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
2MontereyKirk Creek74.47472route
3Kirk CreekMorro Bay66.14500route
4Morro BayLompoc76.33273route
5LompocSanta Barbara55.84080route
6Santa BarbaraLos Angeles89.12678route

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.

Angelus Hut in Nelson Lakes National Park

Only a week ago on August 19-20th, 2017, Bryan and I completed an overnight hike to Angelus Hut in Nelson Lakes National Park in Tasman, New Zealand (our route at the end of the post), where spring is still a half-formed idea on the horizon and fresh snow is still falling in the mountains. Because the forecast had been a blustery 50-65 km/hr winds and well below freezing wind chill, we decided to hike in on the more protected Speargrass Track, which meanders 11.2km along Speargrass Creek, with a first half  that is wooded and flat, and a second half that gains the majority of the altitude up to the Robert Ridge junction. From the top of the ridge, we descended to Angelus Lake, and made our way to the hut alongside the lake where we would overnight. The next morning, we descended along Robert Ridge, facing icy traverses and biting winds, and the steep but perfectly switch-backed Pinchgut Track, making it back to the carpark an hour before sundown.

We started up Speargrass Track in the morning around 8a, as a beautiful walk in the woods. The track was well marked, and fairly dry (only a few patches of mud). The first main creek crossing was flooded, and there was a marked flood detour. Bryan, unwilling to loop and ascend the extra 50m, spent a good 15 minutes trying to build a bridge against this current. I stood back with my arms crossed, extremely confident that this was a terrible idea. Some minutes and wet shoes later, we were on our way up the detour.

Around 11a, we arrived at the Speargrass Hut, a 12-bunk cabin at the forest’s edge. This photo was taken outside the hut, where the field was covered in speargrass. We lunched and basked shortly in the sun before continuing.

The next portion of the hike included the majority of our elevation gain of the day. The blazes on the initial part of the trail right after the Speargrass Hut turnoff were extremely hard to find and follow, and we found ourselves off trail on a dry, rocky hill with lots of prickly plant life. After some unsuccessful bushwhacking in an attempt to find a suitable detour, we headed back towards the creek, where we rejoined the trail.

What followed was a pleasant but slow ascent up the creek. There were numerous creek crossings (which weren’t my favorite that morning — I was still feeling a bit unbalanced after the mountain biking episode, sad story for another day perhaps). Around 1350m, we hit snow, and gaitered up. This photo shows a view down the creek valley.

The rest of the ascent was much like this, through beautiful untouched snow. We were the first people (and only, we later found) to hike up that day.

This was the view from the ridge into the next valley. Everything was so sharply alpine once we hit snow. The transition was crisp, immediate, and complete.

Finally, after several false saddles, we met up with the Robert Ridge trail, and descended into the bowl that housed Angelus Lake and Angelus Hut. This hut was huge and comfortable. There was a wood stove for heating, which we employed to “dry” our wet socks and boots, and melt snow into water. The ascent having taken more time than expected, due to getting lost and snow, we cooked and cleaned up as best we could in the twilight and hour subsequent before heading straight to bed.

Given how beautiful the weather was in the morning, we decided to chance the Robert Ridge route on the way down. We first had to clamber up the 100m or so back up to the ridge from the Angelus bowl. With our lack of adequate equipment (we had microspikes and ice axes — no crampons), the long ridge traverse that followed took a significant amount of time and energy, and was by far the most dangerous part of this hike. I definitely dangled for a long minute on a slippery slope, hanging by my ice axe (I love you, ice axe), unable to find purchase on the hard snow. The overnight cold had stabilized the snow to such an extent that we were barely able to punch footholds into it. At some point on this initial traverse (which feels like it took us hours), we met an ascending couple. On their crampons, they breezed by us, crossing what we had just laboriously traversed in only minutes. Bryan and I sighed.

After the initial traverse, the rest of the ridge hike looked more like this. The ridge broadened up, allowing us to walk on the flattened top. There was some minimal cornicing as the wind picked up. The middle section of the ridge was very exposed, and we encountered the forecasted 50km+ winds. Long stretches extended before us, where there was little desire to stop, adjust clothing, expose skin; the goal was to trudge on, with our gloves to our faces to keep the wind out.

We finally found the end of the ridge, and a view of the valley beyond.

The snow eased into mud into grass, and before long, the warmth was soaking back into our appendages. The vapor barriers we had put into our boots earlier in the day had turned into moisture traps, literal bags of water, in which our tired feet slipped and squelched.

The descent down Pinchgut was mild and easy. The switchbacks were plentiful, but of perfect grade. There was a good view of Lake Rotoiti and St Arnaud, where we had stayed the night before. The pier off Lake Rotoiti houses a giant tangle of fresh-water eels, who sit eerily and chubbily by the wooden pillars, mouths open, waiting for the occasional food scrap to fall nearby.

Soon, we were engulfed in patches of woods. Trees! We hadn’t seen those for a while. The air was warm and moist, windless.

Before long, we had descended the last 400m back to the trail start, from where we had diverged only the previous day.

Overall, it was a satisfying but more challenging hike than expected. The rather technical traverses over hard snow were hard for us with our minimal gear. There was some minimal boundary brushing, but I felt reasonably safe the whole way. Special thanks to my ice axe (seriously, what would I do without you), Bryan (for punching many many footholds), and Bumper Bars (for bringing butter into the alpine).



bread2    bread3

bread4    bread5

I think I’ve only started baking bread in earnest over the past year, since moving into ELS. It’s been a lot of trial and error, a mixture of every sort of failure and every sort of success. Some loaves over-proofed, rising then sinking, some never developed enough gluten to stand on their own, some had little to no flavor, and some were tart beyond words. And an equal amount of some, of course, were also lovely, full of crackly crust and moist airy crumb, satisfying slathered with butter or by itself, a perfect puck rightfully deserving of its place at the center of the dinner table.

It’s amazing how the same four simple ingredients can be at times so charming and so frustrating. That seems to be a feature of living things though: difficult to coerce and impossible to predict.

Give pause

Over the weekend, Dan, Bryan and I hiked the Fourth of July Creek to Icicle Ridge near Leavenworth. It was an unassuming day with a mediocre-to-bad forecast (rain rain rain showers), as many days often are in the PNW winter/spring. We were just hoping to stay dry, but it’s always sort of amazing when expectations are not only exceeded, but defied. Time and time again this spring, I am simply bowled over by how beautiful it is out here. I can’t really find any better words to describe it, and images seem to fall short. It’s so alive, and wild, and nurturing — and incredibly incredibly peaceful.

I think in every graduate student’s career, there is the underlying tension of “what comes next?” Academia is a toss-up. There’s no guarantee of where or when or what job becomes available, and therefore, no real sense in tying oneself to a specific place. I still have years left in my program, but already, I find myself grappling with the unrealistic desire to stay here in Seattle when I’m done.

Fulfillment in life seems increasingly complex, a delicate game of weights and balances, of which no combination of choices satisfies all desires. I suppose in a sense that it is the ultimate “wicked problem.” Of course, my feelings also have a proven tendency to shift with time. When winter comes, maybe I’ll be antsy to escape again.



Over the weekend, I participated in the Washington State Democrat Caucus to elect a candidate for the 2017 US presidency. As I’ve never lived in a state where caucusing was the norm, it was a completely new experience for me. And I must admit, afterwards, the sentiment and fervor have really stayed with me.

For those who are unfamiliar, caucusing is an alternative to primaries, the other way of electing a party candidate. In primaries, voters cast ballots for their candidate, similar to the general election. The procedure is quick, lasting as long as it takes to stand in line waiting for a machine or mail in an absentee ballot. Caucusing, on the other hand, is a very involved and lively process. At the precinct level (one can think of a precinct as a small subdivision of a district or county, although none of the borders align), neighbors and friends gather to debate their candidate, vote to allocate their share of delegates, who are elected amongst themselves to represent them at the county and state levels, and eventually, at the democratic national convention.

At 10 in the morning on Saturday, I biked down to the Montlake Elementary School, where my precinct, along with a dozen or so others, held its caucus. I signed in, filled out a registration form, and marked down my candidate of choice. From there, I packed myself into a trailer classroom with more than a hundred other voters. We introduced ourselves to each other while we waited. I was sitting across the table from a woman who happened to also be a PhD student, who worked in the building down the street from mine. Next to me was a couple animatedly discussing their need of roof repairs following a recent windstorm. Eventually, the rumble of conversation died down, and we were instructed to split into our precincts and begin the actual caucusing procedure.

Because of the large turnout, several precincts spilled out into the sports field. Our precinct gathered into a circle, divided into our respective camps: Hillary and Bernie. The most valuable voters, the undecided, stayed in the middle. Our precinct had three delegates to allocate, and those undecided swing voters were pivotal to the allocation of the third delegate. Over the next hour, we made our case, talked pros and cons, gave examples in support and in defense of our candidate. There were moments of calm and moments of passion. At one point, a woman from the other side threw a barbed insult and tempers seemed to flare, but civility and arbitration prevailed. The main arguments on the Hillary side seemed to be that she was the practical candidate. Even though many in her camp did not love her politics, they felt that she would be the better representative for the party in the general election. On the Bernie side, we united behind his progressive ideals and consistent policies, arguing that even if he seems the longshot, a vote for him sends a message. Back and forth the arguments flew, taking turns, rising and ebbing, until one by one, we made our commitments.

I think the most meaningful moment of the morning for me was when one of Hillary’s supporters stood out to speak. Instead of making a case for Hillary or against Bernie, she talked about the right to vote, or rather, the lack of the right not to vote. “People died for your right to vote,” she said, pointedly, “people die for the right.” And in a country where so many people take that right for granted, where so many people, whether out of nonchalance or laziness, never show up to elections, general or local, that felt like an awakening.

On that Saturday morning, it actually felt like the system works. My voice held weight; my vote was not just a name on a piece of paper. And even though I’m still convinced that the politics in this country are broken, it seems that people in the community genuinely want to and believe that we can fix it.





I finally arrived in Seattle a few days ago, after a lot of build-up and anticipation. A full circle around the globe, followed by an automobile journey across the States that took more hours than all the flights combined. My tiny engine struggled up the inclines of the Rockies and burned on the way down. But at last I am here, memories strewn over new grounds, breathing Pacific air.




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