A Central Coast Foodie Bike Overnight
“You can’t camp here,” they said, looking at our bike-camping bivouac in the middle of the military base. The two police officers from Fort Hunter Liggett -- 50 miles north of Paso Robles in the rural foothills of the Santa Lucia Range -- were ruining my thoughts of a restful sleep tucked in the tent with my sweetie.
I actually should thank them for giving us the chance to check out The Hacienda, William Randolph Hearst’s old hunting lodge at Fort Hunter Liggett -- and possibly preventing us from ending up stuck in some tank's treads as the Army played war games around us in the dark. With the closest campsite a dozen miles down the unlit road, we headed back to the well-lit base to see if we could wrangle a room at The Hacienda. Such was the first night of our tour over the Santa Lucia Range and through Big Sur, via Nacimiento-Fergusson Road and Highway 1.
Before the police officers suggested we decamp to The Hacienda, a couple of good friends had already brought this place to my attention when we'd talked earlier about local adventures in San Luis Obispo County. Pre-9/11, they had spent a romantic weekend here, enjoying hikes in the hills right out the front door and exploring the nearby Mission San Antonio. Now, of course, you have to check in through the front gate with the proper ID, where you’re reminded not to go poking around the base or taking pictures of any military structures or equipment.
Normally to stay at Hearst’s Hacienda, you need to make reservations a couple of weeks in advance. We can’t recommend our method of arriving at the dark office at 7pm, reaching the manager on her cell phone, and begging for a room because we didn’t want to ride our bikes in the dark with inadequate lights 12 miles to the next real campground. But it worked!
While not the lap of luxury today, it was during Hearst's heyday. And The Hacienda is still pretty cool: historical, comfortable, reasonably priced, and managed by nice people who'll let you take bikes into the rooms. We stayed in one of the “cowboy rooms” ($50/night), which meant we shared a bathroom at the corner of the building.
After a nice continental breakfast, we set off with loaded panniers, inflated tires, and high hopes for our day, which consisted of climbing 2,677 feet to cross the southern Santa Lucia Mountains. Nacimiento-Fergusson was everything we had hoped for in a road ride: nice rolling hills, countryside dappled with oak trees, and a reasonably wide shoulder. The traffic on this late-autumn weekday was almost non-existent: only one caravan of personnel carriers and Humvees passed us as they headed out to do their exercises. Finally, we passed the canvas arches that mark the boundary of Fort Hunter Liggett, which is what you have to go beyond before finding a legal campsite. Lessons learned; no bivouacking on the military base, and have a plan to get to camping by nightfall.
Twelve miles from The Hacienda, we came to Ponderosa Campground, where we had a nice chat with the host. I was very concerned about running out of water on the climb, and we learned that water was available at Ponderosa (but only seasonally). It probably wouldn’t hurt to filter or treat this water, which has a sulfuric quality. Another campground down the road, Nacimiento-Fergusson, did not have running water, but you could filter creek water here if necessary. The final opportunity to fill up on drinking water before Highway 1 was a water tank on the side of the road below the fire station near the crest of the climb. Potable water dribbles out from a PVC pipe. We, however, had full CamelBaks and extra bottles of water, just in case.
Heading west on Nacimiento-Fergusson Road in late fall is amazing. The rolling hills turn into forested mountainsides, although reaching the top of the climb and crossing the Santa Lucia Range was nowhere near as challenging as we had expected. The worst thing about it all was trying to stay ahead of the flies, which seemed to travel at 6 miles per hour. Never especially steep, the climb requires cyclists to pay attention to the cars traveling this very curvy road lacking a guardrail.
From the top of the climb, dense trees clouded the view of the ocean. At its summit, Nacimiento-Fergusson Road bisects a dirt road: the way north heads to Cone Peak (6 miles one way); going south, it heads along Plaskett Ridge and to some dispersed campsites. No water or facilities in either direction, but plenty of views.
Saving hiking and ridgetop camping for another trip, with the Pacific in sight we gleefully but cautiously descended toward Highway 1 and Big Sur. Hairpin turns and no shoulder, but multiple lookouts over the fog bank rising from the Pacific. Then, near the bottom of the hill, we were suddenly enveloped in the fog, and it was all we could do to keep the sudden cold from stealing our grips on the brakes. "Hopefully the cars in front of me stay on their side of the road, or are going fast enough so I don’t run over the top of them!" I said as we zoomed downhill. Personally, we enjoyed the shorter climb followed by a longer descent, which is what you get when you travel east to west, although plenty of crazy cyclists relish starting their climb at Highway 1 and riding east.
Nacimiento-Fergusson Road plummets toward the Pacific Coast Highway and lands just above Kirk Creek Campground, which has hiker-biker campsites available. Big Sur to the north offers several foodie options, such as the Big Sur Bakery and Nepenthe, but we were headed south.
Having pedaled only 30 miles or so since we headed out in the morning, we rode toward Plaskett Creek Campground, which also has hiker-biker facilities and nice bathrooms, but no showers. We set up camp, connected with some other through-cyclists, and headed to Treebones Resort a couple miles south of the campground, which we'd heard offers the best sushi in the Big Sur area.
Treebones not only had great sushi, they had fantastic sushi and sake, as well as dinner entrees and wine. Yes, you can eat this much when you’re bike touring!
We were already set up in the campground, but were quite intrigued by the yurts at Treebones; now we're considering another trip where we'll forgo the tent altogether. While waiting for the first-come, first-serve sushi bar to open, we visited their working organic garden filled with flowers, squash, greens, and more edibles.
The next morning, the cool, moisture-laden Pacific coast air kept us in our sleeping bags a little longer than we'd planned for this big day: we had 80 miles ahead of us.
“I don’t remember this many hills!” I hollered, as we turned another corner to see yet more climbing ahead. Yes, the Pacific Coast Highway at Big Sur delivers hills: you keep climbing over things that look as if they should have tumbled into the ocean long ago.
After Ragged Point, the road flattened and the tailwind increased. Fully loaded, we cruised south at 17 miles an hour, no sweat, for a long time. Wind-riffled grasses broke toward beaches full of elephant seals. Did the thought of lunch and dessert at Robin’s Restaurant in Cambria keep us moving through southern Big Sur? Yes, and it was the perfect halfway-point stop for a foodie refuel during our long ride home.
The really nice people at Robin’s helped us with parking our bikes near a window so we could keep an eye on them and the packs. “We get cyclists all the time,” said the hostess. It was nice to feel welcome rather than weird, dressed as we were in Spandex and having eaten the Big Sur hills for breakfast. The lunch feeding frenzy began, and appetizers and a couple of entrees disappeared before we remembered to take a picture. Finally, we did manage a photo of our delicious desserts before devouring them, too.
We headed out, wind at our backs, cruising toward Morro Bay and home in San Luis Obispo. Saddle sore, happy, and tired, we pulled back into our cool little town after a fun bike trip full of beautiful landscapes, great food, and good people.
Favorite local bike shop: Flanders Bicycle in San Luis Obispo
To read more about Rachel's central coast adventures visit CentralCoastFoodie.com