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5 Best Road Bike Rides In San Francisco

Joel Smith

The San Francisco Bay Area is known for a lot of things — the Golden Gate Bridge, Boudin’s sourdough bread — but world-class road riding isn’t one of them.

Many people don’t know that the city and the surrounding area has nearly limitless riding. And all different types of riding, too: steep climbing, long miles, long flats, etc…all with some amazing views.

You could ride every day for a month without criss-crossing yourself (except maybe for the Golden Gate Bridge as a departure for the Marin Headlands). Here are five of our favorite San Francisco road bicycle trails.

 

1. Headlands Loop

The Headlands Loop may be short, but it’s not easy. Starting in the city and heading out across the Golden Gate, the loop is just over 18 miles, and features over 2000 feet of sustained climbing and technical descending (with almost continuous world-class vistas).

Once across the bridge, the riding really “starts” with the climb up Conzelman Road. Even though Conzelman is typically littered with sightseers checking the view of Golden Gate, it feels safe because the car speeds are low.

The top culminates with a stunning view of the Golden Gate from Hawk Hill, which pretty much requires a quick stop for a selfie.

Once you crest the point, it is all downhill from there. The fast descent to Point Bonita lighthouse and Rodeo Beach will be over quickly, and it will seem like the city is a million miles away.

At the bottom, we usually add the extra loop that takes you past the Marine Mammal Sanctuary, and then head back up Bunker Road to McCullough to loop back to the bridge.

Pro-tip: Although the ride is relatively tranquil in the morning, the afternoon winds can be very punishing, especially on the bridge where tourists and avid cyclists meet in the small lane to cross back into the city.

 

2. Point Reyes Loop

Although this one’s technically an out-of-the-city ride, the Point Reyes Loop is still on the list of must-dos if you’re biking in San Francisco.

The reason it’s not considered one of the standard San Fran rides is because most riders usually drive to Mill Valley to get pedaling. Adding the ride out from the city adds another 30 miles, making it almost 100 miles round trip if done this way.

The ride itself has everything that San Francisco’s classic routes have: quiet roads, great scenery, and a lot of climbing.

Most people start by going through Fairfax and out Nicasio Road before turning toward the ocean at Nicasio Reservoir on Point Reyes Petaluma Road. This puts the wind at your back as you head down Highway 1 back towards the city.

Even from Mill Valley, you’re looking at close to 4500 feet of climbing. Luckily there are quite a few amenities along the way.

The crowd favorite is the Bovine Bakery at Point Reyes Station, which makes some delightful pastries and is quite the scene on the weekends. And if you’re stopping there, a MUST SEE is Black Mountain Cycles to see some real bike lore and learn a thing or two about bikes you didn’t know before.

 

3. Presidio and Golden Gate Park

If you truly want to ride in the city (most road rides actually venture out of the city and into the Marin Headlands), one of the best rides is the coastal route around the Presidio and back through Golden Gate Park to the city.

There are many, many ways to do the lap, but the traditional “Butterlap” (as they call it) has you start anywhere near the Embarcadero heading towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

You then use Lincoln Boulevard to get up to Point Lobos Road and take that to the entrance of Golden Gate Park. Once you cruise through Golden Gate Park, you basically take the roads you want back to where you started.

The total length of the ride is around 18 miles, with about 1200 feet of climbing. But it’s easy to extend the ride if you’re looking for a little more.

A popular extension is to continue past the Golden Gate Park entrance and loop Lake Merced just past the San Francisco Zoo. This means you will be riding along the coast with a pretty significant headwind, but it’s adds quite a bit of nice scenery.

Some other tips on the ride:

  • When you descend toward the ocean after the Golden Gate Bridge, consider stopping and seeing what remains of Sutro Baths. It’s a pretty interesting look back into early 1900s San Francisco.
  • It also doesn’t hurt to cut back and do a lap around Golden Gate Park. There is usually minimal traffic once you get away from the museums and botanical garden at the top of the park.

 

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4. The Paradise Loop

The Paradise Loop is a staple for San Francisco-based riders. Although it typically starts in Sausalito — across the bay from the city — the ride to Sausalito is pretty straightforward.

If you’re up for it, you can take the ferry across the bay from Fisherman’s Wharf and make the day doubly interesting.

If you do start in Sausalito, the total ride length is just over 26 miles. The ride loops its way around the Tiburon peninsula and back towards Mt. Tamalpais.

There are some beautiful views of the city and Golden Gate along the way, as well as of Angel Island and the San Pablo Bay (depending on where you are on the point). Tiburon makes a nice mid-point for a replenishment stop before you get back to riding.

There’s not much altitude gain on the Paradise Loop, so it lends itself to leisurely riding. That said, if you’re ready to push the pace, the consistency of the terrain makes it easy to get in the groove and push hard. A lot of the fast group rides this course as speed and sprint training.

 

5. China Camp

Like Paradise Loop, the China Camp ride typically starts in Sausalito, and you could actually consider it an extension of the Paradise Loop. Where the Paradise Loop ride loops back towards the city in Larkspur, the China Camp ride continues along away from the city towards China Camp State Park.

China Camp is pretty easy as far as directions, too. Once you get to San Rafael (after you have made it around the Tiburon point), you just head right at 3rd Street back towards the bay. From there, it runs directly into Point San Pedro Road that loops around the State Park. And then once you get back to the 101, you take the bike path that parallels the highway back to San Rafael.

The total distance is just over 35 miles, and adds about 800 feet of climbing (versus just doing the Paradise Loop). Pretty much the entire ride has gorgeous scenery.

The section of the ride facing northeast towards Vallejo shows a relatively unseen part of the bay. There are amenities aplenty throughout the ride as well, in case you don’t pack enough food or drink.

Looking for even more California road bike adventures? Head just about an hour south and check out our top five local’s secret road bike trails in Santa Cruz >

 

Alchemy’s Joel Smith has been riding mountain bikes for over 35 years. Starting out in the dirt on a converted Laguna-brand cruiser in the mid-1980s, his immediate love of the sport turned into a lifelong career. Smith raced both XC and DH in the 1990s (in the now defunct NORBA National Series) and has worked on nearly every aspect of bike development over his nearly 30-year long career.

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