Must Do Rides: San Francisco

Our Must Do Rides series features some of the best routes around the world. This ride comes from San Francisco-based photographer and cyclist Jake Stangel.

The City

San Francisco’s immediate access to untouched wilderness, right out your doorstep and across the bridge, has endlessly fascinated me. The road riding here is phenomenal, but after a couple years, it was beginning to feel a bit limiting in terms of riding options. But the number of bike-legal trails just across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin are endless.

So, when Strava asked me for my Must Do Ride from San Francisco, I knew I wanted to stay on as much dirt as possible. There are no junk miles and no traffic to battle on this route. I wanted to pay tribute to some amazing, under-sung trails with nice views, and I wanted to beautifully connect them all. Lastly, I wanted to stop at some great food-focused institutions. We visited three.

The Route

This route covers a little over 50 miles, mostly dirt with some roads to get you there. There's almost 9,000 feet of elevation gain and it'll be a full day of riding. Fortunately, there are lots of stops for snacks.

The Ride

After crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll begin through the Marin Headlands. The notion of ‘flat’ riding doesn’t exist in this part of the bay, and riding on trails will often have you climbing 1,000-1,500 feet per 10 miles. After blazing up and down into Tennessee Valley, you’ll do your steepest climbing of the day up Miwok Trail. From here, you’ll arrive at the top of Dias Ridge Trail, a stunning and technical trail that switchbacks you back down to the ocean.

After a quick pavement climb up Hwy 1, you’ll begin to climb away from the ocean and towards the top of Mt. Tam via Coastal Overlook Trail. The grade of Coastal is lovely, consistent and never too brutal; make sure to stop every so often to check out the views at your back. Once you arrive at Pantoll Station, it’s one last quick false-flat trail to West Point Inn, your first food destination of the day.

The West Point Inn is a still-functioning Inn built in 1904. It was a stop along the Mill Valley and Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway, where trains met a horse-drawn stagecoach from Willow Camp/Stinson Beach. You can still stay the night here via reservations on their website, and it’s also a great place to fill up water and relax on the patio. West Point Inn also hosts 6-ish pancake breakfast fundraisers each year, and it’s one of the coolest attractions you can visit on a ride in Marin. Be sure to get there early and bring cash.

After refueling on pancakes, melons, and diner coffee, you’ll finish your climb to the tippy top of Mt. Tam. There are two peaks on Tam: East Peak and West Peak. West Peak used to be the taller of the two peaks, but in the 1950’s, the US Military lopped off the top of it to create an Air Force Station, so East Peak is now taller. The facility closed in 1983 and now sits as an empty lot of barrack foundations and concrete slabs. It’s a favorite spot of mine, as it provides unparalleled views to the North, West, and South of Marin.

From here, you’re almost done with climbing, and after one last punchy 1 minute effort on Rock Springs Trail, you jam a louie (make a left turn) onto Laurel Dell Trail, one of the prettiest and lesser-utilized connectors in this area. This direction of trail is one of my favorites, and you swoop, dip, and dive through an open meadow and into a dark forest, all the way down to Ridgecrest/Seven Sisters and across to Willow Camp Trail, which will drop you right into Stinson Beach.

A word about Willow Camp: it is very very very steep. It essentially drops you from a high point on Ridgecrest Road straight down into Stinson Beach. I’d say it’s essential to have a) pretty fresh brake pads b) knobby tires c) descending prowess and d) a good attitude to do this trail. You kinda need all four. If you don’t have ‘em all, I’d recommend descending on the road down Panoramic all the way to Stinson Beach – a beautiful alternative.

After a quick refuel in Stinson Beach, you’ll ride a scenic section of Highway One. I’m loath to ride near distracted drivers, but the views are so good that all the drivers are indeed looking at the road, and therefore you.

Once you drop back down to ocean level, you’ll return to dirt riding the whole way back home. Hang a right as you pass the Pelican Inn, and keep following signs for Middle Green Gulch Trail, which you access through Green Gulch Farm Zen Center. I used to avoid Middle Green Gulch Trail because there’s a short but painful 2-3 min effort about halfway up it where you’ll wish for two more gears, but aside from that, the trail is generally tranquilly graded and offers some spectacular views to the North. And if you walk the steep section, your secret is safe with me.

The End

I recommend finishing this amazing/fatiguing/rewarding ride at Radhaus, a bicycle-friendly restaurant run by Aaron Hulme, his twin brother, and his mom. Aaron was a former pro mechanic for the USA cycling team, has been a fixture in the SF bike scene for over a decade, and has made Radhaus feel like a Bavarian bierhall/restaurant airlifted and set down in a stunning, bright, waterfront space overlooking the San Francisco Bay. To finish a ride here is magical and restorative, with tall cold glasses of hard-to-find beers imported from Germany and healthy, yet rib-sticking food that will replenish you from the ride and help you along on that final jaunt home.

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