The best 20 California hikes SFGATE staffers did in 2021

In 2021, SFGATE’s staff hiked California up, down and sideways.

We hit the trails through redwood forests, along coastlines and into desert oases, and for our efforts, we were rewarded with glorious displays of sunlight, bubbling hydrothermal features and a rare waterfall crashing into the sea. Whether you’re highly experienced or new to nature, looking for the best of the Bay Area or drawn to landscapes lesser-known and farther-flung, we’ve got just the hike for you.

Below, you’ll find a collection of our 20 favorite hikes we’ve discovered (or rediscovered) this year. Each links out to a larger feature story with a lot more detail. They’re listed geographically from north to south but we’ve declined to rank them, as they’re each incredible in their own way. 

A map detailing the locations of SFGATE’s favorite hikes of 2021.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

In the morning during the summertime, conditions on the Damnation Creek Trail are just right to catch a glimpse of this stunning natural phenomenon. 

In the morning during the summertime, conditions on the Damnation Creek Trail are just right to catch a glimpse of this stunning natural phenomenon. 

Nate Berg

Damnation Creek Trail

Location: Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park

Most California hikers have at some point entered a forest and noticed light filtering through trees. But this jaunt through coast redwoods takes it to a new level. As photographers can attest, the light show here is as astounding as it is reliable, and California parks editor Ashley Harrell saw it with her own two eyes. 

The light was “shooting through the canopy in a circular pattern resembling an exploding firework,” Harrell wrote, “with the glowing rays illuminated by fog in every direction.” 

The photos are unreal. 

The author poses with Hyperion, the world's tallest tree. She later learned that when many people walk and stand in the same spots near redwoods, they can damage the understory and roots systems.

The author poses with Hyperion, the world’s tallest tree. She later learned that when many people walk and stand in the same spots near redwoods, they can damage the understory and roots systems.

Ashley Harrell

Tall Trees Trail

Location: Redwood National Park

Early on in the year, Harrell hiked to Hyperion, the tallest tree in the world. She doesn’t recommend the journey in its entirety, but she did endorse the first part of the schlep, which takes hikers to the Tall Trees Grove, the most treasured and seldom-visited area of Redwood National Park.

“Stretching up from a carpet of massive ferns and sorrel, many of the redwoods on the loop exceed 350 feet,” Harrell writes. For thousands of years, the sky-high ecosystem has been nourished by fresh water, nutrient-rich soil and wind protection, she adds.

The boardwalk of Lassen Volcanic National Park's Bumpass Hell. 

The boardwalk of Lassen Volcanic National Park’s Bumpass Hell. 

Ashley Harrell

Bumpass Hell Trail 

Location: Lassen Volcanic National Park

The summer’s Dixie Fire engulfed more than half of Lassen Volcanic National Park, charring the landscape and destroying several structures. But one of our favorite features in the park, the Bumpass Hell Trail, was left unscathed. 

Its features include “an active hydrothermal basin with pale blue pools and billowing clouds of steam, boiling mud pots and a sulfuric valley with magnificent views,” Harrell writes. The gruesome history is also pretty intriguing.

An idyllic spot for a picnic in Lower Carpenter Valley.

An idyllic spot for a picnic in Lower Carpenter Valley.

Julie Brown / SFGATE

Lower Carpenter Valley Trail


Location: Truckee

It’s sometimes hard to find a hike in California that isn’t congested with people. But that’s just what Julie Brown, SFGATE Tahoe editor, found at Lower Carpenter Valley, the “secret garden” of the Sierra that has been mostly off-limits for more than a century.  

“The meadow was saturated in green,” Brown writes. “Willows dotted the horizon. A quiet creek bent in horseshoe-like shapes, flowing downstream to the Truckee River. Black bears, bobcats, mountain lions roam this land, as do deer, beavers, squirrels and many species of birds.”

As in, the landscape appears much as it did before European settlers first arrived in the Sierra Nevada, and it’s incredible.

The remains of the Wolf House, which was destroyed by a fire in 1913 that started here, in the dining room, at Jack London State Historic Park In Glen Ellen, Calif., April 16, 2021.

The remains of the Wolf House, which was destroyed by a fire in 1913 that started here, in the dining room, at Jack London State Historic Park In Glen Ellen, Calif., April 16, 2021.

Chris Preovolos/Hearst Newspapers

Wolf House 

Location: Glen Ellen

The Wolf House was owned by author Jack London, but shortly before the London family was supposed to move in, it burned down.

“The grandiose building was never rebuilt, and Jack died just three years later,” writes SFGATE reporter Madeline Wells. “But its charred bones remain — today, you can hike to the ruins of the once-beautiful Wolf House in Glen Ellen’s Jack London State Historic Park.”

Wells gave the hike a shot, and reported her findings.

A historic barn at Olompali State Historic Park in Marin County.

A historic barn at Olompali State Historic Park in Marin County.

Madeline Wells/SFGATE

Chosen Family Hippie Commune Ruins

Location: Olompali State Historic Park

Just south of Petaluma, a short dirt trail brings hikers face-to-face with the remains of a historic mansion where a 26-person commune once played music with the Grateful Dead. After just a year, though, tragedy struck, the house burned down and everybody was evicted.

“But in the late 1970s, the ranch became a state historic park,” writes Wells, who visited this year. “Today, you can hike to the ruins of the once-grand mansion.” There are also 3- and 8-mile trails that reward the hiker with breathtaking views of the San Francisco Bay, Mount Tamalpais and Mount Diablo. 

China Camp Village, Marin, Calif. 

China Camp Village, Marin, Calif. 

Andrew Chamings

China Camp State Park

Location: San Rafael

Just 20 miles north of San Francisco is a historic 1880s Chinese shrimping cove with a still-standing village. SFGATE deputy managing editor Andrew Chamings visited and explored the park/campground, which has more than 15 trails of varying difficulties.

“It’s hard to believe this little slice of preserved history is so close but so hidden from San Francisco,” he writes.” Often shrouded in mist rolling off the low hills, China Camp can feel lonely, a corner of the bay standing on the water almost exactly as it did 140 years ago.”

A smaller waterfall in the cliffs above Alamere Falls in Marin, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021.

A smaller waterfall in the cliffs above Alamere Falls in Marin, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021.

Charles Russo/SFGATE

Alamere Falls

Location: Point Reyes

Across the United States there are just four tidefalls — rare coastal waterfalls that crash directly into the sea. Alamere Falls, just an hour north of San Francisco, is one of them. On a recent trip to this spectacle, SFGATE editor-in-chief Grant Marek discovered something else, too. 

His story was supposed to be about the “nearly 14-mile round-trip trek to Alamere, up Pacific Ocean-facing cliffs, through a forest of coastal pines, between a trio of lakes and down a beach you can only traverse during low tide,” writes Marek. But it ended up being about something very different.

Mount Tamalpais, Marin County, Calif. 

Mount Tamalpais, Marin County, Calif. 

Andrew Chamings

Mount Tamalpais Crash

Location: Marin

There’s a lot of secret Bay Area history that even locals don’t know about, and this airplane wreck atop Mount Tam is a perfect example. Chamings and SFGATE managing editor Katie Dowd hiked steep trails, crossed over creeks and crawled through twisted manzanita branches to find the site, where parts of the wreckage still scar the ground. 

They also learned of the entire story behind the WWII accident. Read all about it here.

There were only a handful of other groups on the Rock City Trail during a recent visit. 

There were only a handful of other groups on the Rock City Trail during a recent visit. 

Freda Moon

Rock City Hike

Location: Mount Diablo

An hour east of the towering peak of Mount Diablo lies “the Bay Area’s answer to Joshua Tree,” writes SFGATE travel editor Freda Moon, who visited with her family in September.

She marveled at Rock City’s maze of enormous and oddly shaped boulders. “Some rose overhead, looming like fortresses,” Moon writes. “Others sprouted like oversized puffball mushrooms, almost too perfectly round and artfully positioned to be real.”

Here’s her full story on the weird, magical, surreal Rock City.

Mount Olympus

Mount Olympus

Charles Russo, Charles Russo/SFGATE

Mount Olympus

Location: San Francisco

Though a born-and-bred San Franciscan, SFGATE staffer Nico Madrigal-Yankowski had never heard of Mount Olympus, a miniature park in Ashbury Heights, at the geographical center of the city. The urban hike, he learned, traces winding roads and scales classic San Francisco stairways, and at the top, hikers are rewarded with a mysterious statue and a valuable history lesson. 

“It was obvious the park was missing something,” he writes. Find out what in his story.

A hiker walks a trail on Mount Sutro on Sept. 10, 2021. The Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve provides a nature respite in the middle of San Francisco.

A hiker walks a trail on Mount Sutro on Sept. 10, 2021. The Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve provides a nature respite in the middle of San Francisco.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve

Location: San Francisco

Upon moving from New York to San Francisco, Madrigal-Yankowski became enamored with the Interior Greenbelt trail, part of the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve, in the hills behind UCSF. 

“In the heart of San Francisco, there is a place so serene you can’t hear the honking of car horns or the ringing of cellphones or the chatter of daily life,” he writes. “In place of skyscrapers, towering eucalyptus trees are blanketed by a dense fog.” For more transportive details, read the story.

Hikers walk a 1.2-mile loop trail to the South San Francisco Sign on Sign Hill in South San Francisco, Calif., on June 12, 2021.

Hikers walk a 1.2-mile loop trail to the South San Francisco Sign on Sign Hill in South San Francisco, Calif., on June 12, 2021.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

South San Francisco Sign

Location: San Francisco

Ever wondered if you can get to the giant hillside letters that read “SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO THE INDUSTRIAL CITY”? So did we.

Our local editor Tessa McLean did the easy 1-mile hike to the concrete letters. “The dirt-stained white concrete is laid within the hill itself, allowing visitors to lay among the brush-bordered letters, with only a very short (though at times, steep) hike to reach them,” McLean writes. “That accessibility to the letters means you can’t actually take a photo of the whole thing at once, but there’s something oddly charming about sitting on the lower curve of an ‘S’ and gazing down upon the bay as low planes soar overhead to or from SFO.”

The tafoni sandstone formation is located in the El Corte de Madera Creek Preserve, about an hour south of San Francisco in Redwood City.

The tafoni sandstone formation is located in the El Corte de Madera Creek Preserve, about an hour south of San Francisco in Redwood City.

Madeline Wells/SFGATE

Tafoni Sandstone Monolith

Location: Santa Cruz mountains

It looks like a giant pistachio nut. Green and brown hues stain the rock, and the shape of the crevices make it look like anything but a rock. Yet, it is a rock — a 50-foot monolith somehow hidden in San Mateo County.

Staffer Wells hiked the backwoods of the Santa Cruz mountains to find this majestic rock formation. She recommends going alone, just like she did.

Santa Cruz has three greenbelt open space preserves within its city limits, including The Pogonip — a 640-acre expanse that features 17 trails, 11.5 miles of hiking and the most amazing place Grant Marek's ever been in 37 years of living in California.

Santa Cruz has three greenbelt open space preserves within its city limits, including The Pogonip — a 640-acre expanse that features 17 trails, 11.5 miles of hiking and the most amazing place Grant Marek’s ever been in 37 years of living in California.

Liz Celeste/Special to SFGATE

The Pogonip

Location: Santa Cruz

Editor-in-chief Marek has some high praise for this “magical rock garden,” which he calls “the most amazing place I’ve been in 37 years of living in California.” The sights are worth a visit on their own. So are the little notes people leave behind.
 
Here’s Marek’s full experience.

Santa Cruz's Wilder Ranch State Park is home to Fern Grotto Beach, named after a sea cave that is carved into the beach’s sandstone cliffs, just below an underground spring that waters a majestic curtain of emerald ferns hanging above its entrance.

Santa Cruz’s Wilder Ranch State Park is home to Fern Grotto Beach, named after a sea cave that is carved into the beach’s sandstone cliffs, just below an underground spring that waters a majestic curtain of emerald ferns hanging above its entrance.

Liz Celeste/Special to SFGATE

Fern Grotto Beach

Location: Santa Cruz

“In a state filled with magical outdoor things, Fern Grotto Beach is a talking unicorn,” Marek writes of Wilder Ranch State Park’s most beloved feature. “The brooding view into the cave from the front is worthy of a dark fairytale, but the reverse is something else entirely. You can see from inside the depths of the cave past the foliage-filled opening and out to the waves crashing on the accompanying beach — probably why there’s a bench-sized log placed in perfect view of it all.”

Looking for nesting condor threesomes at Pinnacles National Park.

Looking for nesting condor threesomes at Pinnacles National Park.

Ashley Harrell

High Peaks Trail

Location: Pinnacles National Park

California’s newest national park offers this truly stunning hike through oversized boulders, dense chaparral and oak-dotted hills to a surreal landscape of towering monoliths, through which California condors regularly soar. With the help of handrails and footholds chiseled into the breccia rocks, Harrell and friends ascended through the pinnacles, ducking through narrow passageways and often enjoying 360-degree views of the craggy environs.

“To arrive at this transcendent mountainscape,” Harrell writes, “only a few hours of driving, a few miles of hiking and a packed lunch were required. It was glorious.”

Red and yellow paintbrush wildflowers dot the hillsides in Cherry Canyon on Santa Rosa Island.

Red and yellow paintbrush wildflowers dot the hillsides in Cherry Canyon on Santa Rosa Island.

Ashley Harrell

Cherry Canyon Trail

Location: Santa Rosa Island 

Harrell was intent on seeing a tiny fox on her springtime hike on the Channel Islands, which are home to 145 plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. “They offer a glimpse into what the southern coast of California looked like before it was developed,” Harrell writes. And although she was unsuccessful, the jaunt had other rewards: bright-yellow giant coreopsis dangling over the canyon walls, purple lupine and red and yellow paintbrush flowers decorating the flanks.

The "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" vibes were super strong inside Mecca Hills' Painted Canyon.

The “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” vibes were super strong inside Mecca Hills’ Painted Canyon.

Courtesy of Mike Merlone

Painted Canyon

Location: Mecca Hills Wilderness

Ever been on a hike that included ladders? Marek has. This year, he hiked Painted Canyon, “an awe-inducing section of the Mecca Hills Wilderness an hour from Palm Springs.”

It’s a geological wonder that rivals other national parks across the country, Marek says. “Everywhere you turn, there’s some stupid beautiful geologic marvel: towering boulder faces that make you feel like you’re in Yosemite, unreal cone formations that look like they were plucked right out of New Mexico’s Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks or a matrix of water-carved canyons that rival Arizona’s magical Antelope Slot.”

A view of the Palm Canyon oasis in Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

A view of the Palm Canyon oasis in Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

Ashley Harrell

Palm Canyon Trail

Location: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Harrell used to think an oasis was something a person hallucinated in a desert when that person was dying of thirst. So this 3-mile loop in Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert offered quite a revelation.  

“I studied the spiky trees and their brilliant green, which looked shocking against the pale desert backdrop,” she writes. “At one particularly tranquil overlook, we stopped and quietly admired the trickling stream and all the life that had sprung up around it.” After all the mirages Harrell had seen in cartoons and elsewhere, it took her by surprise that the real thing was more beautiful.