Fort Funston Park San Francisco

Fort Funston. (Photos: Jaymi Heimbuch)

If you're the outdoorsy type, San Francisco is hard to resist. Whether you want to get your heart rate up or enjoy a zen moment, one of these parks should do the trick.

Fort Funston

For some of the longest and most beautiful stretches of beach in San Francisco, Fort Funston is your go-to location. Between the parking lot and the water are stretches of dunes with trails through the ice plant to walk through. You can make your way down the cliff to the beach by way of these trails, or by a staircase. Take your time getting down to the water, though, because the views from the top of the cliffs are amazing. Also up at the top of the staircase is a hang glider launchpad. On windy days you can watch people take off and sail through the air, or even try it yourself!

San Francisco Fort Funston dogsOnce down on the beach, you're in beachcombers’ heaven. Lots of little pebbles, mollusk shells and sand dollars are washed up, and when the tide is low there are yards and yards of extra beach to walk. You may also pass a string of horseback riders every so often, as horseback riding is allowed on the beach and there is access from a trail cut through the sandy cliff.

While you might see hang gliders and horses, you will definitely see dogs running on the beach. Fort Funston is known to the locals as a sort of doggy Disneyland. Dog walkers bring their charges to burn off energy running through the dunes or in the waves. If you love dogs, this is the place for you. Weekdays between about 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and weekends are the busiest time for dogs, but if you come in the early morning or during the mid- to late afternoon, you might be lucky enough to be the only one on the beach, at least for a while.

Best recreational activities

  • Walking the beach with your dog
  • Hang gliding
  • Hiking in the sand dunes
  • Bird-watching (sort of — shorebirds feed here but are often chased by rambunctious dogs)
  • Horseback riding
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San Francisco Presidio view

The Presidio

The Presidio has a long history in San Francisco. The native Ohlone called this area home, until the Spanish arrived in 1776 and created an outpost, which Mexico took control of for a spell before the U.S. Army took over in 1846. The stories and history created during that time on this windswept and scenic portion of the city is rich indeed. Finally, in 1994, the Presidio became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The park is home to quite a few buildings, including old officers’ quarters and modern buildings used for education, as well as San Francisco National Cemetery. However, it is also covered in beautiful walking and hiking trails that feature stunning vistas of the bay and Golden Gate Bridge. Here, it is common to spot wildlife such as coyotes and raptors, and the Presidio is home to endangered species including at least 12 species of endangered plants.

San Francisco Presidio trail

Visiting the Presidio offers everything from walks among tall cypress and eucalyptus trees to strolls along Baker Beach and Crissy Field, and the Presidio continues right on down to the entrance to Golden Gate Bridge. Multiple trails create a series of loops that can be a choose-your-own-adventure walk as you decide where to head next. But don't worry; it's not so large that you could get lost. Though the Presidio is in a busy urban area, it still offers an escape for campers, with campsites available for around $99 (yes, everything in San Francisco is expensive, even camping). And a golf course is located at the south end of the park.

Best recreational activities

  • Walking and hiking
  • Photographing flora and fauna
  • Camping
  • Learning about the history of San Francisco
  • Golf
  • Beach-going
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San Francisco Lands End Sutro Bath

Lands End

The far northwest corner of San Francisco is an open park called Lands End. Stretching from the Sutro Baths ruins on the west side of the city around the corner of the peninsula and all the way to 33rd Avenue, this stretch of open space shows breathtaking ocean view after breathtaking ocean view, including great vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge. The far east corner nestles up against the Presidio, and it would be easy to spend an entire day or weekend just exploring what these two parks have to offer.

San Francisco Lands End trailStart your adventure at the new Lands End Lookout, where you can gather up information about this park, its history and native flora and fauna. Here you will also be able to wander down to the ruins of Sutro Baths, where you can walk along the seawall and watch the wildlife that rests here, from brown pelicans to great blue herons and raptors like red-tailed hawks. In fact, a river otter even lived here for a few months, nicknamed Sutro Sam. This is also a spectacular place to be at sunset, as the glassy water of the baths reflects the colors of the sky. In fact, anywhere at Lands End is where you want to be at sunset. In the mornings however, you are likely to be greeted by fog, but that doesn't detract from the experience — the fog adds an incredible moodiness to the shoreline and cypress trees that is beautiful to walk through.

From the baths, you can take trails that follow former railheads of the Ferries and Cliff House Railway, through the cypress trees and to the east where you will be able to view the Golden Gate Bridge spanning the entrance to the bay. Several lookout points, including Mile Rock Overlook, offer a view of shipwrecks during low tides. Trails are also wheelchair, stroller and bike accessible, so this is a park for the entire family regardless of age or walking ability.

Best recreational activities

  • Walking and hiking
  • Photography of flora and fauna
  • Bird-watching
  • Watching the sunset
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San Francisco Crissy Field trails

Crissy Field

Crissy Field is an all-purpose play area. This park features huge grass lawns for flying kites and playing catch, as well as designated BBQ areas for the picnickers; stretches of sandy beach for lying in the sun and paddling in the waves, plus a small stream that runs from the ocean into a marsh; fenced off areas for protecting wildlife, which makes for great bird-watching; great views of the bay, from the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz and dozens of sailboats in between; and wide trails for jogging and biking along one of the most scenic routes in the city.

San Francisco Crissy Field beach

This park is part of the Presidio, but feels like its own entity, since it is one of the few flat open areas in the city. And the fact that it's flat, open and often sunny makes it popular. It is a well-known place to bring dogs to play, as a section of beach allows dogs off-leash and the grassy area is perfect for playing fetch. During the week, dog walkers bring their packs of dogs (the city has a maximum of eight dogs per walker) to play so be prepared for a lot of four-legged critters running around. During weekends, it is a popular place for locals to enjoy some sunshine, though it is rarely warm enough to don a bikini or swim trunks. But you will see swarms of walkers, joggers and cyclists on the wide trails. You can rent bikes to ride along the trails down to (and even across) the Golden Gate Bridge, and they feature little maps on the handlebars.

San Francisco Crissy Field sign

The real highlights for Crissy Field are people watching, admiring the bay and all the sailboats as they drift by, and playing on the lawn and sandy beach. But as mentioned earlier, it is also a great place to watch birds, and if you bring your camera and hang out by the marsh, you can get some excellent photographs of native and migratory birds.

Best recreational activities

  • Walking, jogging, cycling
  • Birdwatching
  • Playing with the dog
  • Kite flying
  • Kite surfing
  • Sailing
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San Francisco Golden Gate Park North Pond

Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park is the beating heart of San Francisco. While all the parks mentioned so far have incredible views, beautiful trails and opportunity for adventure, Golden Gate is where you have the best chance to find something for everyone in the family, from scenic strolls to spotting wildlife to playing on grassy fields or playgrounds.

San Francisco Golden Gate Park Tea GardenHome to California Academy of Sciences and the DeYoung Museum among other famous landmarks, the park is also a place for people to enjoy acres upon acres of open space. For those who like a tame approach to being outside, a walk through the botanical gardens or the Japanese tea garden — especially in spring and summer — is bliss. For those who want a little more spark to their stroll, there are tree-lined trails where you are likely to spot coyotes, raccoons and other wildlife. Many local wildlife photographers spend hours every week in Golden Gate, capturing photographs you wouldn't think could be had in a park in the middle of a bustling city. But those who tend this park make sure that it is a safe and healthy environment for species other than humans. Multiple ponds suit various tastes, from the open Spreckles Pond where you can sail miniature boats, to North Pond, thick with vegetation and several bird species from mallards and bufflehead ducks to cormorants sunning on rocks.

Wild animals aren't the only ones living in the park — a paddock is home to several bison. American bison were first brought to the park in the 1890s as a conservation strategy when the species was nearly wiped out. The bison living in the paddock today are actually descendants of those given to then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein by her husband as a birthday gift in 1984.

Best recreational activities

  • Jogging, walking and cycling
  • Picnicking and lawn sports
  • Bird-watching and spotting interesting flora and fauna
  • Botanical gardens for fascinating and beautiful plants
This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States. We'll be adding new parks all summer, so check back for more.

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