Spring is a phenomenal time to explore the mountains of California’s Central Coast. Many roads crisscross these mountains, but few actually cross the Santa Lucia Range to reach the coast. This 90 mile route combines pavement riding with an ocean view fire road for a spectacular two day tour. The trip starts and ends at Amtrak stops. Because of the travel time from the Bay Area, I took a leisurely pace (about 45 miles a day) and spent the second night at Bridge Street Inn, a B&B style hostel in Cambria.
The Santa Lucia Range is a patchwork wilderness, protected from development by a military installation, national forest and steep cliffs diving into the Pacific Ocean. A single paved road crosses the range: Nacimento-Fergson Road. It crosses San Antonio Valley, a broad oak savannah that once hosted rich acorn groves and year round camps of Chumash Indians. The valley is dotted with mortar holes from its indigenous residents — and from the live fire exercises carried out on Fort Hunter Liggett.
At the summit of Nacimento-Ferguson, South Coast Road heads south from the ridge for a stunning southerly traverse. The road was built to access quicksilver mines that once supplied hydraulic works in the Sierras. These old roads now deliver SUVs full of college kids to wilderness rave parties. Prewitt Ridge is where the party’s at so just keep going for a quiet roadside bivouac.
South Coast Road is simply spectacular. Sunset ocean views to the west and chaparral covered range rolling to the east. It is eventually cut off by private lands, so take the junction for Willow Creek (also called Los Burros) Road to descend back onto Highway 1. A strong tailwind combined with lots of marine mammal sightings (elephant seals, a humpback whale, dolphins and windsurfers) well made up for the busy highway traffic.
I ended the ride at Bridge Street Inn in Cambria. A member of Hostelling Internation, this B&B style rooming house has a library full of local history and a waterwise garden all in bloom.
The Santa Lucia Range is a palimpset land, where humans have never quite invaded or receded, yet all leaving a trace. I find myself returning to the Central Coast again and again, and I hope you do too.
Route: You can tackle this mixed pavement and fire road tour over a three day weekend. You can photocopy page 101 of the Delorme California Atlas, or check out my route here. From the Bay Area, take Amtrak trains and buses to King City and then return from San Luis Obispo. Because I’m too spoiled to ride highways anymore, I took the county transit bus from Cambria to SLO. It picks up just down the street from the hostel.
Season: While the coast highway is moderate year-round, the interior valleys are ovens 6 months out of the year. Ride this in March through May for the best wildflower blooms and reasonable temperatures. Due to a fit of wanderlust, I rode this last August. It can be done, but it was 103 degrees in the shade.
Water: There is no water along the ridge top of South Coast Road, so be sure to fill up your bottles at the creek in Fort Hunter Liggett. There was a spring fed spigot along Nacimento-Ferguson Road that was running even though the creek was dry. Bring a filter.