Distance: 18 miles one way plus ferry ride
Elevation gain: 490 ft
This is a flat, easy recreational 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 treasure worth hanging out in and exploring. The centerpiece is the Golden Gate Bridge: the most photographed man-made object on Earth. So this ride isn’t really about “cycling,” which is why you’ll be sharing the route with a few hundred wobbly tourists on rental townies. If you want to expand the loop to include more work, there are five excellent ways to do that, detailed in the Adding Miles section.
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 isn’t usually crowded in the morning (see photo below).
Navigating this route is pretty tricky throughout, so take along some mapping capability. For the City portion of the loop, the SF Bicycle Coalition has made a great bicycle map of San Francisco, and it will guide you. For the Marin leg, there’s the Marin Bicycle Map. Remember, google maps won’t show you any of the bike paths, which is half the ride.
Time management is critical on this ride, because on some days the Tiburon ferry stops running in the late afternoon, and if you miss the last one it’s a long ride back (or a trip to Sausalito to catch the ferry there). 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. I would guess you’ll want at least 4 hours elapsed time.
About a quarter of this loop, the leg from the Pier 41 ferry dock to the Bridge, duplicates a leg of our other SF ride, San Francisco’s Wiggle Loop.
(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 “hills” are the bridge itself and the brief climb to the Bridge. If you open the map and click on “full screen,” the elevation profile is closer to reality, but it shows you are 310 ft below sea level when you’re in the middle of the Bridge, or roughly on the ocean bottom.)
Don’t try to park near the bridge. Park at Crissy Field or next door at the Marina Green, where the parking is usually easy and free, and ride to the Bridge (by the way, our map starts at Pier 39, because I wanted to show you the whole route and Mapmyride wouldn’t let me map the ferry ride, but don’t try to park there either). For details on Crissy Field or any of the route between Pier 39 and the Bridge, see the San Francisco’s Wiggle Loop ride, which shares this leg.
Navigation here is tricky, because the road system leading to the Bridge is complicated. There are signs, and you can just follow the stream of 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.
Cross the Bridge, stopping often to gawk in wonder. Exit ASAP on the R and ride Alexander Ave. into Sausalito, one of the world’s more charming artist communities. It’s full of shops, galleries, excellent restaurants, and other points of interest, including a huge model of the Bay (built for studying tidal flow) you can visit. As you approach the town you ride along the breakwater, which has a breath-taking view of SF across the Bay—stop and ogle. Stop on your way out of town at Bicycle Odyssey to salivate over high-end bikes and shop for jerseys (they have hundreds). As you exit Sausalito you’ll see bobbing in the water on your R the world-famous community of house boats, a curious mix of waterman and bohemian cultures. Many of them are show palaces of interior design on the inside (there’s an annual fund-raiser house boat tour when you can explore).
Follow the Mill Valley-Sausalito Bike Path out of town, going 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 (“Shark” in Spanish), where your ferry awaits. Tiburon Blvd. is heavily trafficked shoulder riding, and you can avoid almost all of it by using a system of bike paths that is hard to find on your own but which is laid out for you in the Marin Bike Map. Or use the Belvedere detour detailed in Added Miles.
Tiburon is a small, charming little town with one short main street, the unpretentious sibling to Old Money’s posh Belvedere adjacent. If you want the full Bay Area experience you’ll eat at Sam’s. Check out the galleries, then find the ferry to San Francisco and take it to Pier 39 (strictly speaking, Pier 41 next door). The 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. Do not get on the ferry to Angel Island, which is next door and much more prominent.
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. Again, for route details see San Francisco’s Wiggle Loop.
If you’re BARTing in from the East Bay you’ll start the ride at the Ferry Building and follow the San Francisco’s Wiggle Loop route to the Bridge. In that case, you have four options for ending the ride: 1) ride the Tiburon ferry back to Pier 39 and ride back to the Ferry Building; 2) ride back to Sausalito and ride the Sausalito Ferry back to SF—it goes alternatively to Pier 39 and the Ferry Building, so if you take the latter it drops you back at Market Street, so you won’t have to ride the waterfront twice; 3) ride the Tiburon-to-Pier-39 ferry to Sausalito (it always stops there), get off, and get on the Ferry Building ferry; 4) finally, take the brand-new (as of 11/2019) bicycle path crossing the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge—continue north from Tiburon to the RSRB via Option 4 in Adding Miles below, cross it, then ride or BART back to your starting point. The Bridge itself isn’t a particularly attractive ride.
Adding miles: There are at least five good ways to expand this loop, each of them worthy of being a Bestrides ride on its own:
1. The San Francisco portion is shared by the San Francisco’s Wiggle Loop ride around the City, which will add some miles but not much work to your ride.
2. 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 tons of Bay history, a lighthouse (you have to walk), lagoons, beaches (with surfers), abandoned gun emplacements, 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. Be sure to wander around. Of especial historical interest are the Nike missile site (the last remaining site in the US—open Saturdays, with docent tours on the first Saturday of the month) and Battery Townsley, a WW2 gun emplacement (tours on the first Sunday of the month). There’s a nice Visitor Center for the Marin Headlands, with bathrooms, on the connector between Conzelman and Bunker. 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. The climb back out on Bunker is no work at all, and you get to go through a safe, well-lighted tunnel. If you want to add a moderate climb and descent to the route, go R off Bunker on McCullough.
3. From Tiburon you can take the ferry to Angel Island, another low-key, flat bike stroll on the paved road that circumnavigates the island. Angel Island was the Ellis Island of the West Coast, a processing station for Asian immigrants, and had an active military presence, all fascinatingly documented in Angel Island State Park. Of course the views of the Bay and the Bridge are outstanding.
4. When you reach Tiburon, you can just keep riding, around the south and east coasts of the Tiburon Peninsula on the aptly named Paradise Drive, an absolutely first-rate road that rolls up and down and back and forth among pretty woods and fascinating examples of up-scale Bay Area architecture. If you’re in for the short haul, go R on Trestle Glen Blvd, which returns you to our original route; if you want more miles, continue on Paradise until it debouches in Corte Madera. From there it’s a stone’s throw to Larkspur Landing, where you can jump on a ferry back to the Ferry Building. The road rolls up and down pretty constantly but everything is gentle.
5. To avoid the stressful shoulder ride that is Tiburon Blvd./Blithedale Blvd, or to do a bit of real work, break off the Sausalito Bike Trail midway and cut over to Seminary Drive. Ride it (continuing on when it becomes Strawberry Drive) around the shoreline of little Strawberry peninsula, which juts out into Richardson Bay—check out the spectacular shoreline views of SF and the Bridge along the way. Follow Greenwood Beach Rd. and the Tiburon Bike Path to San Rafael Ave, skirting the edge of Belvedere Lagoon, which since I was age 10 has always been my absolute top fantasy place to live. Continue onto Belvedere Ave. and Beach Rd., which will take you up and over Belvedere Island. You’re now surrounded by some of the most exclusive and prestigious property in the Bay Area. Beach Rd. debouches at the entrance to the town of Tiburon.
Belvedere is a steep little island, so crossing it involves one good hill that tops out at 10%. It’s a nice break from all that flat.
This route is pretty much impossible to follow on either a street map or google maps, but the Marin Bike Map leads you right through it.
Wind and fog are always possibilities on this ride (the Conzelman photo was taken in August)—pack accordingly. The last time I did it, in August, it was a cold, damp 55 degrees.