California is one of North America‘s more popular regions for cycling and it’s not hard to see why: good weather, great wine, a gorgeous coastline and stunning sights like the giant Redwood trees are all attractions worth pedaling for.
Add San Francisco on top of that – possibly America’s funkiest city – and the Sierra and Cascade mountain chains that pass along the state’s western fringe and you have a magical combination for a bike tour.
Are there any downsides? Nobody’s perfect and California is no exception. Traffic can be hairy, surprisingly so along the coast at points, and summer temperatures get unbearably hot in places like the Central Valley around Davis. It’s also not the cheapest place in the world to ride your bike, especially if you want to indulge in the fine wines of the area or grab a hotel once in a while.
Here’s the quick ‘cheat sheet’ guide to cycling in California:
Where to ride: The classic route is down the west coast, from the Oregon border to San Francisco and southward to Mexico. You’ll have amazing ocean views and more services for cyclists that you can shake a stick at. It’s possibly the easiest unsupported ride in all of North America. The only caveat is the traffic, which can be impatient at times. To read more, check out a journal and practical notes by Sonia & Ali.
Cyclists seeking tranquility may want to head inland and for that the Sierra and Cascade mountains are divine. Fly into San Francisco, take the train to Sacramento and ride east from there up into the hills. You’ll be rewarded with far quieter roads, a cool mountain climate and lush forests.
Once over the mountains, the land gets incredibly dry. For true desolation, hit Route 395 from Susanville up to Oregon. Just pack lots of water!
Don’t Miss: You’ll definitely want at least 2 days in San Francisco but it’s easy to fill double that. Happily, San Fran is one of the few cities in the world that is easy to bike into with its plethora of paths and bike-friendly car drivers. Just mind the hills! The wine-growing regions of Napa and Sonoma are where to go if you want to sip some of the latest vintages between rides, while further east cycling-mad folks shouldn’t miss Davis – home to the Bicycle Hall of Fame and the most bike-friendly city in all of the United States. Make sure to schedule some time in a national park too. There are many options and they’re all fantastic.
Food: Gourmands are well served in California, with its wide range of supermarkets, organic food shops, markets and small producers selling their wares at the farm gate or by the roadside. Mexican food is a must-try, hopefully from a little van parked at the curb. Look for one with a long line at lunch time! In season, you might find strawberries, cherries, asparagus and other delights fresh from the fields. If your budget allows, wine is cheap and there’s a huge array of boutique beers to sample.
Accommodation: Campers are well served by the hiker-biker sites in government-run parks. They cost just $3-5 per person and showers are usually available. Unfortunately, you won’t find them everywhere and private campgrounds are $15-25 per site, with a varying range of facilities. Some don’t accept tenters and others are placed near busy roads. Hotels can be found for as little as $40 but you won’t get much and could easily spend double that. There are some youth hostels in the bigger cities. Free camping is possible in some places but generally difficult due to the high level of fenced land.
Good bike shops: Most of the good shops are on the coast. Much east of Sacramento and you might find long distances between a decent one. Spots to consider include the Missing Link Bicycle Co-op in Berkeley, Bodfish Bicycles in Chester and Rainbow Bicycle in Laguna Beach.
Web Resources: Make sure you check out the following…
- National Park Service (camping and facility information)
- Forest Camping (reviews of U.S. Forest Service run campsites)
- Californian State Parks
- The Other Side of California (about the state’s dry eastern half)
- Maps for biking in and around San Francisco
- San Francisco’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (online BikeMapping service)
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