Weekends are made for road trips and adventuring, but every once in a while, why not change up the routine and head out of town on two wheels instead of four? A hybrid of camping and bike riding that's exploding in popularity, bike touring, whether you're on the road for a night or two or several weeks, allows you to immerse yourself in the landscapes that you travel through. Winding your way along back roads as you pedal toward camp feels like the best of both worlds—you get the satisfaction that comes from getting to the campsite under your own power and carrying all your gear with the ability to cover more miles than hiking.
Like hiking, there is little technical skill involved, and all you need is a bike and a few key items for a successful overnight trip. In San Francisco, you can start your adventure from your front door. With an abundance of scenic roads and campgrounds under 50 miles away, the Bay Area is perfect for weekend overnights by bike. Many campgrounds even offer designated hiker-biker campsites. Here, a guide to where to go, what to pack, and other tips for a great day of bike touring in the Bay Area.
Where to Go
If this is your first foray into bike touring, pick a shorter distance so you can get the hang of things without worrying about making your mileage. Here are a few ideas, in order of proximity to San Francisco.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Just across the Golden Gate Bridge in the Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area offers four small campgrounds, three of which are easily accessible by bike. The campsites at Bicentennial Campground are a short walk from the road and Haypress Campground has a few sites that are less than mile down a navigable fire road. Popular sites at Kirby Cove are also down a short fire road, but the gravel descent may be treacherous on a loaded bike. Bicentennial, the most easily accessed, is about six miles from the San Francisco side of the bridge.
Though the mileage is short, the ride has a few challenges. Navigating the busy bike traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge can be difficult, especially if you are getting used to carrying camping gear. Once you cross the bridge, expect to climb in granny gear as the road ascends steeply. Expect unparalleled views of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate, and miles of ocean to distract you from the climb. After reaching Hawk Hill’s summit, descend toward the Point Bonita lighthouse to reach the campground. After pitching your tent, sit back, relax, and enjoy some of the most stunning views around.
About 20 miles from San Francisco, China Camp is another great destination for a relaxed weekend trip. From the Golden Gate Bridge, cruise Marin County’s well-cycled roads north towards San Rafael, continuing toward the northern edge of San Francisco Bay. Cycling in Marin is popular for a reason—there are designated bike paths through Mill Valley and well-marked roads beyond, and this ride is relatively flat. Once a thriving fishing village along the shores of San Francisco Bay, China Camp provides a sunny coastal escape. The campground sits in a small grove of trees at the northwest edge of the park and offers a hiker-biker site.
Steep Ravine Environmental Campground
If you can reserve a site at this popular campground, Steep Ravine Environmental Campground makes for an idyllic destination at the end of a stunning ride. Though it is also about 20 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge, the ride to Steep Ravine climbs over 1,500 feet, which makes it a slightly more challenging option than the ride to China Camp. Cyclists can follow the bike route through Mill Valley, eventually climbing to the four corners intersection. From there, descend to Muir Beach for a break and a snack, and regain all the elevation you lost and then some as you climb up to Highway 1. Expect endless ocean views as Highway 1 winds along the cliffs.
A couple miles before Stinson Beach, the access road to Steep Ravine plunges dramatically from the bluffs down to the ocean. Though you will be thrilled to reach camp, it’s hard not to be a little daunted by the climb that awaits you the next day. However, the views from the campground are worth the effort. Spend the evening watching the sun set over the ocean with the twinkling lights of San Francisco occasionally visible to the south.
Samuel P. Taylor State Park
Tucked into a redwood forest in west Marin County, Samuel P. Taylor State Park offers peaceful camping about 30 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. The ride to the park and the roads nearby include some of Marin’s best cycling and scenery. Expect to wind through quaint towns before following Sir Francis Drake Boulevard through rolling hills. Stop in the town of Lagunitas to pick up dinner supplies before heading into the quiet woods of the state park. When you arrive in the park, look for a bike/foot route that will lead you to a hike-in, bike-in site. The city will feel a world away as you fall asleep beneath towering redwoods.
Butano State Park
For a longer ride, consider heading south to Pescadero and camping at Butano State Park. The coastal town of Pescadero is about 50 miles from San Francisco, though the road to the campground will put you slightly over 50 miles. With big climbs, sweeping coastal views, and a campsite in the redwoods awaiting your tired legs, the ride to Pescadero is one of the Peninsula’s best.
From San Francisco, follow the bike route south toward Pacifica, where you have to climb a terrifying stretch of highway to reach the cut-off to Devil’s Slide Road, a dramatic bike path that hugs the cliffs. Keep an eye out for whales, dolphins, and other marine life from the overlook. After Devil’s Slide, follow Highway 1 and occasional bike paths past state beaches and through Half Moon Bay. When you reach Pescadero, be sure to to stop for food at the General Store, Duarte’s for olallieberry pie, or Arcangeli’s for garlic artichoke bread. The road through the state park to the campground is unreasonably steep for the end of a long day of riding, but the massive trees lining the road will distract you from your aching muscles.
What to Pack
If you have basic backpacking equipment, packing your bike for a night of camping will be easy. If not, you may need to track down a few lighter pieces of gear, but you don’t need anything technical. Like backpacking, it’s a good idea to travel light, but since your bike will be carrying most of the weight you can definitely bring non-dehydrated food and other luxuries. Before you pack that 700-page book you are reading, be sure to consider the hilliness of your route.
For biking overnight, you need camping basics like a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, and other essentials. In addition, be sure to bring a basic bike repair kit so that you can fix flat tires and other simple maintenance problems on the road without going to a bike shop. Plan to stop for groceries or meals along the way, but be sure you can carry enough snacks and water to keep you going. If you plan to stop for prepared food along the way, you can eliminate carrying cooking supplies.
For an overnight trip, you don’t need any particular kind of bike (though a rack is helpful) or a lot of capacity for carrying your camping gear. Most people use panniers to carry smaller items, and you can easily strap bulky items (tent, sleeping bag, etc.) onto the top of your bike rack with bungee cords. Try to keep your load relatively balanced, and make sure everything is secure by doing a “shake test” (literally shake your bike and see if anything falls off). Also, be sure that no straps or strings can get tangled in your spokes.
On the Road
Plan your route well in advance so you will be confident when you hit the road. When planning, consult a bike map or guide to make sure your route takes you on the safest and most bike-friendly roads. For the Bay Area, Krebs makes several detailed maps. When cycling, make sure you follow the rules of the road, and wear bright colors to make yourself visible to drivers, and get an early start to avoid traffic. Throughout the day, make sure you hydrate well and snack often to keep your energy up. In addition to planning your ride, make sure you check the availability of campsites and hiker-biker options at your destination.