Story and photos by Rich Grant
One of the world’s most spectacular urban bike rides is also one of the easiest. In just a couple of hours of simple peddling, it’s possible to bike around San Francisco bay, cross the famous Golden Gate Bridge, visit an old sailing ship, scale the ramparts of a Civil War fort, ride by marinas with million-dollar yachts, have lunch at a seaside outdoor café in the charming Mediterranean-style village of Sausalito, and return to the city by ferry at sunset.
Getting a bike is no problem. Two competing companies, Bike and Roll (www.bikeandroll.com) and Blazing Saddles (www.blazingsaddles.com), have several locations in the Fisherman’s Wharf area. Rental rates start at $7-$8 an hour, or $27 for a full day. The bikes come with an easy lock, basket, flat repair tools, helmet and maps. They are heavy, sturdy, comfort bikes, perfect for the mostly flat terrain.
Most of the eight-mile trip from the rental locations to Sausalito is on off-street bike paths, but in the beginning you’ll have join the heavy Fisherman’s Wharf street traffic, dodging trolleys, pedestrians and cars as you make your way along the touristy waterfront toward the big three-masted sailing ship at the end of Hyde Street Pier.
The pier served as an auto ferry dock until the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937. Today, it is the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. The long dock is lined with a variety of sailing craft including the Balclutha, a Scottish-built, 256-foot-long sailing ship that rounded Cape Horn 17 times. The iron-hulled, square-rigger carried grain and lumber to California and even had a starring role in the 1935 film version of Mutiny on the Bounty.
From there, you'll leave the city streets and enter a paved bike path along the water’s edge to Fort Mason, an army post that dates back to the Civil War and is now the headquarters for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. After a short, steep hill, the bike path continues on the water’s edge, past bobbing boats and magnificent views of the bay. This is a great place for bird watching. You can see more than 200 species, everything from Snow Egrets to Red-Shouldered Hawks.
Each turn of the path at the water level offers more spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin headlands. It ends abruptly at a large, three-tiered brick fortress called Fort Point. Built in 1861 during the Civil War, the fort once boasted 126 cannon. None of them were ever fired and the fort was abandoned in 1900. Today, it is run by the National Park Service and offers Civil War exhibits.
The fort has been used in many films and is perhaps most famous as the spot where Kim Novak jumped into the bay and was saved by Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, Vertigo.
From the fort, there’s a steep climb on a road shared with cars (but with a safe bike lane) to the large parking lot beside the bridge. There are exhibits here on this amazing bright orange engineering marvel.
At two miles long with a span of 4,200 feet, the Golden Gate Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1937. And its 746-foot- high suspension towers were the tallest man-made structures west of New York.
They began painting the bridge 70 years ago and never stopped. A team of 25 painters work continuously, painting it with 1,000 gallons of International Orange every week. As soon as they “finish” painting the bridge, they start all over again.
The bike trail across the bridge is on the west side and has sweeping views of the rocky cliffs of the Marin headlands and the Pacific. You can expect high winds on the bridge and the bike trail is narrow. Fortunately, there are many pull- offs where you can relax and enjoy the view. But don’t relax too much. The bridge is the favorite suicide spot in San Francisco (people who keep track of these things recorded the 1,000th jumper in 1995). Amazingly, some people have survived the 220-foot plunge.
At the end of the bridge, you must join the road for the descent into Sausalito, but there are few cars and the windy road is almost all down hill, twisting and turning with a different view in every direction.
Sausalito is a delight with the feel of an Italian town on the Mediterranean. There are bike racks on every corner, so lock up the bike and explore. Princess Street is lined with art galleries and flower baskets. The Scrimshaw is worth a stop for its nautical prints and gifts. If you want to do a picnic lunch, the Venice Gourmet Delicatessen has been family owned since 1964 and has great sandwiches and drinks, directly across the street from the best view of the bay.
Scoma’s Sausalito has offered the most famous seafood lunch spot for 35 years, but you can also grab a great meal with a view of Alcatraz and San Francisco at Horizons, the Inn Above the Tide and The Spinnaker.
Most bikers stop at Lappert’s Ice Cream, an institution in the area, before poking in the galleries and souvenir shops along Bridgeway Street.
The bike path continues through town, offering more ambitious bikers the chance to continue to Tiburon (another eight miles) or on a mostly uphill route shared with cars to the famous Muir Woods National Monument, 10 miles away.
But the most popular choice is to hop on the Blue & Gold Fleet for a 20-minute, $9 ferry ride across the bay, back to Pier 39 in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf. Each ferry can carry hundreds of bikes back, especially in the winter when the 4:30 p.m. departure offers a chance to cross the bay just as the sun sets behind Golden Gate Bridge.
With sailboats flying by, Alcatraz off the port bow and all of the lights of San Francisco glimmering ahead, it’s a wonderful end to a day of biking on the bay.
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