Cycling the US West Coast: the ideal destination choice for bike touring newbies

Cycling the US West Coast…an amazing trip I did with Kenny in 2012. At that point we had been together for less than a year, it was our first big holiday together and Kenny’s first cycle touring experience. So it was make-or-break. 6 years later we are married and we have been on many more cycling adventures together since so I guess it was a “make” ;-).

I realised I have never actually written about our US West Coast cycling adventure. So I decided to dig out my travel diary and share some of my Pacific Coast cycle touring tips and insights with you.

First, I want to highlight that cycling the US West Coast is a really great bike touring trip option for beginners. If you are a cycle touring newbie looking to go on your first multi-day cycle trip, cycling the US West Coast could be the perfect choice. The cycling is very easy both in terms of navigation and terrain, there are many camping and accommodation options along the way and water and food is easy to find all along the route (it is the US after all!). Plus, the landscapes are beautiful and very diverse.

Let’s start with a few stats

  • Start and finish: Seattle (Washington) to Santa Barbara (California)
  • Distance: 1640 miles (2640km)
  • Time needed: 22 days (including non-cycling days)
  • Difficulty level: easy (great route for cycle touring beginners)
  • Road surface: all paved
  • Accommodation: mostly camping
  • Water/food availability: plenty of services along the route
  • Highlight: getting a giant pizza delivered straight to our tent in Morro Bay

Cycling the US West Coast: our route

We started our US West Coast cycling trip in Seattle and cycled through Washington, Oregon and California down to Santa Barbara following the stunning Pacific Coast cycle route. The Pacific Coast route goes all the way from Vancouver in Canada to Santa Barbara in California. The route mostly follows U.S. Highway 101 until California and then State Highway 1.

Navigation along the route is very straight forward: just keep the ocean on your right ;-). We used the Adventure Cycling Association Pacific Coast maps. Even though we weren’t very experienced cycle tourers at that point, there was no need for a GPS or other advanced navigation tools.

In terms of terrain, Washington is mostly flat. In Oregon there are a quite a few steep uphills but the views at the top are so spectacular that you forget that you are cycling uphill. We also quickly learned that whenever there was a “scenic route” sign along the road it basically meant “mega hill ahead”. In California there is a mix of hilly and flat sections.

The landscape along the US West Coast is very varied. We cycled through vegetable fields, fruit orchards, coastal headlands, urban areas, forests. Every day is different so it never gets boring.

cycling the us west coast
The green dots show where we slept each night

Cycling the US West Coast: accommodation & camping

In terms of accommodation, we camped most nights. One of the great things about the Pacific Coast route is that there are campgrounds every 60-100km all along the way. The Adventure Cycling Association Pacific Coast maps make it super easy by indicating the location of all camp sites on the route. Many of the state park campgrounds have “hiker/biker” spots (i.e. dedicated spaces reserved for non-car campers). The hiker/biker spots are only 5-10 dollars per person. They are also a great place to meet other cyclists. Most campsites had running water, bathrooms and even hot showers.

If you are not into camping, there are also plenty of quirky motels and hotels all along the route. Another option would be to sign up to Warmshowers, a reciprocal hospitality site for bike tourers.

Cycling the US West Coast: packing list

There are plenty of services along the Pacific Coast cycle route which means that you don’t need to carry much extra food, water or emergency equipment. So packing for cycling the US West Coast is pretty easy.

As I mentioned earlier, we camped most nights so we had camping gear with us. But we decided not to take any cooking equipment (i.e. camping stove etc.) to keep our gear to a minimum. If you want to travel light I would recommend this approach. We just stuck to non-cooked food for breakfast and lunch (oats with water, trail mix, sandwiches, fruit and veg etc.). There were plenty of very affordable restaurants and take-aways for dinner.

One thing to keep in mind is that it can get pretty cold at night and early in the morning. We did this cycling trip in July and August but there were definitely some mornings where it took me a while to warm up. So if you are planning on camping. be sure to pack enough layers and a warm sleeping bag. And don’t forget to take a cycling rain jacket!

Gear list

Here is our gear list to give you an idea of what we packed. We had 2 rear panniers each (no front panniers) which was more than enough for the amount of gear we needed.

cycling the US West Coast
Our US West Coast bike touring packing list

US West Coast highlights

There are plenty of must-sees along the US West Coast. Here are some of my favourite:

  • Redwood National Park, home of the world’s tallest trees! There are many well maintained walking and hiking trails in the area if you fancy a bit of time off the bike.
  • Eureka, in California. The entire city is a state historic landmark with hundreds of Victorian architecture buildings. We stayed there for the night and it felt like going back in time.
  • San Francisco, of course. Cycling across the Golden Gates bridge was definitely a highlight. We spent two amazing days in San Francisco exploring the city and eating clam chowder. It’s definitely one of my favourite cities in the US!
  • Big Sur. Cycling wise, Big Sur was my favourite section. The coastal views were just stunning and I loved cycling along the winding, hilly coastal road (the downhills were so much fun!!).

Other tips

  • We thought about bringing our bikes with us from Europe but after doing a bit of research we realised that buying bikes in Seattle and selling them at the end of the trip before flying home was actually much more cost-effective. There are plenty of bike shops in Seattle. We got in touch with a shop before our trip to make sure they would have the bike model and size we were looking for.
  • Beware of racoons! Especially in the Big Sur camp sites. There are so many of them there and they are so used to humans that nothing scares them. One of them stole a loaf of bread off me one night and I have to admit that it put me in a pretty bad mood for the rest of the morning….I had really been looking forward to my peanut butter sandwich for breakfast 😉

I hope this has inspired you to go cycling the US West Coast. If you are planning a trip and have any more questions, just get in touch, I would love to help!

Other cycle touring related articles: Cycling across Sardinia trip report, Cycling from Bali to Jakarta trip report, Laura Kennington’s Great North Ride

cycling the US west coast

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