Secret Cycling in the City by the Bay

Over 1,000 acres, an endless maze of singletrack, Eucalyptus-lined descents to the crashing Pacific.... Sometimes rules are made to be broken
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Shine on, you crazy city (Abrahm Lustgarten)
Other Places to Ride
Presidio Park (www.nps.gov/prsf ) has a network of unofficial paths starting at the Arguello Gate that carves into the northwestern section of the park. Take the trail to San Francisco’s far northwestern tip and link up with Lands End, a flat fire road open to mountain bikes affording stunning views of the ocean and Golden Gate.
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San Francisco is undeniably blessed with a downright dizzying number of world-class mountain-biking locales, but if you aim for getting in a bit of trail time after the nine-to-five routine, you’re just as likely to end up stuck in traffic as flying through the woodlands. Heed this little tidbit of insider’s knowledge, however, and any willing San Fran urban-centric cyclist can net a solid eight to ten miles of gorgeous singletrack inside 1,000-acre Golden Gate Park (www.nps.gov/goga/ ).

The trick is to stay under the radar of park police and local cops. While horseback riding on dirt paths remains legal, turning your knobbies off the pavement could land you in civic court pleading your ticket before month’s end. After you accept that possibility, just clip in and hit the trail. There’s no established network—not even a map—and finding the good riding involves an adventurous appetite for connecting dozens of unnamed shortcuts and obscure entryways. However, after a few rides, you’ll carve out a routine with better technical riding than most mountain bikers find on a full-weekend outing. But remember to follow proper trail etiquette—slow down for hikers and dismount when passing horses. After all, you never know who’s waiting for an excuse to dial 911 on their cell phone.

The best trail in Golden Gate runs along the north edge of the park, starting at the eastern end and rolling downhill three miles to the sand and surf of Ocean Beach. Starting on JFK Drive at Stanyan Street, follow the road west past the huge flower conservancy on the right. At the next paved road, hook a right and look to the left for a paved pathway. Follow that into the woods and then swerve onto a narrow singletrack, shooting left after about 60 feet—it looks more like an overgrown footpath, but that’s your trail. From there, precise directions are impossible. Besides, where’s the fun in that?

Follow the network as it heads west, usually within a dozen yards of Fulton Street, crossing the occasional paved path while pedaling a glorious, root-crossed line through eucalyptus groves, pine forests, and a couple wider horse paths.

At 19th Street and Fulton, look for a wood-chipped path that bears slightly left—it turns into a thrilling, smooth singletrack that traverses the highway for a quarter-mile and then dips right into a wooded descent. Whistle around the corners and watch for riders coming head-on. When you hit JFK Drive again, cross it and follow one of the obvious trails towards the middle of the park. Between the crossover and a large oval racetrack, the trail darts between large pines, barrels steeply down into a picnic area, and then levels into a gradual descent with a couple fun logs and drops. Stay north of the horse track, find the west end of the parking lot by the stables, and look for a muddy drop back into the woods. From here keep an eye out for anything unpaved and heading northwest. A fast eucalyptus-strewn descent will eventually spit you out on Fulton Street about a block short of the Pacific.

The best return route is to backtrack, but if it’s variety you want, there is a similar but lower-quality linkage along the south side of the park. Head back up JFK Drive from the beach and look for a dirt turn-off to the left near the dog run. An ever-changing network of paths winds along the south side of the oval track, with a couple of steep hairpins and a short flight of steps to keep you honest.

Other than threats of ticket citations, the entire ride is quite safe, good for beginners and ideal for moderates—if you’re comfortable on a thin track, it’s not very technical. Best of all, the loop can be done in 60 minutes, which should put you back in your local pub before the end of happy hour.

Getting There:
To reach the trailhead into Golden Gate National Park, head to the intersection of JFK Drive and Stanyan Street, easily accessed via either the Fulton Street or Haight Street bus.

Published: 7 Sep 2004 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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