First Motorcycle Camping Trip: Los Padres and Mount Palomar

I’ve been riding my motorcycles for about two years now, the bigger one for 18 months. I originally got re-inspired to get on two wheels after seeing Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil 3, wandering around the Mojave on a BMW K1200R with no particular place to go, aiding survivors and dispatching zombies with equal aplomb.

The movie was released in 2007. I got my first bike in 2008 (not a BMW, sadly.) In August 2009 I did my first overnight trip: a 770 mile two and a half-day affair from Anaheim to Salinas by way of CA 1. I stayed at cheapish hotels in Camarillo and Salinas and packed little more than a change of clothes and a handful of Power Bars. Although the ride up the coast was pretty scenic, the trip became mostly about “getting there”, and once there… “getting back.”

Six hours of hammering on US101 and Interstate 5 is actually not that much fun. I wondered if I was really that interested in bike touring after all. 

Pacific Ocean View from Ragged Point

I thought perhaps the appeal of the Resident Evil fantasy lay in the fact that Alice (Milla) had no particular destination and probably was not paying for lodging. Cheap as the hotels were that I hit on my tour, they were still in the neighborhood of $100 a night. A week or two of that and you are talking serious money for a frivolous distraction. 

So I looked into motorcycle camping. I’ve done car camping, RV camping, even Boy Scout camping and, to a great extent, had decided that camping was no longer fun. I’m not completely tethered to the grid. I enjoy a nice walk in the woods. And it can be fun playing with camping gadgets, especially ones that allow you to be a sort of Outdoor James Bond. But, schlepping all your stuff from place to place, doing without modern plumbing and sleeping on the ground, well, that all pretty much fits my definition of Things That Suck.

On top of that, I generally loathe other “campers.” Campgrounds are often set up so you are right on top of your neighbor, and your neighbor is often communing with nature whilst playing his favorite shitty music at full blast while he sucks down a couple of cases with a dozen other asshats around the fire.

So over the years, my level of enthusiasm for subjecting myself to the Great Outdoors has been dampened considerably. 

Nonethless, I figured I’d give it one more try. Maybe I could get to places on the bike that weren’t crowded. Maybe I could even camp where there were no “places.” (Yeah, right!) And, of course I’d have to update all of my gear to the most lightweight, compact and ultra high tech stuff available.

That part alone was enough to close the deal. 

So I set about inventorying my existing camping crap (I had accumulated several storage racks worth over the years) and evaluating its suitability for motorcycle camping.  WalMart Dome tent, flannel sleeping bag, Coleman propane stove…  After a few minutes of careful analysis, I decided I’d have to replace everything but my Gerber knife.

A few visits to and I was ready to re aquaint myself with nylon based housing and ultra thin inflatable mattresses.  I’ve detailed some of my gear elsewhere ( but to summarize:

I bought A Whole Lot of Cool Stuff For A Lot More Than I Planned On Spending. 

I also acquired a fancy “Super-T” motorcycle travel bag with a Roll-Top option from T-bags to carry it all in.  

Now I needed to try it out. 

I’d read a few motorcycle camping books, notably Lightweight Camping for Motorcycle Travel by Frazier Douglas and Motorcycle Camping Made Easy by Bob Woofter, and they, along with other touring experts, advised doing a couple overnight loops that begin and end at one’s house, with a night under the stars in between, to see if one (and one’s equipment) is up for it. 

I decided I’d link two of these trips together, with my own bed in between, for a three night, four day trial run. 

As it happened, my daughter was living in Santa Maria for the summer, working for the Pacific Conservatory for the Performing Arts (PCPA).  They were in the midst of a run of West Side Story at the Solvang PCPA Theaterfest venue.  I figured I could camp somewhere in the vicinity and pop over that night to catch the show.  Karen recommended the Santa Ynez recreation area in the Los Padres National Forest.  For my second destination, I picked Doane Valley Campground, rated one of the Ten Best Campgrounds in California, and about 150 miles from my house in the opposite direction from Los Padres. 

View LosPadresPalomar in a larger map

I packed up all of my stuff and loaded it on my bike and headed out extra early on Friday morning so as to beat the weekend crowds to the campground. 

Packing Config Closeup

I arrived at about 10:30 at the Lower Santa Ynez, confident that my early departure had put me in a good position to snag a primo spot to pitch my tent.  My assurance faded a bit as I passed campground after campground with “Full”, “Completely Full” and “Don’t Even THINK About Camping Here” signs prominently displayed at their entrances.  I eventually came upon a ranger station and thought, “Well, time to play the money card.”  I figured the Park Service is always up for a little extra cash and, if properly invested, I should be able to buy my way onto a little piece of paradise, ideally one that was equipped with flush toilets. 

The lone Ranger (well, there was just the one!) initially was pretty optimistic about my chances, it being all of 11am by that point, but after several calls, radio hailings and other manner of rustic communication, she told me that it appeared that every single campsite in the entire region was occupied and I was SOL.  I was about to head out to Solvang and look for a hotel when she went on, “Yeah, all we have left is one group campsite at Sage Flats.” 

Group Camp Site?  Do tell… “Well, you don’t want that, it’s 90 bucks for one thing.”  “I’ll decide if I want it… how big does the group have to be?”  “There’s a maximum of 25 people, but I don’t think there’s any minimum.”  Say hello to My Leetle Group of One.  

Sage Hill Group Campground, Lower Santa Ynez Recreation Area

I had to head over there right away as it was a first come, first serve sort of deal, and fork my $90 over to “Billy”, the ancient but spry, camp host.  I saddled up and motored across a shallow Santa Ynez, and met up with the camp caretaker at the gate.   My site at Sage Hill had spots for at least six or seven camps, its own circular drive with its own access gate and parking lot and, yes, Sweet Jesus, flush toilets!  I had inadvertently discovered the secret to douchebag-free camping:  Rent the entire effing campground! 

Billy questioned my sanity when I explained I was renting the entire group site for myself.  I told him I’d just “spent about $2500 on this crap” and I was damned if I didn’t get to play with some of it this weekend. He got a little concerned as he thought I said,  “$2500 on this crack“… which I suppose, could also have served as a good explanation.

I set up my stuff, had a snack and then looked into the local hiking possibilities. 

As luck would have it, about five minutes from my site was Aliso Canyon Trail, a nice 4.5 loop with a moderate climb, offering great views of the surrounding area.  Off I went in my REI safari outfit, loaded with a propylene bladder of water, energy bars and my cell phone.  The climb up was a tad strenuous but I took it slow and managed to hit the summit without provoking a stroke or being attacked by my heart. 

View of the Santa Ynez River from Aliso Canyon Trail

I rounded the top of the loop headed back down into camp and then set off for Solvang to rendezvous with Karen for dinner and some vintage American musical theater.

For those of you that have never been,  Solvang is sort of an odd town.  It traces its history back to its nineteenth century founding as an enclave of enterprising Danish immigrants.  Originally, the village looked no different than any of the others that dotted the Santa Ynez Valley, but in 1947, after a visit back home, Federic Sorensen constructed the first of what would eventually be 4 windmills, in the Danish Colonial style.  After a feature in the Saturday Evening Post gushed over the enticements of the “The Danish Capital of America”, tourists began to flock to the town to help celebrate “Danish Days”, soak up the imported culture and sample the delights of the local bakeries. (These folks did invent the Danish, after all.)   Local architect Earl Petersen got behind the the stylized look, designing many new buildings and remodeling the originals to look like old Denmark.  Streets were renamed, Hans Christian Andersen park installed and the whole town was transformed into a living diorama of nineteeth century Denmark.

Solvang "Windmill"

Mr. Petersen became very active in boosting the town’s development as a tourist destination and, among many of his contributions, was a driving force behind the establishment of the PCPA Theaterfest, an outdoor theatre installation near the center of town.  Every summer they feature a selection of musical and dramatic pieces produced and performed by the staff, students and actors associated with the Pacific Conservatory, located up 30 miles up the 101 in Santa Maria.

Home of PCPA Theaterfest









I met up with Karen at about 5pm, we had a nice meal in town and then they headed off to do the pre-show preparation for West Side Story. An hour or so later it was curtain time and I sat back and listened to the familiar Sondheim score and was reminded of the unusual choreography.

Just before West Side Story









I stayed for the first act, but by intermission, it was cold, dark and foggy and I decided to head back to Sage Hill before Maria got the bad news about Bernardo.

The next morning Karen drove down and we went swimming in the Santa Ynez – it’s a very slow moving “river” and quite pleasant to cool off in.  We hiked upstream to a pool-like area about 2 miles east of my campsite and spent about an hour relaxing before headed back and broke camp.

Swimming in the Santa Ynez

The road out of the campsite actually goes under the Santa Ynez. I don’t mean as in a tunnel, I mean, the road is there and and water just flows right over the top of it.  There’s a lot of algae and it’s quite slippery.  Plus there is a steep hill you have to climb on the opposite side.  All in all, sort of a dicey situation considering I’m a relative newb riding a 850 pound motorcycle packed with probably another 50 pounds of crap.  But I made it over to the other side without incident.

The Santa Ynez flows over the Sage Hill Access Road







We headed south on the CA 154 a few miles to a cutoff that took me down Stagecoach Road – a pretty snaky, built- for-motorcyclists deal, to Cold Springs Tavern.  In addition to offering cold drinks and hot food, the Tavern was apparently a longtime biker hangout.  I parked my Yamaha next to an assortment of other Japanese, American and German hardware and went inside for an obscenely portioned Buffalo Burger, Extremely Large Fries and a Coke. 

Got to fuel up more than just the motorcycle, don’t you know.

The Cold Spring Tavern

After lunch I headed back home and spent the night enjoying the comforts of The Great Indoors.  Air conditioning, internet access, showers… you know, that sort of thing.  Early the next morning I headed out to locate Doane Valley Campground.  My directions called for a sprint out to US15 and then after about an hour southbound, a left turn on CA76.   About 30 miles or so down CA76 I saw a sign for the campground pointing to the left and I headed up.

The road was typical of California mountain access, lots of switchbacks, tight curves strung together and a 35 mile an hour speed limit on the curves. About two minutes in, I was passed at considerably more than 35 mph by a guy in full racing battle rattle.  Judging by the way his knee grazed the asphalt, I’d say he was doing 90 easily.  A few seconds, later another brightly colored blur of plastic flashed by, and I started to think, “maybe I should go a little faster?”  “Nah,  not with all this crap.”

I rounded a corner and saw a phalanx of photographers.  The professional looking kind, with Big Ass Telephoto Lenses and Various Sized Tripods. 

They all took my picture. 

“Hey that’s nice,” I thought, until I saw them collectively frown, shrug and, if my instincts serve me, unceremoniously delete my lumbering digital image.  Apparently I had stumbled upon Moto Photo Shoot Weekend at Really Curvy Road. 

As it turns out, there were about seventy curves in seven miles to the top of what I later found out was the infamous “South Grade Road” or more officially S6.  It took me close to a half hour to do the climb to the top.  The guys on the sport bikes were doing it in about five minutes and going up and down all day.

Top of South Grade (S6)

At the top is the Mt. Palomar General Store.  They have food, camping supplies and a whole lot of bikers hanging out in the parking lot.

Palomar Mountain General Store

Vintage Bikes at General Store

The Doane campground is actually located in Palomar Mountain State Park, the gateway to which was about 3 miles down S7. I had to retrieve my bike registration to complete my camp reservation, as I had so much crap piled on the bike, my license plate was not visible.

“How long you staying?” “Just tonight.” “And you need all that?” “Eff you!” (I said that last bit with my inside voice.)

I was there early (10ish) and checkout wasn’t until noon. I pulled into a parking lot, changed out of my tour stuff and did a two mile or so hike up the Doane Valley Nature Trail.  By the time I finished it was close enough to noon to go check out my property.

Doane Valley Nature Trail

I had site 25, an excellent site if I might say so myself, and better yet, the occupants of site 26 were leaving early, even though they had it reserved for Sunday night. Score! Two campsites for the price of one, and no neighbors.

I put some of my less valuable junk on the site 26 picnic table to discourage any would be squatters.

Site 25, Doane Valley Campground

Unpacked, set up camp and ate lunch. Used my handy Jetboil Frying pan to heat up a No Refrigeration needed Tuna Steak. It looked a lot better on the package than it tasted.

Tuna Steak

After lunch, I squared away my stuff and headed off in search of another hike.

This time I tackled French Valley Trail, another two mile loop out to French Creek and back by way of Lower Doane. Not sure of the history but it’s a very nice walk in the woods with only a handful of other hikers passing by.

Trail Marker Palomar Mountain State Park

French Valley Trail

After the hike I took some time to wander around the campground a bit.  There was a nice shower and bathroom setup and the camp host had firewood for sale, a bundle or two of which I availed myself.  After sufficient exploration I settled down to preparing and eating my dinner.

Camp Dinner

The next morning I set out early, heading further east on S7 in the direction of Lake Henshaw. I stopped a couple times to snap some photos of the spectacular views from the roadside. My final stop was at an overlook of Lake Henshaw, afterwards which I turned back westward, heading back up CA76 to US15 and Anaheim Hills.

View of Cleveland National Forest From State Park Road S7

Panorama of Cleveland National Forest CA76Lake Henshaw

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