USA: Pacific Coast

Posted by James Anderton on April 20th, 2019


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Cycling the Pacific Coast of America is high on the bucket list of most cycle tourers. For good reason. The scenery is stunning. The roads are excellent. The camping superb. It is also a wonderful way to experience the country behind the headlines and the politics. It's a great way to see the diversity of the country. You can do it on a shoestring. You could spend a fortune. There are also a few good options to explore inland and experience authentic everyday life in this fascinating country.

cycling the hills of california

The views inland are often as spectacular as out to sea. The hills of California near Bodega Bay

I deliberately hit the coastline north of LA at Cambria. The coastline section in and around LA is very built up so on advice from other cyclists I headed north through Arizona. Then across California through Las Vegas, Death Valley and the Sierra Nevada and joined the coast just below Big Sur. Big Sur is a one of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world and mythic in reputation. A rugged and mountainous section of the coast of California where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. It's dramatic scenery has been praised a million times and it doesn't disappoint. There are dozens of view points where you can take in the glorious view. If you are after peace and quiet then this isn't the place. 7 million people live within a day's drive of Big Sur and it attracts tourists from all over the world. The road is narrow and you will have RVs and sports cars whizzing past you all day. I cycled it on a Monday/Tuesday in March and it was busy so I would avoid a weekend in July if I was you. A local guy told me in peak season traffic can often be backed up for 15 miles. My favourite stretch of coastline on the Pacific coast was the Sonoma coastal section north of San Francisco. The road dips and rises around long sandy beaches and secluded coves below rugged headlands making for some incredible cycling.

cycling the Pacific Coast north of San Francisco near Sonoma

Sonoma coastline north of San Francisco

Occasionally the route takes you inland through redwood forests where the cycling is every bit as good as the coastal roads. There's a couple of small passes where you can stretch your climbing legs. Even when you find yourself on a busy road there is often a scenic alternative away from the traffic. One of these alternatives is the Avenue of the Giants. Redwood forests with trees as tall as a house and as old as me. No wait. Redwood forests with trees as tall as the Eiffel Tower and as old as time. No wait. Redwood forests with trees that are dead tall and really old. There we go. It's a beautiful road. You feel very small surrounded by 300m high trees on all sides. It's a great opportunity to get a sore neck. Wonderful place to camp.

cycling the avenue of the giants

Avenue of the Giants

Crossing over into Oregon the first thing I saw was a shop sign saying 'Get your marijuana here'. It is legal in Oregon. $40 an ounce. Bargain. I didn't buy any. The second thing I saw in Oregon was a 'Firearms and Groceries' store. You can buy noodles and a gun at the same time. How convenient. I spent some time exploring inland in Oregon. Along dirt roads through Douglas-fir rain forests. Every now and again I would emerge from the dense forests to find a small village nestled in a sleepy valley. I would dive into the one cafe/diner in town for a coffee. The locals would be wearing 'Make America Great Again' caps. There were pictures of Donald and George W on the walls. Most disconcerting of all were the NRA slogans plastered about the place. 'Gun Control: Use both hands'. That kind of thing. It would be rude to turn around and walk out so I would take a seat and order my coffee. Sticking out like a sore thumb the diners would soon be asking me where I was from and we'd get talking. They were always very welcoming. Helpful with directions and informative about road closures. Curious to know about the route I'd taken and wishing me well for the rest of my trip. It's good to realise that Trump supporters aren't actually wankers. The NRA stuff I find harder to get my head around but the right to keep and bear arms runs deep in this country. I continued on back roads through rolling hills and thick forests and eventually came out at a town called Springfield. Turns out it is the Springfield from the Simpsons. I know they all say that but the show creator admitted recently that Springfield was based on the one in Oregon. The high school is identical to the one in the show and there is Max's tavern identical to Moe's Tavern. It was interesting to cycle around the suburban streets and imagine Homer sat inside one of the houses drinking a can of Duff.

The Simpsons mural in Springfield Orgeon

Simpsons mural in Springfield

From there I headed back to the coast. Apparently Oregon has some beautiful coastline. I wouldn't know. I was told all the way up the coast that it always rains in Oregon. I take such warnings with a pinch of salt. Firstly it doesn't always rain anywhere. Secondly how bad could it be. Well all I can say is it rained the whole time I was in Oregon and it was pretty bad. I spent the whole time getting drenched. I would stop at all the view points and admire the latest rain cloud I was in. The battle to keep myself dry I didn't even try to win. The battle to keep my stuff dry I really wanted to win. I lost. The rain was not to be denied. Helped by some amateur pannier packing on my part. I can't tell you how rubbish it is sleeping on a damp pillow. I became a regular visitor to Laundromats. I'd walk in dripping. I'd do my 1980's Levi launderette impression, get my kit off (bar the shorts) and chuck it in a tumble dryer. Sometimes I threw my tent in there as well. One of these days I will actually buy some waterproof clothing. Launderette's are surprisingly cool places in the States. They have WiFi, they play Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, sometimes you get free coffee and you get to chat to loads of amusing Americans. They all seemed baffled that I was cycling up through their country in the wettest month of the year. I can see their point. Rain records were broken. There were flood warnings. Roads closed. Landslide alerts. It kept on coming. A quiet rain, heavy drizzle, as if it had been through a sieve. I cycled through it all. The sides of the road turned to rivers. I actually got pulled by a redneck highway cop for cycling in the middle of the road. I pointed to the river flowing down the side of the road and he just shrugged and said 'Yeah well it's Oregon'. No need to fill up my water bottles. Just open mouth and breathe. I stopped checking the forecast. It was too depressing. They say it's the hope that kills you but I think that is nonsense. I'm a big fan. I'd rather cycle along thinking it'll clear up in a minute than know it was going to rain for the next 5 days. I have cycled through a number of deserts thinking to myself I'll never complain at wet weather ever again. Oh well, nevermind.

Cycling the coastline of Oregon in the rain

The glorious Oregon coastline. It's 11am...

The Astoria bridge that connects Oregon state to Washington state was exciting. 7 kilometres across the Columbia river with glorious views inland and out to the Pacific. There's much online debate as to whether cyclists are actually 'allowed' on this bridge. I kept a close eye for signs prohibiting bikes, more out of curiosity than anything else, but I didn't see any. I think there should be. It was quite hairy. The road is very narrow and traffic is busy but this isn't the problem. There's a tiny shoulder you can ride so as not to hold up traffic. The problem is the wind. You are totally exposed to the Pacific winds. The majority of the bridge has a disconcertingly low barrier. A strong westerly coming in off the Pacific (highly plausible) could easily send you into this barrier and you over the top and into the water below. To be fair it's not a big drop. You would survive but you would be swimming. Luckily when I did it there was a strong headwind so it was only slow progress. This was fine. Allowed me to make the most of the fantastic view. If you come to this bridge and there is a strong cross wind I would think twice. Unfortunately the nearest alternative bridge is about 10km inland. Washington is known as the Evergreen state. Logging country. It's where they filmed the mountain scenes in the film Deerhunter. You can see many deer bouncing through the forests which is always a fine sight. The coastline is terrific. All the traffic takes the main road inland to Seattle. The roads are quiet and there is a wonderful bike trail that takes you all the way to Port Angeles where I caught the boat to Vancouver Island.

cycling the astoria bridge that connects Oregon and Washington state

The awesome Astoria bridge that connects Oregon to Washington state

Roads:

Excellent. You can cycle the entire Pacific Coast without ever leaving tarmac. There are a few options to explore away from Route 1/101 where you can find some decent quality dirt roads. A lot of route 1/101 doesn't come with much of a shoulder but I didn't find it a problem. Drivers are used to cyclists.

Time to Go:

I recommend you try not to hit Oregon and Washington in March/April. The rain was something else. Made it a bit of a trial. You can cycle in California any time of year. May to October is the best times to be in these states. In Summer the roads will be busier. I cycled Big Sur on a Monday/Tuesday in March and it was pretty busy. A weekend in July and the traffic will be constant.

Wild camping:

Pretty easy. Gets easier as you head north. Oregon and Washington states are relatively wet areas so there are bountiful forests for you to dive into to camp out of sight without a problem. Slightly trickier in California but I still managed it no problem. You could do the entire route I did with a hammock. A good option is the abundance of Hike and Bike campgrounds along the way. They cost between $5 and $10 and are often in wonderfully scenic spots. Sometimes there have Wi-Fi. The ones I stayed in had hot water and an indoor area should it be raining. I was there in shoulder season so they were quiet but you will meet many other cyclists during the summer months.

Wind

When I was there in March/April the wind was not too bad but this is the coast so expect strong winds at any time of the year. I had read that it is best to ride north to south due to prevailing winds but I didn't find this at all. I had wind from all directions heading north. It was behind me as much as it was against me.

Visa's:

Most countries require an ESTA. This can be arranged online for $15 prior to travel. It is an automated process that just checks you have no criminal record. It is valid for 3 years. If you fail the ESTA check you will need to arrange a visa proper via an embassy. It has been known for people to fail the check for no apparent reason and they won't tell you why you failed. You can enter for 3 months. There is no fixed rule on re-entry. You basically need to convince US immigration that you aren't trying to live in America or simply trying to re-set your Visa. If there's a good time between exiting and re-entering you should be fine. Rule of thumb seems to be if you leave after 90 days in America then you will not be allowed to re-enter for 91 days. It's only a rule of thumb though. Any proof of onward travel would always help.

Bicycle Shops:

There tends to a bicycle shop in every town along the coast but in some areas you can be 2/3 days between towns. All the shops are of good quality stocking a wide range of parts for all bike types.

Tips:

Don't pack your pillow next to your soaking wet tent.

If the rain forecast is getting you down then try Accuweather. Ridiculously optimistic and rarely correct but I admire such qualities in people so why not a weather website.

There are a few good detours away from Route 1/101 which are worth considering:

The aforementioned Avenue of the Giants between Leggett and Eureka is a must.

There's an excellent climb along Big Sur. Take the Nacimiento Ferguson road near Lucia. Quiet road, great views and some good options to camp.

There's an excellent back road that takes you through the forests of Oregon. Leave the coast at Gold Beach and take the road to Powers via Agness

The Olympic Discovery Trail cycle path runs all the way from Port Townsend to the amazing beach at La Push/Mora.

Costs:

America is expensive but not as bad as I'd feared. Food is reasonably priced in the supermarkets. Noodles are only 25 cents! Along the coast though you may not see a supermarket for 3/4 days so worth stocking up when you see one. Some of the grocery shops in the touristy areas such as Big Sur and the coastline north of San Fran are quite pricey. I was surviving easy on $15 a day. You need to love your tent though. Hotels will set you back. The cheapest hotels you are looking at are $50 although they are good quality. I pretty much camped all the time except taking the occasional hotel to escape the rain. AirBnb is a little cheaper but only if you take a private room in someone's house. Warmshowers is a great option as it is extremely active in America. There are plenty of friendly American cyclists who will happily put you up for a night or two for free. It is not advisable to drink the tap water in Oregon and Washington states though apparently in California you can. There are water vending machines at most gas stations where you can get a gallon (3.6l) of drinking water for 30 cents. Bring your own bottle.

Electricity:

Side of the road:

Right.