Elevation ranges from sea level to about 180 feet. In general, the hiking is easy here, with a few exceptions. Sand Ladder Trail is very steep, but short. Trails can be impossible to follow, and it's easy to get off course. Some sections require scrambling down/up steep and sandy dunes. Walking is loose sand is not easy for most of us, and there's a lot of loose sand at Fort Funston.
From southbound CA 35 in San Francisco, pass John Muir Drive, then take the first right (signed Fort Funston). Bear right and continue to the parking lot.
From northbound CA 35 in San Francisco (just north of the San Mateo County border), make a U-turn at John Muir Drive. Drive southbound and take the first right (signed Fort Funston). Bear right and continue to the parking lot.
Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:
GPS Coordinates for Trailhead:
No parking or entrance fees. Large paved lot (nonetheless, parking is usually tight on weekends). A drinking fountain sits on the southwest corner of the lot; to get to the pay phone walk back toward the highway, then bear right on the road leading to the ranger station. The pay phone is on the right. There are wheelchair-accessible pit toilets and designated handicapped parking spots. Fort Funston's main trail is wheelchair accessible. Gas, restaurants, and stores to the south on John Daly Boulevard, and north on Sloat. Muni bus #18 accesses the park entrance at Skyline and John Muir Drive.
Dogs are permitted off leash under voice control, excepting the 12-acre closure in northwest Ft. Funston. Equestrians and hikers share the Bay Area Ridge Trail segment.
The Official Story:
GGNRA's Fort Funston page
Use AAA's San Francisco and Vicinity map to get there.
Trails of the Coastside and Northern Peninsula (map) is a great guide (available from Pease Press).
Jean Rusmore's The Bay Area Ridge Trail has a simple map and trail descriptions.
The San Francisco Convention and Visitor Bureau provides a useful map of the area.
View photos from this hike.
View photos of an extended version of this hike.
Fort Funston is a popular San Francisco dogwalking location. Most visitors walk the paved Sunset Trail, a north to south route on the bluff, and reach Ocean Beach via Fort Funston's northern section. Fort Funston's stretch of Ocean Beach is where you'll see scores of dripping wet dogs, romping across the sand with driftwood stick in their mouths.
I prefer the rough dune trails that depart from Fort Funston and travel south along the ocean into San Mateo County. There's less foot traffic, and the early summer flowers are spectacular. If you decide to follow my lead and hike on what is (in theory) this Bay Area Ridge Trail segment, be aware that this hike has some hazards. The route is mostly unsigned, and paths wind over unstable terrain. Be prepared to scramble up and down loose sandy dunes, and know that winter storms often change this landscape. The route I present might not exist when you visit. If you have questions or concerns, contact the ranger station. This is suitable hike for folks who crave a little adventure, but do use caution on the trails, and be flexible with your route.
By early summer, when bay area hills are brown and dry, the dunes along the ocean are dotted with vivid swaths of flowers. Since oceanside temperatures are cool, and the plants so pretty, summer is the optimal time to visit. Winter and early spring weather generally does not accommodate beach walks, and the hillsides are most unstable that time of year.
That chronic instability is the primary contributor to this trail's wild disposition. Although with the ocean visible at all times you'll never be lost, there's plenty of unpredictability in these dunes. A wrong turn off the main trail might bring you to a dense thicket of willow, with a 5 foot tall passage worn under the branches. This dark secret tunnel delivers you, blinking, back into the bright sunlight of the dunes. It's an Alice in Wonderland kind of experience.
I doubt that anywhere else in San Francisco you'll find such an extensive variety of plants and wildlife. Sea fig, a common marine ground cover, turns rust colored in summer, and from a distance the landscape resembles desert camouflage. Cottontail rabbits dart through the brush, trying to evade redtail hawks. All the while the soothing murmur of the ocean blocks sounds from civilization.
You'll probably be most comfortable wearing sport sandals or slip-on shoes for this hike (hiking boots and sand don't mix well). Start at the southwest corner of the parking lot. A handful of unsigned paths depart; walk toward to ocean and look for the signed Sand Ladder Trail at the edge of the bluff. Sand Ladder Trail drops sharply, but the views are so fabulous that you'll probably not notice the grade until your return ascent. At the bottom of the sand ladder, a small Bay Area Ridge Trail medallion is sometimes attached to a post, but from here on, you're mostly on your own, with little guidance from trail signs. Walk on the obvious path south and toward the ocean, ignoring two path that veer off to the left, heading back uphill. A few steps before a steep dropoff to the beach, at about .21 mile, you'll reach an easy-to-miss junction just before a cypress tree. Turn left and select a route from the paths that score the dunes.
Generally, you don't want to climb east out of the dunes, but retain a level steady southern course. Sea fig is the dominant ground cover, and shrubby willows are common. Bermuda sorrel, fine-leaved fumitory, manroot, California poppy, and beeplant flower in early spring, but nothing competes with mustard and sea fig for sheer volume of blossoms. In summer the dunes are tinted with a riotous jumble of yellow flowers on bush lupine, mustard, and lizardtail plants. Seaside daisy, wild radish, sand verbenas, and paintbrush contribute their color to the palate. You might also glimpse searocket, miner's lettuce, beach strawberry, blackberry, curly dock, and New Zealand spinach, all edible plants. Pelicans and seagulls are commonly spotted flying over the water. The paths wander at a mostly level course through the dunes. At about .47 mile, you'll reach an important junction. Beware of a promising-looking trail that climbs out of the dunes, slightly east. I once ended up on this path, and while the views are nice, it ends up on the bluff, at a chain-link fence and ugly dead-end road. Here as I pondered my next move, I encountered a guy hitting golf balls (most of the Olympic Golf Course sits right across Skyline Boulevard, but apparently they own land on the west side of the road as well). Unwilling to retrace my steps, I crawled through an opening in the fence and scooted down a steep sandy shoot on my butt. This put me back on the BART. I would not repeat this route again. Stay to the right on a path that veers toward the ocean.
The trail curves left and ascends a few feet, then levels off. The view south extends past the clifftop houses of Daly City to Montara Mountain. Descending slightly, you'll reach a junction with what I call the sand canyon trail, at about .78 mile. (From here you can continue straight and extend this hike another .7 mile; there are no markers at the turn-around point, but a good place to end your southern progress is at about 1.5 miles, where a series of paths climb up toward the houses. Then retrace your steps back to this junction.) Turn right.
A deep channel worn into the damp sand descends, then ends at the beach at about .83 mile. Turn right.
On this gentle stroll along the beach you'll have great views north. When you reach a cypress tree (you should be able to see the orange wind sock at the hang gliding platform uphill near the Fort Funston parking lot), at about 1.31 miles. Turn right and scramble up a short steep path to a previously encountered junction. Retrace your steps back to Sand Ladder Trail and the trailhead.
Total mileage: about 1.52 miles
Last hiked: Monday, March 25, 2002
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