San Francisco Bay Trail Celebrates 30 Years

The San Francisco Bay Trail turns 30 this year. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and a number of trail-side cities are celebrating with a photo exhibition, a new social media campaign and the unveilings of some exciting new sections of trail.

Photo by Ben Botkin


Published: April, 2019


The San Francisco Bay Trail turns 30 this year. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and a number of trail-side cities are celebrating with a photo exhibition, a new social media campaign and the unveilings of some exciting new sections of trail.


The idea for the trail was first hatched in 1986 by Bill Lockyer, who was then a state senator from Hayward. As the story goes, Lockyer was having lunch at a waterfront restaurant with a journalist friend and said, “What if we tried to develop a pedestrian and bicycle path around the Bay, with access to the shoreline?” The friend loved the idea, and Lockyer immediately went to work rallying the support of fellow lawmakers to bring the idea to life.


“At that time, there were only about 120 miles of existing paths, few of which were connected in any way,” said Laura Thompson, assistant planning director of MTC’s Bicycle-Pedestrian-Environment Program. “So establishing a contiguous 500-mile-long trail encircling the entire San Francisco Bay was ambitious, to say the least.”


Nevertheless, Lockyer’s idea resulted in Senate Bill 100, which passed in 1987, calling for the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) to create a Bay Trail Plan. The ensuing plan was approved in 1989, and Bay Area cities and agencies rolled up their sleeves and got to work.


“They really hit the ground running,” said Thompson. “The work that ABAG did very early on with shoreline cities to integrate the Bay Trail into their regional plans set the momentum that got us where we are today.”


Three decades after ABAG set the trail’s wheels in motion, 356 of the 500 proposed miles are completed, and the trail is considered a vital public resource by Bay Area residents, many of whom will tell you they can’t imagine what life would be like without it.


“It’s the Bay Area’s heart and soul,” said photographer Kurt Schwabe, whose breathtaking images of the Bay Trail are on display now through the end of September at MTC’s San Francisco headquarters. The opening of Schwabe’s Half-Light: A Study of the San Francisco Bay Trail exhibition last month officially kicked off the trail’s 30-year anniversary celebration.


“I identify with [the trail] at a very deep level,” Schwabe added. “I love the energy of urbanity but also the solitude, innocence and purity of nature. The Bay Trail offers me both concurrently.”


Schwabe said he began enjoying the trail almost the minute he touched down in the Bay Area in 1993. “I‘d go jogging or walk my dog along the waterfront, or ride the Paradise Loop in Tiburon to train for triathlons. I just didn’t know it was the Bay Trail at the time.”


It was one day when he spotted a Bay Trail marker along a section of the path that Schwabe, whose day job is a marketing manager for an artificial intelligence company, decided to Google “Bay Trail” and learned of the effort underway to connect the cities ringing the Bay. It was that moment that he committed to walking the entire trail in thirty consecutive days and photographing his adventure. Those photos were posted on his blog and later exhibited.


“I had been shooting photography seriously for about 15 years, so the idea to photograph and walk the trail was very spontaneous. It was both crazy and doable—perfect for someone like me.” For his second exhibition of Bay Trail images, Schwabe decided to shoot after sunset or an hour or two before sunrise, and to capture the calm of these moments with long exposures.


“The serenity and peace he captures in this show is just one face of the Bay,” said Thompson. There are lots of faces, just like there are lots of ways that people utilize the trail. Local schools use it as an environmental education resource, people ride horses on it, jog on it, birdwatch on it and ride their bikes on it. Quite a few people have told me their kids learned how to ride a bike on the trail.”


It’s these kinds of personal connections with the Bay Trail that Thompson hopes to capture with MTC’s “30 on 30” campaign.


“We’re encouraging people to incorporate the number 30 somehow into their on-trail activities, and share their experiences via social media,” she said. “That could be walking with 30 friends, riding 30 miles, or taking 30 photos, like Kurt did. We think people will get really creative with the idea and have a good time with it.”


Thompson said the work of completing the Bay Trail continues full-steam ahead. In fact, some new sections of the trail are scheduled to be opened as part of the celebration.


Among them is a new pathway opening this summer that will connect Marin and Contra Costa Counties via the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Thompson said that’s a particularly important section, because the ability to cross Bay Area toll bridges on foot and on bike was a key part of the original vision for the trail. The trail currently crosses 4.5 bridges, the “.5” being the east span of the Bay Bridge.


Another new section of trail is under construction along Albany’s shoreline, behind Golden Gate Fields. “That’ll close a significant gap in the East Bay,” said Thompson. “And we’re all about gap closures.”


Ground is also scheduled to be broken later this year on a new section of trail in Palo Alto, near the Ravenswood Open Space Preserve. “When it’s complete, it will connect 80 miles of existing trail,” she said. “It’s only a half-mile segment but so significant in the network.”


Thompson believes the local environmental movement drew attention back to the Bay, and that created the support necessary keep the Bay Trail project from losing any steam over the last three decades. “We neglected the Bay for so many years,” she said. “But thanks to environmentalists, we now understand what an important estuary it is, and really appreciate its value. And that’s helped garner support for efforts to restore the Bay and restore public access to it.”


Thompson believes it’s hard to overstate the importance of the Bay Trail. “The Bay is a part of people’s lives, and so is the trail—whether it’s how you get to work, where you take your family on weekends or where you get your exercise.”


“The Bay is why most of us chose to move here, and why everyone else chooses to visit,” said Schwabe. “And the Bay without the Bay Trail would be like having a camera with no lens.”

Thirty years ago, in 1989, the Bay Trail Plan was approved. Today over 70 percent of the 500 proposed miles are complete. Photo by Jay Jones

LEFT: For his second exhibition of Bay Trail images, Schwabe shot photos after sunset or an hour or two before sunrise in order to capture the calm moments with long exposures. RIGHT: Five years ago photographer Kurt Schwabe was featured in a Bay Crossings cover story after trekking 330 miles of the Bay Trail in 30 days. Today, his all-new breathtaking images are on display at MTCs San Francisco headquarters. Photos by Kurt Schwabe