Sherman Pass

May 7-8, 2004


Sunny Inyokern

I'm late and in big trouble. I arrive at the Mayfair Motel in Inyokern at 6:30 p.m., half an hour after the expected time of arrival.

"You said you'd arrive at six o'clock or so. And it's "or so"...on the dot," says the manager as he rummages for the registration card.

"Now where are my glasses?" he growls, "where are they? I've got five pairs of glasses - one for every room."

He fumbles with his glasses and runs my credit card. The registration room is the size of a walk-in closet and stale cigarette smoke chokes the air. A television crackles in the adjacent living room. A faded map of Inyokern and vicinity is taped to the wall.

"You want a bucket of ice?" It's a ritual at the Mayfair. He gets the ice and opens the door to the musty motel room, setting the ice in the mini-refrigerator. It seems redundant, but I don't say so.

He tells the restaurant hours, and I say I'll be up too early for breakfast. For a bike ride.

Bob and Ardyce's Bicycle Shop
Inyokern's best
bike shop!

"Oh you know Bob there at the bike shop - he's got a bunch of riders he takes out. Why everyone in town rides a bike, except me, I'm too old - 76 years old. " The manager doesn't need to ride; he's preserved like a smoked trout.

Bob and Ardyce have the best bike shop in all of Inyokern, if not the whole Mojave Desert. A dusty desert town with a population of 984 is not exactly the place you'd expect to find a full-service bike shop, but there it is on Main Street, next to the barbershop. They get business from all over, especially from nearby Ridgecrest, home to many triatheletes. Road bikes, as well as mountain bikes, are kept in stock, including high-end Cannondale and Trek.

"Now, do you need some ice water for the ride? I can give you a bottle with solid ice." I assure him that the ice water in the fridge will be fine.

The room has worn brown carpet, a single naked bulb, orange and brown bedspread, mattress with springs like a skeleton.

I flip through the channels of the TV, but Sponge Bob isn't on, so I settle for "Spy Kids", starring Anthony Banderos. Completely stupid movie. The alarm is set for 4:00 a.m.

152 miles, 13,500 ft climbing

Sherman Pass

Sherman Pass closed
Sherman Pass closed

The alarm goes off much too early. I throw my stuff together and go get coffee at the Chevron mini-mart, which opens at 5 a.m. The "regular" turns out to have hazelnut flavoring. Yuck!

Charlie is already at the Post Office at 5:15 a.m., so I scramble to get my bike ready, gulping coffee when I can.

We're ready to go at 5:30 a.m., as the eastern sky is turning red and orange. It was windy last light, but is relatively calm now. Wind is the big factor on this ride, making the difference between a really hard ride and a downright wicked one. We head north on Brown's Road for the 15-mile warm-up to Pearsonville. Then we turn west, cross Hwy 14, and continue north a few miles on Sterling Road to the junction with Nine Mile Canyon Road.

Nine Mile Canyon
Nine Mile Canyon

Now the wind is swooping down the canyon, equilibrating air masses in response to the morning temperature changes. Nine Mile is already a tough climb for me and the headwind doesn't help. True to name, it's a climb of 3600 ft over 9.8 miles with an average grade of 7%, including one "flat spot". The local bike club runs time trials up it every year, from Hwy 395 to the Tulare County line. Charlie did it in 55:15 a few weeks ago and holds the "geezer" record, which isn't far off the overall record. I'll be lucky to do it in twice that. Charlie comments that race times have gotten faster since the road was repaved. Rolling resistance is the least of my worries. The road used to have a dirt segment, so any pavement is good.

Phacelia nashiana
Phacelia nashiana

The sun is coming up now, but temperatures are still mild, somewhere between arm warmers and leg warmers. The high desert is dryer than normal for May and is about three weeks ahead of schedule, so we're wondering how the wildflower display will be this year. Two years ago, right after the burn, it was spectacular - delicate pink Gilias flooded the blackened slopes.

Lavender sand verbena was in bloom along Brown's Road. In Nine Mile Canyon, there are big clumps of bitterbrush, purple heads of Chia, a yellow buckwheat, and an intensely blue penstemon, which contrasts nicely with sparkling granite. Strands of morning glory with splashy white flowers tumble down the scree. A few minute blooms linger on trumpet-stemmed buckwheat. The lupine is already in pod. Charlie spots an intense blue Phacelia, that we later identify as Charlotte's Phacelia, a rare California native.

Top Nine Mile Canyon
Top Nine Mile Canyon

The wind picks up near the top of the canyon, almost blowing me off the bike. I walk for a few paces to regain equilibrium and find shelter in lee of a cliff. We finally top out at the Tulare County line, which marks the end of the time trial. No course records this time. But this isn't the top - there's more climbing to come and another 12 miles to Kennedy Meadows. We're now in pinyon-juniper woodland, most of it blackened by the fire two years ago. The pinkies that flooded the charred hillsides are past blooming and only their reddish brown husks remain.

Kennedy Meadows is mostly a cluster of cabins, but has a well-stocked grocery store and is a popular stop on the Pacific Crest Trail. Usually we see a few PCT hikers with heavily laden backpacks, stocking up for the next week in the wilderness. But today there are none.

The community got phone service only a few years ago. As we peruse muffins and figbars in the store, a man comes in with a piece of obsidian and asks the lady at the counter about it.

"It's not found naturally in the area", she explains. "The Indians brought it in."

I want that muffin!
I want that muffin!

Outside, the resident brown-and-white spotted dog is stalking the porch, smoking. Two cigarette butts dangle from his smirking lips. We take our cookies and muffins to a place in the sun. The dog tosses the butts and waggles across the porch, eyes glued to Charlie's muffin. Every bite of muffin is watched intently and hopefully, with constant thumping of tail and occasional licking of chops. Dog gets a pat on the head...but no muffin.

We're back on the road and temperatures are warming up pleasantly. Word is that the gate to Sherman Pass is still closed on this side, but they're thinking about opening the other side this weekend. That means we can probably get over, even if there's a bit of hiking in the snow.

We cross the South Fork of the Kern River, a strip of green in rapidly browning meadows, and climb up the canyon of Bitter Creek, a sliver between two wilderness areas: Domeland to the south and South Sierra to the north. It's a nice descent to Troy Meadows, then ups and downs to Blackrock Ranger Station. The information station is closed, but one water spigot is on and the outhouses are open. The ground has been raked, so looks like they're ready to open any time now.

Sherman Pass Road, west side
Snow alert!

Just past Blackrock, the gate to Sherman Pass is closed and locked "due to snow". We wonder how much snow that means and whether we can get through the last couple miles, which are on a heavily wooded slope that doesn't see much sun. It's worth a try. We go over and under the gate and have the next stretch of road to ourselves. We climb up to Bald Mountain saddle and descend to Paloma Meadows. The Jeffrey pine forest smells of fresh turpentine. Pine cones and rocks litter the road and fresh potholes pockmark the pavement. A few downed trees have been cut and cleared from the road. The road crews haven't come through for a final sweep before opening, but there's nothing that an alert bicyclist can't avoid.

Snowbank for real
Is this cyclocross?

As we roll through hills and meadows, snow banks linger in sheltered areas along the road. Then comes the final climb to the pass. A couple miles from the summit, we cross the first snow blocking the road. It is well packed, probably from the snowmobiles that ply it in winter. Miniature road signs on tall poles mark the course. More snow, now deeper. We mount bikes, ride a bit, dismount, crunch through the snow, bounce ice crystals off tires, remount, ride.... On the last switchback before the summit there's more walking than riding. But the snow is refreshing, the woods smell clean, and wood peewees are calling their major third: "wood-pee-wee...wood-pee-wee."

Sherman Pass summit
Sierra panorama

The summit parking lot is mostly clear of snow. A fresh wind is sweeping over the pass. We eat lunch in lee of the panorama sign that shows all the peaks of the Western Divide of the High Sierra. We pick out Mt Whitney with its patchy snow, and closer, Owens Peak, which is already brown and barren. The snow pack is way down for this time of year.

After lunch, we pass the 9200 ft summit elevation sign and head off on the long 5000 ft descent to the Kern River canyon.

The west side is more exposed and only one snow bank near the top requires a walk. The McNalley fire swept up the pass from the Kern River two years ago, but mercifully spared the magnificent stand of red fir near the summit. We pick our way down through cones and rocks and sand. Salvage logging has pitted the road and left unsightly scars and slag piles along the road. It seems like more disturbance than it's worth.

What about bicycles?
What about bicycles?

After several miles, we come abruptly to the sign at the open gate set up for winter sports, then continue the descent. It's getting warmer. More and more flowers appear on the lower slopes - Gilia, Flannel Bush, Indian Paintbrush, Penstemon, a lemon yellow sticky monkeyflower that likes cracks in granite, showy apricot and white heads of Cobweb Thistle and a bushy Ceanothus. On this side of the pass the Grape Soda Lupine is blooming in the burned areas, and it really does have the color and smell of Grape Soda!

After a slow descent due to road conditions and botanizing, we finally hit the junction with the Kern River. The river is bank flow with water the color of espresso, probably from all the runoff after the burn. Vehicles with rafts and kayaks on top are plying the road, but we don't see any boats on the water - not until Kernville.

Grape Soda Lupine
Grape Soda Lupine

We pass the site of Johnson's store at Road's End, burned down without a trace. This is where a campfire set off the blaze that ripped up the mountain. Fortunately the nearby McNally's store still stands, and though less well stocked than Johnson's was, it has the essentials in food and drink.

After a quick snack we're off down the river, with Charlie doing most of the work in the interest of making up time. The brown river runs in a strip of green through tan, barren hills. The wind is sometimes heads, sometimes tails, as it scrolls through the canyon. At least it's not a steady headwind.

Kern River canyon
Kern River canyon

We roll into Kernville, which is alive with picnics and water sports, and cross the river to the grassy park with restrooms. There are lots of markets and fast food places and I'm tempted by the veggie burritos, but we need to get going.

The wind is fierce as we head towards the north shore of Lake Isabella. I'm having trouble holding the bike on the road and after the first hill begin to wonder if I should have stayed in Kernville. Rounding the second hill gives us mainly a tailwind, but it's all I can do to keep the bike from sailing over the edge. I ride unsteadily down to the lake and up the third hill, getting some protection from the wind. We continue along the green strip of river, which is here a nature preserve with huge cottonwoods. It looks like forest primeval. Weird sounds come from deep within. This is the South Fork of the Kern, same river we crossed coming out of Kennedy Meadows.

We hit the intersection with Hwy 178 and turn east. Some recreational traffic is coming down from the lake, but it's not too bad. The sign says 31 miles to Freeman. Where's that, I wonder. Charlie speculates the junction with Hwy 14. As if anyone who doesn't know how far it is to the highway will surely know where Freeman is.

A tailwind helps us make good time to Onyx and I'm finally getting my second wind, so to speak. Unfortunately, we're running out of daylight due to my slow pace and unfettered botanizing. We make a quick stop at the Onyx store and I get an extra set of batteries for the Cateye, just in case. I wonder how long they've been on the shelf.

Walker Pass climb
Walker Pass

The final pass of the day hides behind a chain of low hills that the highway swings around. We pass through a forest of Joshua Trees, including many "saplings". Frogs are starting up their chorus as light fades. A sign points to Chimney Rock road, which one could take all the way back to Nine Mile, but it's not the short way home. The wind is dying down a bit and the calm of the evening sets in. We pass a sign for Canebrake Creek and I wonder about the history of the unusual name. "'Brake' means a draw so maybe there was a thicket of cane by the creek", Charlie explains. Oh.

We follow Canebrake around a bend and pass Canebrake Café, which looks to be open, as evidenced by several vehicles outside.

It's a 2500 ft climb to Walker Pass and the grade is gradual, but persistent. We can see the lights of vehicles heading up the final switchback to the summit. On the final leg, I finally switch on the Cateye. We cross the summit in the dark and stop only long enough to don jackets for the windy descent. Fortunately the wind is behind us and I shudder to think what kind of downhill speed record we could set in daylight. The road is mostly straight and swift. The wind roars like in a wind tunnel, but we rarely get more than a straight tailwind. It's a weird sensation - we can hear the wind, but not feel it.

Until we hit the junction with Hwy 14, that is. On turning north, I can barely hold the bike on the road. Traffic is rushing by, too close for comfort. Charlie assures me that the wind will ease up away from the pass, but I'm looking for an escape route.

A sign to Bowman Road appears. How about this one? It's sand, but I'd rather be in sand than try to fight a crosswind on the highway. Charlie says that Bowman will eventually cross Brown road, which is the old highway into Inyokern. I know it's 4 miles from Hwy 14 to Inyokern, so we've got at least that far on Bowman. Charlie cautions that the geometry is probably more like a trapezoid, rather than a rectangle, so could be further. I'm undaunted. We set out on the desert trek.

Stars are brilliant and the Milky Way sweeps across the desert sky. The road ducks in and out of washes and is sometimes solid enough to ride, but mostly we walk. It's easier, plus my equilibrium is shot. Progress is gauged by airport lights, which, distressingly, don't seem to be changing position. Maybe the airport is moving east with us. A bright disorienting light shines in the distance along the direction of Bowman and we can't figure out what it might be. There are car headlights off in the can't be that far! But it is.

The bike odometer doesn't read in the sand, but it seems like we've gone at least four miles when we hit a cross road, also dirt. Road signs we hoped would be the intersection with Brown road read "Dust Control 15 mph". No chance of breaking that speed limit. Another couple miles and this time we finally do hit Brown Road - right after my headlights suddenly dim and blink out. I change batteries on the hump in the road that Charlie speculates is the old railroad grade. At the intersection: "Share the Road" with the bicycle symbol. Bob of the bike shop got the signs posted all around the area. The one here is shot out.

Mayfair Motel
Inyokern in the dark

Then eagerly we mount bikes and pedal the two miles into Inyokern.

We have to skip a late night snack as the Chevron station mini-mart is already closed. Charlie heads back to California City and I head to Ridgecrest to look for a motel. I'm ready to sleep in the car if everything's closed, but fortunately the Vagabond has a night clerk and a room, and I'm soon showered and into bed, sleeping like a log.

Places of Interest

Freeman was a town at the intersection of highways 14 and 178. The highway sign is long-gone, but there's a historical marker off the highway. Robber's Roost lies just to the south, where bandits hung out and robbed ore trains from the silver mines of Cerro Gordo.

Canebrake is an Ecological Preserve of the California Dept of Fish and Game and sits at the convergence of several bioregions. It is known for its high biodiversity of both flora and fauna ( The name comes from the cane that the Tubatulabel Indians used to make all kinds of things. Although there are many kinds of plants here today, only a few patches of the native flora remain.

Some Wildflowers

  • Desert Sand Verbena (Abronia villosa)
  • Chia (Salvia columbaria)
  • Acton's Encilia (Encilia actoni)
  • Nude Buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum)
  • Charlotte's Phacelia (Phacelia nashiana)
  • Gilia sp. ("pinkies") on west side Sherman Pass
  • Wild Hyacinth (Dicelostemma capitatum; west side Sherman Pass)
  • Grape Soda Lupine (Lupinus excubitus)
  • Beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris)
  • Western wallflower (Erysimum asperum)
  • Indian paintbrush (Castilleja sp.; west side Sherman Pass)
  • Flannel Bush (Fremontodendron californicum; west side Sherman Pass)
  • Penstemon sp. (best in Nine-Mile Canyon)
  • Cobweb Thistle (Cirsium occidentale; lower west Sherman and Kern River)