North by Train to SLO, South Back Home by Bike

Here was the idea: A getaway weekend. Not too far, but far enough. How to get there, and how to get back? The plan was hatched to take the Amtrak train to San Luis Obispo (SLO) and return by bicycle. It was about 150-160 miles, as near as we could estimate, so that would be a two-day return trip.

Starting out was surprisingly easy. Amtrak's Surfliner train accommodates bikes right in one of the cars. You don't need to box them, just reserve a free spot for the bike. The trip was fantastic: Just sit back and relax and watch the California coastline roll by. The train trip north of Santa Barbara includes some virtually untouched coastline near Point Conception that you really can't see unless you are (a) on the train, (b) a local ranch hand, or (c) stationed at Vandenburg Airforce Base. Rounding the corner out of the Channel, the open ocean did begin to look a lot more rough.

We arrived in SLO around 1 p.m., picked up our rental car (aka sag wagon), and checked in at our hotel. Then it was off for a walking tour of SLO, which has a great old downtown and a really lively college-town atmosphere. Afternoon coffee at BlackHorse Espresso & Bakery, always a favorite when I'm in SLO. We found some great places for a beer, certainly more than we could hit in one night. Eureka! had a good selection of craft beers; dinner was at Big Sky Cafe. Properly prepared, we were ready for the bike ride.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, founded in 1772 by Father Junípero Serra.

Day 1

We thought we'd started out early, but as we rolled through downtown SLO, a bunch of revelers were already crowded into Mother's Tavern getting an early start on St. Patrick's Day, still a couple of days away. They weren't puttin' off puttin' on the green!

The group, ready to roll!

We followed the Pacific Coast Bike Route along CA-1 (Pacific Coast Highway) out of SLO and through Avila Beach and the coastal towns. We managed to find a steep hill (averaged 15 percent) on Halcyon Road that we could have skipped. We got to Guadalupe before we knew it and visited the train station we saw the day before. The traffic isn't bad through here, but there is enough of it to keep you on your toes.

When we reached Orcutt, we decided to try a creative route to Buellton. We crossed east on Clark and went right on Dominion, then onto Palmer Road to the tiny town of Sisquoc. Right onto Foxen Canyon and on through to Los Olivos. It ended up being the best choice even if it was a little longer. There was very little traffic on Dominion, Palmer, and Foxen Canyon. The road was shaded in many places, and the scenery was outstanding. Of course, it didn't hurt to have the occasional winery/tasting room along the way.

Just as we were running out of water, we finally caught up with Jenean and the sag, and had lunch in Los Olivos. The town was really hopping with folks enjoying the local wines. Now just a few miles from our final destination, we found the bike lane from Los Olivos to Solvang; then just two miles more to get to Buellton. At the end of the day, we had clocked 83 miles and 3,500 feet of climbing.

With that many miles on a warm day, we were ready for a couple of beers. The local brewery, Figueroa Mountain Brewing, was just a couple of blocks away. We sampled nearly every beer they offered and couldn't find a bad one in the set. Especially good were the dry Irish stout and an imperial IPA. Then we were off to AJ Spurs for some real down-home recovery food.

One of these beers is not like the others.

Day 2

Sunday being Greg's wife Nancy's birthday, we didn't want Greg to get in too late for a birthday dinner. So, we took off in the cold morning air, passing through Solvang before too many people were out and about. However, the ostriches were up, and they greeted use as we rode by.

We were a little worried about the ride along San Marcos Pass on CA-154. It can be busy and in places the shoulders get very narrow. But once we turned onto Stagecoach Road, we were in heaven. The climb up the pass was shaded and very lightly traveled. That included a quick stop for coffee at Cold Spring Tavern -- still in the original location from when it was a stagecoach stop.

The climb to the summit was pretty steady. At the top we merged back onto CA-154 for a quick descent to the Old San Marcos Road turnoff. This put us on a very tricky but very quiet descent. The views from the top were exceptionally clear and included all of the Channel Islands.

The ride through Santa Barbara was fine, though not nearly as pastoral as Stagecoach Road. We got down to Cabrillo via Milpas, which took us through a Santa Barbara neighborhood new to me. We met back up with Jenean and JoAnn in Carpenteria for lunch. I made the fateful decision to hand over my car keys to Jenean, committing myself to riding all the way home. After lunch we took off along the coast route to the US-101 bike route. The construction along the way re-routed bikes along east side of the freeway with k-rails separating the us from the traffic. Actually, it was a big improvement.

Ventura County surf.

We made good time along the Rincon. Just a few folks trying to park their motorhomes tying up traffic. The weather was fantastic and you could easily see why so many people were out. We cut through Ventura (visiting another train station), then turned east onto Fifth Street, passing the Oxnard train station, and picked up a nice tailwind -- all along seeing more familiar landmarks, so we knew we were getting close to home.

We had one last stop to make: hot fudge sundaes, the perfect energy lifter on a hot day. I had to have two. The tailwind followed us up Santa Rosa Road, and we made it home with not a muscle to spare.

On Sunday we'd ridden 107 miles with 4,800 feet of climbing, giving a two-day total of 190 miles. A little more than we'd estimated, but doable. The trip was fantastic. I can't imagine a better way to get to SLO than by train. The ride back was really enjoyable and we got to see some areas that we hadn't seen before. Having a support van was perfect for making a carefree bike ride. Jenean was terrific for volunteering to drive; JoAnn found a great way to join us for one day of riding and do some sightseeing with Jenean the next.

Photo of San Luis Obispo Mission by Jenean Bass; all other photos by Michael Bass. See more photos from the trip at Mike's blog.

Get more information about bike overnights.

Tip for this adventure: Enjoy the backcountry of Santa Barbara County. Best if you could stay in Solvang, but the hotels were sold out so we stayed nearby.

Favorite local bike shop: Win's Wheels in Westlake Village.

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