Central Coast Tour: 400 Miles from San Francisco to Santa Barbara


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.

Light and ultralight tour rigs


Minimal-ish camping at Half Moon Bay

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.

Chatting with Jay at Rivendell World HQ


Navigating The Wiggle in San Francisco


Cruising into Half Moon Bay

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.

My rig at Big Basin Redwoods State Beach


Swanton strawberries: ¡si se puede!


Rolling toward Santa Cruz

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.

A fun 73 miles ahead


The beginning of the extra-goodness

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.

Obligatory.


Southerners headed South

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.

The fog was still with us in the morning


Flat!

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.

Picking up our fuel of choice: cinnamon bears in Guadalupe

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.

Jim joins us for Refugio Pass


Touristas


Steep, rocky climb up Refugio Pass.


Santa Barbara in our sights

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!

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16 comments

  1. ol'grumpy

    Ahhh man, I wish I had time this year to do that trip. For the past two years I have been able to ride south on HWY 1 through Big Sur either on tour or on Brevets. Sounds like you had a great time. Sorry I missed you at the shop. Good story!

    • Esteban

      Every section gives something different, although the Big Sur stretch is about the best it gets, if traffic is light. I was thinking about the SCR 1000 while riding this stretch. Epic!

  2. Kyle

    Sounds like an awesome trip. I was wondering if you could give me more specifics about the last day’s route. I live near there and would like to try it out. I’m also very curious what bike path is the “greatest on earth”? Thanks!

    • Esteban

      We liked the path through UCSB because of the bicycle round-abouts and the stop signs that allow bicycles to keep moving while cars stop. Perhaps an overreach in language, but it was quite fun after having no bike lane for much of the ride.

      As to Refugio Pass, take the 246 through Solvang, then head right on Refugio road. It meanders through farmland and then a wooded area when you reach a “road closed” sign, and then begins the dirt fire-road up and over the Santa Ynez mountains. I think Regan’s ranch is at the top. Then its a rough-paved descent all the way down to the 101. Absolutely wonderful. Ride it!

  3. Alice Stribling

    What type of rack and bag system did you use on the front? Nitto Campee? I’m interesting in setting up my Sam Hillborne for some bike camping. Thanks!

  4. Errin

    Very cool report. I rode the 1 from Salinas to Lompoc on the 600k brevet. You’re right, the riding doesn’t get much better between Big Sur and San Simeon.

  5. frank

    I love this report…I’d like to get out from DC and do it. What did you do once you reached the Amtrak station in S.B.? Could you put your bikes on a train?

  6. Jeff Reynolds

    Esteban, Its Jeff from Mission Hills Bike Shop. Dan and I are doing Monterey to San Diego in a few weeks, I was wondering if you had any suggestions. I have ridden Portland to San Diego but I had to take a bus from SLO to Oxnard because of the fires. So Im taking a second run at it. I also did not use a map the first time we just kinda winged it and made sure the ocean was on the right! haha. Thanks.

  7. Esteban

    Jeff – have a blast (unless you’ve already gotten back from the trip, then I hope you had a blast). Refugio Rd. from Solvang – up to Reagan Ranch and then down to the 101 is the best way to get into Santa Barbara.

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