Biking the West Coast of USA: Stories, tricks, & tips

I think it took a car road trip to realise how much I truly appreciated my bike tour in the US (*You can read my little poem about this at the end). Short of time, but desperate to see Big Sur, and old friends in Santa Cruz, last week we rented a car to see the last of our wish list sites for this time in the US. And I tell you passing out Granola bars to panting, puffing, bike tourists as we drove by them was fun, but no substitute for the real thing. What an amazing 4 months it’s been in the US and Canada: wholesome family time, reconnecting and meeting old friends, training across Canada uncovering food systems along the way, exploring Vancouver Island, attending the Explorer’s Club symposium and then…. biking the stunning West Coast! From Port Angeles around the Olympic Peninsula, through Oregon to Portland and then back down the 101 on the coast as far as Arcata before turning inland to Lake Tahoe, finishing the trip officially in San Francisco.

Sometimes in the United States of America things seem familiar before you have begun, thanks to movies and TV. But what the mainstream of this doesn’t depict are the vast expanses of rural USA and the characters tucked away inside (OK, Twilight movies aside, which were filmed near Forks). These little gems were scattered along a diverse Pacific coast – from Washington’s rainforests and lakes, to Trinity and Humboldt counties pot plantations up and over mountains and beyond. All exciting things to scope out on a bike.

My first 1000 km! (www.bikeben.com)
My first 1000 km! (Photo http://www.bikeben.com)

Biking day in day out for nearly five weeks with epic coasts and mountains awash with all sorts of such lively characters, we still hardly scratched the surface of this expansive and diverse land. We calculated that by covering Washington, Oregon and half of California at a decent 2,500km 32 day stint, we covered an equivalent mileage as Ben did from Budapest Hungary to the middle of Iran back in 09: All in the same country. Really, it was just the tip of the iceberg in this beautiful, big, diverse land.

And we certainly got into some interesting nooks and crannies, trying to stay with as many different locals as we could along the way. For us it’s the people that make the trip. We had dubbed it the Good Food; Good People tour and we weren’t disappointed.

5 great reasons to bike the West Coast of the US

  • Hiker biker campsites for $5 (in State Parks)
  • Epic coastal scenery on the 101 (especially from Bandon south)
  • Bike shops in nearly every town (great for a beginner in case something goes wrong)
  • A lot of great hosts online happy to help you out (Warm Showers)
  • Company from other bike tourists (it’s a popular route)

Early on there were hiker bikers to meet around the campfire, but as the days turned to Fall, shortened, and people returned to work, we found camping out wasn’t the easiest way to meet new people (especially not if you end up in an RV park!). So, in an attempt to find more locals we turned to the tour bike hosting website, Warm Showers, seemingly popular with the US bike tourists who’ve since hung up the panniers and want to host other bikers – understanding those nuances such as insatiable appetites, smelly clothing and the blood pumping feeling of a warm shower. That combined with good old fashioned door knocking with a friendly smile and a “Can we camp on your lawn?” request meant that we were well set all along the way. And then we camped the rest of the time.  But time was getting short as Fall engulfed us and it was getting colder and darker earlier.

A chilly morning - riding towards Sierraville and onto Truckee and Tahoe (photo www.bikeben.com)
A chilly morning: Riding towards Sierraville and onto Truckee and Tahoe (Photo http://www.bikeben.com)

Our experiences staying with people were as diverse as camping with hippies (who were on mushrooms and lived in a house they’d made out of egg cartons and old crates, whilst grazing goats on the outskirts of a rainforest) to camping on the lawn of steadfast Republican supporter with his horses on a ranch (who gave us beer and cooked us an epic breakfast the next day whilst explaining his view on ‘Bama Care). Once we also stayed in a church hall with 11 other bike tourists to hide out a storm for two days in a situation that was a cross between school camp for bikers and a civil defence emergency, meeting some of the best characters and new travel friends you could hope for traveling anywhere – most of whom are from the US.

Along the way, we met such friendly people – once we found them. We quickly learned that in the US flagging down cars to ask directions or for help doesn’t really work; people are more skeptical. When changing a flat for example no one stopped to see if everything was ok. But when you meet people or they approach you, the chance encounters are absolute gems. One time we were invited to stay in a metal forgery by a friendly local when it was too cold to camp outside and I met a guy in a supermarket car park who insisted we stay with his daughter when we passed her town a few days later. Both turned out to be fantastic hosts and great characters.

Lunch stop, Week 1 in Washington (photo www.bikeben.com)
Lunch stop, Week 1 in Washington (photo http://www.bikeben.com)

Parts of Washington were really remote, the odd house scattered amidst tracts of forest, meaning our only interactions were the occasional chat at a local store. In those early days of the trip we were noticing the signs: “Posted, No Trespassing” on every gate and overt opposition to extension of the forest. Frankly, it wasn’t that friendly up there.

A note on noticing notices – I noticed that when you’re touring you notice these noted signs… and it can be notably affronting…

As we progressed south into Oregon we felt the contrast of rural to urban, particularly heading into Portland and suddenly overwhelmed by the city and the sheer number of cyclists, a welcome relief from big roads, logging trucks and RVs. And then finally, we found a crew of bikers, first a lovely Swiss couple who were picking up where they left off 15 years ago (later we camped next to them in a yurt), then our church hall buddies who we still bumped into south of San Francisco when we’d stopped biking. On this part of the trip the highlight was the Redwoods. Riding through those godly forests are worth every hill it takes to get there!

Hiding from the rain in a hollowed out redwood.(photo www.bikeben.com)
Hiding from the rain in a hollowed out redwood. (Photo http://www.bikeben.com)

We rode inland from Arcata, which was awash with people hanging out overtly waiting to get “trimming work” picking pot, inland up the 299 Route: a stunning ride up the Trinity River, winding up into the mountains and past countless areas growing weed. In the open Fall air with harvest season a ripe, pot was the fragrance of our trip. Met with angry dogs on numerous occasions, illicit air ports behind trees, high fences, and properties boarded up (in some places entire towns) we rode quickly by.  But that didn’t out do how stunning that river and valley was, with people fishing and the Fall colours starting to turn as we rode higher, staying with families along the way, in lovely remote homesteads, seeing a different pace of life.

Enjoying lunch in a magic spot with Mt. Lassen behind. (Photo www.bikeben.com)
Enjoying lunch in a magic spot with Mt. Lassen behind. (Photo http://www.bikeben.com)

For two weeks of our trip the US Government was on shutdown, closing all campsites and many roads through national parks. Undeterred we rode on, sneaking around the signs and talking to sympathetic rangers who turned a blind eye and allowed us to camp or bike on closed roads. The highlight being Lassen National Park – nearly five hours of riding through spectacular mountain park, passing geysers, mudpools, rivers and the pass summit without another vehicle in sight.

The stunning Pacific Coast on Route 101 (www.bikeben.com)
The stunning Pacific Coast on Route 101 (Photo: http://www.bikeben.com)

Reflecting on the route we took, I think that inland from the Coast the scenery was more diverse and the people were not as accustomed to seeing long distance tourists so they were a little more friendly than those we met on the coast. So I’d encourage people to zig zag a bit and get off the 101 when possible. Great cities like Portland and San Francisco are highlights, and worth stopping a few extra days, plus they are both wonderful for city biking. Fall is a great time to go but remember that the days are getting shorter – dark til 7am and dark by 6.  I also felt that as a woman touring, the US is a great place, there are many women biking the coast, some of whom are alone. But you’re never alone for long on that Route, there are a lot of other bikers or hosts to meet! So, what are you waiting for? On yer bike!!

Thanks to BikeBen for the great photos. See more from our trip at http://www.bikeben.com/blog/

*If you made it this far – thanks for reading and here’s my little poem:

Longing for my bike –

Cars surround us

The car surrounds me

It engulfs; it traps

Feeling stuck now

Fueled by a cycle

Rather than powering

My own cycle

Stifled elements

Barriers

Tyres, exhausts

Tired, exhausted

No breeze

No trees

Paces quicken

Losing the feel of it; flow of it

What it means to take our time

How it feels to breathe

And read the signs

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