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More Car-Free Getaways: Ten Special Places

MapIn their quantity, natural diversity, and unspoiled feel, the Bay Area's parks and natural areas are a cornerstone of the region's high quality of life. Singled out here are 10 special parks -- all accessible without a car -- that provide inspirational glimpses of the countless wild surprises that await the curious, adventurous naturalist in the Bay Area's big outdoors. Lace up your boots, hop on a bus or train, and set forth on a journey into the wilds at your doorstep.

  1. San Pedro Valley County Park
  2. McNee Ranch State Park
  3. Redwood Regional Park/Roberts Recreation Area
  4. Mission Peak Regional Preserve
  5. Edgewood County Park
  6. Mount Diablo State Park
  7. Muir Woods National Monument
  8. Sweeney Ridge, Golden Gate National Recreation Area
  9. Windy Hill Open Space Preserve
  10. Samuel P. Taylor State Park


San Pedro Valley County Park
Photo of San Pedro Valley County Park

A quiet and peaceful park in Pacifica, San Pedro Valley is centered around the south and middle forks of San Pedro Creek, home to a run of migrant steelhead that spawn here in the winter months. The creeks cut through lush valleys filled with unusual plants such as California hazelnut, giant chinquapin, creek dogwood, and arroyo willow. In the rainy season, visitors to San Pedro Valley have the chance to see one of the Bay Area's prettiest waterfalls -- Brooks Falls, a tall, narrow cascade of water that plunges 175 feet in three tiers. Birdwatchers and wildlife watchers also see plenty of action in this park.

The Details
Map: A park map is available for free at the visitor center.
Park Information: San Pedro Valley County Park, (650) 355-8289 or San Mateo County Parks and Recreation, (650) 363-4020; website: www.eparks.net.
Getting There: Take SamTrans bus #1L from Daly City BART station to Linda Mar shopping center in Pacifica. Transfer to SamTrans bus #10L or #10T. Get off at Terra Nova Boulevard. Walk east on Terra Nova for 200 yards to Oddstadt Boulevard, then turn right and continue to park entrance. (Or, walk from Linda Mar shopping center; total distance is two miles.)

McNee Ranch State Park
Photo of McNee Ranch State Park

One of the least visited state parks in the Bay Area, McNee Ranch State Park offers almost nothing in the way of services (no campground, no ranger station, no restrooms, and even few trail signs) but provides two things hikers and bikers cherish: Gray Whale Cove Trail, perfect for a short stroll to watch the sun set; and Montara Mountain Trail, a wide, multi-use path that climbs to the top of 1,898-foot Montara Mountain. What can you see from the top? To the east it's the Dumbarton Bridge, San Francisco Bay, plus Mount Diablo in the background. To the west it's the wild Pacific coast all the way north to San Francisco and south to Pescadero. Plus Mount Tamalpais, the skyline of San Francisco, and the Santa Cruz Mountains. A breathtaking panorama.

The Details
Map: A map of San Mateo Coast State Parks and Beaches, which includes McNee Ranch, is available for $1 by mail from California State Parks, Bay Area District, 250 Executive Park Boulevard, Suite 4900, San Francisco, CA 94135. Phone (415) 330-6300.
Park Information: Half Moon Bay State Beach, (650) 726-8819 or (650) 726-8820.
Getting There: Take SamTrans bus #1L from Daly City BART station to Highway 1 and 2nd Street in Montara. Walk north on Highway 1 for a half mile to a metal gate and small dirt parking lot on the east side of the road; this is the McNee Ranch Trailhead.

Redwood Regional Park/Roberts Recreation Area
Photo of Redwood Regional Park/Roberts Recreation Area

They don't call it Redwood Regional Park for nothing. Although the original redwoods in this canyon were logged to provide lumber for the growing cities of San Francisco and San Jose, today their shaggy-barked offspring grow more than 100 feet tall. Some botanists believe this grove's original redwoods may have been the largest the world has ever known. The massive trees were used as navigational guides by ships sailing into San Francisco Bay before the construction of lighthouses. The redwoods aren't the only treasures of Redwood Regional Park. Redwood Creek, which bisects the park, is home to rainbow trout that are descendants of the original, pure strain of rainbows -- the ones the species is named after.

The Details
Map: A park map is available for free at Roberts entrance kiosk.
Park Information: East Bay Regional Park District, (510) 562-7275 or (510) 635-0135; website: www.ebparks.org
Getting There: From Coliseum BART, take AC bus #46A to Skyline Boulevard near Joaquin Miller Road (former park headquarters). From the bus stop, a trail leads uphill a third of a mile to Roberts Recreation Area.

Mission Peak Regional Preserve
Photo of Mission Peak Regional Preserve

The grassy slopes of 2,517-foot Mission Peak are essential hiking turf for outdoor lovers in Alameda County. On any sunny weekend day with good visibility, hundreds of East and South Bay residents make the pilgrimage to Mission Peak's summit. At the top, they enjoy first-rate views of the South Bay, the northern Santa Cruz Mountains, the Peninsula, San Francisco, and even the summits of the Sierra Nevada. Along the way, they are entertained by colorful hang gliders and paragliders taking off from Mission Peak's slopes, then soaring with the thermals high overhead.

The Details
Map: A park map is available for free at the staging area.
Park Information: East Bay Regional Park District, (510) 562-7275 or (510) 635-0135; website: www.ebparks.org
Getting There: From Fremont BART, take AC bus #28 to Paseo Parkway and Mission Boulevard. Cross Mission Boulevard and walk up Stanford Avenue one mile to trailhead.

Edgewood County Park
Photo of Edgewood County Park

Edgewood is a 500-acre oasis of open space in the midst of the populous Peninsula area. What makes it even more special is its 160 acres of rare serpentine grassland, which gives rise to at least 10 threatened or endangered plant species, including San Francisco thornmint, which was thought to be extinct only a few years ago. The Bay Checkerspot butterfly, another endangered species, is also found here. In spring, don't miss the park's docent-led wildflower walks.

The Details
Map: A park map is available for free at the park entrance.
Park Information: Edgewood County Park, (650) 368-6283 or San Mateo County Parks and Recreation, (650) 363-4020; website: www.eparks.net.
Getting There: From San Carlos CalTrain, take SamTrans bus #46B to La Mesa Road at Crestview Drive. Walk down Crestview Drive to Edgewood, then turn left and walk 500 feet to park entrance.

Mount Diablo State Park
Photo of Mount Diablo State Park

Public transportation doesn't lead you to the most popular section of huge Mount Diablo State Park, but it does take you to one of its most scenic areas. While most people head for Diablo's 3,849-foot summit to check out the views, you'll be enjoying the solitude and the scenery in Donner, Back, and Mitchell canyons. Highlights of the canyons include the many cascades of Diablo Falls (winter only), unusual flora such as knobcone pines and Coulter pines, and the knife-thin ridge of 2,369-foot Eagle Peak.

The Details
Map: A Mount Diablo State Park, map is available for $1 by contacting the number below. (A more detailed map is available for $5.)
Park Information: Mount Diablo State Park, (925) 837-2525 or (925) 837-0904; website: www.mdia.org.
Getting There: From Concord BART, take County Connection Bus #110 to intersection of Marsh Creek and El Molino in Clayton. Trail leads south from bus stop along west side of El Molino to enter "back" side of park.

Muir Woods National Monument
Photo of Muir Woods National Monument

The ancient redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument are grand specimens, growing as wide as 14 feet in diameter. The park's Cathedral Grove and Bohemian Grove include some trees more than 250 feet tall. They are surrounded by an understory of bays, tanoak, thimbleberry, sword ferns, and sorrel -- all lush and green year-round. Redwood Creek cuts through the center of the park. It's a pristine, coursing stream, home to remnant runs of steelhead and coho salmon. After a good rain, you may be lucky enough to spot the colorful fish. They are born in Redwood Creek, live out their adult lives in the Pacific Ocean, then return here to breed and die.

The Details
Map: A Muir Woods map is available for free at the entrance station.
Park Information: Muir Woods National Monument, (415) 388-2595; website: www.nps.gov/muwo
Getting There: Take Golden Gate Transit bus #63 to Mountain Home Inn, then hike southeast on Panoramic Trail to Muir Woods.

Sweeney Ridge, Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Photo of Sweeney Ridge, Golden Gate National Recreation Area

In addition to being a critical habitat area for the endangered Mission blue butterfly, Sweeney Ridge provides an incredible 360-degree panorama that takes in the Pacific coastline and San Francisco Bay as well as the land mass to the east, north, and south. It was here, at the 1,200-foot summit of Sweeney Ridge, that Gaspar de Portola and the Portola Expedition discovered San Francisco Bay on November 4, 1769. Birdwatchers, bring your binoculars: Expect to see plentiful raptors, including Cooper's hawks, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, and northern harriers. Red-shouldered hawks, osprey, and bald eagles are occasionally spotted.

The Details
Map: Golden Gate National Recreation Area map (free at park visitor centers)
Park Information: Golden Gate National Recreation Area, (415) 239-2366 or (415) 556-8642; website: www.nps.gov/goga
Getting There: From Colma BART, take SamTrans bus #121 to Skyline College. Walk to parking lot #2; trail begins on the back side of parking lot.

Windy Hill Open Space Preserve
Photo of Windy Hill Open Space Preserve

From where the bus drops you off, there's no place to hike but up... but that's fine, because every inch of this preserve's 12 miles of trails have much to offer. The landscape is a mix of giant fir and redwood forests and wide-open grassland ridges. If you make it to the top of Windy Hill, you can circle its distinctive, grassy hilltop, achieving wide views of San Francisco Bay and the peninsula to the east. From the summit, your vista expands to 360 degrees, including the Pacific Ocean to the west and even San Francisco to the north on high visibility days.

The Details
Map: A park map is available for free at the trailhead.
Park Information: Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, (650) 691-1200; website: www.openspace.org
Getting There: From Palo Alto CalTrain station, take SamTrans bus #282 to Portola Road at Corte Madera Road in Portola Valley. Walk a quarter mile north on Portola Road to parking lot and trailhead.

Samuel P. Taylor State Park
Photo of Samuel P. Taylor State Park

Famous for shady redwoods, a plethora of ferns, and cool camping on summer nights, 3,000-acre Samuel P. Taylor State Park is home to one of the Bay Area's best paved bike paths, built on the old Northwest Pacific Railroad right-of-way, and a multitude of peaceful trails for hikers. Best hike in the park? Take Bill's Trail from Devil's Gulch Horse Camp and wind through a magical forest of ferns and bay laurel to Barnabe Peak, elevation 1,466 feet. On clear days, you can pick out famous landmarks in Point Reyes.

The Details
Map: A park map is available for $1 at the entrance kiosk.
Park Information: Samuel P. Taylor State Park, (415) 488-9897 or (415) 893-1580.
Getting There: Take Golden Gate Transit bus #50, #60, #70, or #80 to San Rafael Transit Center. Transfer to Golden Gate bus #65 to park.

San Pedro Valley County Park McNee Ranch State Park Redwood Regional Park/Roberts Recreation Area Mission Peak Regional Preserve Edgewood County Park Mount Diablo State Park Muir Woods National Monument Sweeney Ridge, Golden Gate National Recreation Area Windy Hill Open Space Preserve Samuel P. Taylor State Park