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Biking the Golden Gate Bridge is part of the whole San Francisco experience. In a city known for its hills, the 13-km Fisherman’s Wharf to Sausalito ride across the Golden Gate Bridge is surprisingly flat, and one of the easiest you’ll encounter. Travelling solo? No worries. You’ll share the route with hundreds of others, and you might just meet some new friends along the way. Or, join one of the many tours and travel in a small group.

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San Francisco is notorious for its fog, and the powerful winds that whip through the pylons and cables of this monolithic masterpiece. The bridge is built to sway up to 27 feet from side to side, and move up to 16 feet vertically, so unless strong winds or massive fog banks on a huge bridge are your thing, try to find a good day. If you have the luxury of several days in the city, choose the one with the best forecast and set off on what will be one of the highlights of your visit.

Lots of rental shops

There’s a plethora of bike rental outlets in the area around Fisherman’s Wharf. We chose Blazing Saddles, based on location, price, reviews and the information contained in their short video. The company operates out of several spots, with the most convenient one at 465 Jefferson Street. It’s near the Powell-Hyde Cable Car Turnaround, and within a stone’s throw of the start of the Aquatic Park bike trail. At the end of your tour, it’s a short six-block ride from where the ferry from Sausalito docks at Pier 39. Each bike is equipped with a handlebar bag, luggage rack, and bike lock. Blazing Saddles has an attractive hostel discount resulting in a daily rate of $18 instead of $32, or you can rent by the hour at $8/hour. There’s also a twenty-percent discount for booking online. Unless you’re really strapped for time, my advice is to make a day of it.

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Cycle beside the bay

The route is paved, and structured for mixed use. Most of the paths are shared with pedestrians, except for a few short sections of road built for vehicular traffic. For the most part, the ride hugs San Francisco Bay, with the bridge rarely out of your sight. Each push on the pedal presents opportunities to photograph it from different vantage points. A bike presents a perfect perch and perfect pace to enjoy one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world, so give in to the temptation to stop frequently, and be thankful you signed up for a 24-hour rental.

It’s virtually impossible to lose your way, but a map is handy for getting your bearings and managing your stops.

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The path starts in Aquatic Park between the Powell-Hyde Cable Car Turnaround and the Dolphin Boat and Swim Club. It may be early in the ride for a stop, but pausing to watch swimmers in the horseshoe-shaped San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park could be your first one. Or, cycle down the Aquatic Park Pier for views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The next major landmark is Fort Mason. In January 2016, the bayside path beside Fort Mason was closed and a short detour up, around and through the former army post brought us back to the waterfront at Gashouse Cove. Pick up the San Francisco Bay Trail on the bay side of the Marina Green Triangle, and follow it to the marina. Running parallel to Marina Boulevard, the trail offers plenty of opportunities to soak up views of the bridge, 2.5 miles away. At the marina, there’s a water fountain and restrooms for public use.

As you enter the Presidio, look to the left for the colonnaded Palace of Fine Arts, one of the few surviving structures from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. It too is one of the most photographed sites in the city, surrounded by stunning gardens and a swan-filled lagoon.

Cruise through Crissy Field, the waterfront wetlands within the Presidio, a former military airfield converted to a national park. This signature project of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy has transformed “a jumble of asphalt and forsaken buildings” into a vibrant environmental showcase.

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Stop at the Warming Hut

The Warming Hut is a café, bookstore and information centre housed in a former army warehouse built in 1909. Everything behind the big glass doors of this two-story barn-like structure comes from recycled materials. The furniture is built of wood salvaged from the warehouse, and the walls are insulated with crushed blue jeans. The menu board is a chalkboard salvaged from a school in Oakland. The café offers soups, sandwiches and pastries using organically grown local produce. The shop displays a wide selection of park gear and eco-friendly merchandise. If you’re a cyclist, a colourful jersey could be a perfect memento of your visit. Walk out to the end of Torpedo Wharf for views of Crissy Field, and what might be your best shot of the day of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Before taking the hill up to the bridge, head down to the Fort Point National Historic Site for another unique view of the bridge looming above.

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The ride up to the bridge

Return to the Warming Hut for the ride up to the bridge. If the granny gear doesn’t get you all the way up Long Avenue, walk and roll what remains of the .7-mile ascent. Where Long Avenue meets Lincoln Boulevard, follow the gentle rolling ascents and dips of the bike path towards the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Centre. You’ll undoubtedly want to stop a few more times at some classic vantage points offering incomparable views.

The welcome centre has interpretive exhibits, a permanent display on the history of the bridge, a café, gift shop and restrooms.

Crossing the bridge

There are two sidewalks on the bridge. The East Sidewalk (facing San Francisco) is open to both pedestrians and cyclists, while the West Sidewalk (facing the Pacific Ocean) is open only to cyclists. The time of day determines which sidewalk is open. There’s a sign near the Golden Gate Bridge Welcome Centre directing you to the correct one. Or, just follow other riders.

The ride over the bridge is a pleasurable 1.7 miles ( 2.7 km) in length. The East Sidewalk has separate lanes for cyclists and pedestrians but expect some pedestrian dodging, and getting out of the way of serious cyclists and joggers. The sheer length of the bridge gives you plenty of time to take in the sleek architectural lines, and observe the workers and equipment providing round-the-clock maintenance. Check out the “International Orange” colour, that’s not so orange up close. Apparently, the CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and key/black) formula for International Orange is Cyan: 0 percent, Magenta: 69 percent, Yellow: 100 percent, Black: 6 percent.

The steady stream of six lanes of traffic will also grab your attention as the bridge rumbles and bounces with the weight and speed of so many vehicles.

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Soak up the stunning views of Alcatraz, downtown San Francisco and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Take some time to observe others on the bridge, and how they’re reacting to the experience. I found the atmosphere across the span to be somewhat festive. It seemed as though some people were on a trip of a lifetime, and genuinely pleased to be up close and personal with something they’d only read about or seen in films. There’ll be plenty of takers to snap your photo, some without having to be asked.

Several signs remind us that the bridge isn’t a joyful experience for everyone who comes.

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The Golden Gate Bridge is the top spot for suicides in the nation, and the second most-used suicide site in the world. Every two to three days, on average, someone goes to the Golden Gate Bridge and either jumps or tries to. Since the bridge opened in 1937, over 1700 people have died after jumping from the bridge deck. At least, that’s the official count. It’s thought to be much higher, as the strong currents have a way of obscuring the numbers. The suicide hotline phones along the path encourage those in desperate circumstances to make a call in lieu of leaping. Other precautions are that the bridge is closed to pedestrians at nightfall, and regular patrols look for potential jumpers.

Bike down to Sausalito

After crossing into Marin County on the northern side, the bike path guides you to yet another lookout at Vista Point. Behind Vista Point, the path merges with the highway exit for Alexander Avenue. The 10-minute ride corkscrews down the eucalyptus-lined road into the picturesque town of Sausalito.

Sausalito offers a wide choice of restaurants. Or, grab a deli sandwich or takeout to enjoy in a bayside park. We headed past the ferry terminal to A Taste of Rome for a most enjoyable and reasonably priced meal.

While waiting in line for the ferry, passengers were offered a quick taxi ride back to the city for $20 per person, with room for four people and their bikes. There didn’t seem to be any takers on a beautiful January day. The 30-minute ferry ride is part of the adventure, a sightseeing tour in and of itself. The ferry offered yet another view of the bridge, Alcatraz Island and of course, San Francisco’s skyline.

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The Blue & Gold Fleet ferry docks at Pier 39, after passing sea lions basking on their floating platforms.

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The ticket costs $11.50 and is well worth it. Pick it up at the bike rental shop, and pay for it along with your rental when you drop off your bike.

Tips for biking the Golden Gate Bridge

  • Make a day of it. The wind usually picks up by midday, so start out early and plan to arrive in Sausalito in time for lunch.
  • Avoid weekends. If possible, choose a day other than Saturday, Sunday or a public holiday. These are more likely to attract larger crowds, and families with young children with varying levels of riding proficiency.
  • Pack layers of clothing for layering up and down. It may be warm in the city, but foggy, windy conditions on the bridge might demand another layer or two.
  • Wear or pack sunglasses. Even if it’s overcast, the wind can whip up the sand on the beach beside Crissy Field.
  • Wear sunscreen.
  • Pack plenty of patience, and stay alert. There’s no way to avoid the hordes, especially on the East Sidewalk. Some people might not have been on a bike for years, if not decades. Others will be unaware of their surroundings as they focus on getting the perfect selfie. Watch out for the serious cyclists trying to get across the bridge as quickly as possible.
  • Stay for lunch in Sausalito. This little bayside town is quaint and there’s some good eating with waterside views.
  • Or, cycle on to Tiburon. If you have the time and the energy, bike another 8 miles to Tiburon where you can take the ferry back to San Francisco.

For an interesting read, check out 20 Awesome Facts About the Golden Gate Bridge.

Have you visited San Francisco? Was biking the Golden Gate Bridge on your itinerary? What was your experience?

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