Family Bike Touring Along the California Coast
5:20 PM PDT on September 7, 2016
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- L.A. to Monterey TraveLodge via the Amtrak Coast Starlight to Salinas, then via connecting bus to Monterey
- Monterey to Big Sur Lodge - 33 miles (somewhat hilly)
- Big Sur to Kirk Creek campground - 28 miles (hilly)
- Kirk Creek to Gorda Springs Resort - 9 miles (somewhat hilly)
- Gorda to Ragged Point Inn - 12 miles (hilly)
- Ragged Point to Cambria Palms Motel - 24 miles (flat)
- Cambria to Morro Bay State Park campground - 22 miles (flat)
- Morro Bay to San Luis Obispo - 14 miles (flat) and Pacific Surfliner to L.A.
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