you can take a bus back into the city. Alternately, stop midspan and turn around, walking back the way you came.

Do remember your sweater, as it can get windy and a bit chilly on the bridge. Skip a baseball cap though — it will blow off and end up in the ocean for sure.

Just a short walk from Crissy Field, the Golden Gate Bridge offers amazing views of San Francisco
Just a short walk from Crissy Field, the Golden Gate Bridge offers amazing views of San Francisco’s skyline and bay.
  • Level: Easy to moderate
  • Total length: 2.4 miles
  • Duration: 1–2 hours, depending how often you stop for pictures

Golden Gate Park

Originally dedicated in the 1870s, Golden Gate Park is more than 1,000 acres of gardens, forests, museums, sports facilities and more. Sitting amid the urban density of a large city, Golden Gate Park offers something for everyone regardless of interest or age.

Start with the gorgeous McLaren Lodge, built in 1896 and home to the original park superintendent. Walk west along the pedestrian paths and wind through the park past manicured French gardens, forests of trees, huge expanses of green lawns and many cultural institutions. Our family loves to stop in at the Japanese Tea Garden to admire the attention to detail found at every step. Across the way is the California Academy of Sciences and Steinhart Aquarium — both are not to be missed (tickets start at $32.50 for adults 18+, $25.25 for kids 3–17 and kids 2 and under are free).

In San Francisco
In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the Japanese Tea Garden offers a moment of peace.

Bring a picnic lunch and spread out on one of the many lawns throughout the area. Afterward, keep walking west until you reach Ocean Beach. Here you can put your toes in the sand and admire the craggy Cypress trees, twisted from the winds that sometime blow in from the Pacific Ocean.

Along the hike in Golden Gate Park, stop into Steinhart Aquarium for some ocean immersion.
Along the hike in Golden Gate Park, stop by Steinhart Aquarium for some ocean immersion.
  • Level: Easy
  • Total length: 3.3 miles
  • Duration: 1–2 hours, depending on how much you want to see along the way

Ferry Building to Nob Hill

If an urban hike suits you, this one is both picturesque and difficult. It’s hard to believe that the occasional stalwart office worker will hike these streets home from their job, but they do (and I am living proof). Amid the towering high-rises and historic haunts, this uphill hike is a workout.

Before setting out from the Ferry Building, it’s best to get some sustenance from one or more of the fine purveyors of food, drink and treats at the marketplace inside. Once fortified with coffee and hot chocolates, we began our journey. Walking across to Embarcadero Plaza, you can take in the view of fountains and street vendors before continuing along Market Street to California Street. The beginning of the cable car line is here, and this hike will follow those famous cable cars up California Street all the way to the top of Nob Hill.

Along the way, enjoy the hustle and bustle of a busy downtown office hub. High-rises soar above, while street-level businesses entertain locals and visitors alike. If you are so inclined, a quick stop at the famous Tadich Grill is worth the view. Serving martini lunches to bankers and tech geniuses since 1849, Tadich is an institution. From there, continue up the hill however you can in your comfy walking shoes (I’ve actually seen people walk backward up the incline).

When you get to the top, have a quick bite at one of the historic luxury hotels positioned at the crest of tony Nob Hill. We enjoyed a late breakfast at the original Fairmont Hotel, where the kids munched on San Francisco sourdough bread while we guzzled delicious local coffee.

When the kids get tired of hiking the streets of San Francisco, there is always a handy cable car nearby.
When the kids get tired of hiking the streets of San Francisco, there is always a handy cable car nearby.
  • Level: Moderate
  • Total length: 1 mile
  • Duration: 30–45 minutes, depending on your pace

Where to Stay

Our family likes to stay in a central location when visiting a big city like San Francisco so that we can easily walk or take public transportation to any destination. For these suggested family hikes in San Francisco, we’ve paired family-friendly hotels in each area near the start or finish.

The Presidio: Right inside the gates to the park, the Inn at The Presidio occupies a former army building from 1903. Rooms start at $335/night, and include breakfast and free shuttle service. (Use points from a credit card like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard or the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card to “erase” the purchase — coded as “travel” — from your credit card statement.)

The Waterfront: The Sheraton Fisherman’s Wharf is just steps from all the action. Rooms start at $170/night, or from 50,000 Marriott points.

The Bridge: Conveniently located within walking distance of the Palace of Fine Arts, Crissy Field and the Golden Gate Bridge, the Travelodge by Wyndham Presidio San Francisco is an easy choice for families on the go. Rooms from $215 or 15k Wyndham Rewards points.

Golden Gate Park: It’s easiest to travel to Golden Gate Park from a family-friendly hotel in the city center. Our family has enjoyed the Hilton San Francisco Union Square, where rooms start at $315/night or from 35k–60k Hilton Honors points.

Ferry Building: Just across from the Ferry Building and at the base of the California Street cable car line, the Hyatt Regency San Francisco is a city icon. Rooms from $470/night or 20,000 World of Hyatt points.

Nob Hill: The newly refurbished Stanford Court Hotel is an excellent choice along the California Street cable car line, positioned at the top of Nob Hill. Rooms start at $159.

The Batteries to Bluffs hike in The Presidio San Francisco takes you right down to the sand.
The Batteries to Bluffs Trail in The Presidio San Francisco takes you right down to the sand.

Bottom Line

It’s clear that San Francisco is far from just an urban destination. There are plenty of ways to stay active and explore by foot when you’re in town. What’s your family’s favorite part of San Francisco?

Here’s some more advice for San Francisco-bound travelers:

Featured photo by Kali Conlon / Getty Images. All other photos by the author.

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