On one particularly warm and sunny Oakland morning we gathered up a group of six friends to strike off across the Golden Gate Bridge toward Bolinas.
We met at Awaken Cafe in downtown Oakland to fuel up our caffeine-powered pedaling machines, then hopped aboard BART for San Francisco. We disembarked at Embarcadero Station, and navigated through hordes of rather confused-looking Giants fans off to a Saturday baseball game, then negotiated the eternally broken escalators and packed elevators, and finally got on the road and headed toward the Golden Gate Bridge.
The route down into Sausilito is always crammed with tourists. If you ever follow in our tracks, don’t get too enthralled with the glittering San Francisco skyline while biking across the bridge, as you might run into one of those tourists! If you manage to visit on a rare fog-free day, the entire bay appears to be laid out in front of your wheel.
After passing through the quaint, if overly touristy, town of Sausilito, we met up with the Bay Trail. This ambitious project provides 330 miles of prime cycling paths that loop around the entire San Francisco Bay, mostly separated from roads. We followed just a few miles of the trail, across boardwalks that run through the Bothin Marsh Preserve and into Mill Valley. From there, we followed Marin County Bicycle Route 20 through shady (and less trafficked) neighborhood streets to San Anselmo.
With six people, four of whom weren’t familiar with the area, there were always reasons to stop for a bathroom break or to wait for someone to catch up. The entire time people were yelling back and forth among our group, trying to guess the name of the small suburbs and little towns we were cycling through. Luckily, there is copious signage on this route, and we followed the well-marked paths that led straight to Gestalt Haus in Fairfax. This little pub has become a favorite watering hole for cyclists to hit before their climb up the north flank of Mt. Tamalpais.
By this point, it was well past lunchtime, and our breathless conversations had turned from town names to bizarre food combos that only a touring cyclist could ever think to eat (cheeseburger topped with fried oysters, anyone?) Gestalt Haus offers a wide variety of craft beers and sausages and other choices, including several vegan options. On a sunny days, the bike racks on the walls are almost always full, and we rubbed sweaty shoulders with our spandex-clad brethren as we scarfed down our sausages and traded info on favorite routes in the area.
Full and rested, we were ready for the two 1,000-foot climbs between us and our next beer. From Fairfax we met up with Fairfax-Bolinas Road, the physical and scenic pinnacle of this route. As the name suggests, the road drops right into Bolinas, our destination. It twists past a golf course and then enters the Mt. Tam Watershed preserve. The traffic and hustle and bustle of the town below fell away and we were surrounded by golden California hills. Few cars pass this way, leaving cyclists (of which their are plenty) free reign.
The first climb is mainly in the open, and the three o’clock sun was beating down on us. At least the Cascade Canyon Open Space provided a scenic distraction! Soon we descended into the shady woods that border Alpine Lake. After looping around the shores of the lake and crossing the dam, we began the second climb through dappled shade and thick woods up to the Bolinas Ridge Trail. We regrouped at the top and, after a round of high-fives, began the descent to the coast.
After a few turns coasting through thick forests of live oaks, we caught sight of the Pacific. As we raced toward the sparkling ocean, the trees of the hills were gradually replaced by costal grasses. Bolinas-Farifax Road crosses Highway 1, and then leads straight by Gospel Flat Farm. We had cycled here for a bonfire and art opening, and the farm's owners offered to let us pitch our tents next to the broccoli patch.
They had also organized a delicious feast showing off the bounty of their farm, a charming spot where visitors can stop by and grab vegetables, eggs, and bread from an honor-system produce stand.
Bolinas is located on a small spur of land west of Highway 1, bordered to the east by a lagoon of the same name and to the north by the stunning Point Reyes National Seashore. Bolinas’ comparative isolation, despite its proximity to San Francisco, has allowed the town to preserve its culture and its quirkiness. Stop by the Bolinas People's Store on Olema-Bolinas Road for some tasty snacks and a cold drink, or to grab one of the many tie-dyed shirts from the free pile out front. Almost every inch of the town has been covered with imaginative murals, including a scene of dogs running the town with their humans on leashes, and several cat portraits. Across the street is Smiley’s, a hotel and bar housed in an old whitewashed building that would make Norman Rockwell smile. Point Reyes also offers several stunning backcountry hike-and-bike sites within a few miles of Bolinas.
After setting up our tents, we took advantage of the last rays of sun to bike through town to Agate Beach. Located west of the town’s adorable main street, it is a favorite of local surfers. We sat on the beach watching the surfers play in the waves until the sand in our beers got too annoying. By the time we got back to the farm, dinner was ready and we settled down at long picnic tables and tucked in to the freshest of salads, a few unlucky chickens from the farm, and homemade whipped cream studded with juicy strawberries. A friend had driven up a case of Brad’s tastiest home brew, so we washed down the spread with Black Saison and Amarillo Pale Ale.
After the sun finally gave up its extended rays and sunk into the pacific, we piled up logs for a summer solstice bonfire. Soon thereafter the bloated super moon followed us over the ridge we had just climbed. The June full moon is called the "strawberry moon," because it once informed Indian tribes it was time to harvest strawberries. For us more urban folk, it was a sign that it was time to throw a party and enjoy running through the moonlit countryside without headlamps.
A thick costal fog wrapped around our little tent town early in the morning. This is a situation known in Northern California as "raining," but often referred to in other parts of the country as overcast or misting. We packed up and rolled back into town for brunch, managing to secure a spot for our sextet at a communal table in the Coast Cafe. Once the bottomless coffee and thick-cut French toast started to counteract the less pleasant effects of bringing a case of home brew on a bike camping trip, we rolled down Highway 1 back south toward San Francisco. We passed a herd of seals attempting to sun themselves in the lagoon, before we headed up into the headlands and thicker fog. This part of the coast often has striking views, with steep cliffs tumbling toward the Pacific and views of San Francisco. However, on this particular day the foggy blinds were closed, and we could see only the tail lights of our fellow riders.
We soon came over the last roll in the road and descended into Sausilito, damp from the "rain" but still in good spirits. We recrossed the Golden Gate Bridge (this time sans view), and returned to Oakland in time to shower and head off to a barbecue, where we would share our bike tales with friends over grilled eggplant and sausages.
Tip for this adventure: Whenever riding in the Mt. Tamalpais area, I make an effort to stop at the Naturfreunde Touristen Verein beer garden off Panoramic Highway. The German Tourist Club is open to the general public only on certain weekends during the summer, so be sure to check the calendar on their website before attempting to visit. We biked up to their perch on Mt. Tam (the highest peak in hilly Marin County) three times before we were finally able to visit on the fourth! Twice we arrived on a weekend when the club was not open to the public (poor planning on my part), and once we arrived during the Tourist Club’s Oktoberfest ... $5 short of the entrance fee. However, when we finally arrived at the appropriate time we were not disappointed. To reach the beer garden, you have to descend a steep winding path; I recommend you lock your bike near the parking lot and walk. The club, nestled between steep slopes lined with redwoods, occupies a little cabin worthy of Hansel and Gretel. Grab a frothy glass of German brew inside, and settle down on the expansive deck to enjoy the dappled shade. From here the ride is all downhill, so grab another beer and enjoy this hidden gem with its rather inconvenient hours! Gospel Flat Farm, where we camped on this overnight, is open for business 24/7. The farm runs a small, honor-system-based fruit-and-vegetable stand. Take your pick of the tomatoes, strawberries, squash, and greens picked right out back, and slip your payment into the cash box. They often have art shows in the whitewashed cabin immediately behind the fruit-and-veggie stand.
Favorite local bike shop: Mojo Bicycle Cafe on Divisadero Street in San Francisco. It's a great place to grab a bagel and a spare tube before heading out on a ride.