Thursday, October 8, 2009

San Francisco Through the Gates: a self-guided bike tour for visitors and locals alike

NOPA bicyclist Dale Danley offers BIKE NOPA's first post from a Guest Contributor with an ambitious loop ride with great viewing stops and visits to great neighborhoods. Dale is a long-time member and former Board President of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. In July he led a back-roads Presidio bike tour for SFBC that took even well-traveled cyclists to new sights.

Through the Gates highlights: Fisherman's Wharf, Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, NOPA of course, and the Civic Center.
Total time: 2-4 hours
Total distance: 20 Km (12 miles) - not including riding across Golden Gate Bridge

Bicycling is having an incredible year in San Francisco. One sign of changes underway here, like across the US, is the increasing numbers of tourists taking off all across the city on rental bikes. More folks are braving the hills and traffic to experience the beauty and diversity of our city on two wheels. Bike tourism here isn't just about riding over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito!

This summer I've seen many riders heading south out of the Presidio to Golden Gate Park. For anyone interested in trying that route, I've created this self-guided bike tour. It traverses my own North of the Panhandle (NOPA) neighborhood, and offers the safest and easiest route back to Fisherman's Wharf. If you try this ride, please tell me about your experience by leaving comments, suggestions, and corrections here at Bike NOPA.

Stage 1: Fisherman's Wharf to the Presidio
Every day, hundreds of tourists start their bike rides heading west along the waterfront. It's a great way to begin, though you might encounter a headwind. You can easily find a bike rental outfitter, such as Bike and Roll, in North Beach or Fisherman's Wharf. During this stage, you'll follow along with the crowds through Aquatic Park, Fort Mason, the Marina Green, and on to Crissy Field. You'll also notice posted signs to help you follow bike routes here in San Francisco. You're on Rte 2, the northernmost east-west bike route.

Stage 2: To the Golden Gate Bridge in the Presidio
After biking along the big lawn at Crissy Field, Route 2 signs should point left off of Mason St and then immediately to the right up Crissy Field Avenue, a short but steep climb up the bluff. This street is car-free in October 2009, and could remain that way if the park's bikeway plans fall into place (if you like the biking conditions in the Presidio, thank the National Park Service and the Presidio Trust, not the city government). At the top of the bluff, watch for a bike path, which leads you on a gentle climb to the bridge. If you want to ride across the bridge, follow the signs (the path for bikes depends on the day of the week). Then come on back - you've got a long ways to go! The good news is that once you're up at the bridge level, you've done most of the climbing for this part of the ride.

Stage 3: Golden Gate Bridge to the Arguello Gate
Exit the parking lot that serves the touristy area at the Golden Gate Bridge, turning right onto Lincoln. Pass under a roadway (that's the main road leading to the bridge) and after a short climb, watch for a sign for Bike Route 65. That's the north-south route that takes you to Golden Gate Park. Be careful taking the left turn off of Lincoln and onto Ralston. You're now in Fort Winfield Scott, a "Fort within a Fort" that was the command post for the Batteries that pointed their big guns over the Bay. Unlike other parts of the Presidio, a lot of these buildings are still empty. As you ride inland, you'll probably see fewer and fewer people. On many days, bikes seem to outnumber cars on these Presidio backroads. Take your time to enjoy the sights!

After turning right on Greenough, right on Kobbe, and then left on Harrison, you'll merge onto Washington Blvd. The Immigrant Point Overlook offers the best ocean view of this tour. Continue on Washington as it veers back to the east. After a fairly long ride along the Presidio's ridgetop, veer right as Washington merges with Arguello (still on Bike Rte 65). Another overlook, Inspiration Point, in on the left, with views of the Bay and of the Presidio's historic forests, originally planted over a hundred years ago. Inspiration Point also has a bike rack and trails if you want to take a quick walk into some of the Presidio's natural areas (bikes are discouraged, and the sandy paths aren't fun to ride on). Community-based habitat restoration teams have been working here and other areas throughout the park.

Ride on towards the Arguello Gate. Just before the restaurant that serves the Golf Course clientèle, a dirt path on the right leads a short distance to a final recommended Presidio stop: Spire by Andy Goldsworthy, an environmental artist known around the world for his site-specific work. The Spire is situated among a grove of recently planted Monterey Cypress and is built from the trunks of mature trees that were cut as part of Presidio's efforts to maintain and renew the historic forests.

Stage 4: Arguello Gate to Golden Gate Park
Leave the Presidio and head straight south along Arguello Blvd, using the bike lane. You can see Golden Gate Park straight ahead. On your right, the Richmond neighborhood stretches for 40 blocks all the way to Ocean Beach. Close to the park, at McAllister, a cafe on the left side of the road sports a red bike hanging above the door. It's Velo Rouge Cafe, part of the local bike scene for years and offering a good selection of coffee, beer, wine and food, and if you're lucky, a sidewalk table in the sun.

Just past the cafe is the portal to Golden Gate Park. Climb up a steep but short hill to the end of Arguello, and check over your shoulder for the tour's last view of the Presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Stage 5: Golden Gate Park to North of Panhandle Neighborhood
You're now in Golden Gate Park, and you have many options. Arguello ended at Conservatory Drive, so named because it rings the hillside above the Conservatory of Flowers, a large wood and glass greenhouse that is more than 130 years old. If you're going to visit the Conservatory or other park attractions (the de Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences, National AIDS Memorial Grove, Japanese Tea Garden, etc.), you would turn right. But since this is the simple and easy route, it turns left, so that you return to the east, descending a gentle hill. When you arrive at the Park's main boulevard, John F. Kennedy Ave., turn left and travel a short distance to a large intersection.

INTERSECTION TIP: The best way to cross this intersection and connect to the bike path on the Panhandle is to get on the left side of the cars exiting the park. It might feel strange, but after yielding to car traffic approaching from the left, cross over to a space for bikes next to the median, staying on the right side of the median and left of the car traffic. You'll travel along the median for about 100 meters to the traffic light at Stanyan Blvd. When the light turns green, aim straight ahead for the pathway across the intersection.

You've now made it to the Panhandle, an eight-block long park with one of San Francisco's best bike paths! Heading east on Bike Route 30, you'll have a gentle downhill, and since the path is often busy with all kinds of people, just cruise along. If you ride too close and scare people pushing strollers, they are sure to give you a piece of their mind!

At the end of the Panhandle is Baker St. You should go left here, getting onto a northbound bike lane (bike route 51). You're now in the North of Panhandle Neighborhood! Go three blocks north to find a couple of the best local restaurants, including Green Chile Kitchen (moving soon from Baker @ Fulton to Baker @ McAllister). Just two blocks east of Baker, there are even more local spots on Divisadero St, like Mojo Bicycle Cafe (on Divisadero just south of Grove St), which combines cafe fare, a bike shop, and a backyard garden in one shop! Riding a bike on Divisadero is kind of dicey because of heavy traffic, Muni buses, and poor pavement, but the city is sprucing up the street, so the situation might feel more bike friendly within a couple of months.

Stage 6: NOPA to San Francisco City Hall (Polk St)
Use McAllister St to travel all the way to Civic Center. There are no bike lanes, but traffic is light, and you'll be going downhill all the way at about the same speed as cars. Cross Van Ness and go one block further to Polk St. The big building with the dome on the right is City Hall - site of San Francisco's biggest events in San Francisco history - and you can visit it for free. Turn right on Polk St, and you'll see some bike racks mid-block, near the main doors. Pass through some metal detectors to visit the building.

Stage 7: City Hall to Fisherman's Wharf
Polk St is Bike Rte 25, and will take you all the way back to Fisherman's Wharf. It's sometimes called "Polk Gulch" because it's got the smallest hills of any of the north-south streets in that part of the city. And it has a bike lane for most of its length. There are also cool stores, bars, cafes and restaurants along the way. In the 70s and early 80s, Polk St was the center of San Francisco gay life. The southern part (near Turk) is generally seedier than the northern part (near California).

Now you've completed a spin along some of the city's best biking routes with terrific views!

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