A bicycle touring adventure on the west coast of the United States

Stephen Lord is a british cyclist who recently cycled the west coast of the United States. He is a member of the International Bicycle Touring Mailing List and he is currently writing a book about bicycle touring.

He has contributed the following excellent article about touring the west coast of the United States. He makes a rather persuasive case that this is truly an excellent place to go for a future bicycle touring adventure.


Introduction

The West Coast of the USA is a classic ride. Highway 1, which is almost half of it, is considered one of the most beautiful drives in America, but as a bike ride, it’s far more spectacular because you can smell the ozone and stop to enjoy the views wherever you want.

About half of the West Coast route runs next to the ocean, with fabulous views, sunset watching at many campgrounds, and countless beaches for picnic lunches. It has perfect riding temperatures too; cool and sunny weather most of the time in the season.

Steve on his bike with the foggy Oregon coast behind him - Click to enlarge

Steve on his bike with the foggy Oregon coast behind him

 

Although the altitudes aren’t great, the road is rarely flat, and not often straight, either. It’s an easy ride in terms of logistics as food, water, gear and camping are never far away, but in terms of effort, the hills make it harder than, say, a typical European ride of the same length. Nonetheless, you can cut your mileage to match your abilities very easily on this route; such is the availability of camping.

We started in Alaska in July and had intended to ride down through Canada, but chose instead to take the ferry down from Skagway to Bellingham, just north of Seattle. The state-run ferry service is a great trip in itself, 4 nights and 3 days sailing down the Inland Passage, and you are allowed to set up your tent on the rear deck of the ship, from where the views are unbeatable. Not a giveaway at US$340 each, but food on the ship is not expensive, and you can bring your own food and heat it using the microwave in the ship’s galley, as you cannot use your own stove on board. Once on terra firma again, it’s about 1830 miles from the Canadian border to the Mexican border, unless you want to start in Vancouver, adding about 80 miles more to the trip.

The ride from Vancouver is about 5 weeks minimum riding time. If you add a day each week to rest, several days each in cities like Seattle, San Francisco, a day for Santa Cruz, perhaps for Santa Barbara and LA, and some preparation days or allowance for repairs, you’re looking at 8 weeks total for the 1800 miles.

Climate & When to go

The Pacific Coast gets a lashing from winter storms any time from December through some time in April; it hardly rains at all any other time of year. It is usually beautiful weather from May onwards, and the land is at its greenest at this time after the winter rains. Your spring option is to start in Seattle or Vancouver in May, and allow 2 months to get to San Diego. It will be hot in places, but there will be cooling fog to ride through, and you are never far from the coast after you pass through San Francisco.

Starting after Independence Day on July 4th, high season begins, with traffic volumes fairly heavy and campgrounds full, particularly at weekends. That is mostly not an issue for bikers, as camping spots are reserved or guaranteed to them at most campgrounds. As far as traffic goes, bikers nearly always have a shoulder to ride on, so it’s more an issue of your tolerance for road traffic than safety.

Autumn is the other great time to go, as the roads are far quieter, the weather is still dry and comfortable and there is little fog on the coast. If you are doing the Alaska to Tierra del Fuego ride, you will pass through the US West coast at this time and follow the fair weather south. Sunny days tend to be accompanied by winds from the northwest, whereas foggy days have little wind. Key point here: only ride this route from North to South. In the summertime, fog is usually a morning phenomenon, which means your tent will be covered in dew at night and not dry out until the sun hits it. On the other hand, camping and riding in coastal fog is well worth experiencing as part of the microclimate of the redwood trees- they flourish in a moist environment, and also keep temperatures cool in the summer by holding in humidity.

A cautionary note: if, in your planning you pick up suggestions that the coming winter will be an El Nino winter, expect worse storms, and earlier in the season. These storms can last several days, so move your trip up a month and be clear of San Diego by early December.

 

Preparations

With no great planning difficulties, you don’t need a guidebook and the state road maps are enough to pick up the route from.

Washington, Oregon and California each produce a free state road map, found at tourist offices, and Oregon goes one step further in publishing a map especially for bikers, showing detours to avoid high traffic areas or steep hills.

The Adventure Cycling Association produces a map of the ride with a lot of useful information, including vertical scale charts, information which rarely features on American maps. The Pacific Coast bike route was established in 1976 and is reasonably well signposted all the way.

Although the campgrounds, which are mostly State Parks, quickly fill up throughout the summer, almost all parks have reserved Hiker/Biker sites and you will not get turned away from these campgrounds. All the State Park campgrounds are marked on every map, but there are some county or local parks, which are not always marked but are worth looking out for.

Each of the three states has details of all State campgrounds on websites and we marked the Hiker/Biker sites on our maps.

Time for a coffee! Click to enlarge

Time for a coffee!

What to expect

The Pacific Coast route is a bit of a paradox in that the US is a bike-mad country and there are bike shops everywhere, but most people you meet on this route are not American. Most people don’t have enough vacation time for bike touring, and Americans who have quit their jobs to travel are probably overseas on their world bike tour just as you may be on yours. Our trip down the coast was a kind of moveable feast with biker friends we had made along the way. Since the bikers camp together in the reserved Hiker/Biker sites, it’s a great route for solo bikers who like to ride on their own but enjoy some company in the evenings.

Oregon was our favourite state. They go out of their way for cyclists, and the Governor of the state, himself a keen cyclist, has done much to improve the Pacific Coast Bike Route passing through Oregon. For a start, there is a map specifically for this bike route given out at tourist offices. This map shows a number of detours off the main road, Highway 101, to keep cyclists away from high traffic areas or steep hills. The Pacific Coast is still a good workout, though, even with the tailwind. The Hiker/Biker sites in Oregon, though, are the best. The State Park planners realized that hikers and bikers make a far smaller environmental impact than motorized campers, and so the Hiker/Biker sites are always among the most precious scenery, often closest to the ocean, secluded and typically communal in nature, which encourages socializing. We made lots of friends in Oregon, not just among bikers but people we met along the way. There is a wide choice of state parks to camp in, too, so there is a lot of flexibility in where you might choose to camp. Although we liked to save money, some of the parks without Hiker/Biker sites are outstanding in natural beauty. Oswald West State Park, for example, is only open to walk-in campers, i.e. No vehicles are allowed. It is old-growth Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock and Red Cedar trees above a sheltered and popular surfing beach. We camped next to a tree probably 5 metres in diameter.

The Hiker/Biker sites cost only $4 per person in Oregon, but in California this drops to only $1. The choice of campsites in California seems like Hiker/Bikers were an afterthought, but it’s a great deal- and you are still guaranteed a site even if the park is full, which it will be on weekends. California’s redwood forests are one of the wonders of the New World, and not to be hurried. South of the redwoods, the route follows Highway 1, narrow and hilly and next to the coast for much of the way. Some of the quieter and less visited campgrounds are also some of the best- Russian Gulch State Park, near Mendocino, is more popular among sea-lions than humans and has a 4 mile forest bike trail and hikes beyond that. Next to well-visited Redwoods National Park is the less illustrious-sounding Prairie Creek State Park- but that is where the campground is. The Hiker/Biker section is shaded and away from vehicles with great views of the Elk herd which is free to roam nearby. One biker we met had a wake-up call up morning from a bull elk marking his territory- on his tent. There are extensive mountain bike trails at this park through old-growth redwoods and to places inaccessible by other vehicles.

Rough Stuff

If you fancy a break from touring and want to try mountain biking in Marin County, the cradle of mountain biking, here is the place to do it, as the famous Repack road, where Gary Fisher and Joe Breeze tested their first mountain bikes is here.

Foggy Big Sur lurks behind Steve in this photo. Click to enlarge

Foggy Big Sur lurks behind Steve in this photo

The route turns inland from Pt. Reyes Station through the town of Fairfax. There is only one major junction in the center of Fairfax, where the Sir Francis Drake Blvd. (yes, he passed up the coast near here) meets the Fairfax-Bolinas road. Head up that road until you leave the town and ascend into open country. Upon reaching the first summit, there is a rough parking spot and a trail climbs up to the right, leading to Repack Road. It is a twisting, fast downhill, and if it were a ski run it would be a red slope in European terms- difficult but not overly technical.

Depending on the past winter’s rains, a ditch will run down the center or edge of the trail and you need to be fairly aggressive in crossing it to make sure your front wheel doesn’t get stuck. Repack Road runs back towards Fairfax. Ask at any of several bike shops if you can leave your panniers while you ride. Repack is one of the wildest trails in Marin, but there are many more, mostly easy but scenic cross-country routes. Generally, only double tracks are open to bikes, and they are serious about enforcing their 15mph speed limits- rangers sometimes patrol with radar guns, fining cyclists on the spot.

Mt. Tamalpais (2,500 ft.) is another good ride. There is a trail up the eastern slope; steady and not too steep till the very end. By this point in your tour, you will be strong enough to ride the whole way! The peak has views of the city of San Francisco and the ocean. You might be dismayed to see there is a road up to the top from the south side, but there are a few facilities there and a campsite not too far down the road west of the peak. The dramatic ride down the western slope allows you to return to your starting point in or near Fairfax.

Don’t be put off by fog- you will ride through and above it, with fantastic views of the clouds below and perhaps the top of the Golden Gate Bridge or the skyscrapers in downtown SF.

Another park nearby with mountain bike trails is China Camp State Park. Continue on Sir Francis Drake Blvd. East as far as the Bay to reach it. It is just north of the infamous San Quentin State Prison. Accommodation in the Fairfax area is hard to find, but nearby is Samuel P. Taylor State Park amongst redwood trees, and to the south of Mt. Tamalpais is the Marin Headlands Hostel (one of the HI hostels) bookable at www.norcalhostels.org. The Marin Headlands Hostel is in a rugged location away from towns—stock up on food first, you may want a couple of days here. It’s the kind of scenery and location Kerouac wrote about in Dharma Bums, fairly isolated and surrounded by hills. There is a tunnel that saves you some legwork if you want to get through the hills to Sausalito, or to the bike trail that runs from Mill Valley into San Francisco.

San Francisco and surrounding area.

You might want to plan your approach to San Francisco. The campgrounds and hostels nearby can book up in the peak season, but you have a number of choices and can phone around, stopping at Point Reyes Station to visit the Ranger Station. They may phone around for you. There is a nice private campground 2 miles down the road at Olema, commercially priced at $20 but you could stay to see more of the north coast, or day trip onto Point Reyes itself to visit the spectacular lighthouse and remote beach at the end. It’s always windy out there.

The last camping before SF is at Kirby Cove, right on the beach on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. You could ride into the city from here, but it’s a short, steep ride back to the bridge (67 meters above sea level) from the campground. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge is in itself one of the highlights of the entire ride. The massive scale and colour of it, the ocean view with yachts down below battling in the winds, and the City on the other side. It is astonishing that from quiet countryside you are in an urban area of several millions so quickly, and on dedicated bike paths. After the Golden Gate Bridge, you are on bike paths or bike lanes all the way into the city center, and the path takes you right past the Fort Mason hostel. There are several HI-affiliated hostels in San Francisco, and the best of them all is right on the bay at Fort Mason and costs $21, breakfast included. The building dates from 1863.

From here south, there is once again a wide choice of campgrounds and beautiful coastline. Be sure to book ahead for your SF accommodation, and if you arrive in the area early, spend time in Marin County camping checking out the Marin Headlands or mountain bike trails as suggested above. Look for San Francisco’s free newspaper, the SF Bay Guardian for things to do. The signposted 49 mile drive round the city makes a good bike ride too, and you will find a free bike map- try bike shops first. The city is eminently rideable, but don’t always pick a route from the map, it may go over some extremely steep hills, The Pacific Heights area has hills so steep that steps are cut into the sidewalk. Otherwise, it’s great for bikes, but watch out for cell-phone wielding yuppies making right turns in front of you as you barrel down hills. You can day trip to Berkeley by taking the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), and take your bike with you, except during rush hour.

South to Santa Cruz

En route to Santa Cruz, many Europeans stop at Pigeon Point Lighthouse. It’s very scenic, reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s paintings of the West Coast, and is one of the tallest lighthouses in the USA. The winds are often strong here, though, and you could easily make it from Half Moon Bay campground to Santa Cruz in a short day. Or you could stop less than 5 miles short of Santa Cruz at Wilder Ranch State Park, stash your panniers or unhitch the trailer and go mountain biking on the 34 miles of mixed-use trails in and out of forest above the Pacific Ocean.

Some of it is single-track- the most exciting trail is Wagon Wheel, and takes you round the edge of the park. As you descend back to the ocean, you can turn back into the forest for more tight, winding single-track. You may see some “trail closed” signs, but ask other bikers exactly what the form is—I’ve always ridden them without any hassles or seeing hikers, I must confess, though I did see a bobcat once. Weekdays would be more discreet. www.virtualparks.org has some mouth-watering pictures for bikers. I have seen bobcats at other parks along the coast because I was on my bike and moving along fairly quietly.

The approach to Santa Cruz holds a surprise. Signs direct you to turn right a few miles before town, then right again, back on yourself, but you end up on a drop-dead gorgeous cliff top drive (bikes allowed on the sidewalk here) leading to Lighthouse Point. To me, it’s the best view of the whole trip. The lighthouse is tiny, though don’t miss the surfing museum inside. Sitting at Lighthouse point, you can see Monterrey and the beginnings of Big Sur. In front, you can see and hear the sea lion colony a hundred metres away. Next to you are surfers on the Steamer’s Lane break, and behind them, California sea otters playing in kelp, and pelicans, cormorants and guillemots flying above and below you. On your left is Santa Cruz itself and its boardwalk and beyond, the harbour. Go to www.santacruzguide.com and look for webcam shots of Steamers Lane, the boardwalk or Cowell’s, another surfing area in neighbouring Capitola. Another image shows the Pacific Coast bike trail itself. I’m not sure why Santa Cruz has so many webcams installed, but it does. If the images are pitch black, remember it’s real time video….

One of the many hiker/biker sites used by Steve during his bicycle touring adventure! Click to enlarge.

One of the many hiker/biker sites used by Steve during his bicycle touring adventure!

Santa Cruz is worth a rest day too. It has a perfect beginner’s surfing beach with equipment rental close at hand. Pacific Avenue has many interesting shops and cafes and an excellent independent bookshop whose toilet can be used. It’s a great street for people watching. High quality camping gear can be found at a shop called Bugaboo, or a cheaper and larger selection at Outdoor World on River St. There is also a Patagonia outlet on River St. if the urge takes you. Camping is close by at New Brighton State Beach, and there are some not so expensive motels too. Santa Cruz has a great live music scene; especially for world music- check the local free newspapers.

Big Sur is rightly famous- go slow and you won’t notice the hills, just enjoy the views from the cliffs. Stocks up on food in Monterrey- shops are few, and all overpriced in Big Sur and you may want to spend some extra time there. Kerouac set his Big Sur novel in one of the canyons in the northern section. All the campgrounds here are spectacular- look out for the little-known Veterans Park in the centre of Monterrey if you want to stay over, and the unmarked (on maps) Kirk Creek campground, on National Forest land just after the hidden but beautiful Limekiln State Park. Kirk Creek has the best cliff top views reserved for the Hiker/Bikers.

Don’t be daunted by the thought of riding through LA- it will take 2 days, but the trail runs by the ocean most of the way, going inland only to pass around the Palos Verdes Estate and then the big ocean inlet at Long Beach. It is well signposted. The first section through Santa Monica and Venice Beach is the best, and there are some hostels there. Then it’s a detour through the belly of the beast to Newport Beach and you are back on the coast again.

Southern California has plenty of campgrounds, but also a lot of homeless people camping in them illegally. To discourage this, the parks only allow you to check in after 4pm and you must leave by 9am, which is a hassle if you want to stay more than one night, though sometimes that also is not permitted. That’s the price you pay for the convenience of camping close to cities. We got a lift through LA, but I think there would be a lot of satisfaction in riding through the belly of the beast, as the bike route runs along the beach for much of the way. And before San Diego, more sleepy surfing towns with lots of character, great beaches, and not a chain store in sight.

Safety

Bikes are well looked after in California, with signposts advising drivers to “Share the Road” and bike lanes well marked. Where there is no alternative road available, cyclists are allowed to ride on the Interstate freeways, a point we checked with California Highway Patrol. It is none too pleasant, but these sections are brief, and the shoulders are at least 3 metres wide.

The West Coast does attract drifters and people who are eccentric, to put it mildly, but for the most part not dangerous and not interested in you. They tend not to get into campgrounds, and elsewhere, you’re on the move and unlikely to be disturbed. Be alert at all times for your bike and your campsite. Americans are almost always courteous drivers, but often not expecting to see bikes on the road. It is noticeable, though, how much teenagers in cars yell at bikers in the US. Maybe it’s because they get to drive at a relatively young age, but it emphasizes that the number one safety threat to a biker is motor vehicles, in the US as much as anywhere.

Food and Budget

With all the stick that America gets for fast food and obesity, from a cyclist’s point of view it’s not necessarily a bad diet because you will burn off the carbohydrates. Remember the most nutritious food in the US is also the cheapest- fruits and vegetables, and your money will go a lot further if you camp, cook and stay away from restaurants. We saw bikers on a budget buying a few vegetables each day and making a stew each night, adding a packet of dried soup for flavour. We made our own fruit salads, finding them to be cheaper and fresher than buying ready-made. Another place you will come to rely on are the bulk food sections of supermarkets. Oats, rice, cereals and pancake or curry mixes are sold in plastic bins where you choose the amount you want and bag and label it yourself. It saves money- muesli is about a quarter of the price of a brand name box, and you get only the amount you want. Then there’s Ramen noodles, which are usually priced around 6 packs for a dollar, and sometimes as cheap as 10 packs per dollar. A Japanese biker showed us how to fortify Ramen dinners- he boiled a couple of eggs in the water along with the noodles, and fried a pack of bacon before adding that. In more health-conscious moods, we added sprouted beans, easy to find in supermarkets, miso paste, (Asian food is easy to find in supermarkets and if not, in health food shops) and sometimes a tin of tuna. Supermarkets often price things like ears of corn as 4 for a dollar, but you don’t have to buy 4 to get the low price. In California, all the supermarket chains have loyalty cards and you should get one for each chain as the savings quickly add up. The Pacific Coast has some excellent health food shops, too, so if you want to get vegetarian, it’s easy. You needn’t give up beer on a budget. Individual 25oz (650ml) cans of beer cost around $1 to 1.20.

With camping at $1 a night in California, you could get down to $15 a day or maybe less, but you need to plan for repairs and gear etc. along the way. Private backpacker hostels such as the “Banana Beach” kind in LA and San Diego cost around $20 per person but are not particularly quiet or safe for your gear. The non-profit Youth Hostels are a better bet. Motels on the coast are often up to $60 a night. In the country, you may find people offering you the chance to camp in their back yards, and we met people on the way who gave us their contact details for a visit further down the road. It never hurts to ask if you are stuck for a place to camp, I have asked in cafes and had people in small towns phone around and find a spot in someone’s yard for me on other trips.

Gear Considerations

You might decide to buy gear in the US either due to availability or low price. Bike shops and camping shops are everywhere in the US, and Seattle is outdoor sports-mad, having the headquarters of the largest outdoor sports shop in the world, REI, a short walk from downtown. The Pacific Coast is not such a difficult route that you need specialist gear- though don’t bring a meths stove as the equivalent fuel is hard to find in the US, and does not burn as well as true methylated spirits. Stoves burning white gas, aka. Coleman gas in the US, are the most efficient and this fuel is easily available and saves a lot of money over gas cartridges on a long trip. We found it to be much cheaper by the gallon, sharing the excess with other bikers.

If you buy a tent in the US, you will find they are oriented towards good ventilation and performance in the wind rather than rain, though any quality tent will see you through everything except winter storms. It can be windy, but campsites tend to be sheltered from the worst of it. Temperatures at night are always cool, especially by the coast where the humidity and a breeze add to the cold. A warm sleeping bag, not just a summer bag, is advisable and if you have a tent more suited to rain and cold it will stand you in good stead for warmth in cool weather.

We saw every type of bike and rig available. Americans typically preferred traditional tourers with 700C wheels, and often used BOB trailers instead of panniers. Some Europeans had special trekking bikes such as the Dutch prefer (e.g. Koga-Miyatas), others rode mountain bikes. Just about whatever you want is available, and the road is smooth enough for any type of wheel. We did see one bad combination of a mountain bike with light, racing wheels, which had several broken spokes due to the torque involved in pulling a trailer. Conversely, one of the fastest rigs we saw was a custom-built mountain bike with strong but narrow wheels also pulling a trailer. My rear wheel developed cracks around the spoke holes in Northern California that I only noticed when giving the wheels a thorough clean, but the next day I was able to find a bike shop with a wheel ready made for heavy touring with a cassette on which suited my bike. Only in the USA, I thought, would that wheel be ready and waiting for me. Normally a good touring wheel would have to be made up. But here is one advantage of the USA as a place to do a long ride- it’s a great place to try out a bike and gear, knowing that spares and repairs are never far away.

Visas- a caution for bikers

The US gives out 3-month visas to nationals of any country in the visa-waiver scheme, i.e. wealthy countries. When leaving the US by road, from Alaska to Canada or from San Diego to Mexico, make sure that you either have enough unused time on your visa if you definitely intend re-entering the US later on, or give them back the entry forms they stapled in your passport on arrival. They make direct you to give them to the Canadian authorities on entering Canada (the customs posts are 20 miles apart in places), but they will not likely tell you to give them to the Mexicans upon entering that country. We were advised that the US is now concerned about visitors who do not give back their entry papers, the I-94 arrival cards, on leaving the US as these may be people who have overstayed their visas. Someone flying into the USA, yet biking out needs to ensure that they take care of this, as there is no border control on leaving the USA.

Resources:

You can simply buy state road maps, or get them free at tourist offices, especially those on the borders of each state. Seattle publishes a free map of bicycle routes within the city, as does San Diego. These maps really open up the city to bikers, and make it a far safer experience. Adventure Cycling’s map is the best, and all you need but it is a whopping $47.50 to non-members ($32.50 to members) and shipping is extra. They produce it on shorter sections if you are not doing the whole distance. Lonely Planet’s West Coast Cycling Guide has excellent maps which will never get you lost, but the section on the West Coast route is only about 20% of the whole book, so there is some excess baggage there.

Don’t feel you have to follow the programme exactly as suggested, there are often great camping places which you will reach at lunchtime, giving you time to explore a beach or other trails within the park.

Submitted by Steve Lord


Editor's comments

Steve submitted this article without any request for special mention etc of his upcoming book. While looking over his website (this is one of the fun things that I get to do whenever anyone make a submission) I discovered more information about his project. I've included some of it here as my way of thanking him for providing information to the Bicycle Touring 101 website.

Steve is in the process of writing a book called the "adventure cycling handbook". Here's a little blurb about it taken directly from his website:

"This is the homepage of the "Adventure Cycling Handbook, a worldwide cycling route and planning guide", to be published in late 2005 by Trailblazer . The Adventure Cycling Handbook promises an up to date look at cycle touring, looking at the kinds of bikes people ride, how to adapt your own bike to a long tour or expedition overseas, and the kinds of destination popular among today’s bikers. The book will discuss choosing a bike, setting it up for long-distance travel and picking the right gear to go with it. A section on route planning gives outlines for many cycling destinations, such as the land routes from Europe out to Asia and across North and South America. The third section of the book will be a collection of travellers’ stories to inspire and entertain."

On the website he has a questionaire available that you might consider filling out. Like the Bicycle Touring 101 website his book attempts to demystify cycling and emphasize how much fun a bicycle touring adventure can be!

It is my hope that once the book is published Steve will be back to assist with the creation of an article about his book including an excerpt in the touring books section of the Bicycle Touring 101 website.

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