Riding the 101: Bicycle Touring Mega-Update

I spent about two weeks of my sabbatical riding from San Francisco to San Diego (Jul 31- Aug 15). I got in the habit of posting end-of-day recaps to Facebook and Strava as I went, which really helped me reflect on what happened. I’m reposting all of them here as a mega-post.

Total distance: 622.9 miles

Total climbing: 24436 feet

Total riding time: 55.85 hours

Sunsets on the beach: whenever possible

Day 1. San Francisco to Half Moon Bay

I originally planned to bike from Portland to San Francisco, but those plans were derailed by the Carr wildfire by Redding cancelling my scheduled Amtrak to Portland, and American Airlines losing my luggage coming back from Budapest.

So, two days later than expected, I’m now planning to bike south to San Diego. Today was an easy leg to one of my favorite bike touring destinations, Half Moon Bay. Foggy and wet the entire way here, but the skies cleared upon my arrival in the afternoon, and now I’m enjoying a walk on the beach. Tomorrow promises to be a big climbing day, so it’ll be an early bed time after dinner.

Day 2: Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz.

A gray, misty morning turned into a beautiful sunny day. My first stop was at Pidgeon Point, a converted Coast Guard facility that is now a hostel. The big climb of the day let out onto a spur of Big Basin, with marshy creeks flowing into the ocean. Lunch was at Davenport, a town of 375 known for its cement plant (a hulking 5 story carapace of a building), and then easy rollers to Natural Bridge state park and Santa Cruz proper. Visited the pier and observed the elephant seals honking and splashing about.

I made the mistake today of forgetting to buy dinner fixings before turning into camp, which added 40mins of backtracking to Whole Foods. A lesson I’ll remember, and I way overbought since I was shopping with my stomach.

Day 3: Santa Cruz to Monterey

An appreciated short day, to make up for yesterday. I started my morning making my way through dusty crop fields, tractors kicking up a fine sift. It’s harvest season for strawberries, and it was a reminder how little some aspects of farming have changed. Teams of ten to twenty people bent over picking by hand (listening to mariachi, of course). Amazing that all this effort is expended, and it ends up in your supermarket for a few dollars a pint.

Not much of note until hitting Monterey. I arrived too late to make a go of the aquarium, so instead hit up a laundromat (note: hang drying overnight does not work with a wet ocean breeze) and went souvenir shopping at Fisherman’s Wharf. I also splurged on a motel, so no making and breaking camp tonight 😊

Legs are definitely feeling it!

Day 4: Monterey to Big Sur

This was, by far, the best day for the views. 17 Mile Drive has to be one of the most photographed places on Earth, and deservedly so. Multiple times I looked to my right and thought, “I saw this yesterday on a postcard at the gift shop.”

I also had the unexpected pleasure of riding a single speed for most of 17 Mile Drive since my rear shifter cable snapped. I embraced this opportunity by resting at every outlook and walking up a few of the steeper hills. A bike shop in Carmel had me going again in 20 minutes, just in time for the big climb of the day.

Today was also the first taste of Steinbeck country: chapparal, brown cows, fields of yellow blowing in the wind. Arriving in Big Sur, another contrast: towering redwoods and shaded groves.

Pfieffer Big Sur is a unique campground since it allows bikers a second night’s stay. If I had an extra day in my schedule I would have liked to spend it here and do some hiking, but alas. Next time.

Day 5: Big Sur to Plaskett Creek

The ever present fog has lifted, revealing even more gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean. The traffic on Highway 1 has also significantly reduced south of Big Sur, meaning pleasant riding.

Today’s ride was short but steep. It was a little tempting to double up with tomorrow’s ride, but the next leg promises more of the same and I got a late start today.

I feel like I’m finally getting into the rhythm of the journey. I get off my bike, set up my tent, stretch, shower, and make dinner. I’m in my tent by around 9, and then up around 7 and do it in reverse. My body has accepted that I’m riding every day, and I understand how hard I can push.

Plaskett Creek is a delightful little campground. No showers, but the best view yet. It’s right across the road from Sand Dollar Beach, and I had time to go down in the afternoon before dinner, the return later for sunset.

Day 6: Plaskett Creek to San Simeon

One last climb here in Central California before flattening out to San Simeon (and Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo beyond). Of note today was the Elephant Seal beach, where you could see the massive creatures sunning and throwing Sand on themselves and, occasionally, rearing up to fight each other with their tusks. The necks of the males are a mess of scar tissue, proof of their dominance (or fealty).

I’ve gotten to know a bunch of the other cyclists on this route, it seems Big Sur to Los Angeles is the most popular part of the journey.

Notable: the French couple touring with their two young kids, one on a tandem and one in a trailer! They get along well with the Quebecoise couple who are also touring.

Dallas has been on the road for almost three months now, having biked from Washington DC to Vancouver, then down the Pacific Coast. She’s from Australia, single mom of four, and put her last kid into college and hopped on the bike.

Timo has to be the most adventurous person I’ve met. He’s German, and decided on this trip because there was a cheap round trip to LA. He’s already taken his bike to Tahoe to ride singletrack around the lake, and now is riding (with an impressive amount of gear) back to LA to complete his trip. I asked him if he feels ready to return to work; answer: never! His ideal would to be to travel the world for one, two, maybe three years, perhaps cycling from Alaska down to the tip of South America. I’ve literally never heard someone else talk about taking time off in those terms. Sure, three weeks of vacation, but three years? Germans are doing something right.

Day 7: San Simeon to Oceano

I opted for a longer ride since my legs felt good and I made good time to Morro Bay. I still had time in the afternoon to avail myself of the Avila hot springs before continuing on to Pismo Beach. No hiker biker camping so I opted for a motel (though later found out from a Canadian biking couple that I could have stayed at the comfortable RV campground).

Tomorrow is going to be another long day, with not much between here and Gaviota. Closing in on Santa Barbara though, which will be a major milestone for the trip.

Day 8: Oceano to Gaviota

No ocean views during the ride today as the route turned inland. I mostly followed 1 and 101, taking me through seemingly endless farmland and yellowed ranchland. I think this is the longest day of the trip, and I’m glad to have it behind me.

Without the calming influence of the ocean, the day was a scorcher. I found myself pulling off at rest stops ever hour or so, with the heat really peaking around 2pm. A lady at the gas station said it was 104, and my GPS registered a peak of 113. I made it through by filling my bottles with ice water (supplemented by a few additional cold sport drinks), but not a pleasant ride.

Gaviota is a small state campground, though still with full facilities (water, showers, even a campstore). It also has a unique feature: a trestle train bridge that runs right over the path to the beach.

Day 9: Gaviota to Carpinteria

The major landmark today was passing through Santa Barbara. One of the vista points in the morning mentioned a cycling craze in the late 1800s, as well as the nation’s oldest cycling store (which I had to visit). Santa Barbara also gets the award for the most bike friendly city I’ve seen: comfortable bike lanes running through UCSB, alongside 101, and the city itself.

Today really felt like a southern California day with the clear blue skies, palm trees, and beaches, but a little taste of home rolled in around 6pm: dense, all-encompassing fog. Still, high spirits today at the hiker biker site in Carpinteria (the busiest since Pfieffer Big Sur), and a lot of new faces.

Day 10: Carpenteria to Leo Carillo

A very pleasant (and flat) ride today. Excellent bike lanes and bike paths through Ventura and Oxnard. The oppressive heat of the two previous days relented, and I was relaxing on the beach by 3pm. Two things stood out from today: the incredible number of RVs parked alongside the road, and the number of surfers catching waves at every beach.

I saw a woman today in full Canyon-SRAM team kit and bike going in the opposite direction on 101. I was wearing my Canyon jersey too, but she was cranking pretty hard and didn’t notice when I waved. It’s possible she’s a Canyon pro, not inconceivable since California is a popular place to train.

Passing through Oxnard, a brief stop at the Point Mugu Missile Park, where they have an outdoor collection of missiles and aircraft. It’s also next to an active military runway, and I got to see what I think was an F-15 and a C-130 land. Pretty cool.

Today is also the first day I’m camping by myself. The hiker biker sites on previous nights have been full of friendly faces swapping stories, but today I’m alone at the quite comfortable campground at Leo Carillo. Tomorrow I’ll be biking into LA, so the solitude is a little respite before dealing with the crowds and the traffic.

Day 11: Leo Carrillo to Venice Beach

I spent most of the day off the bike, and it’s the first day of this trip that’s really felt like a vacation. Not that I don’t enjoy biking (far from it, or else I wouldn’t be doing this), but sometimes I want a slower paced day where I can just relax.

I started my day with a short jaunt to Paradise Cove in Malibu for brunch. It was recommended by a fellow biker, and it’s one of those kitschy touristy places that I love. The outdoor seating is literally on the beach, and the menu is full of American classics and fruity cocktails. Recommended.

Getting into Santa Monica was not the best riding conditions (highway speed traffic with cars parked in the shoulder), but plenty of bike lanes after that all the way to Venice Beach.

I parked my bike at my hotel and started walking. The Venice canals were an unexpected pleasure, and maybe the favorite thing I saw today. It wasn’t some lame Las Vegas style knockoff like inside the Venetian, but a genuinely picturesque LA neighborhood with peaceful canals lined by shaded paths. It felt more neighborhood-y than the Painted Ladies in SF; local residents were out gardening, walking their dogs, or paddling along the canals. Great place to walk around.

Next, the boardwalk. This span of beachfront is the television ideal of California. A sunset over the ocean framed by palm trees, people playing beach volleyball, skating, or surfing, and lots of swim suits and tank tops. I had my first Hotdog On A Stick (aka a corndog) at the original location at the Santa Monica pier, then a pleasant evening stroll through the very walkable pedestrian-only Third Street Promenade.

Day 12: Venice Beach to Dana Point

Rather than riding the rest of the LA shoreline, I opted to take the Metrolink from Union Station to San Juan Capistrano so I’d have time to meet up with my friend Philip in the evening. Getting to Union Station was an actually-pretty-good bike ride to downtown with a bike lane and good signage for most of it.

I’m glad I got a taste of the less touristy part of LA. I still remember flying into LAX the first time and passing over what felt like endless sprawl. This experience was reinforced at street level. Lots of single family housing with yards and driveways, small strip malls with parking lots, wide highways and feeder streets. The low density reduces the effectiveness of public transit; the reason I biked to Union Station is because it would have been the same amount of time riding the metro.

The Metrolink connection was smooth and uneventful, similar to Caltrain. It runs all the way to San Diego (my final destination), but that would have been cheating.

In Dana Point I had a little surprise, which is that the local state park no longer offers hiker biker sites despite what my book and maps said. I paid out the nose for a last minute stay in a nearby hotel, and emailed the map makers an update.

Dinner with Phil was very enjoyable. He’s from the area, and we got to visit some of his local favorites. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so it was good to catch up.

Day 13: Dana Point to Encinitas

Back to pleasant beachside riding. Lots of cyclists out on the road, with wide bike lanes down the coast. Had lunch by the beach in Oceanside, and passed through a few outdoor markets and events that were happening.

The big landmark that everyone mentioned was Camp Pendleton. Car traffic cruises by on I-5, but recreational bicyclists get to pass through the Marine base itself. I was worried about pre registering and having two forms of government ID, but I just showed the guard my passport and she waved me through. The ride through the base was unfortunately uneventful. I was hoping to see armored cars and soldiers on training exercises, but the path only took me part the residential housing, the strip mall, and the hospital. Still, pretty neat to get to ride through it. The base is huge, my transit from north to south took close to an hour.

I’m staying the night today with my uncle Jim, who lives in Encinitas and is also a big bicycling enthusiast. I got to try out his DIY electric bicycle, and I have to say, it was pretty nice to goose the throttle and let the bike carry me up the hill. I don’t have space in my life for another bike, but I think e-bikes solve a lot of the problems most people have with bicycling and I hope to see more of them on the road.

Day 14: Encinitas to Mexico

I did it!

Today was the last leg of my trip. My uncle Jim is a serious photographer, and was kind enough to take a few photos of me with my bike before I rolled on to San Diego

Just one little hill going up to Torrey Pines before levelling out into UCSD and La Jolla. I had my first California-style burrito for lunch in Ocean Beach (with more planned tomorrow), and dropped my bags off at my hotel before continuing on to downtown.

While waiting for the ferry to Coronado, I ran into another bike tourist who had just finished up his third Canada to Mexico run, which is on top of many cross-US and the infamous three year Alaska to the tip of South America ride. He’s published multiple books about bicycle touring, so I got his information and am going to check out his content when I get back.

With the sun falling fast, I made good time to San Ysidro (where the major border crossing is located). Without the extra 45 lbs of luggage, the bike is a lot faster! Since actually crossing and coming back would have taken over an hour, I satisfied myself with a picture by the CBP building before taking the trolley back to the city. It was cool to see the gigantic Mexican flag waving on the other side of the border, juxtaposed with the US and California flags waving on ours.

With the trip completed, I have the luxury of a free day tomorrow before catching Amtrak back to the Bay. Besides visiting more taquerias, I’m thinking about going to the USS Midway museum and doing a little souvenir shopping. Whether I bike to those places will be highly optional

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