bikepacking the half moon bay coastal trail

Mixed terrain bikepacking from San Francisco to Santa Cruz

Last week, I took my first bikepacking trip, from San Francisco to Santa Cruz on what I’d call a mixed terrain route. I went with two of my best riding compadres, Michael and John. Our goal was to follow the Pacific Coast Highway, Skyline Boulevard in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and descend on smooth fire road into Santa Cruz.

Bike camping the San Francisco Peninsula is suitable for beginners or newbies to off-road, gravel, singletrack, fire roads, or any riding that isn’t pavement. However, I wouldn’t attempt this unless you’re in shape, aren’t allergic to climbing, and have good bike handling skills both on- and off-road. If you’ve raced cyclocross before, then yes, you can definitely do this.

Note I use bike camping and bikepacking interchangeably. Does it matter? I’m not dogmatic about the difference between bikepacking and bike camping, but I suppose bikepacking implies you’re completely off road. Bike camping could mean you ride on the road and camp, not necessarily off road. Perhaps, as Michael suggested to me, it’s just touring without racks and panniers?


I use the two terms loosely.

Let’s dive in.

Trip at a glance:

Intro: Go Bikepacking. Stop Making Excuses.

bikepacking bike camping at new brighton beach santa cruz aptos
Gentlemen reunited at New Brighton State Beach, day 4.

As much as I ride, I’ve never gone bikepacking (though, I’ve gone bike camping). I definitely have the gear, the experience, and most importantly, the legs to slingshot me into the wilderness. And since moving west two years ago, I’ve had plenty of options that would make my pals back home in the Midwest drool. Tucson, Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles, and now Sacramento, where we live, have some of the best off-road riding in their backyards.

But for a whole bowl of reasons (ahem, excuses), bikepacking never happened. Chalk it up to grad school, moving six times in two years, getting hitched, work, and general adulting. And spending too much time thumbing through everyone’s epic bikepacking photos on Instagram rather than doing it myself.

bike touring western express utah
Michael, John, and I toured on the Western Express in western Utah in 2015.

Luckily, I knew John and Michael would be game to bikepack. We met each other in 2015 in Newton, Kansas, during individual cross-country bike tours along the TransAmerica Route (east to west). We rode to the West Coast from there, and became friends. Since then, we’ve reunited for a road ride each year. None of us had bikepacked before, and I wanted to take us off road. So Michael flew into San Francisco from London, where he lives, with his Vitus cross bike. John lives in San Francisco, making his place the logical launch point.

But where to go? I spitballed all sorts of ideas: the Lost Coast, the Sierra Cascades route, or something between San Francisco and Sacramento. Henry Coe State Park, perhaps? By the time mid July rolled around, temperatures surged above 100 F for two weeks in the Central Valley and the Sierra Foothills. The cooler coast seemed less tortuous.

This time, I wanted to take us off road. John and Michael are relative noobs to off-road riding, and with options galore in Northern California, this was my chance to go Full Nerd on composing a route. We decided on a beginner’s bikepacking route threading the San Francisco Peninsula, Pacific Coast Highway, and Santa Cruz Mountains. (At least on a map, it looked beginner friendly.)

Hopefully, you find this recap useful. One of my big gripes with reading others trip reports, especially ones published on a handful of sites that I consider the Cool Kids Bike Media, is they lack or omit crucial details, such as route intel, places to camp, tips for not missing certain turns, where bikes are allowed, and realistic daily mileage. Helpful stuff that matters beside stoking stoke (Stoke is great! So is posting where you bought snacks in the middle of nowhere.) I’ll cover most of it here.

The Route: San Francisco to Santa Cruz on mixed terrain

Planned route

Strava link, for posterity:

Here came the tricky part: creating a route on terrain that none of us have ridden before. I know, it’s a risky move without some sort of recon or shakedown trip. I tend to plan extensively for bike trips. But after touring thousands of miles over the last 10 years, I’ve learned to be flexible, adapt to circumstances, and leave some room for surprising unknowns—both the “Oh, shit!” and “Hell yeah!” kinds. I knew John and Michael would be up for anything.

Fortunately, plenty of riders have traversed, and written about, the San Francisco Peninsula. I spent five evenings turning over every internet stone I could: forums, blog posts, Reddit threads, trip reports, Strava segments, RideWithGPS routes, Google Satellite images, topo maps, and reaching out to friends. Sometimes, planning a route is more fun than actually riding it. (Skip to the full list of resources I consulted here.)

Route criteria for our San Francisco to Santa Cruz bikepacking trip

  • Duration: 3 to 4 days
  • At least 100 miles, and at least 10,000 feet of climbing
  • Doable on a cyclocross bike
  • Mix of road, dirt, singletrack, fire roads — basically, minimizing exposure to cars
  • Options for camping at hike/bike campsites
  • Not too far from services: water, food, groceries, a dive bar or two
  • Have bailout options in case of emergency, mechanical, or injury (that is, we could descend from the mountains and return to civilization without major effort and get to a Caltrain, BART, or Amtrak stop)
  • Awesome views
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Sweeney Ridge Trailhead in San Bruno.

The intended route connected the Sweeney Ridge Trail system to the Old San Pedro Mountain Road. From what I read, “Planet of the Apes” was filmed on the latter. From there, we could descend into Montara, Half Moon Bay, and ride some dirt along the coast before heading into the mountains.

In the Santa Cruz Mountains, we’d follow the dirt trails along Skyline Blvd. (CA-35). The trail name changes depending on what section you’re on, but we loosely called it the Skyline Trail. The SF Peninsula Traverse bikepacking route follows the Bay Area Ridge Trail, which we partially followed once in the mountains.

To reach Santa Cruz, we’d descend the 14-mile Aptos Creek Fire Road through the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, pop out in Aptos, camp at New Brighton State Beach, and cruise to Santa Cruz.

Hiker-biker sites on the SF Peninsula

hiker-biker camp site portola redwoods
Huckleberry hiker-biker site at Portola Redwoods State Park. $5 per person.

Four state parks in the mountains let us mix-and-match route options: Portola Redwoods State Park, Big Basin State Park, Butano State Park, and Castle Rock State Park. Should we go one-way from SF to Santa Cruz? Or ride a big loop beginning and ending in the city? We opted for the former, and planned to catch Caltrain/Amtrak home from Santa Cruz.

My research indicated all of those state parks had hiker/biker sites, which are low-cost ($5-$15) campsites that don’t require annoying reservation headaches on gawdawful Reserve America. You just show up, pay, and find a spot. Sometimes hiker/biker sites are usually just big, communal group campsites where you find a spot, first-come, first-served.

From my experience, California state parks won’t turn away hikers and bikers even if the H/B site is full. Other states have similar policies, but confirm it before you go (I’ve been turned away on my bike in other states Indiana.) Bring cash, and quarters for showers! California is usually 1 minute for a quarter.

The Bikes: A hardtail, cross bike, and touring bike roll into a bar

cyclocross mountain touring bicycle bikepacking
Late night snack and beer run in Aptos, California.

The ideal bike for this mixed terrain route is a cyclocross bike (or gravel bike, dirt tourer, mountain bike that isn’t terrible on pavement). I won’t go deep into gear here, but I loosely used REI’s Bikepacking Checklist as a starting point.

Michael rode his Vitus cross bike with a bikepacking setup.

John borrowed my Kona Big Honzo DL 27.5 hardtail and Revelate Designs bikepacking gear.

I rode my trusty steed: a steel Soma Saga touring bike with Arkel panniers and Wald Basket hose-clamped to a Pass and Stow front rack. Dumb, right? Kinda. It was heavy as hell, but I know how it handles loaded. It has all the gears. Its Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tour tires grip non-technical off-road conditions acceptably well, and resist flats. Plus, good ol’ Saga took me 4,000 miles across the country–surely it could manage a couple days of climbing. For old times’ sake (just as I was preparing to sell it). Call it bicycle fahrvergnügen.

I wouldn’t recommend a road bike for this route–you’ll want something that’ll be stable under load, and can accommodate wider tires. Nor would I suggest a full-squish mountain bike — it’d be overkill for the road sections, and none of the dirt is particularly technical.

The Itinerary: How The Ride Actually Went Down

Day 1: San Francisco to Montara, 29 miles

bikepacking san francisco selfie
Preparing to depart San Francisco. Stoke is high.

We launched from the Tenderloin on Thursday afternoon. John worked most of the day, and Michael and I traveled down from my home in Sacramento (thanks to my wife for giving us a ride!) By the time we got packed up, had lunch and a beer, we rolled around 4 p.m. A little later than we liked, but better late than never.

We followed SF Bike Route 5 through the warehouses of Dogpatch and through San Francisco’s grittier, south neighborhoods. But the roads were generally smooth, and had a bike lane.

bikepacking san francisco dogpatch bike lane
Escaping San Francisco via SF Bike Route 5

Once we got through South San Francisco, where airliners as big as whales departed SFO over our heads, the road slanted up. We cut west through San Bruno, over I-280, and into the hills. Sneath Lane is a rude, steep climb that’ll make you cry. Be patient. Take breaks.

Sweeney Ridge Trail San Bruno cycling bikepacking
Sweeney Ridge Trail is similar to the closed roads in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park.

Follow Sneath all the way up to Sweeney Ridge Trail.

It’s a paved, car-free trail that leads up to a Cold War-era Nike Missile silo site. Note you have to hike-a-bike through the gate at the trailhead.

We passed a handful of joggers and folks walking dogs. Some of the switchbacks and inclines are insanely steep — at times hitting 13% or more, according to RideWithGPS. My thighs screamed. I pedaled at walking pace: fast enough to stay upright, weaving the handlebars left and right, begging for mercy.

Sweeney Ridge Trail Nike Missile silo cycling view
Top of Sweeney Ridge at a Cold War era Nike Missile silo site.

The payoff is at the top. Look to the east, and there lies San Bruno. We were well above the planes silently landing and taking off from SFO. Beyond was the bay, Oakland skyline, and hills. Looking west, we could see a patchwork of fog over Pacifica and Linda Mar, the Highway 1 traffic swimming in both directions. From here, everything look liked Sim City. And there’s a pit toilet!

nike missile silo san bruno sweeney ridge san francisco bikepacking
Overlooking the Bay.
nike missile silo san bruno sweeney ridge san francisco bikepacking
Preparing to descend the Baquiano Trail.

nike missile silo san bruno sweeney ridge san francisco bikepacking

nike missile silo san bruno sweeney ridge san francisco bikepacking

nike missile silo san bruno sweeney ridge san francisco bikepacking

nike missile silo san bruno sweeney ridge san francisco bikepacking
Nike Missile Silo site at the top of Sweeney Ridge Trail.
sweeney ridge bikepacking cycling nike missile silo view sf bay
John can see his house! (Not really). But he can see SFO.
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Michael descending from the Nike Missile Silo site – paved!
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View of Linda Mar, Pacific Ocean, and CA-1 from Baquiano Trail.

After poking around the Nike site, we got our first taste of dirt on the Baquiano Trail descent. It accelerates super fast, roller-coaster-like, with some kickers, so mind your speed (or let’er rip if you want to get some air).

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Michael sending it, kind of, down the Baquiano Trail.
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Hike-a-bike through Sweeney Ridge Trailhead gate at the bottom of the Baquiano Trail.

We took the switchback trail down to Crespi Drive through the neighborhoods of Linda Mar. Once we got to Peralta Lane, where we would’ve turned to ascend the Pedro Mountain Trail through McNee Ranch State Park, we realized we’d burned the clock more than we expected. Climbing would’ve put us in Montara after dark, and frankly, the climb out of San Bruno took more out of us than our bodies were ready for. So we killed that darling, got some snacks at a convenience store, and jumped on Highway 1. We’d have to save the Planet of the Apes road for another trip.

Linda Mar bikepacking pacific ocean cycling convenience store
Snack stop in Linda Mar.

The southbound stretch of Highway 1 between Linda Mar and Montara isn’t fun. There’s no shoulder, and cars don’t have much room to pass. We turned on our lights and stayed tight. Fog and sunsets don’t mix well. We rode to the Devil’s Slide trail, which siphons cyclist traffic, car-free, away from the tunnel. As we rounded the Devil’s Slide, the ocean’s headwind blasted us with cold and mist, making us pedal downhill. The drastic change from warm, sunny conditions atop Sweeney Ridge to foggy, obscure, gusty traffic with headlights drained our morale.

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Pedaling into a downhill headwind on the Devil’s Slide trail.

We did a quick sit-rep (situation report) before merging back onto the 1 and decided to head for the Hostelling International hostel at the Point Montara Lighthouse. (It helped that John works for HI — he finagled his magic and got us a private dorm room.)

point montara lighthouse hostelling international
Point Montara Lighthouse – Hostelling International.

A few road miles later, and we pulled in for the night. We picked up some burritos and beer, and fell asleep to the sound of waves pounding the shore.

Day 2: Montara to Portola Redwoods, 41 miles

half moon bay coastal trail bikepacking cyclocross biking
Following the Half Moon Bay Coastal Trail.

We set out on a foggy morning along backroads behind the Half Moon Bay airport. Grabbed breakfast sandwiches and coffee at El Granada Hardware, and took a leisurely time getting back on our bikes.

el granada hardware cafe breakfast bikepacking pacific coast
Breakfast stop.

el granada hardware and cafe bike touring bikepacking pacific coast el granada hardware cafe breakfast pacific coast

Once we did, we picked up the Half Moon Bay Coastal Trail, which hugs the coast. It initially cuts through neighborhoods, meaning you’ll share the path with surfers, strollers, dogs, tourists, and joggers. Things loosened up near the Half Moon Bay State Beach, but with the occasional horse. It’s mostly paved, but you can take some dirt options adjacent to the path.

The path runs through the Ritz Carlton and its golf course, where we couldn’t resist ringing our bells at putters and waving at the morning loafers, sitting on Adirondack chairs overlooking the grounds.

bikepacking coastal trail pacific ritz carlton

At the south boundary of the Ritz, the path appears to end. But there’s a dirt path beyond the fence that hugs the bluff next to the ocean. It seemed like it was on private farm property, but there wasn’t a sign indicating otherwise. And my route research suggested the path was contiguous.

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Cowell Ranch Beach Access was closed, but we got this nice view.

Success. But once we hit the Cowell Ranch Beach Access, the path’s end was much clearer: a metal gate indicating that the path through private farms was only open on weekends. So, after some oceanside dirt, we headed back toward the 1.

A quick fruit stand stop broke up the Highway 1 section.

fruit stand bikepacking highway 1 pacific coast
Fresh peaches and strawberries beckoned us to stop.

At Stage Road, we turned off the 1 and headed for Pescadero. It’s a paved rural road, but definitely quieter than the 1. A few miles in, the San Gregorio market and bar beckoned us. Time for a beer break. We chatted with the bartender, replenished our bottles, and rolled back out.

bikepacking bike touring san gregorio california beer modelo
Small, medium, large. San Gregorio General Store.

Now began the Stage Road climbs. We slogged up some switchbacks with little relief exacerbated by the occasional passing dump truck. The delicious downhill flattened out before dumping into Pescadero. This would be the last service stop before heading into the mountains. Also, it was the point where we decided whether to head to Portola Redwoods or Butano State Park.

bikepacking cycling pescadero stage road
Approaching Pescadero.

There, we got some gas station burritos, snacks, drinks, and of course, a round of Sierra Nevadas at Duarte’s Tavern. It even had an old-school jukebox.

duartes tavern pescadero bikepacking bike touring cycling beer
Bar #2 for the day. Who knows if we’d see civilization again?

burritos pescadero bikepacking gas station lunch

“Where y’all headed?” Some folks asked.

“We’re drinking about it,” we said.

Now that we’d been on the road and had a chance to assess our energy, morale, strength (which were all high), we decided for the gentler climb to Portola Redwoods. The Butano Fire Road option looked more epic during my route research, but it sounded better for another trip, or if we had more time. We were feeling that we wanted to go all the way to Santa Cruz, and Portola Redwoods would’ve positioned us better to access Skyline Blvd.

So off to Portola Redwoods we went. The climbing didn’t begin in earnest until Wurr Road. It was a one-lane strip through towering redwoods and homes, winding its way up to the Old Haul Road trailhead.

Old Haul Road was incredible. It’s a double-track, smooth fire road closed to cars. We saw one descending rider the whole time. It was late afternoon by this point, making the redwood shadows dramatic and air refreshingly cool.

old haul road portola redwoods bikepacking cycling
Climbing Old Haul Road to Portola Redwoods. Closed to cars!

After six miles, I started looking for the service road to Iverson Trail. Unfortunately, my phone and Garmin died, leaving me with memory to guide us.

Like a dumbass, I turned us down the first trail with the word “Iverson.” It was closed to bikes, but I surely thought it was the way. So we hike-a-biked (and bike, some) about ¾ mile until we reached the campground. Little did I know, the actual service road we should’ve taken was only another half-mile further on Old Haul Road. Derp.

The campground was jam-packed with car campers, but it turned out the hiker-biker site was completely open! The ranger said they rarely get a full hiker-biker site, probably because Portola Redwoods isn’t particularly easy to get to.

We paid $5, bought a $10 bundle of firewood (expensive, yes, but it proved to be a worthy mosquito deterrent). The H/B site at Portola Redwoods has about eight individual sites each with picnic tables, water, and fire pits, rather than one big communal site. Regardless, it was all ours. Score!

portola redwoods hiker biker bikepacking campsite gear
Making a mess. I mean making “camp.”

portola redwoods hiker biker bikepacking kona north street bags portola redwoods hiker biker bikepacking alpkit vitus

Michael and I laid out our bivy sacks while John strung up his hammock. We took showers, scraped together dinner, opened some Wild Turkey, made a fire, and listened to Michael play some tunes on his travel ukulele. We sang along like outlaws to “Starman,” “Mr. Sandman,” and “Country Road.”

It was barely 10 p.m. before we were read to crash. That wasn’t the case with the group campsite nearby. It was out of sight, but definitely in earshot. Their party just got started, and they raged until about 2 a.m., laughing, shouting, drinking, keeping us up. I like to party! But the ruckus breached a line of camping etiquette, and made me wish we’d stayed at Butano or Big Basin. Oh well. We eventually drifted off.

Day 3: Portola Redwoods to New Brighton State Beach, 61 miles

portola redwoods state park sign bikepacking camping cycling
Snapped on the way out!

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view.” -Edward Abbey

A cacophony of birds roused us at daybreak. It was about 7 a.m. The redwoods towering overhead shielded the sun, making it appear earlier than it was.

We peeled ourselves from our sleeping bags, made some coffee. We had a breakfast of tortillas with beans, Clif bars, and handfuls of other snacks. We got a much earlier start today, out of camp just before 9 a.m. to start the long climb up to Skyline.

Poor John here forgot a mug. I cleaned out my Pringle’s tin so we could make him a Trader Joe’s instant coffee packet. Mmmmm…improvising!

pringles can coffee cup
Makeshift mug.
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Less dangle, more Pringle!
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My trust steed preparing to leave camp.

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On the way out, we saw an odd bird. Turned out, it was the endangered Marbled murrelet, which lives in Portola Redwoods.

marbled murrelet portola redwoods state park california
Marbled murrelet. Endangered. Lives in Portola Redwoods. More:

It sat on the pavement near our campsite. This bird lays one egg per year, or something. Couldn’t tell if it was injured because it didn’t take off when we approached it. But when Michael went to take a closer look, it burst away and disappeared into the trees. John waved down a ranger on the way out and told him about our sighting. That’s what you do, right?

The next two hours were a slog. The climb up out of the park and onto Alpine Road steadily unspooled its way higher into the mountains. At the top, there would be water at the Daniels Nature Center, I kept reassuring myself.

cycling bikepacking portola redwoods alpine road california
Taking a break on the Alpine Road climb.

We saw lots of Saturday morning Rapha-clad roadies atop S-Works and Madones, zipping by us in silence. We had more drivers slow down and encourage us than fellow riders.

The views got more impressive with each switchback. Ranch lands folded into valleys and hillside all the way to the ocean. Worth it.

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The climb up Alpine finally crests.
bikepacking cycling descending alpine road
bikepacking cycling descending alpine road
Yours truly.

Finally, we reached a quick descent to the Russian Ridge Open Space parking lot at Skyline. The big climb was done. Now, water.

Except I completely missed our turn to the nature center and took a right on Skyline. We were instantly hooked on the descent, like a shot of espresso hitting our bloodstream, and follow it for a mile to the next trailhead parking lot. I don’t care, this descent is so delicious.

We paid for it. We consulted a trailhead map and realize we’d have to undo our descent on Skyline, or follow a dirt trail called the Sunny Jim back to the nature center. How bad could the dirt be?

sunny jim trail skyline bikepacking cycling
Hike a bike! Sunny Jim Trail is the worst trail ever, according to a ranger.

It was bad. The first mile was manageable, but soon we were pushing our bikes up a grueling dirt doubletrack road. Unrideable. What the fuck. Why is there even a trail here? We saw one mountain biker coming downhill at a pretty alarming speed. At the top, we remounted and rode our brakes down to Alpine Pond.

Good thing we modulated our speed, because a ranger was taking radar of bikes at the bottom of a gnarly descent.

“You know the speed limit for bikes here, right?”

“Uh, 15?”

“That’s right. I got you going 17.”

“Oh, well, I was ham-fisting my brakes the whole way down,” which was obvious because I screeched the last 20 feet or so. John and Michael followed behind me, and got clocked at 16 and 17 mph. I didn’t feel too bad.

“You guys have helmets on and look like you know what you’re doing. No big deal, just be careful.”

The ranger told us how she’s written tickets for mountain bikers who tread these shared trails like enduro courses, easily hitting 25 mph+ on blind turns where horses and hikers could be.

We told her we pushed our bikes over the Sunny Jim Trail. “Oh, God, that trail is awful! I don’t even know why it’s there.” We laughed, but felt like idiots. I told her we were there looking for water.

“Oh, that water is, uh…” she made an ick face. “But I got plenty of bottles and a cooler full of ice water. Take as much as you want!”

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Water fillup at Alpine Pond. Thanks to the Midpeninsula Open Space district ranger for the pit stop and intel.

Trail magic. She also noticed John’s Peace Corps necklace, and mentioned she was former Peace Corps. That connection opened up more generosity.

We guzzled her water and chatted. She gave us some maps of the area after I told her what our route was, and advised us to follow Skyline to the Long Ridge Open Preserve Trail Head. We’d avoid some hills that way. We thanked her and pressed on. The upside: We got to repeat our descent on Skyline.

From there, we alternated between the dirt paths/singletrack and Skyline Blvd. It worked well, because whenever we got sick of one, we just did the other.

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View of the Pacific from Long Ridge Preserve trails.
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Dirt with a view along Skyline Trail.
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Enduro dog.
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We met this trail dog in training.

At the junction with Highway 9, we stopped to eat the rest of our snacks and escape the sun. The ranger had mentioned that a hot dog truck sometimes parked in the lot, but we didn’t see him. Bummer.

We jumped back on the Skyline Trail. At certain points, we had a clear view of San Jose and surrounding area. Then, on the south side of Skyline, we could see the ocean fog filling the coastal valleys.

Skyline Trail along the Santa Cruz Mountains bikepacking
Much of the Skyline Trail looked like this.

Just before crossing the Santa Cruz Highway, John accidentally took a wrong turn and descended a few costly miles on Black Road. We found a shortcut for him up Gist Road, where Michael and I waited with cameras and heckling ready.

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Getting ready to snap John.
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John, 30 minutes later, corrects his costly wrong turn.

Back on the road, we pushed to the Summit Store in Loma Prieta. It wasn’t easy. Skyline turns into Summit Road south of Highway 17. For a few miles, we hugged the edge of the road as fast, loud traffic streamed off CA-17.

The Summit Store was a godsend since we were low on food, water, and morale. I took down a BBQ tri-tip sandwich, High Brew cold espresso, Gatorade, piece of carrot cake, Haribo gummy bears, and filled our bottles with a jug of water. It doesn’t show up when you search grocery or convenience store on Google Maps, but I remembered it was there from touring through in 2015. This is a crucial stop if you’re doing this ride.

“Man, that’s an eclectic mix of bikes!” one guy said to us outside the store. He was a rider, he said, and he chatted us up about the trip.

By then, it was about 6:30 p.m. We were pretty shredded from what felt like a day of endless climbing in the sun. We considered one of our bailout options: San Jose-Soquel Road, a swoopy road through the redwoods all the way into Santa Cruz. I’d done it years ago, and knew it was sweet.

The look on Michael’s face said, “let’s bail,” but in his stoic English accent, said, “I suppose we should do the fire road.”

He reasoned we might regret it if we do do it, but we will regret it if we don’t.

We’d come this far. I looked at John. His face: Let’s do it.

As daylight wore off, we followed Summit Road to where it became Highland Way, and eventually ascended (ugh) to Aptos Creek Fire Road. More painful climbing, and the sun was starting to fade.

I made some rough mental calculations that all pointed to one outcome: We’d be descending this epic Aptos Creek Fire Road in the dark, and get to camp late. But we have lights, water, and food: fuck it, let’s go.

The Aptos Creek Fire Road doesn’t descend in earnest until a few miles south of Highland Way, after you climb Buzzard Lagoon Road. The approach to the descent is perhaps the most technical portion of the ride, with chunky and loose rocks.

aptos creek fire trail sign
Based on the difficulty of our climb, this sign made sense.
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The final climb at the beginning of the Aptos Creek Fire Trail.

It reminded me of Redington Road in Tucson.

But when the descent starts, you know it: smooth, sweet, forgiving doubletrack. It never got too steep, and aside from a few rocks and roots, is relatively easy. It’s all downhill and smooth, I reminded myself.

I led the way, fighting darkness with an 800 lumen Light and Motion helmet light supplemented with dynohub lights. The towering redwoods were merely silhouettes, phantoms in their domain. It felt like being in a museum at night, with these looming, majestic artifacts staring down at us.

At one point, we reached a vista where we could see the last light turning the fog a crimson purple as it pooled above greater Santa Cruz. Photos wouldn’t have done any justice. Our bikes stopped and jaws dropped. It was the last light we’d see. Saturday signing off.

It took a good hour for us to descend, erring on the side of caution and stopped to let our hands relax after braking. Michael’s glasses started to fog up as we entered the mist. As the descent mellowed, we crossed a short wooden bridge. I didn’t call it out, assuming John and Michael saw it. John did. Michael did too, but he ended up crashing on an uneven lip. Shit.

We stopped to let him collect himself. He was OK. “All my bits are still moving…we should get going again before anything starts hurting.” He was right. Onward.

Eventually, in pitch black, we reached the park gate. Pretty sure the park was closed after dark, but we had no other choice as we’d started the descent with sunlight. At any rate, we were invigorated by our stealthy night descent. We did it.

Pavement appeared, and we followed it through warmly lit homes tucked into the hillside of Aptos. In town, we missed the closing of a convenience store by 10 minutes. It was 10:10 p.m. Instead, we rolled to Safeway, picked up some snacks and beer, then headed to New Brighton State Beach.

We arrived around 10:45 p.m. It’s not an easy entrance: You descend into New Brighton State Beach, but soon climb a short, wall-like climb into the campground. Welcome to camp. We filled out our registration, along with another late-arriving bike touring couple. Dropped $15 in an envelope, and found the hiker-biker site nearly full. Having a bivy meant Michael and I didn’t need much room.

We quietly set up camp, then took our bounty to the picnic pavilion at the bluff overlooking the ocean. The fire road descent in darkness woke us up, and gave us that giddy feeling of just pulling off some crazy shit. We recounted every sensory detail over beers and snacks until about 1:30 a.m.: the dry warm air giving way to cool, coastal mist; the smell of forest; the way our lights created shadows that played tricks on our eyes; the bats that dive-bombed us; the exquisite fatigue of a long day in the saddle.

We knew we wouldn’t get much sleep, but didn’t care. We’d just pulled off the hardest day.

Day 4: New Brighton State Beach to Santa Cruz, 7.5 miles

New Brighton State Beach hiker biker camping
Waking up at New Brighton State Beach, bivy style.

We awoke to all the things: daylight, the sounds of tent poles collapsing, zippers closing, and buckles snapping; car campers shuffling to the bathroom; and the ocean slapping rock.

Our plan was to pack up quickly and ride to Santa Cruz for breakfast. We tried to follow the coast, but a Wharf to Wharf 5K in Capitola detoured us. We made it to Santa Cruz, caught an accidental vegetarian breakfast at Saturn Cafe (the line at Zachary’s was way too long), and headed over to the bus station.

The Amtrak Highway 17 Express bus took us from Santa Cruz to the San José Diridon Station. From there, John and Michael planned to catch Caltrain back to San Francisco. And I would catch the Capitol Corridor Amtrak back to Sacramento.

highway 17 amtrak express bus to san jose
Our ferry home.

The bus is $7 per person (pay cash on the bus), and holds three bikes on its front rack. Pretty painless. Although an accident on the Highway 17 made everyone on the bus miss their 1 p.m. trains and planes, so John, Michael and I had time to kill in San Jose.

But not before the only bloodshed of the trip. While we waited in the train station, my bike tipped over. Michael reached out to grab it, and a sharp edge on my basket cut his finger open. My first aid kid consisted of two Band-Aids, and I was delighted to finally use one.

pattys inn san jose for beer
Patty’s Inn, San Jose.
pattys inn san jose bikepacking beers
No caption needed.

As we do, we found Patty’s Inn across the street from the station. We had a few final send-off beers on the patio while watching the A’s and Giants game. The bar sold carry-out cans, too, for the train!

John and Michael caught a Caltrain an hour before my Amtrak, so I hung out, got an ice cream sandwich, and bought the Sunday Chronicle. I can’t remember the last time I bought a newspaper. With a dead phone and no charger, I was plenty entertained.

amtrak capitol corridor san jose diridon station platform
Waiting to board the Capitol Corridor.
amtrak capitol corridor san jose diridon
american flag train station
Inside San Jose’s Diridon station.
amtrak capitol corridor roll on service bicycle
Roll-on service FTW.

san jose diridon station

For cyclists, the Capitol Corridor is great. You can roll your bike on, hang and lock it on a hook, and you’re done. It doesn’t cost extra.

The ride was pretty quiet — a ride through a late Sunday afternoon of the East Bay until the Coliseum station. We absorbed a few hundred A’s and Giants fans, but luckily I had a seat.

Around 7 p.m., I rolled off Amtrak in Sacramento and pedaled the 4 miles home. Three hours later than I planned, though I was grateful the temperature had a chance to fall below 100.

What I learned from bikepacking the SF Peninsula, and what I’d do differently

Short section here.

If I did this over again, I would:

  • Carry less crap. Brought too many tools, tubes, and cooking gear.
  • Ride my cross bike, tubeless. It’s a SSCX, and I’d have to swap the drivetrain. But my tourer was simply too heavy. My knees were sore as hell at the end.
  • Bring my windbreaker. The coast gets gusty and cool, even in summer.
  • Take another day. Our third day was an exhausting haul. I would’ve broken it up and added a night at Castle Rock State Park (or taken an alt route via Butano Fire Road).
  • Taken a full day on day 1. I regret not riding the Old San Pedro Mountain Road. I plan to attempt it again.
  • Slingshot out of SF on the BART. Just getting out of town ate up lots of miles and time on busy roads.
  • Bring my phone charger! I have a Sinewave Reactor USB charger plug running off my dynohub, but it only charges above 9 mph. When I’m climbing, I’m not charging.
  • Other stuff I can’t remember. Will update as I think of things (or as John and Michael remind me!)

Links to resources I researched for this route

Thanks to everyone who posted their intel in one form or another. Special nod to the folks in the Bay Area Biking subreddit, whose input helped put final touches on the route:

In no particular order:





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