A Short Rant :: San Luis Obispo to Pismo Beach

After packing our food pannier with goodness from San Luis Obispo’s Natural Foods Coop,  we wandered along vineyards to Price Canyon Road, which took us in to the town of Pismo Beach.

Grape Fields outside Santa Maria.


When we arrived at Pismo Beach State Park we, sadly, discovered they had done away with their hike/bike rates. Instead of paying $5/person we would need to pay the full price, the same as someone who was driving into the site would pay.  We decided to move on and check out a few other campsites down the road to see if rates were cheaper.  Finding one campground, literally, right next to a railway, and another priced at $35 a night we moved on to Pismo Beach State Park’s sister campground near the pier, Oceano Campground.  They too, informed us of their now extinct hike/bike rate, and after expressing our disbelief and frustration over this fact, explained to us that it was necessary due to problems with “transients”.

Now, let me tell you something.  (warning: rant ahead)

I’ve had some issues with the CA state parks as we’ve been traveling down the coast.  

We’ve found, time and again, that the hike/bike sites are usually at the bottom or top of a steep hill, often right next to the railway tracks (which run every couple of hours), draped in the shadows amongst the unkempt regions of the campsites, where we freeze our rears off and neither our gear nor tent can dry quickly in the mornings, while the motor homes sit nice and pretty in the prime, sunny, sites.  This is true even in the dead of winter when the campgrounds are empty and they could easily give cyclists the more pleasant sites with access to the morning sunshine.

Those who come in on foot or bicycle are prohibited from staying more than two consecutive nights (some parks even restrict it to one night only!), whereas those who drive in can stay 20 to 30 days or longer.  In addition, we have been harassed by rangers and camp staff multiple times (and have seen them harassing other cyclists as well) to make payment for a second night before our check-out time had passed for the previous day and for placing our tent in a so-called “non-designated” locations (meaning 10-20 feet from the site they assigned you because you couldn’t see clearly while setting up your tent in the dark).  We haven’t seen ranger’s knocking on RV doors, or any other campers “doors” for that matter, before check out time, or any other time we’ve been in the parks, despite their repeated violations of quiet hours by use of generators.

At Doheney State Park, we were literally put in a semi-flooded site behind a bathroom, next to the rail tracks and a busy roadway, despite the park being practically empty.  The floodlight off the back of the bathroom facility really helped add to the ambiance of a restless night’s sleep, as did the constant trains passing, and the hour-long flashing of police lights on the adjacent road only a few feet from our tent, necessitated by a DUI arrest.

When a fellow camper using the restroom spotted us, he commented, “So, this is where they put the cyclists!”.  After we explained our history and opinion about the state parks policy and placement of cyclists within the campsites, he said, “Well, at least you’re well hidden!”.  And our sentiments were, “You’ve got that right.  That’s how they like non-driving “transients” – well-hidden from every one else’s view!”

[There have been a few exceptions to the scenarios listed above:  Half Moon Bay State Park was gorgeous & friendly to cyclists; San Simeon hosts allowed us to camp in a sunnier and more open location, outside of the hike/bike area, after we requested it (the campground was completely empty); Refugio State Park‘s hike/bike campsites are right across from the beach in decent spots and far from the railroad tracks; Thornhill Broome Beach (Point Mugu State Park) gave us our choice of site, which happened to be right on the beach; and South Carlsbad State Park hosts offered us a normal, sunny site site at a reduced hike/bike rate after they found out our intended destination of San Elijo park was closed.]

My problem with all of this?  

These are state parks, run by a state that has a grand reputation for setting stringent environmental standards and leading the country in environmental policy, whose stated mission is “to preserve the state’s extraordinary biological diversity, protecting its most valued natural and cultural resources“, yet they are obviously rewarding people who drive fossil-fueled vehicles into their parks, over those who use the most environmentally friendly energy there is – their own two legs!  We could discuss all day how 3 ton vehicles damage park grounds, pollute the air and water, use an excessive amount of resources and create noise pollution with those generators.

My opinion is that the system should be set up to reward those whose actions most support the parks own mission, in both site assignment and payment.  Bike/hikers should be given the prime spots at a discounted rate and those driving themselves into a park should be given the less desirable sites while paying a higher rate.  They can effortlessly drive their “camp” anywhere, they have indoor heating to keep them warm in the cool shadows, and they don’t have a need to keep equipment dry in the way that tent-campers do, plus they create more maintenance costs for the parks, not even mentioning the environmental impact they have in contrast to tent-campers.

Beyond the things listed above, what troubles me the most is the obvious discriminatory behaviour against people who own less or chose to travel with less.  I question why people with license plates are given preferential treatment over those who don’t outwardly show signs of owning a licensed vehicle.  Most disturbing to me is the use of the word “transients”.  When we’re each setting up “camp” in a campground, regardless of whether we’re using a tent or a recreational vehicle, aren’t we ALL, by definition, “transients“?!  Are the people who drive their tents into and out of the site somehow LESS transient than the person that rides or walks their tent in to and out of the site?  Now, if you meant to say homeless, instead of transient, that begs another question: Doesn’t the CA State Park’s mission claim to serve all people without discrimination?  I’m really confused.  Since when did a person need proof of homeownership to go camping in this country?

We see this problem running through the veins of our society as a whole, not just in the parks.  If you don’t buy into the consumerist culture that requires you to display your participation by showcasing the goods you own, people get anxious, nervous, even fearful, and they start implementing policies that marginalize, even criminalize, those who choose not to or are unable to participate in that culture.

If you haven’t guessed by now, this kind of outright discriminatory, environmentally irresponsible, and hypocritical behavior really burns my butt.

Watch this video to get an idea of our sites at some of the state parks:

But wait.  It gets even better.

As I started to go off on the asinine reasoning methods of the state parks and the use of the word “transients”, right there in the middle of the entrance to Oceano Campground,  Kai offered to set up camp while I took a break.  Before I got my panties all in a bunch I grabbed the chance to remove myself from the park and began cycling slowly down the nearest city street, breathing deeply, in and out, in and out……until I came to the end of the street and the pier.

Oceano Dunes : Where you can camp for $10 if you own a gasoline spewing vehicle and want to drive all over a beach with it.  There, I proceeded, once again, to lose my crap, because, as I approached the beach at the end of the pier, which happened to be a STATE PARK, I discovered signs indicating that it was a vehicular dunes beach, meaning that it was specifically open to people who owned vehicles, and that those people could madly and demonically drive onto and across miles of sandy beaches, thereby deriving some warped sense of pleasure from the act.  Besides the many, many reasons why this is one of the most idiotic forms of environmentally self-destructive behaviour I’ve ever seen, the thing that really got to me at that particular moment was that these people could camp on the beach for $10/night versus the $25 we paid for down the street.  Yup.  Oh yeah.

Trying to remain calm, I rode up to the entry kiosk where a young woman in a park employee’s uniform was sitting and calmly asked with an incredulous smile on my face, “Camping for $10?  Really?  My partner and I just cycled into town and we’re paying $25 down the street, can we come camp on the beach for $10 instead?”.  “No”, I was told, “you have to have a license plate number to legally camp on the beach.”

For Real.  I am not kidding.

And while reeling over the insanity of our society’s priorities, I started in without restraint, “So, you’re telling me that because I don’t drive a fossil-fueled machine that requires a license plate, I can’t camp on the beach?  And how does that uphold the mission of…..blah, blah, blah…”.  It got ugly.  Fuming, my voice rose as I went on about how ridiculous it all was, how discriminatory, how morally corrupt, and how hypocritical.  Once I exhausted my frustrations, I apologized to the now wide-eyed young woman for losing my temper, knowing full well that she was just a powerless pawn in the system that employed her.  I turned my bicycle around and rode back to the campsite, deflated, and ready to call it a night.

Oceano Dunes Motto: If it's precious why not drive all over it??

Oceano Dunes Motto: It’s precious, so let’s destroy it just for fun money!

Conclusion (or more random thoughts)

I can hear many a long-distance cycle tourist asking the question, “Why frustrate yourself and camp at those places at all?  Why not just stealth camp?”.

I do realize we could eliminate many frustrations with the park system by simply removing ourselves from the system altogether and stealth camping.  We have done that when we were able to but, unfortunately, there have been few places along the southern coast of California that we felt were safe to stealth camp.  Honestly, I don’t mind paying for a campsite in a park if the money is used to TRULY implement policies that support the mission of caring for the land and the environment.  I also like the occasional convenience of showers, water and bathrooms that can be found at these parks.

Other, more philosophical, thoughts in relation to this topic also come up for me.  For instance, if we drop out of the system altogether, without uttering a word to challenge the status quo, how will change ever happen?  Do we have an obligation to stay in the system, to some degree, in order to help change it when it’s broken?  Does our leaving the system, without stopping the damage it does, make us somewhat complicit?  These are questions I’ve often asked myself over the years, as we literally have worked to remove ourselves from many of the “normal” systems within our particular society.  I often worry that by quietly moving (or being moved) into the shadows, we allow those utilizing broken policies and systems to conveniently ignore us, effectively giving them a pass on accountability and supporting a “more of the same” damaging mentality.

But enough of my ranting!  I want to know, what do YOU think about park systems and policies? Or about our society’s approach to homelessness or environmental problems?  Had any similar experiences?  Have any ideas on how to change the system to better support sustainable methods of transportation?  


Next Stop :: Santa Maria (without any rants, I promise!)

10 comments to A Short Rant :: San Luis Obispo to Pismo Beach

  • Bradley Gann

    It’s sad and true. It’s amazing the difference during a political campaign how a candidate may use the words to indicate they are environmentally conscious or how businesses will attempt to appeal to the green thinkers but once put into practice, the dollar takes over as key player. You know how the hotels all have the slogan now to save towels and wash less? After noticing this again the other day, I went downstairs and watched an employee overseeing breakfast turn on no less than 15 small lamps in an already light filled room. I’m guessing that having all these extra lights on somehow makes breakfast better? At least we’re washing less towels… I hope you guys find an increase in cyclist friendly areas. Safe Travels Sheila and Kai!

    • Uh-oh Bradley, you’re on that slippery slope of starting to notice all the things that will drive you mad! ha.ha. If you ever want to rant about all those insane green-washing techniques combined with actual actions of the green-washer, this is your forum, we are your family! 😉

  • Allen Thoma

    As a California native I really feel I have to apologize for some portion of this schizophrenic state. Sure we have tons of National Parks, State Parks and was the place John Muir started the Sierra Club, but we are also the state of Hollywood, Disneyland and a movie star Governors. As I was born in S Cal and now live in N Cal my perceptions of the S Cal have hardened. You have to remember that the more conservative/reactionary portions of the state are the Central Valley and Orange County. So of course they reward SUVs by allowing them on the beach, in the desert, and get endless traffic jams because of the over reliance on autos. Hopefully, someday more of the state (and country) will have your sensibilities to the environment and the less fortunate in our perverse economic system. Still remember this state is one of the leaders in the green revolution (cap and trade carbon system, an electrical grid that is becoming greener every day, and environmental laws that push the country forward) and hopefully we can improve on that.
    Enjoy the rest of the state if you still can.

    • Allen, CA definitely is an environmental leader, no doubt, and thanks for pointing out several of the amazing things that have come from CA (reminders of the goodness that also abounds here). CA is WAY AHEAD of many other places in our country, and for that, we’re grateful.

      I can tell you we definitely noticed a distinct change in behavior toward cyclists as we traveled south from Santa Barbara and into the LA area through Orange County. The car-enabled culture is alive and well there, and I would even say that those driving were aggressively antagonistic toward cyclists on the road (I was nearly driven off the road on a couple of occasions & am not ashamed to say I found myself shaking and cursing traffic through several sections from Malibu to San Diego). Despite that, we also met several wonderful local cyclists and people who countered our (few) negative experiences of southern CA (one, of course, being you!).

      In the end, we fell in love with so much of California. The coastline was beautiful, the fruit plentiful, and the sun was almost always shining down on us. What’s not to love? (other than the things we don’t love, of course…..;-))

  • Leanna

    I understand your frustration, on the otherhand you probably haven’t had to deal with the result of the Reagan-era end of social security Benefits that were paying to keep mentally and otherwise disabled people off the streets. Without that safety net, many people without family to take them in wind up on the streets. California has a climate conducive to homelessness and easy access to the detritus of a society of 10 plus million people. As a result, transients are indeed a problem here like nowhere else in America. The way to address the problem has been short-sighted and expedient. Since the political climate favors blaming people for their own problems, rather than addressing the needs of a diverse (and I don’t mean ethnically or culturally) population with some people less capable of “pulling themselves up by the bootstraps”. The real problem is America has no safety net for it’s people. The solution appears to create even greater barriers to people without any means by making them unwelcome in public areas. The root of the problem has nothing to do with environmental or other loftier societal goals, it has to do with creating an expediant solution for a deep rooted apathy in our culture for people less fortunate.

  • Doug W.

    Purely advocate of the devil here, but as a mountain biker/hiker up the coast in WA I’m very familiar with that feeling you get when you stumble onto a place reserved for motorized recreation. It’s perfectly natural to wonder how it’s possibly allowed, why it’s so cheap for them, etc., etc. Here, in WA, we’re still allowed to recreate alongside them on our carbohydrate-powered ways, but it’s not enjoyable and not very safe.

    Now, I have no idea why they wouldn’t let you camp there. That’s just absurd. But I will say that regarding motorized recreation in general (something I have never done), whether it be Jeeps, ATVs, or dirtbikes… those folks have been kicked off of nearly every piece of public property they could ever ride. A place like those dunes you stumbled onto may be one of the only places in 500 miles where they can drive off-road and have fun. As for their choice of entertainment, I make no judgement on how other people spend their free time.

    Sorry to hear the camping situation has been so dreadful and really hope it improves for you soon.

    • Hi Doug – thanks for following our blog and for dropping us a comment! Glad to find another carbohydrate-powered person out there. 🙂

      To be clear, it hasn’t been all that dreadful! The majority of our CA experience has been great, and there were many campsites that offered great sites and friendly people who were kind and accommodating. My main point of the post was to point out inconsistencies with the parks written mission and their implementation of policies within the parks, and to make my own editorial commentary on society’s underlying marginalization of those who choose not to (or can’t) use individualized fossil-fueled vehicles for transportation to said parks.

      I really do understand you’re stance on not wanting to be judgmental, but I guess I’m beyond the point of not making judgement. Being as we’ve already passed peak oil and are continuing to use fossil fuels every day as if they are infinite, despite that our actions are our very demise, I no longer have any patience or tolerance for societal acceptance, or support of, environmentally immature and damaging behavior. Tack on a motto of “just for fun” and “for entertainment” and I find it completely insane and immoral.

  • I had a similar experience at Oceano except, in my case, the park was full. The young pup at the kiosk wouldn’t even let me ride in to see if I could share a site with another tenting camper. Ended up sandwiched between Hwy 1 and the train tracks at the RV park across Hwy 1 for $23 (they had a few primitive sites reserved for tents–and there was a pool and free showers). I was also able to share the site with another cyclist I’d met on the road so that helped cut the cost.
    In another experience at Carpenteria State Beach, I got there early (about 2:30). When I pulled up to the kiosk, the camp hosts running it said I couldn’t check in to the H/B site until 4:00. I asked if I could just go set up my stuff and come back and pay at 4:00. They said no BUT, I COULD go take a shower. That just seemed so weird to me. I couldn’t set up my camp, but I could go take a shower? The camp hosts were actually really nice. They said they knew I wasn’t homeless, but that was the policy. Ironically, their policy doesn’t even work to keep out the homeless! When I awoke the next morning, there was another tent that hadn’t been there when I went to bed. According to another questionably homeless guy who did pay for his spot, that same guy came in almost every night after the camp hosts close the kiosk.
    You are correct in that State Parks tend to locate the H/B sites as far from the amenities, such as restrooms and showers, as possible. The park loops with all the hookup sites are is where the humongous RVs, that have on-board bathrooms complete with showers, are parked is usually where the nicest restrooms are. Ass-backwards if you ask me.

    • Thanks for sharing your own (insane!) experiences with the CA state parks. Yes, the irony in that the RVs have their own onboard utilities and that they also get situated near the best bathrooms has made me laugh out loud on several occasions. I also noticed that those bathrooms usually had hot water taps whereas the ones situated near the hike/bike areas did not (perhaps to make it even less desirable for those without metal cars or homes to stay longer?). Ass-backwards is right, sister.

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