Bay Area Hikes With Children With Autism

Summer has officially started, not because Leelo's last day of school was five days ago, but because at this moment all three kids are swimming in the pool while I watch them over the rim of my laptop and wipe drops of chlorinated water from its screen.

Leelo and I have already started our daily summer excursions, to help exorcise his "this is not my usual routine!" tantrums, and keep his summertime soul intact. Today we did a three-mile trek through the forbidding poison oak groves of otherwise much-loved Edgewood County Park. It was just the two of us as the girls have a few more days in school.

Leelo is often at his best as a 1:1 boy, and was at his truly very best today. I decided to experiment with not letting him have new straws or snacks on the trail (he has been obsessing over both recently), and he not only resigned himself to being denied, but asked for kisses and hugs instead. He was a cheerful, happy, engaged boy for the entire hike. He didn't complain or dawdle, not once.

It was one of the best mornings we've ever had together. Positively blissful. His Superman shirt and forehead curl didn't exactly curb my adoration.

Leo Hiking Edgewood County Park

Leelo and I hike a lot. A lot a lot. Sometimes with family, sometimes with friends, and sometimes as a dynamic duo. We both need the exercise, and he needs an outlet for his excess energy. If we put in real mileage, it makes us both more cheerful.

We've spent so many hours trekking through so many Bay Area parks and preserves; it's time to formalize our opinions about the best San Francisco Bay Area trails for kids like Leelo. (Note that every one of these parks has a bathroom in the parking lot or at the trailhead.)

UPDATE MAY 2011: Castle Rock State Park and Samuel P. Taylor State Park are both slated for closure in July 2012 due to state budget cuts.


Families With Small Children: Summer
Little Butano Creek Trail, Butano State Park

Leelo on the Trail

Little Butano Creek Trail, in Butano State Park, is an ideal hike for kids with autism or ADHD, and toddlers. It is a 1.5 mile (3 miles return), easily followed trail with plenty for kids to look at (banana slugs, caves, shallow creeks, bridges, boardwalks). It is mostly flat, shady, and surrounded by my favorite kind of Redwood splendor.

Be mindful: There is much to tempt children who love to play with water.


Families With Small Children: Winter
Crystal Springs Cross Country Course, Belmont

Family Hike

Not great for families with members in wheelchairs because at the moment you have to squeeze through the bike barriers to access these trails, but otherwise excellent for winter trekking. We don't go during the summer because it is on an exposed ridge, with not one tree. Lots of gently sloped trails that turn back on themselves, so you can hike as minimally or as much as you want to.

Be mindful: Do not go during a cross country event!


Families Who Like to Clamber
Castle Rock State Park, above Saratoga

Miles & Zelly: Happy Bouldering

Bouldering opportunities and the small enclosed spaces so beloved by my son and his friends abound. It's a popular site for rock climbers, so if you want to avoid people, go early or on a weekday. It's an uphill, half-mile hike to get to the bouldering area.

Be mindful: Keep an eye on your kids, even if you think they have common sense (none of mine do; not really, not yet). There are quite a few drop offs on the backsides of the boulder clusters.


Families With Kids Who Never Run Out of Energy
Sweeney Ridge from Sneath Lane Trailhead, San Bruno


This is a history-rich trail that just keeps going up, up, and up. You can even bring dogs, if you keep them on-leash. The clear-day views are fantastic.

Be mindful: Not for the easily winded.


Families With Kids in Wheelchairs
Sonoma Coast State Beach Vista Trail, near Jenner

Accessible Picnic Tables

A fully-accessible trail with cut-out picnic tables, mostly level trails, fabulous views, and accessible bathrooms. Note that this trail is north of Jenner, and so not a casual outing for most Bay Area residents.

Be mindful: It can be windy, so make sure everyone brings layers.


Families Who Like Tidepools and Sensory Soothing
Bean Hollow/Pebble Beach, Año Nuevo State Park

Leelo at Bean Hollow


This one gets two pictures. Pebble Beach at Bean Hollow is one of our all-time favorite places for Leelo to indulge in sensory play. The smooth pebbles that make up this beach feel so good on his hands and feet; he will dig in them indefinitely.

There are tidepools at the north end of the beach, and the very easy trail at the south end of the parking lot leads to even more of them. Great exploring for nimble children accompanied by watchful parents.

Be mindful: The water is cold, the waves unpredictable, and the submerged rocks plentiful. Stay on the upper part of the beach, and do not turn your back on the ocean. Beaches are not even remotely wheelchair-accessible.


Families Whose Children Like to Play in the Water
Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Lagunitas

India Nymphing it up at Samuel P Taylor State Park

Lovely place to take small children. On warm days, you can let them splash in the shallower areas of the creek, which is accessible from the outer rim of the plentiful picnic areas/parking lot. Wide, level trails (converted from rails) make for easy hiking, offshoot trails head up hills and into redwood groves. Mostly shady even in summer, and very picturesque.

Be Mindful: Cultivate mutual respect with visible cyclists, as you will be sharing trails with them.


  1. My 7 year old daughter has a PDD-NOS diagnosis and nothing calms her more than a nice long hike. Maybe it's just the sensory experience of nature. She loves it.

  2. Jim Charlie & I need to hike in every one of those parks!

    Nothing like the great outdoors----we did lots of hikes in Chabot Park (not exactly its name) in Oakland when we visited my family last Xmas. Charlie really seemed to like it.

  3. "His Superman shirt and forehead curl didn't exactly curb my adoration." Understandable! Me, too!

  4. Cheekyandcutie.11:20 AM

    Your little Leelo looks like my little Harris. Open the door and hes off.....


Respectful disagreement encouraged.