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Best Bets For Outdoor Winter Fun In The Bay Area

ocean beach

There's no better way to enjoy a Bay Area winter day than to get outdoors for a dose of Pacific Ocean air—and maybe a rainstorm or two. Here are some ideas for refreshing local hikes, bike rides, beach walks and ferry rides.

Winter beaching
The beach has everything to stimulate your senses: brisk sea breezes, bright sun, fog, rain, mist and even wild storms rolling right off the ocean. So grab your foul weather gear, ski cap and your warmest fleece and head to the coast for some dazzling winter scenery, beach combing and surf sightseeing.

In San Francisco, Ocean Beach and its paved promenade along the lower Great Highway invites families, walkers and runners to explore the widest and longest expanse of sand on city shores. As you walk among the dunes, keep a careful eye out for the small, shy Western Snowy Plover (Charadrius alexandrinus nivosus), a threatened species that rests here. 

For a wilder experience, head across the Golden Gate Bridge northwest to Marin County and the Point Reyes National Seashore. Near the end of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard is the Great Beach (also known as Point Reyes Beach), an 11-mile-long stretch of sand exposed to the full force of the open ocean. Easily accessed at North and South Beach parking lots, the beach offers dramatic surf and storm watching opportunities, but be forewarned: the surf along this stretch of coast is very dangerous. It's important to keep an eye on the ocean, stay out of the water and maintain a safe distance from the surf zone. Sneaker waves and rip tides can suddenly sweep in, occasionally drawing beach-goers into the cold water where average temperatures hover around 50° in winter.

Take a look at some of San Francisco's other great beaches here.

Biking on Market Street
Bicyclists rides their bikes down Market Street on Bike to Work Day May 13, 2010 in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Wheel fun
One of the most rewarding quick bike workouts in San Francisco is a ride from Golden Gate Park or the Panhandle up through the city streets to the summit of Twin Peaks. There are a number of routes to Twin Peaks Boulevard (see SF Bicycle Coalition map), all of which are fairly steep, but once you reach this access road, a few hairpin turns will bring you up to a stunning panoramic view of the city, bay, bridges and surrounding urban areas.

For some of the best single track mountain bike riding in the Bay Area, some 12 miles of it, head 30 minutes north of San Francisco to China Camp State Park. This is a thickly forested park, set on Point San Pedro on San Pablo Bay. The park's multi-use dirt trails are suitable for beginner and intermediate riders and one of the few legal spots for single track riding in Marin County, the birthplace of mountain biking. Join the Shoreline Trail at its eastern terminus and follow it on a relatively level route along the bayside fringe of the park to the Bay View Trail, where a fairly gradual ascent brings you high along a ridge for a roller coaster-like ride through the woods back to the pavement. 

Need to gear up? Here on some of San Francisco's best bike shops.

Hike the city waterfront and the top of Tam
For an epic San Francisco day hike, start at the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street and head north along the Embarcadero. Pass by Pier 39 and through Fisherman's Wharf to the beautiful and historic Aquatic Park, perfect for a picnic. Continue along the shoreline path to Fort Mason, the Marina Green and Crissy Field. Near Fort Point, look for signs for the Coastal Trail and the Golden Gate Bridge. In the bridge parking lot, pass under Highway 101 on a pedestrian-friendly underpass and follow signs for the Coastal Trail, which hugs the coast above Baker Beach. Continue on to charming China Beach in the fancy Sea Cliff neighborhood and then reconnect with the Coastal Trail in Lincoln Park. Follow the trail through the wooded Land's End to Sutro Point, the Cliff House and finally Ocean Beach, where you can walk along the promenade and city streets to Judah Street. Ride the N-Judah streetcar back to the Ferry Building and celebrate your big hike with a warm coffee or microbrew beer.

Crowning the top of Marin's 2,571-foot Mount Tamalpais State Park, less than an hour's drive north of San Francisco, the Verna Dunshee Trail makes a nearly level three-quarter mile loop around the east peak of the mountain. En route, hikers get wide views of San Francisco, San Francisco Bay, the Marin headlands and the Pacific Ocean stretching like a shimmering sheet to the horizon. A free brochure from the visitor center will help you identify the Verna Dunshee's other treasures: the native manzanita, feathery yerba santa, and sunny yellow monkey flowers growing trailside. To get to the park, from Highway 101 take the Highway 1–Stinson Beach exit and follow the signs to Mount Tamalpais–East Peak. The trail is open daily from 7 a.m. to sunset; day-use fee required.

Check out three more great hikes to do with kids here.

Photo Credit: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Hit the waves
Shhh! Winter at Stinson Beach is one big secret, says Pete Gubbins, proprietor of the Live Water Surf Shop in the coastal burg of Stinson Beach, about a 45-minute drive across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Rent a board and a wetsuit from the shop and hit the waves at Stinson Beach Park. Winter waves average three to five feet high and break more consistently than in summer. Cowabunga! 

Cross-bay ferry ride
For a more leisurely day on the Bay, head to the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street and catch a Golden Gate Transit ferry to the Larkspur Landing terminal. From the boat deck, you'll enjoy views of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, San Francisco's northern waterfront, Alcatraz, Tiburon and even San Quentin Prison. After landing, walk over a pedestrian overpass to the Marin Country Mart for an alfresco lunch on the outdoor patio of the Marin Brewing Company before heading back to San Francisco.

Up for some real winter fun? Check out the Bay Area ski and snow guide for resorts and snowy fun within a reasonable distance from home.

Ben Davidson is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. His work can be found at


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