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

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

San Francisco’s Pacific Overlook and Batteries to Bluff Trail

When visiting the Golden Gate Bridge, most tourists, and indeed San Francisco Bay Area residents, congregate around the area just to the east of its southern end. There are reasons for this: there’s parking, there are public bus stops, there are the best close-up views you can get on foot, and there’s access to the bridge-spanning pedestrian sidewalk. That leaves the Pacific Overlook on the bridge’s west side relatively untroubled, though it too has its share of stunning views, like this:

The view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Pacific Overlook.

The view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the Pacific Overlook.

Until recently, this area was pretty scrubby and unvisitor-friendly. Now there’s a small parking area, a rack for bikes (my preferred way of transportation), and paths for visitors to scramble around for views. Best of all, there are relatively few people, even on gorgeous unseasonably summer-like days like yesterday. Real summer-like days, not the cold fog typical of San Francisco summer months; it was 70 degrees and clear. You can climb up on old, long disused batteries for the best views (the short but necessary ladders have thin rungs, bring appropriate shoes):

Climb the batteries for some of the best views from the Pacific Overlook.

Climb the batteries for some of the best views from the Pacific Overlook.

Take the path that ambles downward to the Golden Gate Bridge bike path for close-up views of the Marin Headlands across the water:

A disused hole-in-the-hill is on the paths from the batteries to the bridge.

A disused hole-in-the-hill is on the paths from the batteries to the bridge.

Also remarkably uncrowded is the Batteries to Bluff trail, which winds down along cliffside bluffs to little-known Marshall Beach:

Seldom visited Marshall Beach, reached by a spur near the bottom of the Batteries to Bluff trail.

Seldom visited Marshall Beach, reached by a spur near the bottom of the Batteries to Bluff trail.

The trail’s all up and down, but it’s only about three-quarters of a mile. At its western end, you can do the up-and-down to get back to the batteries, or walk along the easier path next to Lincoln Boulevard, though I prefer the Batteries to Bluff trail for the absence of traffic noise.

Part of the Batteries to Bluff Trail, viewed from its western end.

Part of the Batteries to Bluff Trail, viewed from its western end.

If you’re on bike, go back to the urban jungle of San Francisco through the Presidio, stopping off for a final look at the Marin Headlands at Immigrant Point Overlook on Washington Boulevard:

The Marin Headlands, as seen from the Immigration Point Overlook in San Francisco's Presidio.

The Marin Headlands, as seen from the Immigration Point Overlook in San Francisco’s Presidio.

Here I came across a young couple visiting from Brazil, also on bicycles. I guided them to the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge, near the lesser-used parking lot a little east of the bridge on Lincoln Boulevard, before going on my separate way. As a longtime resident, it’s tempting not to shout about it too loudly, but more visitors should take advantage of both the Presidio’s lovely main bike path (from Arguello Boulevard to Washington Boulevard and Lincoln Boulevard) and the lesser-known views this area has to offer.

Click on the links in this sentence for more info on the Pacific Overlook, the Batteries to Bluff Trail, and the Immigration Point Overlook.

Hikers hang out on a rock near Marshall Beach, enjoying the unseasonably warm March weather.

Hikers hang out on a rock near Marshall Beach, enjoying the unseasonably warm March weather.

Biking on the Alameda Creek Trail

Like most residents of great metropolitan areas, there are lots of things I’ve always wanted to do in the region, but have never gotten around to checking out. One is bicycling the Alameda Creek trail, which runs twelve miles from the East Bay suburb of Fremont to the east side of the San Francisco Bay. It’s a relatively long way from the city of San Francisco, where I’m spoiled for choice on nearby hikes and bike routes with spectacular views.

The Alameda Creek Trail, one sunny afternoon in March.

The Alameda Creek Trail, one sunny afternoon in March.

The Alameda Creek trail isn’t that long a trip, actually. It’s about an hour from San Francisco by public transportation. But its pleasures are relatively modest compared to other, more celebrated jaunts. Still, with yet another summer-like day on this distressingly record-breakingly warm Bay Area winter, I headed out there a couple days ago on a 70-degree Friday to experience it for myself.

One advantage of biking the trail, especially for hill-disliking cyclists, is that it’s pretty flat the whole way. It’s also pretty uncrowded, at least on a weekday: seems like I only saw a few dozen bikers in a few hours, with only a few hikers, runners, and dogwalkers here and there. Disadvantages: some bumpiness (especially on the eastern part), traffic noise from nearby roads (again especially on the eastern portion), and a relative lack of the kind of stunning scenery you’ll get by going across the Golden Gate Bridge, to name just one more flamboyant alternative.

Come to the end of the twelve-mile trail, and you’ll find this:

The eastern end of the Alameda Creek trail.

The eastern end of the Alameda Creek trail.

No, it isn’t much, when you stack it up against more renowned views of the bay. But it’s peaceful, and when you’re surrounded by as much noise as you usually are in the Bay Area, it’s frankly a great relief to get to a place where you can’t hear any cars or hardly anything else, if only briefly.

The real attraction out here, and worth the extra three-to-five miles even though some (for the most part quite manageable) hills are involved, is the add-on Bayview Trail near the main trail’s western end. (Don’t worry, it’s hard to miss the signposted turn-off.) This takes you into Coyote Hills Regional Park, where you get views like this:

Dumbarton

That’s the Dumbarton Bridge in the background. The southernmost of the five bridges in the San Francisco Bay, it’s kind of an ugly duckling in that company, but looks pretty cool when viewed from here. I also like the yellow algae or whatever it is (marine biologists feel free to submit corrections) covering some of the water, which you can see in richer colors at other vantage points:

Algae1

Algae2

Since the principal part of this ride is named the Alameda Creek trail, you’d expect most of it to be along an actual creek, looking something like this:

FullCreek2

It’s drought time in California, though, and actually much of it looks like this:

Dried-UpCreek

I don’t know how normal or abnormal that is for this time of year (mid-March), but much of the creek’s more field than creek. Sometimes it’s all field. It does look prettier on the return to Fremont, especially when you get near the hills at the end of the eastern part:

EndTrail

In sum, if you don’t live in the area, this might be a bike ride worth making a special trip for if you want to get some good mileage in without much strain, or if (like me) you feel the urge to check one more Bay Area vista off your list. It’s not too high on the superlist of Bay Area trails, but that’s not such a bad thing. You can’t have a game of chess without the relatively undistinguished pawns as well as the kings and queens, and if the Alameda Creek Trail is filler when judged against the best outings in our metropolis, it’s still a worthy piece of the puzzle. Kind of like what Paul McCartney once said about a good-but-not great Beatles song (“Tell Me What You See”): “Not one of the better songs but they did a job, they were very handy for albums or B-sides. You need those kind of sides.” Or something like that.

The eastern trailhead of the Alameda Creek Trail isn’t much more than a mile from the Fremont BART station, though unfortunately the station-to-trail roads have a lot of traffic and aren’t the most low-key ways to start and end the endeavor. For maps and info, go to the Alameda Creek Trail page  and the Coyote Hills Park page of the East Bay Regional Park District site.

Biking to Point Bonita Lighthouse from San Francisco

Pick up almost any issue of a weekly Bay Area paper, and you’d wonder why anyone wants to live in San Francisco. Astronomical rents! Techies taking over the Mission neighborhood! City College on the brink of closure, threatening to dump 90,000 students on the streets! Metered parking on Sunday afternoons, as if it wasn’t already hard enough the rest of the week!

So why do we—meaning underemployed, middle-aged hipsters—continue to doggedly stick to our overpriced apartments? Well, how many other vibrant cities can you live in where you can bike less than an hour from town and see this:

The Marin Headlands, as seen looking north from the Point Bonita Lighthouse.

The Marin Headlands, as seen looking north from the Point Bonita Lighthouse.

From Golden Gate Park, it is indeed just less than an hour to this stunning view. Even many longtime biker-residents, however, remain unaware that Point Bonita Lighthouse is  eminently reachable without much strain—on one of the two routes from town, anyway.

For the tougher of the pair, ride across the Golden Gate Bridge and go west (left) when you reach the Marin side. Your reward for an admittedly long, steep climb to the summit of Hawk Hill is this:

The Marin Headlands, after you survive the steep 15-minute uphill ride the starts from the west side of the Golden Gate bridge.

The Marin Headlands, after you survive the steep 15-minute uphill ride the starts from the west side of the Golden Gate bridge.

And from the same vantage point, when you look back at the city, you’re greeted with not just one but two of San Francisco’s greatest gateways:

The Golden Gate Bridge, in the foreground; the Bay Bridge, in the background.

The Golden Gate Bridge, in the foreground; the Bay Bridge, in the background.

It’s not far from the summit to the Point Bonita Lighthouse, but the steep (18% at its outset) downhill grade admittedly isn’t for the faint-hearted. If you’re up for the rollercoaster-like dip, make sure your brakes are in good shape. And, as tempting as it might be to look at the stunning coastal views to your left as you descend, keep your eyes on the one-way (in the downhill direction, fortunately) road, at least until it levels out a bit after the first mile or so. As pretty as that cliffside is, you don’t want to tumble over it.

As a somewhat easier option, go east (right) instead of west when you cross the bridge, go a couple hundred yards or so downhill, and make the first left to go through the tunnel. It’s still a bit of a white-knuckle ride, as the  one-way tunnel traffic goes in different directions depending on the lights, and  cars might be coming toward you. There are bike lanes on both sides of the road, however, and once you emerge, you get a couple miles or so of rural-esque scenery.

There’s one steep hill just before the lighthouse, though—not as steep (and not nearly as long) as the coastal route, but still enough to knock the breath out of you. You can lock up at a small bike rack at the trailhead to Point Bonita Lighthouse.

It’s warm drought time in San Francisco this winter, but as dire as the water situation is, that’s given bikers some stunning warm, clear days to take advantage of the unseasonable weather. On one such 70-degree Monday a few weeks ago, however, I was surprised by this view as I reached the trailhead:

Looking back to San Francisco from the trailhead to the Point Bonita lighthouse, February 24.

Looking back to San Francisco from the trailhead to the Point Bonita Lighthouse, February 24.

Turns out there was a big fire midday in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco, not far north of Candlestick Park.

From the trailhead it’s a short, beautiful stroll to the lighthouse. While the trailhead’s open all the time, however, the end bit that goes to the lighthouse itself (automated since the early 1980s) is only open 12:30-3:30 Sat-Mon. Park rangers give a brief talk about the lighthouse’s history, and there are small displays at the foot of the structure. The bridge to the lighthouse isn’t for the queasy, swaying noticeably if a dozen or two visitors troop over at the same time:

The bridge to Point Bonita Lighthouse.

The bridge to Point Bonita Lighthouse.

For more information about the Point Bonita Lighthouse, go to http://www.nps.gov/goga/pobo.htm. For more information about biking in San Francisco and the Bay Area, start with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, at http://www.sfbike.org.