San Francisco to Point Reyes National Seashore
Bring up San Francisco and undoubtedly someone will mention the gloom, the grey, the horrible weather. The thought of the cold, the wind, and the constant threat of rain -- like a storied San Francisco fog bank -- seems to engulf the spirit of many travelers, dampening their vacation dreams. But for whatever reason, I have had the remarkable luck of never seeing this side of the City by the Bay on my outings. I’ve been turned lobster red sitting in the bleachers at Candlestick Park; strolled down the Embarcadero under clear-blue skies; enjoyed sun-splashed picnics on the lawn in front of the city hall building. While I will never mistake San Francisco for a tropical paradise, the weather has never cast its evil spell on any of my adventures there.
I hoped it would be no different this time.
I had planned a winter getaway to visit a good friend, Greg, in Grass Valley, California. Greg works at a farm animal sanctuary; for me, a visit there is a great opportunity to do some old-fashioned hard work -- the kind that involves sweat and occasionally blood, and does not involve a desk. I was expecting more of the same on this visit.
Greg and his girlfriend Stephanie, however, had cooked up something special: a bike overnight trip from Stephanie’s apartment in San Francisco to Point Reyes National Seashore.
Friday night, Greg and I loaded up his truck with all of our gear and made the hour drive to Stephanie’s apartment. Once there, we sorted camping gear, divvied the food, and prepared the bikes for the journey ahead. Stephanie pulled out the California bike map and showed us the route we would be taking. As it was the first week of January, I was a bit worried about the weather (and possibly breaking my streak!), and wondered if I had enough clothes in case the wind and rain started up. Stephanie assured me the weather was going to be great; that not a single drop of rain was in the forecast.
Saturday morning, the sound of the doorbell broke us out of our slow morning stupor and threw us into overdrive. Our last companion, Stefan, had arrived and was ready to roll as we were still trying to figure out how everything was going to fit on the bikes. After a hectic half hour, all the gear was loaded, and we were on our way.
I have always enjoyed riding early in the morning; with the rest of the world still tucked into bed, early rides are so peaceful. This morning was no exception. Smoothly sailing through the winding streets we soon found a few others taking advantage of the slumbering city.
Unsure if a couple of zip ties could hold the forty pounds on my rear rack for the hundred-plus miles of the journey, we decided to stop at a shop Stephanie’s friend worked at, American Cyclery. It's a beautiful old bike shop -- San Francisco's oldest, in fact. Out front, they were rolling out racks of new and used frames that had me drooling over the thought of a new bike. After showing the shop mechanic our rear-rack zip-tie voodoo magic, he found the exact part we needed. Within minutes my rear rack had been dismantled; zip ties were cut and replaced with frame clips that secured the rack firmly to my bike frame.
By the time we left American Cyclery, the city had come to life, and the quiet paths bustled with people. Cyclists were everywhere. Weaving in and out of bike-path traffic, Stephanie, a seasoned San Francisco resident, had no trouble navigating to San Francisco Bay. While the route was busy, being a part of a cycling swarm created a feeling of camaraderie, the hive of humans all out for the same purpose, to enjoy the glowing warmth of the winter sun.
A short while later, we arrived at the icon of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge. I had been looking forward to this moment since Greg informed me we were taking this trip. While the expectations of grandeur quickly faded to the deafening sound of cars flying by, the views remained unscathed. Watching the shimmering gold streaks of the ocean run to the horizon made it difficult to focus on the riding.
Once across the bridge, we began to bob and weave our way through a string of ritzy little towns: Sausalito, Mill Valley, Corte Madera, Larkspur, Ross, San Anselmo, and Fairfax. Bike-route signs guided us down side streets with minimal traffic.
The winter sun continued to warm our backs as we broke away from the sprawl and began our passage into the forested areas outside of Point Reyes National Seashore. We passed through the sleepy little towns of Oak Manor, Woodacre, San Geronimo, and Forest Knolls; then, about three miles outside Olema, Greg’s heralded Scott AT-4 handlebar broke in half. Attempting to ride it out, he steered with one hand on the bar for as long as he could before the strain of balancing the bike using only his right side became too much.
Searching for a solution on the side of the road, Greg pulled out a pocket knife and began to cut down a large branch. He continued to whittle down the branch to a perfect dowel, which he used to bridge together the two broken ends of the handlebar. Problem solved! Not wanting to press our luck, however, he and I sprinted off to Point Reyes Station to find a bike shop, while Stefan and Stephanie headed to the ranger station to pick up our camping permits.
Point Reyes Station is a tiny, western-style town with only a block's worth of businesses, but more than enough for any cyclist to quench his thirst and hunger. It is also home to a great bike shop, Black Mountain Cycles, where Greg was able to replace his broken handlebar. He and I made it back to the ranger station around dusk, rejoining our companions. After sharing a snack, we headed back down the road toward our campsite.
It was five miles down the Five Brooks Road to the turnoff, and from there it would be a few more miles to camp. By the time we reached the Five Brooks Trailhead, the sun was fading. With more than six miles to go to gain Glen Camp, we knew that soon we would be riding in the dark. Luckily, Stefan was smart enough to have brought a light. For the next hour, we slowly rumbled over the blackened terrain, navigating by one bike light and a few headlamps -- an experience I do not recommend to others.
Glen Camp is a humid, grass-filled hollow surrounded by trees. The night was cold and the air heavy as we cooked soup next to an old fallen tree. After supper, Greg warmed some water for the portable shower and hung it behind the downed tree. Before long, the miles ridden and our full bellies turned us to our tents.
Awaking to another bright and sunny day, we ate some breakfast and decided to take a hike down to the beach. The forest and the cool morning air retreated as we climbed over the last ridge to our first view of the ocean. We were welcomed to the coast with a hot, dry breeze and clear, blue skies for as far as we could see. The trail led to a beautiful overlook and beach access where we waded through the waves and watched some seals swim along the coast; all in all, an idyllic California beach day.
After returning from our hike, we re-loaded the bikes and headed to our new campsite, Wildcat. A snaking downhill track led us to the vacated site. Located on a bluff above the beach, Wildcat is one of the most beautiful campsites I have ever visited. We quickly ditched the bikes and ran down to the beach, coming to a large waterfall where we soaked our feet for a while, sharing stories and reveling in the beauty of our trip.
The day faded into a starry night. I struggled to find familiar constellations, hoping to see a few shooting stars. A couple of hours later, I retreated to my tent.
In the morning we packed up early and began our steep climb out of Wildcat. The rest of the ride home was easy and familiar; it was another cool, sunny day, and beautiful for cycling. We maintained a steady pace, made a few snack stops, and returned just in time for dinner.
A day’s ride away from one of the most-visited cities in the world, Point Reyes National Seashore offers a perfect escape. It is a moderately difficult, 55-mile ride from San Francisco. The route is easy to follow, with well-marked bike signs posted all along the route. There's a plethora of places for food or bike repair along the way, allowing you to be flexible with your gear and food loads. The beauty and solitude, especially in the winter, can make for a fantastic cycling getaway.
Tip for this adventure: Great camping -- bring a stove and enjoy the outdoors!
Favorite local bike shops: American Cyclery.