Best Natural Areas near San Francisco?

I’ll be going to San Francisco in about 2 weeks for family business, my first visit to the California Floristic Province since I was very young. I want to see as many animal and plant species as I can (special focus on plants, birds, herps, marine life, and any species endemic to this region), although I have a rather limited time.
Places I currently have on my list are:

  • Muir Woods
  • Point Reyes
  • Golden Gate Recreation Area
  • Monterey Bay and areas along the way to there

Does anyone have any suggestions for good places within these regions to find some cool flora/fauna, or even other locations that might also have cool flora/fauna? Mount Diablo and Ring Mountain look pretty interesting.

Also, specifically any good places to find endemic mariposa lilies, plants in Garryales, or any rocky shores with tide pools?

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You’re going to be here in two weeks?

How near are you thinking? Yosemite is about 3-3.5 hours by car so that may be worth looking at if you have access to one.

Muir Woods and Golden Gate NRA are very good choices by the way, I went before I knew about iNat so I don’t have many wildlife/flora photos unfortunately.

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The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve is great for tide-pooling.

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Yes, sorry for the typo! I meant I will be arriving in two weeks, will be staying there for about 9 days but will only be really free for about 5 of those

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I was considering Yosemite (potentially Sunday the 22nd and Monday the 23rd) but I’m unsure about crowds, reservations and such, as well as lodging availability.

Thanks! Is it only really worth visiting at low tide or can good marine life be seen at all times? I’m not sure whether I can arrive at low tide or not

As an east bay-er, Mt. Diablo State Park is probably the top accessible biodiversity hotspot in my area and should still have some good flowers (especially at mid-to-high elevations) and attendant bugs. Pretty good reptiles as well, if you get lucky. Just be sure to bring lots of water. The other “tall” mountains in the bay area - Mt. Tamalpais and Mt. Hamilton - have some cool stuff still blooming.

Point Reyes is of course great, as are parks in the Santa Cruz mountains. I haven’t been to Muir Woods in years but my understanding is that it’s really crowded. Pinnacles National Park is a little far afield but it’s pretty great (on a weekday). Bring lots of water.

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I’ve visited a couple times where it wasn’t low tide (but also not high tide, somewhere in between) and there were still plenty of pools and crevices to explore.

I’d agree with all Tony’s suggestions. Mt. Diablo is a very good day trip destination.

Redwood forests are genuinely awesome, but don’t have a lot of visible species diversity, and Muir Woods has the disadvantage of being insanely crowded. The redwood parks in the Santa Cruz Mountains might be a better bet (check what’s open as Big Basin and Butano were severely damaged in the 2020 CZU wildfire).

Pinnacles NP is really worth the trip if you can make it. Great wildflowers, wacky geology, talus caves, and condors if you’re lucky. Stay in Hollister, Soledad or Salinas (or camp in the park). Do check the weather, 'cos it scorches when it’s hot.

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I was going to suggest this, also. Nearby walking and hiking trails along the cliffs are amazing. You can eat at an near by Moss Beach Distillery, which has great views for outdoor and indoor dining, plus pretty tasty food. From there, there is a cliff-side hiking tail all the way to Mavericks, about 4 miles.

I like to go to the beach by Half Moon Bay Harbor and Mavericks, aka Pillar Point. Nearby places that are good to eat include Half Moon Bay Brewery, Barbara’s Fish Trap, Sam’s Chowder House. For a light meal, I like Caffe MezzaLuna, nearby is Mezza Luna Restaurant for a full on Italian meal.

Although the walking route above is fine, there are several trails closer to the water between Mavericks Beach and Fitzgerald Marine preserve. One of them involves walking on an old collapsed roadway, so it’s not outlined. There are nice tide pools and a marshland adjacent to Pillar Point Harbor.

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Since the parking reservation system was implemented in 2019, visitation at Muir Woods has changed. The area is still busy by Bay Area naturalist standards, but for a lot of first-time visitors to this part of the world, I still think it still has a lot to offer in terms of ecological and historical context and amenities. If the trip can be coupled with a hike along Bootjack Creek and a stop in the Lone Tree Spring area, I think it’s well worth the visit for out of state and international visitors. Bonus for stopping at Muir Beach and finishing up with some pizza at the Junction or fish at Hook in Mill Valley.

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So, Henry Cowell State Park Redwoods survived the CZU fire:

https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?nelat=37.040030361772246&nelng=-122.05682491043845&place_id=any&subview=map&swlat=37.035320061723276&swlng=-122.06733916977683

An interesting perk in this old growth redwood forest is the presence of some rare albino redwood trees . The Fremont tree has a natural cavity as big as a bedroom. I’ll look for some links I have.

Video of the interior “parlor” in the Fremont Tree of Henry Cowell Redwoods:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ECZyLAa1Sk&feature=youtu.be https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/66617495

Albino tree
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/86098441

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Thanks everyone for your suggestions! What’s your opinion on visiting Yosemite on Sunday the 22nd and leaving early on Monday the 23rd? It’s a plan that’s been floated to me, but I feel like the park would be too crowded then and such a short trip may not be enough for the park.

My opinion… Yosemite is too far from San Franciso for a decent overnight trip. There are lots of fabulous places to explore within 1-2 hours of the city. You would spend too much time in the car getting to Yosemite, although it is a very worthy destination.

Pt Reyes is gorgeous with spectacular coastal areas, hills, and Bays. You may well see tule elk on a hike along at on the Tomales Point trail: This search is limited to mammals, but there are abundant other species to observe here.

https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?nelat=38.24944784083092&nelng=-122.86569534248203&place_id=any&subview=map&swlat=38.17526474361996&swlng=-123.03392349189609&verifiable=any&iconic_taxa=Mammalia

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San Bruno mountain is considered a biodiversity hotspot too although I don’t know whether I’d necessarily rank it above Mount Diablo and Ring Mountain.

Edgewood Park & Natural Preserve is good for wildflowers.

I second the idea of not trying to go too far afield - the Monterey area (e.g. Point Lobos or Elkhorn Slough) is awfully beautiful especially given your interest in birds and marine life so I don’t know if I’d rule that out, but even closer to San Francisco than that there are a bunch of good choices (many of which have been mentioned here already).

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For some unusual marine life close to SF, you may want to consider going to see the elephant seals at

> Ano Nuevo State Park

Oh, the elephant seals would still be active this season? Would I be able to see bulls?

Before going, I might double check at that website shown above for any changes / closures due to Covid. But this is what they say currently:

Experience the Elephant Seals Year-Round

One of the largest mainland breeding colonies in the world for the northern elephant seal is at Año Nuevo State Park. A Natural Preserve has been established to protect the elephant seals along with many other animals such as otters, California sea lions, coyotes, cormorants, terns and more. Native plants and an untouched intertidal ecosystem also find shelter inside the Natural Preserve. Elephant seals can be observed here year round either on a docent lead tour or through a self guided permit system within the Wildlife Viewing Area.

IMPORTANT PARK INFORMATION

The following rules and regulations are for your own safety and to protect the plants and animals that live in this park.

TO SEE THE ELEPHANT SEALS
Elephant seal viewing requires a 3-4 mile moderate hike over varied terrain, including sand dunes. Driving to see them is not an option. Sturdy shoes, layered clothing, water and rain/wind/sun protection are recomended. Visitors requiring mobility assistance are encouraged to make a reservation for an Equal Access Tour.

December - March: You must be on a Guided Walk to see the seals. Reservations are made through www.reservecalifornia.com

April - November: Visitor permits to see the seals inside the Natural Preserve are issued from 8:30 to 3:30. Visitors will not be able to obtain a permit after 3:30 pm due to the length of time it takes to hike to the viewing areas.

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Thanks! 3-4 miles sounds quite long, but I really really want to see them…
Would it be possible for me to combine them with a day trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or would that take too long?