Bay Area day trips: Winter excursions out of doors

Bay Area day trips: Winter excursions out of doors
Echo Lake Sno-Park (Photo: Laila Weir/Hoodline)
By Laila Weir - Published on January 17, 2022.

It's wintertime and Omicron is surging, but the days are getting longer and the rain has let up. If you're tired of being cooped up at home during your free time but wary of crowded indoor entertainment, Hoodline has rounded up some Bay Area day trips that are ideal for getting outside to take in some of the Bay's natural beauty. First on the list, of course, is driving to the mountains to enjoy some of this year's plentiful snow. But we've also got some suggestions for viewing migrating wildlife and for outings closer to home, too. Happy trails!

Head to the Snow

It's easy to drive to the mountains for a day of snow play (or a fabulous winter-wonderland photoshoot), provided you pick a day with clear weather and double-check the traffic conditions. Your best bet for a low-crowds, low-cost snow day trip is to visit one of the California State Parks' Sno-Parks. These are basically just outdoor areas in snow country where you can roam around and enjoy the scenery, build a snowman or throw some snowballs, or look for a little slope for sledding (provided you bring your own sled). You do need a $5 permit, though, which you can print at home. Some of the parks allow snowmobiling, so you may want to choose one that doesn't if you plan to be on foot.

Two of the easiest to get to are the Echo Lake park, off Hwy. 50, which is just hilly enough for some mild sledding between the trees, or the Donner Summit park off I-80, which doesn't have hills for sledding. You can also veer off of Hwy 50 just after Echo Lake to find a few more parks further along. If you want some serious sledding or tubing, on the other hand, plus conveniences like rental equipment or a lodge, check out Adventure Mountain or Tube Tahoe (off 50) or the Soda Springs resort (off 80). A bit further on, Hansen's Resort has a tubing hill, and the various ski resorts offer snow play, too. Wherever you go, keep in mind that the right clothing, especially footwear is essential. Sports euipment stores rent boots and other winter clothing if you don't want to buy it.


Hit the Beach

Let's face it, Nor-Cal Pacific beaches aren't exactly sunbathing hot spots in any season, and going in winter can look much like hitting the coast in July. Visiting Pt. Reyes in wintertime is a good way to avoid crowds and enjoy some stunning, if windblown, scenery — as well as to spot migrating whales, pupping Elephant Seals and other wildlife. (Head to the Chimney Rock area to see mating and pupping Elephant Seals.) If you're in the south bay, the coastline south of Pacifica and north of Santa Cruz offers rugged and uncrowded beaches, or you could drive down to Big Sur for a really gorgeous day away. Wherever you go, bring lots of layers and a water bottle, and consider packing your own picnic. Cell phone reception may be spotty, depending on your service, so know how to get home and plan ahead. Check your route ahead of time, because national and state parks and recreation areas can be subject to closures for wildlife protection or COVID restrictions.


Go Bird Watching

In addition to the year-round residents, the Bay Area is home to a plethora of wildlife that visit seasonally, including many species of birds that spend the winter here — and there are plenty of wild areas to go and observe them. The Golden Gate Audubon Society blog describes a number of the feathered winter migrants that you can spot in the area, particularly in Tilden Regional Park in Berkeley. Among the birds that winter here, according to the socity, are the pretty little Townsend’s warbler and red-breasted sapsucker, as well as various water birds like the unusual-looking hooded merganser. Tilden encompasses 2,079 acres acres and nearly 40 miles of hiking trails, so there's plenty of room to enjoy nature and watch for wildlife without worrying about crowds. So why not grab your binoculars and try your hand at birding? At a minimum, you'll get some exercise and a little nature therapy. (Just check the park website ahead of time, as some roads are closed for various reasons ... including to protect migrating newts!)


Walk or Bike the Bridges

Walking or biking across the Golden Gate Bridge is a time-honored tourist tradition, and the views out to the Pacific and around the Bay (or just of rolling fog) are well worth braving the wind and cold for locals and visitors alike. It can get crowded, though, and the sidewalks aren't wide. For a more socially distanced and relaxed option (and arguably a less chilly one), you can take an excursion to walk or bike on the Bay Bridge Trail or Richmond-San Rafael Bridge path instead. The views will be just as stunning, and you'll get views of the Golden Gate Bridge itself to boot... plus, if the Golden Gate is wreathed in fog you'll be extra glad to view it that way from a distance. The 2.2-mile Bay Bridge Trail runs from the East Bay side of the span to Yerba Buena Island, so you can only access it from Oakland. (From there, you can usually continue on to Treasure Island, the flat portion of the connected islands, but that part is currently closed.) It's got plenty of space, with separate lanes for bikers going in each direction, plus a parallel pedestrian path, and is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. The 6.4-mile Richmond-San Rafael Bridge has a 10-foot-wide path shared by bicyclists and pedestrians, which you can get to from either end of the bridge, and is open 24 hours a day. Tips: Try to pick a sunny day with less wind and bring plenty of layers and water. If you decide to brave the Golden Gate Bridge, be sure to check if the parking lots there are open.