Whether your girls are working on outdoor-themed badges, putting your outdoor skills and knowledge into practice, or just getting out to enjoy the sunshine with their Girl Scout sisters, Ann Marie Brown, author of Moon 101 Great Hikes San Francisco Bay Area, has the perfect hike for your next outdoor adventure.

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1. See the seals and sea lions at Año Nuevo State Park

Every winter, tiny Año Nuevo Island and its neighboring beaches are the breeding grounds for a mass of blubbery seals—one of California’s wildest wildlife spectacles. Mark your calendar for December through March to bring your Girl Scout troop to Año Nuevo State Park, where more than 3,000 elephant seals take over the beach. The sheer number of seals is surprising enough, but even more mind-boggling is their huge size. Male elephant seals can grow longer than 18 feet and weigh more than two tons. Even the newborns increase their weight from 60 to 200 pounds in only four weeks after birth. Reserve your tickets for guided walks in advance.

Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park

Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park
Photo Credit: Leah Takahashi

2. Visit the historic prison on Alcatraz Island

Take a ferry to Alcatraz Island and explore the abandoned prison by day or by night. With its invigorating salt spray and expansive bay views, the 20-minute boat ride is reward enough, but ferry tickets also include admission to the island, an optional ranger-led tour, and a 40-minute tour of the cell house, delivered via audio headset. The narrated program, “Doing Time,” weaves together the voices of actual inmates and prison guards with actor re-enactments, making the prison’s empty walls come to life. After the cellhouse tour, be sure to walk around the guardhouse, exercise yard, and the surprisingly lush gardens that surround the buildings. Alcatraz may seem sinister from the inside, but outside, there are dazzling views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, lush Marin County to the north, and nearby Angel Island.

3. Track down majestic tule elk at Point Reyes National Seashore

Jutting dramatically into the blue Pacific, the West Coast’s only national seashore extends across 70,000 acres of a large triangular peninsula. Here, breakers pound remote beaches, wisps of fog wash over coastal hills, and tule elk roam the wild meadows. This majestic elk, a subspecies found only in California, can be seen throughout Point Reyes, but you and your troop can spot them (relatively) close-up near Pierce Point Ranch or by walking on the Tomales Point Trail. The 500-pound animals were once common, but by the 1870s, they were nearly hunted out of existence. Today Point Reyes has more than 500 herds. In late summer, the bull elks are in their “rut”, and you may hear the males bugling or see them sparring with a raucous clash of 40-pound antlers.

Tule Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore

Tule Elk at Point Reyes National Seashore
Photo Credit: Ann Marie Brown

4. Spend the night under the stars at Kirby Cove

If you’re thinking of planning an overnight camping trip with your troop, it’s hard to beat Kirby Cove Campground. Nestled into a grove of cypress trees a short walk from the wind-whipped Pacific, this campground in the Marin Headlands has a picture-perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Camping next to the coarse-sand beach is alluring enough, but the girls can also have fun exploring Battery Kirby, a concrete military bunker that was built in 1898. A one-mile trail leads to the campground, so the girls will have to trek a bit to get here, but even if they are tuckered out, it may be tough to get everyone to go to sleep—the lights of San Francisco are magical at night. The camp is open from April 1st through November 30th. It’s a popular spot, so reserve far in advance.

5. Search for tidepool treasures at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve

When your troop visits Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, the girls might walk a few miles or only a few yards, depending on the tides. During the year’s lowest tides—occurring most often in late fall and winter—more than 200 species of marine animals and 150 species of plants can be seen in these tidepools north of Half Moon Bay. Nobody leaves here disappointed; it’s virtually impossible not to ogle an urchin or stare down a starfish. Check the crevices in the rocks and you might see mussels, crabs, abalones, barnacles, starfish, anemones, snails, and limpets. If you’re lucky, you may spot an octopus or a nudibranch. Remind the girls that it’s okay to look and even gently touch these fragile creatures, but they should never pick them up or move them.

Fitzgerald Tidepools

Tidepools at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve
Photo Credit: Ann Marie Brown

6. Picnic on Angel Island’s highest point

This day-trip has everything going for it: A ferry ride across the bay, an easy-to-moderate hike on San Francisco Bay’s most beautiful island, and a sweeping vista from the summit of Mount Livermore that takes in the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, Tiburon, Belvedere, and San Pablo Bay. Brush up on Angel Island’s fascinating past before you visit so you can teach your troop about its history as a Civil War military outpost, a site for Russian sea otter hunters, and immigrant detention center. Make sure everybody packs a lunch for the trip’s finale, a picnic on the 788-foot mountaintop. A few tables are found just below the summit, plus interpretive signs that point out the bay’s landmarks.

Angel Island

The view of the East Bay from Angel Island
Photo Credit: Ann Marie Brown

7. Learn about endangered butterflies on San Bruno Mountain

San Bruno Mountain is home to endangered butterflies—the mission blue, the San Bruno elfin, the Callippe silverspot, and the San Francisco silverspot—as well as rare and endangered plants including Pacific manzanita, San Bruno Mountain manzanita, Diablo rock rose, San Francisco owl’s clover, and dune tansy. Sign your troop up for a guided walk in this 2,700-acre park with stunning views of downtown San Francisco, and they’ll learn about the importance of protecting even the smallest of creatures—every plant and butterfly plays a big role in the web of life.

8. Walk the suspension bridge to the Point Bonita Lighthouse

The Marin Headlands are an unforgettable place, with black sand beaches, dramatic coastal bluffs, and Pacific vistas that seem to go on forever, but the most breathtaking spot on the headlands is the Point Bonita Lighthouse, precariously perched on a rock outcrop. To reach it, you have to walk across a mini-suspension bridge—a thrill the girls will long remember. Once there, your girls can explore the lighthouse’s lower floor and learn about the challenges faced by an 1850s lighthouse keeper. They’ll also be mesmerized by the crashing waves, black-sand coves, and magnificent San Francisco Bay. Point Bonita Lighthouse and its suspension bridge are open only from 12:30pm to 3:30pm Saturday–Monday, so plan accordingly.

Point Bonita Lighthouse

Point Bonita Lighthouse in Marin
Photo Credit: Ann Marie Brown

What to do next:

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Ann Marie BrownAnn Marie Brown—Ann Marie is a dedicated California outdoorswoman who hikes, camps, and bikes more than 150 days each year. She is the author of 16 books with Moon, including several outdoors titles—Moon Yosemite, Moon California Waterfalls, and Moon Northern California Biking—and is the co-author of Moon California Hiking with Tom Stienstra. Her work has also appeared in Sunset, VIA, and California magazines. Ann Marie lives in South Lake Tahoe. Visit her website: annmariebrown.com.

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