Winding through nature and city streets, the Bay Trail is an idea as much as a place 

The San Francisco Bay Trail is many things, but it isn’t always a trail nor is it always next to San Francisco Bay.

When the Association of Bay Area Governments first set out to build a 500-mile path through nine counties, 47 cities and around San Francisco and San Pablo bays, the project was bound to be complex. That was especially true given that each separate jurisdiction would be responsible for managing its own segments.

To see a map of the Bay Trail, click on the photo to the right.

Twenty-two years later, the project includes some 310 miles of trails, paths, sidewalks, boardwalks, levee tops, bike lanes and surface streets of varying lengths. These segments are linked in a number of ways — although occasionally not at all.

Some segments combine a natural setting with multiple transportation options and recreational opportunities, while others barely feature any signs of nature, transit or recreation.

But with one of the two sidewalks across the Golden Gate Bridge closed for maintenance until September, hikers and bicyclists may be tempted to explore some of the Bay Area’s less-famous waterfront real estate.

Bay Trail signage is sparse if nonexistent, despite recent efforts by the trail’s three dedicated employees to distribute appealing metal signs for installation throughout all 310 miles. So you’ll have to find your own way, or follow street maps available at

A recent 13-mile bike ride from the foot of the Goldent Gate bridge to the tip of Candlestick Point showed the Bay Trail at both its best and its worst.

Near the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Trail puts its finest face forward. This is only fitting. Not only does the trail here run within view of an international landmark and indescribable scenery, but it’s an everyday thoroughfare for both locals and tourists.

As it continues through Crissy Field on a broad gravel road fit for everything but a road bike, it offers views of restored dunes and soaring pelicans. Through this part of The City, hug the shoreline and you’ll stay on track.

Just west of the San Francisco Marina, the trail becomes paved sidewalk and remains that way for miles. It proceeds up and over Fort Mason and through an aromatic stand of cypress, then files past Ghirardelli Square, Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. Yet even as the natural setting recedes in favor of the busy sidewalks of Jefferson Street and The Embarcadero, the Bay and the trail remain intimate.

The Embarcadero between Pier 39 and AT&T Park is not only San Francisco’s unofficial town square, but also part of the Bay Trail. Nappers and noshers, office and construction workers, joggers and walkers and people with dogs: They all gather here on the trail’s most visible and well-used stretch, where its vision is manifested in a blend of nature, recreation and transportation.

But everything changes after rounding AT&T Park. The trail leaves behind San Francisco’s high-profile waterfront, and with it much of its visual appeal. Upon crossing the Third Street Bridge to China Basin Park, the trail becomes a bike lane and a sidewalk, bordered by industrial warehouses, nondescript office buildings and modern condos, as well as construction sites and empty lots fragrant with wild anise.

Turning onto Illinois Street through the largely industrial Dogpatch neighborhood, the trail is nothing but a landlocked road. The water disappears as hulking brick buildings with shattered windows crowd the view to the east. On the other side of the street, shipping and receiving bays replace the sidewalk, earning this stretch of trail the antecedent “unimproved.”

PG&E’s Potrero Power Plant is an unwelcome sight on a nature trail, but it passes quickly enough. When the Bay Trail crosses the Islais Creek Channel and approaches the Port of San Francisco, it is the first water sighting in nearly two miles.

Head southeast on Cargo Way to reach Heron’s Head Park, a salt marsh that has reclaimed some landfill poured decades ago for industrial buildings or possibly the footing of another bridge. The park offers the first semblance of nature since Crissy Field — herons, hawks and native plants — but being out of the way and drowned in the roar of semi-trucks, it was all but empty on a recent weekday afternoon.

On the other hand, if your goal is Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, turn right after the Islais Creek bridge and head northwest on Cargo Way for a few hundred feet. But if you’re not intent on encircling the entire Bay or visiting Candlestick Point, there’s little reason to bother. The following stretch, which zig-zags for about three miles along residential roads through Bayview-Hunters Point, is the longest unimproved and least scenic stretch of the trail in San Francisco.

Niners fans can follow the route to get to the ’Stick by bike, but Bay Trail explorers may be more interested in the 72-acre state park. Neglected as it appears to be — overrun by non-native weeds and lacking in facilities for a recreation area — it offers one final opportunity to take in the Bay before returning north or briefly leaving the trail to continue south.

For people who wish to venture into San Mateo County, the trail picks up again at the Brisbane Marina after a 1.5-mile gap and continues along the articulated coast for a true Bay Trail experience: the water close at hand, no vehicle traffic and a paved levee-top 8-foot path.

At the San Francisco International Airport the path disappears again, only to return a couple miles later in Millbrae for an exemplary stretch of continuous improved Bay Trail reaching all the way to San Carlos — where it’s derailed by another coastal airport.

If anything is clear about the Bay Trail, it is that it’s more of an idea than merely a place, said Bay Trail Project Manager Laura Thompson. It’s a concept in search of a course, a dream that must confront the reality of funding shortfalls, difficult terrain, narrow rights of way, incompatible land uses and the need for bridges and other infrastructure.

Piece by piece, though, it comes together. “It’s an incremental approach to a larger vision, but each segment is celebrated on its own,” Thompson said.

More segments due in The City and on Peninsula

Change on the Bay Trail may be slow in coming, but important projects are under way up and down the Peninsula. In San Francisco, first in line is a Recreation and Park Department-led redesign of a high-traffic stretch between Crissy Field and Fort Mason. Construction begins this summer and should last a year.

Along Jefferson Street and the Embarcadero near Fisherman’s Wharf, another critical segment will be overhauled in time for the America’s Cup yacht race in Summer 2013. Bay Trail planner Maureen Gaffney said she expects event staff, participants and spectators to press the waterfront corridor into heavy use.

Also in 2013, the Bay Bridge’s rebuilt west span will add new bike lanes and a multiuse path to the Bay Trail; they’ll connect to Yerba Buena and Treasure Island, where new alignments will also be adopted. But perhaps the biggest change within city limits will come with the completion of a perimeter trail around the entirety of Hunters Point, to be completed in conjunction with the Hunters Point Shipyard redevelopment project.

San Mateo County, meanwhile, will see its next improvement as soon as August. Construction is mostly complete on an 11-foot-wide bike-pedestrian bridge over 10 lanes of U.S. Highway 101 at Ralston Avenue in Belmont. Projected to cost $6.2 million, the new bridge will link the Belmont Caltrain station to the Belmont Sports Complex and the Bay Trail.

Farther north, a major gap between San Francisco and the rest of the Peninsula is set to close in four to five years with the completion of a huge new office complex in Brisbane. Picking up where the trail currently ends southwest of Candlestick Point, the 1.5-mile segment will run along the west side of Highway 101 before crossing back to the coast at the Brisbane Marina.

In 2005, Bay Trail staff analyzed how much time and money they’d need to complete the 500-mile loop. They arrived at roughly 15 years and $200 million, but the recession and an anticipated partial funding lapse at the end of 2011 could complicate matters.

“We’ve mostly done the easy parts,” Gaffney said. “Now we’re getting to the more complex projects.”

How complete is the trail?

San Francisco
26: Total miles
13: Existing miles
13: Proposed miles
$6M: Approximate cost to complete
2030: Approximate year of completion

San Mateo County
66: Total miles
42: Existing miles
24: Proposed miles
$14.36M: Approximate cost to complete
2030: Approximate year of completion

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Nate Seltenrich

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