How to ride a bike across California?
March 8, 2015 2:55 PM   Subscribe

What do I need to know to do a bike tour from the top of California to the bottom?

Later this summer, I'm going to have a month free, and I want to ride my bike from Oregon(ish) to Mexico(ish).

I'm in good shape. I'll have a buddy. I've built a sturdy touring bike from scratch, so I can fix most things that could break. I have a WFR certification. I've never done a bike trip of this length, though. I've done lots of several-week backpacking trips and lots of overnight bike camping, but no extended touring.

What do I need to know? What's the best way to tap the wisdom of experienced tourers? How can I pick a good route? I'm hoping to do 50-80 daily miles with some off or easy days here and there. I'd like to camp where I can, but I might want a shower and mattress now and then.
posted by morninj to Travel & Transportation around California (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Here's one along the coast. Looks like it's about 1000 miles, give or take, and 50mi over 30 days is 1500, so you can have ~10 days of rest time.
posted by rhizome at 3:04 PM on March 8, 2015

Lots of tour journals for the California coast and rides all over the planet on Crazy Guy on a Bike. Many of the journals also include packing lists and budgets and pictures.
posted by mochapickle at 3:20 PM on March 8, 2015 is (or at least used to be!) a decent way to find people to stay with. Sort of like couchsurfing but with a bike-oriented crowd, which seemed to skew a little older/more relaxed/less party-oriented. (Disclaimer: I biked about 2000 miles when I was 17, and a few times planned to use it but then ended up staying with people I met on the road instead. But I hosted a couple riding a tandem from Alaska to the tip of South America, and they were really nice!)

Seconding the Adventure Cycling maps--they're thoughtfully prepared. They're also printed nicely, which sounds dumb but matters (they're on some material that doesn't mind getting wet, and the maps are all oriented the direction you're going so they fit nicely as a reference on the handlebars.)

A more literal answer: you really don't need to know anything. You've got this, even if you weren't already in good shape with knowledge of bike repair and a buddy.
posted by cogitron at 3:27 PM on March 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

I did this trip! There is the aforementioned Adventure Cycling Maps and there is The Book, which follow pretty much the same route, but they are often complementary. There are lots of parks along the way many of which have hiker/biker group sites so it is possible to camp every night. It's a popular route, you'll meet many other cyclists. I am assuming you will want to ride the coastal route. I don't know much about inland but I doubt it would be very pleasant.

Three main hazards:

1. Vehicle traffic. Especially between July 4th and Labour Day there are a huge number of RVs on the road and sometimes they drive a little too close to the shoulder. Sometimes there is not much of a shoulder to speak of. You need a mirror and a high-viz vest, and you will often want to ride early in the morning before the roads fill up.

2. Urban areas. Getting in and out of San Francisco is not too bad, but once you approach LA things get ugly. I stopped in Santa Barbara for that reason. The mood turned a bit sour in SoCal as well; less tolerance of "vagrants" down there which is how many of the locals will view you. Generally more stressful.

3. Weather. On those times when the route goes inland it gets freaking hot in summer. If you're climbing hills in the sun you are gonna suffer. Nothing you can't handle but it will help to be prepared.

California has some breathtaking scenery, but the roads are generally busier than in Oregon, and had more areas with little to no shoulder. If you are riding in summer I would consider doing more of Oregon and less of Southern California.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:44 PM on March 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

FYI: I am in San Diego County and have been for nearly three years. I am well south of Santa Barbara. I have no idea how tolerant Los Angeles or other parts of Southern California are of cyclists/"vagrants". But Southern California is quite a large area. Please be leery of descriptions that paint it with too broad of a brush, regardless of the topic (I have previously had this argument with other Californians about the weather -- FYI: not all of Southern Cali is crazy hot either).

The weather in San Diego County is generally gorgeous. The weather and county as a whole both seem pretty gosh darn bike friendly, based on the number of cyclists I see on a routine basis, year-round. FWIW: There is a distinct difference between the look that cyclists have and the look that homeless people using bikes as transport have. I think plenty of people can tell the difference. There are also places in this county aimed at providing overnight camping for cyclists. I don't know the details, but I do know this is a thing here. You can search California State Parks by name, county and other criteria. I am fairly sure that I have seen information about beachside camping for one night or possibly one to three nights for cyclists, I just don't recall which specific park in the county had this and I don't know how common it is along the coast.

Weather in San Diego County tends to be about "72 degrees and sunny" year round, usually a bit cooler in winter and a bit warmer in summer, but not always (see June Gloom, which I experienced one year in June and another in July).

If you really, really want to skip cycling through L.A. or something (and I have terrible respiratory problems, so I don't want to go through there personally because of the air pollution), I highly recommend you take a train through areas you would prefer to skip and then continue biking further south. Try to not miss San Diego County. It's gorgeous and very different from other parts of Southern California. I have lived in The High Desert and spent two months in school in Riverside and this is nothing like those areas. (I would skip rainy Oregon first, if it were my trip and I were running into limitations and had to cut something.)

Last, I will suggest that weather near the coast is likely to be more temperate. The further inland you move, the more you see extremes of temperature. This is generally true for the North American continent as a whole (example: Kansas is miserably hot in summer as well as spawn of the ice age in winter, whereas areas closer to the coast tend to be less extreme than that). When I was in Riverside for school for two months, one weekend, I attended a birthday party at the home of friends. They had a condo near the beach. It was blessed relief from the horrendous heat further inland. So, for comfort's sake, sticking close to the coast might serve you well.
posted by Michele in California at 4:13 PM on March 8, 2015 is (or at least used to be!) a decent way to find people to stay with.

Still is. I host cyclists coming through from time to time. It's basically like free couchsurfing. People offer you a place to sleep, park your bike and a warm shower. I meet really nice people through the site.

I've also been on a larger scale trip through a lot of California (SF -- LA for AIDS Ride 6, in ... 1999? I was part of the road crew not a cyclist) No idea if any of their routes or other info are available from then but we had a pretty nice very low residency route that people rode through a lot of the time.
posted by jessamyn at 4:21 PM on March 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

I remember how unprepared I felt before my first long-distrance trip. It's okay! You don't really need to know that much. And from the sound of it, you're very well prepared. Before my first long ride, I spent the winter indoors on a mountain covered with deep snow. I had never been on an overnight trip. Then I started riding. A thousand miles (and four flats in one day) in, I learned how to fix a flat. Bike tours are mostly a cycle of eat-ride-eat-ride-eat-ride-eat-read-sleep-repeat. Lots of picnicking. You will be fine.

California and Oregon have "hike and bike" rates at state campgrounds. The fee is ~$4-5. They always seem to have plenty of space available, even when car camping is packed.

I have used the Adventure Cycling maps. They are fantastic and I recommend them often. But I'm not sure I'd recommend them for a ride along the coast, unless this is a trip you plan on doing repeatedly (they are waterproof, which is nice). They cost money, the coastal route seems pretty well covered by free maps, and it's not that hard to keep track of something as big as the Pacific Ocean.

Bike maps for riding the coast in Oregon (they will mail physical copies to you for free!)

A collection of local California bike map pdfs that you can print and bring along

Don't forget to send postcards from tiny post offices! And carry a spare spoke.
posted by aniola at 5:12 PM on March 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Here is a list of bike collectives in Oregon and California. If you aren't already familiar with them, a bike collective is an inexpensive and welcoming place (usually run entirely or mostly by volunteers) where you can go to work on your bike. They provide tools and usually keep weird hours. If there's something you don't already know how to do, they will help you learn how to do it.

Full disclosure: I volunteer at bike collectives because they are awesome.
posted by aniola at 5:29 PM on March 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Don't go south down the Pacific Coast Highway. A nice scenic view of jagged shoreline rocks with logging trucks and RVs trying to give you a closer view of them.
posted by ovvl at 5:39 PM on March 8, 2015

I've done this trip more than once, honestly the PCH is probably the easiest extended bike tour you can do considering the scenery. You sound more than prepared to me!

I've met people doing this on the road who were like "I bought a completely inappropriate bike last week, am carrying my shit in a backpack from the 70s, and have no idea what I'm doing" and even those people were fine and having a great time. You're never far from a town or a campground, I can't even really think of any sections where there weren't restaurants nearby for lunch. The ACA maps are great, highly recommend them if you're doing something more remote like the Sierras, but I'd skip them for the coast. Stop at the chamber of commerce / rest areas / state tourist centers / etc. for all the free maps you want. Oregon even publishes a bike touring one (also the showers at the campgrounds are free and hot, which they are very proud of - in WA/CA they're lukewarm and coin operated).

There will be a TON of other people out doing this same trip in July. You will camp with them at the campgrounds every night (almost all the campgrounds have a 'hike-n-bike' site that you share) and see the same people on the road every day. So you don't need us to tell you anything, you'll hear whatever you need to know around a campfire. When you meet an unfortunate soul who decided to go north, those are the people to ask about road closures, traffic, or routes (also, ask if they have maps they don't need anymore).

As people have mentioned the traffic is heaviest in July, but this should in no way dissuade you from doing it. I understand where ovvl here is coming from but I've toured all over the world and disagree - if you pedal far enough anywhere you are always going to hit shitty sections, it's inevitable. I've never regretted a tour because the timing/traffic/weather/etc. wasn't perfect (it never is!). The RVs are total amateur hour, and in some sections the logging traffic is heavy but those guys are pros, just be visible. The road does get narrow in a few parts of NorCal, but even in the middle of nowhere you can catch a bus and skip ahead. If your schedule is flexible then maybe reconsider. I just did Redwood NP->SF this past January and it was beautiful weather and almost zero traffic, much nicer than July.

Also, definitely skip LA (I'd bail at Santa Barbara) so you can spend more time eating tacos on a beach in Baja.
posted by bradbane at 11:14 PM on March 8, 2015

PS If you have any specific questions or need a place to stay in the bay area, memail me
posted by bradbane at 11:21 PM on March 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

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