Biking San Francisco

Discovering nature within the cultural hub of the Bay Area

Posted in Nature on May 23, 2014

“Jesus! This hill is killer!” I downshift again and try to shift my weight forward and pedal harder up the hill. To my left is the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge just out of view around the curve. Cars fly by as we struggle up the steady incline. Not used to the rental bike, I keep accidentally upshifting, resulting in swear words and my thigh muscles quivering with the effort.

“Eric! Wait!” I stop pedaling and get off the bike the moment the hill begins to mellow and the shoulder opens up wide enough for a break. “Jesus,” I take the Lord’s name in vain again. I can’t help it — that hill was the equivalent of God punishing me for all the combined sins of mankind. Ok, it really wasn’t that bad, but, Jesus, I could use a rest. We cross the road as soon as traffic clears to take in the view. I try to catch my breath as we snap photos and let the wind cool our sweaty backs.

This is probably the best experience in San Francisco I’ve ever had. I’m hot, my frizzy hair is stuck to my brow from the grimy rental helmet that will probably give me a case of head lice, my legs ache, my shirt is clinging to my sweaty back, and my water bottle’s almost empty. We’re about halfway to Sausalito, our final destination, and more hills await. Eric keeps looking back at me over his shoulder, a huge grin on his face, as we bike through Golden Gate Park, Land’s End, over the bridge, and then down into Sausalito. I am bursting with happiness.

Past Bison and Windmills

Our suggested bike route from Haight street to Sausalito takes us through the heart of Golden Gate Park, past picnickers and soccer players, rose gardens, and deep forests with winding paths that disappear behind creaking Cypress trees. We pedal past a waterfall, duck pond, and giant bison grazing on the greenery. Lastly, before we hit the ocean, a large wooden windmill comes into view. 

We’ve both been to the park countless times and yet have never seen some of these sights: Who knew they invited bison to the park seasonally? And who knew there was a giant, Dutch windmill surrounded by manicured gardens and windswept Cypress at the edge of the park? Elated at these discoveries, Eric and I brace ourselves for our first big hill (the one that caused me to use the lord’s name in vain).

The Sutro Baths lie in ruins far below, worn steadily away by the crashing waves.

Breathless at our first rest stop, we take in the expansive view — spectacular. The Sutro Baths lie in ruins far below, worn steadily away by the crashing waves. Flowers, the colors of a sunset, dot the hillside that slopes up from the baths to the tree line above. Dirt paths zig-zag down the hillside and we watch doll-size people traverse through the coastal scrub.

We Arrive at Lands End

We Arrive at Lands End

Through Lands End to the Steel Giant

We finish the hill and arrive at Land’s End where more glorious views of the bay greet us. As we continue on we find ourselves biking on a narrow, dirt path that seems to be meant for hikers, not bikers. Not sure what else to do, we keep going, calling, “On your left!” to unsuspecting families and couples out for an afternoon stroll. 

Then we come face to face with ... stairs. Lots of wooden stairs. We’re not turning back so we pick up our bikes (first we have to switch bikes because I’m too much of a weakling to carry my beastly commuter bike) and carry them, huffing and puffing, up the steps. We feel pretty badass at the top and gratefully hop back on our seats and pedal onward.

One more long hill winding past sweeping views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge is in view. The sight of it towering over 200 feet above the deep blue-green waters far below, orange steel jutting into the cumulus clouds hundreds of feet above the cars zooming along its suspended highway, gets me every time. 

I have to pause for a moment and let the majesty of this manmade wonder really sink in. People built this. People, the size of ants in comparison to this steel giant, constructed an almost 900,000 ton functional art piece that countless commuters rely on to reach work and home everyday.

At the entrance to the bridge, we follow the signs to the bikers’ side of the bridge. There must be hundreds of us cycling over the ocean. The combination of wind howling past our ears and the din of traffic restricts our communication to lots of smiles and nods of the head. The ride over the bridge is exhilarating and I can’t help but follow the lines of orange steel up into the sky until I almost run into another biker.

We pass a large green field, outlined in pretty white houses.

We pass a large green field, outlined in pretty white houses.

Out of the City and Into Sausalito

We finish the 1.2 mile ride across the bridge and coast down the hill en route to Sausalito. We pass a large green field, outlined in pretty white houses. In the middle, a grandfather and his young grandson fly a kite. White clouds against a bright blue sky complete the scene. Across the road a mother goose swims in the bay’s shallows with her six goslings.

Another unexpected hill awaits us before the easy coast into Sausalito. We smugly ride past others who have thrown in the towel and are walking their bikes. Once at the top, we coast past a long line of cars winding down the hill into the small, touristy town hugged by the bay. 

We fly past convertibles and hatchbacks, the sea breeze rushing by our flushed faces, until we reach downtown where we slow, looking for a place to eat lunch.

Once the bikes are locked up, we hurry to Napa Burger, anxious to sip cold beer and fill our grumbling bellies with juicy beef patties and greasy fries. We wolf our burgers in blissful silence, watching girl's softball on the flat screen T.V. 

“Is she wearing makeup??” Eric gawks. Mesmerized by the mascara-donning athletes, we watch the screen transfixed until our check arrives. It’s time to catch the ferry.

Two-hundred bikers line up to catch the 3:50pm ferry. We weren’t the only ones who thought biking to Sausalito would be a fun day trip. We slowly make our way onto the boat, leave our bikes by the snack bar, and head outside to find seats.

We fly past convertibles and hatchbacks, the sea breeze rushing by our flushed faces.
The Golden Gate Bridge comes into view.

The Golden Gate Bridge comes into view.

Physically exhausted, I sink into a cold metal chair and stare out over the water to the hills of Sausalito, dotted with multi-million dollar homes. I am weary, hungry, and thirsty but the feeling of accomplishment lingers and helps me ignore the icy wind that whips salty strands of hair into my parched lips.

Two tan, blonde women in high wedges and tight skirts join us on the deck. They gingerly sip glasses of chardonnay and miraculously don’t fall over with the swells or even spill a drop of wine down their plunging necklines.

I watch in awe of these poised women — half of me longing to join their gossipy conversation, the other half recoiling at their purchased perfection. The emotion passes and the ferry pulls into the dock. We leave the manicured women behind and weave our way through the crowd.

We’ve arrived at the final destination of our bicycle journey: Ferry’s Landing. It’s time to return our wheels and hit the sidewalks pedestrian-style.

The Balance of Nature and Culture

San Francisco has so much to offer it can be overwhelming with only a weekend to explore. For some, a bike ride to Sausalito might not scratch the itch that drove them to come to this eccentric city in the first place (the art museums, music-scene, cable cars, and shopping). Others, however, might find that biking is the best way to truly see the landscaped and wild nature that pops up unexpectedly throughout the hilly streets and along the edges of this urban jungle. 

Groves of windswept cypress and creaking eucalyptus, immaculate rose gardens, grazing bison, ponds lined with reeds and weeping willows, and rugged coastline carpeted with native wildflowers and brush are the thread to this colorful patchwork quilt of a city. Without the trees and ocean to escape the chaos of a seven by seven mile city packed with one million people, the fabric of San Francisco unravels as we lose the balance of nature and culture.

So, if you’re yearning to slow down and experience the natural beauty that is the complement to our constructed world, rent a bike the next time you’re in the "City by the Bay." Taking in the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge as you pedal against the powerful wind from the seat of your bicycle makes a lasting impression. 

And as you top the last hill, your thighs quivering from exertion, and coast down past traffic — the deep blue bay lapping at the edges of civilization on your right, quaint shops and delicious smelling restaurants on your left — you’ll wonder why this is the first time you’ve taken on this unique California city by bike.