Or, the other title I considered: Nothing Went Right on our Pacific Coast Tour (and it was still perfect).
So this is a personal memoir turned route list turned alternate route suggestion for anyone looking to cycle the famed Pacific Coast Highway.
This route will always be near and dear to my heart. For one, it was my first-ever self-supported tour; And two, I really think that it doesn’t get much better than cycling along the California coast on a road that winds between breathtaking mountain ranges and the Pacific Ocean.
So, when my friend sent me a text in December saying he’d be doing the ride with another friend in January, it took all of 30 seconds to convince me to go along. Never mind the fact that it would be the second time I’ve done this route in less than a year – I’m not one to turn down great company and a great ride. So, I put in for two weeks of vacation and found myself on a train headed north 3 weeks later.
They’d begin at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco on a Friday, I’d meet them two days later in Monterey at Veteran’s Park and we’d all cycle to San Diego, keeping our cycle-tourist budget of $20 a day thanks to camping and roadside food stalls.
The reality shaped up to be quite a bit different, rather quickly.
Here’s the cliff notes version of the highlights – or mishaps, depending on how you want to frame that out – and why we ended up on an alternate route (below):
- Right as we arrived at our starting point, so too did the storm of the Century. Pros: California is no longer in a drought. Cons: Flash flooding, mudslides, road closures and alternate routes (although this should really be a pro).
- We started our trip together by getting stranded, in two different towns.
- By the fourth day, hiking our bikes across semi-dried mudslides and sneaking around road-closed signs became status quo for an afternoon.
- Because of all the unexpected stopping, two of us spent some time in tattoo shops.
- We once got lost and ended up in an oil field with restricted access. We were asked to leave. And then told we could continue. We continued. The fallback plan was to pretend we didn’t speak English and just keep riding, should anyone else ask.
- For what should have been a typical California ride with sunshine and 70-80 degree temperatures, we got to enjoy an entire buffet of elements. Cue headwinds, rains, tail winds (hooray), mist, sub-50 degree temperatures, and yes, a little sunshine.
- We got an impromptu private tour of some of the best Paso Robles wineries. A definite must-see must-taste, if you take our same route.
- Because we strayed from the actual Pacific Coast Bicycle Route several times, we actually ended up on the expressway more than one would like. In case you are wondering, it IS legal in some areas, but not optimal. Just be sure to double-check if you can ride in that area by confirming with Google (Bicycle option), reading road signs, and scoping out a good shoulder. Don’t ask a motorist – they’ll say it’s not allowed.
- I learned a lot about bicycle repair. Here’s what we broke: one pannier (two different times), one handlebar bag, one chain, one shifter cable and two derailleur adjustments were needed.
- Apparently, we also broke my pride, because after breaking said chain, I got sick of hiking my bike and hitch-hiked to the guys and our multi-tools.
This trip was like Intro To Bicycle Touring 101 on steroids for our friend Jordan, who was – in fact – going on his first tour. Since we took a bit of an alternate route than most Pacific Coast cyclists, so I shared each of our stopping points, below in case you want to follow the same route. If you need any additional tips for where to stay and what to do – feel free to comment below!
Rained in in Santa Cruz
We were held up before we even started. Originally, Ben and Jordan were supposed to start in San Francisco on Friday for a nice right through Half Moon Bay and onward to Monterey, where I’d be meeting them for the rest of the trip. As luck would have it, the universe had something else in mind. Enter the storm of the century. Literally the worst storm California has seen in 10 years, bringing with it torrential downpours and flash flooding. A scary thing when you are just a wee little cyclist with nothing but a flimsy piece of polyester over your head.
So, instead of riding the Amtrak to Monterey, I stayed onboard and headed to Santa Cruz, where I camped out – or rather ‘in’ – at a coworking space for 2 days until they could get to me.
Santa Cruz to Manresa State Beach KOA
Four days into the trip and three days behind schedule, the guys passed through Santa Cruz at noon and picked me up for a nice 35-mile ride to Manresa State Beach. It was one of my favorite campsites last year and a registered hike or bike spot, so I was excited to pitch our tents on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. Except it was closed for the season.
We ended up at a nearby KOA. Not the epic beachfront wild camping experience we had hyped our novice friend up for (we had assured Jordan the Pacific Coast would deliver on great campsite views and worthy climbs). But it was our only option, and one of the bikes had been acting up that day, so we figured a nice, dry place to do repairs wouldn’t be bad.
A little luxury camping for the first night – I’ll take it.
Ben had decided to test out sleeping with just a footprint and a fly in lieu of the whole tent. Right as we were getting ready for the bed, the rain set in and gave his new sleep system a run for the money. The verdict? Not waterproof. Curled up in my own dry tent, it was hilarious listening to his antics as a little rain – and then a lot of rain – slowly crept into his ‘tent.’ He eventually surrendered to the elements and crawled into Jordan’s tent.
Manresa to Monterey Veteran’s Park
In the morning we played bicycle musical chairs. As it turned out the bike that was having troubles had a broken shifting cable. A little improvised mechanical work and some zip ties later, we had a temporary fix. Jordan had been riding that one (which was Ben’s old touring rig), but Ben volunteered to ride it single-speed to Monterey. Ben’s other bike wasn’t a good fit, so Jordan hopped on mine and I pedaled Ben’s.
Make sense? Good.
In this area, the Pacific Coast Bicycle Route isn’t on Highway 1 or the 101, but it’s well marked with the green bike route signs at every turn. We had a blast riding through the strawberry fields and rolling hills on a new set-up. I don’t often get the chance to ride anything but my Surly Disc Trucker, so being on Ben’s Soma Wolverine made me feel like I was rocketing down the road. I love my bike, but she sure is a lot of extra weight to pedal around with.
We found a couple of road closures – “Closed for cars doesn’t necessarily mean closed for bikes,” proclaimed Ben as he biked around the signage. And at one point had to hike our bikes across a muddy field that apparently had been a road a day earlier. It was a full-on adventure schlepping through muddy clay with our packs and we managed to laugh the entire time as we calculated the odds of having rain like this in California.
And, as if on queue, the rain started. Again.
For the rest of the day, we rode in a silent peloton as it pelted us from every angle and stung our faces in the 17 mph headwinds. With our shapeless rain jackets pulled down over our heads we looked like three garbage bags slowly rolling down the road. Emphasis on slow. At one point, as we were actually pedaling downhill, Ben and I pretty much assumed that Jordan would speak of this trip as the worst experience he’s ever had and would promptly catch the next train home.
In Monterey, we caved and got a hotel. Partially because Ben and I have both camped at the only hike or bike in Monterey and know that the Veteran’s Park campgrounds sit on top of a monster of a hill; We didn’t feel like doing that after a punishing day of wrestling with the elements. And partially because (according to the weather alerts) it seemed like our planned route through Big Sur was literally falling into the ocean.
Rest Days Done Right in Monterey
After staying up to check the weather reports and road conditions, we woke up to the sun shining. Plus, Jordan hadn’t snuck out in the middle of the night to abandon the tour, so spirits were high.
“If we stay here today, I’m getting a tattoo,” I said.
“Looks like you’re getting a tattoo then,” said Ben after confirming that all the campsites in Big Sur were closed until May. “I might as well get my ear pierced”
Ironically, when I had done this same tour last year, I had also gotten held up in Monterey because of a broken chain. I wanted to get the tattoo then but well, these things take time, and the artist didn’t have any. This year, I called ahead, half hoping he was booked so I wouldn’t have to keep word on getting something permanently inked onto my body. (Un)Fortunately, he was open, had time to draw up what I wanted, and do it all in one sitting. Three hours later, I had a permanent reminder of this little bicycle tour that ended up being a bigger adventure than we had all bargained for.
We did make it up the hill to Veteran’s on the second night and all agreed that we weren’t on a credit card tour. Our budget had been thrown out long ago. But it was time to buck up and face the elements.
Detour/Alternate Route: Monterey to King City
We left the coast and headed over the mountains and into the Carmel Valley area for a detour around Big Sur. This was an absolute treat (and a complete surprise) to cycle through. All the rains made the normally brown mountains a deep shade of green and an emerald moss hung off red trees as we cycled through forests and followed the winding road up 40 miles of steady climbing. It didn’t even feel like we were in the US anymore. The roads were smooth, traffic was sparse and the weather was perfect. It was truly a cyclist’s dream.
Once at the peak, we had a straight-shot descent of almost 5,000 feet of elevation. What took four hours to get up took 30 minutes to get down.
In King City we couldn’t find a hike or bike, so we broke our promise once again. A hotel was about the same price as a campsite (I didn’t get the name of this one) and we’d all forgotten what it was like to have dry toes.
Detour Route: King City to Templeton
Wine country – need I say more? I had no idea about Paso Robles and the surrounding area of endless vineyards, but I’d highly recommend making this charming area a stop on any trip. It’s also a destination in it’s own right, with plenty of organized tours and rides – in case you like drinking wine more than the actual cycling bit of touring.
We stayed with some Warm Showers hosts and they invited us to stay an extra day and explore the nearby wineries. Well, ok – twist my arm. We met up with some of their friends for an afternoon of wine and cheese at Halter Ranch, stopped at the rowdy Old West-esque Tobbin James and ended the day walking through modern art at Sculptera.
Another successful rest day in the books.
Detour/Alternate Route: Templeton to Pismo Beach
Another day of climbing, but the rain was finally behind us. We got to enjoy riding back toward the coast in warm sunshine and blue skies. We were finally back on route.
This is where I broke my chain, which was a minor setback. Never having done that while on the road, I only knew how to fix a chain in theory. And theory wasn’t serving me very well at the moment. When a local drove by in her pickup, I initially fought the temptation to throw my bike in the back and meet up with the guys further down the road. And then I threw aside my pride and did it anyway. Let’s be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing.
**Now, I can proudly say that I do, in fact, know how to fix a broken chain, thanks to Ben.
Pismo Beach to Lompoc to Carpinteria
Pismo was a quick stop, as we were on this tour more for the scenery than the tourist towns, so we woke up early and pedaled on to Lompoc, where we stayed with another Warm Showers host in Lompoc.
We were killing it on the mileage, so we got into Lompoc early and enjoyed a relaxing night having some beers, playing Ticket to Ride (I initially underestimated exactly how fun this would be) and sharing travel stories with our second amazing host of the trip. Before this, I’d only ever used WS as a host. Now, having several great guest experiences, I’m completely hooked.
Carpinteria to Leo Carrillo Hike and Bike
At Carpinteria, I finally got to sleep on a beach and walk in the sand with a coffee as the sun was coming up. I’d envisioned this moment pretty much since I moved to California a few years ago, just to learn that everyone didn’t, in fact, live on the beach. See, dreams do come true.
Anyway, both these sites are Hike or Bike-friendly, which give cyclists a discount. It is possible to hop from one Hike or Bike to the next all along the route and keep costs relatively low. That just didn’t happen for us this time. Additionally, once you start getting into the Malibu Mountains, there are plenty of campsites along the coast. They do vary in price, availability and whether or not they are RV-only, so calling ahead is a good idea.
Leo Carrillo to Long Beach
We’d known for a while that we wouldn’t be making it to San Diego, so we decided to end at Jordan’s house in LA. The last day of riding is always a little bittersweet (except I think Jordan was secretly happy we were done), but we all had to get back to work and friends were waiting to hear about our travels back at home.
After stopping to watch surfers in Ventura, the last 20 miles were appropriately marked by a decent headwind that angrily blew sand in our faces as we road along the LA Bike Path. It felt a little more like riding across the Mojave in a sand storm than hanging on a SoCal beachfront, but such was the theme of our trip.
We goofed around, road through puddles, road through sand drifts (I fell), and stopped near the Santa Monica pier to eat our last PB sandwiches on the road before cruising into Jordan’s driveway and closing the book on this (mis)adventure that was the Pacific Coast Highway.
As always, California, it was fun, but I think I need to see other trails for a little while. Until next time…
If you need more photos of this trip, I’ve got those riiiight here.