Cycle the city with self-guided San Francisco bike routes

It's no secret that San Francisco is a bicycle-friendly town. Numerous bike routes -- ranging from flat coastal stretches to leg-trembling hills -- wind through the city and out across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin, offering riders a variety of scenic trips.

You don't need to be a local to enjoy these rides either. Bike rental companies are plentiful, and some offer specials discounts for HI-San Francisco hostel guests (see below).

Plotting an easy course through this famously hilly city can be done, with a little preparation and planning. You can snag a free downloadable map -- with bike routes, hill grades, and biking resources marked -- courtesy of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. A printed version is available for purchase at many San Francisco bike shops, or on the Bike Coalition's website for $4 (including tax and shipping).

Also, take a peek at this recent San Francisco Chronicle article, which offers a few hints about how to plan a flat route through San Francisco. Then, grab a helmet and take to the streets for a pedal-powered tour you won't soon forget.

Discounted Bike Rentals

If you didn't coast into the city on your own wheels, you can rent a bicycle for just a day or for the length of your stay. Bay City Bike Rentals and Tours, Bike and Roll San Francisco, and Blazing Saddle Bike Rentals offer discounts to HI-San Francisco hostellers; ask at the front desk for a discount flyer before heading to the shop.

All three companies have multiple locations in the Fisherman's Wharf/North Beach area, and are within walking distance of the San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf Hostel as well as the north end of the Powell-Hyde cable car line. Guests staying at the San Francisco Downtown Hostel or  San Francisco City Center Hostel can catch the cable car at the turn-around at Powell and O'Farrell streets (2 blocks from the Downtown Hostel and 8 blocks from the City Center Hostel).

Bay City Bike Rentals and Tours

HI-San Francisco hostellers receive a discounted rate of $18/day (regularly $28/day) for city-ready mountain and hybrid bikes. Helmet, lock, rear rack, front camera bag, water holder, and map included in cost of rental. Performance bikes are also available.

Bike and Roll San Francisco

HI-San Francisco hostellers receive a discounted rate of $17/day (regularly $27/day) for a standard bike rental. Helmet, lock, rear rack, camera bag, bell, map, and flat protection included in cost of rental. Performance, tandem, and other specialty bikes are also available, as well as in-line skates.

Blazing Saddles Bike Rentals and Tours

Guests at the City Center Hostel and Downtown Hostel receive a discounted rate of $18-22/day (regularly $28-32/day) for city-ready mountain and hybrid bikes. Helmet, lock, rear rack, camera bag, bungie cord, and map included in cost of rental. Performance, tandem, and other specialty bikes are also available.

Popular Bike Routes

Fisherman's Wharf to Golden Gate Bridge on the Bay Trail
The Bay Trail is a 500-mile network of bicycling and hiking trails that surrounds the San Francisco and San Pablo bays. Along San Francisco's northern waterfront, a 4-mile, flat stretch of path is set aside just for bicycles, skaters, and pedestrians. Riders can easily bike from Fisherman's Wharf, along the waterfront, to the Golden Gate Bridge. You can download a map of the full Bay Trail here.

Starting off from one of the bike rental companies listed above, head west along the northern edge of the city. You'll soon pass through the seafood stalls and retail complexes of Fisherman's Wharf -- but be warned that crowded conditions on weekends may force you to get off your bike and mingle with pedestrians. Be sure to cross cable car tracks at a right angle.

Continue west past Hyde Street Pier and its historic ships to Aquatic Park. The sidewalk in Aquatic Park offers a flat area for beginning riders. From here, follow the trail through Fort Mason (past the Fisherman's Wharf Hostel) to the Marina Green. At this point, you could opt for a detour to the Marina District, which offers shopping, dining, art deco buildings, the Palace of Fine Arts, and the Exploratorium.

The Bay Trail continues through Crissy Field in the Presidio, and on to the Golden Gate Bridge. Again, a detour might be in order as several roads run through the greenery of the 1,400-acre Presidio. Converted from army base to National Park in 1994, the Presidio is home to historic buildings, a National Cemetery, and several large, thickly wooded areas. While riding along Lincoln Boulevard, check out the great views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin Headlands.

The Golden Gate Bridge is more than 1.5 miles across. When the winds are brisk, the ride can be quite a workout. The east walkway is open to cyclists Monday-Friday, and on weekends, it's the west walkway. From the bridge, you can head back the way you came, or continue on to Sausalito or the Marin Headlands.

On the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge at the end of the Vista Point parking lot, a bike lane runs parallel to Highway 101, then turns off to Alexander Avenue. The road winds about 2 miles to the town of Sausalito, offering a beautiful view of the bay.

When you're ready to return, you can take a ferry back to San Francisco and enjoy the salty sea air and striking skyline views. One-way ferry tickets are $7.85 for adults, $3.90 for seniors, youth (ages 6-18), and people with disabilities, and free for children 5 and under.

Marin Headlands
To ride to the Marin Headlands (and the Marin Headlands Hostel), pedal across the Golden Gate Bridge and take the Alexander Avenue exit. Instead of veering east into Sausalito, go west into the Marin Headlands on Bunker Road. You can find detailed directions and a link to a map on the hostel's website.

Golden Gate Park
On Sundays, Golden Gate Park is off-limits to cars on John F. Kennedy Drive, allowing for 7.5 miles of cycling. Watch out for rollerbladers who share the road. Cruise by the Japanese Tea Garden, deYoung Museum, California Academy of Sciences, Dutch Windmill, and Stow Lake. From the west end of Golden Gate Park, you can continue along the Great Highway south to Lake Merced or north to the Sutro Bath ruins.

Great Highway
The flat, 3-mile paved bike path/walkway along Ocean Beach (which runs along the Great Highway between Golden Gate Park and Sloat Boulevard) provides a good workout and can be incorporated into a longer tour of the Sunset District. Starting at the southwest corner of Golden Gate Park on Lincoln Way, ride south on the Great Highway for 2 miles to Sloat Boulevard (which runs along the San Francisco Zoo). Turn right onto Lake Merced Boulevard, then ride the 5 miles around the lake and nearby golf courses.

If you feel like a more challenging ride along the Great Highway, go north instead. Start at Sloat Boulevard, and take the 3-mile ride along Ocean Beach (past Golden Gate Park), which becomes a 200-foot ascent when nearing the Cliff House restaurant and Sutro Bath ruins. Follow Point Lobos Avenue as it veers right (after passing Seal Rock, jutting out of the Pacific), then turn right on 43rd Avenue and coast downhill back to Golden Gate Park and enter at Chain of Lakes Drive East, which takes you onto John F. Kennedy Drive.

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