Bicycle Tour - San Francisco to Los Angeles

Ryo at Pismo Beach

Introduction

It was the fall of 2016, shortly after my roommate Stephen got a used road bike. One of us put the idea out there that we should bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles. We both got excited about it. Biking down the coast has been on my bucket list ever since I moved to California and biked from my dorm at USC to the Santa Monica pier. I liked the idea of being able to experience the little details of the state: The small towns and the country roads, stuff you miss when you fly down the freeway.

Overwhelmed with how much planning would need to happen, we put the idea aside. But, Stephen stubbornly still told all of his friends that he was going to do the ride. Not wanting to back down on all of his promises, in the spring of 2017 I bought a used road bike and we started preparing.

Planning and Preparation

We spent about 6 months thinking about planning, and 1 month planning in earnest. Luckily, SF to LA is a popular tour and there are a lot of great blog posts, maps, books, and GPS routes that made it easy to cobble together our own itinerary. Our biggest challenges were assembling the necessary gear (since this was our first long tour) and creating an itinerary that took into account a bridge that had washed out in Big Sur.

We ended up using these 2 RideWithGPS routes to create our own route.

Here are some of the resources we used with the above routes to learn what to expect on our trip:

To navigate, I used RideWithGps.com, and their iOS app. To use their offline maps feature it requires a paid monthly subscription, but I figured a couple dollars is a small price to pay to make sure we don’t get lost! As a secondary resource, we got the ACA Pacific Coast Map #4. Although the map didn’t cover details for our detour, I was really impressed by how useful this map was, especially the at-a-glance elevation information. A lot of people also recommend the book Bicycling The Pacific Coast, but I didn’t find it very useful, especially since it’s written in short paragraphs and doesn’t include any maps.

Gear

Bike Touring Gear

Luckily, I’ve had a chance to collect most of the camping gear over time, so that half of the gear was covered. It took us a month and a couple of amazon orders to collect all of the other odds and ends. Looking back, I had no regrets on what I brought, almost all of it was useful at some point. Going on a couple overnight bike camping trips before the big trip allowed us to winnow the equipment down to the essentials (and a couple luxuries - like the Kindle!).

Clothing

  • boots
  • sandals
  • 3 pairs padded bike shorts
  • 5 underwear
  • 5 regular pairs socks
  • waterproof shell
  • waterproof pants
  • costco night pants
  • gloves
  • heat tech fleece
  • 3 dry fit shirts
  • 1 regular shirts
  • 1 pairs wool socks
  • ear mitts
  • sunglasses

Toiletries

  • shammy
  • tube of body wash
  • sunscreen
  • toothpaste / toothbrush
  • first aid kit
  • non antibacterial wet wipes
  • paper towels
  • toilet paper
  • bug repellant
  • lip balm

Cookware

  • stove / gas
  • tins
  • spork
  • knife
  • dehydrated potatoes
  • oatmeal/dried fruit/nuts/dehydrated milk
  • Backpacking meals
  • instant decaf coffee

Sleeping

  • tent / footprint
  • sleeping bag and liner
  • thermarest
  • pillow bag
  • headlamp
  • extra AAA’s
  • kindle

Bike Tools

  • air pump / patch kit
  • 2 extra tubes
  • tire levers
  • multitool
  • chain oil
  • duct tape
  • zip ties
  • bike lock

Utility

  • Cash
  • Quarters (for showers)
  • Handlebar bag
  • Map
  • Power pack
  • Charging cords
  • Headphones
  • Camelback / water bottles
  • Snacks: trail mix, pringles, chips, oreos
  • Wireless headphones
  • bike vest
  • bike lights

Itinerary

Day End At Mileage Accommodations
1 Half Moon Bay 30 Half Moon Bay State Beach Hiker Biker Campsite
2 Santa Cruz 50 New Brighton State Beach Hiker Biker Campsite
3 Monterey 50 Veterans Memorial Park
4 King City 60 Days Inn
5 Paso Robles 66 Motel 6
6 Pismo Beach 67 Pismo State Beach Oceano Campground (reservation)
7 Solvang 68 Refugio State Beach
8 Ventura 64 Premier Inns
9 Los Angeles 58 Stephen’s house

Day 1: San Francisco to Half Moon Bay

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Our first setback happened before we even started. At the TINT office, Stephen noticed that his rack was crooked, and after looking closer we saw that a screw had fallen off. We were already an hour later than when we needed to leave and we rushed to find a local bike shop that would have a screw. Ended up going to Pedal Revolution. We got the rack back on, but we weren’t able to get it fully secure in the eyelet (foreshadowing for later when the rack tore off of the frame).

Our second setback was when we were heading through the hills between Pacifica and Half Moon Bay. The roads get narrow and there are long downhill stretches where you are riding fast. I hit a series of potholes, my inner tube popped, and I lost control of the bike - flew off and hit the ground. I was incredibly lucky to only have cuts and bruises. One of my favorite memories was Stephen pulling up and laughing hysterically while I’m wondering if I’ve broken any bones. I’m sitting there dizzy, relieved that nothing happened, and expect Stephen to help me replace my flat tire. When I ask him to help me. He says, “You know this… I’m incompetent!” Ahahaha.

We were rewarded with the best campsite of our entire trip, the Half Moon Bay Beach. A clean, freshly cut section of grass next to the beach and clean showers. The raccoons at night steal our snacks but it’s okay, they deserve it.

Day 2: Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz

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We woke up to thumps on the tent roof. It’s 3am. I poke my head out and there are fruit snacks plunking onto the tent one at a time. I shine my light up into the tree and two glowing raccoon eyes shine down at me. I figure there’s nothing I can do and crawl back into bed to fall asleep.

The highlight of the day is halfway to Santa Cruz when we stop at Swanton Berry Farm. Along the PCH, the farm is a regular stop for anyone looking for fresh made strawberry sweets, and depending on the season, u-pick berries. Today there are catering tables and chairs set up with a band playing in the grassy field next to the parking lot. Not quite sure what the occasion is, we walk through the party to park our bikes. An older man walks up to us and introduces himself as Bern. We learn that Bern used to own the farm and the event is in memory of his younger brother who recently passed away. He invited us to have a slice strawberry pie: The best berry pie I’ve ever had. As we looked onto the sunny California coastline eating fresh berry pie, we share a special moment with strangers.

Day 3: Santa Cruz to Monterrey

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The earplugs I got from the CVS the night before were the best investment, the sleep was unbeatable. We start late as usual and are on the road at 10:30am. Right before we leave, a couple the campsite next door came up and shared that they have always wanted to do bike touring. We realize we’re living the dream! Taco Bell for breakfast and then we rolled out of the city and into the countryside.

The sights and smells were splendid. It’s old chateaus on hills overlooking commercial berry fields, beat up Tauruses and Corollas rumbling down dirt roads. It feels like Indiana, minus the heat and corn. Our spontaneous roadside stop today was Moss Landing, and Phil’s Fish Market & Eatery. We got huge portions of cioppino and fish and chips and eat in a windy gravel parking lot, rejoicing in the heavy paper containers of food in front of us. By the end of the meal we are both so full we can barely finish. Rolling into Monterrey, we struggle up the hill to Veterans Park and as the sun sets, we order delivery pizza to the park.

Day 4: Monterrey to King City

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We met Dominic in the morning who is staying in the campsite next to us. He’s an older black gentleman who told us about how the campground gets really popular in May. He sells rasta bracelets, used to sell them with his wife who can no longer join him due to a chronic illness. He told us more stories, but eventually we headed out away from the coast to begin our inland detour. After about 20 miles we saw a small sign ahead for the Monterrey Zoo. We decided to take a tour and relax for a bit. After an hour of African cats, we rode out, but then I heard Stephen yelling behind me. I turned around. Flat tire? I realized that it’s worse when I see that his rear tire is missing half its spokes. The rack ripped off the mounts and jammed into the wheel, destroying both the frame and the rear wheel. For a long moment we considered our options and decided that our best bet was to have me drop all of my gear and bike back to the nearest town (Salinas) and rent a car to make it to the next city in our itinerary, and once we get there, to figure out next steps. It took me an hour to hustle to Salinas, but am able to successfully rent a car, pick up Stephen, and drive to the Days Inn at King City. That night the motel was a luxury and exactly what we needed.

Day 5: King City to Paso Robles

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I have a dream of Stephen walking out of the motel bathroom holding a friend’s bike. I wake up and tell Stephen, “I have a plan.” Plan: Drive back to San Francisco, pick up friend’s bike, and drive to the next stop in our itinerary to continue our tour tomorrow morning. I called our friend, Chris, he answers and confirms. In 20 minutes we’re ready to roll out of the motel. 3 hours later we’re back in San Francisco, and after almost running out of gas, we drive drive drive. We make it to Paso Robles and assemble the bikes in the car rental parking lot. It’s HOT. We rode and checked into the Motel 6. I laid on the bed and enjoyed the stillness. It felt satisfying to come up with an idea from a dream and turn it into a reality. After the sun sets, we rode to McDonalds to get a soft serve cone.

Day 6: Paso Robles to Pismo Beach

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We woke up earlier than usual, 8am, kicked it into high gear to leave. It was one of our longest days, projected to be almost 70 miles. Breakfast was McDonalds for Stephen and I’m sick of McD’s, so Subway for me. We rode out of Paso Robles and into the countryside. Long rolling hills, and then we hit the hill we saw on the map. Struggles to get the the top, but the views are incredible. Eventually we’re over the clouds, the hills are lush and green, and we saw all the way to the water which was many miles away. We coasted downhill all the way to the Pacific Coast Highway. Short stop at a small path that leads us to a coastal cliff and a beach. Stephen needed to make a couple business calls, so we stopped at a beach town and an old couple started a conversation and ended it by telling us to call our parents. Then, up through foggy farmland and to SLO where we got pork ribs at Firestone Grill. We spent our final calories getting to Pismo Beach to camp out with bohemian lifestylers on a Wednesday evening.

Day 7: Pismo Beach to Refugio Beach

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Another long 70 mile day. I was afraid that any stress injuries would happen today. Focused on my cycling form and tried to pedal smoothly. We found a touristy diner around the corner and got breakfast there. We began our long journey into the countryside again. I waved to a migrant worker with a full face mask working in a field and they waved back at me. This day was dusty, windy, hot, clearly we had passed through the mysterious line that separates North from South. Thirteen miles back, we passed through Guadalupe (population 7k). There’s a mural marking its location in California on the tallest building (4 stories), and main street is empty. The town is memorable and unique, somewhere I would never pass through on a drive, unclaimed by chain stores and franchises, except one Subway where we got lunch. A girl gets dropped off by her mom to start her shift as a Sandwich Artist and I wonder what it’s like to grow up here and what San Francisco must seem like to an outsider. Watching the multicolored triangle flags snap over the used car lot next door, I imagine that for all the days that pass in San Francisco, the same number pass in Guadalupe and these flags are flying regardless.

Rolled out of the tiny town, and we soon hit our first climb, Harris Grade Road. It’s steep, we’re gnashing on our lowest gears, and we stopped a couple of times to catch our breath. We race down the other side and roll into Lompoc where we get some thai food. Even medium sized towns feel much larger after biking through the country for so long. It’s 4pm and it’s onto the final hill. Hours of climbing pass by, and as the sun starts to go down, we race >30 mph down the other side down to the 101 freeway.

We double check but almost unbelievably we’re supposed to go down the freeway. At the junction, as we check directions, I see a half dead rattlesnake at my feet and it makes me jump.

We rode the freeway. Cars and semis going 80mph zoomed past. The worst was the sound of a semi truck as it rumbled from a distance, and as it got closer rose into a terrifying crescendo which peaked as the sudden gust of wind threw gravel onto me. We stayed focused and avoided rattlesnake carcasses on the right and traffic on the left. Finally, we made it to the coast. Continuing down the coast, still on the freeway, there was a sign that read “If flashing, bicyclists on bridge”, but it was clear that it flasheed all the time, clearly a half-hearted stop gap measure for an unsafe bridge with no median.

Sunset at Refugio Beach felt like our little slice of paradise, and in the twilight we reflected on our favorite parts of the trip while eating the last of the backpacking food.

Day 8: Refugio Beach to Ventura

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Leaving Refugio beach, we debate on breakfast plans. The nearest place with breakfast is quite a ways away, so we heat up some oatmeal and hit the road hoping we’ll run into some fast food. The road is mostly flat and along the coast which is a plus, but still along the freeway which is a big minus. Along the way, we take a detour through Santa Barbara. We are thankful to find a Costco where we get our first tasty meal of the day. Pizza and salads. Then, a leisurely cruise through the bike-friendly UCSB campus. It’s fun to pretend to be students for a little bit. Then, back on the beach and down to Carpenteria. We stop at a Pho place and I ask Stephen to pull up the address for the motel that night so that I can start planning our route more accurately. He says, “It’s the Premier Inns, Thousand Oaks.” And I search it on Google Maps and realize that the motel is about 20 miles out of the way of the path to LA. It looks like we weren’t paying attention when we were booking with Travelocity and we ended up booking a place that was slightly cheaper, and probably worth going to if we were driving, but inaccessible by bike. With the sun quickly starting to get dim, we go into planning mode and we start to look for options to re-book in Ventura proper. We are lucky and are able to cancel the reservation with no charge and re-book at a much more convenient location without too much of a last-minute price hike. Whew! We roll down as the sun is setting into Ventura and check into the Vagabond Inn. This is by far the nicest motel we’ve stayed at so far, and it feels glorious to take a private hot shower and lay in a bed in a clean room. We eat takeout fish burritos from Spencer Makenzie’s and they are so good.

Day 9: Ventura to Los Angeles

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The last day of the ride! We can start to feel LA coming up as we roll out of Ventura and through Oxnard, heading to Malibu. We stop to eat some roadside strawberries from a parked truck and below we see houses of the rich and famous. We pass the sign marking the LA county line, and weave through traffic as we enter Malibu. We reach Santa Monica and run into the water. Then, a long Metro ride to Monterrey Park and then crashing at Stephen’s parents’ place.

Surprises

  • The Community - Everyday, other cyclists would wave and start a conversation about where we were headed and what tours they’ve been on. Our bikes were a great way for people to approach us, and it surprised me how popular cycling is even in the remotest areas.
  • Our Own Stamina - We had never done long-distance cycling before planning this trip out, and the training rides we did before the trip were about 40 miles, so we were expecting the 70 mile days we had planned to be absolutely at the edge of our physical limits. However, we found that we had underestimated our abilities and although those days were exhausting, they were do-able. And we were always able to make it to the next campsite before dark.
  • Hike/Bike Campsites - One of my worries was that we’d get to a campsite after a long day of riding to discover that the first-come-first-served hike/bike campsites would be filled up and we’d have to stealth camp on some gun-wielding stranger’s property. Luckily, we never got close to that, because most of the time, we were the only ones at the campsite. Also, I asked rangers at each of the parks if they had ever turned any cyclists away, and all of them said that it never happens.
  • Signage - It was strange but reassuring to see the “Bicycle Route - Pacific Coast” signs pop up even in the most remote and unexpected locations. Near the end of the trip, we needed to get on the 101 freeway, and at first I was like, “no way”, but then after taking the plunge and pedaling down the on-ramp, there were bicycle signs on the freeway too! The signs were a nice touch, I felt like I was on a well-traveled path.

Tips for the first time bike tourist

  • The adventure only starts once something goes wrong. Be ready to adapt to changes in the plan. Keep your expectations low :)
  • Check how much weight your bike frame can hold. We learned the hard way.
  • Related to the above, if you have any issues with your bike, reddit /r/bikewrench is a community of mechanics that’ll give you the advice you need
  • Practice for a longer trip with shorter tours. We bike-camped 2 times on weekends before the long trip and it helped us build our endurance and identify any gear we needed, or didn’t need on the longer trip
  • Never leave any food unsecured at a campsite, raccoons can open clasps, zippers, and claw through plastic bags.
  • Invest in plastic tubes for liquids, our soap container started leaking halfway through the trip.
  • If you’re camping, figuring out the sleeping gear you need to get fully recharged with a great nights sleep is critical. For me, that includes an inflatable sleeping pad and earplugs. A couple camping trips should help you figure this out.