How to Visit the Golden Gate for Less

The Golden Gate Bridge

For several years I’ve wanted to go to San Francisco, just so we could walk across the great Golden Gate Bridge.  However, every time we thought about it, something always went wrong, and we always ended up doing something else.  So I was thrilled on a recent trip when I did it: I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge.
 


 
Even though I wanted to do the bridge, I certainly wasn’t interested in spending a lot of money doing it.  So, I did a little research.  Turns out, tolls are only charged going southbound (into the city—that’s the way it is with all the bridges that cross San Francisco Bay: going in you pay, going out, you don’t).  Also, if you come in northbound (out of the city) and take the first exit, you can park for free.  If you park on the south side, it’s metered parking.  Hmmm.  There seems to be only one logical way to do this—a “golden” opportunity!

If you want to skip the tolls and paid parking, take US-101 up into the city from the south.  There are any number of ways to get onto 101 depending on which way you are coming from.  US-101 starts at the southern end of the bay, and goes along the western side and up into the heart of San Francisco itself.  It doesn’t cross any bridges before the Golden Gate, so you don’t have to pay any tolls to get into the city.  After it gets into the city, US-101 stops being a limited access highway, and becomes a city street.  Then it twists and turns its way to the Golden Gate, and across the Golden Gate Bridge.  Just keep following US-101 until you cross the bridge.  After you cross the bridge, take the first exit and park in the rest area.  Here there is an information board and restrooms, as well as viewing areas.  The view would probably be quite good from here in the morning, but by noon (when we arrived) the sun was coming from behind the bridge, making for less-than-optimal picture-taking opportunities.

If you actually want to walk across the bridge, realize that it’s 1.7 miles one way.  In other words, this is going to be a 3.4 mile trek!  Still, you don’t have to walk the entire thing—you can just walk out onto the bridge, and then turn around and come back to your vehicle.  No tolls are charged in either direction for bikers or pedestrians.

The bridge, as taken from the parking area around noon

The access to the bridge is on the west side of the parking area.  You’ll go down some stairs, but don’t go down the wooden stairs with the special apparatus for getting bicycles down them, unless you want to see the bridge from underneath.  From there, you can get to the bike lane on the west side of the bridge.  However, this lane is only open to bicycles, not pedestrians, and is only open 3:30pm to 6pm (during Standard Time) or 3:30pm to 9pm (during Daylight Savings Time) on weekdays, and 5am to 6pm (Standard Time) or 5am to 9pm (Daylight Savings Time) on weekends and holidays.

Pedestrians and bikers are allowed to walk the east side of the bridge (the side facing San Francisco Bay) from 5am to 6pm daily, and from 5am to 9pm during Daylight Savings Time.  Gates close automatically at closing time.  Bicycles are also allowed on the east side after the gates are closed.  The biker must push the buzzer that is near the security gate.  A remote security guard will find the biker in a security camera, and then remotely open the gate.

Certain things are not allowed on either of the sidewalks, including skateboards, roller blades/skates, electric bikes, electric scooters, animals including pets, pushcarts, and wheelbarrows.  Service animals and wheelchairs are allowed on the east sidewalk.  That’s right: the Golden Gate Bridge is wheelchair accessible.

Alcatraz Island, an airplane, and boats on San Fransisco Bay, as seen from the bridge

From the east side, you can see Angel Island (a state park), Alcatraz, the Oakland Bay Bridge, and many other historic landmarks in San Francisco and the Bay area.  In the water, we saw many boats and yachts, as well as sea lions and dolphins playing.  In the afternoon, the bridge makes an interesting shadow on the water.  A couple of army planes also went overhead, which was nice touch.

 

The walkway is right next to the lanes of traffic—all that separates you from it is a flimsy-looking guardrail.  Actually, it can’t be all that flimsy, but it certainly doesn’t look like it would stand up to much.  Because you are right next to it, the traffic is very, very loud, so I would recommend ear protectors, at least in the ear that is toward the traffic.  Between the noise of the traffic and the brilliant sun the day that we walked the bridge, I had a little bit of a headache by the time we came back.  If the sun and noise is just too much for you, try stepping behind the towers of the bridge—in the afternoon, these cast a shadow over the sidewalk, and the noise level decreases dramatically behind the pillars.

Walking across the bridge

Walking the bridge took us nearly an hour and a half each direction because we kept stopping to look at things and take pictures.  When you go out on the bridge, wear comfortable shoes and dress in layers because the sun may be very hot, but the wind is quite chilly.  Depending on where you are, you may want a coat, or you may be too hot for one.  Because of the wind, which can get quite strong, you probably don’t want to wear a hat.  We did wear hats, but first tied them firmly to our backpacks so that if they did blow off they couldn’t go far.  It probably looked pretty comical, but it also saved the hats from flying into San Francisco Bay.

Especially if you’re a pedestrian, watch out for bikers.  They are supposed to give way to pedestrians, but that’s very difficult.  I don’t know how many times I nearly got run down by cyclists.  There are just so many people and so many bicycles that it’s hard for the faster-moving bicyclists to get through.  In general the cyclists would ding their bells for you to move out of their way, or ask you to move, but I did get clipped by one man’s handlebars as he road past me.  So, if you’re thinking about riding a bike across the bridge, you may want to ride across at a time when the west side is open to avoid having to bike with pedestrians.

If you do make it to the other side, I highly recommend following the sidewalk left and walking over toward the gift shop.  From here you get a fabulous view of the bridge (see the top photo), and can also see a plaque that commemorates the construction of Seto Ohashi Bridge, a “sister bridge” of the Golden Gate Bridge that was built over the Seto Inland Sea in Japan.  You can also visit the gift shop (where you can buy gifts for your friends, or remember that you are trying not to spend money…!).  At any rate, the view from the sidewalk between the gift shop and the bridge is well worth seeing, especially if you want to get pictures of the bridge.

The southern bridge pillar

Return to your vehicle the way you came.  Of course, you’ll have to pay a toll of some sort if you’re actually staying in San Francisco, but you can also continue north into Napa Valley, at which point you’ll have successfully navigated San Francisco without having to pay any tolls 🙂

Fees: None (if you do it my way) 🙂

Trail ★★★★★

Road ★★★★★

Signs ★★★☆☆

Scenery ★★★★☆

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


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