Family Bike Touring Along the California Coast

My daughter, wife and I bike touring in Big Sur
My daughter Maeve, wife Carrie and I bike touring in Big Sur. Photos by Joe Linton

My wife Carrie, our three-year-old daughter Maeve, and I bike-toured the central California coast last week. We took an Amtrak train from Los Angeles to Salinas, then an Amtrak through-bus to Monterey. From Monterey we biked down the coast through Big Sur and to San Luis Obispo, where we caught the train back to Los Angeles.

It is my hope that by telling a bit about our trip, I can encourage others to do the same. The California coast is a relatively easy place to bike-tour, and, of course, very scenic.

Bike touring is a great way to see California. I had already bike toured on my own, including riding solo from San Francisco to Los Angeles. When I toured on my own, I used to do 50-60 miles per day. With my family, we aimed for roughly 20 miles per day. We ended up doing 144 miles in seven days, for an average of just over 20 miles per day. For serious hardcore bike-touring cyclists, this is not a lot. But it was my first time touring with my family, including a thirty-pound kid on the back of my bike, and it was my wife’s first time touring.

We camped two nights out of seven, opting to pay for hotels more often than not. This was in part due to creature comforts, and in part due to forest fires having closed two campgrounds.

I tend to be pretty come-as-you-are. A touring bike is ideal for this kind of trip, but I tend to think that I can bike tour with more-or-less any bike that I ride around the city on. I rode the 12-speed somewhat upright road bike that I ride everywhere. My wife rode an 8-speed upright city bike. Clearly touring cyclists need back racks with panniers. Front racks are good, too, though I have never toured with them. I just load up the panniers behind me, and use bungee cords to pack a tent, sleeping bag, and air mattress in the back.

I think it is important to show our kids our love of bicycling. My mom loved museums and foreign films, so she dragged me and my siblings to a lot of these before I was actually ready for them. Though I complained at the time, I am now grateful that it instilled in me a love for these cultural places. I hope that my daughter experiences bike touring and comes to enjoy it later in life.

xxx
Carrie bicycling Big Sur, where it is fairly hilly.

xxx
Carrie bicycling near San Simeon. Below Big Sur, in San Luis Obispo County, it is relatively flat.
xxx
On days when bicycling mileage is short, take walks and hikes. We enjoyed the descent to the beach at Ragged Point.

Some of my general tips for bicycle touring:

  • Make sure your bike is in good working order. Neither my wife nor I had greased our chains recently, and as soon as we got into the streets, the chains made that creaking sound. We were happy to get chain grease at the Cambria Bike Kitchen.
  • It’s not critical to plan your entire trip at the outset (especially along the CA coast – see below). It is good to know how far you plan to ride and where you plan to stay on the first couple days of your trip, but after that you may find that you want to do more (or less) mileage than you had intended.
  • Most campsites do not have electricity, and most of the back roads do not have reception, so use your phone’s airplane mode to save energy and still be able to take photos.
  • Generally, it is best to get going fairly early each morning. This means different things to different riders, but the more miles you ride before midday, the more options you have – such as getting your tent set up and taking a hike, exploring a town, etc.

Some of my general tips for bicycle touring the California Coast:

  • For anyone considering touring the Pacific Coast, I recommend the book Bicycling the Pacific Coast: A Complete Route Guide – Canada to Mexico by Tom Kirkendall and Vicky Spring. The simple maps in the book are way more useful than Google maps for selecting the best route for bicycling, and especially for seeing where to stay. The book is on its 4th edition. The first time I toured the coast, I brought the book with me. On subsequent trips, in order to save weight, I just photocopied the pertinent pages for the areas where I was touring.
  • It is much much easier to bicycle from north to south down the coast, due to prevailing winds. We didn’t always have a strong tailwind, but most of time we did.
  • We ended up camping less than we expected, but camping along the coast in California is very easy and very cheap. Most state parks, including state beaches, have hike and bike campgrounds. These are very cheap – $5 per person. There is no reservation needed, no car parking (of course), and campers can only stay one or two nights.  The trick is that the first-come first-served un-reservable sites do occasionally fill up. When using hike and bike, I recommend getting there as early as possible. By this I mean, get your mileage in fairly early, then plan to arrive by 3 or 4 p.m. or so. On weekends, riders would want to get there on the early end; on weekdays, getting there early is less critical.
  • Combining bike-touring with Amtrak is relatively easy. Trains do not run very frequently, but I have found the train ride to be a relaxing and enjoyable leg of the journey, especially with breathtaking coastal views above Santa Barbara. For the most part, schedule by using Amtrak’s online trip planner. One thing to be aware of is bike accommodation differences on different train lines. The two main coastal lines serving L.A. Union Station are:
    Coast Starlight (Los Angeles to Seattle, one train daily): For the Coast Starlight, bicycles must be boxed. This means a small fee ($25) and my least favorite aspect: disassembling and reassembling parts of one’s bike. Cyclists need to remove pedals, loosen handlebars, and, for tall folks like me, lower the seat. It is not rocket science, but it means showing up about an hour before your train departs, bringing tools, and knowing some basic bike maintenance.
    Pacific Surfliner (San Diego to San Luis Obispo, a half-dozen trains daily, though most do not go all the way from SD to SLO): For the Pacific Surfliner, cyclists need to make a reservation for their bike, but do not need to box it.
    If Angeleno bike tourists are just getting started and want an easy-ish starter ride (without the hassle of boxing one’s bike), I would suggest taking the Pacific Surfliner and starting in San Luis Obispo. From SLO, it is easy enough to bike north to Morro Bay, then turn back south through San Luis Obispo, and along the coast to Santa Barbara or Ventura.

Here are some tips for bike touring with kids:

  • Overall, it was not such a big deal to have a kid in tow. For the most part, our daughter Maeve enjoyed the ride, though she napped a lot, and occasionally would have preferred to run around instead of getting back on the bike.
  • To carry our daughter, I used a Yepp bike seat, attached to my back rack. I have the extended Yepp rack, so I can carry both a child and panniers. I got these from Flying Pigeon bike shop in Northeast L.A.
  • There is a big energy level difference at the end of the day. Upon arriving at our destination, my wife and I were tired from bicycling, while my daughter was full of energy, as she had been basically sitting and napping. To try to compensate for this, as time permitted, we took walks and hikes at the start and end of the day. Ideally, it would be good to have kids run around every hour or so, though this is not always easy depending on where one is riding, and whether the kid is napping, etc.
  • Maeve riding the playground bike
    Maeve riding the playground bike at Shamel Community Park in Cambria.

    As time permits, find kids’ parks along the way, especially in decent-sized cities. One of Maeve’s trip highlights was playing on the slides, swings, etc. at Shamel Community Park in Cambria.

  • Try a short hop trip first, preferably with other families. We did a four-family trip just bicycling 14 miles from San Luis Obispo to Morro Bay State Park. We camped at Morro Bay for two nights, then biked back to SLO.
  • Buying Amtrak tickets is a little tricky when the number of passengers is different than the number of bikes. I have not figured out how to use the online system to purchase three train passengers with only two bicycles, so I end up either ordering over the phone or in person.

Lastly, just in case some family out there wants to use it as a jumping off point for planning your trip, below is our itinerary. Ideally, it is better to start with fewer miles and ramp up, but sometimes the distances between campsites/hotels dictate the mileage.

  1. L.A. to Monterey TraveLodge via the Amtrak Coast Starlight to Salinas, then via connecting bus to Monterey
  2. Monterey to Big Sur Lodge – 33 miles (somewhat hilly)
  3. Big Sur to Kirk Creek campground – 28 miles (hilly)
  4. Kirk Creek to Gorda Springs Resort – 9 miles (somewhat hilly)
  5. Gorda to Ragged Point Inn – 12 miles (hilly)
  6. Ragged Point to Cambria Palms Motel – 24 miles (flat)
  7. Cambria to Morro Bay State Park campground – 22 miles (flat)
  8. Morro Bay to San Luis Obispo – 14 miles (flat) and Pacific Surfliner to L.A.
  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Congrats on a wonderful trip. You are lucky the Mrs was willing to join you. For me the GF would have stayed a week in SLO wine tasting and would have said, “See you in a week – have fun”…

    Question, I would have used a trailer for my (hypothetical) three year old daughter. Is it just me, or are trailers (being a roll cage) safer?

  • LAguttersnipe

    That is beautiful. I’ve only gotten up to where you ended. Last year I did Culver city to Leo Carillo to Carpinteria to Gaviota to Pismo. The coast is awesome.

  • Joe Linton

    My wife really wanted to do Big Sur (I suggested an easier – though less scenic – route)

    I have seen folks tour with trailers. It gets some weight off the back wheel, which is good – but I am not sure it’s any safer or less safe. Seems to me that touring is really safe either way… safer than being on a freeway.

  • Melanie Curry

    Thanks for the reminder of how awesome this trip is–and how easy it can be. I rode the coast from SF to LA years ago, and it remains a huge highlight for me. But I have always thought back on it as a huge logistical (and energy-depleting) project, which clearly it does not need to be. I need to start planning soon!

  • Bicycling Monterey

    Enjoyed your post, and glad you had time in Monterey County. For reliable info about park closures and more on the Big Sur coast, refer to Bicycling Monterey’s post http://bit.ly/SoberanesFire. Other info on bikemonterey.org that will be of interest to people planning trips include http://bit.ly/BicycleMaps (you’ll see a family of five bike touring in Monterey County as part of their trip from Kentucky to Alaska) and http://bit.ly/SeriousCyclists.There's also a 20-section Tips for Bicycling Monterey County guide, http://bit.ly/BikeMRY.

  • calwatch

    The buses on SLORTA from San Simeon/Hearst Castle down to San Luis Obispo, and down to Santa Maria can carry six bikes. This greatly reduces the chances of getting bumped due to a full bus, although I would expect this is popular on weekends.
    https://goo.gl/maps/d3Fi9uTAVR72

  • Bicycling Monterey

    Bicycling Monterey’s bike-and-ride section includes trains, buses, and more: bit.ly/BikeAndRide Here are some of bikemonterey.org’s popular tips about Monterey-Salinas Transit (including its out-of-county service and transit connections): http://marilynch.com/blog/monterey-salinas-transit-and-beyond-tips-for-people-who-bike.html

  • Melissa Moradian

    This is a great article, Joe! Anyone planning a trip to the central coast should check out CycleCentralCoast.com. It’s a one-stop resource for suggested bike routes, upcoming events and places to stay in Cambria.

  • mk4524

    I have hosted a few cycling families riding the coast and most of them use trailers. One pair travelled with two infants aged 13 months and 18 months. They were both taking advantage of Germany’s generous maternity leave. Because of the children, their progress was really slow. Sometimes they were only able to do ten miles at a time.

  • “We camped two nights out of seven, opting to pay for hotels more often than not”
    I don’t agree:
    https://over60hiker.wordpress.com/tag/big-sur-california/

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Catching Up With Laura & Russ Of The Path Less Pedaled

|
Laura Crawford & Russ Roca. (Photo by Path Less Pedaled) (Note:if you want to support Gary’s work and our regular coverage of Long Beach, join us at the Library Alehouse this Tuesday. – DN) Just about anyone with a passing interest in bicycle touring on the West Coast probably has some familiarity with the adventures […]

Alex Baum 1922-2015 – Los Angeles City’s Stalwart Bicycling Advocate

|
Los Angeles’ bicycling community has lost one its hardest-working and longest-serving advocates, Alex Baum. Alex Baum (1922-2015) was a survivor of the Nazi holocaust, a successful businessman, and a persistent champion for bicycling in Los Angeles. For decades, Baum chaired the city’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, and was a tireless presence in corridors of Los Angeles […]

Mainstreaming Bicycling, Lessons From Davis California

|
I’m returned to Santa Monica this week from attending the California by Bike Summit in Oakland, with the theme of mainstreaming the bike in California, and a few extra days in the Bay Area and San Francisco as well. There were numerous sessions and discussions with valuable lessons that will inform my writing, but I […]