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Camping / Touring Safety in Southern California

Old 09-15-14, 06:49 AM
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Camping / Touring Safety in Southern California

I am planning a 3 week cycle camping trip with my wife in California for late May 2015.

We are British and we have cycled extensively throughout Europe, so we are by no means new to cycle touring.

My concern is the safety of tourists in the southern 1/2 of the state around San Diego and Los Angeles.

Are there safe cycle routes along the coast ? Is there enough secure camping ?

Is it even worth considering cycle touring south of Los Angeles or should we stick to Northern California ?

Alan & Caroline
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Old 09-15-14, 07:32 AM
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You'll want to stay at designated camp grounds: state, county, or city parks, as opposed to just finding some brush on the side of the road and pitching a tent. It would be more safe. If you don't stay at a "proper" camp ground, I wouldn't expect that you could leave your bikes & belongings behind, locked up and go out for a day of sight-seeing. You'd come back to an empty camp-site.

Now, finding camping sites may be the challenge. When my family & I were camping in the area, the SoCal understanding of camping is in an RV trailer or motorhome. Tent sites were more rare.

Some sites we found that were nice, north of Los Angeles (we haven't been south of LA):
Leo Carillo State Park (between Oxnard & Malibu)
McGrath State Beach & Campground (outside Ventura, might currently be closed)
Steckel Park (outside Santa Paula/Ojai)
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Old 09-15-14, 08:49 AM
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Originally Posted by Bronco
...Are there safe cycle routes along the coast?
I don't know about camping, but there are definitely safe routes along the coast. I suggest that you sign up for a free RideWithGPS account. (Or if you want to track and record your rides get a paid account.) Click on the "Plan" button near the top, then click on the "Bike Paths" button. Between that and copious use of Google Street View you should be able to put together good routes. Paid accounts can use the RideWithGPS turn-by-turn navigation smartphone app. Free accounts can print out route slips.

Once you have a specific route in mind, you may want to post it on this forum for some feedback.

Good luck!
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Old 09-15-14, 04:04 PM
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Originally Posted by Bronco
I am planning a 3 week cycle camping trip with my wife in California for late May 2015.
My concern is the safety of tourists in the southern 1/2 of the state around San Diego and Los Angeles.

Are there safe cycle routes along the coast ? Is there enough secure camping ?

Is it even worth considering cycle touring south of Los Angeles or should we stick to Northern California ?
The greater Los Angeles area has something like 10 or 15 million people and 10 or 15 million cars (I made these numbers up, but I don't think I'm exaggerating.) A lot of safety depends on your route selection and what you are comfortable with. I am guessing you are following the ACA Pacific Coast route, which is fairly well planned and safe, although there are places near the airport and Wilmington which may suck. There was a time when the hiker biker campsites at many State Beaches were little more than hobo camps, but I think that has changed. The greater Los Angeles area is a sprawling metropolis, so the usual big city precautions apply - lock your bikes, don't leave your belongings unattended, keep your important things on your person, be vigilant, etc.

Since you ask whether it is worth touring south of Los Angeles, I think you should ask yourself what you plan on seeing or experiencing. California is a big place. Orange County and San Diego County may seem like more urban sprawl to you or it may not. Where are you starting and ending? You may want to take the train or rent a car if it feels like you are crossing some unfriendly wasteland to connect destinations.
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Old 09-15-14, 07:43 PM
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I can't vouch for the entire Los Angeles area, but here are a few options for camping on Orange County. You should be able to stay at the four state park campgrounds that are along Orange County's coast. Bolsa Chica State Beach and Huntington State Beach both have recreation vehicle only campgrounds ('caravans' to you Brits), but if you ask some of the R.V. owners they will probably let you set up a tent for the evening on the adjioning asphalt; a bottle of booze usually helps (although its supposed to be a beach no-no, lots of folks do drink booze while in the campground area). farther south are Doheny State Beach and San Onofre state Beach. Both have tent capsites and R.V campsites. All four of these are in safe areas. And if all fails there a plenty of hotels/motels along the highway.

The PAcific Coast Highway through Orange County is wide in most spots, so just use normal precautions, be aware of the cars on teh highway with you, and you should be OK. Space on the highway gets a little 'tight' through the communities of Sunset Beach, Corona Del Mar, and Laguna Beach, but just keep an eye on the traffic and you should be OK.
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Old 09-15-14, 09:26 PM
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It's not bad. I feel safer the further I'm away from civilization.

Alcohol is OK in the campgrounds, not on the beach
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Old 09-15-14, 09:55 PM
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I wonder if you mean safety from crime, or safety from traffic? In my experience, Brits are usually surprised at how safe they are from crime here in the U.S., and also surprised at how unsafe they are from traffic. Very generally speaking, you will not have to worry about crime, as long as you stay away from the inner cities - and if you are touring along the coast, you are by definition staying away from the inner cities.

As far as traffic, though, I think you might not be too happy. Cycling along the coast generally includes riding on Pacific Coast Highway, many parts of which have poor excuses for bike lanes, along with 70 MPH traffic. Honestly, there are very few cyclist fatalities even on PCH, but you are unlikely to find that part of your tour enjoyable, based on input from Brit friends of mine.

Short version: You are almost certain to be fine. In my experience Brits tend to come to America with visions of daily gunfights and are surprised to learn that violent crime is actually very low in America, big cities excepted. Go out of your way to find campgrounds as far from the beaten path as possible, and you will be very happy. The traffic on the major thoroughfares is intimidating at first, primarily due to the very high speeds, but there are lots of cyclists in this part of the country and motorists are used to them. Once you get used to it, you should be able to largely put it out of your mind.
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Old 09-15-14, 10:03 PM
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Oh, and with regard to your question re. whether it is worth touring south of L.A., in my opinion Orange County and San Diego are more worthy of your attention than is Los Angeles itself. The coastline along Orange and San Diego counties is among the most beautiful of the entire west coast, and most of it is not nearly as densely populated as Los Angeles. If I was planning a bicycle tour in the area, I would sooner skip Los Angeles entirely.

On the other hand, Northern California offers some of the best bicycle touring in the world, although parts of Pacific Coast Highway are still quite unpleasant for the cycle tourist. If I was visiting the west coast for the first time, I would strongly consider dedicating the entire trip to northern California. I don't think a single life is long enough to get the full measure of that part of the state.
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Old 09-15-14, 11:17 PM
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California's Network of Campsites for Touring Cyclists | RollGlobal is a good map of the sites you can hike and bike to
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Old 09-16-14, 03:15 AM
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Your question is puzzling and my best guess is that you're operating under the misapprehension that Southern California is an extension of northern Mexico (with its persistent drug cartel wars and general lawlessness.) I can assure you that it is not the case at all. Cartels stay south of the border (or at least try to keep a very low profile when they are here.) In fact, you'd have a much higher risk of an unhealthy encounter with drug dealers by stumbling onto an illicit pot farm in Northern California (in forests between Eureka and Redding) than anywhere between Los Angeles and San Diego. We have youth gangs in proletarian neighborhoods here, but no more than in any other region in the United States.
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Old 09-16-14, 06:29 AM
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As another foreigner hamster I can see why others may question their safety in the States, as the massacres and shootings are what most often makes the international news...

I have travelled and camped across the west coast (as far East as Denver, North as Portland and south as El Paso) 9 months in total spread over 3 trips, with the most recent just over three weeks last year. Wild camping is possible if you keep well away from the road especially in BLM or National Forest.

If you are within sight of the road you may be woken in the night with a torch shining in and being asked to open up by the local police. This has happened twice, both times I was sleeping in my car out in the country. The most recent was during my last trip where I had ridden Mt Lemmon in AZ in the morning and then drove all afternoon trying to make a campsite on Palomar Mountain. I nearly got there, finally pulling off San Felipe rd just before Hwy 79 as I was struggling to stay awake. Spot was off the road at a pullout where I'd even backed the car further between some trees.... Police weren't happy with me being there, but once I explained my trip in my strong Aussie ascent and that I was sorry but didn't know it wasn't allowed to camp wild they let me go back to sleep.

As to motorists respecting cyclists I was pleasantly surpised here too; not quite France levels of patience and safe passing put pretty good! I'd read about the various encounters with rednecks driving huge trucks so was ready for the worst. Even further East in CO where nearly everyone did drive huge pick ups, wore camo gear with the firearm in the rack in the back window I was given plenty of room. In fact the driving in the States had far less agro that back here in Australia!
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Old 09-16-14, 09:26 AM
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My plan so far is to:
fly into Reno,
Then head for Lake Tahoe,
Then Towards San Francisco keeping well south of Sacramento
Then stick to the coast all the way to San Diego.

We would like to venture a bit inland and do a couple of nights in the desert. Does any one have any suggestions of a good desert location for a couple of days ?
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Old 09-16-14, 09:33 AM
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On a slightly different note. Someone mentioned the No No of beer?
Is it a problem getting beer in that part of the world. I don't want to have to carry a 3 week supply !
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Old 09-16-14, 09:55 AM
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Originally Posted by Bronco
On a slightly different note. Someone mentioned the No No of beer?
Is it a problem getting beer in that part of the world. I don't want to have to carry a 3 week supply !
Certainly no problems getting beer. Any gas station, 7-11, supermarket etc will have beer.

I have never done any touring but I've done plenty of camping. There is plenty of camping in campgrounds, state parks and wild/primitive camping. The main things I would say is don't just set up on the side of the road because police will think your homeless and you'll probably be harassed. We also have bears (amongst other wild animals) so if you are not used to that read up on how to secure your food and safety measures. You'll likely never see a bear or mountain lions but they are all over including urban areas where I live.

As for cycling, yes it may be nerve racking because there are a lot of cars and you'll be riding a lot of heavily traveled areas. While there are unfortunately fatalities and accidents regularly here with cyclists I don't think it's really many compared to how many cars and how many cyclists are on the roads. And there are a lot of cyclists here so drivers are used to us and most drivers are cautious and curteus.

When I Google there is plenty of info on bike touring in socal so I'm sure you can find all the info you need and will have a great experience
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Old 09-16-14, 11:24 AM
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Originally Posted by Bronco
On a slightly different note. Someone mentioned the No No of beer?
Is it a problem getting beer in that part of the world. I don't want to have to carry a 3 week supply !
No no. People are still sore because San Diego city officials banned public consumption of alcohol on city beaches a few years ago after a particularly big brawl. But California is extremely liberal as regards to alcohol. There are microbreweries in every large city, backcountry is covered with grape vine plantations, and alcohol is sold essentially unrestricted in every grocery store and every gas station. (There's a formal ban on alcohol sales between 2 am and 6 am, but I don't think it's practiced.)

Things would be different if you tried to tour the East Coast, particularly Southern states. Over there many places still have complicated alcohol regulations, most commonly a complete ban on alcohol sales on Sundays, and some parts of the country are still "dry".
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Old 09-16-14, 12:57 PM
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One thing to consider for your itinerary is the sheer size of California and what's realistic for three weeks. California is about 1.75 times the size of the UK and probably a good hundred miles or more longer from north to south with a huge mountain range down the spine and a lesser ones paralleling the coast.


MapFight - California (US) vs United Kingdom size comparison

In heavy snow years the passes over the sierras often aren't open until late May or even early June except for I-80.

Last edited by TGT1; 09-16-14 at 01:06 PM.
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Old 09-16-14, 01:54 PM
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As others have pointed out, Los Angeles was founded after the advent of the automobile, and it's infrastructure and culture are not especially conducive to bicycling.

I took a quickie two-day tour from Santa Barbara last year (clicky), and I was very pleasantly surprised how pleasant the bike paths were along the coast. And you can take your bikes on the Amtrak trains. It was terrific, and California has made great progress from the dark days of Budweiser & Coors.




I'm leaving this Friday with my sweetheart for a week-long tour of Portland's breweries and riding the Historic Columbia River Highway, which is purported by the good people of the Pacific Northwest subforum to be very bicycle-friendly.

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Old 09-16-14, 02:13 PM
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I have ridden the coast from Monterrey to Cambria about half a dozen or more times. Very nice area one of the most beautiful coast rides. I have also ridden from Santa Monica Pier to San Diego also about half a dozen or more times. I have not done the area in between on a tour but have ridden in the Malibu area which if your climbing legs are feeling it some fantastic routes and views if you head inland and back. Just awesome to descend toward the Pacific.

Some of the roads in LA are better than others. Long Beach is busy and you pass through a sketchy area getting past the airport is also not my favorite part. Plan on this leg being during the mid day I might suggest a hotel in LA rather than camping which is what we always did. The 101 gets pretty busy toward Newport Beach and tight avoid rush hour as you get into Orange County. San Clemente State Park is a great stop before San Diego. The ride from San Clemente to San Diego is pretty awesome. Have identification ready to ride through the Camp Pendleton Marine base. South Carlsbad State Beach or San Elijo would be nice overnight stops if you are planning a short day.

For the most part I think the route is safe. There might those on here that know of good ways past the heavy traffic in LA and Orange county

There is a campground here in San Diego County parks in the Anza Borrego desert called Agua Calientie. The ride from Agua to Julian is pretty cool you go from desert to canyon sage to alpine trees in one ride. Agua has a spa like pool showers a small convenience store and is one of my favorite campsites. There can be wind this time of year. Bike Ride Profile | RAC Day 5 near Santa Ysabel | Times and Records | Strava

There is plenty of camping in Julian. It is a nice little town that is famous for Apple Pie. Logistically you would might need to be driven to Agua depending on your schedule. From Julian you can go toward Mesa Grande and descend and climb a bit out of Black Canyon which is an old dirt road but can be ridden on a road bike. this avoids the highway between Julian and Ramona which I will not ride. Bike Ride Profile | RAC Day 6 near Santa Ysabel | Times and Records | Strava
or you could head to Palomar and climb the south grade as well

I do not think you could go wrong in Northern California either. For a Southern Californian it might be a bit cold and damp in May north of San Francisco but I doubt it would be an issue for British Isle resident

good luck
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Old 09-16-14, 02:28 PM
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Originally Posted by Bronco
I am planning a 3 week cycle camping trip with my wife in California for late May 2015.

We are British and we have cycled extensively throughout Europe, so we are by no means new to cycle touring.

My concern is the safety of tourists in the southern 1/2 of the state around San Diego and Los Angeles.

Are there safe cycle routes along the coast ? Is there enough secure camping ?

Is it even worth considering cycle touring south of Los Angeles or should we stick to Northern California ?

Alan & Caroline
for a good source on campgrounds check out the allstays app. I use it a lot. I am primarily an RVr/Caravaner but they have tent info as well.
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Old 09-16-14, 04:40 PM
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Originally Posted by Bronco
My plan so far is to:
fly into Reno,
Then head for Lake Tahoe,
Then Towards San Francisco keeping well south of Sacramento
Then stick to the coast all the way to San Diego.

We would like to venture a bit inland and do a couple of nights in the desert. Does any one have any suggestions of a good desert location for a couple of days ?
The desert National Parks (Death Valley and Joshua Tree) are quite awesome. Are you set on going to San Francisco, the ocean, or SoCal? If it was me, I'd take the Sierra Cascade route and make a National Park loop out of it like this:
Reno > Truckee or Incline Village > South Lake Tahoe or Stateline > 395 > Mono Lake > Tioga Pass (probably plowed and open by late May) > Yosemite Valley (there's a million cars on 1 road here, but that's cuz it's awesome) > King's Canyon (maybe skip if there's too much snow) > Sequoia > Lake Isabella > 395 (if the pass is open) > Owens Lake > Death Valley > back to Reno via 95. This is really good in reverse too.

Some problems with this route: It crosses the Sierras at Tioga Pass and Walker Pass, which may not be open, and there aren't really many other options without renting a car, hitchhiking, or packing your bikes and taking Greyhound. There are many bears in the area which are quite comfortable around humans and regard them as an awesome source of food - this is especially problematic if you are camping. This is a very mountainous route - elevation gain, campground availability, and weather will probably dictate your daily destination, not mileage. But if the roads and parks are open, you will likely have an awesome park experience.
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Old 09-16-14, 05:09 PM
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The urban costal areas of California are a favorite spot for homeless people. While not threatening your safety, they can take unattended things. Santa Cruz, Monterey, Ventura and Los Angeles and Orange counties from Santa Monica through Huntington Beach. There are really nice campgrounds along the coast but I dont know which ones require reservations. If you are starting in Reno, you are already in the desert so you might want to scratch that itch first and camp near Carson City or Virginia City before going over the pass to California.
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Old 09-18-14, 05:45 PM
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Looks like you've gotten a lot of good info so far, but if you plan on camping in So Cal I would strongly suggest avoiding the LA area and just planning your trip to ride through LA and just camp in Orange County.

Have a look at this link Best Camp Site: Best Camp Site - The Best of Orange County - The Orange County Register It has info on the top 3 beach camp sites in OC. I've camped at all 3 sites more than once and the only problem you may have is getting a reservation especially if you want a "beach front" spot during the weekend. They typically sale out 365 days in advance so if you want to ride in Sept 2015 you need to reserve a spot now.

It's about a 50-60 miles from those camp sites to San Diego so that would be a nice 1 day ride if planned correctly.
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Old 09-18-14, 09:44 PM
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Some notes on the campsites mentioned in the article above.
1. Doheney Beach sometimes has bacterial blooms that close parts of the beach to swimming.
Quite a few dining options - restaurants nearby.
2. San Onofre. Trail six leads to clothing optional beach. Bring eye bleach.
3. Caspers Park is inland; tucked into the foot of Santiago Peak. Take Ortega Highway about 12 miles
east of San Juan Capsitrano.
Mt Lions have been seen in the park and killed a child some years ago.
4. Crystal Cove is near the Beachcomber restaurant which is right on the beach. There is also a strip
mall across the highway with restaurants and a Trader Joes.

Last edited by Wulf; 09-18-14 at 09:49 PM.
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Old 09-19-14, 10:17 AM
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CA is a beautiful state to tour and I have done so many times... My word of advice... just don't be naive... there are very beautiful, upscale areas and some run-down, down-right scary areas... but bad and good people can be in both places. Be discerning; make sure you are safely camping by sundown and don't leave chattels and goods out and about without safekeeping. Theft can occur anywhere, even in very upscale, expensive neighborhoods.

As to provisions, depending on where you are riding, save for the Big Sur down to Hearst Castle, there are many of towns with stores, restaurants etc. (I am assuming you are doing the coast although in May there are viable inland routes). CA is not like other places where you can ride for miles without anyone or towns around. Pretty much you ride from one city into the next without realizing there was a change. Alcohol is not allowed in most state and federal campsites so just use discretion.

With your time frame I would do something like San Francisco to San Diego (alot to see in those areas and weather will be much nice - you might want to coordinate with the Amgen Tour of CA also in May). If you check with Adventure Cyclist or some other cycling organization, they can provide maps and information about resources. Not to be missed is South of San Francisco to Malibu... the CA coast is awesome (although traffic can be scary in some places). But also not to be missed is the area just north of San Francisco - like the Redwoods area. If you want remote but scenic touring, like about doing Highway 395 from Sacramento to Mammoth - won't see better scenary than that...
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Old 09-19-14, 10:24 AM
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Originally Posted by Bronco
My plan so far is to:
fly into Reno,
Then head for Lake Tahoe,
Then Towards San Francisco keeping well south of Sacramento
Then stick to the coast all the way to San Diego.

We would like to venture a bit inland and do a couple of nights in the desert. Does any one have any suggestions of a good desert location for a couple of days ?
Saw this... that is alot of mileage and good luck to you (I am not certain I can do that mileage and climbing in 3 weeks)... as to seeing the desert... most of So Cal is... if you want to see the big sand dunes and tour Mohave or Death Valley - you need to do 395 South. Pretty much coast - desert...sort of far apart (this is a really big state you know). Think about the 395 route... you see mountains, natural oddities, and then as you drop down past Bishop, volcanic geological formations, you can side trip up to the My. Whitney Portal, and then from there drop into Death Valley...

Anyone else ever do this route... I am wondering how traffic would be? I did it like 20 years ago and don't know since the highway improvements... BTW if you come this way, don't forget to stop at the "gas station" at Tom's Place... gourmet eating...
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