I grew up camping at Big Sur, and have spent the last 18 years or so since college going back and forth between San Diego and San Francisco to visit my girlfriend/fiancé/wife and her family. All these years, I would see bicycle tourists riding along Highway 1, thinking it must be the neatest thing to do. Finally this summer, my friend Dustin Sharp and I made the trip from the 16th and Mission BART station to Amtrak Santa Barbara in 7 days filled with varied terrain and stunning vistas. This is the loaded tour that many have done, and everybody should do! It’s quite close to most people in California, with plenty of services along the route.
By and large, the Central Coast route passes through glorious terrain and provides something different everyday. Bicycle touring is one of the best ways to experience places and landscapes: one can cover quite a lot of ground, but you go slow enough to see things that evade most drivers: a peek at a hidden waterfall along the Big Sur coast, the smell of strawberries south of Capitola, the fantastic dirt path up Refugio Pass. There were just too many great moments to put it all into a blog post. Hopefully the photos from Dustin and myself can convey some of the experience.
There were originally 4 or 5 of us in the mix, but because of various things (injuries, timing, etc), Dustin and I made the trip a few days early. We were lucky enough for Jim Warren to join us camping in Buellton and during our last day to Santa Barbara. And were luckier yet to have advice from Doug P. and careful routing from Mike S.
Because Dustin and I were on our own, we thought we could deviate from Mike’s itinerary. But time and again, the coherence of his plan shone through: he combined camping with easy access to eateries in the hit-and-miss Central Coast. We planned on eating out, so restaurants within a mile or so would be important. We tent-camped all but one night, and I brought a Jetboil for morning coffee. Otherwise, we packed pretty light.
My plan was to use a traditional low-rider set-up on the light-ish side with two panniers, an Acorn saddlebag, and a rando bag in front with the Adventure Cycling maps and things I’d like to access like cinnamon bears, bars, camera, armwarmers, and a windbreaker. Dustin used an ultra-light set-up with no racks, but a framebag, stuffsack lashed to the handlebars, and an Acorn saddlebag. His packing was refined and impressive. He had about 20lbs of gear, whereas I carried about 35- 40lbs. I had spent a month eating confit de canard and croissants in Paris, so I spent most of the trip catching up to Dustin.
Among the many pleasures of this trip were the breakfasts. Every morning, we fueled up on eggs, bacon, pancakes, and 3 out of the 6 mornings, blueberry or apple pie. Local greasy spoon diners seemed to pop up at just the right moments in the mornings, providing energy for the first 3 hours or so. Blueberry pancakes at Deetjen’s in Big Sur was the standout for both of us. Pure luxury. We didn’t always eat lunch, but every evening settled down for a good dinner: ribs for two of the nights, Mexican food for another two, burgers for another couple. As Dustin remarked, we would not starve. Not terribly paleo, but it sure hit the spot.
Here’s what we did with some highlights:
Day 1- Drive from San Diego to East Bay and ride to Rivendell. Board BART at Walnut Creek and depart officially from the Mission via The Wiggle. Ride to Half Moon Bay Campground -25 miles. We spoke with Vince, Grant and Jay at Riv, and also stopped into Box Dog Bikes to find out how to catch the Wiggle and we spoke for a while with Jackie. We were also able to ride through Golden Gate Park and down through Daly City before hitting the coast in San Mateo County. The campsites at Half Moon Bay were wonderful, and the town provided good dinner and a better breakfast, complete with blueberry pie.
Day 2- Ride to New Brighton State Beach (south of Santa Cruz) -68 miles. A nice ride along the coast pass San Gregorio, Pescadero, Davenport, and a diversion among the redwoods and 80 miles of trails in Big Basin Redwood State Park. An absolute highlight was Swanton Strawberry Farm, where we enjoyed chocolate-covered fruit and Cesar Chavez memorials. New Brighton was crowded, but the hiker/biker sites were quiet and overlooked the ocean. An afternoon bodysurfing session in the unseasonably warm water hit the spot. Kabob dinner in Capitola.
Day 3- Ride to Big Sur 73 miles. Difficult but beautiful ride after apple pie, eggs, and bacon in Aptos. We diverted into Pacific Grove thinking about doing the 17-mile drive, but after lunch, we decided to take the Adventure Cycling route up and over the peninsula. Traffic was heavy on a Friday afternoon through the Carmel Highlands, which was a drag. There was one big climb, and then a lovely descent past Andrew Molera State Park and into Big Sur. We pitched our camp under the redwoods, and enjoyed beers under the giants and dinner at the Lodge.
Day 4 Ride to San Simeon State Park- 67 miles. Glorious. The morning started right with a Deetjen’s breakfast. With an early start, we beat the traffic and had the coastal road mostly to ourselves, with rollers, sustained climbs, and blissful descents in the most famous section of the course. Rolling hills and deep blue water set the scene as we entered San Luis Obisbo County. Before San Simeon, we stopped to see the elephant seals, and then made it to the State Park wit a passable campsite. Dinner in Cambria.
Day 5 – Ride to Pismo Beach- 54 miles. If we had a rest day, this was it. We rode through the towns of Cyucos and Morro Bay, and into San Luis Obisbo, where we were treated to a very small espresso and good vibes at a café downtown. I could move there, for sure. On the way, we rode along South Bay Blvd. and Turri Road for some wonderful climbing and a better descent. Pismo Beach was loud, full of toy trailers, and is a town we might skip if possible. Our only flea-bitten motel stay.
Day 6 Ride to Buellton Ca 62 miles, camp at Flying Flags RV Park. Varried ride through flat farmland and over the Harris Grad into Lompoc. I was spoiled by Big Sur and not terribly happy with this stretch when Dustin reminded me that uncrowded roads through farmland is what most people dream about. Jim joined us and we devoured Carnitas at a taqueria near the park.
Day 7 Ride to Santa Barbara 45 miles with dirt road climb of Refugio pass. Board Amtrak for home. Danish sausage and panckakes helped us get an early start out the 246 to Refugio Road, where we did the dirt climb and harrowing descent to the 101. Then to UCSB along the greatest bicycle path on earth, into Santa Barbara with time for burgers and beers adjacent to the train station.
Overall, a highly memorable road-bike experience and camping adventure. Mileage between 55-80 miles per day saved our sanity and Dustin’s knee, while providing a challenge with often some good climbs built in. Dustin and I had one flat each, no mechanicals at all, although that’s one of the benefits of running friction shifting.
Anyway, what are you waiting for – go do a camping trip!