Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo to Paso Robles

Russ Roca and Laura Crawford sold everything they owned in 2009 and have been traveling around the US on bicycle. Follow their current journey on Brompton folding bikes and the train at PathLessPedaled.com.

Union Station in the middle of downtown Los Angeles, is perhaps the last place you would consider starting a bicycle tour. However, in the 6 years Laura and I have been bicycle touring, many of our trips have started by taking an Amtrak train from Union Station to points beyond. The Amtrak Surfliner in California -- which runs from San Diego to San Luis Obispo -- lets you take your bike on board without having to box it.

One of our favorite short tours begins in the eclectic college town of San Luis Obispo, heads towards the coast, climbs over a short range, and drops into the vineyards of Paso Robles. We first rode this trip several years ago on our way to the Great Western Bike Rally, a 3-day annual bicycle event that has been held in Central California for the last 47 years.

Hopping on the earliest Amtrak Surfliner train from Union Station heading north is strongly advised, since it is usually the older style train with a luggage car that has plenty of room for bikes. The newer Surfliners have hooks, which can only carry very few bikes on the train. We have taken the train before where the hooks were full and we were bumped off.

The hiker/biker at Moro Bay State park provides inexpensive and convenient camping close to town.

From Los Angeles, detrain at San Luis Obispo where you could spend an evening at the local hostel if you want to explore the town, or grab some lunch before you ride the leisurely 15 miles to Moro Bay State Park. The park has hiker/biker camping. Since you’ll be getting in fairly early, you could ride into town for dinner or get food from a local market. It is a short ride to the beach where you’ll get great views of Moro rock.

A short ride from the hiker/biker brings you to the water where you can get great views of Moro Rock

The next morning, you’ll ride on HWY 1 with a pretty good shoulder. Before you hit the town of Cayucos, you’ll turn on Old Creek Road, which climbs up to a good view of the Whale Rock Reservoir. A little past the reservoir, you’ll turn on to Santa Rita Road, the gem of the trip. You’ll climb and wind your way up a small range on this beautiful, quiet and lightly trafficked road, passing fields of yellow flowers if your timing is right.

Santa Rita road is a small and lightly trafficked road with great views. It may have some light gravel but is a pleasant ride.

At the right time of year, you may be greeted by yellow flowers on the hill.

When you reach the summit, it is nearly all downhill to the small town of Templeton where you can grab a bite to eat before the short final leg to Paso Robles. Spend a night at Paso Robles and explore its downtown and local wineries. You can hop the Amtrak back to Los Angeles the next day. You’ll have to box your bike, so check in early.

Russ at the Summit of Santa Rita road.

This route is nearly rideable all year round and provides a relaxing bicycle escape from the concrete jungle of Los Angeles. View the route on Bikely.

Get more information about bike overnights.

13 responses so far ↓

Larry Bricker - Apr 28, 2011 at 7:25 AM

This isn't so much a comment as a question. Can you take a tandem on the Surfliner? We were told that even if you took the front wheel off and put it on a hanger that you couldn't do it. Help!

Ricardo - Apr 28, 2011 at 7:51 AM

Depends. If it goes in a box, I think they HAVE to take it. You may be REQUIRED to put it in a box, depending on start/end locations. You can tape 2 reg bike boxes together and get there. If you do put it in a box, don't let them charge you for 2. I have had the airlines try that and told them it was ONE bike. Two wheels, ONE bike.

David - Jun 13, 2011 at 1:24 PM

Did you stay at a campsite in Templeton or Paso Robles?

Dale - Jul 13, 2011 at 10:46 AM

Ricardo, the Amtrak Surfliner has a spot as you enter the train where you hang the bike vertically by the wheels from hooks protruding from the wall. A tandem would be too tall for this, so there is no other place to put the bike besides in the baggage car, where it likely would need to be boxed, although I once put my bike on a baggage car unboxed for a short trip (Santa Barbara to Simi Valley).

The Amtrak is a great way to do bike camping. CA is best ridden North to South (prevailing winds, road shoulders), and Amtrak can be used to bypass the urban sprawl of LA. One nice trip is San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara, which can be done leisurely in 2-3 days. Take Amtrak to San Luis Obispo, camp in Pismo or Morro Bay. Check out Refugio, a great beach campground ~30 mi north of Santa Barbara.

Dale - Jul 13, 2011 at 10:49 AM

Beware of hiker/biker site closings in Orange County. Both San Clemente and San Onofre have closed their sites. Dana Point's tiny site is sandwiched between a road and the bathrooms with a light on you all night (yuck!). It's not camping. It's all RV's, but the beach is very nice.

Katie - Oct 30, 2011 at 6:13 PM

Dale- Do you by chance have a route that you could share for the SLO to Santa Barbara trip you referenced? Thank so much!! Looking to do this over the Thanksgiving weekend!

Dale - Oct 30, 2011 at 8:22 PM

Katie, I pretty much follow the route in the "Bicycling the Pacific Coast" book. I suggest using this. Santa Barbara county publishes a free map of routes that you can request. Just send an email to info@trafficsolutions.info requesting a map and give them your address. I took the coast route (the blue line) and liked it.

That being said, here is some route information: from SLO, take Higuera to Ontario Rd (R), to Avila Beach Rd (L), Palisades Rd (R), which turns into Shell Beach and then Price Rd in Pismo. From Pismo, head south on Hwy 1 for about 25 miles to Hwy 135. The book suggests staying on Hwy 135 to Harris grade, but I took the 1 up the hill to Lompoc past Vandenburg AFB (where they do rocket launches, but none when you'll be going by). I would take their advice, as I didn't care for the route along Hwy 1. From Lompoc, stay on Hwy 1, which makes a 90 deg left at the end of town and another right soon after, for a nice 15 mile ride with some hills but nice country. Then you hit Hwy 101, traffic but wide shoulders. You're on 101 for about 20 miles until you hit Goleta, where you can pick up the Santa Barbara map routes. The book also recommends a route through Solvang and by Cachuma lake, but I've never ridden it.

I stayed at a private campground a few miles south of Pismo, as the North Beach campground in the book didn't have hiker-biker sites. My tent was about 30 ft from Hwy 1, but there was a good group of touring bikers camping there, which made up for the location. North of Santa Barbara, you'll have choices of Gaviota, Refugio and El Capitan state beaches (plus a private campground near El Capitan). I've never been to Gaviota, but I really liked Refugio. You camp in a field right next to the beach, and the RV crowd is inland from you. The store is pretty sparse though, so bring supplies from Lompoc. Avoid El Capitan. I hated it. There were squatters who claimed to have rented the entire hiker-biker site! It was a dump anyway, on a cliff above the beach. Also, the private campground across Hwy 101 from El Capitan has concerts every Saturday night in summer, in a great field with a general store and BBQ. It's only about 2-3 miles from Refugio. Note also that you can pick up the Amtrak in Goleta as well as Santa Barbara. I hope this helps. Have a great trip!

Katie McGann - Oct 30, 2011 at 10:42 PM

Thanks so much, Dale! How would you rate the overall difficulty of this ride? And how much climbing does it involve? I can manage fine but the person I'll be riding with isn't as strong of a rider and is new to riding so I don't want to scare her off from it. :)

Dale - Oct 31, 2011 at 8:05 AM

It's not too difficult, but there is some climbing. I think that the difficulty really depends on how much you pack and how long you are comfortable in the saddle per day. There's a small hill south of Pismo that will get you breathing hard, but you'll be past it in a few minutes. The hill just before Lompoc is bigger (about 600 feet according to the book), and there's some small hills on the other side of Lompoc, but the scenery after Lompoc is really nice, and that part of the ride is only about 15 miles. Pack lightly and keep the daily mileage within your capabilities and you should be fine. Staying in Lompoc is an option if the hills tire you out on the first day, then the next two days will be easy. There's a campground there and also hotels. You will be fresher when you get to Santa Barbara and have more energy to explore. Santa Barbara is a great town. I wish I was going!

Ron - Jan 18, 2012 at 12:07 PM

It's a bit late for advice to Katie, but for anyone else interested in this ride, may I offer a bit more local info.
Dale is right about the route.

Going to Lompoc, take the route over Harris Grade. The hill is only slightly longer than the one on Hwy 1. But it is wind-protected & more scenic. It has very light traffic to compensate for no shoulders and also allows you to bypass 1 or 2 other significant hills on the Hwy 1 route.

The alternative route that goes through the upper Santa Ynez valley is not generally recommended. It is fine until you approach Cachuma Lake where it narrows to no shoulder for several miles and it has heavy traffic much of the time (commuters during the week and tourists on weekends). It you don't mind a somewhat rough, unpaved alternative, you can go from the town of Santa Ynez over the mountains to Refugio Beach. The steep section of the climb out of Santa Ynez on Refugio Rd. is about 3 miles of gravel road.

It is possible to ride for a good rider without mountain bike tires but would be difficult with touring gear too. Walking some sections may be necessary. It is "officially" closed to traffic but does get used by locals and was passable as of Jan 2, 2012.

Michael McCoy - Jan 20, 2012 at 12:09 PM

Thanks for that addition, Ron.

Kurt Gary - Apr 12, 2012 at 8:52 PM

I love using Union Station as my gateway. My friend Kevin and I have ridden from our houses in Santa Monica to Union Station, taken the train to San Luis Obispo and ridden to Cambria and then back to Santa Monica. It's nice ridding through a lot of farm country, but it is a bit hairy through Guadalupe.

Kurt Gary - Apr 15, 2014 at 5:40 PM

I've done that trip a couple of times. A friend and I rode to Union Station from Santa Monica and rode and camped back home. On my last trip I rode out to Cambria first-tough winds, but over all a great trip. It's fun to avoid a car or plane!

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