The Pacific Coast Highway is a popular route for motorists in order to experience the natural beauty along the coastline of California. It stretches almost the entire shoreline of the Gold Coast, but many people are especially intrigued by the section between San Francisco and Los Angeles, since it connects the most prominent cities in the state. Covering that distance in a car, RV or motorbike is no small feat. But doing this on a bicycle? This is exactly what I had set out to do.
A multi day bike tour like this requires significant amount of planning. Since you need to, up to a certain degree, self-sustain yourself for a particular number of days, daily distances, places to sleep, amount of food and water as well as required gear needs to be considered. Doing some research on the web, I figured that covering the 472 miles from San Francisco (4th and King Caltrain Station) to the Santa Monica Pier (490 miles to downtown Los Angeles) should be doable over the course of 6 days, which meant an average daily mileage of about 80 miles. The following was my planned itinerary:
|1||San Francisco Caltrain||Santa Cruz||84||84|
|2||Santa Cruz||Big Sur||77||161|
|3||Big Sur||Morro Bay||92||253|
|6||Ventura||Los Angeles (downtown) / Santa Monica||76 / 58||490 / 472|
I did create a custom Google Map for this as well. I also used the following resources when putting this route together:
- Fire Velo: Fire Service Cancer Awareness Bicycle Ride
- AIDS/LifeCycle: Ride to end AIDS
- Central Coast Outdoors: San Francisco to Los Angeles Sample Itinerary
Instead of winging it or carrying a tent to be flexible where to sleep at night, I opted for the more organized version and booked hotel rooms in advance at each of my daily destinations. For details on which places I picked, I refer you to the detailed daily trip reports below. In the end, it depends on your budget and personal standards for comfort.
When people get out on a good road bike and they feel the speed and they see the countryside in a way you don’t from a car or you don’t from an airplane or you don’t from a train, you get to sort of be part of the environment around you. It’s thrilling [...]
Jonathan Vaughters, CEO of Garmin Barracuda Cycling Team
in Garmin Connect™ – Social Sport
Ideally, when attempting to do a multiday bike tour like this, you probably would want to do it with a “proper” touring bike. By that I mean the likes of the Surly Long Haul Trucker or the Trek 520, whose frames are made of steel and remain handling stability even when loaded with gear of significant weight (20 lbs and more). My Specialized Secteur Elite is much more a proper road bike than a touring bike, even though light touring should be possible with a bike like this, according to a bike shop technician I talked to when buying the bike over a year ago. However, while on the road, I noticed the bike becoming less stable when heading downhill, wind gusts hitting the bike with 20+ lbs loaded in the panniers. While it turned out fine in the end, anything longer than this, I would highly recommend using a proper touring bike.
In order to be able to haul my gear, I needed to get panniers and a bike rack. I opted for Ortlieb Back-Roller Classic panniers and the Planet Bike Eco Rack that the guys at Calmar Bicycles graciously mounted for me for free. These guys seriously rock! Getting the panniers properly on the rack so that they don’t slide or move while riding required a little bit of tweaking, but in the end all I needed was a bit of time and a 3mm Allen wrench.
One other important thing to note is that I had recently invested into Specialized All Condition Armadillo Elite tires, which are special puncture resistant road tires. I was simply fed up with continuously getting flats on longer rides. And, let me tell you, without giving away too much from my trip report: it paid off.
Food and Hydration
With limited experience on multiday bike touring, it is a bit hard to plan and estimate what you need on a trip like this. For hydration, I brought two CamelBak Podium Big Chill 25oz water bottles that I continuously refilled along the way. Since the area is well developed, there are plenty of water sources available. In order to replenish on electrolytes, I brought a container of Hammer Endurolytes Fizz, which just dissolve in water. Based on a recommendation from a friend, who does Ironmans, I also brought along six packs of Hammer Perpetuem for sustained energy along the way. In addition I packed a mix of bars, mostly consisting of different flavors of PROBARs (recommended by Bicycling Magazine for multi-hour bike rides) and Hammer Bars as well as Hammer Gels and Clif Shot Bloks. For lunch I would usually have packed some dark bread with salami and cheese.
That combination of food and hydration intake worked pretty well for me, however when burning those many calories a day, it is important to be constantly drinking and eating (even if it is just a little bit every time) throughout the day. And also do not hold back on the food when going for dinner. Looking back, I almost can’t believe how much I ate at the various dinner places along the way (which are mentioned in the trip report below).
With my bike ready, equipment packed and panniers mounted, I was ready for the big adventure.
Stage 1: San Francisco to Santa Cruz
I took the 7.13am Baby Bullet Caltrain from Sunnyvale to San Francisco in the morning of June 27. Of course I could have started this whole journey from Sunnyvale (where I live) instead, but there were two good reasons not to:
- I would have had to go over the Santa Cruz Mountains
- I could not have called it “SF to LA ride”
Anyhow, the 7.13 was unbelievably packed, but it was nice to see that many people with bikes on the train. We got to SF around 8am and around 8.30am I was off, making my way through San Francisco and trying to find the most bike friendly way out of the city, using my own BikeNav app as my guide. I eventually made it to Golden Gate Park and reached Ocean Beach. The weather was holding up OK with the usual overcast situation this time of the year at Ocean Beach, but dry and reasonably warm.
After that I headed South on the Great Hwy, got on to Hwy 35 for a bit and then avoided it again for a bit in favor of a bike-safer route. Eventually though, just before Pacifica, I turned onto Highway 1 South, or Cabrillo Hwy, at Mori Point. After Pedro Point, the grade on the highway increased and for quite a while one is left with no shoulder room whatsoever. Not the best situation but luckily the drivers paid attention.
Passing by Half Moon Bay Airport and cruising through El Granada, I eventually got to Half Moon Bay, where I took a break for lunch. Refueled, I passed by a couple of state beaches and continued on Hwy 1 with pretty much exclusively having tailwind. Very nice, considering I was hauling about 15 to 20 lbs in my panniers, which made the riding hard already. The few but considerable climbs on the way turned out to be, considering the load I had to carry, not too much fun.
Similar to last time I went from SF to Santa Cruz, I took another extensive break after 100km, where I remembered to stop at a very lovely spot overlooking the beach, ocean and cliffs.
After that, I had about 33km to go, which again were characterized by a few little climbs in between, not too many, but still enough to give you burns after being on the bike for 6 hours. Passing by kite surfers at Waddell Beach, I finally made it to Santa Cruz after a total of 7 hours 48 minutes. Instead of going to the Boardwalk, I decided to head straight to the Motel, check in, unpack, shower, relax and get some groceries. First stage completed, so far so good.
- Apparently highway patrol was on high alert today, with a couple of patrol cars parked hidden from view and officers trying to catch the next speedster. I passed one of the guys and he took my speed with his speed gun. “14 miles per hour”, he told me. I found that kinda funny.
- Barely missed a dead snake lying in the shoulder lane. Considerably thick, but not too long and obviously already dead. Still glad that I didn’t run my tires over it though.
- Gliding Brown Pelicans. These animals became some sort of constant followers of mine throughout the journey. At many of the spots where I took breaks, I would see flocks of them gliding effortlessly along the coast, making use of the coastal wind blowing inward.
Accommodation, Food etc.
- Accommodation: The Islander Motel
- Groceries: Shopper’s Corner (622 Soquel Avenue)
- Dinner: Lillian’s Italian Kitchen or Taqueria Santa Cruz
- Bike Shop: Bicycle Trip
- Breakfast: The Buttery Corner Cafe (702 Soquel Avenue)
Stage 2: Santa Cruz to Big Sur
The breakfast I ordered at the Buttery Corner Cafe filled me up well and so I put myself on the bike for day 2. Since I had ridden on Hwy 1 for most of my journey so far, I had initially thought that continuing on it would be the fastest, most direct route. However after getting a peak at the 3 lanes of traffic from the on ramp, I decided against that option and opted to follow what my BikeNav app was suggesting: going on local, less busy routes even if that meant adding about 5 miles to the total distance. Better to be safe.
That route initially took me through the hills and outskirts of Santa Cruz, which were covered in not too dense fog in the morning. I managed to find a guy’s ID card on the side of the road, who was apparently working for the Watsonville Community Hospital. I gave the card to two older biking ladies I passed about halfway to Watsonville. “Where are you heading?”, one of the two asked while I passed them. “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!”.
My route, as on quite a few sections throughout this trip, took me through vast areas of farm land and, in this particular case, strawberry farm fields. I stopped for a minute to take a picture of the workers, picking the fruits, in this very strenuous hunched over position.
After coasting through Sand City, I reached the outskirts of Monterey, where I stopped to say hi to a fellow bike tourist going into the other direction. Ian, from Arizona, was on an ever 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. I didn’t know what to respond, since the fact that he is bringing his deaf and blind dog seemed so sad on the one hand and showed how much he cared and valued his dog’s companionship at the same time. 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.
I opted for Starbucks (Starbucks Store #16079, 316 Alvarado Street), since not only did I think that getting some caffeine in me would be a good idea, but also because a local recommended their nicely filtered tab water. Excellent for refilling my water bottles. After lunch, I had one or two bigger climbs to conquer before merging onto Hwy 1 around the entrance to the 17-Mile Drive.
The fact that the highway now started to hug the coast presented great views, but also meant more tourists on the road and a few dangerous bits because of the lack of shoulder space (again). The (tail)wind picked up in the afternoon as well, which was mostly good news for me, as it meant that in some cases I was almost pushed on the uphills, but the gusts also made the bike a little less stable on the downhills. After about 77 miles, I finally reached Fernwood Resort, Big Sur, my accommodation spot for the night. As fate would have it, because of some issues with the previous guests, I got a cabin instead of the motel room. What a nice birthday present.
My snake encounter count moved up to 3 in total, since I saw another two dead ones through my stage 2 ride.
Accommodation, Food etc.
- Accommodation: Fernwood Resort, Big Sur
- Dinner: River Inn (pricey)
- Groceries: Big Sur River Inn General Store
Stage 3: Big Sur to Morro Bay
Since many of the breakfast places in Big Sur don’t open until later, I had to feed myself in the morning from what I had in the cabin. I wanted to start the day early since I knew that I had the longest leg (92 miles) in front of me. After leaving at pretty much 8am sharp, I encountered the first big climb (about 900 feet over 2 miles), which prompted to take off the leg and arm warmers I had put on because of the morning chill. No need for them anymore throughout the rest of the ride. I did keep the thin long finger gloves on because the wind was kinda chilly and I wanted to maintain proper braking power on the downhills and not cool off quickly on the descents.
After a few fog engulfed spots in the beginning, it turned out to be a pretty sunny day in Big Sur. The ride was 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 gone. The magnificent views however made me forget a lot of the pain, since there was a photo opportunity awaiting pretty much around every corner. Breathtaking.
I initially wasn’t too happy with my progress, barely making 10 miles an hour. After Big Sur however, the scenery changed from a road that clinged to the cliffs in lots of turns and up and downs, those gave way to a much flatter environment. And again, as I had hoped, the wind worked in my favor. With (strong) tailwind in my back, I was able to gun it, doing almost 20mph on average. it was a blast and relief compared to all the ups and downs earlier in the day.
As much as I enjoyed the tailwind and the unexpected speed, I stopped at the Elephant Seal Boardwalk at Piedras Blancas to take a look at the animals sunbathing on the beach. That little stop was then followed by a lunch break next to the San Simeon Pines Seaside Resort.
Continuing on, enjoying the forces of the tailwind, passing by the town of Harmony and passing through charming Cayucos, I made it to Morro Bay at 5pm after about 9 hours on the road. I was particularly glad because this stage constituted the one with the biggest mileage in one day. The hardest part seemed to be behind me.
Accommodation, Food etc.
Stage 4: Morro Bay to Lompoc
Since I was really exhausted from the long leg on the day before, getting up and into gear the next day was bit more difficult. After enjoying self-made breakfast at the motel, I left Morro Bay quite late, around 9.40am. The path initially led me on local roads while the weather showed it’s misty and foggy, but warm side. Having passed through Los Osos, the road flattened out a bit and, at the same time, the fog gave way to sunny skies. Meanwhile, my body quite vocally started reminding me what I had put him through the last couple of days, giving me pain in knees and on my butt. But there was no other option but battling through and carrying on.
The town of Pismo Beach, with its great ocean views and upscale houses, offered a nice spot for taking a bit of a break and soaking in the scenery. As the path turned inland around the Oceano County Airport, the scenery changed from ocean view beauty to farmland and, almost as if the weather wanted to adapt to the more monotonous scenery, it got overcast, significantly colder and the wind hitting me either head on or for the side. Cruising through Guadalupe, the wind however turned into tailwind and the skies cleared up, giving me an opportunity to speed up a bit and make up for lost time.
At the junction of Cabrillo Highway and Black Road, I had to make a decision regarding my direction. BikeNav (powered by Google Maps) suggested a right turn, over a significant hill and towards Vandenberg Air Force Base. While it seemed shorter, many of the roads in the turn-by-turn directions were marked as “restricted roads”, usually meaning it is a road passing through some sort of private property, an Air Force Base in this case. Since I did not want to risk hauling myself and my bike all the way up the hill only being stopped at the gate by a military officer, I decided to continue along the Pacific Coast bike route, leading me on to Hwy 1.
Even though that seemed like a good decision, I was not able to avoid the couple of nasty climbs about 15 miles out of Lompoc on the highway, which, especially since my body was already hurting, were pretty tedious and exhausting. At last I made it to Lompoc around 5pm, checking in to the local Days Inn. I got a pretty dark room towards the back of the complex with a pretty smelly bathroom, but was pleasantly surprised that they had a pool and jacuzzi. Perfect for resting my tired body.
Accommodation, Food etc.
- Dinner: Tom’s
- Groceries: Albertsons (1500 North H Street), but there are plenty of options along North H Street
Stage 5: Lompoc to Ventura
As much as the dark room and the smelly bathroom bothered me, I was impressed by the fairly big continental breakfast included in the room price (including a staff person making waffles to order). Leaving Lompoc, the weather presented it’s usual morning face: foggy and misty. The road went through hilly farmland at this point. Having passed by the entrance of the Sunburst Sanctuary, I made it up the last major climb for a while at mile 17, which was followed by a scary 7 % downhill grade stretch.
At the merge of highways 1 and 101, I was outmaneuvered by Google Maps again, when it was trying to give me a safer route around the highway junction, but instead I ended up at a security gate, separating the forest road from the highway. Not seeing any other option, I just lifted my bike (and myself) over the gate, and on I went. The subsequent descent onto 101 South was a bit frightening again, because of the increased speed, the wind gusts and the cars zooming by at 65 to 70mph. I did make it through though and as the highway ran along the coast again, I enjoyed nice views and spotted the railroad tracks that the Amtrak Coast Starlight uses on it’s route from Seattle to Los Angeles (which is, by the way, one option to travel back from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area).
Near the town of Goleta, I was forced off the highway by signs, which I decided to obey to since I’d rather choose safety over speed. And it actually worked out to my advantage, since I was traveling almost exclusively on dedicated bike paths and lanes from this point on to Santa Barbara. The path (partially equipped with solar powered path lights) took me through the town of Goleta and the gorgeous campus of UC Santa Barbara. Heading into Santa Barbara for lunch, I opted for the coastal route for the best views and enjoyed a nice meal at the cafe at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
The last 30 miles from Santa Barbara to Ventura I was able to cover mostly on bike lanes or local roads off the main highway, except a rather short part between Rincon Beach Park and Richfield Pier. 7.5 hours and 92 miles later, I made it to Ventura.
Accommodation, Food etc.
Stage 6: Ventura to Santa Monica
The Last Stage. I woke up tired from five days of riding continuously, but in eager anticipation of finishing this epic ride today. I had room service for breakfast and left Ventura at 10am, the weather still playing along with temperatures in the lower 60s and mostly sunny. I essentially continued on the bike path that had brought me into Ventura along the beach and followed the Pacific Coast bike route. Passing by Channel Island Harbor and more farmland, the road led me to the Naval Air Station Point Mugu. After that, I merged back onto Hwy 1 South, continuing along the coast. The weather turned back into overcast mode at this point and it stayed pretty much like that for the rest of my journey.
I continued cruising along through Malibu and briefly stopped at El Pescador Beach and Zuma Beach. After that, it was only 20 miles to go and I tried to mobilize all remaining energy to cover those as quickly as possible. That last part turned out to be a little dangerous since the shoulder on the highway was occupied by cars or private driveways leading into it. So I had to be extra vigilant not to crash into anything.
I felt the biggest relief when I was able to exit the highway, now in sunshine again, and coast along the Marvin Braude Bike Trail until I finally hit my fictional finish line: Santa Monica Pier. Just did it!
Apart from the joy I felt when I reached the pier in Santa Monica (where I was surrounded by masses of people who seemingly had no appreciation for the fact that I had just biked 470 miles to get to this point), I had also bumped into a film crew by accident on Hwy 1. A bit after Point Mugu, a rather big SUV with a camera crane mounted on it’s roof passed by me, as well as a couple of brand new Toyota vehicles. They stopped at a scenic overview and one of the guys confirmed that they were indeed shooting a Toyota commerical on highway 1. Asking them if I should wait until they were done (the crew was accompanied by two highway patrol cars), they told me that I can just go ahead, since they are only planning to block of a mile of highway to shoot the commercial. So I was able to continue, however they did block off the highway for a bit after I had passed through. Just another example of what you experience when you travel by bike.