Category Archives: Biking & Hiking in the San Francisco Bay Area

Off-the-beaten bike rides and hikes in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Chimney Rock in Point Reyes National Seashore

I’ve been to Point Reyes National Seashore a few times, but it’s so big that there are still a lot of areas I haven’t seen. So when a friend told me about a walk I’d never taken to a place I’d never been, Chimney Rock, we knew how to celebrate Martin Luther King day.

Point Reyes is only about 60-90 minutes from San Francisco depending on where you’re going, but it does take some time and planning to get to Chimney Rock. For one thing, you can’t drive directly to Chimney Rock. You have to park in the big lot at the visitor center near Drakes Beach and take a bus from there. Of course, Drakes Beach makes for a pretty scenic launching point, as you can tell from hiking around the visitor center a bit before you get on the bus:

Drakes Beach.

Drakes Beach.

That’s a zoom lens on the seal below near the visitor center, by the way. Signs warn you not to get too close.

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The bus from the visitor center makes two stops. Most people get off at the first one, the Point Reyes Lighthouse. That’s worth seeing, but if you’ve been there and want to spend time in Chimney Rock, as we did, stay on the bus for a few minutes until the second stop. Near the turnaround where the bus lets you off, a very short trail leads to the Elephant Seal Overlook, from which you can see a beach with seal pups:

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Most visitors take a look and get on the next bus back to the visitor center. But if you’re at all in reasonable shape, the trail going west to Chimney Rock is only about a mile, and rewarded with views like these:

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Those are seal pups on the beach below, as you see in closeup:

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Here’s Chimney Rock, which doesn’t look exactly like a chimney, but what the hey:

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And take a look at more stunning views on the trail back to the bus turnaround, at which buses arrive often to take you back to the visitor center:

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If you’re lucky, you’ll see elk on the hillside as you’re waiting for the bus:

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Hiking on the Marin Headlands Coastal Trail

There are several trails near the Golden Gate Bridge that even long-time residents, let alone visitors to the Bay Area, have seldom or never trod. I’ve written about them in previous posts about the Pacific Overlook Batteries to Bluff Trail and hiking from the Golden Gate Bridge to Rodeo Beach. Some take a few miles more to get to by bike and car, like the one down to Black Sands Beach, and the Marin Headlands Coastal Trail near Rodeo Beach, which I walked for the first time in late July.

Coastal view near the beginning of the Coastal Trail.

Coastal view near the beginning of the Coastal Trail.

Here’s one perk that Bay Area residents will appreciate straight off: parking is easy in the lot or on the road near the trail entrance at the north end of Rodeo Beach, at least on a weekday. (It’s not hard to bike there if you’re in good shape, but it’s hard to park your bike there; a note on that at the end of this post.) The trail is pretty well marked and doesn’t require any special gear or footwear. It is pretty steep in parts, so it’s not recommended if you’re not in decent shape or have knee/leg problems.

Be aware that most of this is uphill until you get to the part of this walk that takes you back down to the parking lot. Also be aware that if you strictly follow the signposts for the Coastal Trail that stick to asphalt for its first part, you’ll miss some of the prettier parts and better views. Before you get to the post early on that puts you on wide asphalt, instead detour for the far more scenic, narrower dirt one nearer the water that takes you much closer to the bay. It’s only about ten minutes out and ten minutes back, but you’ll see truly coastal views like these:

Outcropping near the end of the branch of the Coastal Trail that runs near the water.

Outcropping near the end of the branch of the Coastal Trail that runs near the water.

Going back to the main asphalt part of the ascending trail, you wind past a couple batteries – not my main thing – before stairs take you to the highest point in the trail. Even if you don’t have significant health problems, some hikers might find those more daunting than they’d like for a pleasant stroll:

Steep stairs leading up to the highest point on the Coastal Trail.

Steep stairs leading up to the highest point on the Coastal Trail.

But here are some of the striking views you get at the top:

Fog-shrouded top of Golden Gate bridge, with Marin Headlands in foreground.

Fog-shrouded top of Golden Gate bridge, with Marin Headlands in foreground.

Sutro Tower in San Francisco, seen from the Coastal Trail, with the bay blanketed in fog.

Sutro Tower in San Francisco, seen from the Coastal Trail, with the bay blanketed in fog.

Yes, it was a foggy day on the bay when I went. The pictures are a bit deceptive, though, because though there’s lots of fog down yonder, it was actually pretty comfortable and sunny on the trail – breezy and in the low-to-mid seventies.

Strange graffiti on strange shelter-like pit on the trail.

Strange graffiti on strange shelter-like pit on the trail.

Not long after you take the trail past this spot, you have the option on continuing on the official Coastal Trail – which actually isn’t that near the coast for much of the way – or bearing right a bit to go on the Wolf Ridge Trail, which after 0.7 miles hits the Miwok Trail, which will take you back to the parking lot. Not immediately, by any means: it’s almost two and a half miles from the Coastal/Wolf Ridge intersection. One day I want to walk the Coastal Trail to Muir Beach, but you probably need to coordinate with two cars (one parked at either end) to do that, especially as there isn’t bus service back from Muir Beach.

Mountainous vista near the intersection of the Coastal Trail and the Wolf Ridge Trail.

Mountainous vista near the intersection of the Coastal Trail and the Wolf Ridge Trail.

Foliage on brief uphill section on the way down.

Foliage on brief uphill section on the way down.

Though not as majestic as some of the Coastal Trail, the Wolf Ridge and Miwok Trails are pretty enough, and all downhill. I do mean all downhill. It might be easier on your lungs, but it’s actually harder on your legs than the ascent. There’s a somewhat disappointing stretch of a third of a mile or so when you reach the road leading to Rodeo Beach, as the trail runs alongside traffic for a while. But then the homestretch gives you this view of the beach, at the end of which is the parking lot where you began:

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If you have a car, getting to Rodeo Beach is easy enough. It’s possible by bus, but your options are limited – San Francisco’s MUNI runs a #76 bus to the beach, but only on Sundays and holidays. It’s not too hard to bike there (though some hills are inevitable no matter where you’re coming from), but it’s disappointing there are no bike racks in the vicinity of the beach or trail entrance. A park ranger told me I wouldn’t have a problem if I locked my bike up to any structure that wouldn’t intrude on public facilities, but unless you have a big chain, a U-lock will be difficult or impossible to put around the stationary poles/fences/railings. There’s a visitor center almost a mile away that has bike racks, but that adds a lot to a walk that’s rather long as it is.

Rodeo Beach.

Rodeo Beach.

San Bruno Mountain State and County Park

There are so many striking vistas in the San Francisco Bay Area that residents not only take many of them for granted, but don’t even visit some of them. The area just south of San Francisco between the city and the airport is, if not exactly maligned, not really paid much attention to unless you live in those neighborhoods. It’s my guess that few people outside of those neighborhoods (and maybe not too many people in them) visit San Bruno Mountain State and County Park, although it’s only a couple miles south of the San Francisco city limits.

Part of the downtown San Francisco skyline and the Bay Bridge, as seen from San Bruno Mountain.

Part of the downtown San Francisco skyline and the Bay Bridge, as seen from San Bruno Mountain.

I have to admit that even after about thirty years in the Bay Area, I only got to San Bruno Mountain for the first time last June. The friend I was with has lived in Northern California all of her life (mostly in the Bay Area), and had never been there. We might never have gone if someone at a booth at the San Francisco Green Festival hadn’t enthusiastically talked about it with us.

San Bruno Mountain might not be as isolated, quiet (it’s near busy roadways, a major highway, and the airport), or jaw-droppingly scenic as the more famous Bay Area parks. It does, however, give you pretty impressive 360-degree panoramic views of the Bay Area. From the small parking lots at the park entrance on Guadalupe Canyon Parkway, the best way to see those is by taking the Summit Loop Trail, whose trailhead is near the main parking lot (and right next to the smaller parking lot that you have to drive back under Guadalupe Canyon Parkway to reach).

Near the Summit Loop trailhead.

Near the Summit Loop trailhead.

The trail isn’t uninterrupted scenery. There are radio towers and ugly maintenance buildings near the top. Many San Franciscans, however, rarely or never see sweeping views of the southern part of the city (as you see when you look to the north), or the neighborhoods just south of the city (as you see when you look to the south).

Southern San Francisco neighborhoods, as seen from San Bruno Mountain. You can just about see the tops of a couple spans of the Golden Gate Bridge on the far left.

Southern San Francisco neighborhoods, as seen from San Bruno Mountain. You can just about see the tops of a couple spans of the Golden Gate Bridge on the far left.

The towns you see on the south—South San Francisco (a separate town from San Francisco itself), Colma, and Daly City—get relatively little attention from tourists, the media, or most San Franciscans. With their industrial parks, cemeteries, and modest-income (by San Francisco’s inflated standards) homes, they’re decidedly unglamorous in comparison with the Bay Area’s gaudier attractions. They are towns that San Franciscans drive through, but rarely visit. They are, however, part of the San Francisco Bay Area, and deserve some appreciation, even if it’s from the top of a mountainside.

View of Lake Merced from the Summit Loop trail, with a hillside settlement on the right.

View of Lake Merced from the Summit Loop trail, with a hillside settlement on the right.

The trail itself is fairly pretty, if not world-class stunning. They’re also fairly empty—I only saw about a dozen people on my second visit (on a Monday morning), and not many more on my first, although that was on a Sunday. This season’s El Niño hasn’t dumped nearly as much rain on the area as the drought-stricken region has hoped, but there’s at least been more rain this year than in some other recent dry ones. That means the vegetation’s fairly lush, and that warmer-than-average temperatures in the mid-winter, as bad a sign as they are of more global warming, make for good hiking weather.

Lush life on the Summit Loop trail.

Lush life on the Summit Loop trail.

Theoretically the park should be bikable from San Francisco, and in fact I’ve seen a good number of bikes on Guadalupe Canyon Parkway on my two visits. It’s disappointingly unbike-friendly, however, if you want to bike to the main entrance and walk a trail. I like to think of myself as a pretty hardy middle-aged rider, but wouldn’t look forward to biking up long, steep Guadalupe Canyon Parkway in the absence of wide bike lanes most of the way. More surprisingly, there’s barely anything in the way of bike racks at the entrance, at least that I could see. There’s a green post in the grass near the bathrooms whose circular railings could lock up a couple bikes in a pinch, but nothing else, although most Bay Area parks provide something more in the way of places to lock your bike.

Picnic area near the park entrance.

Picnic area near the park entrance.

Basic information about visiting is at the San Bruno Mountain State and County Park website. Directions aren’t too straightforward no matter where you’re coming from; taking the Brisbane exit off 101 is about the easiest. If you’re driving, note that there’s a $6 vehicle entry fee when you enter the parking lot.

HIkers near the bottom of the Summit Loop trail.

HIkers near the bottom of the Summit Loop trail.

Black Sands Beach in the Marin Headlands

It’s true – the Golden Gate Bridge gets a lot of tourists, and there seem to be more and more all the time. Sometimes there are so many that it’s physically difficult to walk (and certainly bike) parts of the pedestrian/bike path on the bridge’s eastern span, especially near the San Francisco side. But there are a few spectacular sights within just a few miles of the bridge that residents, let alone tourists, seldom visit, or don’t even know about.

Black Sands Beach, viewed from Upper Fisherman's Trail.

Black Sands Beach, viewed from Upper Fisherman’s Trail.

I covered one such area, the Pacific Overlook and the Batteries to Bluff Trail, in a post last year. It took me until this past summer, however, to make my first visit to another magnificent area near the bridge. True, this one is a good two or three miles away, not a few hundred yards away, and takes a lot more effort to visit. Still, I’ve biked by the trailhead down to Black Sands Beach at least a half dozen times without realizing what lay beneath.

Dogs like Black Sands Beach even more than people do.

Dogs like Black Sands Beach even more than people do.

Black Sands Beach is only between a mile or two west of the bridge, but it’s not all that straightforward a journey to reach. The easiest, if least environmentally sound, way is driving up the steep, twisting Conzelman Road until you reach the peak of Hawk Hill. Then the street becomes one-way, and there’s a real steep, somewhat twisting downhill drop. It’s not recommended if you’re queasy about driving steep downhills with little separating you from the road and a drop to the bay, and certainly not recommended if your brakes are in need of a checkup.

You can do the same route by bicycle, as I do, though even if you’re in reasonable shape, it’s a lot of huffing and puffing to reach Hawk Hill. And again, if you’re at all nervous about heights in general, it’s a white-knuckle ride down the one-way section of the road. After a third of a mile or so the grade does start getting less severe, though you still might be going so fast you should keep an eye out for the small parking lot (holding a dozen cars or so) on the left. That’s where Upper Fisherman’s Trail leads down to the beach (there are racks for a couple bikes just as the trail leaves the parking lot, to the left).

The trail down to Black Sands Beach.

The trail down to Black Sands Beach.

Another option is to walk from the Marin side of Golden Gate Bridge – not as straightforward as it seems, as the hilly and winding hiking paths actually mostly take you away from the water and inland for three miles until a branch heads toward Upper Fisherman’s Trail. (More details about that hike in this post.) Once you reach the trail, however you get there, the journey’s not over – it’s a half-mile or so down to the beach, and the steps on some sections are steep enough that they might be hard to navigate if you have knee problems (or hard to climb up on the way back if you’re not in shape in general).

The bottom of the trail is one of the steepest parts.

The bottom of the trail is one of the steepest parts.

But your rewards are views—isolated from the noise that follows you around almost everywhere in the Bay Area, and largely devoid of people, even on weekend mornings like the one I visited—that match up to the best of San Francisco Bay:

Point Bonita lighthouse, to the west of the beach.

Point Bonita lighthouse, to the west of the beach.

Pleasure boat goes by the beach.

Pleasure boat goes by the beach.

You can see the Land's End trail of San Francisco from the beach, overlooked by the V.A. Hospital.

You can see the Land’s End trail of San Francisco from the beach, overlooked by the V.A. Hospital.

Admittedly there isn’t that much to do once you get down to the actual black sands. But taking in the views for twenty to thirty minutes is reward enough:

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Then you face a pretty steep uphill walk back to the bike racks/parking lot, though you can pause for some more looks on the way:

The trail back to the parking lot.

The trail back to the parking lot.

A look back from the trail.

A look back from the trail.

Hiking from Golden Gate Bridge to Rodeo Beach

Plenty of people visit the Golden Gate Bridge. Lots of them walk around near the parking lots of the San Francisco end and (only somewhat less) the northern Marin County end. And some walk and bike the length of the bridge. Not too many people, however, hike the lengthy paths that begin from the parking lot of the Marin County side. I’m one of them; I’ve biked the bridge dozens if not hundreds of times, but didn’t take a lengthy hike on one of those paths until late August.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Slacker Ridge, on the trail from the bridge to Rodeo Beach.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Slacker Ridge, on the trail from the bridge to Rodeo Beach.

There are lots of options of paths to take once you head up the trail that starts at the southeastern end of the parking lot. You could keep walking all day, or more than one day, if you’re so inclined. I didn’t want to do the equivalent of a marathon, so I chose a route that went to Rodeo Beach and back. That’s about ten and a half miles roundtrip, over pretty hilly and sometimes rocky trails, though anyone in reasonable shape should be able to complete it without a problem. The starting point at the parking lot’s easy to get to from the north and south; if you want to be greener and get a bit more exercise, you can ride your bike there and lock it up at the rack just a few yards north of the point where cyclists enter and leave the west side of the bridge.

Tunnel just north of the bridge on Highway 101, as viewed from the trail just before you turn inland and the roar of the traffic disappears.

Tunnel just north of the bridge on Highway 101, as viewed from the trail just before you turn inland and the roar of the traffic disappears.

Although much of this route is technically part of the “Coastal Trail,” it might come as a disappointment to some hikers to find that there’s little coast, or San Francisco Bay, to see in any part of this jaunt. There’s plenty of nice rolling semi-mountainous terrain, and as perhaps an even bigger bonus for city residents, near-quiet once you get about a mile in and turn inland, the roar of Highway 101 suddenly disappearing after a few bends.

Typically semi-mountainous terrain on the inland part of the trail to Rodeo Beach.

Typically semi-mountainous terrain on the inland part of the trail to Rodeo Beach.

Unhappy-looking horse in stables that you pass on the trail.

Unhappy-looking horse in stables that you pass on the trail.

There aren't many buildings in this part of the Marin Headlands, but a few boast interesting architecture.

There aren’t many buildings in this part of the Marin Headlands, but a few boast interesting architecture.

The payoff, after a little more than five miles, is Rodeo Beach, highlighted by these large offshore rocks to the south:

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There’s a good chance you’ll see some surfers in the northern end of the small beach:

North end of Rodeo Beach.

North end of Rodeo Beach.

Rodeo Beach surfers.

Rodeo Beach surfers.

A little more than a mile from the starting point (or the finish line) is Slacker Ridge (sic), a good fifth of a mile of mostly steep uphill that branches off from a steep uphill section of the main trail. Many no doubt skip it for those reasons, but while the ascent isn’t fun, the views at the top are worth it, especially for the different perspectives it gives you on the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline:

Hazy San Francisco skyline, as viewed from Slacker Ridge.

Hazy San Francisco skyline, as viewed from Slacker Ridge.

Unusual view of the ramp to the Golden Gate Bridge from the northern end, near the beginning of the trail.

Unusual view of the ramp to the Golden Gate Bridge from the northern end, near the beginning of the trail.

If you have a lot of time, when the trail intersects with Conzelman Road nearer to Rodeo Beach, another option is to take the half-mile Upper Fisherman’s Trail down to Black Sands Beach. More details in my Black Sands Beach post:

Black Sands Beach, viewed from Upper Fisherman's Trail.

Black Sands Beach, viewed from Upper Fisherman’s Trail.

While there are some markers and basic maps along the way, the trail to Rodeo Beach and back really isn’t marked in as fool-proof a way as you might hope. Neither are the online maps, but if you want to get some idea of what you’re in for before you go, you can look over the National Park Service map here. Even then, the best way to get there if you don’t bring a map is just to keep bearing in the direction of the water, which will lead you to the beach eventually.

Small bridge near beginning of trail.

Small bridge near beginning of trail.

Trailhead in the parking lot at the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Trailhead in the parking lot at the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Biking on Bay Farm Island

Ask most Bay Area tourists—even Bay Area residents—about Bay Farm Island, and they’ll look at you blankly. Alcatraz, Treasure Island, Yerba Buena Island, even Angel Island—all are fairly well known, if in diminishing order. Longtime Bay Area residents are even apt to have set foot on most or all of these at least once or twice. Most of them, however, are unaware of Bay Farm Island, which is just as accessible to San Francisco or Oakland as the others, and right next to Oakland.

Biking the bayside trail on Bay Farm Island.

Biking the bayside trail on Bay Farm Island.

In part that’s because Bay Farm Island isn’t really an island, or a town of its own. It’s technically part of Alameda, though it’s separated from most of Alameda by an estuary. It used to be an island, but landfill has now connected it to Oakland, just north of the Oakland airport. Even less than Alameda, it’s seldom visited if you don’t live there or work nearby, even by Oakland inhabitants.

Bay Farm Island, with the San Francisco skyline in the background.

Bay Farm Island, with the San Francisco skyline in the background.

View from the ferry as you dock at Bay Farm Island.

View from the ferry as you dock at Bay Farm Island.

A trail around part of the “island”’s perimeter is nice for biking and walking, though it’s not too long. Part of the attraction for making an effort to take your bike there is using the ferry from downtown San Francisco, whose 25-minute ride goes to the southern tip of the path (only on weekdays and only in mornings and late afternoons, unfortunately). I’d biked to Bay Farm Island from Oakland a couple of times almost ten years ago, but took the ferry there for the first time when I brought my bike over in August.

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Views of the San Francisco skyline as you leave the city on the ferry to Bay Farm Island.

Views of the San Francisco skyline as you leave the city on the ferry to Bay Farm Island.

Part of the trail’s appeal is its low pedestrian/bike traffic – certainly on weekday mornings, at any rate (though the near-silence is often broken up the sound of planes taking off from the Oakland airport). The trail does peter out into bland industrial-type offices at the southern end, only about half a mile from the ferry:

Bike/pedestrian path just south of the ferry.

Bike/pedestrian path just south of the ferry.

Desolate patch around where the path peters out.

Desolate patch around where the path peters out.

Bay Ferry’s modern housing developments, not far from the trail, make for quite a change from San Francisco or even Oakland. At some points you’ll feel more like you’re in San Diego:

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The best section of the trail runs north of the ferry for a mile or two, along the bay and so close to backyards of homes near the water that you can hear some conversations:

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It’s not long before you get to the bridge connecting Bay Farm Island to the “main” part of Alameda. Keep on going, though, and a much narrower trail continues for about half a mile on the other side of the island:

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It’s not too much to look at, I admit, but it’s nice to feel like you’re biking a semi-deserted path anywhere in the Bay Area, even if it only lasts for five minutes or so. And you get a view of the Oakland Coliseum that few people have seen, though it still doesn’t make it look all that scenic:

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This part of the trail rather abruptly terminates in what’s called a “playing field,” though one jarringly incongruous structure in particular makes this space (nearly empty on the three occasions I’ve visited) unappealing:

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Make sure to take the bike/pedestrian path from Bay Farm Island to Alameda proper, not the main bridge that’s busy with car traffic:

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Once there, bear west until you get to Shoreline Drive, which runs for a mile or so along Alameda Island’s narrow but fairly extensive beach—again, a feature little known to most Bay Area residents:

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You can see the San Francisco skyline from the beach, though there’s a reminder that the same environmental problems plaguing similar spots in the Bay Area are here as well:

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Unfortunately, as there’s no ferry service between mid-morning and late afternoon, you’ll have to get to a BART station to get back to San Francisco. There are a few options, all of which run through heavily trafficked, drably industrial streets once you leave Alameda Island. The best, relatively speaking, might be taking the wide and fairly bike-friendly Broadway north from the beach, crossing back to Oakland over the Park Street Bridge, and going west on a frontage road until you reach the Jack London Square area in downtown Oakland.

Volleyball court on Alameda Beach.

Volleyball court on Alameda Beach.

Biking in Point Pinole and Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline Parks

Although it’s just a few miles north of Berkeley, Richmond doesn’t get much notice or respect, let alone many visitors. If it makes the news or conversation, it’s usually about its crime or environmentally poisonous oil refineries. It’s not likely to make most visitors (or even Bay Area residents’) must-see lists soon. But there are some scenic areas just outside its city limits that relatively few people know about unless they live in the immediate vicinity.

One is Point Pinole Regional Shoreline, a few miles northwest of central Richmond. Especially on a weekday, this is real quiet, even for a large park, with few visitors and several miles of paths for biking and walking. These are especially user-friendly for wheelchair users, as they’re pretty level and little-traveled.

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Pier and paths in Pinole.

Pier and paths in Pinole Point Regional Shoreline.

Even in such a nice setting, however, there are reminders of the industrial powers that did their part to put Richmond on the map, and these days are responsible for much of its notoriety. At one view of the bay near the main entrance, for instance, you can easily spot nearby working refineries:

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Railroad tracks also run right through the park near the main entrance:

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A few miles down the bayside is Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline, just south of Point Richmond, a small affluent enclave in what is one of the East Bay’s poorer and more industrial regions. The better recreational paths are in the park’s northern and central areas, but the most interesting cultural relics are at Ferry Point at the southern tip:

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This Richmond Ferry Terminal, now disused, was actually used to transport passengers to Fisherman’s Wharf and the San Francisco Giants ballpark until the late 2000s. There’s a bit of a ghostly feel to the Ford Point area where the terminal sits, in part because of surrounding eerie old industrial buildings:

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Bike just a bit south of the ferry, and you reach a shipyard, part of which has a similarly past-its-prime aura:

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Although biking within these parks is fun and easy, biking to these parts, unfortunately, is anything but. Even starting from the relatively close Richmond BART station, you’ll have to navigate miles of highways and truck-filled industrial roads to get where you’re going, for which you’ll need a pretty good regional map. Even some of the neighborhood streets are long overdue for maintenance, and one connector bike path almost petered out in a dried-out mud slide near its finish.

Odd labyrinth on bike path near Point Richmond docks.

Odd labyrinth on bike path near Point Richmond docks.

What of Richmond itself? I can’t pretend to have seen too much of it, either on my bike trip a few days ago or in my thirty years as a Bay Area resident. It was heartening, however, to see a colorful mural-filled park in this inner-city neighborhood near the BART station. Even the website of this space, Pogo Park, acknowledges that it’s “in one of the Bay Area’s toughest inner-city neighborhoods, Richmond’s Iron Triangle”:

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Local color: murals and more in Richmond's Pogo Park.

Local color: murals and more in Richmond’s Pogo Park.

San Francisco Financial District Public Open Spaces

Like most San Franciscans, I seldom take official guided tours of my own city. There are the usual excuses – I’ve lived here for many years, I see lots of what’s special about the city on an everyday basis, I don’t want to be mistaken for some out-of-town rube taking in the superficial highlights, there are lots of things to do outside of the city itself in the Bay Area, etc. But as with any great city, even the densest, most overcrowded parts of San Francisco have corners that you’d be very unlikely to detect if you didn’t have someone point them out to you.

The rooftop garden at 343 Sansome Street in downtown San Francisco.

The rooftop garden at 343 Sansome Street in downtown San Francisco.

That’s even the case with the city’s downtown Financial District, as I found out when I recently took the San Francisco City Guides “City Scapes and Public Places” tour. The Financial District is more a place to rush through than linger, with more suits-per-capita than any other neighborhood in the city, sidewalks overpopulated with professionals hastening to and fro, and a skyline dominated by skyscrapers. But there are some areas designated as “public places” that provide some calm and even some offbeat quirkiness, though you’ll sometimes have to look hard for the official plaques that mark them.

I was a little disappointed that there weren’t more such rooftop spaces on the tour – only a couple, in fact. The first of these, on top of the Crocker Galleria, is easy to access through just a few flights of stairs, even if the ones marked “Rooftop Garden” aren’t exactly prominently signposted. Climb that flight, however, and you reach a relatively quiet space, with this unexpected landmark of sorts:

The sundial on top of the Crocker Galleria.

The sundial on top of the Crocker Galleria.

Some wags might remark that it’s a waste of space to have a sundial in a city that’s fogged in at least as often as it’s sunny. Fortunately it was a brilliant sunny morning when I took the tour, though that’s a forecast you can’t count on.

The same sundial in close-up.

The same sundial in close-up.

The other rooftop on the tour is more impressive, and in such a relatively anonymous building that it’s doubtful anyone would come across it by chance. Take the elevator to the 15th floor of the building at 343 Sansome, and you find this rooftop garden, a popular lunch spot for downtown workers:

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Look to the northwest, sort of, and you’ll see a building with three odd figures perched on a nearby roof, not visible from street level:

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If your camera has a zoom lens of sufficient strength, zero in to find these three angel-of-death-type figures:

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The City Scapes and Public Places tour also goes through quite a number of ornate bank lobbies/entrances. Bank lobbies generally aren’t such exciting places to hang out, but a couple of them boast surprisingly arty and humane touches. Take this public open space at the Citigroup Center at 1 Sansome Street:

Palm trees in the court/entrance to the Citigroup building.

Palm trees in the court/entrance to the Citigroup Center.

Odd statue in the Citigroup Center court.

Odd statue in the Citigroup Center court.

Weirder is the lobby near the elevators on the ground floor of the Merchants Exchange Building at 465 California Street. Sculptures of heads of some of San Francisco’s founding financial fathers line the walls, though some of them succeed in making them seem more shifty than trustworthy:

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Would you trust these guys with your money?

Would you trust these guys with your money?

The tour ends up near the Transamerica Building, itself one of downtown San Francisco’s most famous landmarks. No, there’s no public open space on the roof; you can’t even pay to go on the roof. Many visitors and residents, however, remain unaware of the nice, if tiny, Redwood Park just a few yards away, with frogs in the fountain:

Fountain in Redwood Park.

Fountain in Redwood Park.

Frogs in the fountain.

Frogs in the fountain.

The Puddle Jumpers sculpture in Redwood Park.

The Puddle Jumpers sculpture in Redwood Park.

The City Scapes and Public Places tour is given at 10am and 1:30pm every Friday, meeting at the Native Sons Monument at Montgomery & Market Streets in downtown San Francisco. Tours are free, though donations are appreciated. More information at http://www.sfcityguides.org/desc.html?tour=11. (It looks like they might be adding 1:30pm Wednesday tours on a regular basis; check the website’s calendar.) San Francisco City Guides also offers tours of many other areas in San Francisco.

Candlestick Park & the Candlestick Point Recreation Area

Now that the demolition process of Candlestick Park’s begun, it’s likely many fewer Bay Area residents will be making it down to the area in which most of the park still stands. To many from outside the Bay Area (and many who actually live in the Bay Area), Candlestick Park’s only known as the place where the Giants used to play baseball and (until very recently) the 49ers used to play football. To non-sports fans, it’s mostly known as the location that hosted the Beatles’ last official concert on August 29, 1966. Almost everyone who’s heard of the stadium knows its reputation as one of the windiest places to see public events of any sort.

Candlestick Park as it looked on August 14, 2014, right after the finale of the Paul McCartney concert, the last major event to take place in the stadium.

Candlestick Park as it looked on August 14, 2014, right after the finale of the Paul McCartney concert, the last major event to take place in the stadium.

I hadn’t been down to Candlestick Park since a Paul McCartney concert more or less officially closed the facility in August 2014. On the second Sunday of April 2015, I took advantage of the Bayview neighborhood’s annual “Sunday Streets” event—which closes most of 3rd Street, the main non-freeway route to Candlestick, to traffic—to bike down to the park. Or what’s left of it, as you see in this photo:

Candlestick Park on April 12, 2015, its demolition partly underway.

Candlestick Park on April 12, 2015, its demolition partly underway.

That’s quite a contrast to how it looked in its heyday, or even last summer. Soon it will be gone and so will, some might think, any reason to go to this area at all. But many remain unaware that Candlestick Park is actually situated in an area with an actual park, Candlestick Point Recreation Area. And that park—a real park, not a ballpark—remains very much available for use, just across the street from where the Candlestick Park stadium stood.

One of many bayside views at Candlestick Point.

One of many bayside views at Candlestick Point.

While the recreation area can’t compete with Golden Gate Park or many better known sites in San Francisco for beauty and culture, there’s something to be said for the occasional visit. It’s quiet, for one thing, with some nice bay views:

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It has some semi-beaches that, if not good for swimming, are good places for family picnics, of which I saw a few on this afternoon:

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Of course not every view is as scenic or natural as others:

The crane in the background is one of numerous industrial structures that can be seen from various spots in Candlestick Point.

The crane in the background is one of numerous industrial structures that can be seen from various spots in Candlestick Point.

But it’s a nice break from the urban congestion of San Francisco, and parking’s easier here than it is almost anywhere else, whether at a park or not. And it’s a good workout on bike from the city, if you need a destination other than, say, Ocean Beach, Lake Merced, Marin County across Golden Gate Bridge, or other frequently-biked routes. But if you want to see what’s left of Candlestick Park stadium, go soon.

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Sweeney Ridge Trail in Pacifica

Considering it’s just south of San Francisco, Pacifica doesn’t get nearly as many visitors as some other communities neighboring the big city, like Berkeley, Oakland, and much of Marin County. A few weeks ago I went to a birthday party at the southern tip of Pacifica, however, and on the way down, I took the opportunity to do a hike I’d heard about but never done.

Ocean view from Sweeney Ridge Trail.

Ocean view from Sweeney Ridge Trail.

The first challenge in walking Sweeney Ridge Trail is getting there in the first place. Since it’s right off the road the runs by the ocean, Highway 1, you’d think that wouldn’t be such a big deal. You can’t turn right into the entrance if you’re heading south on 1 from San Francisco, though, and even after you make a U-turn and retrace your steps, the steep short road toward the trail is so sharp and short that you’ll easily miss it if you don’t know exactly where to turn. Look for the Shelldance Orchid Nursery sign when you’re going south – it’s actually much easier to see from the ocean side of the highway – and steel yourself for turning sharply and immediately when you see the sign after doing the U-turn, though that sign’s almost hidden from sight when you’re driving north.

The Sweeney Ridge trailhead, in the back of the Shelldance Orchid Nursery parking lot.

The Sweeney Ridge trailhead, in the back of the Shelldance Orchid Nursery parking lot.

After you drive up the steep, narrow, short hill and park behind the nursery, the next challenge is getting up the steep path. Hikers in reasonable shape should not have a problem, but many casual weekend walkers might cower at the sight of the path veering upward as soon as you set foot on the trail:

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And it’s not as if you scamper up that bit and then level out, or take a leisurely wind up to the peaks. Seems like it keeps on going up and up, usually at a fairly-to-quite-steep grade, for a good half hour or so:

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By keeping on the trail as it veers right and starts to near the 1,000-foot-elevation mark, you come across a most unexpected, and not entirely welcome, landmark:

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This is one of the abandoned buildings from the Nike Missile base, one of about a dozen scattered throughout the Bay Area (there was also one on Angel Island, near Marin County and Alcatraz). It’s quite jarring, this ugly reminder of the cold war right in the middle of a hike otherwise dominated by rolling hills on almost every side:

Abandoned shed in the Nike missile site on Sweeney Ridge Trail.

Abandoned shed in the Nike missile site on Sweeney Ridge Trail.

Nike buildings aside, are there views, of both the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the San Francisco Bay to the east? Sure, but they’re not the most unspoiled ones:

Small lake and San Francisco Bay, viewed to the trail's east

Small lake and San Francisco Bay, viewed to the trail’s east

That's the San Francisco airport, on this slightly different view of the bay from the trail

That’s the San Francisco airport, on this slightly different view of the bay from the trail.

You’re really not that far from civilization here, and even Highway 1 is often visible from the trails:

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As another reminder of man’s intrusion onto this natural space, albeit almost two centuries before the missiles briefly planted themselves here, there’s this monument to the spot where European explorers first discovered the San Francisco Bay:

The inscription on this monument reads: "From this ridge the Portola Exhibition discovered San Francisco Bay November 4, 1969"

The inscription on this monument reads: “From this ridge the Portola Exhibition discovered San Francisco Bay November 4, 1969″

Yet there are spots where the highway, the housing, and even the airport are hidden, and you can revel in the ocean view:

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You can take walks of quite varying lengths from the trailhead, though going about five miles or so roundtrip (about a mile past the Nike missile site, and then back), as I did, makes for a pretty full to two to three hours. For more information, check http://www.everytrail.com/guide/sweeney-ridge-golden-gate-np-conservancy or http://www.parksconservancy.org/visit/park-sites/sweeney-ridge.html.