California PtI: Big Sur to the Bay

San Luis Obispo is a fairly substantial settlement near the central California coastline. I didn’t spend more than 12 hours there, but it had a nice gentrified feel to it. Cal Polytechnic is on the outskirts of town so that might make it a university town – not quite sure on definitions yet.

On the morning I cycled out, there was a pub-crawl for St Patricks Day, but it was a while before St Patrick’s Day so they could have just been students who were wearing green and drunk.

The first day’s cycle to San Simeon was very nice, with the countryside beginning almost immediately outside SLO and the ocean following soon afterwards. This afforded me the opportunity to dip my rear wheel into the Pacific in anticipation of dipping my front wheel into the Atlantic Ocean in a few months’ time.

A hill before the village of Cambria tested the legs, but I was far more irked by the cheerful ‘Good job!’ from a weekend cyclist zipping past me as I scraped the bottom of the barrel in my lowest gear.

A propos of which, gears have been a big help; I’m surprised they’re not more popular. Had an excellent lunch in Cambria, before the remaining few miles to San Simeon – little more than a strip of crumby motels


Big Sur is a region on the central California coast, which has no strict geographical boundary, but stretches from somewhere south of Monterey to somewhere north of San Luis Obispo. I cycled Highway 1 – the only route, and one of the most popular tourist spots in the country.

The name ‘Big Sur’ is derived from the Spanish, who called it el pais grande del sur (the Big Country of the South), because they had established a settlement in Monterey. The territory traded places a few times, and gradual Anglicisation became formal after the US-Mexican War put California in the hands of its current owners.

The country itself is sparsely populated, due to strict land restrictions. Despite the 3 million people who drive the 140km stretch on Highway 1, there are less than 300 hotel rooms along the way, and a corresponding amount of services. Prices are high; quality is… rustic.

Every night, a big fog rolls in off the ocean and blankets the coastline. In the mornings, visibility is cut down to around 20 metres. Despite a lot of day tourists, the roads were quiet this early, so I often found myself cycling alone, shrouded in mist. The fog tended to clear some time after midday, but remained visible over the ocean to the west and high up in the mountains to the east.

If that hill outside Cambria was a shock to the system, the second day’s cycle from San Simeon was a repeated and sustained application of defribulator paddles. What makes Big Sur such a spectacular weekend drive is the same thing that makes my quads and calves ache so, so much.

In Big Sur, you’re rarely on a flat. Eighty per cent of the time, you’re grinding up a hill, and the other 20 per cent is spending all that gravity you earned. Needless to say, my second day of cycling was far too soon to be dealing with third category climbs.

Having said that, the scenery is so remarkable that it makes the climbs worth it. My second day’s accommodation was Kirk Creek Campground and the retirees in their mobile homes. Speaking of which, some of those things are dead-set massive. One bloke was telling me that his RV has his-and-hers bathrooms.

The next day’s cycle began in a similar vein to the previous days’ cliff top scenic routes, and a particularly heavy blanket of fog completely obscuring the ocean – even at 11am. Towards the end of the day’s trip, Highway 1 moved inland, entering a forest of California Redwoods. The village of Big Sur yielded a very decent coffee (at an outrageous premium) and a half-loaf of sourdough, but just down the road, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park was my home for the evening.

In a lot of US parks, hikers and bicycle tourers can pay around $5 to stay two nights in a designated area of the campground. At Pfeiffer Big Sur, in a grove of Redwoods, I had my first taste of bike tourers, and they put me well and truly to shame.

First, I met Ian, Pierrette and Sally, who were seasoned hikers and bikers, and had been travelling across Canada and the US for decades. Ian had trained Sally from a pup to sit in the trailer as he cycled a flat or downhill. On the uphills, Sally would get out and walk next to Ian. Sally got sprayed in the face by a skunk during the night, and the results are in, skunks do indeed make a bad smell.

Iohan (in yellow) trundled into camp before sunset. He comes across as kind and curious – a sensitive soul – but he’s really a madman. He cycled Alaska and the Yukon in winter. In winter. That’s insane. Even more so is the fact he did it in the process of crossing the entire country. He liked it so much that he started another trip through Alaska and the Yukon – this time in summer. He had come from there, through the northern United States, and was on his way to Argentina. Not sure how he’s getting through Mexico, but good luck to him.

I knew I was out of my depth when I innocently asked whether there was any particular meal they’d eaten which had stood out. Blank stares. They would very rarely splash out on food cooked by someone else.

I cycled out of Big Sur on my way to Monterey. The final kilometres of the coastal route yielded some spectacular sights, punctuated by the Bixby Creek Bridge.

Monterey is a big town south of San Francisco, that was once famous for its sardine production, but is now more famous for its calamari. I had neither, because I was unaware of this at the time. I spent the night there, before cycling around the bay towards Santa Cruz. It soon became clear that I had confused the cities of Santa Cruz and San Jose, and consequently hopped on a bus to my actual destination, San Jose.

I’m not going to lie; I was on autopilot at that point, and the constant drizzle had dampened my spirits considerably. So, instead of cycling into Oakland, I caught a train into San Francisco and cycled around the city for few hours, before meeting up with my Couchsurfing host, Brittany, in Oakland.

Brittany has dabbled in bike touring herself, having cycled from Helsinki to the Adriatic Coast last year. Her and her housemates kept me off the Oakland streets and on the straight-and-narrow.

I copped a couple of days rest before leaving the Bay Area for the northern California coast, where I remain. I’ve just spent the past few days with a man who’s going to live a subsidence life in the Oregon forests for a while.

More on that to come.


  • Mum

    Love the photos of the spectacular scenerary. I think a picture of the leg muscles will be de rigeur soon…. And where will you be spending your birthday?

  • Leigh Sutherland

    Love the pictures of fog Seb. Keep them coming. Do they have good bike lanes or hard shoulders on these highways? Are you competing with highways full of trucks like B-Doubles ?

    • Sebastian

      Theres no bike lanes, except in the cycle-friendly cities, but there tends to be at least a foot or two of shoulder to work with. I’ve been on more touristy highways so far, so they haven’t been too busy with semis, but riding into Eureka was on the 101 freeway, and that was pretty awful.

      Smiles and cries, Leigh. Mostly smiles though. Thanks for staying interested!

  • Kelly

    Was rad to meet you and talk with you here in Westport Ca. @ Wages Creek Campground. 3-22-15

  • Harry

    Roll on, rolling thunder.
    Magnificent work.

  • Simon

    keep em coming Seb, your adventures and pix make great reading

  • Juju

    Hi Seb, love love love the photos. How about a selfie or two?

  • Juju

    Happy birthday Sebbbbbb! Hope you get to do something birthday-ish. We’ll raise a glass of bubbles to you.

    • Sebastian

      I’ll email you a selfie – not sure I’m ready to show that to the world yet.

      Thanks for the birthday wishes, and THANK YOU for the generous (far too generous) present – not that it will go unused…

  • Mariella

    Hey, what did they sell at the Sebastian store? And what happens at a Men’s Colony? Happy birthday to you!

  • Kevin Rudd

    Fair shake of the sauce bottle, could we get please get some detailed programmatic specificity?

  • Annie

    Great adventures Seb! All your photos are stunning. Happy Birthday for Tuesday. I hope you did something very special. I haven’t read your most recent blog – will do that over Easter. Where are you going to spend Easter? Stay safe. Annie

    • Sebastian

      Hi Annie, thanks for reading! I’m going to be cycling over the entire weekend. I’ll be leaving Eugene on the Friday and getting to Portland on Sunday, with a couple of nights’ camping in between.


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