Cruisin' down the Coast

Jul 17, 2020

Our SF to LA biking trip!

In September 2019, my friend Varun and I went on a biking trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It was an exhilarating and rewarding experience, and we’d do it again in a heartbeat. In this post, I’ll share more about the trip and the planning behind it, in the hope it inspires someone else!

Mental and Physical Preparation

How’d we get the idea? We weren’t seasoned bikers or anything–honestly, we had never biked more than a couple of miles in one stretch. But our friend Sicong told us about his SF to LA experience and we were like “Damn, we need to do that.”

To say the least, we didn’t feel very prepared. To figure out what we were capable of, we went on a few practice rides with our mountain bikes: first, we took a 41-mile ride from Mountain View to San Francisco. As our first long ride, every city border we crossed felt like a massive achievement. While we took a train back from San Francisco the first time, we decided to go both ways the second time with a 100-mile ride.

These rides weren’t too difficult–we went at a cool 10 miles per hour and did very little climbing–but we were sore and exhausted by the end of the day. That being said, we were pleasantly surprised with how far we could go, and we decided to buy touring bikes.

Next, to test our bikes and take on some real elevation, we climbed Mount Hamilton, the tallest peak in the Bay. The ride featured an 18-mile climb with 4,200 feet elevation gain: it was a scalding hot day and a grueling ride, but with enough water breaks we somehow made it up.

And that’s all we did! In retrospect, this really wasn’t enough: we had only done three rides, we hadn’t tried a multi-day ride, nor had we tested with our gear. But we felt great.


After setting a date, we started planning the trip around 3-4 weeks beforehand. We used this website to plan an itinerary: it even provides several options depending on how many days you want to bike. We also found this blog helpful to figure out what to pack.

At a high level, the plan was to follow Highway 1 from Golden Gate Park to Santa Monica Pier, either camping or staying at a motel every night. We’d carry our camping gear, clothes, food, tools, etc. on the back of our bikes. We were going to ride for eight days, with a rest day in Big Sur, and take a bus back to the Bay Area after two days in LA. Here was our itinerary:

Day Start End Accommodations Miles Elevation Gain (feet) Strava
1 San Francisco Santa Cruz A friend at UC Santa Cruz 82 5,250 Full ride
2 Santa Cruz Monterey The Monterey Hotel 53 2,200 Full ride
3 Monterey Big Sur Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park 39 2,600 Part 1, Part 2
4 - - Hike at Pfeiffer - - -
5 Big Sur Cambria Cambria Palms Motel 73 5,600 Full ride
6 Cambria Pismo Beach Beachwalker Inn and Suites 45 1,650 Full ride
7 Pismo Beach Refugio State Beach Beach campgrounds 79 3,000 Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
8 Solvang Ventura Motel 6 Ventura South 59 1,700 Part 1, Part 2
9 Ventura Santa Monica Palm Motel 56 1,200 Part 1, Part 2
10 Santa Monica Los Angeles The LA Grand Hotel - - -
11 Los Angeles San Jose Megabus for us, BikeFlights for the bikes - - -
Day 1: San Francisco to Santa Cruz
Distance: 82 miles
Elevation gain: 5,250 feet
Stay: A friend at UC Santa Cruz
Strava: Full ride
Day 2: Santa Cruz to Monterey
Distance: 53 miles
Elevation gain: 2,200 feet
Stay: The Monterey Hotel
Strava: Full ride
Day 3: Monterey to Big Sur
Distance: 39 miles
Elevation gain: 2,600 feet
Stay: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Strava: Part 1, Part 2
Day 4: Hike at Pfeiffer
Distance: -
Elevation gain: -
Stay: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Strava: -
Day 5: Big Sur to Cambria
Distance: 73 miles
Elevation gain: 5,600 feet
Stay: Cambria Palms Motel
Strava: Full ride
Day 6: Cambria to Pismo Beach
Distance: 45 miles
Elevation gain: 1,650 feet
Stay: Beachwalker Inn and Suites
Strava: Full ride
Day 7: Pismo Beach to Refugio Stage Beach
Distance: 79 miles
Elevation gain: 3,000 feet
Stay: Refugio Stage Beach Campground
Strava: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Day 8: Refugio Stage Beach to Ventura
Distance: 62 miles
Elevation gain: 1,700 feet
Stay: Motel 6 Ventura South
Strava: Part 1, Part 2
Day 9: Ventura to Santa Monica
Distance: 53 miles
Elevation gain: 1,200 feet
Stay: Palm Motel
Strava: Part 1, Part 2
Day 10: Santa Monica to Los Angeles
Distance: -
Elevation gain: -
Stay: The LA Grand Hotel
Strava: -
Day 11: Los Angeles to San Jose
Distance: -
Elevation gain: -
Stay: Megabus and BikeFlights
Strava: -

And here’s what we packed: we ended up buying everything we didn’t already have from Amazon, REI, or Walmart.

Bike Gear
A pair of panniers
Bike gloves (these ended up wearing down pretty quickly)
Bike patch kit
Three water bottles
Bike lights
Tire tubes
Bungee cords
Bike lock
Phone mount
Tire patches
Camping Gear
Sleeping bag
Sleeping pad (these were dope)
Two pairs of bike shorts (the padding wasn’t that great)
Bike bibs, one orange and one blue (the orange one was nice and bright, but the blue one blended in too much)
Compression socks (I personally found these uncomfortable)
Reflective vest (didn’t end up using)
Thermal shirt and pants (the weather was nice enough that we didn’t really need these)
A pair of jeans
A pair of pajama pants
Two or three t-shirts
Swim trunks
5-6 pairs of underwear
An extra pair of shoes (this was a total waste of space)
Toiletries (toothbrush, deodorant, soap, shampoo, etc.)
Bluetooth speaker
Battery packs
Charging cables
First aid kit
Bug spray
Quarters (for laundry)
Clif shots
Various protein and granola bars

The Trip

Day 1: San Francisco to Santa Cruz

After getting up early and packing our things, our parents drove us to San Francisco and we were off by 8 AM. It was our longest day in terms of mileage, and honestly it was pretty rough. This was our first time biking with gear, and it turns out adding 30+ pounds to your bike makes a big difference!

Soon into the ride, Google Maps routed us through six miles of narrow dirt trails in San Pedro Valley Park; unfortunately, we had to walk parts of it. Later, we decided to skip out on a proper lunch since we were worried about time. I paid for it that afternoon: I bonked while climbing small hills, and at some point my quads started spasming. Luckily, we were able to make it to UC Santa Cruz before it was too dark, and we took a bus to a friend’s apartment on campus. We had an indulgent dinner at Saturn Cafe (to recuperate, we had to eat 3,500 to 4,500 calories a day) and slept as soon as we could.

Our bike setup
Our bike setup

Day 2: Santa Cruz to Monterey

After spending 20 minutes trying to fend off a few hyperactive squirrels from the balcony where our bikes were parked, we left UC Santa Cruz at 8 AM. As we hoped, this was a really easy day–low mileage and little elevation gain–and we made it to Monterey by around 3 PM. After getting lunch at Ike’s, we rented wetsuits and spent some time swimming at the beach! At night, we walked around Old Fisherman’s Wharf and got some great vegan Mexican food at El Cantaro.

Bruvs at the Bay
Bruvs at the Bay

Day 3: Monterey to Big Sur

This was our shortest day, so we took it really easy in the morning. We bought some ass cream (we really needed it) and some groceries from Trader Joe’s–we planned on staying in Big Sur the next day, so we needed enough food to last until dinner on Day 5.

We weren’t planning on it, but we took a detour through 17 Mile Drive, which was absolutely gorgeous. We stopped by the Safeway in Carmel-By-The-Sea to buy more groceries, and demolished a bag of pita bread and pastries for lunch. After a pretty rough climb (which wasn’t fun with all the groceries), a stop to buy last-minute camping gear (skewers, foil, etc.), and a snafu where we lost each other for an hour, we finally made it to the Pfeiffer Big Sur campground. Luckily, we had enough time to set up camp before sundown.

Our campsite
Our campsite

Day 4: Hiking at Big Sur

Our rest day wasn’t too exciting: we did laundry, went on an unbelievably boring 3-mile hike on Buzzard’s Roost trail, and strolled around the campground. We were too tired to do anything more intensive: we didn’t feel like biking, and most of the hikes within walking distance were closed because of the heat. To pass the time, we dipped our toes in a stream while eating Trader Joe’s chili and tortillas with Nutella and peanut butter (protip: tortillas are much easier to pack than bread). Some squirrels rummaged through our stuff while we were gone, which was mildly annoying–they even hid one of our slippers in the dirt 20 feet from our campsite.

It was a pretty relaxing day though! We were primarily trying to rest up for the ride to Cambria, which was supposed to be our toughest day.

While the summit of Buzzard's Roost was technically the highest point of our trip, in some sense it felt like the lowest point
While the summit of Buzzard's Roost was technically the highest point of our trip, in some sense it felt like the lowest point

Day 5: Big Sur to Cambria

We were really nervous–73 miles and 5,600 feet elevation seemed like a terrible time–so we woke up at 6 AM and started biking by 7:30. To our surprise, it was a really great day! The coast was stunning and the weather wasn’t too hot. There were a decent number of uphill sections, but they were accompanied by thrilling downhill sections where we took up the entire lane and biked as fast as we could. We were able to rest up at a gas station before the supposedly tough climb to Ragged Point, and we made it without a hitch. We even got to see a bunch of elephant seals on the way.

In the end, we made it to Cambria before 5 PM, and we had time to walk around town and relax at the hotel.

Elephant seals!
Elephant seals!

Day 6: Cambria to Pismo Beach

Another easy day: we left Cambria at around 10 AM and made it to Pismo Beach by 4 PM. We had some time to relax by the beach and grab Thai food at Fay’s Fusion.

Perambulatin' around Pismo
Perambulatin' around Pismo

Day 7: Pismo Beach to Refugio State Beach

This was a pretty long day (80 miles and 3,000 feet elevation), but we had gotten the hang of things so we weren’t worried. Even with a Chipotle break in Santa Maria and a food/groceries break in Buellton (“The Home of Split Pea Soup”), we made it to Refugio State Beach before 7 PM.

We didn’t have to book anything: we just showed up, paid $10 a person, and set up shop in the hiker/biker camp. It was a large open space with assorted fire pits and benches, and we had the entire thing to ourselves. We really liked this campground–our tent was right next to the beach, and the showers were so wonderfully relaxing that we almost finished our quarters.

That night, we enjoyed the spectacular ocean view and cool breeze while eating mushy Taco Bell and canned chili, which were both, for the record, quite unappetizing.

Refugio State Beach
Refugio State Beach

Day 8: Refugio State Beach to Ventura

This day started off on a bad note: first, we woke up to find squirrels had somehow (1) made their way into our panniers, (2) taken out a bag of Clif bars and trail mix, (3) eaten almost everything, and (4) scattered the remains within a 50-foot radius of our tent. Seriously, I have no idea how those fuckers pulled that off. On top of that, Google Maps routed us through a closed path and we had to backtrack to our starting point, which wasted around six miles.

The rest of the day was great. We stopped for some vegan food in Santa Barbara, where we had a pleasant conversation with a veteran biker who had toured across Canada. After stopping at a 7-Eleven and a fresh fruit stand, we made it to Ventura by around 6 PM. The Motel 6 was a bit janky, so we Ubered to a shopping complex in Oxnard, where we watched Ready or Not? and grabbed dinner.

When squirrels attack

Day 9: Ventura to Santa Monica

The ride to Santa Monica was really relaxing: the highway had a separate bike path for a large portion of the ride, which we appreciated.

…and after a week of biking, we reached our final destination! I really can’t explain our excitement as we saw the Santa Monica pier in the distance, raced towards it, and declared the trip complete. We called our parents to celebrate, and marveled at the fact that this actually happened.

After taking some pictures at the pier, we dropped our stuff off at the hotel, and basically ate at various restaurants along the Third Street Promenade for the remainder of the night.

And we're finished!
And we're finished!

Day 10-11: The rest of the trip

The next day, we took the train to downtown LA. We checked into our hotel, took our bikes to a designated BikeFlights pickup shop, watched Jimmy Kimmel Live! (we got tickets in advance), and scootered around Hollywood.

On our last day, we pigged out at the Grand Central Market, walked around the city, went to Madame Tussaud’s, and explored the Griffith observatory. The highlight of the night was definitely sharing seven vegan donuts at Dōnatsu (we still don’t understand how they were so good).

And thus concluded our trip. We went to the bus stop that night, and after a very uncomfortable ride we were back in San Jose by 6 AM. After a short nap, we were back at work before noon–Varun even had to catch a flight to Boston that night.

Dōnatsu, we love you ❤️
Dōnatsu, we love you ❤️


We’re still amazed that we pulled this off–it was definitely a highlight of the year. Although we had a great time, we definitely learned some lessons. Here are some major takeaways from the trip:

  • Google Maps isn’t the most reliable, especially if you’re biking. At the least, take a look at the proposed route before starting.
  • Along Highway 1, you can find a gas station or convenience store every 20-30 miles. You really don’t need to pack too much food or water.
  • Pack light: you can probably find somewhere to do laundry along the way. If you can afford it, ultralight gear might be nice.
  • There’s always room for bikers at a campground. We booked Pfeiffer beforehand, but we definitely could have showed up and paid much less.
  • As you can tell, squirrels were a recurring problem during this trip. They are evil, and they will find a way to crawl into your bags and steal your food. Make sure to seal everything.
  • Get a Bluetooth speaker and have some offline music ready! It really livens the mood.
  • Make sure to separate clean clothes from dirty clothes, perhaps in separate panniers. Even though I put my damp swim trunks in a plastic bag, they ended up making everything smell.
  • Although we had the tools, we had absolutely no clue how to repair a bike. We were just fortunate to have finished the trip without any issues.
  • As much as you prepare beforehand, you’re bound to run into issues along the way. Be flexible, and don’t panic.
  • Take lots of pictures! Looking back, I wish we had more.

While most people might consider a multi-day tour after having biked for a while, the opposite happened for us–we had essentially no experience beforehand, and this trip opened the door to a new hobby. Now, biking has been one of our saving graces during quarantine: we’ve done a bunch of rides in the area (the Bay is biking paradise), and we can’t wait until our next tour. We’d even love to try redoing SF to LA in half the time.

Having made it to the other side, we’d recommend this trip to anyone. If you don’t want to carry all your gear, consider the AIDS/LifeCycle tour: they’ll transport your bags for you, and you can raise money for a good cause.

And seriously–if you’re worried you can’t physically handle the ride, fear not! Finishing a long-distance tour like this takes 25% preparedness, 25% physical fitness, and 50% mental strength. Sometimes you’re just grinding through barren highways on a not-that-wide bike lane for hours at a time in the scorching sun, and it’s going to suck. But the breathtaking scenery California has to offer, along with the satisfaction of doing something you never thought you could, more than make up for it.