Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Cycling Monterey to Carmel and Back

Living in the bay area, I've visited Carmel and Monterey many times. They are only 2-3 hours away and the scenery is stunning. Because of the flat terrain and the scenery, cycling has long been popular. Folks either rent bikes or bring bikes in Monterey and then take 17 Mile Drive around the Monterey peninsula to Carmel and back. Less popular is to complete the circuit by going over the hill above Carmel back into Monterey. I had always been curious about the route bikes can take to get back to Monterey without doubling back around the peninsula. This weekend, my friend and I decided to check it out.

We arrived at the Monterey Plaza Inn and Spa early on a Friday. Aside from being perfectly situated on the water, it is perfectly situated along the bike trail that turns into 17 mile drive. It is also appointed with great bike storage if you bring your own. The place is not cheap but it had everything we were looking for with this bike trip.

We hung out around Cannery Row that night. Cannery Row is pretty touristy but there's a lot of great food and bars a block or two in any direction. And some spots, like this small stretch of beach, were charming despite all the schmultz around the corner. From here, we walked to Gianni's Pizza on Lighthouse Avenue. This is just a nice, clean, pizzeria. Nothing fancy but nothing greasy or over-priced.

Given that 17 mile drive is only 17 miles and my average bike speed is 15 mph, we started the next day fairly late thinking we had plenty of time to finish the ride. We spent the morning savoring the pricey but spectacular gym and jacuzzi at the hotel. That got us thoroughly stretched and relaxed for the ride.

We cycled about a mile down from Monterey to Pacific Grove to grab breakfast at the Red House Café. Great shaded deck and great light California cuisine. After cycling just a few blocks from breakfast, this is what we found: spectacular flowers, surf, and rock formations.

Bike lanes here and on the whole route are sporadic. Initially, there were none just out of Pacific Grove but a bike lane started about a half mile later and continued for miles. The lanes are not large and are frequently used by stopped cars and pedestrians but at least they are there. Fortunately, most of the competing traffic is not moving very fast because everyone is gawking at the scenery. Even when the lane narrowed or disappeared, the situation didn't feel threatening.

As we pedaled around the tip of the peninsula well out of the Pacific Grove proper, the golf resorts started. These are all beautiful in their own right but they do push the road away from the shore a bit. The good news about that is you go under more trees right about the time you are getting a bit hot.

Once you get past the Spanish Bay golf resort, you are pedaling through a full blown forest of pines. In addition to providing a nice place to cool off they provide their own aesthetic value to the ride, especially when you get filtered glimpses of the bright blue shoreline.

At this point, it was becoming important to find a bathroom. Sadly, there are very few facilities along 17 mile drive. There are no gas stations and very few businesses of any kind on the west side of the peninsula north of Carmel. The exceptions are the golf resorts. We actually darted inside the Pebble Beach Resort and they graciously allowed us to use the facilities. This lack of facilities applies to input as well as output of course. As always, it is important to pack water on this cycling trip because there are very few places to hydrate until you get to Carmel.

Once we were past Pebble Beach, Carmel was not far off. There's a steep drop down into the outskirts of town with no bike lane. This had some of the fastest moving and voluminous traffic of the ride so it was a bit hectic but no worse than a lot of typical rides anywhere else.

The road from 17 mile drive dumps you out near the shoreline of Carmel. This positions you perfectly to see the famous beach at the base of Ocean avenue. This is not to be missed. The sand is super white. This is due to the high silicon content. It has an extraordinary squeek when walked upon.

Carmel village is at the top of Ocean Avenue. This a pretty steep hill but it is only a couple of blocks until you are in the center of things. Scenes like this one make it totally worth the climb. We stopped for an Arnold Palmer (iced tea and lemonade) at the General Store. This has the best patio in Carmel for my money. It also has great Long Island Iced Teas if you are not driving or riding.

After the break, we had to decide which way to take home. We had tentatively planned on going up and over the hills of Carmel to get back to Monterey. This route was only 5.9 miles as opposed to doubling back on 17 mile drive. The problem was my friend, like most of the riders of the world, is not a big fan of hills. After the climb required to get into Carmel Village, she wasn't too keen for a lot more climbing. Worse, the path to go over the summit involved going all the way back down the hill to the shoreline to get back up to 17 mile drive. Once you are up on the hill in Carmel, there is no shortcut from the village back over to 17 mile drive.  There is no way to save the altitude you've already gained if you want to go up and over. This map shows how frustratingly close the roads are to one another.

After a failed attempt to find a possibly undocumented trail to 17 mile drive from Carmel Village, we doubled back down to the shoreline and then back up to 17 mile drive. Just the climb to get back up to 17 mile drive was steep, hot, and car-filled. That was enough to give my friend serious reservations about going to the summit. Since I had not done my research on the length and degree of the incline to get to the summit, she was seriously thinking about just doubling back. To her credit, she decided to go for the summit after all (what a sport). It didn't take long to discover we had made a good choice. Using iPhone GPS, we soon discovered the summit was only a mile up and we were rapidly making lots of progress on the map. We made it to the top in about 23 minutes and that was with frequent stops to avoid traffic or just sit in the shade. The last bit is sufficiently steep but still relatively short as climbs go. The worst of it was the unknown. Next time, I'll research the incline better.

Once at the summit, we found the trail that parallels the freeway back into Monterey. Given it's proximity to the freeway, I was pleasantly surprised to find it was this beautiful shady pathway dedicated to cycling. Long, straight, and steep, bombing down it was a nice reward for slogging up the west side.

Once you are down the big hill, you go under the freeway onto Munras Avenue. Munras actually has a nice set of dedicated bike paths just off the road as well. Another pleasant surprise.

After Munras, the dedicated bike paths turned into bike lanes on the street, but still deluxe compared to places like Vegas.

Back in Monterey, we stopped off at the "east side café" for an iced coffee. This is a great coffee house with not only a great patio (shown here) but an utterly lightless room for the hungover, web-obsessed, or goth-like.

From here, we took the bike trail that runs along the water back to the hotel. Although this is a dedicated bike path, it tends to be overrun with pedestrians. Dodging pedestrians is still better than dodging cars but at times you just have to stop and wait for some of the chaos to pass.

The payoff for taking the bike trail along Cannery Row is, of course, the scenery. There is a nice herd of seals hanging out in the harbor. The rocks in the background are covered with seals. They are quite the hams but cool nonetheless. Farther out in the water, you can seem quite a few sea otters eating a meal off of their bellies. Monterey delivers on the wildlife.

Back at the hotel, we decided to relax a bit with some mixed drinks. All in all, we felt great about the day. The weather was perfect. The summit climb had been better than feared and gave us more time to do something else than if we had doubled back on 17 mile drive.

With hindsight, leaving earlier would have been better to avoid the heat. Strategizing about bathroom breaks is also a good idea. Regardless, when you consider all the wonderful smells of sea air, trees, and flowers, cycling is the best way to see Monterey and Carmel.

As a nice bonus, the next day at breakfast we stumbled upon a bike race through the center of Pacific Grove. The Butterfly Criterium. Here's a shot of the Category 3 guys giving it their all. We had a nice view of all the action from Toastie's.

On the way back to our car, as we headed out of town, we found one of the racers warming up under a tree. A nice end to a bike-themed weekend.


  1. Congrats to both of you on accomplishing this goal. Great to have you bicycling while here, and so happy you shared your experience with others.

    A postscript regarding some places you visited: Vista Blue Spa, Cafe La Strada, Schooners Bistro, and the Duck Club--all part of the Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa--are in the HER Helmet Thursdays project. So is East Village Coffee Lounge. What does that mean? You get discounts on Thursdays just because you bike there! Details at http://www.BicyclingMonterey.com

    HER Helmet Thursdays is a long-term sustainability project to encourage more bicycling, created and launched in Monterey County. There are already 120 charter participants in MoCo.

    Women's thing? No, it's for male and female cyclists. HER is an acronym for Hotels, Educational & Entertainment venues, and Restaurants--and related places. And the helmet? It simply serves as evidence you are cycling, for the E & R places. For the H places (Hotels/lodging), you BYOB (bring your own bike) or rent one for a day or longer from any Monterey County shop, then show your rental receipt/agreement.

    You'll also find Tips for Tourists Bicycling Monterey County, a free online guide, at BicyclingMonterey.com

    Thank you again for your terrific story, Jody!

  2. Hello, lovely post about cycling the Monterey area, thank you. Beautiful! Must be an amazing place to cycle. I've briefly been to area, and would love to see it on bicycle next time!

    It's disappointing to hear that the hills detract from an efficient cycling route. I'd love to buy a dutch-style electric bike for such instances. I can see these being very popular within the next couple of years in the U.S.

    Cheers from Santa Barbara,

  3. For those who like to skip hills--or until you get that electric bike, Christa--check out the bike-and-ride options here. All MST buses except trolleys have bike racks, and the trolleys may add racks in the future, too. There are so many flat cycling routes here, and of course, we appreciate those hills--they add so much to the beauty of Monterey County. :)

    BTW, Toasties and Forge in the Forest (AKA General Store) are also in HER Helmet Thursdays!

  4. Thanks for sharing - I'm planning out an anniversary weekend as we speak and this was a big help in the logistics. Will probably do the route in reverse with Carmel as the base, but otherwise this was a fantastic inspiration and jump-start to the planning. Keep peddling and sharing your journeys!

  5. Hoping to be doing this ride in mid-August. I am a 60 year old mediocre recreational cyclist on a Specialized Crosstrail, but I do primarily ride in North and West Vancouver where, if you can't climb hills, you may as well pack it in! Pride goeth before a fall, but a 150 meter climb out of Carmel shouldn't be a problem. That is what granny gear is for! I routinely do a 3 kilometer climb with a continuous variable grade climbing about 350 meters. I'm really looking forward to this ride! I just love the Monterey/Carmel area.

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  7. Nice post. I am a mature female recreational rider who lives in Carmel, so I am way too familiar with the hills. I do love the short trail that runs parallel to Hwy 1 (One rider said he clocked himself at 43 mph on it.). However, instead of taking Munras, which is nice, I avoid the traffic by taking Iris Canyon, which is beautiful. Every time I ride it, I think of how luck I am to be there. Yes, as mentioned before, I usually bus back. When going south from Carmel, I avoid traffic by taking Hatton to Rio Road, which is also beautiful and overlooks Pt. Lobos.

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