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

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

Free Hours at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park

When I write about places to see and walk, bike, or hike, I try to find ones that aren’t so well known. The Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, in contrast, is very well known. Built in 1894, it’s the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States. It’s a major attraction in a park that itself is a huge tourist attraction. So why post about it?

The Japanese Tea Garden, as it looked around the time it opened in 1894.

It’s not so well known that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, entrance is free about 9am and 10am. It’s hard to get into anything free these days, let alone in the Golden Gate Park museum concourse, where it costs $18 to ride the new ferris wheel, $15 for the de Young art museum (special exhibits not included), and more than $30 for the California Academy of Sciences.

The tea garden is $12 ($10 in the winter, $7 for San Francisco residents), and while that’s not wholly unreasonable, plenty of people have less money to spend over the last year or so. That also means some people have more time to take advantage of freebies. Unlike the nearby botanical garden, this free admission is for everyone, not just city residents, no matter what part of the Bay Area or indeed world you might call home. (The botanical garden is free for everyone between 7:30am-9am, but only free to city residents otherwise.)

Of course, a lot fewer tourists from around the world are traveling  anywhere anywhere these days. But if you do live in the Bay Area, that also means you’ll find the tea garden pretty uncrowded, even during free admission hours.  That’s how it was last week when I took advantage of the free hour for the first time, though I’ve been there a few times over the last few decades during regular paid admission hours.

Here are some images, taken during my visit, of what you’ll see in the small but meticulously maintained grounds:

Near the entrance
House and waterfall
Pond
Fish in pond
Bonzai tree
Tea house, if you want modest food and drink
Small bridge, a big favorite of kids
Bridge steps

As noted, nearby is the new ferris wheel, though it’s not yet known if this will be a permanent addition to the museum concourse. It was so foggy when I took this at 8:45am that someone said it looked like a photo from the 1890s:

Art in the Albany Bulb

The Albany Bulb is not a light bulb, and it’s not in Albany, New York. Just north of Berkeley, California, the Albany Bulb is an open space/parkland by the San Francisco Bay. Part of the small town (again, just north of Berkeley) of Albany, it’s easily reached by going all the way down Buchanan Street toward the water. You wouldn’t necessarily guess that it occupies former landfill, as it’s filled with vegetation, walking paths, and, more unusually, public art.

The most prominent piece of public art in the Albany Bulb, reached by walking down the main path to the edge of the water.

When you start your walk near the end of the parking area and small beach, you wouldn’t suspect the northwest area is full of public art, as nice and scenic as the main approach looks:

Near the start of the main Albany Bulb trail.

If you veer to the left where the trees are in the distance, instead of following the main trail, you’ll come across some interesting rock graffiti:

And some yellowstone — and we don’t mean the huge national park:

Going back to the main path and then turning toward the smaller paths that run near the water’s edge, more dedicated standalone artwork appears:


But the bulk of the sculptures are found by following the main path north until it hits the water. This curved space has not only the big statue featured at the top of this post, but also several other sculptures from scrap:

Creature with jaws

Plus smaller wire sculptures:

And yet more modest ones:

You might call this one “somewhere there’s a feather,” in honor of the early Jackson Browne song Nico put on her first album:

And a reminder, on rock graffiti, that we’re in the year 2020:

Plenty of dogwalkers are on the route, and while it’s hard to know what they think of the art, some of them sure like the water:

Some artwork’s off the main path, like this piece you might see on your walk back:

For a spot so peaceful on a warm summer day, with a bunch of relaxed socially distance walkers, the Albany Bulb’s sparked its share of controversy over the years. It was established as a public parkland of sorts after efforts from citizens over years to prevent development in the area. Exposed to the elements, much of the artwork that’s been there in the 21st century has deteriorated or disappeared. So what you see on any given visit may well vary. But there should be quite a bit of it, if my visit in August 2020 is any indication.

Biking the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge

Although it’s not nearly as famous as the Golden Gate Bridge or the Bay Bridge, the Richmond-San Rafael bridge has its own appeal. Connecting Marin County to the East Bay in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s also pretty long. In fact, at five and a half miles, it’s a mile longer than the Bay Bridge. I never thought I’d see the day when there was a bike/pedestrian path connecting both sides, much like I’m not sure I’ll ever see a bike/ped path connecting both sides of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge (though one opened on the Bay Bridge a few years ago connecting the East Bay to Treasure Island).

The new bike/pedestrian path on the Richmond-San Rafael bridge.

Well, the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge path still seems a decade away at best. But to my surprise, a Richmond-San Rafael bike/pedestrian path opened in November 2019. I rode it for the first time in January, and while it doesn’t have views as spectacular as those on the Golden Gate Bridge (or even the Bay Bridge), it’s well worth cycling.

It’s not as easy to get onto as the other bridges, however. I haven’t yet done so from the San Rafael side, but starting from Berkeley as I did, it’s a good dozen miles or so, including some fairly heavily trafficked wide boulevards near the bridge. There still isn’t a good site for mapping the ride from the East Bay, and Google Maps, as is often the case, gives some twisted directions if you opt to take the Ohlone Greenway and Richmond Greenway bike paths. It’s better, and more scenic, to take the Bay Trail, which runs close to the water for a big chunk before getting to those Richmond streets.

At least the path gets fairly well marked and protected by the time you get to the small town of Point Richmond, a couple of miles or so before the bridge. This is how the bridge toll plaza entry looks, more or less, when you’re driving, as I’ve done quite a few times. Not so picturesque, eh?

It’s not that much prettier from the section of the path that runs next to the highway right before the bridge, but it’s a little better:

And just a few minutes later you’re on the bridge:

You should of course be in good shape to bike or walk a bridge that’s almost a dozen miles roundtrip. But although it’s not level, really it’s not too steep or hard to navigate, in spite of what you might think from how it looks almost like a roller coaster from certain angles. It’s not as steep or taxing, for instance, as the uphill path from the Bay Bridge toll plaza to Treasure Island. Here’s a shot at about the halfway point, near the Marin County line:

You get some views of San Quentin prison as you approach the San Rafael side:

If you’re really up for making a day of it, you can continue on bike paths for quite a while on the San Rafael side. There’s nothing too special when you get off the bridge, as you see here:

The path runs along the north side of the bridge, so you don’t get unobstructed close-up views of small, uninhabited Red Rock Island to the south. This is about the best you’ll get:

But you do get a good view of Point Molate, a little to the north of Richmond on the East Bay side:

There’s a narrow beam between the path and the northern edge of the bridge that’s theoretically walkable, as this fellow and his dog prove, though definitely not bikable:

The small town of Point Richmond, an entirely different town than its much larger Richmond neighbor, makes for a quaint if very brief detour on the way to the bridge and back:

All the online info I can find says the path is open 24 hours a day, but this sign at the entrance on my ride seems to indicate that’s not always the case. I can’t find any hotline or website that gives specific hours in the event of changes, and if anyone knows of such a resource, please let me know and I’ll add a link to this post.

Sculptures in San Francisco’s Cayuga Park

Even if you’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for about thirty years, there are still some cool corners of the city you probably haven’t seen. I never knew about, let alone visited, Cayuga Park until last month. I might never have found out if a couple friends weren’t living in the area. It’s only a mile or two south of one of the Mission, one of San Francisco’s hippest neighborhoods. But much of south San Francisco’s seldom visited even by many longtime residents.

Its small size, taking up only a square block or two, and out-of-the-wayness means it will never be a tourist attraction. Yet it’s well worth a look for a few dozen or so sculptures by Demetrio Braceros, who was the park’s gardener for almost a quarter century.

It only takes fifteen or so minutes to take in all of them, though of course there’s no reason not to linger longer if you’re not in a hurry. There are plenty of others besides the ones I photographed for this post, but here are some favorites:

Cyclist.
“May unity reign in the whole world.”
Human log.
Hard to tell the model for this San Francisco Giants player for certain. Willie Mays?
More human log.
The track for the BART train is overhead.

The basic background on Braceros is on a page for him on the Spaces site. In brief, he came to San Francisco from his native Philippines in 1973, and in 1986 was made gardener of the park, with a directive to “change the atmosphere.” I didn’t see the park in those days, but that he did, as apparently it was barren and trash-strewn. I’ve only been here a couple times and only this year, but now it’s clean, safe, and family-friendly, certainly during the daytime.

The entrance to Cayuga Park.

When the park was renovated almost ten years ago, about one-third of the sculptures (judged in “fair condition”) were moved to storage, and the one-third in good condition given new protective coatings. The ones in poor condition, according to the Spaces site, “were left where they were to be viewed by visitors, and to slowly decompose in their natural habitat.” So what you see now won’t be there forever.

Rock dedicated to the sculptor.

For the time being, the sculptures are not only integral to the park, but also soften the harsh reminders of industrial civilization. A major highway, and train tracks from the Bay Area’s BART transportation system, are just above the park to the west. That means it’s never too quiet, and sometimes downright noisy when the trains rush overhead.

On the way out, also check the murals just past the steps on the right when you get on Cayuga Avenue. Another reminder that proud idiosyncratic neighborhood spirit is all over San Francisco, not just in the many famous parks and areas known to residents and visitors alike.



China Camp Part 2

Back in February, I posted about my hike in China Camp near San Rafael, noting I didn’t have time to walk some of the trails. I did get back there in late winter, and while there’s not nearly enough time to walk the rest of the trails on one visit, I did see quite a bit more than I had on my first visit. So here’s a brief “China Camp Part 2” post.

One of the recommended loops on the Friends of China Camp site is taking the Bayview trail one way and the Shoreline trail another. I already posted some pictures from the western part of the Bayview trail, so here are some from the eastern part, which does have some views that lives up to its name:

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That’s the best one, where you see the San Francisco skyline faintly in the background (it was a cloudy day) behind the San Rafael-Richmond bridge. From the same point, a wider view:

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Also from the Bayview trail, a less dramatic view of Turtle Back Hill:

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But a more dramatic view, considerably to the east, of Rat Rock Island (that is its real name):

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From this photo, you might think you’re in the middle of the Pacific. The island’s pretty close to shore, however, as this wider perspective reveals:

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Just to the west of the island is Rat Rock Cove:

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Following the Shoreline Trail east after it meets the Bayview Trail, you might come across this rock garden of sorts at the eastern boundary of the park, if it hasn’t been removed:

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The Shoreline Trail is pretty flat, if a bit rolling, compared to the Bayview Trail, and much closer to sea level (and the actual water of the San Francisco Bay). So it’s less exciting. But if you’ve walked much of the length of the Bayview Trail first, as I did, it’s much easier on the feet, and sensible to do in the last part rather than the first. The loop of sorts took about four hours, and with the dirt surface and considerable elevation changes of the Bayview Trail, it is a decent workout, even if you’re in good shape. And you have a good chance of spotting some wildlife, as I did near the end:

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On this cloudy March Monday, there weren’t many people in this quite large park, which you’ll have mostly to yourself. Approximate tally for the day: about half a dozen hikers, about half a dozen mountain bikers, and about half a dozen deer.

Shoreline Trail in China Camp State Park

On my list of places in the Bay Area I’ve heard about but haven’t managed to visit, China Camp has been high on the list for a while. Earlier this month I finally made it out there on a Monday morning. I walked around for nearly three hours, but that’s not nearly enough time to cover this 1500-acre state park, a few miles east of Central San Rafael.

On the Shoreline Trail in China Camp.

On the Shoreline Trail in China Camp.

There are a good number of hiking trails, some of which are on the steep side. A good choice for a path with some length and variable terrain seemed to be the Shoreline Trail, which runs most of the length of the park near the San Pablo Bay. On a weekday at least, it was easy to park on the main road just outside the first campground entrance you come to after entering on the west side. Be aware there’s a parking fee if you go the lot a two-three-minute drive inside, and that you still need to pay a $3 walk-in fee at the trail entrance.

China Camp trail map.

There’s not much in the way of water views from the trail, though occasionally you get glimpses such as this one:

View

The bends on the trail might not offer scenes as spectacular as those in many more celebrated California parks, but they’re pleasing enough, as this series shows:

Trail1 Timber SunTrail Overhang FirstBendBridge

Unfortunately there are reminders that California’s in danger of suffering another drought. This is supposed to be a creek:

Creek

After a while you’ll get to the Back Ranch Meadows Campground (actually not far from the trail entrance if you take the much easier flatter path), where you’ll have a good chance of spotting a bit of wildlife, as I did:

Deer

Turkey

Across the main road that runs through the park, on the side by the water, there’s a very short trail, Turtle Back Trail, that true to its name winds around Turtle Back Hill. It’s actually just a minute-or-two drive from the campground where you can enter the Shoreline Trail. This seems like a good option for parents escorting small kids, and I saw a couple such pairs when I did the loop in just a few minutes:

Turtle Hill Trail path.

Turtle Back Trail path.

Hill to the east of Turtle Back Trail.

Hill to the east of Turtle Back Trail.

The most popular spot in China Camp is China Camp Beach at the eastern end, which has a fairly big parking lot (fee required) overlooking the dock. I stopped just long enough to take a picture, and that’s where I’ll start on my next visit:

Dock

More info on China Camp State Park at http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=466.

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:

BottomStairs

TwinPeaks

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.