In preparation for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, the San Francisco Downtown Association plotted out a 49 mile driving route that took in as many of the city’s best views as possible. Today, a slightly updated version of the route is marked out by a discontinuous string of blue signs featuring an aloof seagull.
According to Wikipedia, neither tourists or locals are much bothered by it, due to “its length, its labyrinthine route, and the difficulty of driving through a bustling city”. These are all fair points. 49 miles is a long way, especially with a significant chunk of the route snaking backwards and forwards through the busy downtown streets. Even if you tried to drive it all, many parts (especially those in the centre of the city) would be impossible to properly take in due to a lack of parking spaces.
It would be much better to walk or cycle, but again 49 miles is a long way. I am not walking or cycling 49 miles around the city, especially the ascent up to Twin Peaks. Enter stage left: Scoot.
Scoot is a San Francisco startup that has hundreds of red electric scooters dotted around the city. Within certain areas, you can pretty much pick them up and drop them off wherever you want. Like everything else in this city, they are controlled by a smartphone app (there’s no dashboard other than a phone dock). They can be ridden on a normal US drivers’ licence (which I now have), have a maximum speed of 30mph and the battery lasts up to 20 miles.
Now, those of you with GCSE Maths will have spotted a problem. The 49 mile scenic route is 49 miles long (actually, the modern route is closer to 47 miles). The battery lasts 20 miles. I am going to need multiple Scoots, so a little planning will be required to make sure the neighbourhoods covered by Scoot (especially those with charging stations, where I’m more likely to find a bike with a longer range left on the battery) are roughly in the places where I anticipate needing to change bikes. There’s a very long stretch from the Presidio, down to Lake Merced and back up to the Golden Gate Park that is not covered by Scoot, so I’ll need to leave the Presidio with plenty of ions in the electrolyte, so to speak.
Also, the 30mph limit means I’m not allowed to ride it on highways. Annoyingly, the scenic route briefly takes I-280 in the east of the city, but there’s a normal street that runs parallel to it (and is presumably marginally more scenic than an interstate highway anyway).
With these logistical hurdles in mind, I ate a sandwich, grabbed my camera and sought out the nearest Scoot with a decent amount of charge: it was a five minute walk from my apartment. The scenic route is supposed to be followed anti-clockwise (to do otherwise would cause no end of one-way hassle downtown), but can be picked up from anywhere along its length. The closest starting point for me is the Golden Gate Park’s 19th Avenue entrance, so that is where I began.
I’ve been to the Golden Gate Park lots of times: it’s only three blocks from home and I cycle through it most days to get to work. However, it’s so big (20% larger than New York’s Central Park) that there are vast swathes that I’ve never visited. The first new area on my 49 Mile Scoot was the pleasant Stow Lake, tucked away off Martin Luther King Jr Drive.
From the park, I followed the scenic route south. For large stretches of the route, there are no seagull signs. Where the seagull signs do appear, they tend to just confirm that you are on the correct road by pointing straight ahead, but fail to reappear at a junction where you might actually need one. Thankfully, a combination of a printout map and the GPS from my docked phone made navigating the route mostly straightforward.
Eventually, I turned onto Twin Peaks Boulevard, a winding road that strongly resembled those in the video game GTA San Andreas.
When the road could take me no further, I abandoned my Scoot and climbed the final few metres up both of the Twin Peaks on foot. The 360º vista from the top captured the whole Bay Area: the Golden Gate Bridge and Marin to the north; downtown SF and Oakland to the east; and the peninsula to the south.
It was one of those views that’s hard to let go of, but 49 is a lot of miles and I’d only done about five of them so far. I rolled back down the other side into the Castro and to Mission Dolores.
Mission San Francisco de Asis, to give its full name, is the oldest building in San Francisco, dating back to June 1776. In Britain, that would be considered contemporary architecture, but Mission Dolores is about two weeks older than the United States (of which California did not become a member for another 75 years anyway), so on the American scale this is *ancient*.
The big stone basilica that I spent most of my time photographing turns out not to be the original Mission Dolores at all. I later learnt that it was only built in 1915, making it younger than three of my grandparents. Credit where it’s due, though, there’s some very impressive carving gone into it.
The actually old building is a more frugal church next door, which I serendipitously photographed because it had one of the seagull signs in front of it.
I headed along Cesar Chavez to make my first scooter swap at one of the Scoot charging stations. A fresh battery under my bum, I zoomed east, determinedly avoiding the I-280, but accidentally joining US-101 for a few hundred metres instead. I reached the Embarcadero at precisely the same time as a Giants game was starting, meaning lots of gridlocked traffic for me to carefully wobble my scooter through.
AT&T Park is a great example of a sports stadium designed to make the most of its location. It is open on two sides to allow a view across the bay (although this also makes it so cold that the fans often wear ski jackets). Despite the Giants having a dreadful start to 2017, the stadium sells out night after night, which is particularly impressive given the small population of San Francisco.
Continuing along the Embarcadero, I passed under the Bay Bridge (a structure that would surely be more famous if it wasn’t living in the shadow of its showy red friend to the north), turning left at the ferry building and into downtown San Francisco.
The scenic route takes weird meanders along lots of pretty nondescript urban avenues. I can’t help wondering if this might have been done to make up the length to 49 miles, due to the significance of this number (1849 was the gold rush, the city is supposedly 49 square miles – it’s actually 47 – and it’s represented in the NFL by the San Francisco 49ers, though they actually play their games in San Jose these days).
Anyway, there’s not much to note for a while apart from the big dome of city hall and a slight feeling of unease while stopped in the Tenderloin traffic.
I emerge in Japantown. Like many things Japanese, it is relatively compact: not more than a few blocks of Japanese restaurants and this concrete pagoda.
Japantown is dwarfed by its Asian neighbour to the east. Chinatown is one of four Chinatowns in San Francisco, and is the largest outside of Asia.
After passing through Chinatown’s Gateway Arch, the Scooter crawls up the steep slopes, past Coit Tower before freewheeling down to the piers of the Marina. I was hungry and needed a pee, so decided to say goodbye to Scoot #2. I ate a lobster roll and did the next part of the route, along to Fort Mason, on foot.
Scoot #3 had 16 miles in the tank/battery, and I had no idea whether this would be enough to cover the aforementioned Scoot desert. I headed west into the Presidio, once a military fort and now a park, most famous for having the Golden Gate Bridge sticking out of its northern edge.
One of my favourite things about San Francisco is its ability to catch you by surprise with a spectacular view in an unexpected place. Because of the steep hills to the north of the downtown area, there are lots of streets that have spectacular views across the bay to Marin. Similarly, the Golden Gate Bridge can sneak up when you least expect it. On a clear day, five footsteps from my front door will give you a view of the tops of the towers, but there are plenty of better vantage points in the Sunset (which is too far away to be expected to have such good views of the bridge).
The only bit of the 49 mile scenic route that is non-circuitous is when it sends you down to Fort Point, at the base of the Golden Gate’s south tower, but it’s well worth the diversion.
If you look away from the Golden Gate for a moment, you trip over other unexpected views. Like this one:
From the Presidio, I rode west past Lands End to Ocean Beach, which is where I took my final photo:
The route then goes directly south along the Great Highway, which unexpectedly turned into a 50mph road that wasn’t strictly Scootable, around Lake Merced and back up Sunset Boulevard. I had an eye on the battery level (presented in the app as a countdown of the number of remaining miles) while I played a game of estimating how many miles it might be to 22nd and Kirkham, the nearest ‘blue zone’ (where Scoots can be parked).
As the battery level got lower, I realised there was no way I could complete the remaining journey up Sunset Boulevard to the GG Park with this scooter, so I instead aimed for a charging station on 12th and Judah (I figured it would be poor etiquette to park an almost empty Scoot on the street). The battery indicator dropped again… 3 miles… 2 miles… 1 mile. 0 miles. Would I have to push the scooter the rest of the way?
No, I put on my best physics hat and took advantage of the downhills to freewheel most of the way to the charging station. At this point, it would’ve been much easier to just go home (which was tempting, as I’d been going all day), but I would not let the 49 mile scenic route defeat me.
I picked up Scoot #4 and rode back to Sunset Boulevard (albeit at a more northerly point than where I left it – don’t tell) and into the western part of the Golden Gate Park, before exiting on 19th Avenue where I’d begun seven hours and four scooters earlier.
Was it worth it? Mostly, yes. I visited a number of places I haven’t been to in the nine months I’ve lived here, and Twin Peaks was a particular highlight.
Would I do the whole route again? Nope. There are easier ways of seeing San Francisco’s highlights than by riding a series of electric scooters along the 49 Mile Scenic Route.