If you’re like most San Francisco tourists, you’ll join the throngs who want to photograph, gaze at and enjoy beautiful views of and from the Golden Gate Bridge. While you could join the masses who try to find an elusive parking spot at either end of the bridge, we believe the best way to experience the majesty of the Golden Gate is to bike across it.
While we consider this a “must do” in San Francisco, it’s also a “must do after the marathon” activity. Maybe even 2+ days after, if you’re sticking around for a true racecation. Why? At a minimum, this is an 8- to 9-mile bike ride, depending on where you leave from and where you bike to in Sausalito. Plus, there’s one short but steep hill by Ft. Mason and then a quarter-mile steep climb from sea level up to the bridge itself. And if you continue the bike ride into Tiburon, you can easily tack on another 8-11 miles.
Overview: What Can You Expect on Your Bike Ride?
The opportunity to be outside breathing in the sea air. Plenty of photo opportunities. Breathtaking views of the bridge and the San Francisco city skyline. The opportunity to break away from (some of) the tourists. A chance to see the beautiful, bustling city of Sausalito, where you’ll have your pick of restaurants for a well-deserved lunch.
Most tourists conclude their bike rides in Sausalito and then take the ferry back to San Francisco. But given that you’ve just completed a full or half marathon, we don’t count you among “most tourists.” If you continue on to Tiburon, you’ll enjoy biking along a quiet, marsh area and through neighborhoods and local parks where you’ll definitely feel like you’re away from the crowds. (To be fair, the route to Tiburon also includes some noisier, less scenic and higher traffic areas.)
We recommend going to Tiburon if you’re traveling with people who enjoy biking and want to get a good ride in, followed by a quality meal in a quieter town. However, Sausalito is probably a better stopping point if you’re traveling with kids who don’t want to be in a bike seat/trailer for too long or friends/family who are less fit and active.
If you do decide to continue on to Tiburon, we recommend getting a fairly early start. The route to Tiburon is at least as long as the trip from San Francisco to Sausalito.
Choosing a Bike Rental Company
There are a ton of bike rental companies for an excursion like this, and many leave from Fisherman’s Wharf. Having done this trip several years ago and again last summer, I can tell you that not all rental companies are created equal. On my first trip, the company mislead us about a number of things, such as the ferry return times.
On this trip, being a little bit wiser, we did a little more research before choosing a company. We went with Bay City Bike Rentals at their 501 Bay Street location. Although they have four locations, this one is just a couple of blocks south of Fisherman’s Wharf and another few blocks east of the multi-use path that you’ll be biking on.
We can comfortably recommend Bay City Bike Rentals for your excursion. They were friendly, honest and had high-quality bikes, helmets and bike trailers for the little ones. My husband and I also came to appreciate the gearing on the bikes as we climbed the hill to the bridge and additional inclines into Sausalito.
Another plus of this location: The Powell and Mason Cable Car Turnaround is right outside the doors. Watching the cable car operators manually turn the historic cable cars around is truly something to see at least once. And if riding a famous San Francisco cable car is on your to do list, you can do it before or after your bike trip. (We actually recommend going before because, depending on time of day, you may return your bike to a different location.) Depending on where you’re staying, you may be able to ride the cable car to the bike shop.
Getting Started: Heading Out Toward the Bike Path
If at all possible, we recommend doing your bike ride on a weekday. There will simply be less car and pedestrian traffic.
Once you get to the bike path, you can stay on the path itself (closer to the road) or head over closer to the water. You’ll bike along the beautiful bay, through Fort Mason and by Crissy Field, which used to be an airfield and then a toxic waste dump.
If you have time, cross the street and take a detour through the Palace of Fine Arts. It is a beautiful Greco-Roman rotunda with colonnades, a lagoon and immaculate landscaping. Originally built for the was originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, it is a beautiful oasis in the city. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped into another time and place.Once you’re back on your bikes, continue on toward the Golden Gate. The bridge will be looming high above you. As you get close to the bridge, the path will veer to the left. Skip this turn off and continue on the path along the water toward the Warming Hut Bookstore & Cafe and Fort Point National Historic Site, a Civil War era U.S. Army fort. Here, you can catch a little dose of history or simply enjoy beautiful views of the bridge and the bay. We actually stopped here for a quick mini picnic because we hadn’t had any breakfast. There are picnic tables and plenty of grass for relaxing.
Once you leave here, it’s time to make the trek uphill to the Golden Gate Bridge. You can either backtrack to that left turn you skipped before or, if you’re feeling brave, bike up the road with the cars. If you go this route, be forewarned: The right turn onto the path near the top of the hill is sharp and steep at the same time. You’ll need to build up some speed to avoid losing your balance on your bike.
As you climb the hill, try to take in the sites, particularly of the military housing in the Presidio. It’s quite scenic.
When you finally reach the top of the climb, you’ll see a popular spot for tourists to stop and take pictures. (Some bikers also stop right in the middle of the path, so be prepared to swerve or stop suddenly.) There’s a parking lot here, too, so you’ll find the number of people suddenly multiplies.
Instead of fighting the crowd here for a good photo opp, continue on the path just a tad farther. You’ll come to another lookout marked by a break in the foliage and a concrete slab. This can be only reached on foot or by bike, so it’s substantially less crowded. We also think the view may be even better here!
Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge
Once you’ve taken your share of selfies and group snapshots, continue on the path until you cross underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. The path will bring you up on the ocean side of the bridge. The plus side of this is that they now separate bike and foot traffic on the bridge, which is so much better than trying to dodge and weave pedestrians while you’re riding. The downside is that you’re on the far side away from the San Francisco skyline. If you want photos of the city, you may want to backtrack, lock up your bikes and do a partial crossing on foot on the city side of the bridge.
In you’re content to take in the ocean view, you can begin your crossing, breathing in the ocean air and enjoying gorgeous views of the coastline. Be prepared: It’s usually colder on the bridge because of the wind, and you may have to fight headwinds as you’re biking. The day we crossed, the winds were strong as we approached the opposite side. We actually had to change gears on our bikes to keep moving.
Once you’re across the bridge, you’ll come into a busy parking lot. Again, you can stop and enjoy the view or continue moving to your left until you pick up the path again. The path will continue all the way down a steep hill (no cars!), where you’ll cross under the Golden Gate again.
At the base of the hill, you’ll soon pass Fort Baker, which is an historic Army fort with views of the bay. On the right side is the Bay Area Discovery Museum, an indoor/outdoor interactive museum for kids. You can take a detour here or continue on for about 2 more miles into Sausalito.
As you leave Fort Baker and the museum behind, there’s a dedicated bike path on the berm of the road for a short distance. Then the rest of the journey, you’re sharing the road with cars. The motorists seem to be used to it, though, so it’s not as terrifying as it could be. Along the way, take time to pull over and enjoy spectacular views of the bay. You may also have noticed a sudden change in temperature: Sausalito tends to be significantly warmer and sunnier than San Francisco, and once you’re off the bridge, the wind subsides.
Coming Into Sausalito
As you begin to come into town, you’ll coast down another hill and will pass several restaurants, shops, etc. You’ll be in the center of town when the road levels out and you see more pedestrians and cars.
You may be ready to get off the bike for awhile, but don’t be tempted to hop off and hook your bike to the first post or tree you see: In Sausalito, you must park the bikes in designated racks only. If you park somewhere else, they will remove your bike. And that’s probably not a conversation you want to have with the rental company.
To find the designated bike areas, continue through town until you reach the ferry terminal (right side) and a series of connected parking lots. According to Google Maps, there is bike parking at the beginning of and in the middle of the parking lots. However, the day we were there, we biked to the far end before we found free bike parking. The closer lots were set up with a bike valet service for $3 per bike. If you want to save a few dollars, hold out for the free bike parking area.
The majority of tourists who bike the bridge spend some time in Sausalito and then head back to SF on a ferry. There are a ton of shops to browse and restaurants to choose from (see our review of the Napa Valley Burger Company), and it’s a beautiful town to stroll through.
However, the lines for the ferries can be REALLY long, especially on weekends. There’s also a maximum of 200 bikes per ferry. To skip the lines and bike maximums, you can book your tickets online. One company offering this bike reservation service is the Blue & Gold Fleet. (There may be others, too. Check with your bike rental company or look for signs near the ferry terminal in Sausalito.)
If you’re eager for a longer bike ride or would like to enjoy a quieter village, you can continue on to Tiburon.
Your Bike Ride to Tiburon
The bike route from Sausalito to Tiburon is a mix of busy roadways and bike paths along beautiful marsh areas and park areas. Initially, you’re on one side of Richardson Bay, and eventually, you come down on the other side. Here, you bike on a quiet country road before you pick up the bike path into Tiburon.
For this leg of the trip, we recommend having someone along who’s good at navigating. It’s not a difficult route, but you need someone who can pay attention to where you’re going. At first, we were following signs for Tiburon 8. Then the path turned to Tiburon 9. As we got closer to Tiburon, the signs changed to Tiburon 10. If you like to gawk at the scenery, put someone else in charge of leading the way!
Once at the waterfront in Tiburon, you can choose from a selection of restaurants. It is much quieter and much less busy here, which should make for a relaxing meal. The day we went, we arrived just before dark and just as a ferry was pulling up. We could have stayed for dinner but would have had to wait another 2 hours for the next ferry. We opted to take the earlier ferry and missed out on dining in Tiburon. (Thus, our recommendation to get an early start from SF.)
One huge perk of going to Tiburon is that the lines for the ferries are significantly shorter than in Sausalito. We got right on and paid for tickets onboard, and the ferry wasn’t crowded at all. The ferry drops you off in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf , which was close to our bike rental shop. Depending on the crowds, you may need to walk your bike at least part of the way.
- If you’re not comfortable biking in traffic, you may prefer to walk it from the SF rental shop to the bike path. That was another plus to renting from Bay City Bike Rentals at Bay Street. We were able to walk until it was safer to bike with the bike trailer.
- Be prepared to dodge pedestrians and other bikers who meander down the center of the path or stop without warning.
- Be sure to have a jacket or sweatshirt along. It can be significantly colder and windier on the bridge.
- Ideally, plan for a day when the fog is minimal and won’t obstruct your views!
- When purchasing your ferry tickets, pay attention to where the ferry drops you off in San Francisco. Some of the companies drop you off right in the heart of the action at Fisherman’s Wharf. Others drop you off farther down, which means a longer trek to get back to your bike shop. It’s good to know going in what to expect once the ferry docks.
Angi is a co-founder of Racertrips LLC and has completed four marathons, including the Chicago Marathon three times and the Rock N Roll Marathon in Washington, D.C. She’s now training for the 2019 Paris Marathon. Although Angi technically ran track in high school, she didn’t become a serious runner until she was in her 30s, when she traveled to Maryland, New Orleans, Orlando and St. Petersburg, FL, to compete in half marathons. It was those travel experiences that helped inspire the idea for Racertrips!