San Bruno Mountain by Bicycle

As Bay Area mountains go, San Bruno Mountain isn’t much to look at.

I mean, it’s not un-pretty. But it’s hardly the double peaks of Tam or the mighty and intimidating Diablo. It’s low and loaf-shaped. Even when I was hiking all of the Bay Area’s peaks, I never gave a thought to summiting San Bruno Mountain. I’m not even sure I knew it was possible.

A while back, though, I started Googling something — OK, I wanted to know if you could hike to the letters in the South San Francisco sign (yes, you can!), and then I found myself reading an article that called San Bruno Mountain “the ultimate Sunday bike ride,” and one thing led to another, and suddenly the only thing I wanted to do was go up San Bruno Mountain on my bicycle.

A side note, here, about the state of my cycling: I dream of being able to think about cycling the way I think about running, as a low-barrier activity where I just walk out the door and go. But that requires a place to go. I have one standard route through Golden Gate Park, but it’s only 12 or so miles round-trip; I can tack on some Lake Merced loops, but I end up so rage-y and hoarse from yelling “on your left” that it’s not much fun for anyone. Twin Peaks is lovely but not a particularly long ride (despite its intensity), ditto my Legion of Honor hill repeats, and riding over the Golden Gate Bridge (to where the best cycling is) makes me nervous and pukey-feeling and it’s rarely worth suffering through that. So my options for longer rides have been to deal with getting the bike rack on the car, and the bike on the rack, and the driving, and the parking, and the riding, and the re-racking, and the driving, and the re-parking, and the unloading … or just not to do them. I don’t like either of these options. I have long wanted to find a ride largely within San Francisco limits that would be a good distance for a longer off-season ride, not terribly scary traffic-wise, and challenging without being impossible, but I’m not sure I truly believed in its existence.

So, once San Bruno Mountain got in my head, I turned to the handy “show-bike-paths” view on Map My Ride, put together a 30-ish mile route on (reportedly) bike-friendly streets, and talked Pete into thinking this was a good idea. I then spent probably half an hour writing down key intersections and studying them on Google Street View. Not exactly “throw on the shoes and go,” but it will be the next time, right?

We started with a long, flat stretch through the park, across a corner of the SF State campus, and then onto the quiet Holloway and busy (but still bikeable) Geneva. The whole time, I kept saying, “I’ve never been here before!” I’ve lived in San Francisco for seven years, and I’m still so far from having a handle on this little seven-by-seven spit of land.

From Geneva, we turned onto Bayshore, the busy thoroughfare frequented by those who bike to Google and other points south. And from Bayshore, we made a turn onto the road that would take us to the road to the top of the mountain. By which I mean, we started climbing.

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It wasn’t much at first, but it never stopped. We were on a wide ridge road, perfectly paved, still a few stoplights, but definitely starting to look like a California mountain, with trees and scrubby brush lining the road. That road apparently continues, depositing travelers into Daly City, but we turned off after about 2.5 miles at the entrance to San Bruno Mountain State Park.

We really weren’t sure what would happen after the park, when we looped through a short tunnel and onto Radio Road. I’d read that it wasn’t in great condition and could be up to an 11% grade, and while I couldn’t summon exactly what an 11% grade could feel like, I assumed it would be hard. Impossibly hard? Time to find out. Almost immediately we hit a thicket of trees — eucalyptus, apparently — and the ride went from hard and urban and traffic-y to dreamy and nature-y and wild.

Cars can drive up Radio Road, but few did while we rode, and after an initial rough stretch, the pavement wasn’t really that bad. The climb was steep, for sure, and I kept thinking that I’d just go a little further, maybe to the next stopsign, maybe just around the bend, maybe just till I was sure I was done riding, and then suddenly I was at the top.

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It’s a view I’ve never had before, the inverse of driving south of the city when you see all the “little boxes on the hillside” houses that make up Daly City. This was the city from above the boxes, the bridge just peeking out, the water, Mount Diablo?!? Yes. Diablo there. And then the radio spires, and what’s apparently an old missile site, and the airport runways. Things I didn’t know you could see at all, much less from my bike.
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Then we were back — down the looooooooooooong descent, then Bayshore, then San Bruno, then some stoplight-riding down Silver as we crossed both the college streets (Amherst, Yale, Cambridge) and the Europe streets (Vienna, Naples, Lisbon). Somewhere in there was a steep little block that took me by surprise, but that spilled us out into Glen Park in time for our last long climb of the day, up Bosworth and O’Shaughnessy (which, thankfully and to my surprise, has a paved sidewalk bike lane) to the base of Twin Peaks. We could have climbed Twin Peaks then — what the hell — but it was getting dark and my front light was dying, and we figured it was the better part of valor just to coast on home.

We finished at just under 30 miles, with about 2500 feet of climbing spread over two major hills. It was, honestly, exhilarating to do that kind of ride in the city without encountering the bridge or the Marina and its massive throngs of people. For a nervous city rider, the terrain was all manageable; I kept it to bike lanes when possible and “bike-friendly streets” in the worst case, and even on a busy Sunday afternoon with lots of people out, I felt safe and visible throughout. I got to see neighborhoods that I honestly had not known existed, or that I had not properly knitted into my evolving mental map of my city. And I catch myself looking for San Bruno Mountain now, catching a glimpse of the antenna spires, and doing whatever the brain equivalent of a fist-pump is: Yeah. I did that.

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The map, for any local riders who might be interested (I’m sure the route can be improved and I welcome any suggestions!):

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2 thoughts on “San Bruno Mountain by Bicycle

  1. Kristina says:

    What a great ride – and a nice distance and elevation gain too!
    I feel your pain about driving to ride. Although as a ‘city-ish’ rider, I am surprised at how one can find pockets in the LA area that allow one to escape the streets and get way up to look down on the city. I do, however, constantly wish that I lived in a more bike-friendly area since I feel that I have a “close call” almost every single time I go for a ride.

  2. clair says:

    This is awesome. I’d been wondering if there was a bikeable route up there. I can’t wait to ride it.

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