“Where are you heading?”, one of two biking ladies in their sixties asked while I passed them halfway to Watsonville. “Big Sur”, I yelled back over my shoulder, to which she responded: “Good for you! Have an Ambrosia Burger and a beer once you get there!”. It was close to lunchtime on the second day of my first multi-day bike touring adventure. A classic for the motorized traveler, I opted for riding from San Francisco along the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles.
I had only picked up road biking a couple of years earlier but fell in love with this sort of activity and way of traveling through the landscape. My confidence in the bike grew by committing to doing longer and longer rides, venturing out into new territory in the South Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area where I used to live. After completing a few organized century rides, I felt ready to take on the challenge of a continuous tour over multiple days.
One Monday morning in late June I took the 50-minute train ride up to the San Francisco, had a stranger take an awkward departure photo and then made my way to Ocean Beach, from which point on the Pacific Ocean would stay on my right for almost the whole way. I made my way towards my spot for the first night, which was Santa Cruz. The wind at this time of the year would be mostly in my favor and on a particular stretch, where I felt I was gliding effortlessly on the black tarmac, I was overcome with thoughts of freedom and, dare I say it, happiness. The oneness with the environment, moving forward under my own power and feeling the elements on my body. After passing the 100km (62 miles) mark, I took a lunch break at a pull-out next to the road, perched on top of a cliff overlooking a deserted (while inaccessible) beach seemingly stretching on for miles and miles. A little while later I reached Surf City, just as planned.
Quiet residential roads, engulfed in the typical for this time of year morning fog, took me out of Santa Cruz on day two. After the brief encounter with the two very fit older women on road bikes, I passed through the western edge of the town of Watsonville, a major producer of fruits and vegetables. I cycled through vast plots of farmland, spotting various groups of pickers, hunched-over the crops in the ground. Riding eight hours a day in a bicycle saddle seemed cozy compared to their kind of labor. After that, a dedicated bike path took me from Marina all the way to Monterey.
After coasting through Sand City, I reached the outskirts of Monterey, where I stopped to say hi to a fellow bike tourist going the other direction. Ian, from Arizona, was on an even bigger mission than I was, biking from Tuscon to Seattle. “I rode for a little bit in Arizona and then took the train to LA”, he admitted. “Wow, and you are also carrying a trailer!”, hinting at the bike trailer he was pulling. “Yeah, I am carrying my 40-pound dog. He is an albino and deaf and blind”, he responded. This caught me by surprise. Part of me felt sad in light of the physical hardship of the dog, but Ian’s care and value of his dog’s companionship moved me even more. We parted ways, him just relaxing for a day in Monterey before heading further north and me heading into downtown to find a good lunch spot.
After lunch, the route started hugging the coast and arguably the most scenic part of the trip began: from Carmel to the southernmost point of Big Sur. Covering a good chunk of it on day two, including scenic spots like the Bixby Bridge, I overnighted at a resort/motel just north of Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground.
The most spectacular riding awaited on day three, characterized by a lot of rolling up and downs around bends with a few significant climbs, especially in the early afternoon once the sun was out and the fog was gone. The magnificent views made me forget a lot of the pain and strain on my body, with a photo opportunity awaiting pretty much around every corner. This being the end of June, I was far from alone on these roads. Hordes of tourists were my constant companions, luckily alert enough (most of the time) to not cause any accidents. After Big Sur, the scenery changed from a road that clung to the cliffs with seemingly endless turns and up and downs, those gave way to a much flatter environment. The sight of Morro Rock closed out the day, knowing that I was more than halfway to LA.
On day four, my body quite vocally started reminding me what I had put him through the last couple of days, giving me pain in my knees and lower back. Traveling mostly inland and away from the ocean, it was a bit of visual deprivation compared to the breathtaking scenery along the coast the day before. The weather, likewise, decided to make things a bit more interesting with overcast skies, significantly colder temperatures, and the wind hitting me either head-on or from the side. Lompoc, The City of Arts and Flowers, was reached late afternoon, the motel greeting me with a dark room at the back and a smelly bathroom, which the pool and jacuzzi managed to make up for.
Following Highway 1 from Lompoc the following day, I was back by the Pacific Ocean after merging onto Highway 101 and a quite a bit frightening downhill with cars speeding by at 70mph, albeit on a wide enough shoulder. The ocean views helped to take away the stress from the now increased traffic and just before Goleta, the route directed me onto quieter local roads and, later, through the beautiful campus of UC Santa Barbara. After a lunch stop by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, quiet neighborhood roads running parallel to Hwy 101 made for more relaxed riding in the afternoon until my last overnight stop at Ventura, home of outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia.
The sixth and final day. Oh was I excitingly anticipating the end. A combination of bike paths and the ACA Pacific Bike route took me through the outskirts of Oxnard and eventually to Naval Air Station Point Mugu. I took a break to walk through the Pt. Mugu Missile Park, which is part of the Goleta Air & Space Museum, where an array of missiles and airplanes, tested at Point Mugu since World War II are on display. I was back on Highway 1 shortly thereafter and accompanied by overcast skies, I cruised through Malibu, the home of movie stars and people working in the entertainment industry, the road lined with affluent residences. wWith the finish line in sight, I covered the remaining twenty miles with additional urgency and, before I knew it, I was on the Marvin Braude Bike Trail which dropped me right at Santa Monica Pier, the fictional finish line.
This being a Saturday, the pier was filled with locals and tourists alike, soaking in the weather and finding some entertainment from the various outlets. I stood by the metal railing facing south from the pier and engaged in some people watching for a moment. Eventually, my thoughts drifted towards recapping the last six days, the things I got to see and the experience I got to have. And I knew right then that this wasn’t the last bike tour I would do. I was hooked and hungry for more.
Update: After completing this ride in 2012, I had the opportunity to share my attained knowledge and experience with audiences at local REI stores in the San Francisco Bay Area. The slides for those presentations are available on slideshare.
The route I followed is a segment of the Pacific Coast Bike Route and is particularly appealing because of its scenic and natural beauty.
My particular itinerary was as follows:
- Day 1: San Francisco – Santa Cruz (84 miles)
- Day 2: Santa Cruz – Big Sur (77 miles)
- Day 3: Big Sur – Morro Bay (92 miles)
- Day 4: Morro Bay – Lompoc (71 miles)
- Day 5: Lompoc – Ventura (90 miles)
- Day 6: Ventura – Santa Monica (58 miles)
I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time (Sunnyvale), which is connected to San Francisco via Caltrain on public transport.
Upon arrival in Los Angeles, I luckily had someone give me a lift in a car back to the Bay Area. There are, however, other options:
- The Amtrak Coast Starlight runs from Los Angeles Union Station back to the Bay Area. Bikes can be brought on the train, either as luggage or in dedicated bike cars. It is best to check for details on the Amtrak website.
- Quite a few airlines run multiple daily flights from LAX to SFO. An alternative to bringing the bike as checked luggage (and potentially being hit with oversize fees) is shipping the bike to your destination either via BikeFlights or FedEx.
Generally abundant and should be no source of concern for people touring the route. There is a longer stretch along the Big Sur area where settlements are spread out further apart. It might be wise to stock up on an additional batch of snacks for this section. With regards to water, there are plenty of refill options available along the route.
This having been my first bike tour, I used the road bike I had available at the time, which was a Specialized Secteur Elite Compact. Its aluminium frame has mounting points which I used to mount a Planet Bike Eco Rack.
My luggage choice were two Ortlieb Back-Roller Classic, giving me enough space to transport the necessities. Given that I had pre-booked motel rooms along the way, I did not need to carry any camping equipment.
For tyres I went with Specialized All Condition Armadillo Elite. Their puncture protection technology helped tremendously, being responsible for not having a single flat over the duration of the trip.