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The Best Ways to Enjoy Northern California at Your Own Pace

Where can you explore one of America’s most iconic and beloved cities by foot, walk across one of the world’s most magnificent bridges, and then explore two gloriously scenic national parks and one state park, all a very short drive away?

The Best Ways to Enjoy Northern California at Your Own Pace

There’s only one place. And that’s the Bay Area, California’s diverse, nine-county region surrounding the San Francisco Bay. It’s part-cosmopolitan, part laid-back country living – and all California-cool. Oh, and by the way, it rests amidst some of the most breathtaking natural beauty you’re ever likely to set foot in.

North of the renowned glimmering bay with its famous bridge and island prison, redwood trees scrape the sky at heights of up to 250 feet. A mountain beloved by locals rises from Pacific shores. And an emerald-hued canvas of tide pools, gentle estuaries, and green marsh stretches along a calming shore.

This magnificent region has long been known for its free-wheeling vibe. That makes it the perfect destination for a Self-Guided Tour. Set your own pace. Do your own thing. Pause when you want, whether to sample cuisine from a food truck or gaze up a while at the towering redwoods. In that Bay Area spirit, you do you.


San Francisco Treats

All great walks in California’s Bay Area must begin in San Francisco. And there’s so much here to indulge your curiosity in the Golden Gate City. It’s truly impossible to overstate the historic, cultural, and architectural significance of this spectacular city.

You could start at the Ferry Building, spreading out along the piers under the distinctive clock tower, which was fashioned after one in Seville, Spain. The markets here are bustling any time of day – and in the morning, the air is rich with the aromas of coffee and pastries.

Listen for the clang of the trolley and hop one of the city’s historic cable cars, introduced in the late 19th century and today a National Historic Landmark. The Powell-Hyde line takes you from the Ferry Building to Lombard Street, renowned for its many switchback curves. (Though we have it on good faith that Potrero Hill’s Vermont Street – named for the home state of Country Walkers – is even more crooked!) Speaking of Bay City icons, the famous Six Sisters, a pretty row of pastel-colored Queen Anne style Victorian homes, line the streets around Alamo Square. Remarkably, they appeared on the cityscape around the same time as the cable car was introduced, in 1895.

The anchor of the city is Golden Gate Park, 1,000 glorious acres of fields, gardens, lakes, windmills, gardens, and cultural institutions. It’s 20% larger than New York’s Central Park, so it’s never a quick visit. Plan accordingly, but a must-see is the California Academy of Sciences, literally built into the landscape and overflowing with fascinating exhibits. (Check for hours.) Also within the park, the Bison Paddock, home to lumbering creatures since 1890, is a delight.

If time is short, a stroll through the Presidio is equally satisfying, boasting 24 miles of walking trails and lovely beaches overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Its locale is convenient, because a walk across the fabled suspension bridge is like no other. We think that strolling across its 1.7-mile span – stealing many a traveler’s heart since it opened in 1937 – is the most dramatic way to deeply appreciate the engineering prowess required to connect the city to Marin County. Around you, gate-like towers soar to the sky (painted not red, but International Orange, in case you were wondering). Farther in the bay off to your right, cresting waves lash at Alcatraz, the notorious island prison that held the likes of Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly.

It’s one of the most unforgettable crossings you’ll ever make. And believe us, what waits on the other side is truly special.


Towering Redwoods Flank a Beloved Peak

The Muir Woods National Monument preserves a wide swath of first-growth coast redwoods. Soaring up to 250 feet, they are among the world’s oldest and most awe-inspiring trees. Huge ferns and enormous hollow logs share the fertile forest floor, creating an otherworldly paradise that might remind you of a Grimm fairy tale – or a sublime cathedral.

The oldest tree here has been standing for some 1,000 years. For much of that time, the redwoods covered the entire coast of California. This particular stand was harvested to build San Francisco – first at its founding and then after the earthquake of 1906. The federal government stepped in to protect it in 1908 and named the land for renowned preservationist John Muir.

These arboreal stalwarts of nature have long been nourished by the Pacific moisture that settles into the canyon on the west side of Mount Tamalpais. Known as “Tam” to locals, it is the highest summit in the Bay Area. Protected within Mount Tamalpais State Park, this beloved peak plays a rich part in local life in Marin County. Tam played a role in the birth of mountain biking in the 1970s, when casual bikers added better brakes and fatter tires to their Schwinn two-wheelers. Today, hikers, bikers, and other outdoor lovers follow the miles of trails threading through redwood groves and oak forests. A natural amphitheater on the mountain’s slopes – the Cushing Memorial Amphitheater – hosts music and other cultural events.


An Oasis of Seaside Calm

For its landscapes and ecosystem, the Point Reyes National Seashore could not be more different from Muir Woods. Windswept and wild, the marshland and rangeland here hug the moody surf of the Pacific coast. Its headland and estuaries are constantly changing – but no more so than during the 1906 earthquake when this entire stretch of land shifted a full 20 feet to the north.

Steep cliffs, white sand beaches, and tranquil bays dominate the vistas here. Walkers are sometimes rewarded when tule elk step out of a stand of trees, heron take flight in search of food, harbor seals frolic nearby, or even gray whales guide their calves along the shoreline. This pristine marine environment is unlike any other. And it is sheer joy to take it all at a pace that suits you, all while breathing in the clean, crisp ocean air that has a way of casting you in a sea-kissed spell.


Explore the Bay Area by foot at your own pace during our California: San Francisco to Point Reyes Self-Guided Tour.


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