Cycling the California Coast

Over March 23-28, 2019, B and I cycled down the California coast from Salinas to Los Angeles. We largely followed the route given in 2005’s Bicycling the Pacific Coast and route maps provided by the Adventure Cycling Association, bypassing some of the Bay Area riding we had previously completed by taking the Amtrak from Oakland to Salinas, and opting for the inland alternative through the Santa Ynez Valley between Lompoc and Santa Barbara. We camped 3 of the 5 nights in national forest and state park campgrounds, and credit-carded the remaining nights. Over the course of 6 days, we covered 382 miles of coastal roads and climbed approximately 22,500 feet of elevation. Minimal rain, a mix of head and tail winds, and the boundless beauty of the environs made for pleasant riding.

DayStartEndMilesElev. (ft)GPS
1SalinasMonterey20.0614route
2MontereyKirk Creek74.47472route
3Kirk CreekMorro Bay66.14500route
4Morro BayLompoc76.33273route
5LompocSanta Barbara55.84080route
6Santa BarbaraLos Angeles89.12678route
Total381.722617route

Day 0 — Friday, March 22
San Francisco
Gear: Surly Long Haul Trucker, front and rear Ortlieb panniers.
Before heading out, I replace the rear brake cable and install a new, heavy-duty Surly front rack.

Packed and ready to go; blue one is my ride

Day 1 — Saturday, March 23
Salinas to Monterey (20 mi, 614 ft)
We take the Saturday morning ~9:30a Amtrak from Oakland Jack London Square to Salinas. If the train had been on time, the plan was to bike to Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur in the afternoon. However, as predicted, the train is delayed around 2 hrs and we opt to stay in Monterey instead. Besides, I have a developing cold and we are still playing it by ear at this point. We bike through familiar terrain to Monterey via the Fort Ord Dunes State Park and stay overnight at a motel near the Naval Postgrad School.

Riding through Fort Ord Dunes State Park
Plenty of seals to distract us along the Monterey waterfront

Day 2 — Sunday, March 24
Monterey to Kirk Creek via 17 Mile Road (74.4 mi, 7472 ft)
This was the first real day of biking, and in retrospect, it was a lot of mileage and elevation to start with. I was definitely the sickest on this day, and practically drowning in my own mucus the entire way. We extend the morning by taking the 17 Mile Road around Asilomar and Carmel-by-the-sea. It’s a detour but one of my favorite stretches. B snaps his chain about 2 miles into the ride, but it turns into a quick fix and we’re back on the road not 20 minutes later.

After 17 Mile Road rejoins Route 1, the road continues over rugged coastal hills until Big Sur. Vistas are plentiful and beautiful. B and I stop around Pfeiffer Beach to lunch. This had been our previous turnaround point during the 2016-2017 Highway 1 closure. A large hill (somewhat unexpected; we thought we already climbed it) closes out our afternoon as we descend to Kirk Creek Campground past Lucia. We share the minimal hiker-biker site with two groups, a Swiss father-daughter where the dad was touring on a Brompton(!) and a pair of young women heading down to Santa Barbara. Evening closes over a lovely sunset and a fire of eucalyptus debris.

Rugged coastal cliffs along Route 1
Sunset over Kirk Creek Campground

Day 3 — Monday, March 25
Kirk Creek to Morro Bay (66.1 mi, 4500 ft)
Pretty straightforward day with beautiful riding: elephant seals, regular seals, distant view of Hearst castle, leapfrogging the two women riders from camp. We started with a big hill up and down to Ragged Point. Road closures for constructions make this section quite pleasant, as the traffic would come in bursts and we were largely riding without cars. After Ragged Point, we leave behind the scenery of Big Sur. The road really opens up, and we ride on a wide shoulder along the highway. The surroundings become more pastoral, turning into cow-studded rolling hills. After a late lunch at San Simeon, we continue on to the Morro Bay State Park campground, which is downright luxurious. We occupy a huge hiker-biker site by ourselves, enjoy long hot showers, and follow the setting sun through the eucalyptus.

More seals, obviously
Beach near Morro Bay State Park, with The Rock marking the town and looming in the distance

Day 4 — Tuesday, March 26
Morro Bay to Lompoc (76.3 mi, 3273 ft)
By now, we’re pretty used to the drill. Wake up a bit after 7a, strike camp, on the road, and let the miles drift by. There is threat of rain the following day (Wednesday), but we decide to camp and push through to Santa Barbara the next day regardless.

The air is becoming warmer and drier, especially when the roads curve inland. Some headwind make the riding challenging, but at least my cold has mostly cleared up by this point! Nothing like a little salty ocean air to clean up the sinuses. We stopped in San Luis Obispo for some brunch and a beer at The Libertine brewery, which has lovely sours. B accidentally navigates us up a Route 1 detour after Pismo Beach (Halcyon Rd), which turns into a short but horrendously graded wall. We somehow make it up (averaging 1 mph perhaps), but we encourage others to not make the same mistake.

The landscape then turns fairly agricultural, as we pass through Guadalupe. The road is unpleasant here, with practically no shoulder and plenty of trucks, but the drivers are all very nice and give us room when passing. There is one biggish hill towards the end of the day, but it is an incredibly pleasant climb up a forested, unpopulated hillside. On the climb, we run into a German couple biking north and exchange some words of advice before continuing on into Lompoc. We end the day in a fairly urban and not particularly pleasant campground by River Park.

Cliffs become rolling pastoral hills

Roadside agriculture and no shoulder

Day 5 — Wednesday, March 27
Lompoc to Santa Barbara via Santa Ynez Valley (55.8 mi, 4080 ft)
It rains in the morning but by the time we get up around 7:30a, it’s pretty much just a light intermittent drizzle. Yes! We take the inland route through the Santa Ynez Valley to avoid riding on 101. We ascend up Route 246 to Solvang, an odd Danish-themed town in the hills (think Bavaria and Leavenworth, WA). The road continues climbing to Lake Cachuma, after which the largest climb of the entire trip occurs. Route 154 winds up the mountains to a pass around 2250 ft. The road has fairly large shoulders for most of the climb. There is moderate but fast traffic. The ride through Santa Ynez Valley was easily one of my favorite parts of the whole ride, buoyed by the drastically different landscapes and sky full of clouds. Apparently, it gets quite hot in the valley in the summer, and riding then is discouraged. But in late March, our main concern had been rain.

The descent down to Santa Barbara is lovely. Seeing the ocean again, along with the clouds receding over the mountains on all sides. Shoulders are small and the road is windy. We left plenty of time in the afternoon to bike down to the pier and look at sailboats and drink beer. I really like Santa Barbara.

Salad and danish (obviously!) in Solvang
Lake Cachuma
Santa Barbara from the pier

Day 6 — Thursday, March 28
Santa Barbara to Los Angeles (89.1 mi, 2678 ft)
Long day! But flat flat flat. First 50 miles are pretty great. Lots of coastal trails around Santa Barbara through Carpinteria all the way down to Ventura. B gets a flat shortly out of Carpinteria which takes a while to patch, but it winds up being the only one of the trip. There are big shoulders where we need to ride on the highway, and rolling hills give us plenty of momentum. After Point Mugu, around Malibu, things start deteriorating. There are lots of cars parked in the shoulder, and rubbish bins are abandoned all over the roadway. Cars increase, all going pretty fast. Most people are smart about passing but there was one moment when a big truck barreled by and I thought we might die.

We ran into the Swiss father-daughter again on the side of the road! They rented a car and stopped to say hi! We roll into Santa Monica an hour or so before sunset, wander along Venice beach, watch the sunset, grab a beer and dinner before metro-ing to Union station.

Beach south of Carpinteria
Blooms color the hills
Palm trees don’t lie! Entering the bike trail at Santa Monica

After dallying in LA for a while, we took the Amtrak Coast Starlight back to Oakland on March 30. If I were to redo this trip carrying equivalent weight, I would probably plan for slightly shorter days. We were never rushed, but could have used more time to enjoy our environs. I would also spend a whole extra day around Santa Barbara, and take a day trip out to the Channel Islands. The ride between Ventura and Venice Beach could also have been happily skipped, perhaps via train from Oxnard to LA Union Station. The overall elevation profile is given below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *