San Francisco is known for many things: Alcatraz, sourdough bread, the steep and winding streets on Lombard, the Golden Gate Bridge—but world-class road riding isn’t one of them.
It’s a shame, as the areas surrounding SF have limitless riding, and most of it with amazing views of either the ocean or the city.
Here are five of our favorites:
1) China Camp
The China Camp loop starts in Sausalito and is an extension of the Paradise Loop (see below). Where the Paradise Loop heads back towards the City in Larkspur, the China Camp ride continues along the bay away from the City towards China Camp State Park.
Editor’s Note: There is some excellent mountain biking in China Camp State Park.
The loop is pretty easy as far as directions go. Once you get to San Rafael (after you have made it around the Tiburon point), you head towards the bay. From there, it runs directly into Point San Pedro Road, which loops around the State Park, and finally, you take the bike path that parallels the highway back to San Rafael.
The total distance is just over 35 miles, adding about 800 feet of climbing versus just doing the Paradise Loop. You’ll enjoy scenic views throughout the loop and a little bonus where the section of the ride facing northeast towards Vallejo showcases a relatively unseen part of the bay. There are amenities aplenty throughout the loop if you need some extra calories or hydration.
2) The Paradise Loop
The Paradise Loop is a staple for San Francisco-based riders. And though it typically starts in Sausalito, across the bay from the city, the ride to Sausalito is pretty straightforward. If you are up for it, you can take the ferry across the bay from Fisherman’s Wharf and turn it into an all-day adventure.
If you start in Sausalito, the total ride length is just over 26 miles, with a loop that heads around the Tiburon peninsula and back towards Mt. Tam. There are beautiful views of the city and Golden Gate Bridge along the way, as well as Angel Island and the San Pablo Bay. Tiburon makes a nice mid-point for a replenishment stop before you get back to riding.
There is not much altitude gain on the Paradise Loop, so it lends itself to leisurely riding. That said, if you are ready to push the pace, the consistency of the terrain makes it easy to get in the groove and push hard. Many fast group rides use this course as speed and sprint training.
3) Headlands Loop
The Headlands Loop may be short, but it is not easy. If you start in the city and head across the Golden Gate Bridge, the loop is just over 18 miles long and features over 2000 feet of sustained climbing and technical descending.
After the bridge, the riding begins with a climb up Conzelman Road. Even though Conzelman is typically littered with sightseers checking out the Golden Gate Bridge, the views are worth the crowd. The top culminates with a stunning view of the Golden Gate from Hawk Hill, one of the best views in the area.
Once you crest the climb, it’s all downhill from there. The fast descent to Point Bonita Lighthouse and Rodeo Beach will be over quickly, and it will seem like the city is a million miles away. At the bottom, we usually add the extra loop that takes you past the Marine Mammal Sanctuary and then head back up Bunker Road to McCollough to loop back to the bridge.
4) Point Reyes Loop
The Point Reyes Loop would isn’t technically considered an SF ride, as most riders drive to Mill Valley to start pedaling—but if you’re in long-distance training mode, it’s a good one at almost 100 miles round trip from downtown.
The ride has everything San Francisco's classic routes offer: quiet roads, incredible scenery, and lots of climbing. Once you get to Mill Valley, most riders start by going through Fairfax and out Nicasio Road before turning toward the ocean at Nicasio Reservoir on Point Reyes Petaluma Road. This puts the wind at your back as you head down Highway 1 towards the city.
In the end, you’ll be faced with close to 4500 feet of climbing, so it’s a tough one, but there are quite a few amenities along the way. Our favorite is a pit stop at Bovine Bakery at Point Reyes Station, which makes some delightful pastries and is quite the scene on the weekends.
5) Presidio and Golden Gate Park
If you truly want to ride in the city—most road rides venture out of the city and into the Marin Headlands—one of the best rides is the coastal route around the Presidio and back through Golden Gate Park to the City.
There are many ways to do the lap, but the traditional “Butterlap” has you start anywhere near the Embarcadero heading towards the Golden Gate Bridge. You then use Lincoln Boulevard to get up to Point Lobos Road and take that to the entrance of Golden Gate Park. Once you cruise through Golden Gate Park, you take the roads you want back to where you started.
The total length of the ride is around 18 miles, with about 1200 feet of climbing, but extending the ride is easy if you are looking for a little more. A popular extension is to continue past the Golden Gate Park entrance and loop Lake Merced just past the San Francisco Zoo.
When you descend towards the ocean after the Golden Gate, consider stopping and seeing what remains of Sutro Baths. It’s a pretty interesting look back into early 1900s San Francisco. It also doesn’t hurt to cut back and do a lap around Golden Gate Park—there’s usually minimal traffic once you get away from the museums and botanical garden at the top of the park.