Walking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

Perhaps the most iconic landmark in the city of San Francisco is the majestic Golden Gate Bridge. Magnets, T-shirts, calendars, and all other variety of tourist souvenirs feature the bridge predominantly. It has been called the "most beautiful, certainly the most photographed, bridge in the world" by Frommer's, and I agree (I thought it was beautiful, and I DID take several photographs).

A view from the Golden Gate Bridge to give you some perspective on its size.

I recently returned from a girls' trip to San Francisco - a week-long getaway with five other women where we all left spouses, children, and demanding pets behind to just have some fun, drink a little vino, and see what San Francisco had to offer. (A lot, as it turns out - I have a giant list of things we were NOT able to cross off due to time restraints, so it seems I will have to return.) Traveling with five other women - two of whom were complete strangers until we met at the airport - could be its own blog post, but for the most part, we all got along famously well and had a smashing good time.

My crew for the week! It was a fun group of ladies indeed!

On our first full day in San Francisco, we all agreed that our biggest 'must-do' was walk the expanse of the Golden Gate Bridge. I had read that parking can become limited if you try to access the bridge later in the day, so we were at the bridge by 9:30 a.m. ready to roll. (It opens at 5 a.m. but six women and one bathroom meant arriving by 9:30 a.m. was a miracle all on its own.) We were staying in Corte Madera, which is north of the city by about ten or fifteen minutes, so naturally we parked on the north side of the bridge intending to walk south into San Francisco.

There are two parking lots on the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Parking is free for up to four hours, and we figured that would be plenty of time. There is also a great lookout point above the bridge on the northern side, called the Marin Headlands, with its own parking as well. It is a bit of a hike from the headlands to the bridge, so we opted not to check that out this time around.

We parked easily in the right hand parking lot and began our hike. The left-hand parking lot is a more direct route to the Golden Gate Bridge sidewalk access, but it is also where the tour buses park and is a bit more busy. From our parking area on the right side of the road (heading south) we were able to quickly walk under the bridge, which was very cool, and up some stairs to the left-hand parking lot and the path to the bridge itself.

Walking UNDER the Golden Gate Bridge gave us an interesting look at its architecture.

A lookout area in the main parking lot on the north end of the bridge offers a spectacular view. We lingered there for awhile, where a very lovely gentleman took a great group shot of us with the Golden Gate Bridge in behind, then went on our merry way.

There are two sidewalks on the Golden Gate Bridge, and each come with a bit of a confusing schedule as both pedestrians and bicyclists are allowed to use the pathways, but only on certain days or at certain times. The main sidewalk is the eastern sidewalk, which we used, and is open to both pedestrians and cyclists from 5 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekdays. Pedestrians are expected to walk on the outer edge of the sidewalk closest to the water, and bicycles must stay on the side nearest the traffic. (Even with the high guard rails separating sidewalk from traffic, I was a bit jumpy at having such fast-moving vehicles so close to me during our walk, a fear that wasn't totally unwarranted, as I will touch on later.)

HOWEVER, after 3:30 p.m. on weekdays, the sidewalk is only open to pedestrians until 6 p.m. (or 9 p.m., as I read conflicting information). THEN, in the evenings and overnight, the bridge path is only open to cyclists. And repeat. The western walkway is just for bikes, and even then, only when the bikes are NOT allowed on the eastern walkway. Like I said, a bit confusing. We just showed up and started walking the same way everyone else was walking, so that made it a little easier.

Myself and Jyll, one of my oldest friends, in front of the bridge.

We had originally wanted to cover the entire span of the bridge, but realizing how much we wanted to fit into one day, opted instead to walk to the first tower, which is supposed to take about 1 hour (30 minutes there and 30 back). It ended up taking just slightly over an hour, due to us gawking about and taking lots of photos (and one car breakdown!) To walk the entire bridge takes 50 minutes to an hour one way, but what we saw from the first tower was more than enough.

Some of the more notable things I noticed from our walk across the Golden Gate Bridge include:

1. Amazing Views of Alcatraz, the Bay, and the City Skyline

Of course, the first thing anyone is going to admire when walking across the span of the Golden Gate Bridge is the amazing skyline the view from the bridge has to offer. I wasn't able to see much of the Pacific Ocean, as the fog was hovering thickly at the mouth of the bay, but the eastern view of the bay  was spectacular. Alcatraz stands proudly in the middle of the water, with the city skyscrapers glinting in the early morning sun beside it.

A panoramic view of San Francisco Bay's beauty.

Below the bridge on the northern end stand three rocks all in a row, one huge and two smaller. Among those rocks we spotted a couple of sea lions swimming in the waves, which was our first sea lion sighting of the trip (but not the last).

The rocks below the Golden Gate Bridge.

We took our sweet time crossing to the first tower, posing at every nook and cranny to take scenic shots, selfies with each other, and a couple of group shots. Apparently, we were lucky weather-wise that week: typically, fog blankets the bay and bridge area, making clear photos tricky to capture. For us, however, the fog stayed away until the very last morning as we were driving to the airport. All of our photos from the bridge were bright and crisp (except for the aforementioned fog out towards the Pacific).

2. The Crisis Hotline Phones

As we first stepped onto the Golden Gate Bridge sidewalk, one of the first things I saw, other than the massive towers and cables, was a bright blue sign advocating a local crisis counselling hotline and a positive message about hope. I had heard stories about San Francisco's iconic bridge being the second-most 'popular' bridge to leap from, and the large amount of blue signs dotting the bridge's fences seemed to confirm that. I don't want to get too morbid here, and there's an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the tragic history of the Golden Gate Bridge, but I do want to point out that it is obvious that efforts have been made by the city of San Francisco to offer as much help to people in distress as possible.

There were so many of these signs on the Golden Gate Bridge, for good reason it seems.

3. The Immense Size of the Towers

Something I could not get over the entire time I was strolling the bridge, from the moment we parked to the moment we were standing beneath it, was the size and immensity of the bridge tower. The giant beams and cables steal the whole show, with the rust-colored paint and sheer size.

Each cable was thicker than my hand. (And good thing too!)

As we stood beneath the first tower, I looked up towards the top, getting instantly dizzy. It appeared that there were two more 'levels' above us, judging from the tiny, grated catwalks. One was two-thirds of the way up, and the other was right at the top. Despite the incredible views these catwalks must provide, I knew there'd be no way anyone could get me up there! I don't even like ladders.

Look up, way way up, at the tiny catwalks atop the bridge tower. Crazy stuff!

4. The Efficiency of the Bridge Traffic Services

Remember when I said I had been nervous about the flimsy railing between the pedestrian path and the busy bridge road? It wasn't totally without merit, as we did witness something a little stressful while on our trip across the bridge. As we were leaving the first tower to head back to the parking lot, we heard a bang and smelled an awful, burning, metallic smell.

Someone had blown their clutch while driving to work on the middle of the busy bridge. Not good.

A few moments later, we witnessed a tall man dressed in a business suit jogging swiftly past us down to the tower we had just left. A few moments later he sprinted back to his car, but not before we saw three cars all slam on their brakes inches away from smashing into his stalled vehicle. While the man waited beside his car, a few more close calls and fishtailing vehicles came extremely close to turning his blown clutch into a full blown accident.

We stayed put, watching this from afar. In the event of a pile-up, we did not want to be walking past. The guard rail would do nothing to stop a flying vehicle from crushing us. We even tried to slow down oncoming tour buses by waving frantically at them, except the only effect that had was a plethora of tourists waving right back to us. Both tour buses we tried to warn ended up slamming on the brakes last moment.

The cool 'car plow' truck that swept the inert car off the road.

A couple of people offered their cell phones to the man as he waited, but he declined. We were unsure why, until not five minutes later we spotted a truck with flashing lights headed towards us in the distance, crossing the bridge from the south end. It was equipped with a flat, wide, solid piece of wood strapped across its front, much like a snow plow. After a quick chat with the driver of the car, the operator of the truck hopped into his vehicle and basically pushed the car down the bridge and into the east parking lot. From start to finish, the 'accident' had taken less than ten minutes. It was amazingly efficient.

5. The Lighting

At night in San Francisco, the Bay Bridge lights up a glowing string of pearls, illuminating the waters beneath with an ethereal glow. I was expecting the same thing with the famous Golden Gate Bridge. However, later that day, after we were returning to Corte Madera from our adventures in San Francisco, it was fairly dark on the bridge as we crossed. There were some lamps illuminating the sidewalk paths, and faint spotlights lit up the towers softly. It was hardly brilliant and dramatic, and I was surprised that the lighting on the bridge at night was so muted.

Until next time, Golden Gate Bridge!

That was the only time we walked the bridge, although we crossed it by "mom-van" so much that its novelty quickly faded. I still think it was a fantastic way to begin our San Francisco experience. If I visit San Francisco again, maybe I will have time to walk the entire length and see if we missed anything important!

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