Between Canada and the Mexican border is one of the world’s most beautiful roads for bicycle touring: the Pacific Coast Highway.
It takes in amazing ocean views, lush forests, fantastic facilities for cyclists and cities like Vancouver and San Francisco.
In 2008, one bike tourist cycling this route was Dan. In this edition of 10 Questions, he shares tips and experiences learned during this 2,750km route. You can also see Dan’s website for more on his bike tours.
1. What attracted you to cycling this route, from Vancouver to Mexico?
I wanted to do another cycle tour after completing a ride from one end of Britain to the other the previous summer. I had never been to North America before and I had read that the Pacific Coast was hard to rival in terms of its scenery. The distance between Vancouver and Mexico was about right for me too – short enough for me to be able to do it in the relatively short time scale I had but long enough to be a challenge.
2. How did you plan the journey?
I really struggled to find much about this or similar rides on the internet. I purchased the Adventure Cycling Association maps which cover the section from Vancouver to San Diego and a book called “Bicycling the Pacific Coast: A Complete Route Guide, Canada to Mexico”.
The ACA maps in particular were fantastic and I followed these most of the way. They were particularly good as they highlighted the type of accommodation that could be found along the route.
3. What were some of the best things you experienced?
The scenery along the coast was always a highlight. Had I stopped to take a picture as often as I wanted to, I’d probably still be out there on my bike. The wildlife was good too. I saw seals fighting on the beach near Cambria, pelicans nose-diving for fish in L.A., deer by the side of the road and various birds of prey.
I really enjoyed my time in Los Angeles and San Diego after I had completed the cycling, although the best memories come from the days when I was on my bike.
Also, the one thing all cyclists love is a good tail wind, and I had it. Every day!
4. And the hardest part?
One of the hardest things was waking up to cold rain and fog every day for the first half of the ride but physically the day from Monterey, CA to Cambria, CA was the hardest.
It was very hilly all day and except for the first 10 miles there wasn’t a flat stretch of road. I can remember, after I had been slogging it up endless hills for the first half of the day, I was greeted with a sign that read “Hills” and underneath “63 miles”. At least I knew what to expect!
This was the only day that I really struggled physically but I was treated to some fantastic views in the rare moments when the fog cleared.
Most other days were gentle rolling hills with the occasional longer, steeper climb thrown in, which I must admit felt like they would never end sometimes. They never worried me too much though and I was travelling pretty light so I didn’t have much weight to lug up them. After Santa Barbara the road becomes very flat so the last couple of hundred miles are relatively easy.
5. This route can be pretty rainy in the northern section. Did you struggle with that?
It rained most mornings in Oregon and I was sometimes cycling through dense fog till midday. I tended to just get my head down and ride without stopping too much in the morning as the fog obscured any views there may have been and I would get too cold anyway. As always the weather would clear around midday and I rode a more relaxed pace with plenty of stops in the warm sun.
6. What about accommodation? Did you have any trouble finding places to sleep?
There were a couple of nights where I had to spend a little time asking around for accommodation and usually ended up paying for something more expensive than I would have liked. This was down to not booking in advance, but I liked the freedom of not being tied down to a particular place at the end of each day.
I had planned to use the hiker-biker sites (special areas in campgrounds for cyclists) and carried a bivi and sleeping bag with me. However, due to the cold and very wet nights the equipment I had wasn’t really suitable. I also arrived at a few to find that there was nowhere to get food for miles around. I really should have planned for that.
So, I ended staying in youth hostels and the occasional motel and carrying a bivi and sleeping bag the entire length of America without using them once…
7. This route is popular, and there are some big cities along the way. How did you find traffic?
I live in the UK so to me the roads were huge! I did feel a little insecure as I cycled out of Vancouver airport but I soon got used to it. I found that drivers were very accommodating and I didn’t have any problems. You have to be alert in the big cities and the constant stop start flow of traffic was frustrating, especially in Vancouver where it took well over an hour to clear the city limits.
For the most part the roads were in good condition and there was either a cycle lane or a large hard shoulder for many parts of the ride and I found there to be little traffic once city limits were cleared. The one thing I did find was that the roads were quite dirty. Some days I would finish with my legs covered in dirt and oil from the road.
8. What kind of budget is necessary to do this trip? Can you do it on the cheap?
It could certainly be done on the cheap. The hiker-biker campsites along most of the route only charge about $4 a night. There are also plenty of youth hostels which are not too expensive. There is always the opportunity to splurge on more luxurious hotels if you have the funds but I really enjoyed the youth hostel experience and being able to talk to other guests at the end of the day is always nice.
9. What is one amazing experience you had, that you’d recommend to everyone?
This is without doubt the hardest question to answer! The one thing that always sticks in my mind is when I was walking out on the Pier in LA (after I’d finished in Mexico and had got the train back up to fly home from LA), watching Pelicans nose-diving into the water to catch fish. I was so relaxed and at the same time so triumphant that I had cycled down the Pacific Coast of America.
From a cycling point of view, the day from LA to San Diego was amazing. It was sunny, the roads were very flat and fast and I had a tail wind all day. The scenery was fantastic and I was flying along all day.
I also did 143 miles that day so it was a huge achievement for me, as well as knowing I only had a few miles to ride into Mexico the next day. The feeling you get when completing something that you have worked so hard for is not comparable to anything else and this is what I love about cycling.
10. In terms of gear, what’s one thing every cyclist cycling from Vancouver to Mexico should bring with them?
Camera. There are probably far more useful items to take but I saw so many fantastic things and I love looking back at the photos from my trip.
Thanks to Dan for answering 10 Questions and providing the photos.
Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling the Pacific Coast of North America.
- PCH Bike Tour: The Good, The Bad and The Burley – A journal of a West coast bike tour, with a trailer
- The Pacific Coast Highway By Bike – A report in the London Times newspaper
- My Pacific Coast Bike Trip – Blog of a bike tour from Vancouver to San Diego