S'nora Bora - Bora S'nora

May 23-24, 2004

98 miles

The West Side Story

You have been warned!

Signs warn of winter conditions, 26% grades, and vehicles over 25 ft not advised. At 9624 ft, Sonora Pass is the second highest paved route over the Sierra and perhaps the most challenging by bicycle. Especially if you start from the "base", which in my case is the tiny gold-mining town of Columbia, just north of Sonora, at an elevation of 2143 ft.

Bicyclists debate which side is the hardest to climb - that steep grade up to the 9000 ft marker on the west...the climb out of Leavitt Meadows on the east? Now I'm going to settle that question for once and for all. The only way to do a fair test, though, is to have a good night's rest in between. The closest town to Sonora Pass on the east side is Walker, so I make reservations at the Toiyabe Motel, one of my favorites for the friendly managers and cheerful quirky décor.

Fresh cinammon rolls!
Breakfast stop!

"You're going to get all the way there tonight?!" The woman at Andy's Mountain Grill and Deli in Mi-Wuk Village is incredulous. She scoops a monstrous raisin cinnamon roll, still warm and quivering, from the baking pan.

"If I don't, I'm sleeping under a pine tree."

"And then what will you do?"

"Ride back."

She shakes her head as she rings up the bill.

I started from Columbia at sunrise to make it to Andy's just in time for the first batch of cinnamon rolls to emerge from the oven. No point getting there before about 8 a.m., and sometimes the cinnamon rolls aren't quite ready. The timing is perfect this time.

"Are you by yourself?" she asks.


She shakes her head again.

It's a relief to be riding solo for a change. Free to stop for wildflowers, be oblivious of pace, and tumble thoughts around. Clear out the musty ones, smooth over the rough ones, and welcome new crisp images.

Fresh white glaze cracks as I pull the soft roll apart. After a good dose of coffee I'm heading up the mountain. Traffic is still light on the highway. Taking Big Hill and Middle Camp roads from Columbia avoided the mess of east Sonora and made a pleasant climb with views out over the hazy valley. Middle Camp Rd has some steep sections and weaves through the residential outskirts of Twain Harte, so probably isn't the best for a return trip once the local traffic has woken up. It pops out on the highway at Sugar Pine, just above the 4000 ft elevation marker. It doesn't seem like I've climbed 2500 ft before breakfast.

From Mi-Wuk Village, it's a steady climb up past Long Barn off to the right. Before the town of Strawberry I turn off to Fraser Flat campground to take the Sugar Pine Railway trail along the Stanislaus River, a route I'd tried last year after recommendations from the local forest rangers. A swift three-mile descent down to the river undoes a bunch of climbing, but I'll soon get it back. Signs are pinned along the way for the Merced Dirt Bikers, apparently an OHV event this weekend. But no sight or sounds of them and they won't be on the trail anyway - only hikers and bicycles are allowed.

Sugar Pine Railway trail
Sugar Pine
Railway trail

The trail follows the river and is posted with numbers tied to an informative leaflet, which is available at the Forest Service station. The leaflet points out that railroad cars falling into the river was a common ordeal, and there's a stump with a bit of steel around it that was used to hoist them back up. A diversion dam and flume have been in use since the 1899, though they have been refurbished since.

The three-mile trail ends at Old Strawberry road, which meanders through green meadows and summer homes along the river. It's a short climb back to Hwy 108 above Strawberry.

From here Hwy 108 likes to hang out at around the 6000 ft level, with many ups and downs before Dardanelle. A narrow ridge above Strawberry gives views into the drainages of both the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers. Volcanic mudflows are exposed in roadcuts and comprise the level ridge to the east.

At noon I'm at the Dardanelle store, which has opened under new ownership and seems better stocked than last year. The cashier is still learning the system, however, and customers stack up waiting to check out. After finally getting through line, I have a quick snack and head for Kennedy Meadows, anxious to get the real climb underway. The usual westerly wind has been easing the long transit and I'm hoping it continues for the steep sections. Temperatures are cool and invigorating. Some cumulus clouds puff by, surveying the mountain peaks, but not meaning any harm.

After Kennedy Meadows, there's a tight corner and there you have it - the real climb begins. Cars seem impossibly high on the mountain in such a short distance. I know what's ahead, though, and the destination is clear - a notch in the cliff, dubbed "The Window". I drop into my lowest gear and set an even pace up the hill. On the final pitch before the Window, just when the legs are begging for relief, a gust of tailwind almost lifts the bike up the hill. Not enough to stop pedaling, though. I stop at the overview of the Emigrant Wilderness to catch my breath and take a few photos.

Deadman Creek
Deadman Creek

From here the road climbs in earnest for several miles, but it is manageable with appropriate gearing. Ponderosa Pine and twisted Sierra Juniper stud the rocky slopes. Granite with huge megacrysts blinks from the roadcuts. The road takes a quick drop down to Chipmunk Flat, to be remembered for the return, and then follows Deadman's Creek, lined with new yellow and red shoots of willow. Snow patches lie here and there, but nothing like my first ride of last year, when there was 6-8 ft of snow at the top of the pass.

Ahead are humps of road before the switchback and the final pitch up to the 9000 ft elevation sign. I take a short break to gather momentum and launch forward. U.S. Forest Service people are milling around a pickup that has passed me several times. Argh, don't block the road...I can't stop! I let out a big yeehaw and they look around, startled. "You are my...heroine," says one, after recovering. I flash my best "I am having fun" grin.

Upper Sonora Pass
Upper Sonora Pass

Around the switchbacks...looks like it should let up, but it doesn't, keep spinning, still above walking pace, good, wind is still favorable, legs getting shakey, there's the 9000 ft elevation marker, good, throw mental grappling hook at sign and reel it in, with enough momentum to sling-shot past it at 4.5 mph, up the short rise, and whew, the slope finally breaks. It's only a couple more miles and 600 ft to the summit. Pedaling is easy now and the wind is bolstering me towards the pass.

Snow forms a crusty blanket in the upper meadow and some cross-country skiers are coming off the mountain. An engine rumbles high up on the slope -- snowmobile? The summit is chilly and windy and there's little reason to delay the descent. So off I go.

Sonora Pass summit
Sonora Pass summit

Well, that side was a tough climb, but not as bad as in the funicular bicycle dreams. Can the east side beat the west? The wind will have to be factored into the equation.

The east side definitely smells better, having the pungent odors of the high mountain desert - sage, coyote bush, pine. Streams dash out from under snowfields and tiny yellow buttercups splash the melted areas. It's a steep, twisty descent down to Leavitt Meadows, with views distracting from the task of staying on the road.

Leavitt Meadows Pack Station
Leavitt Meadows Pack

Leavitt Meadows Pack Station is already open for business - Sonora Pass has been open for a couple weeks now, earlier than the norm of the last few years. The corral is well stocked with pack horses and mules, and cowboys are going about cowboy business in the sheds. I stop for a snack at the Leavitt Meadows campground and fill up on water from a tumbling stream further down. The wind is still westerly, but more variable as it tumbles down the slope. The green expanse of Pickel Meadows spreads out below, contrasting with the dark volcanic rocks of the hills behind. Red-and-white tops of the Sweetwater Range form the backdrop.

Leavitt Meadow
Leavitt Meadows

The Mountain Warfare Training Center is dead as a doornail today, but don't stop to look, as the warning signs say "No stopping at any time." I sail past it and follow Leavitt Creek. Black cows are up to their udders in green grass, which must be the bovine equivalent of a casino buffet. They eye the bicycle suspiciously, as if they haven't quite figured out whether it's friend of foe. Interestingly, the cows in Switzerland never give bicycles a second glance.

Near the junction with Hwy 395, a solitary yellow-headed blackbird clasps a cattail in the marsh. Spindly fence posts of alder or willow hold up the wires between older square ones and a few metal stakes - a real hodge-podge of fence architecture. Meadows glisten in the afternoon sun.

At the junction I turn south, hoping for a tailwind. It is...mostly. Through the canyon of the West Walker River, it can't make up it mind, though, so there isn't the bike-sailing to Walker that I dreamed about. But it's plenty fast. Green tufts of vegetation are starting to fill in the burned area of the fire that two years ago nearly took out the town of Walker. I had been there when it first started as a column of smoke behind the town, and there was little hint of the inferno that would develop over the next days.

Toiyabe Motel garden
Toiyabe Motel in Walker

I roll into Walker, where the flags are flapping vigorously at the Toiyabe Motel. It seems to have more do-dads each year - wagon wheels, antique plow, bench with carved fish. The garden is splashed with California poppies and three colors of irises - yellow, blue and old fashioned purple-and-white.

"The blue and yellow ones are new this year", says the manager.

He warns me not to nap for too long because both the pizza place and Walker Burger close at 7 pm - they're still on winter hours until Memorial Day weekend.

I set off for pizza on the other end of town and order a "Mother Earth", at the suggestion of the waitress. It comes with a potpourri of vegetables doused with oil and herb dressing and is delicious. Then I top it off with a blackberry milkshake at Walker Burger, sitting in a diminishing sunny spot, as the sun slips behind the mountain.

102 miles

The East Side Retort

The wind whipped around during the night - flags flapped, rafters shook, and metal signs clanged. By morning it hasn't let up much, so I figure there isn't much to gain with an early start to beat the wind. So I sleep in for a 7:00 a.m. breakfast at the Country Bear Café.

A short stack and several cups of coffee send me down the road. The wind isn't as bad as it sounds, and on entering Walker Canyon, is baffled enough to not be up to a full headwind. Still, it is slow progress up the canyon, which gains nearly 1500 ft elevation. The grade eases as the road breaks out of the canyon, but then the wind picks up. White capped mountain peaks rim the field-of-view and to the west, the canyon leading to Sonora Pass beckons.

East side Sonora Pass
Sonora Pass east

The marshes are quiet this morning, but the cows are already back to grazing. The Mountain Warfare Training center has woken up and men in camouflage cluster around the trucks. I cruise over the slight climb and down to Leavitt Creek, where the road enters the canyon and the mountains provide some shelter from the wind.

The warm-up is over and now it's time to get down to work. The road shoots upwards towards Leavitt Meadows, wasting no time or space on gentle grades. I stop for a quick snack at the meadows before tackling the next pitch. This one is a bugger -- it just keeps going! Each year I somehow manage to forget how long this part is, but do remember there's a long flattish section ahead to recover on. And it comes just in time. There's a long traverse across the mountain, then the short steep S-curves at mile 4, then more moderate, but manageable climbing to the upper meadows.

Buttercups, upper Sonora Pass
Buttercups near summit

About three miles from the summit, I take a break to examine the abundant yellow buttercups, since wildflowers have been scarce and I need an excuse for a rest. Now for the final leg. Streams are going all over the place up here, granite is sparkling white and gray, lodgepole pines are strewing tiny cones through the meadows. I pause momentarily at the crest of the Big Dip a half-mile from the top, then plunge down and spin up the other side, counting pedal strokes to the top. The wind whistles down from the summit, but I think "slice, slice through it". The signs at the summit march into view and I latch onto them one-by-one till the Sonora Pass summit sign grins down at me. This is it! Well, that was tough - tougher than the west side? Hmmm, I'll have to think about it on the descent.

Happy rider
Happy bike and rider!

Partway down, the view grabs my attention, and I stop at the overlook and meet a couple who are motorcycling over the pass. We swap notes on the road -- watch for gravel, rocks, slick spots, don't cut it too wide, or too close, caution on steep descents, look out for bozo drivers.... They think it would be hard on a bicycle, I think it would be tricky on a motorcycle.

"But it's exhilarating!" we agree.

I continue the descent to Kennedy Meadows. It's noticeably warmer here, enough to shed jacket and limb warmers. I head into Dardanelle for a quick lunch stop, as it's nearly noon. The cashier notes that several groups of cyclists have come through this weekend, though I haven't seen any but the occasional mountain bikers.

Pride of the Mountain
Pride of the Mountain

Then it's westward ho, with the ups and downs of Hwy 108 to do in reverse. I stop at the Dardanelles overlook - the reservoir looks full. Magenta penstemon - Pride of the Mountain -- decorates the granite slabs.

Instead of taking Old Strawberry Rd, I stay on the main road and am impressed with how much the old route takes off the highway. It bypasses the climb to Cold Springs summit, but the steep climb from Fraser Flat would make up for it going west.

At Cold Springs summit, I swing by Café 108, but it has already closed for the afternoon. Good food there, run by a bikie from Palo Alto, but I rarely seem to come by when it's open. As I cruise through Mi-Wuk and Sugar Pine, the traffic picks up, with pickups towing boats coming back from a weekend on the reservoirs. I leave the highway buzz and turn off to Tuolumne City, which will add a few miles, but give some variety. There are a few ups and downs, but mostly swift downs, with little traffic to the town. The Frosty's in Tuolumne City is closed, so I turn towards Sonora without stopping. It's a hefty climb back up to the highway, and coming late in the day, I'm ready to be done with it. Traffic is now coming out of the woodwork and is soon every bit as busy as on the highway.

About the time I'm regretting taking the detour, the shopping malls of East Sonora come into view. The junction with Hwy 108 is now a monstrous intersection that's part of the new expressway. It has been under construction forever, it seems, but now appears to be getting close to completion. It has a sign up prohibiting pedestrians, bicycles, etc. Where the expressway goes and what it connects with, I haven't a clue - it just emerges from the hills north of town. Will it take the logging trucks out of downtown Sonora? That would be a good thing.

I wind down busy Mono Way onto the back streets of Sonora, reconnect with the main drag, then climb the final three miles back to Columbia.

Now to answer the big question: Which side of Sonora Pass is harder? I've thought it over for two days and can now say definitively: It's whichever side you're going up. And either way, it's a beautiful and exhilarating climb.