Three Europeans packed their bikes and headed to sunny California for a Pacific Coast road trip. Travelling from Los Angeles to San Francisco in an caravan, they took in 600km of famous sites – from blood-red sunsets and Santa Monica Pier to the Golden Gate Bridge. And, as fitting in the birthplace of mountain biking, they took the time to explore some gnarly singletrack.
The Pacific Coast Highway, considered one of the world’s most panoramic roads, winds its way through the geographically diverse state of California, which is also the birthplace of mountain biking. It was in the 1970s, on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, near San Francisco, that a group of riders first fitted wider tyres onto their bikes. The sport has come a long way since – and the Golden State boasts many beautiful mountain biking trails well worth a visit. Mountain biker Franziska Gobeli, photographer Martin Bissig and I headed off to check them out – and to live the dream of experiencing a mythical California road trip firsthand.
Recreational vehicles (RVs), as motorhomes are known in the States, are a great way to travel, and there are plenty of RV parks where you can pull in for the night. We decided to rent a mid-sized RV for our road trip. It had enough space to sleep five, and came equipped with a shower, a toilet, a kitchenette, couch and a giant fridge. At over eight metres in length, this was one mighty vehicle – at least from our European perspective. However, as we found out, from a Californian standpoint, it was on the small side. In fact, my apartment is smaller than lots of the motorhomes we saw during our trip.
City of Angels
The first few days were a flood of new impressions. We started out on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where we squeezed our RV into a parking spot right on the Pacific shore, and found ourselves diving headfirst into the California lifestyle. What better spot than Venice Beach for a total immersion. Skaters and surfers rub shoulders with artists and free spirits, each of them embodying what this unique part of the city has come to represent. Indisputably, this melting pot of diversity is unrivalled anywhere else in the world.
From here, we continued to another highlight of our tour: the distinctive Santa Monica Pier. Built early in the 20th century, this iconic structure has featured in countless movies. We were fortunate to be there as the sky gradually darkened, and we marvelled at the spectacle of the bright lights of the gigantic Ferris wheel against the backdrop of the blood-red evening sun. I’d always thought that the photos of red Californian sunsets had been edited. But no, reality here is just as over the top as in the photographs.
Next stop was the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the world’s most famous sidewalk,
along which we pushed our bikes, surrounded by Spiderman and the Hulk.
The hustle and bustle of Hollywood is the ultimate combination of kitsch and surrealism. The sidewalks are embedded with more than 2 500 stars honouring celebrities in the entertainment industry, and for many fans, this is the closest they’ll get to their stars.
It’s not just Hollywood that is
synonymous with the world of film.
Various beaches have also become famous through movies or television series. One of the most famous is Malibu Beach, featured in the 90s TV series Baywatch. The Pacific Coast Highway also took us past the spot where David Hasselhoff and a scantily clad Pamela
Anderson jogged along the beach in slow motion. And it was just outside Malibu that we followed the Puerco Canyon Road Loop up to the Backbone Trail, some killer singletrack offering farreaching ocean panoramas.
On the Wild Side
Our next stop was further north, in Morro Bay. This is where Montana de Oro State Park is located, and once there, we rode the Hazard Peak Trail. We pedalled up the perfectly laid out, two-foot-wide path, all the way up to the highest look-out point. From here, we were able to see the distinctive Morro Rock rising up out of the bay. The trails were pretty dusty, so we had to keep a distance from the rider ahead. This turned out to be a good thing
because at one point I rounded a corner and suddenly, there was Martin, right in the
middle of the trail. I managed to stop just in the nick of time. “There was a huge wildcat,
right on the trail!” he yelled out. We found out later that the area is home to cougars!
Martin must have startled one of these rare creatures.
We had other encounters with wildlife the following day, while we were driving along the never-ending coast. There was a colony of elephant seals right by the highway. More than a hundred of them were lounging about in the sand, not the least bit disturbed by the tourists flocking around them. It was quite an experience to see these magnificent animals from so
near. There was no end to the highlights of this trip.
The next stretch of highway was definitely one of the most spectacular. To our left, cliffs, several hundred metres in height, plunged down to the Pacific. Down below, the waves
crashed against the rocks. The panoramic route snakes its way along the coast as far as
the eye can see, and navigating these curves was not the easiest in our ungainly vessel.
Giant redwoods towered above the dense forest to our right. Higher still we could see
condors riding the thermals. The perfect theme song came on the radio, and we turned
up the speakers to blast out the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song Californication. We sung along
at the top of our lungs.
Total Riding Pleasure
Just past Monterey, we reached Fort Ord National Monument, a former United States Army post. The grounds are crisscrossed with perfectly laid out bike trails. We discovered a good mix of uphills and downhills in varying degrees of difficulty.
A blend of wide, scenic, high plateaus and narrow, winding paths through deep valleys made for a lot of variety in terms of the landscape. The trails are well marked, making this experience a positive one.
Right across from there is Toro Park, so we tried out the Pipeline Loop. The ascent, at a gradient of 20%, was pretty gnarly, and took every last bit of our energy and focus. We were grateful to still have some reserves for the surprisingly technical descent. As residents of the Alps, we’re used to steep and challenging downhills, so the chundry stretch was pretty dope!
Total riding pleasure!
We could have spent weeks in Santa Cruz. This beach-side city is pretty chill.
This is where surfing took off in the USA, and world-famous surfing spots like Steamer
Lane are right on the outskirts of the city.
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, with its historic roller coaster, slot machines and
restaurants right on the beach are worth a visit. The brightly coloured houses along Capitola Beach are like an open-air museum, but people actually live in them and here, too, things are pretty lively.
In Wilder Ranch State Park, the trails lead from redwood forest-covered mountains right down to rugged, windswept beaches.
In addition to surfing and skateboarding, mountain biking also plays a big role. Santa Cruz Bicycles, a well-known manufacturer of high-end mountain bikes, founded in 1994, is also nearby. Franziska owns one of their bikes and was thrilled to ride past the company’s grounds.
The area is ideal for biking. In Wilder Ranch State Park, one of 14 parks in Santa Cruz County, the trails lead from redwood forest-covered mountains right down to rugged, windswept beaches.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to closely explore the unbelievable plethora of options available to us, because we were on a tight schedule. Our next big destination: San Francisco!
We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in our RV with Mount Tamalpais on our left. As the birthplace of our sport, it‘s an important destination for mountain bikers. But instead of heading for the trails, we decided to explore the city’s urban canyons and sights on our bikes. And of course, we wanted to cross the Golden Gate Bridge on two wheels! Alamo Square, Alcatraz, China Town, Columbus Avenue, Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street, the cable cars… We had a long list of must-sees and we tried to fit in as many as possible.
After two intense days in Frisco, our trip was drawing to a close. Once we’d gotten used to the closed quarters of our RV, spent several days on the trails and roads of the Pacific coast, seen several places of interest and marvelled at the many spectacular sunsets from the comfort of our motorhome, we understood the magic behind the mythical California road trip. And this magic will remain with us for a long time yet.