You can plug parameters into an algorithm to find popular cycling routes in San Francisco, but there’s nothing quite like an expert to recommend rides. We spoke with Janelle Wong, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, to weigh in on the city’s best under-the-radar routes. Because fall is San Francisco’s version of summer — when the fog lifts and temperatures hover in the mid ’60s — there’s no better time to get out there.
For a waterfront ride with a bit of grit, start at the Ferry Building, and cruise through the old industrial heart of San Francisco. This pathway along the Blue Greenway leads to McClaren Park, a hidden gem tucked between Bayview and Excelsior neighborhoods. “A lot of people don’t realize you can get to McClaren along the waterfront, and honestly, people don’t know that McClaren exits,” Wong says, who lived in the city for 15 years before she discovered the park. While Golden Gate Park gets all the glory, McClaren boasts a ropes course, a mountain biking arena and many leafy dirt trails. To get there, you’ll navigate the Third Street Corridor, which has a bike lane but is still “kind of bananas because it’s a transit corridor. But the Blue Greenway route is part of our bike network,” she says. About four miles past Oracle Park, look for a path that leads to Indian Basin Waterfront Park for a worthy and quick detour.
While everyone’s familiar with the Mission’s bustling Valencia Street, with its independent shops and restaurants, not many know you can get to the southeastern part of the city this way. The second half of the route is “what we call the hairball, and some bike commuters use it as a commute route,” Wong says. This 4.5-mile destination ride offers plenty of opportunities to take breaks at shops and cafes on the way to the under-appreciated McClaren Park. The city is currently testing a two-way center running bike lane, protected on Valencia between 15th and 23rd, Street for a year. “The pilot on the ground is unique and, at the moment, has some controversy around it,” Wong says. “Some cyclists like it and feel really safe in it, and some don’t like it.” The Coalition relays cyclist feedback to the SMFTA for improvements.
At noon every Friday, something magical happens. The Great Highway, the four-lane divided road along Ocean Beach, closes to cars all weekend until 6 a.m. on Mondays. This is known as a Saturday and Sunday ride, Wong says, but cyclists may not realize they can rule the roost on Fridays as well (and on holiday weekends, the freeway is shut down until 6 a.m. on Tuesdays). This route starts near the Panhandle and winds through Golden Gate Park, where you ride on bike infrastructure the entire way. A mixed-use path gets you from the park to the Holy Grail of urban cycling: the empty highway. For a lesser-known variation, start your trek on Page Street instead, Wong’s favorite slow street in the city. “There are all kinds of different activities that happen on that street, ad hoc sometimes. It’s unique in a lot of ways to San Francisco,” she says.
When the Tunnel Tops opened in 2022, it added 14 acres to the Golden Gate National Rec Area — on top of a highway. It’s so new that many local cyclists haven’t added it to their itineraries, Wong says. Bringing innovative paths, gardens and waterfront picnic areas to the city, she believes it’s worth a trek. Sure, there will be tourists, but it’s an excellent end point for this somewhat easy two-mile ride from Arguello Street, which has bike lanes all the way (and additional safety measures to come by the end of the year).
If you’re looking for something more challenging than a two-mile ride, this second route to Tunnel Tops may be your ticket. It has the same starting point on Arguello but takes a left turn to Baker Beach, adding extra mileage. You’ll travel along relatively serene Lake Street, which not only has bike lanes but is a designated slow street. After making a pitstop at Baker Beach (heads up: the original home of Burning Man still has a nude beach at the northern end), the last hilly 2.5-mile stretch is sure to get your heart pumping.
While this classic route may not be under the radar, it’s one of the city’s most stunning and one of Wong’s favorites. Tracing the waterfront for six miles, you’ll pass by a “lost in time” 1930s beach, Aquatic Park, and then pedal up Fort Mason Hill, one of the most strenuous stretches of the route. As you cruise down to Marina Green and over to the Presidio, you’ll take in striking vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge. Chrissy Field makes an excellent pitstop for water and snacks (check out The Warming Hut). Bypass the dedicated bike path to the Golden Gate Bridge for the less touristy road ahead to Baker Beach. Gorgeous and hilly, this is a solidly epic ride.
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