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Beautiful Beginner Hikes in Northern California

Start off with gorgeous winter hikes that keep you active without wearing you out.  

Devil's Slide Trail, south of Pacifica, was once a scenic but harrowing portion of Highway 1.

Garrick Ramirez

Kick off the New Year with family-friendly nature-filled outings in Northern California that are easy on the eyes and calves. In addition to making good on health and wellness resolutions, you’ll also enjoy vibrant hues and lush greenery brought by winter rains. The following treks prove you needn't scale a mountain to enjoy California’s famously thrilling vistas.

Devil’s Slide Trail, Pacifica

Perched high above the Pacific, the dazzling seaside Devil’s Slide Trail was until recently a congested segment of Highway 1. The diabolic moniker refers to the landslide-prone cliff that frequently blanketed the road with rocks, frustrating commuters. After two tunnels were bored through San Pedro Mountain to bypass the precarious route—each over 4,000 feet long, the second and third longest in California after Yosemite’s Wawona Tunnel—the 1.3-mile stretch of road was transformed into a multiuse trail that features interpretive signage, viewing scopes, and resting areas. On weekends, docents point out WWII-era military posts, roosting murres—whose black-and-white bowling pin–shaped bodies could easily be mistaken for penguins—and migrating humpback whales spotted just offshore. Remember to bundle up. Even when nearby weather appears mild, Devil’s Slide can be wickedly chilly.

Two people walk along the trail beneath the trees at Redwood Regional Park, picture

Redwood Regional Park is a serene, unexpected treat just 20 minutes from downtown Oakland.

Deane Little

Stream Trail at Redwood Regional Park, Oakland

Less than 30 minutes from bustling downtown Oakland, you’ll discover an unexpected, serene strip of coastal forests at the Redwood Regional Park. For a low-grade stroll, follow the atmospheric Stream Trail as it meanders alongside babbling Redwood Creek through lush second-growth redwood groves. The trail stretches 5.4 miles, but most visitors are happy to turn back at any point as the dense forest makes the return trip just as pleasant. Go after a good rain when the amber, leaf-covered grounds are rich with color and dotted with clusters of otherworldly—and potentially poisonous—mushrooms. Bring proper footwear for those occasional muddy patches.

a boy walks along a former flume on the Independence Trail in Nevada City, picture

Traverse Gold Rush-era flumes on the Independence Trail.

Courtesy Laura Petersen / Bear Yuba Land Trust

Independence Trail, Nevada City

Walk in the footsteps of miners on this scenic, wheelchair-accessible trail that follows the Gold Rush–era Excelsior Ditch through the lichen-shrouded evergreen forests of the Sierra foothills near Nevada City. At times, you’ll traverse wooden flumes—built to deliver water for mining—perched on stilts high above river gorges. Highway 49 divides the trail into east and west segments—both equally rewarding, though the east side may have the edge for magnificent canyon views. In winter, watch for the many newts that dot the trail, tangling in balls while mating and seeking out puddles to lay their eggs.

Visitors gather on a wide beach off the Tennessee Valley Trail in the Marin Headlands, picture

A stunning, secluded beach cove rewards hikers on the Tennessee Valley Trail.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Tennessee Valley Trail, Marin Headlands

The breezy, crowd-pleasing Tennessee Valley Trail in the Marin Headlands owes its popularity not just to its accessibility but also the spectacular, sandy beach cove that awaits at the trail’s end. The valley, beach, and trail all take their name from the S.S. Tennessee, which overshot the San Francisco Bay and ran aground here in 1853. (Parts of its rusted engine can still be seen at low tide.) The trail leads through a lush, green valley that was nearly paved over in the 1960s for a sprawling urban development dubbed Marincello. Thanks to preservation efforts, the valley today remains home only to wildlife such as deer, raptors, and bobcats. An occasional guided full-moon hike begins with a brilliant ocean sunset and lingers to hear coyotes mark the twilight with yips and howls. Check the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s calendar for dates.

an aerial shot of the Noyo Headlands Coastal Trail overlooking Mendocino County, picture

The Noyo Headlands Coastal Trail skirts miles of the wild Mendocino County coastline. 

Mateo Ortiz

Noyo Headlands Coastal Trail, Fort Bragg

Offering access to coastline that had been off-limits to the public since the 1880s, the paved multiuse Noyo Headlands Coastal Trail traverses a stretch of rugged Mendocino County shoreline that fronts the former Georgia-Pacific lumber mill site. Interpretive panels detail the mill’s lengthy history—look for the concrete dynamite bunker built far from other mill structures—as well as the spectacular seaside landscape. A series of benches fashioned by local artists allow visitors to sit and enjoy the dramatic, churning sea. At present, the 5-mile trail is split into southern and northern segments. (The north portion often fills with visitors eager to sift through sea glass at adjacent Glass Beach.) In January 2018, visitors will be able to walk the entire contiguous route when the final, center portion of the trail is completed.

a couple walks along the flat History Trail in Napa Valley, picture

Napa Valley's History Trail links two historical sites via a trek through the region's evergreen forests.

Courtesy Jennifer Singer / Visit Napa Valley

History Trail, Calistoga

A pair of notable historic sites bookend this 1.2-mile trail that links two state parks in northern Napa Valley. Begin in Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, where you’ll stumble upon a pioneer cemetery with ornate marble headstones displaying the names of Napa’s early settlers. The trail—best enjoyed in winter and spring for green surroundings and cooler temps—ascends a gentle ridge forested with moss-covered trees before descending through chaparral-filled clearings and over a bridge spanning Mill Creek. The trail leads to Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park whose namesake 1846 mill is housed inside a striking three-story wood-slat structure flanked by a towering 36-foot water wheel. On weekends and holidays, the mill opens for demonstrations, and visitors can bring home a bag of freshly ground flour.

This article was published in December 2017. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.