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California Trails

Ultimate Summer Escapes: The Best Dayhikes and Backpacking Trips Near You

Coming soon to your city: far-out adventures that are shockingly close to home.

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San Francisco

In the city

Ocean Beach to Fort Funston Let the windsurfers have the bay. Hikers will see the best of the city’s oceanfront property on this 10-mile tour.

In June, when most of the Bay Area has dried to a golden brown, Fort Funston, with its foggy climate, is awash in wildflowers. Hike there from Ocean Beach (10 miles round-trip) for a true taste of San Francisco’s coastal culture: You’ll see neoprene-clad surfers braving the 55°F waters at Ocean Beach, then explore the last vestiges of the sand-dune eco-system that once covered much of Golden Gate Park. Today, hang gliders soar over the dunes for a quick airtime fix, sharing the sky with Western gulls, common and Arctic terns, and American kestrels. Tides shift the dune trails each winter, making route–finding an adventure.

Get There Park in the Ocean Beach lot, where Balboa Street meets the Great Highway.

Get Info Golden Gate National Recreation Area, (415) 561-4700;


Mt. Tamalpais Hike the East Peak Loop in the afternoon, be home for happy hour, and stop wondering why San Fran real estate prices only go up.

Fifty miles of trail web this classic Bay Area peak; a trail map is your ticket to solitude. The best routes offer expansive views of the ocean, city, and coastal ranges, and showcase the peak’s diversity: forests of redwood, Douglas fir, oak, and bay; grassy meadows; and manzanita and coyote brush. Plot your own route or try this 7-mile, 7-trail loop combo. From the East Peak parking area, link these trails counterclockwise to circle the Middle and West Peaks (you’ll need that map, but it’s a cinch to follow): Eldridge Grade, Rock Spring Trail, Benstein, Upper North Side, International, Lakeview, Middle Peak Fire Road.

Get There The East Peak parking area is at the end of East Ridgecrest Road, about 30 minutes north of San Francisco by car.

Get Info Mt. Tamalpais State Park, (415) 388-2070;


Tomales Bay Kayak wild waters to a secret beach camp,

then top off your trip with fresh-shucked oysters.

In a region where scenic beauty is considered as much a basic right as organic baby arugula, the calm blue waters and boat-in-only white sand beaches of Tomales Bay still stand out. For a moderate 12-mile sea-kayaking excursion, launch from Blue Waters Kayaking (415-663-1743; in Marshall, paddle across the bay, then head north along the shore where camping is permitted anywhere you won’t disturb the wildlife. You’ll pass the elk fence that divides the Tomales Point peninsula into separate cow and elk grazing grounds, then float by Pelican Point, where Baja-based birds spend the summer. About 2 miles past the prominent 500-foot White Gulch cliffs, you’ll arrive at one of the bay’s best tent sites, recognizable by the inviting beach near a tide pool. A hiking trail leads over the ridge through yellow lupine and chaparral to a smaller beach frequented by abalone divers and seals. In the morning, paddle south, stopping at White Gulch, a prime elk-viewing spot. Have more time? Hike up the trail toward the Pierce Point Ranch for commanding views of the Pacific Ocean. Return to Marshall in time to feast on oysters at the Marshall Store (at the take-out), or reserve a BBQ and table at the nearby Hog Island Oyster Company and cook up your own.

Get There The town of Marshall is about 50 miles from San Francisco on CA 1.

Get Info Point Reyes National Seashore, (415) 464-5100;


In the city

Oleta River State Park Who knew an Everglades-esque wonderland was so close? Tackle these lush trails to find a zoo’s worth of wild birds.

Just 13 miles up-sand from South Beach-spiritual homeland of $7 smoothies, Prada groupies, and a sea of perfect teeth-lies a 1,043-acre swath of genuine wilderness where Art Deco facades fade to mangrove-lined riverbanks and preening bottlenose dolphins. The layout inspires aimless wandering: 10.5 miles of signed trails loop out from a 4.5-mile unpaved service road, crisscrossing the Australian-pine forest here, tracing canals there, and abutting the Intracoastal Waterway. The mostly flat terrain features a few steep hills and sections of loose rock. Hikers may spot herons, roseate spoonbills, kingfishers, and ospreys inland; look seaward for dolphins and manatees.

Mountain bikers should pick up a free trail map at the ranger station-routes are marked for difficulty, ski-resort-style–and be sure to ask about new spur trails. The latest and greatest, called Gilligan’s Island Trail, zigs and zags, throwing you jump after jump.

Get There The park is on Biscayne Bay in North Miami, 17 miles north of downtown.

Get Info Oleta River State Park, (305) 919-1846; Blue Moon Outdoor Center, in the park, rents bikes ($12 per hour; 305-957-8822).


Biscayne National Park Snorkel with angelfish and be home for dinner.

Sure, Miami’s hot summer days and proximity to the ocean are the perfect excuse to throw down a towel and worship the golden orb-but cooler heads can still find adventure nearby. To wit: The world’s third longest coral reef tract begins south of Miami across Biscayne Bay. Thanks to the park’s daily 3-hour snorkeling tours, the living reef is easy to explore. After a 45-minute boat ride, you’ll dive into the turquoise waters and flipper along 25-foot sea cliffs or through the giant ribs of shipwrecks teeming with sea life: Rainbow-colored parrotfish, black-and-yellow French angelfish, and prison-striped sergeant majors flit around a seascape of gem-toned sponges and purple, blue, and green sea fans. Swim with a school of fluttering fish and you’ll be extra glad you didn’t spend the day smelling like a coconut.

Get There The park’s Dante Fascell Visitor Center is 35 miles south of downtown Miami.

Get Info Biscayne National Park, (305) 230-7275; Snorkeling trips leave daily from Convoy Point at 1:30 p.m. and return at 4:30 p.m.; $35 fee includes mask, snorkel, and fins. For reservations, call Biscayne National Underwater Park, Inc. (305-230-1100).


Everglades National Park Plunge into emerald back country on the Hells Bay Canoe Trail–navigation skills not required.

Planning a backcountry trip in Everglades National Park can seem a bit like ordering surf and turf: more than many people can comfortably handle. But this 12-mile round trip to Hells Bay Chickee winds through tiny streams and ponds, making it a fine way to dip your toe into Everglades navigation while hewing to a well-marked route. Start the trip from the signed Hells Bay trailhead off the main park road, 9 miles north of the Flamingo Visitor Center. Numbered PVC posts mark the route, allowing you to enjoy the setting rather than obsessing over your map and compass. Bunk at Lard Can campsite (3 miles) or Hells Bay Chickee. If you’re still hankering for some adventure, continue past Hells Bay and the route-finding is all on you: The endless lakelets and freshwater creeks to the northwest aren’t on marine charts, so aerial photos–try–are your best bet for any ad-vanced exploration (GPS wouldn’t hurt, either).

Get There The main park entrance is 40 miles south of downtown Miami in Homestead; from there, the Flamingo Visitor Center is 38 miles to the southwest.

Get Info Everglades National Park, (239) 695-2945;

New York City

In the city

New York Greenways Spin through a surprisingly wild seashore-and a living, breathing city-on this 50-mile ride to Coney Island and beyond.

New Yorkers like to brag about their restaurants; good thing most of them don’t know how good their riding is, too. This epic follows the New York Greenways path from Prospect Park in Brooklyn to the Coney Island boardwalk, then loops around Jamaica Bay, home of a flourishing wildlife refuge. Total distance is about 50 miles, but there are several bailouts. From Prospect Park, head south to Ocean Parkway, cruising for about 4.5 miles on the nation’s first designated bikeway (it opened with a brass band in 1895). You’ll dead-end at Coney Island, a blue-collar resort area once famous for its vast amusement park. Eat a Nathan’s hotdog (the institution originated here in 1916), then ride east to Emmons Avenue, where you can either subway home or pick up the Shore Parkway Bike Path. If you opt for the latter, slow down long enough to take in the Gateway National Recreation Area, a major pit stop for shorebirds migrating on the Atlantic flyway. At Canarsie Beach the trail gets dodgy–you’ll need nubby tires and some perseverance for a few minutes–but it smoothes out again after the abandoned landfills (quit whining; we said it’s an urban ride). Turn right at Cross Bay Blvd. and take the bridge to Rockaway Beach, a popular swimming and surfing spot where you can cool off–then catch the Long Island Railroad back to Manhattan or complete the loop back to Ocean Parkway via the Marine Parkway and Flatbush Avenue.

Get There Take the Q, S, or B train to the Prospect Park Station.

Get Info NYC Dept. of Parks & Recreation: (212) 639-9675;


Palisades Trek the ramparts along the Hudson.

Since the chance of a New Yorker owning a car is inversely related to the likelihood he’ll be wearing black, it makes perfect sense that you can walk across the George Washington Bridge and step right onto a network of riverside trails. For a 7.5-mile loop from the west end of the GWB, pick up the Long Path, a 326-mile trail that stretches north to near Albany. Hike atop the Palisades, a 20-mile band of sheer rock cliffs that drop straight into the Hudson and offer sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline. At 2.1 miles, turn right onto the Dyckman Hill Trail, which descends 300 feet via a series of stone steps. At the river, follow the Shore Trail south along the water, then up another series of stone steps to the bridge.

Get There Pedestrian access to the GW Bridge is from Cabrini Boulevard near 178th; alternatively, cross the bridge and park at the trailhead in Fort Lee Historic Park.

Get Info Palisades Interstate Park, (201) 768-1360; a


The Highlands Trail See the Garden State’s better half on this new path.

What started as a dream-to build a trail that links B&Bs for 150 miles, the trailhead just an hour’s drive from Manhattan-has proven to be just that. While the Highlands Trail should someday extend from New York’s Storm King Mountain all the way to the Delaware River, land-rights issues have thwarted the B&B concept-and minimized camping options. But backpackers don’t need no fussy B&Bs; instead, there’s this 18-mile out-and-back from the Columbia Rail Trail at Califon, NJ through Voorhees State Park to Spruce Run Recreation Area; both parks allow camping from April 1 through October 31. Because the Highlands is a motley concoction of new and existing trails and residential roads, you’ll need the detailed directions on the NY/NJ Trail Conference Web site to avoid getting lost in the wilds-yes, wilds-of Jersey.

Get There Califon, NJ is about 50 miles from NYC. For precise trailhead directions, see contact info below.

Get Info NY/NJ Jersey Trail Conference, (201) 512-9348;


In the city

The North Branch Trail Discover solitude minutes from the Loop.

A literal escape from the Second City, this trail begins at an urban intersection in northwest Chicago and parallels the river through woodlands, prairies, and suburbs before ending at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. The hike/bike route runs for 20 miles through a quiet paradise that somehow escaped the intrusions of urban sprawl. As you wind under a towering forest canopy and pass through the Skokie Lagoons, the occasional overpass or intersection stoplight are rare reminders that this is, in fact, a city ride.

Get There The trailhead is located at Caldwell and Devon Avenues.

Get Info Forest Preserve District of Cook County, (708) 366-9420;


Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Hike in a jumbo sandbox.

These 20-story mounds of fine blond sand create a 25-mile playground along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Start with a hike up Mt. Baldy, one of two dunes where climbing is permitted. After a mile-long slog to the summit-two steps forward, one slip back-you’ll be rewarded with views of the lake, then the giggle-inducing sensation of sliding down. Next, head to Cowles Bog, where in 4.5 miles you’ll pass through marshes, forested dunes, and a stretch of white-sand beach.

Get There The main visitor center is located 3 miles east of IN 49 at the intersection of IN 12 and Kemil Rd.

Get Info Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, (219) 926-7561, ext. 225;


The Illinois and Michigan Canal Bike-camping meets Midwestern charm on this historic path.

A 61-mile crushed-limestone trail links quaint canal towns and passes through four parks along this once-vital waterway. Multiple access points let you slice and dice the route to fit any schedule, but for the best overnight trip, ride the whole thing at a leisurely pace and camp at one of the walk-in only tent sites at Gebhard Woods State Park (a little more or little less than halfway, depending on which end you start at). This being Illinois, the towpath is pancake flat, so it’s possible to blitz the trail in a day, but then you’d miss out on exploring the historic locks and quiet forests en route.

Get There Use I-55 and I-80 to reach numerous acess points along the path; get details at the Web site below.

Get Info Canal Corridor Association, (815) 588-1100;


In the city

Portage Bay Sea-kayak the Emerald City’s exotic side, then feast on zesty fish tacos.

Rent a kayak at the Agua Verde Paddle Club, then choose your own adventure: Turn right for a nature outing, or left for a tour of the city’s working waterfront. The former entails a 1.5-hour paddle to the Washington Park Arboretum past sea turtles and eagles, and a stroll amid Japanese maples. Opt for the industrial circuit, an expedition of up to 3 hours, and you’ll float past old crabbing boats and shipyards where massive vessels await repairs or a fresh coat. Both options are best topped off with a catfish taco at the Agua Verde Cafe.

Get There The cafe is on NE Boat St., across Lake Union from downtown.

Get Info Kayak rental is $15 per hour, $25 for 2 hours. (206) 545-8570;


Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest Hike to an alpine ghost town.

Come Saturday, Seattle’s REI-addicted, Clif Bar-fueled denizens drive east, hunting for a day’s adventure off I-90; give ’em the slip by heading north on I-5. You’ll find jagged mountains in every direction, including both sides of the old railroad grade to Monte Cristo (8 miles round-trip), a circa-1890 gold- and silver-mining town. Side trails riddle the ruins and roam every which way past old machinery. At the end of the townsite, take the steep 1-mile spur trail to Glacier Falls, where you’ll find many a good lunch rock and sightlines to glaciers and hulking 7,000-foot peaks.

Get There The trailhead is at Barlow Pass in the town of Granite Falls, 43 miles north of Seattle.

Get Info Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, (800) 627-0062;


Mt. Rainier National Park Take a shortcut to the splendors of Seattle’s local giant.

Sure, Rainier sometimes seems like Seattle’s communal weekend home. But you can avoid the throngs if you bypass the park’s two main visitor centers, Paradise and Sunrise, in favor of its less visited northwest corner. There, you can skirt around the base of Mother Mountain in a 17-mile loop that combines a stretch of the Wonderland Trail–Rainier’s classic 93-mile circumference route–and the Spray Park Trail, a shortcut favored by veteran Wonderland thru-hikers. From Mowich Lake Campground, head south on the Spray Park Trail, which offers better views of Rainier than the parallel stretch of the Wonderland. You’ll get your first glimpse of the 14,410-foot peak at the Eagle Cliff vantage point, then arrive at a short spur for 300-foot Spray Falls. Next comes Spray Park and the first of its extensive wildflower meadows. With each ridgeline, the views of Mt. Rainier get enticingly fuller. At the high point, you’ll traverse a seasonal snowfield spackled with white avalanche lilies and, after a series of switchbacks, arrive at the forested Cataract Camp (mile 7) to bunk down. In the morning, continue on to the Wonderland Trail as it descends gently to the northwest (paralleling the Carbon River) and then angles up the mountain, with a homestretch elevation gain of 1,200 feet.

Get There Mowich Lake Campground is 70 miles from Seattle. From Carbonado, follow State Route 165 until it ends at the lake.

Get Info Mt. Rainier National Park, (360) 569-2211, ext. 3314;

Los Angeles

In the city

Griffith Park Make your getaway on a horse, and witness the rare convergence of English saddles and Mexican salsa.

Occupying 4,107 acres of Los Angeles County, Griffith Park is one of the largest urban parks in the United States. And yet, since few of its 53 miles of trails are signed, hikers stick to a handful of routes-most often the trail that leads to the top of Mt. Hollywood. Avoid the beaten track by signing on for a guided horseback ride along the park’s lesser-known routes. Evening outings with Sunset Ranch Hollywood feature 360-degree views of the city; stop halfway (after an hour and a half) for Mexican food and country music at Viva Cantina.

Get There Sunset Ranch is located at the top of Beachwood Drive in the Hollywood Hills.

Get Info Griffith Park, (323) 913-4688. At Sunset Ranch Hollywood (323-469-5450; ), rides cost $50 and up (not including dinner).


Santa Monica Mountains

Take the kids or just take it easy

on this low-effort, big-view hike.

Some lucky hikers stumble upon Sandstone Peak by the cardinal rule of L.A. hiking–if the parking lot is full, keep driving–and then credit serendipity for their discovery of one of the area’s best moderate dayhikes. With only a few steep climbs, this 6-mile loop has landmarks that make it fun for kids: a giant boulder split in two; another house-sized boulder balanced on a small rock; and a picnic-perfect streamside oak grove. Start hiking on the Mishe Mokwa Trail, then pick up the Backbone Trail about 3 miles out; take the short spur to the top of 3,111-foot Sandstone Peak. The highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains, the peak is actually composed of volcanic rock. But you won’t mind the misnomer when you’re enjoying its wraparound panorama of Ventura County, the Channel Islands, and hills sloping all the way to the Pacific.

Get There

From Malibu, take CA 1 to Yerba Buena Road and travel 6.3 miles east to the trailhead.

Get Info Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area, (805) 370-2301;


San Gabriel Mountains Summit popular Mt. Baldy the old-fashioned way–earn it.

Climbing this SoCal classic from the backside is for peakbaggers who’d rather haul butt than use the Baldy ski lift to summit the highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains. Steep, strenuous, and relentlessly uphill, the Old Mt. Baldy Trail was largely abandoned upon completion of the more moderate Devil’s Backbone Trail in 1936. Though little used, the Old Mt. Baldy route (also called the Bear Flats Trail) remains well marked and still claims the largest elevation gain (6,000 feet) of any hike in the range. The trail follows the peak’s southern ridge, passing through chaparral and pine forest to timberline, before topping out at 10,064 feet. On the way down, backtrack on the Old Mt. Baldy Trail for a quarter-mile or so, keeping an eye out for the Ski Hut Trail turnoff on the left. About 2.5 miles from the top, you’ll arrive at a Sierra Club ski hut (open most weekends year-round); you can camp nearby and refill at the spring. In the morning, descend via the Ski Hut Trail, which while steep for stretches is more forgiving and well-trod than your Old Mt. Baldy ascent.

Get There This end-to-end hike requires a car shuttle. The Old Mount Baldy trailhead is at the end of Bear Canyon Rd. The Ski Hut trailhead is at the end of the Baldy fire road; park a half-mile below the ski area.

Get Info Angeles National Forest, (626) 574-1613;

Washington, DC

In the city

Key Chain Loop Hike the wildest trail in a not-so-wild town.

While DC is–let’s face it–about as edgy as a costume-heavy period film, one only needs to cross the Potomac River to find some verve. The first part of this 9.5-mile circuit, heading north along the Virginia side of the Potomac Heritage Trail (PHT), is surprisingly wild. Narrow and twisting, well-blazed but overgrown, the PHT runs between the river and a cliff wall lined with cascading streams. In a few spots, you have to scramble over rockfall. At the Chain Bridge (one of two spans that inspired the route’s clever name), you cross the Potomac River, descend to the manicured Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath in northwest DC-and step back into Merchant-Ivory territory. Built in the 19th century so that mules could pull boats down the canal, the towpath is DC’s Central Park both in the recreational and historical sense. The old Alexandria Aqueduct’s stone remnants still lurk in the river near the Key Bridge.

Get There The PHT trailhead can be accessed from the Roosevelt Island parking lot in Virginia, right across the Potomac off the George Washington Memorial Highway.

Get Info Potomac Heritage Trail, (301) 739-4200;,


Seneca Creek State Park Call Homeland Security: Fat-tire fiends have infiltrated the capital.

Invite mountain bikers to design trails for a 2,000-acre parcel and what do you get? The well-blazed, tight, twisting maze of fast-riding singletrack found in the Schaeffer Farms section of Maryland’s Seneca Creek State Park. Twelve-plus miles of trails circle out in three main loops, each with a web of side trails. Average width: 1.5 feet. Riders flock to the Yellow Trail for its length (6 miles). But this summer, the White Trail will likely earn its share of props: It boasts a new quarter-mile detour that is, essentially, a half-pipe for mountain bikers.

Get There Schaeffer Farms is 25 miles northwest of DC near Germantown, MD.

Get Info Trail hotline, (301) 924-1998; Seneca Creek State Park, (301) 924-2127;


George Washington National Forest Backpack the Wild Oak Trail in the heart of Shenandoah’s quiet cousin

A sleeper destination oft overshadowed by its northern neighbor, Shenandoah National Park, the George Washington National Forest boasts some of the most rugged and remote country in the East. You can tailor your visit to your time frame on the Wild Oak Trail, a 25-mile loop conveniently trisected by two country roads. Hike in on Friday afternoon and you’ll easily complete the circuit in a weekend; for a Saturday morning start, plan on a 16-mile shuttle-hike from the trailhead to the second country road (FDR 96). Each trail section includes a long, steady climb with some steep and rocky stretches, and a gradual descent shaded by a canopy of chestnuts and oaks. Atop the high point, 4,351-foot Little Bald Knob, you’ll find expansive views of the rolling Shenandoah Valley decked out in seasonal greenery; in the lowlands, you’ll ford a 30-foot-wide stretch of the North River, which is usually knee-deep and running at creek-speed by midsummer.

Get There The Wild Oak trailhead is 2 miles west of the junction of State Routes 730 and 718 in Stokesville, VA.

Get Info The Dry River Ranger District Office (topo and trail maps avaiable), (540) 432-0187;


In the city

Memorial Park Mountain-bike here, and see how urban jungle isn’t mere metaphor.

In the heart of America’s sprawling fourth largest city, some 10 miles of singletrack wind through pine and oak woodland so thick and lush that the two main sections have earned the monikers Cambodia and Ho Chi Minh. You can access both areas from the baseball fields off Picnic Lane (for HCM, ride south toward Buffalo Bayou; for Cambodia, head east). Then let the fun begin: Singletrack loops curve, plunge, and climb in steep bursts that defy the city’s otherwise cracker-flat topography.

Get There The park is located directly east of Loop 610 West (I-610).

Get Info The Greater Houston Off-Road Biking Association ( maintains trails. Memorial Park, (713) 845-1000


Village Creek State Park End your steamy summer trek at a primo swimming hole.

This modest state park offers 8 miles of mellow trails and one extraordinary surprise: a quiet sandbar beach. Thanks to a mile-long hike-in, this shaded waterfront stretch sees only 10 to 15 people a day despite its proximity to a city full of hotheads yearning to chill out. The best hike in the park is an easy 5-miler that starts on the Water Oak Trail and loops out to the Yaupon Trail. On the wide dirt paths you’ll traverse cypress swamps and dense stands of pine and magnolia.

Get There The park, in Lumberton, is 100 miles from Houston via I-10.

Get Info (409) 755-7322;


Big Thicket National Preserve Enjoy shady solitude on the Turkey Creek Trail.

With more than 97,000 acres, 1,000 species of flowering plants, and a selection of birds that draws globetrotting ornithologists, Big Thicket is hardly a pinpoint on the map. Yet its trails are unknown to many Houstonians. On the 15-mile Turkey Creek Trail, you’ll find solitude and ample shade. From the south, access the trail via the Kirby Nature Trail. Weave between creekside hardwood bottomlands-a mix of 100-foot water oaks, hickories, and cypress trees-and occasional stands of upland pine. A mile or so after Gore Store Road, near the hike’s midpoint, is the best place to camp. On day 2, take a detour on the Pitcher Plant Trail to see some of the park’s carnivorous plants.

Get There The trailhead is off FM Road 420 near Kountze, 105 miles from Houston.

Get Info (409) 951-6725;