This is the second in a two-part series on maps for planning car-free outdoor adventures. The first article discussed print maps good for planning walks that connect trails, parks, and open space with transit. Print maps are usually a starting place for me, a way to get ideas for possible routes. Once I have planned out a potential route, I sometimes just try the hike without doing much other research. However, online maps can be very helpful in answering questions about a route that cannot easily be answered by looking at the print versions.
There are many fancy map-related applications online that could be useful for trip planning, but I tend to find Google Maps to be sufficient for my needs. For most trips, entering the route on Google Maps allows you to quickly figure out the distance of a hike — much easier than trying to measure in on the print map and add up a bunch of numbers. I tend to underestimate the length of a route, so mapping the route online helps me get a better idea of the actual distance and make adjustments if necessary. I have found that drawing lines using Google’s MyMaps feature is more useful than entering starting and end points in Google Maps. Keep in mind, however, that although Google Maps directions does depict some trails you may be better off using the mileage from your print map to get an accurate estimate of distance of some trails on your route — particularly when the route has lots of switchbacks. Also, in some cases it is helpful to draw multiple lines in MyMaps for different sections of the route, rather than one line for the entire route.
Although online maps are useful as a time saver for route planning, the best use I’ve found for them is avoidance of potentially dangerous routes. Anyone who has been on foot or on a bicycle on a route with no shoulder/sidewalk or near a busy freeway interchange will know the value of being familiar with the route ahead of time. For routes near freeways, busy thoroughfares, or rural roads, I like to use the satellite view of Google Maps. I check for sidewalks, for crosswalk locations, and for other features of the roads that might affect my route. Often it is very easy in satellite view to see how to avoid a problem by walking on one side of the street, moving the route a block in one direction, etc. Occasionally, if I can’t get enough information in satellite view, I will use the Google Maps Street View feature. It’s not available for every location, obviously, but in most urban areas I have been able to check on the location of a bus stop or see details of a street where the overhead view was blocked by trees. Street View can also sometimes be useful for finding the exact location of a trailhead, path, or stairway.
Despite careful planning, you may sometimes find discrepancies while out on the route. If you or one of your hiking partners has a smartphone, you could also pull up a map on the phone and use the phone’s GPS features to find an alternative route or check the directions. I am definitely not suggesting you need to purchase an expensive phone, however; much of the time I reference the directions I have typed up/written out ahead of time and occasionally refer to a printed map. In fact, having now described the utility of online maps in general I would like to also discourage you from using online maps and technology too much for your hikes. It can be tempting to use all of the cool online mapping tools out there to see your exact route before ahead of time or to check your location multiple times along the route. But I prefer to leave some mystery and surprise to the journey — otherwise it’s not much of an adventure!
Once I have completed a hike and am satisfied with the route, I enter the detailed route in MyMaps for future reference. MyMaps has options for either keeping your maps private or for making them public, and it is an easy tool to learn and use. If you want to get a better idea of the how the maps look, you can look at the maps that I’ve included for each of the hikes on this blog, or browse the collection of Car-Free Outdoors maps.
Planning out a car-free outdoor adventure does take some time, but it is a lot of fun if you are a map-lover. If you don’t find this enjoyable or don’t have the time for it, there are plenty of routes here on Car-Free Outdoors to follow — and more on the way!
Print and online maps are key to planning to car-free outdoor adventures, so I thought I’d take some time to share some of my favorites for those you wanting to plan your own hikes. I use both print maps and online mapping to plan out hikes; in the second part of this article I will talk about the online maps. Eventually, I’ll also write about bike maps.
When I first attempted to plan hikes from transit, I realized that I would need more than park maps. Park maps are, of course, great for planning any hike. Most of the official park maps from Bay Area agencies have accurate distances and are freely available either at park entrances or from the park office. And, most can be downloaded online and printed on standard 8 1/2 x 11 paper. I won’t list them all here, as the individual hike descriptions include links to specific park maps. However, when you want to connect between parks and from street to trail, it is much easier to visualize a route using map with larger coverage.
As with anything else, you could easily spend a bunch of money on maps. If you want to start planning your own longer hikes, I recommend starting with the maps in the region where you live or where you plan to do much of your hiking. I find that in most cases shopping for maps in a physical store is more useful than ordering them online, especially in cases where you want to compare maps from the same region from different mapmakers. REI carries a wide selection of maps in its stores around the Bay Area, as do many of the independent outdoor gear stores.
San Francisco Bike Map & Walking Guide (Rufus Graphics): In addition to its usefulness as a bike map, this one is great for planning walking routes because it depicts the steepness of streets with shading.
Map & Guide to Golden Gate Park (San Francisco Recreation & Parks, Rufus Graphics): There are many online maps showing the locations of well-known spots in Golden Gate Park, but none show all of the park’s many paths in as great of detail as this print map.
Southern Marin Trail Map (Tom Harrison Maps): This map shows the Marin Headlands and connections with Mt. Tam, the Bay Trail from the Golden Gate Bridge north through Sausalito, and the Tiburon Peninsula. Additionally, it shows the trails on Angel Island. Because of its scale, the trails in Fort Baker are not shown in great detail, so you will want to use the official park map when planning hikes in that area.
Trails of Northeast Marin County (Pease Press): This is an excellent map for planning Bayside hikes in Marin and in preserves near Highway 101 from San Rafael north to Novato. For easier planning of hikes from transit, I have marked the locations on my map of the Golden Gate Transit bus pads (which are at 101 exits).
Rambler’s Guide to the Trails of Mt. Tamalpais and the Marin Headlands (Olmsted & Bros.): This is my favorite of the choices for Mt. Tam maps. In addition to Mt. Tam and Muir Woods, the map shows Marin Municipal Water District land to the north and all of the Marin Headlands.
Rambler’s Guide to the Trails of the East Bay Hills (Olmsted & Bros.): The Northern and Central East Bay Hills maps are some of my favorites despite the fact that they are older. They show the trails of the East Bay Regional Park District, the city and county parks, and the EBMUD lands, making it easy to plan routes that connect trails in different jurisdictions.
Map of Berkeley’s Pathways (Berkeley Path Wanderers Association): This map clearly depicts Berkeley’s pedestrian paths and stairways, of which there are over 130 for this small city! The map is clear and easy to read, and shows the connections with Tilden Park, the UC trails, and Claremont Canyon Preserve. Additionally, the Bay Trail connections with bordering cities are shown on the map.
Walk Oakland Map & Guide (Rufus Graphics): This is a very useful map for planning neighborhood routes to connect transit with trails in the Oakland hills. It shows neighborhoods, points of interest, street steepness, and BART and major transit centers. The map also shows Oakland’s many walking paths — though I wish the path markings were a bit more prominent and easier to see on the map.
Trails of the Coastside & Northern Peninsula (Pease Press): This map starts with the south end of San Francisco and shows parks and trails down the coast past Half Moon Bay. It actually shows transit routes, but because the map is older many of the routes have either changed or no longer exist. Nonetheless, a great map.
Trail Map of Central San Francisco Peninsula Trails (Wilderness Press): On this map you can see the trails from San Mateo south to Stanford University. This is an invaluable map for planning longer hikes on the mid-Peninsula particularly because it shows the Crystal Springs Trail, which runs north to south and allows connections between parks.
Trail Map of the Southern Peninsula (Trail Center): This is a nice map of the many parks along the ridge from Portola Valley south to Saratoga Gap and Rancho San Antonio and Fremont Older preserves. You can see the trails in relation to Foothill College, which is the nearest public transit access point for much of this area.
Pathways Map, Los Altos Hills: This very detailed map shows the many pathways in Los Altos Hills, which connect with Rancho San Antonio and several smaller preserves and open spaces. Although it covers a fairly small geographic region, it is a great map to have for Peninsula hikes. Many different hikes can be constructed by planning different routes using the paths, which are not represented in detail on any other map that I have seen.
For all regions: If you have one already, the Thomas Bros. maps are actually fairly useful for planning car-free adventures, despite the fact that they are designed for drivers. I use them mostly when trying to figure out the best route through a neighborhood to connect to a trail. The Thomas Brothers. maps will have more street detail than any of the larger hiking maps and sometimes are more accurate than online maps for smaller streets. These maps are fairly expensive, though, and generally too bulky/heavy to bring along for the hike, so again I recommend starting with the map for the region where you will be spending the most time doing hikes.
While I am excited about making more car-free adventure routes available, this week’s post expands on the About page to give you a more detailed overview of why I started this project, and what I hope it will provide for others.
An idea generated on a walk
Back in 2007, while walking in the Berkeley hills, I observed that an AC Transit bus stopped right at Tilden Park. I wondered just how many other parks and trails in the Bay Area were accessible either directly by transit or by finding an interesting neighborhood route from a transit stop to the location:
I hope eventually to research the best car-free ways to get to parks and recreation areas in the Bay Area, as it is often confusing to figure out and sometimes involves two or three different transit agencies. …. I also want to know what the shortest route on foot is from the North Berkeley and downtown BART stations to Tilden. One of the nice things about Berkeley’s stairways is that a pleasant walk could be had up the various stairways from the flatlands to the park, avoiding some of the steep and winding streets.
This idea was added to the growing list of thoughts generated while walking and observing Berkeley. After finishing the Walking Berkeley project at the end of 2007, I revisited the idea and eventually started gathering a list of possible parks, trails, and routes. I tried out a couple of hikes, which turned out to be fun adventures. Finally, after lots of research, I was ready to start documenting the adventures and presenting them for you to enjoy!
An outdoor guidebook where every trip can be done without a car
While I greatly enjoyed the idea of getting outdoors without a car, I was not sure at first whether the results of my research were worth sharing with a wider audience. There are plenty of good books and websites for hikes, camping, and cycling in the San Francisco Bay Area. A variety of maps and tools are available online for planning your transit trip, and a few park agencies and print guidebooks even note transit-accessible hikes.
Planning a car-free hike required a lot of time and resources. Every time I went out, my backpack was loaded with guidebooks, maps, printed transit schedules and directions. In short, it was a lot of work just to get out for a hike! Additionally, I started discovering that more parks and trails were actually accessible than I first thought; even if a transit stop was a ways from the trailhead, some could be reached by using stairways and paths, rail-trails and multi-use paths, and other interesting routes through surrounding neighborhoods.
What I really wished for was something exactly like a standard outdoor guidebook except that each and every trip could be done without a car. If I hoped for car-free outdoors guide, I figured there were at least a few more people out there who would find it useful as well. My goal for Car-Free Outdoors is to present thorough hike descriptions to help save hours of planning and research on your part. If you just want to get out for a hike, you can follow the routes exactly as described. Or, you can adapt the routes to incorporate your own ideas or preferences.
Focus on what is possible
Although I have not owned a car for several years, I have often found it faster and easier to walk and ride a bicycle to reach a destination. Some buses don’t run very often, don’t run late enough in the evening, and don’t run on weekends. Transit systems are not always as efficient as they could be and they do use some fuel and resources. Decisions about changes to existing transit and the development of new transit are endlessly debated and argued by government agencies, transportation policy groups, and the press. Meanwhile, there a lot of people out there who don’t own a car or don’t want to drive as often, but just want to get outside for some fun and exercise! Car-Free Outdoors is focused on finding solutions for getting outdoors using what is currently possible using existing transit systems.
Car-free outings are fun
Perhaps a more lofty goal I have is to show that car-free outings can be just as fun if not more so than driving to the trailhead. As my partner Joe (who has come along on many of the hikes and who has enthusiastically supported the project) mentioned: “The adventure starts when you walk out the door.” When you go on a car-free hike, you get the experience not just of the hike, but the transit ride, the neighborhoods surrounding the park or open space, and the connections and distinctions between urban/suburban and natural areas. While public transit can seem challenging at times, I have found the car-free hike experience is a whole lot more fun and interesting than driving a car to a trailhead, taking a hike, and getting back in the car and driving home again. I hope some users of this resource will have that experience as well!