Heart of the Sierra

May 15-17, 2004

141 miles

Yosemite Ho!

Sonora is still snorin' when we roll through at 6:00 a.m. The sun is barely lighting up the horizon and there's only an occasional car on the usually packed Main Street. Charlie Massieon and I left our cars near the Frosty's in the old gold-mining town of Columbia, promising ourselves a rewarding return after a challenging three-day tour. Our route will take us through some of the most spectacular scenery of the central and eastern Sierra: Yosemite, Monitor Pass, Ebbetts Pass and a connecting leg on the backside of the Sweetwater Range in Nevada.

Wards Ferry Road
Wards Ferry Road

Sonora is mushrooming like many of the foothill towns, and to avoid the shopping malls and new highway construction on the east side of town, we exit Mono Way onto Old Ward's Ferry Rd. This road soon narrows to a single lane and follows the hills and swales through farmlands dotted with blue oaks. The fields are overflowing with tall straw and spring wildflower blooms are mostly dried on the stem.

Old Ward's Ferry Rd joins new Ward's Ferry Rd and after a few more hills makes an elevator descent to the Tuolumne River. The color of the season is yellow - there are several species of the sunflower family, which I can't identify on the fly. Bucking the trend is California Buckeye, which is sending out white torches from an orb of green. The redbud is already in red pod. Some delicate white globe lilies are tucked in the tall grass of the more shaded slopes.

We climb steeply out of Tuolumne Canyon and join Hwy 120, the Tioga Pass Highway, at Groveland, which is barely coming to life. It's good to beat all the weekend traffic that stacks up through this bottleneck, but it will be closing in fast. We head on up to the Rim of the World viewpoint, which gives us a good view of the Tuolumne Canyon we were just in. The scrubby far slope has seen several wildfires, according to the informative display, and a memorial to a fallen firefighter reminds us of the dangers.

Above 3000 ft a few more wildflowers make appearances - Indian Pink, a blue penstemon, lupine, and a white iris. The going seems slow on this stretch of road - up and down, with little perceived gain in elevation. After all that work, Buck Meadows is only at 3000 ft, nearly the same elevation as Groveland, and Hardin Flat is only about 500 ft above that. At least temperatures are still cool and the traffic hasn't caught up with us yet.

There's a bit more climbing up to Big Oak Flat Entrance station, where we flash our annual National Park passes and turn onto Hodgen Meadow Rd. Signs are posted for local traffic only, but nobody has objected to bicycles. We miss the turn onto Old Big Oak Flat Road and find ourselves in a circle of ranger housing. One off-duty ranger asks us if we're looking for the Big Oak Flat Rd and waves us towards the "Authorized Vehicles Only" sign. Here the road quickly degenerates into potholes, pinecones, needles, and rocks, but there's enough pavement to call it paved. This is a popular hiking area when the Mountain Dogwoods are in bloom and now is prime time. Sprays of creamy blossoms are illuminated by light streaming through the forest and set off by the dark green of Douglas Fir and Jeffrey Pine.

Dogwood alley
Dogwood alley

As we stop to photograph the blossoms, another off-duty ranger comes by on his morning jog. He is huffing and puffing. He is not happy. We are on his road and it is "restricted for employees", he points out, which is not true, as this is a popular area for dogwood hikers. We pretend to be blissfully in search of dogwoods and take off up the road, wondering if he'll have us intercepted at the top.

There's a rustle and clamber in the woods. "It's a bear!", Charlie exclaims, just in time for us to see a brown rump tumble over a large boulder. Apparently the bear is more anxious to get away from us than we from it. We climb steeply on beds of needles and twigs, which act like tiny ball bearings, and I'm glad for the low gears that allow a seated climb.

The dogwoods continue up to the redwoods of the Tuolumne Grove, where we finally start seeing some of the hiking crowd from the parking lot. At the top, no rangers wait to haul us away, so we cruise down to Crane Flat to get supplies for the long haul over Tioga Pass. The pass just opened yesterday, but "without facilities". That means nearly 60 miles of self-sufficiency, though water is plentiful in the mountain streams.

Traffic is now picking up, though there are only a few RV's and tour busses and most drivers give us plenty of room. We chug on up the steady climb to White Wolf and cross the divide at 8000 ft. The road to White Wolf campground is still snowed in. Only a few pink penstemon (Pride of the Mountain) are coming out along the granite outcroppings -- it's still early for wildflowers at this elevation.

Sierra Juniper
Sierra Juniper

Before us is the granite heart of Yosemite, expanses of rounded domes and slabs decorated with twisted Sierra Juniper, ramrod Red Fir, and conical Incense-Cedar. The road descends nearly 500 ft to Yosemite Creek and then climbs back up to Porcupine Flat. After another descent to Snow Creek, we come to Olmsted Point, which offers spectacular views of Half Dome and Clouds Rest presiding over Yosemite Valley.

Now we enter an alley of domes, with names that rock climbers can rattle off like names of their kids. But I can never keep them straight. There's Polly Dome and Fairview Dome and Dome Across From Fairview -- "Daff" to the in-crowd. After a bit of climbing, we descend to Tuolumne Meadows, framed by Lembert Dome. It has the classic shape of a roche montonneé, a glacially sculpted rock with the silhouette of a grazing sheep. It's hard to imagine glaciers covering this huge rock mass.

Tuolumne Meadows is at 8600 ft, only slightly higher than White Wolf summit, but now we start climbing in earnest for Tioga Pass. Lodgepole Pine dominates the forest, and snow cakes the ground in the woods. Traffic has lightened considerably since a rather busy stretch up to Olmstead Point and is even more sparse past Tuolumne Meadows.

Snow zone!
Snow zone!

Past Olmsted Point is an avalanche area marked "No Stopping, Pedestrians, or Bicycles". We aren't about to turn back, so quickly pass the short danger zone. From the size of the snow pack, it looks like the signs are a couple weeks out of date.

We summit an empty pass, and the entrance gate has already closed for the day. The western wind that has been mostly at our backs is now going every which way as it scrolls down the canyon. This makes for a tricky descent and we take it slowly and carefully, with several stops to take pictures and to rest the arms.

Mono Lake
Mono Lake

Staying on the main highway instead of taking the shortcut to Lee Vining, we get a good view of Mono Lake gleaming in the late afternoon sun. The lake changes color with the season and time of day and today it is an unusual deep blue, set off by the rim of white tufa. Hwy 395 into Lee Vining has taken on a new look. It has been widened into a four-lane highway here...but for what? Seems like overkill to me.

The Lee Vining Grocery is well stocked with a surprisingly good selection of gourmet goods and I can't resist a big bag of juicy red grapes. There are way too many to eat in one sitting, so they follow me over the final climb of the day - Conway summit. We have to keep moving to beat the sunset. Our time up Hwy 395 is largely dependent on wind, which can't make up its mind, but does give us a pretty good push on the westward leg of the Conway big curve.

We cruise over the broad summit and meet up with a fairly determined headwind. So it won't be a slam-dunk into Bridgeport after all, but it is mostly downhill. We make good time and finally hit the city limit at 8:00 p.m., with light to spare. First things first, we check serving time for dinner at the Bridgeport Inn and find that we have an hour to go. Fresh Alaskan salmon and a glass of wine guarantee a good night's sleep at the Silver Maple Inn, as if 140 miles wouldn't do it.

83 miles

East to the Wild West

Hayes Creek Café opens at 6:00 a.m. and we're there soon thereafter for a hearty pancake breakfast. Then we head to the junction east of town and take Hwy 182 north on the backdoor route over Sweetwater summit.

Pelicans fishing
Pelicans fishing

Pickups towing boats are heading to Bridgeport Reservoir for early morning fishing, but they are beat by a school of white pelicans, which are plying the waters like cabin cruisers and collectively sending up a wake high enough to surf on. These birds are serious about their fishing.

From the reservoir, we follow the East Walker River into Nevada. A few ranches are scattered along the river, with luxurious pastures filled with happy-looking horses and cows. The Sweetwater Range gleams orange with a smattering of snow, like orange-vanilla swirl ice cream. Old mining roads zigzag to the high peaks, remnants of a once thriving, but short-lived mining region.

Sweetwater Range
Sweetwater Range

At about 15 miles from the junction, we leave the river and begin a gentle climb. We pass the well-kept Sweetwater Ranch, with irrigated pastures of well-fed cattle, and then roll over the broad Sweetwater summit, which would hardly pass for a pass, except for the summit marker sign. Desert wildflowers are slim - desert peach is starting to bloom, an orangish desert mallow decorates the road banks, and some whitish phlox sprawls around the sagebrush. Antelope brush, with its sprays of yellow branches, is in abundance. Pinyon is the dominant tree here, with rabbitbrush and sagebrush dotting the flats.

From the summit we descend through a canyon of dark volcanic rock with huge boulders embedded in debris flows. As we break out of the canyon, the vegetation changes dramatically. Stunted sagebrush dots the plains, perhaps restricted by low moisture. Below us the green fields of Smith Valley lie in sharp contrast to the brown desert, with alfalfa meeting scrub at the irrigation boundary.

Heyday Inn
Heyday Inn

We pass the turnoff to Yerington and continue to Wellington, arriving at noon, just in time for lunch at the Heyday Inn. The historic inn dates to 1875 and features a formidable bar, which is a favorite of the locals, who are chatting and playing the slots embedded in the counter. We chew on sandwiches and put away a huge plate of french fries, washing it all down with buckets of ice tea. Temperatures are still pleasantly cool, but the aridity tends to sap the juices.

Well-tended houses and a farm machinery shop comprise most of downtown Wellington. On the edge of town there's an 1898 schoolhouse with a lovely bell. It's a bit of a climb up to Jack Wright summit at 5483 ft, but worth it for the panorama of the Sweetwaters to the south, Pine Nuts to the north, and the Sierra dead ahead. On the long descent to Topaz Junction we pass several miles of houses and trailers strung out along the road. Then it's into the headwind as we turn south on Hwy 395 for the short jaunt to Monitor Pass Rd.

We stop at the Topaz Lake grocery to fill water bottles and then quickly cover the last few miles of a busy Hwy 395 to the junction. The wind is persistent from the west and doesn't let up as we turn onto Hwy 89. The lower few miles in the canyon are a grind - I send Charlie out in front to help break the wind, but it doesn't help a lot with the variable gusts through the canyon. At least the high clouds are keeping the temperatures down.

The mileposts creep by. I'm feeling the effects of yesterday's long day in the saddle and am ready for a break at the stream. The ravaging fire of several years ago fortunately missed this little tuck of woods, and it provides a pleasant reprieve from the exposed climb. We work on the bag of grapes and finally finish it off. The mosquitoes keep us from lingering.

Mule's Ears
Mule's Ears

Back on the road I perk up a bit as the slope provides some shelter from the wind and the views become grander. Bright yellow Mule's Ears decorates the burned areas and a cream-colored Ceonothus comes in at higher elevations. The vegetation is starting to fill in the burn, but it will be a struggle for the trees to be reestablished.

I'm anticipating a strong headwind as we round the corner at the Alpine County line, but it isn't as bad as expected. We cruise on up to the summit, where the aspen are just beginning to leaf. It's chilly enough for a jacket on the descent and the headwind makes the going slow. So does stopping for a field of larkspur, buttercups, and a yellow sunflowers.

We slip through the canyon of yellowish hydrothermally altered rocks, where mining activity stripped the stream, and hit the junction with Hwy 4. Then we follow the East Fork Carson River four miles into Markleeville. The Creekside Lodge has recently opened, being remodeled from the old Alpine Hotel in "rustic elegance". It is a welcome addition to the limited lodging available in Markleeville.

What we didn't know is that the only source for an early breakfast, the General Store, is still on winter hours -- and Sunday hours besides. It was closed by the time we wandered over there. This left us with little choice for breakfast - either wait till 9:00 a.m., or go with what's in our packs. My supplies consist largely of squished fig bars, not a welcome thought first thing in the morning!

But we brush away thoughts of cold breakfast with a warm hearty meal at the Wolf Creek Restaurant, remodeled to a more sophisticated atmosphere from the old Cutthroat Saloon.

88 miles

What Railroad?

The next morning we decide not to wait around for a hot breakfast. I choke down some fig bars and last night's bread and we are on the road by 7:00 a.m. The descent out of Markleeville down the Carson River canyon is chilly as usual, even in mid-summer for the infamous Death Ride. Today the roads are empty and even the usual contingent of early morning fishermen is missing. It's fairly calm, and once we're out of the canyon, temperatures warm to a nice climbing range.

We pass the junction with Monitor Pass and all the warning signs for steep grades on Ebbetts Pass. It's a nice cruise along the river to Wolf Creek, where we turn up Silver Creek towards Ebbetts Pass. The first serious grade comes just before the Silver Creek campground, which is still closed. We pass the gate at 7000 ft and begin the switchback climb to upper Silver Creek valley, which sports an alpine array of granite slabs, waterfalls, and stands of fir and pine. Even though grades are steep, there are periodic reprieves. Somehow this climb always seems easier to me than the unrelenting grind up the backside of Monitor Pass. Maybe it's because progress is more readily marked as the scenery changes more often.

Snow on Ebbetts Pass
Snow on Ebbetts Pass

Kenney Reservoir is thawed, but snow now banks the road up to the summit. Parking for the Pacific Crest trail is snowed in. A couple more steepish legs, round the corner, and...there's the cattle guard marking the summit. Whew! It's warm in the sun by the historical marker, which tells of this pass once being proposed as a likely railroad route over the Sierra. Only if there's a tunnel through the mountain to Lake Alpine.

I scrape a couple crumbly fig bars out of the bike bag and we doze in the sun a bit before scuttling down to Hermit's Valley. I prolong the inevitable climb over Pacific Grade by taking a side trip to check out the Border Ruffian trail, which comes down from Blue Lakes. Jeep tracks lead a short distance to a cluster of big boulders and then stop. Looks like there were attempts at filling the holes with rocks, but the trail would be tricky even for a jeep.

Pacific Creek
Pacific Creek

Pacific Grade welcomes us with steep pitches, dashing streams, and the smell of fresh piney woods. It's easier riding it than thinking about riding it. At least the road doesn't waste any time getting us to the summit, which is at the divide between the Mokelumne and Stanislaus drainages. At the summit Mosquito Lakes are brimmed with ice and it seems colder here than on the summit of Ebbetts Pass, which is 700 ft higher. It's not all down from here, as there are several short bumps before the final drop to Lake Alpine.

Having survived on fig bars and leftover bread so far, we're anticipating a hearty lunch. But the Lake Alpine lodge is still boarded up and shows no sign of stirring from hibernation. We climb out of the lake basin and cruise on down to Bear Valley dreaming of burritos at the cantina there. Nope, that's closed too. We continue to the General Store - boy it better be open! It is, though we're lucky. This is the first day it's been open after the manager returned from five-day vacation.

Sandwiches with all the trimmings revive us, and we take off down the expansion-cracked highway, which fortunately carries minimal traffic on the weekday. There's more up than you'd expect for going down, and a persistent headwind means no free ride.

Calaveras Big Stump
Calaveras Big Stump

We're making good time and decide to take a side trip to the Calaveras Big Trees, which I've ridden by many times, but have never stopped to explore. Bikes are admitted for free, but not allowed on the trails. The North Grove is conveniently located at the parking lot just inside the gate, but the more primitive South Grove is a good eight miles away. That's more than we want to take on today, so we settle for a walk among the redwood giants on the handicap-accessible trail.

Woodland wildflowers are just beginning to make their spring appearance - False Solomon's Seal dots the forest floor, and leaves of wild ginger are unfurling. Dogwood is in bloom, too, though it is not as spectacular as in Yosemite. The meeting of floral zones here leads to an unusual mix of trees, which includes hazelnut and yew. The visitor center has herbarium sheets with specimens of the local flowers, so we can identify a few of the mystery plants seen earlier on the ride.

We head back to the highway, and now it's just a matter of getting through the ride. Traffic picks up considerably around Arnold and only gets worse as we go west. The shoulder is spotty, and the fast descent through the canyon before Murphy's is rather dicey. To add to the excitement, logging trucks are barreling down the mountain fully loaded and aren't too keen about giving space to bicycles. I concentrate on holding my line and pedaling fast.

A quick stop at the grocery store in Murphy's refuels us for the final segment of the trip - up, down, and up on Parrotts Ferry Road. It's a relief to turn off the highway, though the traffic is still fairly fast and frequent. At least we're not in the incessant headwind, and by the time we cross the river and turn north, we've got a good tailwind...for the first time in two days. Fortunately temperatures are mild, as this climb can be a scorcher on the exposed lower slopes.

We climb the final stretch into Columbia and find our cars in the parking lot of the hotel. Unfortunately the Frosty's is still closed for the season...but there's always next time.

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