Traveling by bike is something I’d never thought of doing before. Maybe it’s because I’ve always associated traveling through a landscape on two wheels with the apocalypse. However, after half a week of traveling through California with the 11th annual AIDS/LifeCycle, I’m convinced that it’s the best way to see this beautiful state. If you’re considering a trip through California in the near future you should definitely look into it.
The AIDS/LifeCycle (which you can read more about here) travels 545 miles once a year from San Francisco to Los Angeles. (This year, I’m riding along in a car not actually biking) Over the course of 7 days, the fundraising event travels along beautiful coasts, through dramatic valleys, and right into the middle of historic towns. From biking during the day to sleeping under the stars at night, you’re continuously outside. The experience really works to connect you to the stunning geography of California more than simply driving down the coast ever could.
The Cow Palace
The ride starts at San Francisco’s Cow Palace. This is, unfortunately, a famous concert venue and arena and not a seat of bovine political power. From this giant urban stadium, cyclists make their way through the rolling hills of San Mateo County and out to the dramatic cliffs lining the coast. The lunch stop on the first day was at San Gregorio State Beach, a must-see destination with stunning views.
San Gregorio State Beach
The first campsite of the trip was in Harvey West Park in the middle of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz may be known for its university and moderate climate, but evidence of it’s alternative community lifestyles are clear from a quick stroll through its downtown. I saw a group of women in flowing dresses gather outside an eccentric store called Serpent’s Kiss, signs for psychics mixed in with directions to the local Starbucks, and independent bookstores full of old tomes nestled between recent bestsellers. Combined with it’s pristine streets and surf-ready beaches, it was like a set for a west coast spinoff of True Blood. Maybe one starring Lauren Ambrose, she should really be working more. It was also all easily walk-able from the campsite.
On the second day of the ride, we left our park campsite, nestled at the foot of wooded hills, and moved from the coast to California’s Central Valley. The contrast was kind of like going from Teenage Dream to Alejandro. Some unfortunate rain cut the ride short this day, but the breathtaking vistas were still on full display. Strawberry and artichoke fields stretched out from the road for miles and met the soaring mountains that separated this region from the ocean.
Many know this part of California as ‘Steinbeck Country,’ and it’s easy to imagine yourself in the middle of East of Eden while traversing it. The Steinbeck Center in Salinas is a great destination for those more curious about the literary connections of the area. The Mission La Soledad is another fascinating place to visit to discover more about the spirit of this dusty valley.
The Salinas Valley
That night was spent in San Lorenzo County Park in Kings City. Like many of the other camps along the route, this stop had an old, frontier town aesthetic full of wooden buildings with kitschy names like ‘general store.’ (There was also, hilariously, an actual museum dedicated to irrigation which one assumes doesn’t offers season passes) It was also where it was first apparent how welcoming local communities are to the riders as they pass through their towns. One local sent over cartons of fresh strawberries to the campsite, an incredibly welcome gift after such a rainy day. Many riders shared stories throughout the night of the generosity they had received, including one about a local church in Salinas that took in a crowd of soaking wet riders.
From Kings City we traveled through the valley to the more suburban Paso Robles where we stayed on the grounds of the Mid-State Fairgrounds. This area was more of a desert landscape, with sun beating down on the 18th century Spanish missions that dotted the low hills. Lunch on Day Three was spent in the small town of Bradley which holds a hamburger fundraiser every year as the Lifecycle riders pass through their town. This year, the meals they served raised over $12,000, enough to support the after-school programs at their local school for an entire year.
The Mission San Miguel was the last stop of the day, and it’s serene grounds provided another fascinating diversion from the longer stretches of road. The working chapel in this Mission is covered with beautiful murals, and daily tours can take you through an on-site museum covering years of Mission culture.
The next day, a few miles out from the adorable downtown of Paso Robles, we reached the marker for the halfway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and, in the distance, once again caught sight of the Pacific coast.
PREVIOUSLY: Travel Through California With AIDS/LifeCycle