San Francisco is not a big city, but it can be hell on wheels biking through it, thanks to its famous hills. That doesn’t stop thousands of people from doing just that every day, but still, who wants to sweat that much on vacation? Fortunately, if you’re visiting San Francisco and looking for the perfect way to stretch your legs without having to change shirts before dinner, this is the ride for you. And if you are a pedal-pumping gearhead? A few simple side trips make this tour a burner and a beauty. Plus, you can do the whole trip in just one direction if you’re willing to wait for a bus at the end which will carry you, and your bike, back downtown.
Start: China Basin/Potrero Hill
If you need to rent bikes for this trip, you’ll have to begin a little further up the San Francisco peninsula, just past AT&T Park on the Embarcadero at The Bike Hut, a non-profit that rents, repairs and sells bikes as part of its youth training program. Ride back down to AT&T Park if you haven’t been by yet, and take a trip along the waterfront side by McCovey Cove, where plaques commemorating historic moments in the ballpark’s 10 year history abound (thanks largely to Barry Bonds). If you’re starting south of the Park, the bike lane on the recently repaved Third Street, alongside the newest Muni Metro streetcar line, the T-3rd Street, is plush and provides a great view as you ride north towards downtown San Francisco.
Once you’ve got your bike past the ballpark, San Francisco’s waterfront really opens up. This relatively recently redeveloped area, once home to a stunningly ugly double-decker freeway (you’ve seen Bullitt, right?) is now the jewel it was always meant to be. And with a dedicated bike lane and extra extra wide sidewalks (if you’re biking with kids… if not, use the bike lane, please) you’ll have plenty of confidence to gaze at the sights as you pedal. Bike under the Bay Bridge, built in 1936 and still a working testament to engineering, even if it has had its share of structural mishaps… A new eastern span is currently under construction. Stop at the completely gutted and remodeled Ferry Building, now dedicated to San Francisco’s magnificent food life. If you’re lucky you’ll bike by on a farmer’s market day. If not, head inside and prepare to get hungry in a hurry. Mouthwatering offerings from some of the Bay Area’s best local producers of cheese, wine, chocolate and other delectables await.
Fisherman’s Wharf/Pier 39
You had to come here eventually. What better way than to pedal through this tourist madhouse straight to the good stuff? And by now, even though you haven’t gone up any hills of note, you’ve still biked over 4 miles, so definitely give yourself a break. Fresh oysters, crab or bay shrimp cocktails at the stands near Alioto’s on the pier at Fisherman’s Wharf, or clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl from the Boudin bakery nearby make a great mid-ride meal (though you may be slowed by digestion if you overindulge, but hey, you’re on vacation). If its time for a sit down meal, try Scoma’s or Capurro’s.
Fort Mason/Crissy Field
Here’s where things really get pretty. But you have to earn it, as you face your first climb of the ride. Stay right as you bike past the San Francisco Maritime Museum and park, and head up the winding road along the water’s edge to the Great Meadow at Fort Mason, where the view of San Francisco’s northern waterfront spreads before you and Alcatraz island, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands stand in the background. From here you ride down past the piers and parking lot at Fort Mason, (remember seeing that Safeway in Bullitt? You’ve at least watched the clip now, right…) and onto the bike trail along the Marina Green. On a clear and windy day, this is the premier kite-flying location in San Francisco. Alcatraz appears close enough to swim to, but don’t try it. It wasn’t the distance that made the prison island inescapable, it was the powerful currents heading in or out of the San Francisco Bay through the Golden Gate.
Crissy Field, which you approach as you pass the vehicular on ramp to the Golden Gate Bridge, used to be an air field, fronting the Presidio military base. When the Presidio became a National Park, Crissy Field began a makeover from rundown sandlot to restored wetland, and now is a premier spot for coastal birdwatching with breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands. Stop at the Warming Hut to read about this transformation, and to rest up for the first and only major hill of the trip.
Golden Gate Bridge/Presidio
Biking up the hill from Crissy Field to the parking lot at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t fun; more than a few carbon-fiber bikes have been pushed up this stretch. Even if it takes you a while though, it’s worth it, as the pay off is an up close and personal view of perhaps the world’s most famous bridge.
Those of you looking to add a little more burn to your thighs before this trip wraps up are welcome to pedal from here across the bridge and either down into the quaint seaside town of Sausalito (and perhaps on further into Marin County?) or up into the Headlands, those towering hills and cliffs poking out to the west of the bridge. Either way, you’re facing at least 10 more miles round-trip just to get back to the base of the bridge, and some serious hills to deal with. Consider yourselves warned… and encouraged. Both options reward the adventurous with beautiful views of the waterfront you just pedaled along, as well as a perspective on the Bay many tourists don’t get.
Land’s End/Cliff House/Golden Gate Park
By the time you reach the Golden Gate Bridge you may feel like you’ve taken in just about all you can handle for a day. If that’s the case, simply turn around and cruise back the way you came. Stop at the Palace of Fine Arts, wander in the Presidio, or pedal down boutiquey Chestnut Street rather than along Marina Green to add some variety to the return trip.
If more seems like a good idea, remember that you won’t have to come back this way again if you are planning to hop on the bus from Golden Gate Park’s west end. Bike from the parking lot at the Golden Gate Bridge onto Lincoln Way, which has at times a dedicated bike lane and sometimes simply a wide shoulder that may have cars parked in it. You’ll cruise steeply down past Baker Beach towards the ritzy Sea Cliff neighborhood. Remark to yourself how aptly named a place it is.
Of course, after all that down, the next stretch through Sea Cliff involves a bit more sustained climbing, but its not nearly as steep as the climb to the bridge, so you’ll be fine. Plus, the streets are wide with virtually no traffic, and the houses are a pleasure to look at.
Biking up and into Lincoln Park, which features the oft-overlooked Palace of the Legion of Honor art museum, is a churn for tired legs, but it is the last major hill of the day. The cruise down out of the park towards the aptly named Lands’ End park is a pleasure… a cool sea breeze is just what you’ll need. Stop at Louis’ Restaurant at the top of the Great Highway on Point Lobos Avenue for delicious diner food and a beautiful panorama while you eat, and then pedal down to the western edge of Golden Gate Park. You can pedal til your heart’s content on its miles and miles of bike paths and roads, or you can poop out at the 5-Fulton Muni stop on Fulton Street and La Playa, where you can load your bikes and ride all the way back to three blocks from the Embarcadero just north of the Bay Bridge. From there, its a short, and flat, ride back to the Bike Hut.
Questions about biking in San Francisco? Check out the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.
Google Maps now does bicycle routes, and they are pretty accurate for San Francisco. Also, this site is a simple but amazingly effective bike route planner.