Category Archives: SF Bay

Conzelman Loop

Distance: 12-mile sloppy figure eight
Elevation gain: 1640 ft

This ride is a spur off the Golden Gate Bridge Loop ride, and as such it can be added on to that ride or ridden as an alternative to the GGBL’s post-Bridge second half. It adds considerably to the work load, since the GGBL ride is essentially flat and this ride is almost never flat, but it jacks up the drama and scenic power of the ride by a factor of about 10, because, even though the scenery from Sausalito to Tiburon is just fine, the vistas on this loop are simply staggering. If you can see them—the Marin Headlands are often wrapped in fog, especially in the summer (see final photo). In fog this ride has its magic, but I’d try to wait for a clear day.

The riches packed into these 12 miles beggar the imagination: spectacular views looking down on the Golden Gate Bridge, glimpses of inaccessible beaches along the north shore of the Golden Gate, a lighthouse, a charming little museum, World-War II gun batteries, a battleship’s 16-inch gun, a lovely cove with a beach and surfers, a lagoon, a Cold-War missile base you can tour, a ripping 18% descent you don’t have to climb back up, and on and on. Don’t just ride it—explore, drink it in, wander. Every foot of paved road is worth riding, and there’s history and natural beauty at every turn.

If you’re riding across the Bridge, you’ll have to work your way to the west side of Hwy 101. Ride out the north end of the parking lot, ride the shoulder of Alexander briefly until there’s an obvious intersection, then carefully cross Alexander and ride through the little tunnel to Conzelman. If you’re driving, take the Alexander exit and go south on Alexander briefly to Conzelman, then turn into the parking lot at the base of Conzelman overlooking the Bridge.

Your warm-up ride

Conzelman is instantly and seriously steep, so I ride the Bridge sidewalk to warm up. Depending on the day and hour, you may have to ride over to the east side to do this, but that’s easy to do. Once on Conzelman, the pitch is at its worst in the beginning and gets easier. The road is one-lane one-way for cars so you have tons of room.

Ride up Conzelman to the roundabout and continue on Conzelman uphill. Soak up the views of the Bridge below you, and keep an eye out for glimpses of hidden beaches snug along the shoreline west of the Bridge.

At the top of the climb there is a sign reading “18% descent.” I question that figure, but it’s steep, and the view of the road curling below you to Point Bonita and the Point Bonita Lighthouse is matchless. Take your photos before you get up a head of steam, because it’s hard to stop mid-plummet. There’s a nice run-out at the bottom which lets you carry some serious speed. As the road levels out, you pass several World War II gun batteries. The guns are gone, but you’re welcome to explore them and contemplate a time when San Francisco expected enemy fleets to sail into the Bay.

Partway up Conzelman and masked for Covid, with SF, Alcatraz, and the Bay Bridge in the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge closer, and Mt. Diablo on the horizon to the far L

Ride to the end of Conzel- man. You can’t ride to the lighthouse, so you might want to bring a lock and shoes so you can walk there. At the western terminus the road does a U and becomes Field Rd.

Find the Nike missile base, a relic of the Cold War. You’re allowed to poke around on Saturdays, and once a month there’s a docent tour where they actually elevate a missile on its launch pad.

Ride Field Rd. to Bunker Rd., stopping at the museum—it’s a nice one. Go L on Bunker.

Now find the loop to Battery Townsley. It’s to the north of Rodeo Lagoon, and it’s inexplicably left off a lot of maps or represented as a hiking trail, but it’s old pavement and perfectly rideable. It’s unmarked on our map at the extreme NW point of the route. Stop at the summit to muse on Battery Townsley, where they have on display a 16-inch gun from the Battleship Missouri in lieu of the battery’s own guns of a similar size. Its dimensions are mind-boggling, as is the fact that it fired a projectile weighing over a ton. There are docent tours once a month.

The Conzelman descent (center of photo), with Point Bonita on L–the lighthouse is on the tip of the point

Before leaving, savor the incomparable view of Rodeo Beach and Point Bonita below you. Continue on to the beach. Watch the surfers and the pelicans.

Continue on Bunker Rd. At the intersection of Bunker and McCullough you will have to choose between two return routes. If you continue on Bunker, the return ride is a very gentle climb that goes through a fairly dreary tunnel and returns to Alexander—go R on Alexander to return to your car or the Bridge. If you want more work and more fun, turn R on McCullough and you’ll have a nice, moderate climb back to the roundabout of Conzelman, whence you get a very nice descent back to your car.

Rodeo Beach and Rodeo Lagoon from Battery Townsley, with the Golden Gate and SF behind

Shortening the route: You can save one substantial climb by driving to the roundabout on Conzelman and starting there. You could skip almost all the climbing by driving to the lagoon area and riding around on the flats, but you’d miss a lot.

Adding miles: Do the Golden Gate Bridge Loop. For more excellent options, see the Adding Miles section of that ride.

The Conzelman descent on a typical August morning

Mill Creek Road #2

Distance: 9 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1390 ft

At last count there were 2,347 roads on the West Coast named Mill Creek Road. Bestrides has three: the Mill Creek Road by Lassen National Park, the Wine Country one in the Adding Miles section of the Pine Flat Road ride, and this one.   All three are super-sweet little rides.

This Mill Creek Road is out of Fremont, CA. It was a gift to me from Friend of Bestrides Nabeel, in gratitude for the rides Bestrides had shown him. Isn’t that lovely? It’s one of the shortest rides in Bestrides, but mile for mile it’s as good as any—4 miles of meandering, recently re-paved (though still lumpy) one-lane gorgeousness that wanders through riparian oaks along a little creek you can’t see and alongside typical East Bay rolling hills of grass. The profile is one of constant variety, always turning, climbing, dropping—rarely can you see more than 1/10 of a mile ahead of you.

The only downside besides its skimpy length and lumpy surface is that it doesn’t link up easily with any other ride by bike besides Morrison Canyon, and Morrison Canyon is a worth-doing-once ride. So if you want a longer day of it, drive to MCR, then drive to another nearby ride (Calaveras Road, for example). Or be prepared to ride some distance on surface streets (see Adding Miles). Or ride MCR twice, which isn’t as silly as it sounds.

MCR looks a lot like two beautiful rides nearby that I like a lot: it’s like the north side of Morgan Territory Road, but narrower and with smoother pavement (which are both good things); and it’s like Welch Creek Road but not nearly as steep (which is a good thing). Still, it’s an authentic climb—1400 ft in 4.5 miles, which averages out around 7%, but it’s harder than that sounds because it’s typically 8-10% for a while, then 3%, then 8-10%, in stair steps.

The landscape is mostly undeveloped—a couple of working farms and 4-5 gated mansions mostly hidden from view—and you’ll spend most of the ride in a beautiful oak canopy. The road ends at a locked gate, so expect to see no more than a car or two, but it’s a popular walking route for locals, so expect to share the road with lots of strollers later in the day on weekends.

(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)

I’ve mapped the ride from the base of the climb, but unless you live in the area you’ll probably start from the Fremont BART station. From the station to MCR is 4 miles of flat or slight incline through typical, not-unpleasant urban residential with good bike lanes—a perfect warm-up.

Mill Creek Road itself starts climbing immediately. The road is narrow enough that there are paved turn-outs to facilitate cars passing each other, and it’s never straight. It rolls up and down for a while before settling in to an extended climb, but still there’s a lot of variety in the pitch so you never get bored.

You pass a vineyard that catches you by surprise and immediately deadend at a gate, beyond which the road is unpaved. Whether you can continue on a gravel bike is uncertain—one sign reads “Entering regional park, no hunting or shooting,” which certainly implies you may proceed, but another sign reads “No public access.” You make the call. It appears to be the Mission Peak Regional Preserve, if that helps, and the second half of Mill Creek Road is its northern border.

The descent is a mixed bag. The top half (the section above the one hard 90-degree turn—easily seen on the route map) is much steeper than the bottom half, and rougher (not broken pavement, but lumpy), so it’s mostly braking and teeth-rattling. Below the hard turn, things are much better—the pitch is shallow enough that you can really rip it, the turns don’t require much braking, and the road surface, while still far from smooth, can be endured. In many places it’s literally breath-taking—I think it’s possible to get airborne in a place or two—and would be a best-of-Bestrides descent if they paved it properly. It’s a descent that’s much better the second time, because the first time you have to be cautious. So if there was ever a time when you did a ride twice, this is that time. Once you know the road, you can carry a lot of speed safely. You can top 30 mph without pressing at all, and that’s a lot on a winding one-laner.

Afterthoughts:

There is no mill on this ride. Or on the other two Mill Creek Road rides in Bestrides.

I’ve received a couple of emails saying that this ride is unsafe for bikes, that riders have been killed, that it’s full of deadly snakes, that it’s been ruined by wildfires, and so on. As far as I can tell, it’s all lies (told by locals trying to discourage cyclists, I’m assuming), so I haven’t posted them.

Shortening the route: You’d think you’d have to be nuts to want to shorten a 4.5-mile route, but it turns out there’s some wisdom in doing exactly that. Since the road above the hard 90-degree turn is steeper and rougher that the road below it, coming down that top section isn’t much fun, so you might consider turning around at the turn and just riding the good stuff. An added bennie: you can now ride the good stuff twice.

Adding Miles: As I said, there’s really only one ride easily reachable by bike from MCR, Morrison Canyon Rd., which is short and a bit of a novelty. There’s wonderful riding to the south of you, if you’re willing to ride some miles on surface streets: (from north to south) Felter, Sierra (both discussed in the Sierra Road ride), and Mt. Hamilton, the last being 17 miles south of MCR.

San Francisco’s Wiggle Loop

Distance: 18.4-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1100 ft

A Best of the Best ride

This ride is one of the best rides in California and a Bucket List ride if there ever was one.  Like the Golden Gate Loop, it’s more a cultural experience than a bicycle ride.  It takes you on a non-stop Greatest Hits tour of most of San Francisco’s iconic landmarks—a rolling introduction to almost every spot on a visitor’s to-do list.  You’ll experience about ten of the City’s most charming neighborhoods.  You could easily crank out the route in under two hours, but you don’t want to do that—ride slow, look around, take it in, stop often.  Bring a lock, money, and walking shoes, put on your puncture-resistant tires (this is, after all, a city), and schedule as much time for the ride as you possibly can—five hours at a minimum.

Prepare for sensory overload.  In 19 miles you will ride by, among other things,

The Ferry Building
The Embarcadero
The Exploratorium
Coit Tower
Pier 39
Fisherman’s Wharf
The Maritime Museum
The Hyde St Pier of Historic Ships
The Hyde St. Cable car turn-around
The Buena Vista Cafe
Aquatic Park
Fort Mason
The Marina
The Marina Green
The St. Francis Yacht Club
Crissy Field
Fort Point
The Golden Gate Bridge
The Presidio
Sea Cliff
The Legion of Honor
Land’s End
Sutro Baths
The Cliff House
Ocean Beach
The Great Highway
Golden Gate Park
The Panhandle
The Painted Ladies
Market Street
City Hall
The Opera House
The Asian Museum

Any one of these is worth from an hour to a full day.  Good luck budgeting your time.  Since most of the landmarks are familiar images, I’ve used the photos in this post to show some of the less familiar sights along the route.

So how’s the riding?  It’s mostly flat, with two noticeable climbs (as you pass the Golden Gate Bridge and ascending to the Legion of Honor).  Yes, SF is famously hilly—17 streets in the City top out at 30% or more, but none of them is on this route.  You ride over roads, broken pavement, sidewalks, bike paths, bike lanes, glass, and lots of trolley and cable car tracks, and ride through hordes of pedestrians and tourists.  It’s a bit chaotic and nervous-making at times, though there are stretches of near isolation.  Best of all, SF is perhaps the most bike-friendly city in the United States, and thousands of cyclists are following this route in bits and pieces on any given day, so it’s well-marked and blessed with bike lanes—I wouldn’t encourage you to go otherwise.

By the way, the Wiggle is a zig-zag bicycle route through a 17-block stretch of town just before our route returns to Market St.
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Carquinez Loop

Distance: 24-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1700 ft

This loop is a classic Bay Area cycling club ride, and it offers a number of pleasures: a lovely, rambling section of the San Francisco Bay Trail, much of it closed to cars; two small, charming Bay Area communities and proximity to a third; a train; two grand bridge crossings over the Carquinez Strait, where the Sacramento River Delta empties into San Pablo Bay; two old urban cemeteries; a nice optional climb, and swell views of the Strait from every angle.  It’s mostly moderate up and down, between easy nor hard (the Scenic Drive leg of the ride is 14 miles, 1370 ft of gain, out and back, for instance).  There are about 4 miles of unrewarding, rundown residential slog.  There is no reason why you can’t ride the loop in either direction, though everyone seems to go counter-clockwise.

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Del Puerto Canyon Road

Distance: 49 miles out and back
Elevation gain: NA

This is another of those “best in the area” rides—not a life-changing ride but one worth doing if you’re in the neighborhood.  It’s in the midst of a network of southeast Bay Area roads that cyclists ride all the time and which I find sterile and barren: Mines, San Antonio Valley, Tassajara, Highland, Altamont Pass.  All rolling grassy hills.  But in the midst of this desert is Del Puerto Canyon Road.

On a map it looks like it would be featureless like all the others, but it’s through a little canyon of considerable charm.   It winds niftily along a little creek (dry in summer), which means riparian plant life, canyon walls, lots of turns, and some shade.   It’s also predominantly next-to-flat  (Mapmyride gives an elevation gain of 4300 ft, which is bogus—the first 16 miles average 1-2%), which the others aren’t, so it’s ideal for a day when you don’t want to work.   You can in fact control the effort precisely—the pitch goes from flat to imperceptible to moderate to steep to pretty steep, and you can just turn around when you’re worked as hard as you want to.

In addition, DPCR has one virtue that no other ride in Bestrides can claim: it’s 50 feet off Hwy 5, so from now on when you’re making that tedious drive from SoCal to NorCal or vice versa you can pull off midway and do a refreshing little out-and-back on the bike. (The other ride near Hwy 5 is the Paskenta loop.)

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Purissima Creek Road

Distance: 8.3 miles one way
Elevation gain: 550 ft

The San Francisco Peninsula has a spine running down its center.  On the east side of the spine is Palo Alto, Silicon Valley, Stanford, and a crush of people.  On the west side is a lot of deep, dark woods, open rolling hillsides sloping to the ocean, and the laid-back hamlets of Half Moon Bay and Pescadero.  It’s one of my favorite areas of California, and the stretch of Hwy 1 along there (Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz) is second only to Mendocino in my book.  There are few roads on that western slope, but what’s there is great riding.  I’ll show you two rides in the area, this one and Pescadero/Tunitas Creek Road.

This is an easy, perfect little rambling climb and descent that winds sweetly through all the classic features of the region: small, hand-tended fields of row crops set off by the local black earth, unpretentious horse or dairy farms, rolling coastal hills, eucalyptus groves, and a few redwoods.  The tiny road’s contour is constantly varied and interesting, the road surface is good, and there’s nothing up there except a few homes and  the largely unknown Purissima Redwoods Open Space Preserve, so you should have the place to yourself.  It rides equally well in either direction (a bit harder clockwise).  The route is one continuous road, but it has a different name at each end—it’s Purissima Creek Rd. at the south end, Higgins Canyon Rd. at the other.  Midway through the ride you pass by the Preserve, a wonderful place to hike if you brought walking shoes.  It’s a little harder than Mapmyride thinks it is (I clocked 1010 ft of vert), and you’ll do one noticeable climb, but it’s still about as easy as it gets.

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Mt. Hamilton

Distance: 36 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 4750 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

This is a grande dame of a ride, one of the three iconic climbs in the Bay Area—Hamilton, Mt. Tam, and Diablo.  It’s quite long—18.2 miles one way—but don’t be afraid of it.  The story goes, when they built the Lick Observatory at the summit, starting in 1876, they needed to haul massive equipment up the road by mule, so they had to make the road at a shallow enough pitch that the mules could handle it.  So it’s a constant 4-6%, never steeper.  And there are two nice descents along the way up to rest your legs.   It’s all through pretty East Bay grass/oak hills, and the road contour is interesting after the first few miles (toward the summit, positively hyper).   If I wanted to do one ride to see the East Bay outback hills at their best, this ride would be the one.  And the observatory at the top is simply fascinating.

Still, this is not my favorite East Bay ride.  The pitch is fairly monotonous, the miles preceding the descent to Grant County Park (see below) are a grind, the whole thing goes on a bit too long, and the descent is truly fine only about 1/5 of the time.  It’s a good ride, but Diablo, Calaveras, and Morgan Territory are better, unless you’re into Big.

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Morgan Territory Road

Distance: 15 miles one way
Elevation gain: 1460 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

This is one of my favorite rides, in part because it’s less well-known (and so less trafficked) than the nearby icons (Diablo, Hamilton).   It has an absurdly pleasing profile: a mellow gently rolling warm-up through picturebook hobby farms, a just-long-enough, just-steep-enough stair-step climb up through dense woods, followed by a Best-of-the-Best descent that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

It’s one of a trio of East Bay rides that are similar in general contour: Palomares, Calaveras, and Morgan Territory.  They’re all about-five-mile climbs, at first gentle, then moderate, up through pretty wooded canyons along creeks.  To tell them apart: Palomares is the simplest and has the most domesticated ambiance; Calaveras is the easiest (though none is Mt. Diablo hard), has no backside descent, has the best open hillside views, is the only one of the three that has great riding contiguous to it, and is ridable only on weekends; and Morgan Territory has the roughest and narrowest pavement and the best backside descent.   Morgan Territory’s pavement is poor on the north side of the summit, which doesn’t bother the ascent but puts a damper on coming back down that way.  If you’re riding on a weekend and are just going to ride to the summit and back, do Calaveras.  If you want to climb to a summit, descend the back side, then turn around and ride back, do Palomares.  And if you’re in for a bigger adventure (or a BART ride), do Morgan Territory.

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Mt. Diablo

Distance: 24.4 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3580 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

(Note 4/20: Apparently all State facilities are closed to cars but open to bikes, so go ride Diablo, Mt. Tam, and any others you can think of NOW!)

Mt. Diablo is another of the three iconic Bay Area climbs.  It’s less tranquil than Mt. Hamilton and less scenic than Mt. Tam, but it’s grand nonetheless.  No other ride gives you such a distinct sense of “climbing a mountain.”  It’s a long climb but never brutal until the last 100 yards.  The view from the top is a tourist attraction, and for good reason—they say on a clear day a person looking north and east can see further than from any other spot on the planet except Kilimanjaro.  You can see the mountains around Lake Tahoe.

That being said, it’s not a ride I do for the scenery, though some love it.  The foliage is standard East Bay hill shrub and grass, and the vistas, while large, are mostly of East Bay urban sprawl.  There are nice wildflower blooms in season.

The ride is approachable from the north, via North Gate Rd., or the south, via South Gate Rd., and they’re both supposed to be good routes—the north route being steeper and shadier—but the south route is the preferred one and it’s the only one I’ve ever done, both ascending and descending.  The first half of the descent (from the summit to the Ranger Station) is as good as anything you’ll ever do—if you manage the traffic.

Mt. Diablo, as much as any ride in Bestrides.org, is affected by traffic.  Diablo is a magnet for tourists, hikers, mountain bikers, and rock climbers—and their cars.  On summer weekends, the place is a zoo.  If you were ever going to get up early and be on the bike by 7 am (or call in sick and ride on a weekday), this is the time.  In the early morning it’s like the road is closed to cars…and in fact it may well be, since there’s a gate across the road that’s typically closed at night (the park “opens” at 8 am). Riding this ride with no or very few cars triples the pleasure, and changes the descent from good to grand.   Despite the crush, the hill is very bike-friendly—there are signs at most blind curves reading “Do not pass bikes on blind curves,” for instance.

There is also the weather to consider.  The summit can be foggy, windy, and cold even when the weather at the base is benign.  The last time I rode Diablo, it was sunny, still, and 67 degrees at the bottom and 47 degrees, with a blasting wind and freezing white-out fog, at the top.   I took more clothes than I thought I’d need, and still froze.    This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ride in such conditions—cold and fog keep the car tourists and hikers away, so on that 47-degree day I never saw a car in my lane during the entire descent.

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Sierra Road/Felter Road

 Distance: 12 miles one way
Elevation gain: 1700 ft

Sierra Road, a name that brings shivers to Bay Area riders, was made famous in 2012 when Chris Horner flew up its 18% pitches to lock up the win in the Tour of California.  He rode those pitches at around 13 mph.  I had ridden up the same slopes earlier that morning to watch the stage finish—at 4 mph or less.    This is one of the toughest climbs in our list, a true feather in your cap, one of two climbs in Bestrides where I’ve been known to stop to recover (the other being Welch Creek Road, in the Adding Miles section of the Calaveras ride).

It actually isn’t all that wonderful a ride.  It’s too steep to be fun, and the landscape is mostly barren grassy hills and vistas of San Jose bloat.  But it’s a marvelous challenge, and the descent on the backside, Felter Road, is superb.  For those more interested in scenery and riding pleasure than bragging rights, a better ride is Felter alone as an out and back, which I discuss at the end.

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