Distance: 18 miles one way plus ferry ride
Elevation gain: 490 ft
This ride isn’t really about “cycling”—in other words, leave your heart rate monitor in the car. It’s a flat, mellow “bike ride” with lots of company through many of the Bay tourist’s favorite haunts: the San Francisco waterfront, Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, the SF Marina, Crissy Field, the Bridge, Sausalito, the Mill Valley-Sausalito Mike Path, Tiburon, and the Bay ferries. Each of these is a Bay Area treasure worth hanging out in and exploring. The centerpiece is the Golden Gate Bridge: the most photographed man-made object on Earth, and for good reason.
(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.)
(This elevation profile obviously has no connection to reality. You do not ride 10,000 ft below sea level on this ride. The route is essentially flat—the only “hill” is the bridge itself.)
I know riders who say they wouldn’t be caught dead riding on the Golden Gate Bridge. Granted, you’re riding on a sidewalk that’s usually full of hordes of pedestrians stopping to gawk and take selfies, not to mention hordes of cyclists riding rental bikes and staring out over the water as they ride. To these naysayers I say in the nicest possible way, What the hell is wrong with you? Crossing the Bridge under your own power is the archetypal Bucket List experience. Just go do it. Walk it if you’d rather. I’m a cyclist, so I’m riding it.
The Bridge is open to cyclists every day of the year during daylight hours, but the Bay (east) side is closed to bikes on weekend days because of the crowds. At least I think so. The rules governing bikes on the Bridge are a bit complicated. If both sides are open to you, you must make a decision. The west side is much less crowded, but the views are only grand, not cosmically marvelous like on the east side. I’m pretty sure that the “no bikes on the east side on weekends” rule isn’t strictly enforced (like the Pirates’ Code, it’s more like a guideline) so if you want that Bay view you might try to poach it. Or ride the west side and accept second-best. Or ride on a weekday. The east side is pretty deserted in the morning (see photo below).
Navigation is in one sense tricky, because the road system leading to the Bridge is complicated. A good map of the area or a sharp eye for signage helps. But in another sense finding your way is effortless—just follow all the rental bikes (anything with a sign that says Blazing Saddles).
The Bridge has fascinating stuff at both ends. At the south end there’s a visitor center (at South Vista Point) with interesting interactive displays about the history and physics of the bridge, a statue of Strauss the builder, and a section of suspension cable that awed me as a child and still does. Fort Point, well worth your time, is under the bridge a short ride below you. At the north end there’s a parking lot/viewing area with an iconic view of the City and a touching Lone Sailor Statue.
Don’t try to start at the bridge. Park at Crissy Field, where the parking is usually easy, and ride to the Bridge (by the way, our map starts at Pier 39, because Mapmyride wouldn’t let me map the ferry ride). Take a moment to seek out Hopper’s Hands and share the love with your fellow runners. Cross the Bridge. Exit ASAP on the R and ride Alexander Ave. to and straight on through Sausalito, pausing at Bicycle Odyssey to ogle high-end bikes and shop for jerseys (they have hundreds). As you exit Sausalito you’ll see the Mill Valley-Sausalito Bike Path right beside you, then heading straight as the main road bends L and under Hwy 101—take the path through interesting tidal meadows to Blithedale Ave. and take Blithedale R. It turns into Tiburon Blvd., which goes to Tiburon, where your ferry awaits. Tiburon Blvd. is heavily trafficked with little room for bikes, so if you go R off it onto Greenwood Beach Road a short mile after you cross Hwy 101 it will take you to a bike path that runs right along the road almost the entire way to Tiburon. Once in town, if you want the full Bay Area experience you’ll eat at Sam’s.
Take the Tiburon Ferry to Pier 39 in San Francisco. Tiburon’s ferry terminal is peculiarly hard to find, but the town is tiny and the terminal has to be on the water so you’ll run it to ground eventually. You can buy your ticket on the ferry, and they’re used to bikes and make it easy. The ferry ride across the Bay may be the best part of the loop, and it’s something you should do even if you left your bike at home. From Pier 39 work your way west along the waterfront through Fisherman’s Wharf, Fort Mason, the Marina, and finally Crissy Field and your car. The ride from Pier 39 can appear confusing and hectic, but not to worry—it’s a designated bike route and hundreds of riders manage it every day. Stay as close to the water as you can and everything will work out well. And there’s help: the SF Bicycle Coalition has made a great bicycle map of San Francisco, and it will guide you.
Adding miles: There are lots of good offshoots from this loop. At the north end of the Bridge you’re standing at the beginning of a splendid, fascinating loop through the Marin Headlands, Conzelman Rd. to Bunker Rd., which climbs and drops and wanders through Bay history, a lighthouse (you have to walk to), lagoons, beaches (with surfers), and stunning views of the Bridge, San Francisco, the Headlands, the Golden Gate (which is not the bridge but the channel the bridge crosses), and the Pacific Ocean. One section of Conzelman Rd. is a famously steep, short descent that’s open, smooth, with sweeping curves and a comfortable run-out at the bottom—in other words, blazingly fast. There’s a sign at the summit warning you it’s an 18% pitch, but I don’t believe it, and I encourage you not to be intimidated. It’s a blast.
From Tiburon you can take the ferry to Angel Island, another low-key, flat bike stroll on the paved road that circumnavigates the island.
At the south end of the Bridge you’re a stone’s throw from the Presidio, the erstwhile army base that’s slowly being turned into a pretty, park-like tourist destination. There’s a road system there that’s fun to explore, and a good map of the area available at the Visitor’s Center, but much of the riding is steep (this is San Francisco). If you’re a Disney person, the Disney Family Museum in the Presidio is Mecca. If you hug the shoreline you can ride through the Presidio over to Land’s End and the Palace of the Legion of Honor (fairly flat all the way), and it’s a doable seven-block trafficky ride to Golden Gate Park, which is dreamy from a bicycle seat (all flat). Before doing any cycling in the City, get a copy of the SFBC’s bicycle map (above).
Afterthoughts: Time management is critical on this ride, because the Tiburon ferry stops running in the late afternoon, and if you miss the last one it’s a long ride back. Check the ferry schedule for the last run of the day, and calculate backwards to find your starting time, remembering to factor in lots of time for a leisurely pace and lots of lingering and snacking.
Wind and fog are always possibilities on this ride (the Conzelman photo was taken in August)—pack accordingly.