03 Feb Bike Touring with Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner
When bike tourists think about their next trip, it is most certain that planning would involve having to either take a plane or even a train. My preference is to take the train to get to my starting point or come home from my destinations. Taking the train has so many up sides compared to flying or even driving. Trains typically have more space for you to stretch out. You are not bound to your seat the entire time you are traveling as you are allowed to walk through the cars.
In Southern California, we have 2 options when it comes to long distance traveling on a train. The first option is the commuter rail, Metrolink, which runs all through the Los Angeles area to San Diego and Ventura County. While this train system is great during the week, it has limited services on the weekends. The second train system is good ole Amtrak. There are 6 different Amtrak train lines that pass through the Greater Los Angeles Area. There is one train line that I have had the most experience traveling on for the past few years on my own adventures: The Pacific Surfliner.
The Pacific Surfliner
The Pacific Surfliner is operated in 6 counties and has 31 stops. The northernmost station is in San Luis Obispo, California and the southernmost station is in San Diego, California. The train runs along the Pacific Coast from San Diego into San Clemente and then from Ventura up to San Luis Obispo. There are multiple departures daily so you have more than one option to travel, unlike their other train lines. Some stations have limited services so the train doesn’t always stop there. Most importantly, they allow free roll-on bicycle service onto their trains. This means you can take your bicycle onboard with you without the need to box it and check it in as luggage. The Pacific Surfliner trains have dedicated spots for 6 bikes on each train car. You will need to add your bike when making reservations. This makes the Pacific Surfliner one of the most accommodating options for bike tourists who want to explore Central and Southern California.
In this article, I will try to cover bike touring options for each train stations. We will be looking primarily at overnight options where you can hop on a train, go somewhere and ride to a campsite. I figure this would be useful to those who are new to the area or even for those who have lived here all your lives, but have been curious. Let’s jump right into it!
San Luis Obispo Station (SLO)
Let us start from North to South at the first station in San Luis Obispo, California. This is a popular weekend getaway for people both with or without bikes. There are many great food options as well as bicycle-friendly infrastructure to navigate around the quaint little town. You will have the opportunity to find provisions in San Luis Obispo before you embark on your journey in several supermarkets and stores in the area. Beyond this little town, there are several great locations to go camping on your bike.
El Chorro Regional Park
The closest campsite that I have been to is the El Chorro Regional Park. You simply follow Highway 1 for 6.5 miles out-of-town going Northwest. The road isn’t the best place to ride as you have cars and trucks flying by at 65 mph on some sections, but the roads are generally nice and wide. The park sits right across Highway 1 from Camp San Luis and Cuesta College. The campgrounds have pay showers and the campsites are lumpy. It mainly accommodates car camping or the RV crowd.
Morro Bay State Park
The first stop of our monthly bike tour last November was at this State Park. From the train station in San Luis Obispo, you ride up Los Osos Valley Road to Turri Road and cut across to South Bay Blvd. From there, you just follow the signs to Morro Bay State Park on Main Street. There are affordable hiker / biker camping spaces. You are surrounded by tall eucalyptus trees adjacent to a well-manicured golf course. The campsite has showers and running water. You can ride into town to check out Morro Rock and partake in the many small little shops along the famous Morro Bay. There are grocery options near Highway 1.
Many people come to the San Luis Obispo area for wine tasting in the Paso Robles and Santa Margarita area. You can certainly do the same with your bike and ride up Highway 41 or Highway 46 from Highway 1. There are 2 campsites in the area near Atascadero. I have been to the Cerro Alto Campgrounds on Highway 41. This little campground is nestled in the mountains. It’ll take some time to ride to the campsite either on the coastal side or from Atascadero. The site is primitive with pit toilets and only a water spigot near the campsites.
If you’re wine tasting around the Santa Margarita side, there is the Santa Margarita KOA. As you know, I am a big fan of the KOA company and have been to several on my trip up and down the coast. They may seem very touristy, but it’s a great option if you need to wash clothes or even get food to eat. I personally have not visited the Santa Margarita KOA location, so I’d like to hear more about it from those who have.
From the San Luis Obispo station, you can simply continue your ride up north on the coast towards the towns of Harmony, Cambria, San Simeon, or Big Sur. Places like the Hearst Castle and the famous sea-lion beach at Cambria are must-sees if you are in the area. This makes a good beginning and ending location for multi-day tours up and down the Central California coast.
Grover Beach Station (GVB)
The Grover Beach station is the next station south of San Luis Obispo about 12 miles away. This is a smaller station where folks are primarily there to visit Oceano and Pismo Beach for their incredible sand dunes. At the time of the writing of this article, there are only 2 times the train stops here for both directions. There are connecting train and bus options, but you will most likely need to box your bike as checked in luggage for that.
If you’re in the mood for more mileage going to any of the Northern destinations mentioned above, this would be the station to start from.
Oceano Campground – Pismo State Beach
The nearest campsite for Grover Beach station is located in the Oceano Campground – Pismo State Beach. This large campsite was home for both my 2010 and 2011 ride down the coast. The site is right next to the Oceano Lagoon which is a very popular hang out for mosquitos. During September when we were there, we were pretty much eaten alive so consider yourself warned. As mentioned before, this is the place to go if you’re looking for some adventures on the sand.
Avila Beach – Hot Springs
If you travel a few miles north from the Grover Beach station, you will find yourself in the picturesque town of Avila Beach. Hiking options are abundant, and it’s a popular destination for hot springs visitors. I have ridden past this town on several occasions, but never had the chance to spend time around the area or in the hot springs.
Guadalupe-Santa Maria Station (GUA)
The last station in San Luis Obispo County is located in Guadalupe, California. This is the station to go to if you’re looking to travel into Santa Maria for some wine tasting. There really isn’t much going on in this town as it is primarily a farming community. However, you can still start here for several touring possibilities, including heading north towards Grover Beach and San Luis Obispo.
Santa Maria Pines Campground
If you head into Santa Maria, there is an Good Samaritan RV site called the Santa Maria Pines Campground. It is located at the northernmost part of town. This makes a good home base if you are looking to ride to do some wine tasting in the area. Be warned that Santa Maria is a busy town with a high amount of motorized traffic.
Primitive Sites East
There are a series of primitive campgrounds located in the mountains East of Santa Maria. I have yet to explore this area on my own, but seeing that there are so many sites there, it is most likely for overnight backpackers. If you have explored the area, please share your findings in the comments below.
Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, and Solvang
If you’re interested in a 40+ mile ride out from the Guadalupe train station, be sure to check out Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, and Solvang in Santa Barbara County. Lots of good riding in the area and Solvang’s Dutch town is sure to be a highlight of your trip.
Surf Station (LPS)
This tiny station is located right on the beach outside of the town of Lompoc in the Santa Barbara County. I’ve actually gotten off here before to ride into Buellton for my Adventure Cycling Leadership Training Class at the Flying Flags RV Park. A beautiful site with plenty of grassy fields to pitch a tent on. The train only stops here twice a day, so make sure you plan carefully as you may have to wait for the next train to get in and back.
Lake Cachuma Recreation Area
The Lake Cachuma Recreation Area is only 40 miles away from the Surf station on Highway 246 and 154. You will get to stroll past Buellton and Solvang before reaching this man-made park in Santa Ynez. There are hiker / biker sites available here. If this location sounds familiar, it’s because it was the location of my first self-supported bike tour. Just be aware of packs of raccoons roaming around the campsite at night.
Refugio Road Loop
If you are brave to ride Highway 101, you can ride through Buellton to Solvang and then challenge yourself on Alisal Road to Old Coast Highway. From there, you cross the freeway and south towards Refugio State Beach or El Capitan State Beach. Refugio State Beach is a beautiful spot where you feel like you are on a tropical island with palm trees and a white sand beach.
Goleta Station (GTA)
The Goleta Amtrak station is the primary station where college students attending UC Santa Barbara typical use to get to and from school. This station is conveniently located near a few state beaches, including El Capitan and Refugio. It is also only 18 miles away from the Lake Cachuma Recreation area. A tough 18 miles at that since you will need to climb over onto the Highway 154.
Santa Barbara Upper Oso Campgrounds
A few miles south takes you right into downtown Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara is the perfect spot to be to find provisions before you continue riding in the Northeast, you will reach primitive Upper Oso Campgrounds. I have not visited these locations but have heard really good things about it. Rob Perks of Ocean Air Cycles revealed to me that this was one of his favorite spots for overnight camping.
Santa Barbara Station (SBA)
This is probably the biggest train station since San Luis Obispo. The beach city is central to many locations already mentioned, like Lake Cachuma Recreation Area, Solvang, and state beaches. It is a great location to start or end any bike tour or even for doing a 2-day loop from the station.
At this point, there is a big overlap in places to go in the Santa Barbara County area, so I’m just going to leave it at that.
Carpinteria Station (CPN)
Carpinteria is a quaint little town just 11 miles east of Santa Barbara. Again, many overlapping places to visit in the Santa Barbara County.
Carpinteria State Beach
The Carpinteria State Beach is conveniently located right along the train station. It is great if you need a place to immediately camp, but the roaring of the trains make it a less favorable camping spot. Fortunately, the train stops running around 11PM. They have plenty of spaces in the hiker / biker locations, and you will see other bike tourists here as they are making their way up and down the coast.
Ventura / Ojai
One option is to ride to Ventura or Ojai from Carpinteria. You’ll have the opportunity to ride the Ventura-Carpinteria bike lane which is a separated bike lane paralleling the busy Highway 101. You can camp at Emma Woods State Beach (which I don’t recommend if you are traveling alone) or McGrath State Beach if they are open.
If you want to continue up to Ojai, you can go up the Ventura and Ojai River Trail for several campsites. Dennison Park was our destination for a few trips last year. You can also go to Lake Casitas if you are not in the mood to climb hills.
Point Mugu or Leo Carrillo
A longer bike tour from Carpinteria is to continue south into the Point Mugu or Sycamore Canyon campgrounds or even Leo Carrillo State Park. Be prepared to ride 40 to 50 miles one way. This can certainly be a good place to start a 2-day trip back to Los Angeles.
Ventura Station (VEC)
The Ventura station is the heart of the Ventura County area. Here you can go north to Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez, and Solvang. You can go south as mentioned in the previous section down to Los Angeles. Then there’s the inland option to Ojai.
Los Padres National Forest
There is also the Wheeler Gorge campsite which was another recommendation by Rob Perks of Ocean Air Cycle. This is located up Highway 33 in the Los Padres National Forest. I have yet to visit, but it is high on my list of places to bike tour.
Oxnard Station (OXN)
Ventura is the last station near the coast until you go to San Clemente. From the Oxnard Station, you can go north to Ventura and Santa Barbara and hit the locations mentioned above. You can also try to ride to Los Angeles, but it sits awkwardly away from any good bicycle routes back to the Pacific Coast. McGrath State Beach is the closest campground (if they are open). Oxnard is probably not the most ideal place to stop as it is away from any places worth seeing. I would recommend skipping this station.
Camarillo Station (CML)
Like the Oxnard Station, Camarillo isn’t anywhere I would want to stop. You can find your way back to the coast to Point Mugu, but the roads leading there are not best for biking.
Moorpark Station (MPK)
Even though the Moorpark station seems to be in no man’s land, there are many places to explore just north of there. The Pacific Surfliner trains only stop at Moorpark 2 or 3 times each day. Be sure to plan accordingly if you want to visit.
Lake Piru has piqued my interest during my research. It is only 25+ miles north of the Moorpark station in an area that I have never even driven through, let alone ride through. From the pictures of Lake Piru, it looks like a good quick get-a-way for an overnight bike tour.
Simi Valley Station (SIM)
You’re probably wondering why would anyone want to get off at Simi Valley. Simi Valley is home to lots of good roads to ride and mountain bike. You can start here and practically roll downhill into Ventura for 40 miles. You can ride up to Lake Piru for 38 miles or so. Another option is to ride south into the Santa Monica Mountains towards the coast to visit Leo Carrillo or even Point Mugu. There are actually more options than this.
Castaic Lake Recreation Area
This 42 mile bike ride from the Simi Valley station is an ideal route to explore. Castaic Lake is one of the biggest lakes in the area for all your recreational pleasures. Several folks have gone up there before, but I have yet to venture out. I would imagine this would be a nice challenging ride up followed by a celebratory dip in the lake.
Angeles Crest: Los Alamos and Oak Flat Campgrounds
Also in the area around the Grapevine, there are a couple of campgrounds to explore. It is a few miles longer than the Castaic Lake Recreation Area, but looks to be an isolated area in the Angeles Crest National Forest. Check out Los Alamos or Pyramid Lake and Oak Flat Campgrounds. If you’ve ever camped here before, please let me know of any details worth mentioning.
Los Angeles County – Chatsworth to Union Station
Welcome to Los Angeles County. There are 5 stations here: Chatsworth (CWT), Van Nuys (VNC), Burbank Airport (BUR), Glendale (GDL), and Union Station (LAX). You are essentially in the middle of the concrete jungle that is otherwise known as L.A. The closest areas for decent camping can be found over in Angeles Crest National Forest or along the coast in Leo Carrillo. Burbank and Glendale is probably the closest station to ride from to get to Highway 2, Angeles Crest Highway. Henninger Flats Campgrounds and Buckhorn Campgrounds are popular destinations for folks looking to do overnight camping. Chilao Campgrounds is a mere 40 miles bike ride from the Burbank station, but you’ll have about 5400 ft of climbing. I went to Gould Mesa campgrounds last year with Topanga Creek Outpost which was near Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Here is a list of all campgrounds located in Angeles Crest National Forest.
Fullerton Station (FUL)
This station is the first stop in Orange County. One of the easiest camping destinations from the Fullerton Station is the Chino Hills State Park, which is only about 18 miles away from this station. It is one of the more expensive campgrounds at $30 night with no hiker / biker options, but is a fun mix of off-road and on-road riding.
Crystal Cove State Park
For a longer ride, you can jump on the Santa Ana River Trail and follow that to the beach. From there, head south towards Laguna Beach where you can camp at the Crystal Cove State Park. This park sits in one of the most beautiful locations that Orange County has to offer. Their cheaper hiker sites require a bit of a hike to get there. You may just want to pay for the car spots. Go early in the season as this is a very popular camping spot for locals.
San Clemente State Park
For an even longer ride than Crystal Cove State Park, you can continue down the coast to San Clemente State Beach. This large campsite has bathrooms and showers, but is usually pretty busy in the spring and summer months. I’ve stayed here on one occasion and can easily say I would stay here again if needed.
Anaheim Station (ANA)
This station is located conveniently on the Santa Ana River Trail. You will be closer to all the same campsites as the Fullerton station in addition to a few other parks just East from there.
O’Neill Regional Park
Located in Trabuco Canyon, the O’Neill Regional Park is a worthwhile place to visit. The park’s 4500 acre of land is certainly a place that requires some time for exploration either on foot or on bike. This park is on my list of places to see. Only just 30 miles away from the Anaheim station, this is a perfect overnight location.
Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park
For those craving something more challenging, I give you the Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park. This 8000 acre of protected wilderness preserve is in the western coastal section of the Santa Ana Mountains. If it’s dirt road that you want, then this is the place to be for some good old mountain bike trails. It will take a good 40+ miles to get here though. Of course, you can get off at a closer station below.
Santa Ana Station (SNA)
Even though the Santa Ana station allows you to be closer to all the camping locations mentioned above in Fullerton and Anaheim, I would advise against getting off here. Santa Ana is not a fun place to ride your bike. There really isn’t much bike-friendly infrastructure to protect you from the cars. I would rather get off at either Anaheim or Irvine if I want to visit any of the locations above.
Irvine Station (IRV)
The biggest Amtrak station in Orange County is here. The station puts you right in the middle of the wide roads of the City of Irvine. Not only that, there are plenty of bike paths and bicycling infrastructure. On weekends, this place is filled with packs of roadies taking advantage of the wide lanes. From here you can navigate to all locations mentioned above with relative comfort and ease.
In addition to the wide roads, it looks like there are offroad options that will take you over to Laguna Beach area starting at the Quail Hill Preserve.
San Juan Capistrano Station (SNC)
This historical train depot was constructed in 1894 and is one of the oldest train stations on the Pacific Surfliner connection. You definitely have a sense of this history when you get off here and explore the old shops and restaurants. It is also conveniently located near the San Juan Creek Trail which takes you right to the coast. You’re just 10 miles away from the San Clemente State Beach. Going 10 miles north takes you to Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park. Two very convenient places for a close getaway.
San Clemente Pier Station (SNP)
This is the first coastal station stop since Ventura. The remaining stations south of San Clemente are either right next to the coast or not very far from it. San Clemente State Beach is a few miles away, but I usually use this station stop to explore various locations in San Diego.
San Onofre State Beach
If San Clemente State Beach isn’t your cup of tea, try San Onofre State Beach. This popular surf spot is a favorite amongst locals looking for waves in warm water. The campground isn’t the prettiest nor does it have much to brag about. It is a very convenient stop for a super quick overnight stay. Be sure to shop for provisions at San Clemente or Oceanside before arriving here. I have only ridden through the campgrounds to commute back and forth to San Diego County and never stayed here.
San Elijo State Beach
About 38 miles down the coast from San Clemente, is San Elijo State Beach. The route down the coast follows through Camp Pendleton Marine Base. Be sure to have your ID ready to show the guards. You will then ride through the towns of Oceanside and Carlsbad before you reach Encinitas. If you get there early enough, there is a taco stand located right on the premise. They have lumpy hiker / biker locations right in the middle of the park. The campgrounds are on top of a cliff that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. You can walk down to the beach if you so desire. This is a very busy location so make sure you have reservations ahead of time if you don’t want to stay on the lumpy hiker / biker spots.
Oceanside Station (OSD)
The first San Diego County station is the hub of many transportation options. You can get off here and take their light rail into the Temecula area for some of the finest brewery San Diego has to offer, or you can ride back up to Orange County and visit the campgrounds mentioned above. You can even use this stop to skip over Camp Pendleton to start your journey south to San Diego. Whatever you do, Oceanside isn’t a bad station to get off at as it is located in a beautiful beachfront surrounding.
Kumeyaay Lake Campground
In July of last year, we took a trip to Kumeyaay Lake Campground from Oceanside. It was a 80+ mile round trip through the San Diego coast up to the Mission Trails Regional Park. Here is the ride report from that trip.
Dos Picos County Park
The Dos Picos County Park is located 46 miles east in the Ramona area. In Spanish, it means “two peaks” derived from nearby mountains. The site is isolated and secluded from the surrounding area due to the rocky slopes surrounding the park. I have yet to visit the campgrounds but would love to soon.
Carlsbad Village Station (CBV) and Carlsbad Poinsettia Station (POI)
Depending on which Pacific Surfliner train you are on, you will stop at one or the other Carlsbad stations. Please check schedule to make sure you are on the right train. Both locations are closer to the San Elijo State Beach and you can check out South Carlsbad State Beach for camping accommodations. I have not stayed there yet but have always noticed it being very busy whenever I ride past.
Encinitas Station (ENC)
Another one of those stations with few services. You’re only 2 miles away from San Elijo State Beach and 4 miles from South Carlsbad State Beach. I have never stopped here as well although I’m not clear why you would want to.
Solana Beach Station (SOL)
This station is the last station stop before you get into the San Diego city area. The station is located in a popular surfside town with plenty of food options. My favorite is Pizza Port. Many people use this as the turnaround station after riding 100 miles from LA. This could be a good station to start your journey north. At 24 miles away from San Diego, it is an easy ride.
Sweetwater Regional Park
A good ride from here would be to Sweetwater Regional Park. This park is located 36 miles away from Solana Beach station and would be a good destination once you get into San Diego proper. Hot showers are available and many other amenities are available at Sweetwater.
San Diego – Sorrento Valley Station (SRB)
There are limited daily services to this train station. The least busy station compared to the other two. Many of places to visit has been mentioned above. This train station is close to the UC San Diego campus.
San Diego – Old Town (OLT)
This train station is located in the heart of San Diego’s Old Town district. Lots to see here from a tourist’s point of view. This would be the station to be if you’re looking to challenge yourself.
William Heise County Park
If you want an extremely challenging ride, check out William Heise County Park in Julian. This park is 65 miles east of the station with about 4300+ feet of climbing. Guarantee to get your blood flowing as you make your way east.
Potrero County Park
For less mileage (48 miles) but 2300+ feet of climbing, you can point your handlebars toward the Potrero County Park. This campground has 37 campsites with basic amenities.
San Diego Downtown (SAN)
Last, but not least, we have the last stop of Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner at the Downtown San Diego stop. The area is pretty easy to navigate around by bike and you can essentially do pretty much all the trips mentioned within San Diego County or just ride north towards Orange County.
The Sweetwater Regional Park is your closest option if you need a campsite in the area. There is a KOA on the way to Sweetwater Regional Park in Chula Vista if you don’t want to ride the 17 miles.
Lake Morena County Park
Head east for 46 miles towards Potrero County Park or you can try to ride to
Lake Morena County Park which is approximately 59 miles from the San Diego train station. The main draw of this park is the lake. People come here to fish and boat. There is a plethora of campsites at 86 spaces to choose from. Of course many of those are RV sites. Not a bad option if you are willing to do the 120 miles there and back.
The idea of this article came from my own needs that I had when I started riding the Pacific Surfliner train. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an article that tells you where to go on overnight bike tours for every stop of the Pacific Surfliner? I looked for that, but couldn’t find one web page that has this information, so I decided that I needed to write this article to help give people ideas on where to go as they incorporate travel with Amtrak in the Southern California region.
I have been to a handful of these campgrounds, but not nearly as much as everyone that I’ve mentioned here. As a result, I sought out the help from the Internet to fill in the blanks. My research usually starts with Google Maps and then I expand into the campground’s home page. This is actually how I plan a lot of my overnighters so rest assure that the due process is given to these recommendations.
As you get better in bike touring, you know what your comfort miles are. Based on those goals, you can easily map out your next destination. Use these recommendations and piece together your next adventure. Just remember to make reservations for your bike whenever you are taking the Pacific Surfliner.
I hope you find this page valuable. If you have any recommendations or suggestions to make this article more helpful, I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below. I would be grateful for it. I also don’t mind compliments or even criticism. All comments will help me become a better writer. For now, please enjoy and share this article to those who need it.