Hidden Stairways and Magical Murals: The Best Urban Hikes for Families

From urban hikes that take you up secret stairways to informative jaunts through San Francisco’s most colorful neighborhoods, the following routes will let you explore the most beautiful parts of the Bay Area—all while getting a healthy dose of exercise and not venturing too far from the bustling city center.

telegraph_hillPhoto: Allison Meier via Flickr

Climb Telegraph Hill
Paper streets may sound tame but they’re a guaranteed workout! Marked on maps, these streets are only accessible on foot because they are too steep. So leave your car at home, you won’t need it. For the sake of romance, take the historical F line trams and get off at Sansome and The Embarcadero. Go down Sansome Street three blocks to a concrete-and-steel stairway called Filbert Steps. This is where you start your ascension. While the first block offers little in the way of eye candy (except for maybe a wild parrot or two), the second will leave you speechless. Wooden cottages, rose bushes, and sculpted gardens line both sides of the stairs. Peek down Napier Lane and Darrell Place and get to Montgomery Street. Your kids will love the “Teacup poodle OK” mural around a water hydrant on your right. Continue the stairs up to Coit Tower—enjoy the view—and come back down the Greenwich steps. They turn into Greenwich Street, leading you to Levi Plaza’s park, a zen place with fountains to splash in and rocks to relax on before hopping back on the train.

mission_districtPhoto: Rheanna Martinez

Take a Family-Friendly Walking Tour of the Mission
See murals, visit Carlos Santana’s former high school and get tipped off on where to score the best tacos on this family-friendly guided walk through San Francisco’s Mission District. Don;t worry about following a map and making all the right turns, because you and the fam will be guided by trusted a trusted expert. Join Wild SF Walking Tours to take in the beauty and history of one of SF’s sunniest and most colorful ‘hoods. You’ll stroll alongside other urban-adventuring families, and be home by lunch (or nap time). Bonus: the tour starts and ends at two of SF’s finest playgrounds, so it’s really a win-win for the family.

Sunday, June 14, 10-11 a.m. 
Meet at the Golden Fire Hydrant on 20th and Dolores St.
(Top of Dolores Park)
San Francisco, Ca
Cost: $15/person. Anyone 3 and up must have a ticket; children 2 and under are free. Strollers and baby carriers welcome.
Online: events.redtri.com

1280px-Berkeley_Indian_Rock_PanoramaPhoto: Wikipedia

Explore Berkeley’s Thousand Oaks
At the top of Solano Avenue in North Berkeley starts the most unexpected urban stroll through parks, streams, volcanic boulders, and traditional Ohlone Indian sites. You will even find chickens to feed on the route! From Solano Avenue at The Alameda, go straight on Indian Rock Path, a narrow lane cutting between houses until it dead ends on Indian Rock Park, a climber’s Mecca. Look for stone steps carved on the right side of the rock and walk to the top. The 360-degree view of the Bay is breathtaking. Continue up on Indian Rock Avenue and turn into San Diego Road. On your left, you will discover John Hinkel Park with its lush canyon and stone amphitheater. Go down into the park to Somerset Avenue and turn right onto Arlington Avenue, then left into Yosemite Road. This is where a clever resident set a chicken coop at street level with a bubble gum dispenser filled with chicken feed and treats for good dogs. Get your quarters out! After Great Stoneface Park, find Indian Trail at the south (left) corner of San Fernando Avenue and walk down Berkeley’s wild side. Turn left on The Alameda, left (up) Yosemite Steps after Capistrano Avenue and down Contra Costa Avenue back to Indian Rock Path. Turn right to Solano Avenue.

sign_hill_sfPhoto: Tim Adams via Flickr

Scale South San Francisco’s Sign Hill
We bet you’ve seen this place hundreds of times as you’ve zoomed up 101 toward San Francisco: A hill covered with white letters, reading “SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO THE INDUSTRIAL CITY,” —it’s the Hollywood sign’s way-less-glamorous, NorCal cousin.

But did you know that this city park situated on the face of San Bruno Mountain is also a rare grassland habitat with endangered animals and kid-friendly hiking trails? Getting to the letters is easy from Grand Avenue, just a short, uphill walk through a quiet suburban neighborhood.The Letters Trail is a short and fairly easy, and takes you right up to the big white signs. (If you’re looking for something longer there are three other trail options to choose from: Ridge, Seubert and Iris Hill). Three-year-olds should be able to walk this trail on their own. Younger kids can be carried in a backpack, as the walk is not stroller-accessible.

Ring Mountain_cortePhoto: Winston T. via Yelp

Hike on Ring Mountain in Corte Madera
If you’ve got little hikers and a hankering for a picnic perch with great views and few crowds, visit the Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve in Corte Madera. This right-in-the-middle-of-Marin patch of land was slated for development, but (thankfully!) was spared from bulldozers—it offers breathtaking views of the East Bay, Marin, and, for those on legs sturdy enough to make it over the crest, San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. There are some pretty crazy rock formations—Turtle Rock is our favorite—and plenty of wildflowers in the spring (milkmaids, buttercups, and shooting stars). You can even bring the dog, something that’s not always possible on some of Marin’s other kid-friendly trails. To get there, exit Lucky or Paradise Drive along Hwy 101 and take Paradise Drive east of Corte Madera. Follow Paradise Drive for another half mile and turn right on Taylor Road. There is limited parking at the end of Taylor Road.

Insider tip: To load up on fresh fruit, snacks and other hiking goodies, stop at Paradise Market (a foodie oasis). If you need a cool treat after a hot sunny hike, drop into the Corte Madera Town Centre for a scoop at Ciao Bella.

You can find more inspiration for Bay Area hiking trails in Stairway Walks in San Francisco and Hidden Walks in the East Bay & Marin. The latter explores Sausalito and Mill Valley, too.

—Laure Latham and Erin Feher

Do you have a favorite urban hike? Tell us in the comments!