Last year I posted our Top 10 hikes from 2020 and decided to do it again for 2021. Although we did travel out of California in 2021, our top hikes are still all in Northern California! One of the silver linings of the past 2 years has been having the time to rediscover the Bay Area, and California in general. So often when we had time off, our first thought would be to leave California and explore somewhere else. Now, I find myself thinking, we could leave….or we could stay home and explore locally! I mean, when we have hikes like this in our backyard it’s kind of hard to leave!

#10 – Batteries to Bluffs

San Francisco

Last year, Lands End Trail which has a lot of the same views and is just a little further south, rated #6 on our list with a score of 7.75. I boldly declared Lands End my favorite hike in San Francisco. And it was until we hiked Batteries to Bluffs which immediately surpassed Land’s End as my favorite San Francisco hike!

Details

  • 3.5 miles
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • 450 feet elevation gain including 470 stairs
  • Kid-friendly (I’d recommend a minimum of 5 years because of all the stairs)
  • No dogs on the Batteries to Bluff portion, but allowed on other trails
  • Free Parking at Baker Beach
Breathtaking views along the Batteries to Bluffs trail. San Francisco, California
Breathtaking views along the Batteries to Bluffs trail

Our Rating: 7.25/10

Not everyone loved this hike as much as I did. My rating of “10” definitely helped push this hike into the #10 spot. I wrote a whole post on the Batteries to Bluffs hike with tons of pictures and details. This hike is stunning year-round, but going on a clear day to enjoy the views of the bridge, Marin Headlands and the Pacific is worth it! The 470 stairs made this hike a good challenge but my 14yo gave this hike a “4” because she claimed there were “too many stairs!” My 11yo rated it an “8” but also told me, “it was OK – just a normal hike”. This hike was anything but “normal” which confirms that my kids are extremely spoiled when it comes to hiking. We had stunning views, crossed over old batteries which we could explore, and hiked all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge overlook. Highly recommend!

#9 – Russian Gulch Waterfall Loop

Mendocino

Fern Canyon Trail had been on my list since our September 2020 trip to Mendocino which you can read all about here. In fact, when we visited it was the one hike I really wanted to do and I was so disappointed to learn that it was closed for maintenance. When my 11yo and I went back in December 2021 I was thrilled it was open again! Except, we didn’t actually hike Fern Canyon Trail which is 8 miles. I gave my 11yo the choice to hike Fern Canyon to Waterfall Loop or just Waterfall Loop which was half the distance. He chose Waterfall Loop only. The good news is this trail is accessible from Caspar Little Lake Rd and did not require us to pay the entrance fee into Russian Gulch State Park (where Fern Canyon Trail begins). I would have gladly paid the $8 entrance fee, but you can actually access Fern Canyon via the Waterfall Loop from this side entrance.

Details

  • Distance: 3.8 miles
  • Elevation: 600’ gain
  • Our rating: Easy
  • Dog Friendly: Alltrails says “no dogs” but we saw quite a few dogs on the hike?
  • Parking: Free on the side of the road
  • Restrooms: Not from this entrance, but there are some if you enter through the park
In front of the roaring waterfall on Waterfall Loop Trail in Mendocino. Russian Gulch State Park. California
In front of the roaring waterfall on Waterfall Loop Trail in Mendocino

Our Rating: 7.5/10

I’d like to go back and hike the entire 8 miles, but if you’re short on time or just don’t want to hike as far, the Waterfall Loop alone is fantastic! Let me be clear, I was not disappointed with this hike in any way – I just wanted to see more! The waterfall was a big draw and we got to see that and hike along Russian Gulch Creek, plus there were so many ferns and redwoods and it was just so peaceful.

About .75 miles into the hike, we came to the loop where you can go right or left. We chose to go right which almost immediately takes you to the top waterfall. We then hiked down to the bottom of the fall, admired them and then hiked away with the falls to our back. My recommendation is to go the other way. Turn Left and head up the hill. It will take much longer to reach the falls, but you will hike upstream and approach the falls from the bottom which will give you more time to enjoy them. I’d rather save the “payoff” until the end anyway. I rated this hike an 8 and my 11yo gave it a 7.

#8 – Twin Peaks

San Francisco

This is the only Top 10 hike that all 5 of us did together! Because things were a bit more “normal” in 2021, the kids were busier and we did fewer hikes with the older two. Most of the hikes we did together were our go-to hikes close to home which typically don’t rate as high because they are so familiar.

Details

  • Distance: 2.1 miles
  • Elevation: 272’ gain
  • Our rating: Easy
  • Dog Friendly: Yes
  • Parking: Free on the side of the road
  • Restrooms: Yes, at the overlook
Downtown San Francisco from the top of Twin Peaks. California Hiking
Downtown San Francisco from the top of Twin Peaks

Our Rating: 7.6/10

We parked on Twin Peaks Blvd (near Clarendon Ave) and hiked up and over Twin Peaks and then wrapped around to the overlook before heading back down to our car. It was extremely windy the day we went and that slightly affected how much we liked the hike – the fact it still rated so high speaks to what an amazing hike this is. But is it a “hike” or a “walk” when it’s mostly on city streets? This was a big debate. The trail over the peaks (part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail) was steep, rocky, and all on dirt.

Post Hike Fuel

We didn’t necessarily work up a big appetite on this hike, but we did promise the kids tacos, Mexican cokes, and Margaritas (for ourselves) at El Techo in the Mission. The restaurant is on the rooftop and has gorgeous views of The City.

#7 – Uvas Waterfall Loop

Gilroy, California

Uvas Waterfall Loop trail had been on my list for a while. When my 11yo had a soccer game at nearby Kirigin Cellars in Morgan Hill, we decided to combine it with a hike at Uvas Canyon County Park. Alternatively, you could hike and then go wine tasting at Kirigin Cellars!

Note: As of 1/1/21 daily reservations are required to visit Uvas Canyon Park. It cost $6 per car (as of February 2022) and you are required to select a day and time window. I believe you must enter the park during that window, but are then able to stay as long as you’d like. We made our reservations about a week prior and had no trouble selecting the day/time we wanted. They did check our pass and name against a list when we drove up. We brought a post-soccer game lunch to enjoy at the many picnic tables in the park before our hike.

Details

  • Distance: 1.8 miles
  • Elevation: 620’ gain
  • Our rating: Easy
  • Dog Friendly: Yes
  • Parking: Plenty of parking. $6 entry fee and reservations required.
  • Restrooms: Yes
Exploring Basin Falls on the Short Waterfall Canyon Loop in Uvas Canyon Park. Gilroy California
Exploring Basin Falls on the Short Waterfall Canyon Loop in Uvas Canyon Park

Our Rating: 7.67/10

Between the hour plus drive each way and a soccer game, we had only a limited amount of time to spend here – so we chose to do the 1.8 mile Short Waterfall Loop trail. Although this is the most heavily trafficked section of the park, we only ran into a few other groups. The trail meanders along a creek for most of the way and passes by 3 waterfalls: Black Rock Falls, Basin Falls, and Upper Falls. We had our son’s teammate with us and both boys enjoyed climbing the rocks, finding sticks, and exploring each area. This is a wonderful area to let kids explore & play. We could have spent a lot more time here. Next time, I’d like to hike the longer loop (~3.5 miles) which starts out the same way on Waterfall Loop Trail, but then veers onto Contour Trail and then returns to the start via Alec Canyon Trail.

#6 – Mt. Umunhum

Los Gatos, California

Mt Umunhum was the first hike we did in our Norcal Six Pack of Peaks Challenge – I’ll write about our experience with that challenge separately. Each year they list 6 local peaks to summit over the course of the year – there is no prize, just bragging rights. We chose to do Mt. Um first because it was one of the closest peaks to our house and also one of the shortest of the six 2021 peaks. Mt. Um is one of the highest peaks in the Santa Cruz mountains at 3,486 feet. We had a 360 degree view at the top – from the Pacific to the Sierra Nevada!

Details

  • Distance: 7.7 miles
  • Elevation: 1187’ gain
  • Our rating: Moderate
  • Dog Friendly: No
  • Parking: Limited parking at Bald Mountain Parking Area (we got the last spot at 9:15am on a Sunday)
  • Restrooms: Yes
  • Note – we didn’t see garbage cans anywhere so be prepared to pack out what you pack in!
View towards the south on the way up to the peak of Mt Umunhum. San Jose, California. Sierra Azul Open Space
View towards the south on the way up to the peak of Mt Umunhum

Our Rating: 7.67/10

Mike, my 11yo and I hiked from the Bald Mountain Parking area to the peak which was 7.7 miles. There are options to begin the hike from further down the mountain, but we took the trail recommended by the challenge. The trail was clearly marked the entire way, was extremely well maintained and wasn’t very crowded. We went on a very warm day and appreciated that there was a fair amount of shade on the trails. We had great views, plus we saw lots of wildflowers, oaks, and native plants. Mt. Umhumnun has an interesting history – first home to the Ohlone, then in 1845 mercury or “quicksilver” mining began which was essential to process gold during the Gold Rush, next it was procured by the US Government in the late 1950s for use as an Air Force Base during the Cold War. The mountain was cleaned up and opened to the public in 2017. I enjoyed the challenge and the views. Mike appreciated how well maintained the trail was. My 11yo was not impressed and said there was “nothing at the top except a building”. I guess he missed the 360 degree views.

#5 – Slacker Hill

Marin Headlands

You’ve undoubtedly seen the amazing view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the top of Slacker Hill. I highly recommend this hike on a clear day in order to take advantage of the 360 degree views. From the parking lot, we took the Coastal Trail to the SCA Trail to Slacker Ridge Trail which took us to the top of Slacker Hill.

Details

  • Distance: 3.3 miles
  • Elevation: 810’ gain
  • Our rating: Easy
  • Dog Friendly: No
  • Parking: Yes, but lot fills up quickly on weekends and nice days!
  • Restrooms: Port-a-potties in parking lot, but they were locked when we were there!
View from the top of Slacker Hill in the Marin Headlands. San Francisco, California. Golden Gate Bridge
View from the top of Slacker Hill in the Marin Headlands

Our Rating: 8/10

After a quarter of a mile, the trail crosses Conzelman Road and from that point, there are fabulous views. First, the trail overlooks Fort Baker, Cavallo Point and the Bay Area Discovery Museum – and out towards Angel Island and Belvedere with the Golden Gate Bridge behind us. Then the trail shifted west with views out towards the Pacific and down the San Mateo coast. Finally, we rounded back towards the bridge and reached a plateau at the top of Slacker Hill. My 11yo immediately found a spot on the hillside overlooking the bridge which looked enormous from this vantage point and San Francisco a little further in the distance. My sister and I checked out all the views, but eventually ended up next to my 11yo admiring the views. I think we all could have sat there for much longer than we did. We went late morning on a Friday in December (it happened to be my birthday!) and we had no problem parking and the trail pretty much to ourselves. I was so surprised given it was a gorgeous sunny day with little wind during a very rainy month.

Post Hike Fuel

After our hike, we had lunch outside at Tacolicious in the Marina. My sister had the Marina Girl Salad with shrimp, I had the chicken tacos, and my 11yo had a quesadilla off the kids menu. We also got the chile con queso which was delicious, but spicy!

#4 – Montgomery Grove Trail

Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve: Ukiah, California

My 11yo and I did this hike while staying in Mendocino in December 2021. It was not on our list of things to do but was recommended to us by the manager of The Brewery Gulch Inn where we were staying. It was about an hour drive from the coast on very windy roads.

Details

  • Distance: 1.8 miles
  • Elevation: 282’ gain
  • Our rating: Easy
  • Dog Friendly: No
  • Parking: Small parking lot plus some overflow parking in a turnout across the road.
  • Restrooms: Yes at trailhead
Admiring a very tall & massive redwood tree in Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve near Mendocino. California
Admiring a very tall & massive redwood tree in Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve near Mendocino (note: my 11yo is 5’1″)

Our Rating: 9/10

I feel like this hike needs a disclaimer. It truly was an exceptional hike through an old growth redwood forest. The ground was soft and we could barely hear our footsteps – it felt surreal. The highlight of this trail for my 11yo was the water accumulation from all the recent rains. While this trail was only marked as 1.8 miles we hiked nearly 4 miles. In theory, this trail is an easy loop good for all skill levels (with the exception of a short steep incline at the very start it’s mostly flat and easy). Once we reached a little redwood grove, we could go left or right to begin the loop. We chose to go right. Parts of the trail had running water crossing it and everything was very damp. After several hundred yards, we finally reached a part of the trail that was impassable and we began to parkour our way through – rock-hopping across the flooded trail, balancing across fallen redwoods. We finally reached a point in the trail where I wasn’t even sure where the trail was anymore and I didn’t feel like getting lost an hour from our hotel. There were other hikers out as well all trying to get as far as they could, but we all seemed to turn around at about the same spot. So we hiked back to the grove and then went left and followed the loop from the other direction. I preferred this way as there were lots of wooden bridges, fallen trees with massive exposed roots, and less parkouring! It was also really interesting to see the redwoods sitting in standing water which we learned is good for them – who knew? My 11yo rated this hike a 10 mostly because of all the scrambling we had to do, and I rated it an 8.

As we were about to head out from the hotel for this hike, the manager mentioned the Orr Hot Springs which were close to the hike. I quickly looked into them because soaking in hot springs sounded amazing. Reservations were required and book out in advance due to limited capacity. Needless to say, it didn’t work for us to go this time, but definitely something I’ll investigate for next time. Although heads up, it does say on their website “clothing optional hot springs”.

#3 – Maple Falls

Aptos, California

Every year, the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) releases a calendar with featured hikes each month. Maple Falls located in the Forest of Nisene Marks near Santa Cruz was the featured February 2021 hike. I had never heard of it, but the trail meandering through second- and third-growth redwood forest to a 30′ waterfall sounded pretty amazing.

Details

  • Distance: 8 miles
  • Elevation: 950’ gain
  • Our rating: Moderate
  • No dogs; no strollers
  • Parking: $8 park entrance fee
  • Restrooms: Yes
Bridge Creek Trail to Maple Falls in The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. Aptos, California
Bridge Creek Trail to Maple Falls in The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park

Our Rating: 10/10

This was the first hike of 2021 that I rated a 10! In my notes, I wrote it was second only to the Dipsea Trail on Mt. Tam. The trail started out fairly basic and then we began weaving through the forest filled with redwoods, ferns, bright green moss, and creeks. It was magical. We crossed a creek around 15 times, balanced on logs, hopped across creeks, and scrambled up rocks. My 11yo compared the latter half of the hike to a parkour course and for that reason he rated it a 10 as well. I had heard that parking can be tough so we decided to go mid-week and arrived around 9:30am and were able to get a spot. January – March would be a great time to do this hike (or anytime after a good rain) to hopefully see the falls in full force. However, it was also pretty muddy in places so hiking shoes are a must. There are lots of other trails in the Forest of Nisene Marks I hope to check out – this one would be hard to beat!

#2 – Wapama Falls

Hetch Hetchy Yosemite

This was my 4th trip to Yosemite and I had never heard of this hike. I learned a couple of things on this hike 1) The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, the source of our drinking water in the Bay Area, is in Yosemite National Park, and 2) it is the source of an ongoing controversy lasting nearly a century. I think this hike is an underrated gem within Yosemite. It is not in Yosemite Valley so draws much fewer crowds which in my mind is a huge plus! More details about why we loved this hike here

Details

  • Distance: 5 miles
  • Elevation: 200’ gain
  • Our rating: Moderate
  • No dogs; no strollers
  • Parking: Free
  • Restrooms: Yes
Wapama Falls gushing! Yosemite National Park. Hetch Hetchy.
Wapama Falls gushing!

Our Rating: 10/10

Only my 11-year-old and I went on this hike. Both of us were blown away by the views and the towering granite walls. Just about every step of this hike has gorgeous expansive views of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir and cliffs. We went during his spring break at the end of March and Wapama Falls was roaring! My 11-yo especially loved all the rocks to hop on and all the streams that ran across the path. This hike was the first time he was testing out new hiking boots and he loved that he could walk through deep puddles and keep his feet dry – he really put them to the test! We both rated this hike 10/10!

#1 – Mist Trail to Nevada Falls

Yosemite National Park

If you do just one hike in Yosemite, it needs to be this one. We loved this hike so much it has its own dedicated post here

Details

  • Distance: 8-9 miles to the top of Nevada Falls, depending on whether you take the John Muir Trail or winter routes back down.
  • Elevation: 2,000’ gain
  • Difficulty: Hard
  • No dogs; No strollers
  • Restrooms: Yes
  • Parking: Yosemite Valley Trailhead Parking Lot off Happy Isles Loop between Curry Village and Upper Pines Campground
Almost to the top of Nevada Falls! The Mist Trail. Yosemite National Park. California
Almost to the top of Nevada Falls!

Our Rating: 10/10

With 3 hikes rating a perfect 10 this year it may seem that we are not discerning enough. The Mist Trail in Yosemite really had it all: Unparalleled views, 2 waterfalls, a variety of terrain (snow, stairs, forest, granite), perfect hiking weather, and challenging! Sometimes I like an easy hike where I focus mostly on the views and just being outside. But I also love the feeling of pushing my limits – and this hike delivered! It was also amazing to watch my 11yo push his limits and make it to the top. If I were to ding this hike for anything it would be the heavy foot traffic on the trail, especially on the way back down passing Vernal Falls. I do think we hiked this trail at the perfect time (April 1st) – the weather was cool, the trail was mostly free of snow, and the crowds were not big compared to the later spring & summer months. I do not think this hike would have rated this high if my older teens had been with us because it was long & challenging.

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