Taking pointers from travel author Bill Thorness about two-wheel coastal treks (and the best Bay Area routes to get your seaside cycling fix)
Picture this: the sound of waves crashing on your right, the whoosh of cars passing on your left. You, on your trusty bike, panniers stuffed, on the road for tens of miles a day. You stop when you need to camp or take a dip in the ocean, inhale the sea-salty air, visit picturesque towns and refuel at the occasional coastal brewpub.
There are plenty of reasons the 1,850-mile Pacific Coast draws spandexed pilgrims from around the world, luring a wide range of riders to the route, from the novice looking to spend a few days outdoors to the devoted bike nut looking to clock long daily miles.
Take it from Bill Thorness, a Seattle-based journalist and bike enthusiast who recently documented every mile of the route—from Canada to Mexico—in his new travel guide Cycling the Pacific Coast. In advance of his upcoming Palo Alto appearance at Books, Inc., we asked Thorness for a wide range of insight and advice on tackling this North American coastal journey.
Thorness says the full American West Coast route can be done in 37 days from start to finish, though that is without taking extended rests or stopping to explore the many locations along the way. He recommends setting aside at least 45 days for the trip, or two months to complete it comfortably.
He says he met grandparents from England averaging about 25 miles a day and having a great time. The journey duration depends somewhat on fitness and pace, he notes.
“You kind of get in shape as you go. You get stronger and figure out your pace and your ability.”
He recommends at least one rest day a week, though, even for the hardiest cyclists.
When to go
If you’re going to start the route from Washington or Oregon, start in the late summer, in order to get to California in the fall. “The best time is right after Labor Day,” he says. “You’ll experience the least amount of fog and rain.”
Where to start
Most people take the route north to south, he notes, so they’ll have the wind at their backs. Cycling north means riding into the wind.
Where to sleep
The great thing about the route is that there are campsites all along the way that are open to cyclists, without reservations, most for only about $5 a day, Thorness says.
“Whether you’re going to be comfortable and mentally able to deal with traffic, bridges, (and) all the stuff you’re going to encounter every day — that’s another question,” he said.
Along the coast road, traffic is typically light, but the vehicles that do come through are often delivery or logging trucks, or people on vacation, who may be lost, distracted or unaccustomed to driving the vehicle they’re in.
It’s good to be prepared for anything and know your limits, he advises.
Know how to perform basic repairs on your bike, and have it thoroughly tuned up before departing. Most of the way, he notes, you’re never farther than 40 or 50 miles from a bike shop.
Even still, it’s hard to predict the challenges that come with life on the road. Thorness details a story about how after a long ride he decided to join a group of people doing yoga on the beach. He didn’t have a mat, slipped in the sand, and wound up with a pulled hamstring.
“You never know what might be the challenge for you for the day,” he said.
To get a sense for whether this long-distance type of cycling is something you’d find fun and comfortable, he says, people should take a trial run over a couple of days, experiencing a range of road conditions.
“If you’re not comfortable, you might make mistakes, or just not be happy doing it,” he said.
If you’ve got more than a long weekend to spend with your bike, Thorness recommends spending a week along the Oregon coast. There are campgrounds every 20 or 30 miles, with extra amenities not offered at some other spots, like metal food lockers to deter unwelcome critters, like raccoons. The scenic coastline — replete with hulking freestanding rock structures along the way — is something he’s planning to revisit.
Another aspect of the coastal journey he wouldn’t mind revisting? The constellation of great breweries that dot the route.
His favorites, he says, (from north to south) are the Lost Coast Brewery (1600 Sunset Rd. in Eureka) — he highly recommends the Tangerine Wheat beer — the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company (390 Capistrano Road in Half Moon Bay), the Libertine Pub (801 Embarcadero in Morro Bay) and Telegraph Brewing Co. (418 N Salsipuedes St. in Santa Barbara).
If the length of the entire west coast sounds daunting, Thorness recommended a couple of multi-day bike adventures you can take in the Bay Area, which he says — and photos prove — are pretty spectacular on their own.
Heading north is tricky, as you’ll have to cycle into the wind. A better option for a two-day trip is to take public transit north from San Francisco to Bodega Bay via the Golden Gate Highway and Transportation District (or bring a buddy with a second car you can pick up later).
Day 1: Bodega Bay to Lagunitas
Ride: 42 miles, with 2260 feet of elevation gain.
Thorness recommends riding south from Bodega Bay to Lagunitas. Start from the Bodega Dunes Campground at the Sonoma Coast State Park, and head south into the town most famous as being where Alfred Hitchcock filmed “The Birds.” At mile 7, you can check out the kitschy Bodega General Store and St. Theresa of Avila Catholic Church — which has made appearances both in “The Birds” and Ansel Adams’ photography. At mile 16, stop for sandwiches in Tomales, or move along to pick up oysters in Tomales Bay. Optional: detour for a side trip to the town of Point Reyes Station, about a half mile off the route, to visit Cowgirl Creamery. Thornesss recommends splurging on a wedge of the “Red Hawk” cheese. Continue on Bike Routes 85 and 75 parallel to Lagunitas Creek until you hit the Samuel P. Taylor State Park campground.
Day 2: Lagunitas to San Francisco
Ride: 30.7 miles, with 1,800 feet elevation gain.
Continue south through the San Geronimo Valley, passing by Lagunitas, Forest Knolls, San Geronimo and Woodacre, before climbing out of the Loma Alta Open Space Preserve, after which you’ll hit Fairfax, which offers plenty of cafes and bike shops. Cycle along the Mill Valley-Sausalito Path until you hit Sausalito, and later the Golden Gate Bridge to return to San Francisco (where, presumably, public transit can get you back to where you need to go). Thorness recommends this route instead of staying along State Route 1 through the Point Reyes National Seashore and Mt. Tamalpais State Park — that adds 10 miles, with narrow, winding and dangerous roads prone to landslides, he says.
Day 1: San Francisco to Half Moon Bay.
Ride: 28.8 miles, with 1,680 feet of elevation gain.
Start at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, west on John F. Kennedy Drive, past the Botanical Garden, following signs for Ocean Beaches before turning left onto the Great Highway (State Route 35). Pass Fort Funston, riding south into Daly City, climbing near Skyline Drive. At 12 miles, there’s a park on Esplanade Avenue with bluffs and benches. Then continue south to a trail at Mori Point and Rockaway Beach, before hitting Pacifica State Beach. You can opt to take the (steep)1.3 mile Devil’s Slide trail or a tunnel. Continue inland at Moss Beach past the Half Moon Bay Airport before cycling along Pillar Point Harbor, then Miramar, before arriving at the Half Moon Bay State Beach campground. The hiker-biker campground is right on the water, and Thorness can’t say enough about the ethereal sound the foghorn in the distance makes when it blends with the crashing waves. “It’s just wonderful,” he said. Plus, he notes, Half Moon Brewing Company is just a short distance away.
Day 2: Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz
Ride: 57.3 miles, with 3,030 feet of elevation gain.
Continue south from Half Moon Bay State Beach on the Half Moon Bay Coastal Trail before taking the bike route parallel to State Route 1, past the Cowell Purisima Coastal Trail and a series of state beaches: San Gregorio, Pomponio, Pescadero and Bean Hollow. At 21 miles, you can pause at the scenic Pigeon Point lighthouse (which offers hostel accommodations, nightly movie showings and a cliff-hanging hot tub, rentable by the half-hour during evenings, he says.) You’ll hit Año Nuevo State Park around mile 28, which offers sightings of migrating elephant seals mainly in winter, with some coming ashore in spring and summer. Near there, Thorness recommends stopping by Pie Ranch, a farmstand with produce, drinks and, you guessed it, fresh pie. Or continue on to Davenport, near mile 38, for more food options. Continue through the Santa Cruz coastline, past Wilder Ranch before heading to New Brighton State Beach, where bikers can camp on the bluffs above the beach.
To get back to the Peninsula, Thorness recommends taking the bus from Santa Cruz to San Jose and then using public transit to return from there. (Cycling Skyline Boulevard and Highway 92 were a bit scary for him to comfortably recommend, he notes.)
If you are willing to travel a little farther south before starting you bike journey, Thorness says Big Sur is a really special stretch of the route, he says.
“It’s just beautiful, and it has that challenge to it — the climbing and the narrow road — that makes it feel like an achievement when you get to the campground.” The campground is in the woods, with a camp store offering “everything you need,” he says.
One downside of the route is that the road is often packed on weekends, without much shoulder, he adds.
“I would try to cycle it on a weekday,” he notes.
Bill Thorness is scheduled to speak about his book at Books, Inc.—7 p.m. Thursday, April 26 (74 Town & Country Village, in Palo Alto).
Cycling the Pacific Coast: The Complete Guide from Canada to Mexico is published by Mountaineers Books. Buy the book online via Amazon, Indiebound or Thorness’ website at BillThorness.com . It offers turn-by-turn directions for the entire 1,850-mile route.