Biking the Bay in San Francisco


     by Ian McGregor – Guest Bloger: Cela’s Trek

     updated 11:10 PST, Wed September 24, 2014



When you know autumn is coming and you’ve been stuck inside working for a few hours, it’s really difficult to not  want to get out and explore. Today the city was calling, and after doing some quick research, I set off on my adventure  to San Francisco.

Generally when you hear about San Francisco, you have people telling you all about Fisherman’s Wharf, the cable cars, Lombard Street, all the hills, and of course, the Golden Gate. They are all as much an essence of the city as the people who live and work there, but that’s not the whole story. To really get to know a city, you have to embrace it in all its triumphs and shortcomings, be willing to get lost, and basically just be open to different experiences. Sure as a visitor you can hit all the “tourist” spots and get all those pictures that have been taken millions if not billions of times before you, but is that really the point? What is it are you going to remember more: you getting the pictures, or the experiences and memories you build with the people around you while exploring a foreign city? Science suggests the opposite, and though pictures are sometimes amazing and necessary, I urge you to forego trying to get every single thing on camera and just letting yourself immerse in the culture you’ve stepped into.

But I digress. Since San Francisco (or SF or “the city”, as it’s known in the Bay Area) is so hilly and this was my first time bringing my bike along, I decided to keep it simple and ride along the wharf over to the bridge; I wanted to go to Golden Gate National Recreation Area and actually see the bridge for myself from its western side instead of just a straight eastern view from Berkeley. Online the distance looked to be only a few miles at best one way, so with a snack, some water, and homework (no I didn’t really do any of that…) I headed off to the city.

Getting off at Embarcadero Station and emerging from the underground is like stepping into a teleporter and suddenly ending up in New York (when you’re not gasping for breath – the BART really needs to put bike ramps on the staircases like they have in Copenhagen). The buildings rise up seemingly out of nowhere and engulf you…coming from cities with the tallest buildings measuring only a few stories, it’s not difficult to understand why some people can feel claustrophobic. Putting that aside, though, what SF has in its heart is a vibrant hum of energy. When you step out of the underground and on to the street, you instinctively know important things are happening all around you, and in a city with so much history both for the region and for the country, the confluence of past and present is inherently alive wherever you go. Though this wasn’t my first time in the city, I once again embraced its vibrancy and excitedly headed east toward the piers to begin my journey.

One of the first piers after coming from Embarcadero Station

View of the bay looking north, Mt. Tam is middle left shrouded in clouds

View of the bay looking north, Mt. Tam is middle left shrouded in clouds

After biking a little along the waterfront and weaving in and out of traffic, I decided to pause and walk as a tourist along the boardwalk of Pier 39, arguably SF’s most prominent waterfront area next to Fisherman’s Wharf. I’ve been to the pier before; last year I performed there as part of a rally. But being there as a tourist is different. This time I paid attention to the throngs of people walking the shoreline (even now, in late September!) as one of them and not an outsider, and I was surprised by the amount of diversity I saw. I paused in front of the pier to write this in my book: “It’s easy to understand why people call the place a cultural melting pot. Just a short walk from Pier 27 to Fisherman’s Wharf allowed me to meet at least 20 different languages and people from all around the world.” All around me I saw scenes that could have been from anywhere in in coastal tourist America: tourists with cameras, couples kissing in front of the pier signs, sounds of gulls, people calling for taxis, etc. What’s interesting about this is that in being such a melting pot, the area could be as much a dock in New York as it could be SF itself. It’s representative and characteristic of both itself and elsewhere, and I think that’s what makes the city such a unique place.

Yet being the cultural melting pot of America can get to be a little crowded, so I ditched the end of Embarcadero Street for an uphill ride courtesy of my turning on to North Point St from Powell, which turned out to be totally worth it when I ran into Ghiradelli Square. Granted, I had been planning to go eventually to check it off my bucket list, but it was so spontaneous how I ended up at the right street corner that I just had to check it out. For some background, Ghiradelli Square is the collection of red-brick buildings that used to house the Ghiradelli chocolate factory. Now half shopping mall, half historical landmark, the square has plaques situated to give visitors a glimpse into the life of Ghiradelli himself.  It turns out that before the chocolatier came to set up shop in San Francisco (among other adventures), he was apprenticed to a confectioner in Genoa, Italy, where he learned how to make desserts of all kinds. The Ghiradelli factory was established in 1852, and the original building used for selling the finished chocolate products is still in business adjacent to a sweets restaurant, which even today had long lines. Walking inside, I loved how I felt I was experiencing my own bit of history with the old “Mustard Building 1899” and “Cocoa Building” signs above my head. I am definitely coming back to that chocolate shop. After all, how many times can you say you’ve bought a chocolate from the place where it was historically made?

I had asked a local how best to get to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, but I had already forgotten which way he said after getting on North Point. That was fine, though, because I figured I would just follow the water around until I reached the bridge. I thus proceeded to go downhill to the SF Maritime National Historic Park. Just kidding! It dead-ended and I was forced to bike back up the hill on Van Ness. Live and learn! Anyways. I hooked a right on Bay and was excited to see I had made it to Fort Mason. The fort used to be an American Army base used, among other ways, as an outpost for watching over the passage between SF and Alcatraz. Now, though, it’s part of the National Recreation Area  with historical buildings (and apparently a hostel!), and everyone is welcome to come in and wander around. I had come here a year and a half ago to perform for a wedding, and with the views of the bridge in the background, I knew I wanted to come explore the area in further detail later. Today I got my chance, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a grass park behind the buildings with walking/bike trails that allowed me to avoid the normal street. The trail then turned into the Golden Gate Promenade, which is a pathway that starts from Fort Mason and goes all the way until Fort Point, underneath the Golden Gate. Even though there were clouds, there were still many people enjoying the shoreline, and with the contrasting views of the bridge with a shrouded Mt. Tam, Tiburon, Angel Island, Alcatraz, and the East Bay it was no wonder locals and tourists alike were out and about. The promenade is mainly sandy gravel, and its wide avenue is perfect for strolling. Along the way you can see dune restoration in progress with small lakes and many California native plants, including the Monterrey Cypress. Somewhere along the way, the promenade turned into the SF Bay Trail, and I eventually found myself at Fort Point, which I quickly realized was another dead-end I had managed to find.

All views from the Golden Gate Promenade/SF Bay Trail

All views from the Golden Gate Promenade/SF Bay Trail

After watching some surfers (yes, surfers, even this cold water) catching some larger sets, I turned around and went up Long Ave before turning on the Battery East Trail. Because I was on a bike I had to stick to the roads, but there are hiking-only trails that take you to the old armament stations around the bridge, hence the name “Battery East Trail.” I quickly stumbled upon the overlook that’s provided a backdrop for millions of people around the world, so I added myself to the count. I decided to head up to the bridge before going to Baker Beach, but upon arriving and finding out I still had over a mile left to go, I figured to just go on the bridge for a little. Wait. Scratch that – in order to get on the bridge, I had to go under it, so I guess you could say I reached my goal of going to the western side of the Bridge! I speedily went up on the bridge so I could get some pictures before starting the long ride back; man was it windy up there! Such a big temperature difference from being inside the city. The way back was uneventful, unless you count me getting lost. I had seen the streets of Telegraph Hill in the distance while biking up to Fort Mason, and I thought I could scale them going back to the train station. So, I turned onto Hyde Street from Bay St….and stopped. Think of a giant wall where in 100 m of street you climb something like 15 m. There was absolutely no way I was going to climb that on my bike. Thus, I turned around and proceeded to get lost going through the heart of the city, but I wasn’t complaining. Needless to say, I found my way again and even got to see an art show in a mid-city park!

The Golden Gate bridge from its eastern side overlooking Fort Point (the white water there is where the surfers were). In the distance is Marin County.

The Golden Gate bridge from its eastern side overlooking Fort Point (the white water there is where the surfers were). In the distance is Marin County.

I made it to the other side! ...sort of. This view is from the western side of the bridge looking south. I love how this view in a way sums up the city: machinery meets nature meets city.

I made it to the other side! …sort of. This view is from the western side of the bridge looking south.
I love how this view in a way sums up the city: machinery meets nature meets city.

San Francisco is a great place to explore and discover, and with so much history and culture all around you, it’s so easy to find your own little slice of it to take home with you. This journey I did today (which in reality was only about 10 miles both ways [16 km]) was just but one small part of this vibrant city, and I hope I’ve inspired you to take a trip there in the near future. I know I and my housemates will be making a visit there soon to see Tiburon, Angel Island, and Alcatraz, and be assured I’ll review all those places as well. But note! If you’re biking: San Francisco is NOT the place you want to discover your brakes don’t work. Thankfully mine were fine, but I can only imagine what it would be like otherwise…

And on that happy note! In other news from what I’ve discussed previously, Scotland is still a part of the UK, for which the vote itself was monumental and I’m still not quite sure we appreciate how important that was. This has set the stage for a shake-up of UK devolution of powers and for whether Catalonia will still hold its own referendum in November. Things to stay tuned to…

And with that, I’m off and back to my homework. If you want to keep in touch with me outside of the blog, you can follow me on FacebookTwitter, and email. Plus! I recently found this photo website Snapwire courtesy of Suitable Travel Today where I can post my pictures from my trips in an easy format. Check them out if you want!

Enjoy your first days of autumn, and until next time, vi ses!

Ian McGregor is a guest blogger from Cela’s Trek where he is the Owner and Creator. Visit his blog here!

Hiking and Biking in the OC

 Guest Blogger: Ian McGregor – Cela’s Trek

 Hiking and Biking in the OC by Ian McGregor – 11 August 2014


Apologies for the length of time since the last post. I hope to have a new post out every week, but things have been really busy on this end – moving out by the end of next week, then after five days I plunge headfirst into my last year at Berkeley. So soon!

Anyways, for this post I thought I’d give you guys some tips about a couple places I went to in the last week in Orange County, specifically, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. Yesterday we had to take a trip down to the Upper Newport Bay Nature Reserve for some irrigation inspiration, and our contact was happy to show us around in the meantime. The Reserve center is much bigger than the conservancy at which I’m interning, and part of that is because the area it oversees is scores of acres larger – it stretches from the ocean all the way to where the 73 freeway meets Jamboree. Growing up with the tradition of going to Fashion Island (think American consumerism at its finest) during the holidays, I’ve always gazed out over the marsh, wishing there was some way I could get in there and explore. Turns out there definitely is! Other than the canoeing and SUP (stand-up paddleboard) opportunities right across the water from the reserve, there’s actually a “Mountains to Sea Trailhead” that’s open for bikes. I asked our guide if by “mountains” the sign meant Saddleback. “Kind of,” he replied, looking out over the marsh. He raised his arm and pointed toward the east, while his other hand shielded the sun. “It starts over in Santiago Canyon, joins some roads, goes on its own…but eventually it winds its way down here to the Reserve.” I, of course, was astonished at hearing this. This is something I would expect to find in a bike-friendly place like Copenhagen, which recently has been looking to expand its 22 km (13.67 mile) superhighway for commuters. But nope! Irvine Ranch has its own 35.4 km (22 mile) path for bikers (albeit recreational), and it looks to be a really fun ride. You can see a map of the route here.


View of Newport Back Bay as seen from the trailhead (looking east)
In terms of hiking, let’s move a little further south to Laguna Beach. Since I’ve been involved with Pageant of the Masters for the summer (great show, see my friend Tamara’s take on it here), I’ve gotten the opportunity to explore the Laguna area a bit more, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. Sure it’s just down the coast from Huntington and Newport, but the lifestyle, mindset, and overall culture is just a bit different once you get past Crystal Cove State Park on PCH (Pacific Coast Highway). One of the highlights from my time exploring was the discovery of Top of the World. I have some friends from elementary school I still hang out with, and we were wondering what we could do to show my German exchange student – it would have to be something unique and something he couldn’t really get in the Huntington area, hence for it to be special. We asked my friend’s sister and she immediately suggested this Top of the World place. I’m so glad she did. Although the highest point in the Laguna hills area is really where the 73 freeway reaches its zenith, this is the next highest point that people can access. If you don’t have the time to bike or hike the 1036 ft (316 m) to the top, you can drive practically the whole way and reach the top via a 5 min walk. Whichever way you want to tackle it, the views are spectacular. To the north you can see Mt. Baldy (a spiraling 10,000 ft [3048 m] high peak), to the east you see the two top reaches of Saddleback (both averaging about 5500 ft [1676 m]), to the south-east you can see the hills of San Clemente, and to the west, you have the Pacific Ocean sprawling out toward Catalina and San Clemente islands. From this height, the water is so close that you can almost imagine going down an immense water slide right into the ocean. I personally have gone up there twice now, both times in the late afternoon and the views were good (even with clouds). If you are able to take the time to plan your trip there, though, I suggest going on a cloudless day soon after a rainstorm or Santa Ana wind event (generally very clear days) and going in early morning/midday, because this way the north will be cleared up as well. During the summer in the late afternoon, the setting sun from Top of the World vantage point is NNE, and while sunsets up there are both fantastic and romantic, it can obscure some views. Either way, the drive and the scenery is in my opinion a great find. And if while you’re on the top of the world you get antsy, not to worry! There are trails over the tops of the hills for people to hike or bike on both sides of the CA 133 highway, with a chance to get an in-depth and intimate look at the majesty of this oceanside contour.

Pro-Tip: If you really want that view looking north from Irvine/Laguna, I would suggest taking the 73 highway on a Sunday morning or sometime when there isn’t much traffic in the morning hours (caution; 73 freeway is a no-cash toll road). When traveling north and you crest the hill on a clear day, you can see the whole LA Basin spread out like an interactive map before you. In fact, you can see all the way to Santa Monica Mountains and Malibu hills! If there is a place to stop off and take a picture, I highly suggest it. I personally haven’t discovered anything yet, but I think it’s there.
Two other exciting things about the top of the world. Right by the parking lot (next to the entrance to the tennis courts) is an amazing tree, Arbutus unedo, in the Ericaceae family to be exact. In english, it is known as a Strawberry Tree: it has a reddish, flaky bark and is kind of small for a tree, but the main draw about it is the fruit. Its leaves are littered with orange, yellow, and red lizard-skin berries that taste so good. Think of it like candy hidden in plain sight that no one knows about. While they’re pretty to view, only the red ones are ripe enough to eat, and it turns out you can make the berries into jam and other things! All I know about it is how I discovered it. I had a plant identification course last year and we were wandering around campus identifying the nonnative species that had been planted there. I had kept seeing the Arbutus trees around, so I asked my professor about them and if the berries were edible. He paused, and grabbed a fruit from the tree. “You know, I’m not really sure,” he said with a quirky smile, then promptly tossed the fruit into his mouth and smiled broadly. Since then I’ve taste-tested all the strawberry trees on campus…definitely no obsession there!

Anyways, the other exciting thing: when coming up to top of the world (driving), I suggest coming up the fun way. If you’re coming from the 133, you want to turn left on Forest. If you’re coming from PCH, you’re going to want to turn onto Broadway and eventually make a right on Forest. The reason for this is you get to go up this awesome hill. I’d put it at a 50-60 degree grade – it’s so much fun. Coming down is also fantastic; it looks like you’re about to fall off the edge of the continent itself, and during the summer it’s not surprising to hear screams coming from new drivers tackling the hill. To get to top of the world from there, just turn left at the stop sign once you climb the hill, and just follow the road to the top.

Well, that’s about from this end. It may be a little bit until I do my next post since I’m moving into a new apartment and getting things underway for my semester, but rest assured I have some really great ideas for future posts. Thanks for reading!

– Ian

P.S. After reading more National Geographic Traveler, I think I’m going to try writing these posts in more of a travel writing style, similar to what you’d find in those articles. The passage below is my own exercise into this domain. There’s no new information pertinent to this post, and it’s purely a creative writing jaunt, if you will. If you do want to read it, just know that this is probably much more in depth than I’ll go into every single topic. The goal here is to make you interested, not bored! :]

I have more media than just this blog! Look for me on Facebook  and Twitter, and if you have any questions, go ahead and shoot me an email!

Vi ses!

On top of the world, there was a tree. But it wasn’t a normal tree. Its bark looked familiar, as though coming from a cherished, far-off memory. As I approached the tree I saw it first as a stranger, second as an acquaintance, and third as a long-lost friend. When it was a stranger, I noticed a simple standing statue in the passage of time, dedicated by others in its round home. When it became the acquaintance, I found it to be vaguely recognizable – more than a statue but not quite a monument. As I drew closer it broke from its fog and revealed itself to me as a forgotten friend, one whom I haven’t seen in ages. My smile grew, unbidden, and my hand immediately reached for my friend’s, just to feel the warmth of her touch after so many years. To feel that familiarity, that compassion – it’s what I’ve missed. I ran my hand over the contours of the bark and laughed out loud, for I instantly knew the significance of this find. My companions who ventured with me to the top of the world stood perplexed behind me; I couldn’t tell if they were curious or just couldn’t bring themselves to enter into this moment of joy with me. But it didn’t matter. I took no notice of them as I continued to reminisce with my friend. I was about to rejoin my companions in reality when I turned my gaze upward, and suddenly…reality did not want to return just yet. My joy expanded ten-fold as I discovered the trifecta that lay before me: starburst, sun rays, and oranges. The forbidden fruit that manifested itself above me brought to mind a feast I had only experienced once before, a lifetime ago. Keeping one hand on the aged bark, I stretched the other to find the perfect one, my hand moving as though in a trance until, at last! I found a bright sun ray just within reach. Unable to contain my excitement I settled the sun between my teeth and bit down. OH! The disgust! I quickly expunged the sun from my body – in my excitement I had forgotten the important lesson of preparation. I could just hear my friend laughing at me. Her eyes dancing in the fading light, “Have you really forgotten?” I didn’t answer; the bitterness was too much to take in. After ridding myself of the taste, I quickly remedied my error. I traded my thirst for the sun with a new quest for the starburst. After a quick search I found it: just within arm’s reach and absolutely perfect.

I gingerly put the fruit in my mouth for fear of making the same mistake again, but when I bit down, the world exploded. It was as if the ecstasy of all food consolidated itself in this one small starburst berry. I could hear my friend laughing with pure radiant joy, and her exultation  was as much a reflection of my own state as it was her relief that I remembered. By this point, my companions were as lost to me as though I had never known them, and I reveled in it. I reveled in the mutual reconciliation that was taking place, for to me it was a rebirth of that which I had lost. All too soon the berry was gone and I was left standing in front of her. Though she tood still, her hair glowed and her eyes continously danced while a shy smile lingered on her face. I don’t know how long we stood there, catching up on lost years, but I do know what broke it: a gust of wind reminding me about reality. My friend’s smile faltered for she realized what was happening. I motioned to her and turned to my waiting companions, to give them a chance to experience this kind of joy. Hesitantly they came, but they knew not what to expect. I eagerly gave them a starburst and awaited their reactions. Yet I was soon disappointed. Their collective mistrust of my excitement developed into a disgust of the fruit – from which solicited lackluster expressions. I didn’t dare turn toward my friend with the sadness in my eyes, and one by one my companions began walking down. I finally returned my gaze back to her, only to see she already knew. Her radiant joy had retreated to a melancholy presence, and I was the only one left to receive her, here in this isolated place. She understood what I was saying and I understood her response, though we spoke not a word. I gently reached for her hand one more time. As I lay mine upon hers, I was struck by how despite her fragility, I could sense the strength of life running though her, and God knows this dichotomy explained as much her physical appearance as her spirit. Finally, all was understood; I bowed my head and said goodbye. Her eyes held mine until she relented with a somber smile, “Don’t forget me.” I responded, “Never.” With that I broke the connection and sadness overwhelmed me. I began to rejoin my companions but I couldn’t keep myself from her. I stopped and turned back to see her once more but by then, the fog had already shrouded my memory and my friend was no more.

On top of the world there is a tree. And that tree, is my friend.

Ian McGregor is a guest blogger from Cela’s Trek where he is the Owner and Creator. Visit his blog here!