Reader. As you may know by now we are well beyond the foggy heights of Northern California and have settled into Oaxaqueño life south of the border. As rose tinted as hindsight might be, we have some truly fond yet fading memories of our time in California. Rather than let our experiences in the USA’s most populous state be lost to the sands of time, here I will endeavour to cherry pick said memories and share some (hopefully) entertaining bits with you.
It goes without saying that I’ll avoid the T word throughout, in homage to our wonderful, inclusive and inspiring new Californian friends who we met along the way. Let this not be a eulogy but a reminder that the United States, contrary to popular belief, is actually FULL of decent, generous, all-time great people.
The point at which you enter California, riding the Pacific coast route, you find yourself in the third and final state yet still not even halfway from Canada to the Mexican border. It felt good to arrive, but we knew we still had some of the biggest climbs of the trip to come, and two of the most populous urban areas in the country to traverse by bike – San Francisco (and the wider Bay Area) and Los Angeles.
Our entry into California lived up to expectations. The land suddenly looked less green, more agricultural and looking like it needed a bit of rain (the Californian drought continued). We had an amazing Warmshowers host hooked up just 20 miles or so into the state and bumped into 4 fellow cyclists who we’d met along the way upon our arrival. Our host David welcomed us into his beautifully refurbished house not far from Crescent City and Alyce and I stayed in the cosy converted outhouse surrounded by Redwoods.
The ride out from Crescent City took us straight up into the magnificent trees of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. It was just the start of things to come, but we particularly enjoyed checking out the Big Tree, aptly named though not easily distinguished amongst these giants. To say we were impressed would be to understate our reaction, which mostly consisted of us both struggling to keep our eyes on the thankfully quiet road whilst gazing into the treetops incredulously.
The first night in the Redwoods was topped off by a warning from the park ranger that a bear had been spotted in the Hiker Biker camp very recently and we’d do well to ensure all food is kept in the bear boxes at all times. Alas we still didn’t spot our first bear.
From Elk Prairie we had some downhill to catch up on back down to the coast, where we eventually hit what seemed like the Kombucha capital of the US, Arcata. (For those uninitiated readers Kombucha is a drink made from fermented tea, popular with health nuts and yoga types and probably the next big thing in East London no doubt). We had the pleasure of spending two nights in an African-style canvas tent with another WS host, Albert, on his small holding. We particularly enjoyed the outdoor kitchen and tree house shower. And with cocoa bean shells to flush the compost toilet, we’d never smelt such pleasant poop.
From Eureka we had two days of climbing up through the Redwoods to the highest point of the pacific coast route, the dreaded Leggett hill. As it happened, this really wasn’t as bad as most would have you believe, and the mid point at Burlington campground amongst the Redwoods (and halfway down the famous Avenue of the Giants) was unforgettable.
At this point we had been following route 101 almost the entire way from Canada, but at Leggett we turned off onto the 1, which was immediately quieter and more enjoyable. We had a pretty big hill to get over (though we got no view through the cloud at the top) and then we dropped back down quickly to be reunited with the Pacific Ocean.
Back on the coast after riding up through the Redwoods, we passed through a number of pleasant Northern California towns meeting good people along the way. Allison in Fort Bragg had noticed a number of bike tourers passing by her house every day and was determined to find a way to help us folks along the way. She stopped a cyclist one afternoon and asked if there was a website that bike tourers use to find a place to stay. Warmshowers was the obvious answer and 3 hours after she signed up we dropped Allison an email and a couple of days later were her first guests. We were treated to some delicious home cooked enchiladas and the next morning I got to surf at a beach just a few hundred meters from the house and freaked myself out about the seals and seaweed (I was still very much in shark territory). Allison even made us some delicious nutty granola energy snack balls which I think we had finished before we even got out of the house.
Onwards and we spent a couple of wet days around the delightfully middle class Mendocino (jokingly called Spendocino by locals in nearby Elk, where I had the most delicious jalapeño cream cheese bagel). We encountered pockets of fog along the coast but on the whole it was sunny with a strong tailwind. Perfect riding conditions.
Further south, towards Jenner we encountered probably the most spectacular piece of road of the entire trip (with sections of the Big Sur coast a very close second). Before hitting Jenner we had a huge mountain to climb which clings to the coast until you’re at the top looking at the ocean from about 1000 feet up, feeling very small and a little sick while flying around the hairpin corners. The strong winds made it even more exciting whilst towing a surfboard.
In Jenner we met back up with friends we’d met up in Oregon, Carl and Caroline. We chucked our bikes, panniers and my surfboard in the back of the truck (those oversized vehicles do serve a purpose sometimes) and got a ride back to their house after a long but incredible day riding. We enjoyed an amazing dinner with them in the evening and fully stocked up on carbs for the final straight to San Francisco over the next few days.
The day before arriving in San Francisco we bumped into a couple of Canadian bikepackers doing a the route from Vancouver to San Francisco with credit cards at their disposal. In 2 weeks they had just rode what it had taken us 2 months to complete. We thought we were probably doing something right.
Our entry into the Bay Area felt triumphant. The iconic Golden Gate Bridge was a recognisable waypoint in our route south and we felt ready for a bit of a break. As enjoyable as riding your bike all day everyday is, it catches up with you. What better place for a rest than this beautiful city. We were greeted by a friendly cycling community in the leafy Marin county before joining the rent-a-bike tourists to cycle over the bridge.
The triumphant feeling was only exaggerated when, upon rolling down into the marina (towards the famous Pier 39) we were stopped in our tracks by the blaring sound of the US national anthem, US Marines saluting to the sky and an acrobatic parachute display which culminated in the American flag being draped across the bay in front of a huge audience. We had timed our arrival perfectly to enjoy some pretty impressive aerial displays during San Francisco’s annual fleet week. All-american running commentary and the inevitable audio and aerial advertisements from sponsors only sought to emphasise our good humour at this most idiosyncratic display of patriotism. We had a picnic and went for a pint like the good English folk we are.
Shunned by the snobby tech nouveau riche in San Fran proper (joke), we got a ferry over to Oakland and rode on over to Berkeley for another WS stay, this time with the brilliant and endlessly generous Gerwein family, who had changed their Sabbath plans just for us and invited us into their warm home to join them for a hearty meal with friends. We spent a couple of days in Berkeley, visiting the university and wandering the streets where many a student protest has passed (and continues, it turns out).
After 2 more nights in Oakland with an old university friend of Alyce’s, our WS host Joel from Berkeley very kindly (not to mention trustingly) lent us his car so we could drive over to Yosemite National Park to spend some time off the bikes and don our walking boots. We drove over with Craig and Dee, fellow bike tourers from Sheffield whose path we’d been criss-crossing for the previous couple of weeks. We spent a few days in the park, exploring the valley and driving up to famous lookouts, though the highlight was definitely the early morning hike up to Cloud’s Rest. At nearly 10,000 feet up, this hike gave us 360 degree views of Yosemite which blew our socks off, getting Craig so excited that he struck out into an off-the-cuff air guitar performance using his new found walking pole.
On the way back to Berkeley we spent a night in a dive of a motel in Merced, getting takeaway pizza and a couple Negra Modelos for dinner. This was just about passable as an authentic american experience at this point, having only stayed at 1 other motel over the whole trip, but I wouldn’t want to get in the habit of it. The styrofoam bowls and plates at the complimentary breakfast the next morning was another low point. We were missing the tent and our porridge breakfasts.
From Berkeley we took the ferry back into San Francisco and spent two nights in the city with long term resident British expat and WS host Brian. We enjoyed two nights of British nostalgia and had another opportunity to explore San Francisco a bit more while a big rainstorm passed over us. We felt lucky to be welcomed into another warm house by a fellow bike tourer and all-round great guy. Cheers Brian!
Next up we had to navigate our way out of San Francisco and back to the coast to begin our last leg of the trip towards the Mexican border. We felt well-rested and ready to get back on the bikes after a week off and excited for what the remainder of the Californian coast would show us.