The Bay Area is one of the most extraordinary urban hiking areas in the western U.S. Rich in plant life, Redwood trees and views of both city and water and mountains, Northern California is prime for teaching young children to love and live the nature that surrounds them.

Our 7-year-old twins have been hiking (read: walking, not nestled comfortably in my kid carrier backpack) since they were about age 3.  In four years, they’ve developed a list of their favorite places to hike. They have nicknames for each trail and reasons for liking each. Here’s the little kid version of the best hiking trails in the Bay Area for children:

The creek at Rancho San Antonio

The twins cross the creek at Rancho San Antonio (Samantha Fein)

Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve

Nickname: “The Reindeer Trail”
22500 Cristo Rey Dr
Los Altos, CA 94024
Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve

The vast Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve is a family favorite for year-round hiking. There are miles of trails filled with runners and hikers every weekend, but children in-particular have the opportunity to dabble in exploration with the safety of some paved roads, trail volunteers and bathrooms nearby.

Three of the best features of the park include a small creek directly off the paved path toward the Deer Hollow Farm.  In the spring, kids use tree branches to build a bridge across the river, and make forts with smaller branches and rocks.

The well-known Deer Hollow Farm is about a mile walk from the parking lot and is a terrific mileage goal for young hikers. Get to the farm, have a snack and peek around.  Sometimes there are animals available to see and there’s always a terrific vegetable garden to peruse. The barn has a lot of bees in the summer, but generally is a great place to hang out and watch kids play on the big red barn stage.

In colder weather, Rancho has been known to be frost-covered and earned its nickname “The Reindeer Trail” from my kids after seeing several deer walking through the snow-dusted fields above the farm. Bundle up and prepare for fun, muddy feet in winter hiking and maybe spy a reindeer or two.

At the trailhead, enjoy the giant oak tree, perfect for little people to climb, or on a Saturday, try and spy a few model airplanes flying in the field at the base of the park. Most of the lower-level trails at Rancho San Antonio lead to central locations around the park, so novice hikers and their parents can be confident about getting home safely.

Sunol Regional Wilderness Park

Sunol Regional Wilderness Park (Samantha Fein)

Sunol Regional Wilderness Park

Nickname: “The Cow Hike”
1895 Geary Road
Sunol, CA
Sunol Regional Wilderness Park

This famed Sunol hike is better known locally as “Little Yosemite,” but in our family it’s known as the “Cow Hike” for the middle section of the walk where hikers dodge both cows and their patties. The cows are both the most fun and biggest dud of this hike.

Start low down by the Indian Joe Creek Trail – take your time. This part of the day is beautiful. Kids can find little critters in the Almaden Creek like tadpoles, water lizards and even some baby turtles. For some, this is worth a full day of fun in itself. For grownups, the view is beautiful and in spring there are wildflowers everywhere.

After a snack, continue up toward the Cave road and Camp Ohlone road, and let kids go rock climbing all through the fields. My son and his buddies couldn’t get enough of playing on the cave rocks. This hike is a favorite of ours during the spring and autumn months. Avoid summer hiking here – there’s no shade and the cows stink in the heat.  Strollers are probably not worth it and you’re likely to get stuck in the mud.

In the autumn the trail becomes muddy, but that’s a lot of fun on its own. Stomping through muddy patches, winding over and under wide paths of grass and field are terrific fun for my kids. Instead of the picnic facilities, we like to trek over to the big green barn and have lunch. This visitor’s center has artifacts, maps and information for your next Sunol hike.

Sunol Regional Wilderness Park

Hidden Villa (Samantha Fein)

Hidden Villa

Nickname: “The Forrest Farm”
26870 Moody Road
Los Altos Hills, CA 94022
Hidden Villa

The beauty of Hidden Villa and its farm and trails is unlike most in the Bay Area. In many ways, Hidden Villa is made for little children’s exploring hands, with different things to see and touch and do at every turn.

Although spring is beautiful at the park, we have come to love Hidden Villa in the winter when the grass and fields are dark green and lush and the streams are babbling and filled with fun things to play with.

Start at Hidden Villa with a bathroom stop, as toilets are sparse. Start your walk on the Adobe Creek, a quiet equestrian and hiking trail. It’s a flat, mellow walk. For younger kids, it’s a perfect way to get started and wander. In the summer it’s nice in this area of the grounds, but in the winter, be sure to bundle kids well.

Find your way to the Bunny Creep Loop trail. It’s a small hike that’s perfect for kids with little hiking experience and the terrain is flat enough for grandparents too.  Here you’ll find roaming chickens and a baby chick hatchery.  Wander past historical buildings while kids race ahead on the path. Keep an eye out for well-marked signs and labels that describe the trees and foliage around the park. Wind around the loop trail and finish your hike by the blacksmith house and sustainable farm works throughout the year.

Finish this peaceful day with a stroll toward the new Heifer Foundation site or take a roll down the mounds of grass and hills.