Category Archives: SF Bay

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 wonderful optional out and back climb, and breathtaking views of the Strait from every angle.  It’s mostly moderate up and down, neither easy nor hard.  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: 4310 ft

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 (I’ll discuss that Mapmyride elevation total later), which the others aren’t, so it’s ideal for a day when you don’t want to work.  And it 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.

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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, 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 a 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 manicured ambiance, Calaveras has no backside descent and has the best open hillside views, 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 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)

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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Calaveras Road

Distance: 30 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1470 ft

(This road is currently closed near the northern end, as of 1/18.  You can still approach it from the southern end (beginning perhaps at the intersection of Calaveras and Piedmont), in which case you can ride 7 miles of very nice rolling stuff (about half the ride) from the intersection of Calaveras and Felter before being turned back.  At Calaveras and Piedmont are large barriers and “Road Closed” signs, but they don’t mean cyclists—the signs actually say so.)

Calaveras Road (“skulls road” in Spanish) has the best, most interesting road contour in the East Bay—better than Mt. Diablo, better than Mt. Hamilton.  It’s like the Palomares Road ride on steroids—same concept but longer, harder, and wilder.  Instead of going through manicured hobby farms, it spends most of its time in undeveloped country, the first half climbing up through an oaky wooded draw and the second half rolling along an open, grassy sidehill with big views across Calaveras Reservoir.

This is another of those rides where you start at the beginning of the road and ride until the road ends, then turn around and ride back.  There’s something so tidy about that.   It isn’t hard—1400 ft vert in 14 miles.  And if that’s bad news for you, there’s the 4.7-mile, magnificent, brutal Welch Creek Rd. spur you can add on to get your climbing fix (see Adding Miles).

For further discussion of how this ride compares with Palomares Road, and with Morgan Territory Road, which it also resembles, see the introduction to Morgan Territory Road.

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Palomares Road

Distance: 20 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1770 ft

This ride is as simple as a ride can get: start at the beginning of Palomares Rd. near Hwy 580 and ride to its end, then turn around and ride back.  It’s a perfect little ride: you do a little flat stuff to warm up, then climb gently, then climb a bit more steeply to a summit, then descend down through an exciting curvy series of esses to the end, all of it through pretty hobby farms and wooded creek canyons.  Then you get to do it all in reverse.  ‘Nuff said.

For a discussion of how this ride compares with Morgan Territory Road and Calaveras Road, which it resembles, see the introduction to Morgan Territory Road.

Palomares had been closed at the southern end for bridge repairs but is now reported to be open again.

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