Distance: 28.5 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 712 ft
Normally I avoid bike trails and municipal trails like poison, because they’re claustrophobic. But there are three bike trails that I know of that are so fine that they transcend their genre: the Willamette River Trail in Eugene, the American River Bike Trail in Sacramento, and this one. As with most multi-use trails, the pace here is often slow and the experience is more akin to strolling/ambling/sight-seeing than hammering, but at least half of the route here is far from Monterey proper, largely deserted, and suitable for hard time-trialing if that’s what you seek. And the scenery is as good as it gets: one part rocky coast, one part Monterey harbor, and one part lonely sand dunes. The elevation numbers say it’s dead flat, but it really isn’t (RidewithGPS says 975 ft), and if you hit the rolling dunes hard you can get a workout.
The curse of municipal paths is crowds, and the third of this route that goes through the Aquarium-Cannery Row neighborhood can be downright unpleasant if crowded. (“Hell is other people”—Sartre). As always, I would avoid weekend midday if I could. But my last ride was Friday at 11 AM in July, and other users were never a problem.
Rec trails are meant for rec riders, and if you’re one, you may want to rent a bike. Monterey has you covered. Adventures by the Sea has no less than 3 rental shops along the one-mile stretch of the Trail by Cannery Row. If it’s been a while, rent an e-bike.
Like many rec trails, this one goes by many names. I’ve seen it called the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail, the Monterey Bike Trail, and the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail. It’s also a leg of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail, a monumental project that is in the works and dreams of eventually running from Lover’s Point to Wilder Ranch, a few miles west of Santa Cruz—c. 55 miles!
The bike path proper starts at Lover’s Point, but west of there the coast is stunning (better than the Seventeen Mile Drive to the south), so I like to start where Sunset Drive meets the coast, by Asilomar State Beach, so I can ride as much of it as possible. Parking is easy, either as curbside parking along Sunset Drive, at Asilomar State Beach, or on any of the side roads going inland from Sunset.
From Asilomar State Beach to Lover’s Point is conventional street, with ocean on one side and charming houses on the other. Almost immediately Sunset Drive changes its name to Ocean View Blvd, and no road was more accurately named. Take the time to drink in the view from the turn-outs (the best of which is the John Denver Memorial, near the spot where his plane crashed into the bay), and fantasize how sweet it would be to live in one of those houses. Keep your eyes peeled for sea otters, the mascots of Monterey, lying on their backs in the swell eating shellfish. A tiny detour will take you by the Point Pinos Lighthouse (not spectacular) and a moderately old cemetery, if you’re into those.
From Lover’s Point the ride is on multi-use municipal path. The first leg is right past the Aquarium and along the backside of Cannery Row, so we’re talking constant street crossings and dodging of tourists on foot and in those rental pedal surreys. If you can let it be what it is, it can be fun. If you can’t, it’s brief. Obviously there is endless trinket shopping and junk food eating to be done on Cannery Row, and a smattering of interesting historical buildings with informative lectures accessed by your phone.
Soon you’re past Cannery Row and riding through the wharf district, much more my cup of tea. There are three wharfs. The first is just a marina, so you’re only interested in the second and third. The second is Old Fisherman’s Wharf—think Santa Cruz Boardwalk without the rides. It’s straight out of the Fifties, an unpretentious mix of hoke, fish restaurants, and, and penny-crushing machines. The third, a stone’s throw further along, is the Municipal Wharf, a real working wharf with fishing boats off-loading their catch. Everyone there is busy working, but no one has ever shooed me away.
The area surrounding the wharfs is a wonderful place full of sailboats, crepe restaurants, barking sea lions, small art museums, bicycle rental shops, and such. This is the place to sit, eat lunch, and people-watch. You’re a block from a world-class French bakery, the Paris Bakery Cafe, if you forgot to bring a sandwich or dessert.
This area also has one of the best preserved and best presented collections of early California buildings anywhere. Most tourists never know it’s there, and it certainly keeps a low profile, but if you’re interested in the history of California before statehood its not to be missed. Even if you aren’t, the flower gardens in the courtyards adjacent to the buildings are lovely, soothing, and deserted. Start in either the Pacific House Museum or the Custom House (the latter the only preserved building you’re likely to notice passing through), and let the docents turn you on to the riches that surround you. If you don’t want to interrupt your ride for long, ten minutes in the Custom House is still time well-spent.
Immediately past the Wharf area the bike path enters some trees, and for the rest of the ride you’re in relatively undeveloped Nature. Walkers and vacation cyclists quickly thin out and you’re alone with the other serious cyclists. Incredibly, there is one place where you’re liable to get off course: 7 miles in, there’s an unobtrusive hard L onto a little ess-curve climb. You want it—it takes you out of the city and onto the coastal dunes. If you miss it (like I did), the main path dumps you out unceremoniously at the intersection of Hwy 218 and Del Monte Blvd, at which point you must go L and ride Hwy 218 (not pleasant but doable) west until it returns you to the bike path.
The one other place you might get lost is Tioga Ave., where you have to leave the path, ride through a parking lot behind some big-box stores, and return to the path, all semi-well-marked. Look at our route map and you’ll get it.
Once you reach the dunes, it’s all dunes to the turn-around. This leg is why the ride is in Bestrides. The rest of the route has its charms, but this to me is unique. Rolling sand hills topped with ground cover, with vistas of surf for miles to the south and north and Monterey across the bay, with some interesting remnants of Fort Ord’s military presence here and there, and no one but other riders and few of them.
At Mile 10 there’s a noticeable road 90 degrees to your L, with a large, visible sign 50 ft down it. Ride to the sign and read it, which tells you you are now entering the Fort Ord Dunes section of the afore-mentioned Sanctuary Trail. From the sign, take the road on your R (north), which parallels the main trail for 4.1 miles and is called “Beach Range Road” on maps. This is a hugely superior alternative to the main path, because it’s further from Highway 1, much more isolated, quieter, and hillier. Ride to the end of Beach Range Road, our turn-around spot. There you can jump over to the main path and ride it back, if you hate retracing your steps, but Beach Range Road is still a better ride and I suggest you stay on it for the return trip.
Shortening the ride: it all depends on what experience you seek. Coastal surf and tide pools? Urban bustle? Isolated dunes? I’d opt for the last, but it’s up to you.
Adding miles: Our starting point is 1/4 mile from the start of our Seventeen-Mile Drive ride.
The Monterey Bike Path continues on from our turn-around point, but it’s an unrewarding slog on the shoulder of busy, straight roads.