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Bay Area Hikes With Great Payoffs

These stunning nature hikes are worthwhile anytime, but they especially deliver in winter, with fog-free skies and migrating animals.

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  • View of Sutro Baths at Lands End in San Francisco, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Christina Neilson
    Photo caption
    The Coastal Trail at Lands End begins at the ruins of Sutro Baths, indoor pools that opened in 1896.
  • A snowy egret at Hayward Regional Shoreline, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Sarah Sammis
    Photo caption
    A snowy egret stands still in a shallow pond, waiting to spear some food, at Hayward Regional Shoreline.
  • Water flows through moss-coated boulders at Cataract Falls in Mt. Tam, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Miguel Vieira
    Photo caption
    Water flows dramatically through moss-coated boulders at Cataract Falls in the Mount Tamalpais Watershed.
  • View of the South Bay from Mission Peak, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Travis Wise
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    The strenuous six-mile Mission Peak hike rewards with high-altitude panoramic views of the South Bay.
  • Elephant seals at Año Nuevo Natural Preserve, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Kimon Berlin
    Photo caption
    Elephant seal bulls, which can weigh up to 5,000 pounds, fight for dominance in Año Nuevo Natural Preserve.
  • Moss and mushrooms on a redwood tree at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Sarah Murray
    Photo caption
    After a rainstorm, moss and mushrooms take over a tree trunk at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
  • Rolling hills in Henry W. Coe State Park, picture
    Photo credit
    Photo: Don DeBold
    Photo caption
    Hikers enjoy the view of oak- and manzanita-studded rolling hills in Henry W. Coe State Park.

As the weather around San Francisco turns cool and wet, the fog clears, animals are on the move, and the hills come alive. These hikes highlighting the area’s wild side are worthwhile anytime, but they especially deliver in winter.

Hike for: Migrating animals
Most of the year, male and female elephant seals travel separately in the deep ocean. So when they rejoin to mate in winter, it’s party time. In December and January, visitors to Año Nuevo Natural Preserve who join a naturalist-led three-mile walk can watch 4,000–5,000-pound bulls bump chests as they battle for dominance.

Also try: A three-mile loop at Hayward Regional Shoreline leads past tidal Cogswell Marsh, which teems with birds heading south.

Hike for: Plentiful waterfalls
When it rains, the landscape rushes to life, and Cataract Falls is no exception. The three-mile out-and-back Cataract Trail in the Mount Tamalpais Watershed builds up your anticipation from the start: A splashing creek keeps you company on the steep path from Fairfax-Bolinas Road all the way to a series of beautiful cascades that tumble from pool to pool. (Should the road be closed, which occasionally happens in winter, the falls can be accessed from the Rock Spring trailhead.)

Also try: The one-mile Waterfall Loop at Uvas Canyon County Park near Morgan Hill winds under oaks and maples, and bridges Swanson Creek on its way to four pretty falls.

Hike for: Clear skies
Winter in San Francisco is the best—or at least the most dependable—time to plan a beach trip. Low temperatures keep fog at bay, promising clear views for hikes on the Coastal Trail at Lands End. Three miles round-trip, this bluff-top walk passes the waterside ruins of Sutro Baths, shipwrecks, and a sweeping vista of Marin Headlands and the entire Golden Gate Bridge—not just half of it poking out from a cloud.

Also try: When the heat breaks, it’s time to tackle the exposed six-mile workout to the top of Fremont’s Mission Peak and back. The panoramic view is especially vivid following rainstorms.

Hike for: Glorious quiet
Peaceful year round, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park sees the fewest visitors in winter, a perfect time to wander the pine needle carpet under hushed redwoods and to hike to the observation deck, where you’ll likely have its 360-degree view of the Santa Cruz Mountains and Monterey Bay all to yourself.

Also try: At 87,000 acres, Henry W. Coe State Park is huge, so hikers get plenty of wilderness to themselves on the steep rolling hills blanketed in oak and manzanita, especially in the cool, wet season.

This article was first published in December 2016. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.