Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bike Tour: San Francisco to Los Angeles

pigeon point lighthouse

In early May, Julie and I set out to ride our bikes from San Francisco to Los Angeles. This would be the second go-round for me, since I had completed the AIDS Ride several years ago, but it would be my first time riding it self-supported. For Julie, it was to be her first real bike tour, so I planned a rather casual pace, averaging about 40 miles per day over a two week period. As it turns out, the moderate pace benefitted us both because we had ample time to explore, take in the views, take pictures, and smell the flowers.

bike path

bike over pacific

I have traveled the coast route a few times before, twice in car and once on a motorcycle. What became quickly apparent on our bicycle trip is that you see much more due to the slower pace, the ease of stopping at just about any point along the way, and the unobstructed view. I saw several vistas that had previously been completely hidden from me, such as the pristine beach pictured below.

big sur vista

Our early May trip coincided with the northern whale migration, and we were treated to some stellar whale watching during several stops. It became almost routine after a while. "Hey, let's pull over for a quick snack. Oh, look, more whales." This time of year was also perfect for wildflowers, and fields of blooms often unfolded in front of our ocean views. During many of these stops, we took in the sounds as well, like the crashing of the waves and the barking of the seals.

pacific coast wildflowers

For the most part, we camped along the way, although we stayed in a motel now and then to recharge batteries and bodies. Campgrounds along the coast are fairly numerous, and several have hike & bike sections which do not require reservations, and are offered at a cheaper rate. We were never turned away from any campgrounds with the exception of one state park campground which was closed due to budget cuts, and another near Point Mugu which had been forced to close due to a wildfire that ravaged the area earlier in the week. There was a lot of variation in quality of campgrounds. All were adequate, but some were downright stellar, and provided amazing views outside our tent door.

pacific camp

pacific camp

Bike touring makes a person ravenous, and we took advantage of the many cafes and farm stands along the way. There were, however, some stretches that had little to nothing in terms of services. In those instances, some careful planning was required. When we knew there would be no services around our camping spot for the night, we would stop at a grocery store beforehand and pack in our meals.

barn farm stand

strawberries and pie


The northern part of the route, from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo, is definitely the most scenic part of the trip, and boasted the most highlights and the best riding. Those who find the full ride to LA too daunting or time consuming might want to consider riding this section and skipping the southern tier. Be aware there is some significant hill climbing involved, and this is obviously harder to do when carrying a load. It's a good idea to do some pre-trip training in order to make the 500 mile trek easier and more enjoyable. Motor vehicle traffic on the northern portion is not too bad, although this depends mostly on the day of the week. Weekends had the coast route swarming with cars, whereas on weekdays, we saw relatively light traffic for the most part. Planning your departure times to avoid weekends in the busiest spots is advisable. Once you reach the southern tier, vehicle traffic becomes more intense. During some stretches you end up riding on the shoulder of Highway 101, right alongside big rigs and high speed traffic. As for Los Angeles, let's just say I'm glad I don't have to ride there on a regular basis.

If you're planning to do this tour, check out this guide at Bike Touring Tips.


  1. Hi there
    I came across your blog after finding the long Bike Touring Tips guide. I am looking st riding from SF to LA in September with my husband. We've ne we doing a touring holiday. Could you share a bit more about how challenging you or your wife found it? Also I'm in Australia, in tips on buying/renting a bike in SF? And later selling it.

    1. Hi. Before getting into any of that, you should be aware that a huge landslide has buried the coastal highway south of Big Sur, and there is no detour around it. The road will likely be closed for a year or more. Search the news for "big sur landslide" and you will see photos.

  2. Oh wow I've just read about it. I feel for the local residents that rely on tourism. This summer will be tough.

  3. yeah, it's been a real bummer for those living there, as well as those of us that live close and enjoy visiting that area. that said, there is an annual charity ride called AIDS Life Cycle (ALC) that does an SF to LA ride (actually starting today). you could follow their route which bypasses the Big Sur area part of the coast: