What better place to take advantage of your dog’s rocket recalls and heeled walks than at the San Francisco Bay Area parks, beaches and preserves that allow dogs off-leash?
While most national and California state park hiking trails do not allow dogs, there remain many options to exercise your dog on- or off-leash in the Bay Area. For each of these locations I have included description of the hiking trail, a link to the relevant website and another for Google Maps directions to the trailhead.
Please be aware that roads, trails and access rules change. The information provided about these trails may have changed since I last visited, so be sure to check the relevant website or posted signs.
Having lived in and hiked far and wide through the Bay Area for over 25 years, I was surprised recently to find a gem right next door, geographically speaking: Tennessee Valley is right across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.
Dogs are allowed on the Miwok Trail from the Tennessee Valley parking area north to Highway 101, and on leash or under voice control in Oakwood Valley which is off Tennessee Valley Road a short distance before you reach the Tennessee Valley parking lot.
One cool aspect of the Miwok Trail is that your direct route from the trail head in Tennessee Valley to stunning Muir Beach cuts many winding miles off the route you’d take by car. A client turned me on to this hike when I met she and her dog at the Miwok Trail for some recall work. The apparent rule of thumb is that dogs are allowed off-leash north of Tennessee Valley Road, starting on the Miwok Trail and running up and over the hill to Muir Beach. Dogs are not allowed at all south of Tennessee Valley Road.
I always advise my clients that off-leash adventures, whether on a trail designated as such or one of these wink-and-a-nod areas, does not mean unbridled and unsupervised complete canine freedom. Quite the contrary, as I do with my own dog Otis, be prepared to leash your dog at certain times and release her at others. For instance, as a courtesy and safety for all concerned, when you hear cyclists approaching from behind, call your dog to you and leash her until they have passed. This way they don’t have to worry about your dog inadvertently running into their path.
The views are stellar and there are points from which you can see many of the Bay Area’s most prominent landmarks as you turn 360 degrees, including the blue Pacific, Sutro Tower in San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Diablo, Tiburon, Mount Tam, and of course, Muir Beach.
Trail maps are not available in the parking area, so I suggest you print one before you depart on this adventure. Start at the Tennessee Valley Trailhead parking lot and head north on the Miwok Trail, which meets up with the Coyote Ridge trail. From here you can take one of three loops through Green Gulch, or just stay on the Coast Trail to Muir Beach.
Resting on my laurels and having not explored a novel off-leash hike for a number of months, I decided to head to the East Bay in search of an alternative to the off-limits Mount Diablo State Park, which unfortunately allows no dogs on any trail. While the ridge peaks of Las Trampas Regional Wilderness are not nearly as tall as Diablo, they offer a similar landscape and stunning 360° views of the entire Bay Area.
Las Trampas, Spanish for “The Traps”, refers to the snares that were once set to catch Elk. You won’t see elk nowadays but deer are common, as are mountain lions and coyotes, both thankfully nocturnal creatures. Las Trampas is apparently not as popular as other similar local preserves, as I did not run into a single person on my entire five-mile hike. But judging from the huge number of horse hoof prints, weekend riders from nearby equestrian stables take full advantage of these trails.
Otis and I hiked this wilderness on a weekday morning in mid-November, before any substantial rain had fallen. I note this because the trails obviously turn into deep, sticky, muddy tracks after winter rains, so your best bet for this hike is late fall or spring. Summer months bring unbearably hot weather to this microclimate, unsuitable for humans and most definitely for dogs.
Trail maps are available at the Bollinger Valley Staging Area. To retrace our beautiful and moderately challenging two-hour, five-mile hike, take the Elderberry Trail from the staging area parking lot, passing through several cattle gates near the start. (Cows and the resultant plethora of cow pies are everywhere in this park, so make sure your dog does not in any way harass these local inhabitants.)
After a two-mile ascent through steep open fields and shaded creek crossings, take a right onto the Rocky Ridge View trail (here’s where you’ll get your best views), which ultimately curves around back to the parking lot. If you and your dog are holding up after the often-steep ascent, take a detour loop along the Devils Hole and Sycamore Trails to explore the Wind Caves rock formations. Otis and I did not take this route today, but the formations look inviting and we are sure to check them out next time.
Oakland’s Redwood Regional Park has become my absolute favorite in the Bay Area—especially in the summer months when rattlesnakes are prolific in the North Bay. This hidden redwood forest is a beauty, with miles of trails through 150-foot tall, second-growth coast redwood trees. (The old growth forest was extensively logged in the 1850s to supply building materials for the San Francisco Bay Area.)
As with all parks in the East Bay Regional Park District, Redwood Regional Park allows dogs on all hiking trails; some areas require leashes, in particular the Stream Trail that runs along Redwood Creek, protected due to a unique species of salmon. Other trails allow off-leash as long as dogs are under voice control. Cows, sheep and goats are utilized in grazing areas to control vegetation (and therefore, wildfires) so please keep your dogs safely away from these animals.
Redwood is a large park with many trailheads, or “staging areas”, most of which provide trail maps and information kiosks; all of the trails are well-marked. My favorite hike is a 2+ hour beauty that will allow your dog to be off-leash for the first two-thirds, saving the on-leash portion for the end when he/she will be exhausted and ready to walk (leashed) calmly at your side.
Park at the Skyline Gate Staging Area, then take the upper trail to your right (West Ridge) for about 10 minutes, then the French Trail off that to the left. This is all off-leash and through redwood forests, absolutely gorgeous. Follow the French Trail for as long as you want. You can cut back down at the Mill Trail, the Fern Trail or the Chown Trail, all of which lead to the Stream Trail (on-leash here!) back to your car.
This oak-studded mountain rises 1,559 feet to a summit that offers breathtaking views of the entire Bay Area. The preserve is crisscrossed with hiking trails and fire roads through lush grasslands and impressive forests that contain some of the oldest oak and bay trees in Marin County. Along the slopes are areas where serpentine soils give rise to rare and unusual plants, as well as fertile grasslands alive with spring colors during wildflower season. Hidden Lake, which was completely dry during our mid-March hike after a dry winter, is home to an assortment of rare plants and is (theoretically) swarming with frogs, salamanders and other creatures during the wet season.
Follow the directions to the San Andreas Fire Road using the Google Maps link above. Take the San Andreas Fire Road to the Bay Area Ridge Trail to the Deer Camp Fire Road, then the Cobblestone Fire Road to Hidden Lake. From there you have a number of options for circling back around to your car. Be sure to check your dog for ticks before leaving (and before they have a chance to attach and start feeding!)
I have been steadily moving north in Marin County, exploring all the off-leash dog-friendly portions of the Marin County Open Space Preserve system. This is one to do when you and your dog are in need of a serious workout. “Steep” does not do justice to the incline at the beginning of the hike, but “absolutely worth it” pretty much sums up the end.
The highlight of this preserve is the summit of Big Rock Ridge which, at 1,895 feet, is the second highest point in Marin County after Mount Tamalpais. The views from the top are spectacular, including 360 degree panorama of the entire Bay Area.
Get directions to the Luiz Fire Road trailhead using the Google Maps link above. Park on Creekside Drive and ascend Luiz Fire Road to the Big Rock Ridge Fire Road. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve earned the views in all directions and can head back down. If you and your dog are feeling particularly energetic, continue by hiking the Big Rock Ridge Fire Road west to the summit of Big Rock Ridge. Bring plenty of water for you and the mutt.
You won’t find an official website for this beach, which is exactly the point—although it is noted on the relevant website listing above. I found out about Half Moon Bay’s Redondo Beach (not to be confused with the Southern California city by the same name) via one of those “friend-of-a-friend, don’t tell a soul” sort of ways, but it’s a huge gorgeous beach, so who am I to keep it secret?
The beach is clean and wide, with tall cliffs to the east and the beautiful, pounding Pacific Ocean to the west. While this location looks similar to San Francisco’s Fort Funston, this beach is cleaner in all respects; the sand here has an appealing quality that will keep your dog romping and digging for hours. Keep in mind that you and your dog have to navigate a steep cliff down to the beach. Just take your time because it’s definitely worth it.
To get there, drive about a half-mile south on Highway 1 out of Half Moon Bay. Just after you pass Cameron’s Inn and Pub (with its cheesy double-decker bus) on the right, look for the sign for Redondo Beach; take a right and park in the small lot at the end of the street. (Be sure to stop in Half Moon Bay’s Flying Fish Grill on your way home; it’s dog friendly and has the best fish and chips and clam chowder this side of Cape Cod.)
We’ve hiked this ruggedly beautiful and desolate preserve several times and have been struck two things: (1) that we were virtually the only visitors to this huge property, and (2) that the map provided by the Marin County Parks website bears only a slight resemblance to the trails actually found there. Perhaps those two factoids are related in a steal-the-Bolinas-sign sort of way: Those in the know don’t want others in on the secret. But please, don’t let this stop you as this preserve offers landscapes unlike any other I’ve discovered in the Bay Area.
There are exactly zero trail signs in the entire preserve, but again, don’t let this stop you or you’ll miss the exquisite dwarf Sargent Cypress trees, brightly colored rock gardens (massive stones of green minerals with bright orange patina) and spectacular views. Just print out the aforementioned map, make your way to the Edgewood Trailhead (Google Maps link above), and then up to the San Geronimo trail, which runs for five miles along the length of the park.
Once you’ve parked your car, walk about 50 yards south on Edgewood Road; the trailhead will fork off to your left at a metal gate. Dogs are allowed off-leash except where noted.
This Bay Area gem is a well-kept secret. Part of the East Bay Regional Park District, Lake Chabot Regional Park allows dogs on all of its 20 miles of hiking trails; dogs must be leashed (six-foot maximum) in parking lots, picnic sites and developed areas. But once you’re out of these areas, your dogs are allowed off-leash as long as they are under voice control (a superb reason to teach your dog to come when called and heel off-leash.)
There are nine trailheads (which the EBRPD refers to as “staging areas”) all of which provide trail maps and information kiosks; all the trails are well-marked. A great place to start your hike is at the Bort Meadow Staging Area, taking the Grass Valley Trail to the Cascade Trail, then onto the Colombine Trail, which leads to the lake. Note that since the lake is a back-up reservoir and water source, dogs (and humans) are not allowed to swim. But the lake is well-stocked, so bring your fishing pole!
Loma Alta, which in the Spanish translates to “tall hill”, is one of the highest points in Marin County, with sweeping vistas in all directions. This jewel of the Marin County Open Space District (MCOSD) provides unique views of Mount Tamalpais to the south. Loma Alta’s ridge lines (and the exquisit hiking trails that run along them) define and divide the four major watersheds in the county. When hiking these trails with my dog I have rarely run into other hikers or cyclists, so this is the perfect spot for some quiet solitude. Dogs are permitted on leash on trails; off leash under voice command on fire roads.
The MCOSD does not provide maps on location, so print one out from their website (Google Maps link above) before you go. Try this hike: From the Glen Road Trailhead, take the Glen Fire Road to the Smith Ridge Fire Road, then left onto the Gunshot Fire Road, then the Old Railroad Grade back to your car.
While nine of the 26 parks that make up the Mid-Peninsula Open Space Preserve system allow dogs on-leash, Pulgas Ridge is the only one that has a designated off-leash area. This 16-acre off-leash area alone is worth the drive—only about 20 minutes south of San Francisco—but all the trails are well-maintained and provide fabulous views. A good option here for teaching a dog loose-leash heeling is to run your dog in the off-leash area to burn off energy (don’t forget your Chuckit!), then leash him up and take to the trails.
Use the Google Maps link above to get driving directions to the Edmonds Road Parking lot. Take the Blue Oak Trail .4 miles to the off-leash area. After a romp, take the Hassler Trail to the Dusky Footed Woodrat Trail (how could you resist a trail with this moniker?) to the Polly Geraci Trail back to your car.