When urban life begins to get to you, the Bay Area offers a wealth of refuges. Thanks to enlightened planning, our cities are surrounded by a greenbelt of regional, state, and national parkland: wonderful places for photography, hiking, birding, botanizing, whale-watching, and general communing with nature.
Briones Regional Park
Bigger and wilder than Tilden (described elsewhere). Briones’ freshwater lagoons attract mating newts in late winter. Birds abound, and you might even cross paths with a bobcat, or a rare Alameda whipsnake.
Mount Diablo State Park
On the park’s north side, trails into Mitchell, Donner, and Back Canyons offer prime spring wildflower viewing. The Mount Diablo globe lily blooms here—and nowhere else in the world—in April and May. When it’s sunny, California king snakes and coast horned lizards come out to bask. The view from Diablo’s summit on a clear day stretches as far as the Sierra.
Hayward Regional Shoreline
At this tidal marsh, still in the process of restoration, long-legged stilts and avocets nest just off the trail. Waterbirds and shorebirds are present throughout the year, but this is an especially good spot to catch the spring and fall migrations.
Coyote Hills Regional Park
Rising anomalously from the flat bayshore, the Coyote Hills overlook freshwater marshland, home to muskrats and marsh wrens. There’s also an archeological site with reconstructions of Ohlone dwellings. The adjacent Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge has its own network of trails into the marshes.
A favorite among San Mateo County coastal sites, with harbor seal haulouts on the rocky shore and a freshwater marsh across Highway 1. After a morning with the pelicans, you can stop at Duarte’s Tavern for pie and coffee. Nearby Pebble Beach is great for tidepooling.
Muir Woods National Monument
Yes, it’s congested with tourists. But visit early on a weekday, when you can have these magnificent redwoods mostly to yourself. Early spring is best for redwood wildflowers. With luck, you may hear or see a spotted owl.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
The Marin Headlands, once the site of gun batteries and missile installations, provide unparalleled views of the Bay and the offshore Pacific—and, in fall, a ringside seat for the southbound hawk migration.
Audubon Canyon Ranch
From a vantage point above Bolinas Lagoon, you can watch great blue herons and great egrets rear their gawky young in treetop nests. The lagoon itself teems with ducks and other waterbirds in winter, and seals year-round.
Point Reyes National Seashore
The crown jewel of Bay Area parks. Try the Chimney Rock trail in spring, when wild irises and other wildflowers carpet the coastal bluffs. Migrating gray whales bring seasonal crowds. Other wildlife ranges from herds of tule elk to bratwurst-shaped elephant seals crowding the beaches. And the Seashore is a birder’s Mecca, especially during migration when rarities from eastern North America or Siberia may drop in.