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This article is reprinted courtesy of BikeCal.com
and Bill Oetinger
In March, 2002, I wrote an article in this space about some of
the big climbs in the Italian Alps, comparing them to some of our domestic
ascents (domestic in my case being Sonoma County, California). You can revisit
that article at Whoís Afraid
of the Big, Bad Hills?.
The biggest difference between them is something that could
probably best be termed ďscale.Ē In a few cases, the big Euro-climbs are
steeper than our local hills, but the real difference is overall size: they just
go on and on and on...often ten miles long and sometimes over twice that
distance...most of the time at a fairly respectable gradient. (A long climb for
us locally is around five miles.) The conclusion I came to was that the climbs
of Californiaís coastal mountains--as wicked as they can be--simply do not
measure up to those epic ascents of the Alps.
Recently though, I have explored some California climbs that do
measure up, and I think I can safely say that if you want to get a true sense of
what the big climbs are like that you see the pros chugging up in the Giro and
Tour and Vuelta, you can find out without flying to the continent. All you have
to do is drive to the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada, over along Hwy 395.
There, from just south of Lone Pine to just north of Bishop, you can climb to
your heartís content, or more probably until you feel like coughing your heart
up and leaving it beating feebly on the side of the road.
So, in the interest of broadening your horizons, I am going to
present a brief summary of these monster climbs, working from south to north...
title of this column--Inyo Face--comes from the fact that almost all of these
climbs are up the eastern face of the Sierra mountain range in Inyo county. But
it works as a pun too, especially in the case of this huge climb. If you look up
from Lone Pine at the looming front rank of mountains above the town, you
canít help but notice the Horseshoe Meadows road carved into the cliff face,
far above. There are five great, switch backing traverses working their way up
the wall. It is one of the most impressive and intimidating looking climbs
around, and once you see it from the bottom, you will think about it and dream
about it until you have a chance to do it. If there is one saving grace in this
mind-messing climb, itís that each successive leg of the switchbacks is
shorter than the one preceding it, like traversing across the face of a pyramid.
The town of Lone Pine sits at 3700' and is the launching pad for
both this climb and the famous Whitney Portal climb. The Horseshoe Meadows
summit is just below 10,000', plus there is a descent of around 350' near the
top of the hill, bringing the total elevation gain to over 6000' in around 25
miles. I donít think the grade ever exceeds 10% on this big boy, but it stays
in the 8% range for long stretches. Those numbers compare favorably with most of
the famous climbs in the Alps.
You can take Horseshoe Meadows Road right from its junction with
Whitney Portal Road, three miles uphill from Lone Pine. But I recommend taking
Tuttle Creek Road out of town and wandering around in a region known as the
Alabama Hills on the way up to the big climb. The Alabama Hills are not to be
missed. They are a jumbled pile of wildly contorted standing stones and
boulders, caves and canyons covering an area maybe 15 miles long (north to
south) and five miles wide, all just west of Lone Pine. Itís an anomalous
geological formation that bears little resemblance to the nearby Sierra, and
itís one of the most fantastic landscapes youíll ever see...a wild and crazy
also happens to be replete with history, as it has been the shooting backdrop
for literally hundreds of movies and westerns, from legendary films such as
Gunga Din, Bad Day at Black Rock, and High Sierra to the many, many western
serials of Roy Rogers, Hoppalong Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger. Tuttle Creek
winds through this fantasyland and gives you a great exposure to all its amazing
rock sculptures, then delivers you to the main road up the mountain. I suggest
you take the main road on the way back, all the way to Whitney Portal Road. The
scenery is good going that way too, and you end up with less of an
Locals tell me Horseshoe Meadows Road was paved in three
sections over three consecutive summers by three different contractors. And from
the looks of it, following three different sets of paving specs. The paving
ranges from decent to deplorable, with large sections in chip seal that more
accurately might be called chunk seal, as the aggregate is extremely coarse and
abrasive...not a problem on the climb, but rather tiresome on the descent.
What you see in the first photo--the five big switchback
traverses--represents the lionís share of the climb. Where the road tips over
the crest, you get the 350' descent--which turns into a climb on the way
back--and then another few miles of moderate climbing to the roadís end. The
end of the road is a bit anticlimactic: just a parking lot and trailhead leading
up into even higher country...all pretty, but nothing extraordinary. The real
scenic payoff is at the top of the last switchback, where there are panoramic
views back down to the Owens Valley, most of 6000' below...a huge vista.
photo is misleading in one other sense as well: the traverses are cut at such an
even gradient across the cliff face, it appears from below as if each section is
a straight run of road. Not so: the road bends out and around an endless number
of rock buttresses, so that the traverses are actually made up of many sinuous
S-bends...hardly a straight stretch to be seen, except at the bottom, where the
road cuts across the alluvial fan. (Weíll have more to say about alluvial fans
later.) The many slinky bends make the descent a lot more interesting than you
might expect it to be, and if the pavement were better, it would be
off-the-chart fantastic. Even with the slightly abrasive surface, itís still a
Even folks unacquainted with this region will have heard of Whitney Portal.
It is the gateway to Mt Whitney, at 14,494', the highest peak in the lower 48.
It is justly famed not only for its incredible scenery, but also as an epic
cycling challenge. Beginning in 3700' Lone Pine, the road climbs to the 8371'
trailhead over 12 miles, and the grades reach a leg-breaking 15%, carrying on at
that pitch for way longer than you would want. Total climb is ďonlyĒ 4700',
but I rank this as one of the hardest of the climbs I did among this tour of
It is possible to combine the Horseshoe Meadows climb and the
Whitney Portal climb into one, big stage. You would end up with a day of over 70
miles and over 10,000' of gain, much of it at high altitude....a very butch
ride. When I toured here in June, it was over 100į every day, and although it
does cool down at the higher elevations, you have to climb through the heat to
get there. On the day I did Horseshoe, it was 114į when I got back down to the
junction with the Whitney road. That made it easy to decide to do the second
climb the next morning, rather than in the heat of the afternoon.
I liked the Tuttle Creek meander through the Alabama Hills so
much, I did it a second time on the way up the Whitney climb. It was a bit out
of the way, and it turned the 12-mile climb into a 15-miler, with a slight
downhill run in the middle, bringing the total climb to a nice tidy 5000'.
on the main climb, you have to deal with the alluvial fan. What is an alluvial
fan? It is that region at the base of the steep mountainsides where, over
millions of years, all the little rocks that have tumbled off the big cliffs
have fanned out into broad slopes of slightly compacted scree...gravity at work,
on a grand scale. Almost every one of these big Sierra climbs begins with a run
across an alluvial fan. They are invariably exposed expanses of rock, with very
little vegetation above head height...no shade and lots of heat. They are
uniformly boring and frustrating and wearying for a cyclist: they seem to go on
interminably, at whatever gradient the road engineers deemed tolerable for car
travel...anywhere from 4% to over 10%. I came to detest alluvial fans heartily
by the time I was done with this week of climbs. Once youíre up into the
mountain forests and steep cliffs, with little streams and grand vistas, things
are very entertaining. Out on the fans, you just suffer and wilt and whine,
churning away at the pedals but never seeming to go anywhere.
Whitney Portalís alluvial fan is as bad as any of them, and it
culminates with an extremely discouraging section that is almost ruler straight
for two or three miles and quite steep...9% or more. Once you get to the end of
that never-ending chute, you are finally at the base of the real granite
mountains, where the switchbacks begin to climb up the cliff face. Thatís the
good news: the alluvial fan is behind you and the scenery gets better. The bad
news is the road tilts up to a gnarly 15% just as it claws onto the granite.
Iím a little fuzzy on the miles here, but I would guess
youíre about four miles below the summit at this point. You make one long
traverse to the north, another equally long and steep one back to the south, and
then you round a corner and point straight back into the deep gorge that leads
up to the trailhead. The views down into the valley are spectacular, but they
are nothing compared to the view up the canyon to magnificent Mt Whitney and its
consort peaks and pinnacles, perfectly framed in the vee of the gorge. It really
is one of the most impressive vistas anywhere in this beautiful range of
mountains. Breathtaking...awe-inspiring...choose your clichť.
this knockout scenery does a good job of keeping you diverted from the grueling
toil youíre inflicting upon yourself in these last miles up to the roadís
end. Sooner than you might expect, you ride into the developed area around the
trailhead: campsites, mountain cabins, and a nice little cafe--what in Italy
they would call a rifugio--where you can get a wide range of decent eats...hell,
anything would taste good after that climb. There is also a pretty little lake
there, and above the lake, a very nice, cascading waterfall where you can splash
the salt off your face before heading back down the mountain.
Pavement--for the descent--is marginally better than that on
Horseshoe Meadow, except in a few spots, where it is marginally worse. Most of
the time you can pretty much let it rip on the downhill, except in those places
where the nearly sheer drop offs over the cliff act as a reality check on your
wilder impulses. You might think those long chutes down the alluvial fan at 9%
would allow you to achieve some extremely high speeds on the drop off the
mountain, but you have to take into account the thermals...the hot winds that
rise up the cliff face in the afternoon. They blow right into your face as you
descend and do an amazingly good job of slowing down a piddly little thing like
a bike and rider. In fact, with the wind acting as a brake, and the generally
non-technical nature of the runs down the fans, these sections can get downright
boring, as descents go. I was joking later that I wished I had had a book to
read during these long, uneventful descents. The downhills up on the big granite
are very thrilling--everything you could wish for. Itís just these runs across
the bloody alluvial fans that are somewhat under whelming.
As soon as I saw the wiggly line on the map representing the
climb to Onion Valley, I knew I had to do it. It has far more twists and turns
in it than the other climbs mentioned here. Depending on how you define a
hairpin turn, it has between 15 and 18 of them, along with countless other, less
dramatic zigs and zags.
This climb heads up into the Sierra out of the Inyo County seat
of Independence, 15 miles north of Lone Pine. Independence sits at 3925' and the
Onion Valley trailhead is at 9200', yielding a 13-mile climb with 5275' of gain
at an average of 8%. There are no reverse profiles on this one: itís all up on
the way in and all down coming back. Those are the raw numbers. The reality is a
little more complex...and a lot more fun.
out of town, you begin with the obligatory alluvial fan, in this case accounting
for almost six of the 13 miles to the summit. It is never steep or brutal...just
tedious. A good place to practice pedaling nice, smooth circles at a good tempo.
Once up into the real mountains though, things become much more
interesting. Those assorted hairpins donít march up the cliff face in the
orderly way that they do on Horseshoe. Here, they waltz about randomly, wrapping
around one promontory, then kiting off willy nilly in a new direction to explore
some other bit of local landscape, rather like an eager puppy capering about on
the beach. The result is that the scenery stays fresh and interesting all the
way to the top...never a dull moment.
One local website I visited suggested that this climb is the one
in the region that most resembles the big climbs in the Alps. Iím not quite
sure how they arrived at that notion, as the austere high desert, eastern Sierra
landscape and vegetation look nothing like the Alps. Perhaps they were referring
to the contours of the road itself, and in that case, I would agree, at least in
broad outline: there is a certain alpine flavor to the road engineering, if not
to the surrounding scenery.
As with Horseshoe, there isnít much of a payoff right at the
roadís end. There is a parking lot and a campground, and a trailhead to
several very beautiful lakes and waterfalls not too far away. (Too far to hike
to in cycling shoes, but well within reach of a moderately easy day hike, if you
can contrive to get some real shoes up here with you.) But right close at hand
where the pavement ends, there isnít much. There is a nice little stream where
you can pull off your bike shoes and soak your hot, tired tootsies in the icy
water, but thatís about it.
The real payoff on the Onion Valley junket is the descent back
to the valley, via all those wildly corkscrewed turns...a dancing, diving,
whirling dervish of a downhill, and for a change, with excellent pavement. It
makes my short list of Best Downhills Ever.
day we did this out-&-back was as hot as any we experienced on the
trip--well over 100į--and dropping off the mountain meant dropping back through
thermoclines of ever-increasing heat. Mile after mile, you could feel the
temperature rising, waves of hot wind blowing uphill into your face. I felt as
if I were descending directly into the nozzle of the worldís largest hair
drier. Or maybe like the poor guy in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, being
lowered on a grate into the fiery pit. I would guess the temperature rose over
30 degrees in less than ten miles, which on a 40-mph descent means around 15
minutes...a rather dramatic change in the weather!
All of the other out-&-backs on this list head west from Hwy 395, up into
the Sierra Nevada. This is the only one that heads in the opposite direction:
east and then north, into the White Mountains. The destination is the Schulman
Grove Visitor Center in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. When you say,
ďBristlecone,Ē local riders know what you mean, although the actual roads
used in getting to the top are a combination of first, Hwy 168, from the town of
Big Pine east to Westgard Pass, and then north on little White Mountain Road to
Big Pine is the next little town north of Independence. It is 40
miles north of Lone Pine and 15 miles south of Bishop. It sits at 3985'. The
summit near Schulman Grove is 21 miles away and tops out at a heady 10,100'.
What with a handful of little dipsy doodle descents on the way up, the total
gain adds up to 6573'. There is actually a three-mile, ever-so-slightly downhill
run from Big Pine to the beginning of the climb--at the bottom of Owens Valley
at 3900'--so between that bit and the various rollers and dips elsewhere on the
climb, the round trip from Big Pine to Schulman and back will net you 48 miles
and 6900' of gain.
Any way you slice it, those are numbers to conjure with. A
21-mile climb with nearly 6600' of gain is a match for anything Europe can throw
at you. This big mama is the real deal. The average grade for the whole ascent
is around 6%, but that figure is virtually meaningless, as the the pitch waffles
back and forth between the aforementioned dips, a few level spots, and wicked,
uphill walls of as much as 17%, with many long stretches in the low to
is really a tale of two roads, as Hwy 168 and White Mountain Road have
distinctly different characters. Unlike so many of the other climbs here that
begin with the same old same old alluvial fan dance, Hwy 168 is interesting and
full of mischief right from the get-go (at least, once you cross those first
three, flattish miles leading out of Big Pine). The road climbs for about ten
miles, changing pitch constantly. One single sentence canít begin to describe
all the changes it goes through. There are steep, little walls, long, gentle
grades, rollers, saddles, washes, and just about anything else you might
imagine. The road runs up a canyon along a mostly dry creekbed. Sometimes the
gorge is quite wide and sometimes it chokes down to a narrow defile, where
rugged knuckles of rock squeeze the road down to almost a single lane. The photo
here illustrates one of the more dramatic of these tight spots.
Eventually, the road levels out at a wide spot called Cedar
Flat. Midway across this mile-long flat, you turn uphill on White Mountain Road,
heading for the Bristlecone Pine Forest. You know about Bristlecone Pines,
right? Oldest trees...all that good stuff. This is where they hang out in the
thickest abundance. It is a harsh, sere environment, and the challenge of eking
out an existence in such unforgiving conditions is at least partly what
contributes to the longevity of these tough little trees. They are survivors.
begin seeing the twisted pines as soon as you turn onto the access road going up
the hill, but you may not give them as much attention as they deserve if you are
fighting your own little war with gravity at this point. This road serves up
climbing in wholesale job lots. It doesnít go up all the time, but it does
enough of it to make just about any cyclist suffer. In spite of the localsí
claims of 17% grades in places, I canít remember anything in particular that
seemed all that brutal. Itís really the cumulative effect of a lot of feet of
elevation gain...a lot of miles of uphill travail strung together. And the fact
that the summit busts through the 10,000' ceiling means your lungs and heart are
going to be starved for fuel. It all takes its toll.
There is a nice visitor center at the end of the paved road, and
a fine loop trail through the forest, if you have any energy left after all the
climbing. One other scenic feature I have been forgetting to mention: this climb
being over on the opposite side of the valley from the great Sierra Nevada
massif, there are numerous places along the road where you are afforded
stupendous vistas across the valley to the rugged, snow-mantled peaks. I donít
even bother trying to show a photo of this wide-angle panorama. Itís too vast
to fit in one frame.
Once youíve soaked up all the Bristlecone lore you can handle,
itís time to get off the mountain...take the down escalator back to the
valley. And what a great ride it is! White Mountain has a rather sketchy chip
seal surface, which requires just a little more care on the descent than is
ideal, by my timid descending standards anyway. Itís still a lot of fun, but
the real treat is waiting down on Hwy 168: those ten miles down the
canyon...ripping through the narrows; flying off the tops of dippity-doo humps,
snapping left-right-left around the topsy-turvy-swervy curves...and all of it on
silk-smooth pavement, or close enough to it to not matter. This is simply a
kick-ass, big-time descent...about as much fun as you can have without breaking
any laws or social taboos. (This is not just my opinion either: everyone who has
written about this E-ticket ride gropes for the superlatives and the hyperboles.
It blows everyoneís doors off.)
South Lake and Lake Sabrina
Now weíre up to Bishop, the biggest, sprawlingest, busiest
town along the length of 395. Lots of tourist stuff. Lots of restaurants and
motels and galleries and gift shops, plus all the normal American hometown fare,
from supermarkets to auto parts stores to Walmarts. But looming over the
town--in spite of all that civilization--the mountains are still there...the
12,000' White Mountains to the east and the 13,000' Sierra to the west...hard to
ignore from Bishop, in its basin at just over 4000'.
The South Lake/Lake Sabrina route is Y-shaped: one road well up
into the mountains--another section of Hwy 168--then two roads forking off to
their respective lakes. You could visit the two lakes in either order, but I
chose to do South Lake first. Why? Because at the junction, the Sabrina Lake
road is in the middle of a substantial climb, whereas the South Lake road is
flat...which means on the way back from Sabrina Lake, one would be screaming
down the grade, and who wants to break off a good descent to turn onto another
road? Makes sense to me!
You can tackle this trek right out of Bishop, but I was hanginí
at a nearby campground--Millpond Park--and started there. In either case, there
are three or four miles of nearly flat road getting out to where the climb gets
serious. From that point, at around 4300', you climb (most of the time) for the
next 18 miles to get to the roadís end at South Lake, at 9835'. Total gain for
the climb: just under 6000'. Once again, the average gradient of 6% is mostly
meaningless, as the road varies considerably in pitch and in overall character
from the bottom to the top.
168 offers up one more huge helping of alluvial fan to get you going on the
climb...only about three miles of it in its purest, most stultifying form, but
another few miles beyond that where the climb, although actually now up into the
mountains, is still a bit short on eye candy or anything very entertaining.
Okay, okay...you do start seeing some great, hulking ramparts of stone and lots
of scattered wildflowers and pretty Bishop Creek down below the road. I guess my
complaint here is that the road itself is not doing much: no twists or wiggles
or changes in grade. Just a long, long slog up the mountain.
But this too shall pass, and sooner or later you will encounter
flat spots and steeper walls--some painfully steep walls--on your way to the
junction of the two lake roads. The South Lake spur starts off easy enough, with
some lazily uphill miles--still along the creek--through pretty meadows thronged
with quaking aspen and past clusters of mountain cabins. The whole South Lake
road is about seven miles long, and the first five pass in this relatively
benign way (although you are still climbing almost constantly). Itís a long
way from being painful, except the air is getting a little thin. But this
pleasant road has a wicked stinger in its tail: two miles from the end, the
grade jumps from maybe 5% to 10%. The road narrows from a striped highway to a
dinky mountain track, with the creek now a cascade. Finally, in the last brutal
mile, the pitch kicks up to 15%, all the way to the parking lot above the lovely
the many repeated body blows of the lower miles coming up the grade, these final
two miles are a left-right combination upside the head, with the last, lethal
section being the haymaker that finally buckles your knees. Unless you are an
ubermensch when it comes to climbing, it will take you quite a few minutes to
catch your breath at the summit. You can put your recovery time to good use
though: admiring the lake and the impressive ring of peaks and crags that cradle
the little lake. Now this does look authentically alpine! You could be in
Switzerland. Iím sorry I donít have any pictures of the lake, nor of Lake
Sabrina, as both of them are exquistie scenic gems. I was amazed at how--after
the rather boring miles lower down the hill--things quite suddenly became quite
There is a little snack food kiosk on the lakeshore, but they do
not have running water. To refill your bottles and moisten your parched throat,
you will have to stop at Parcherís Resort, about a mile back down the
mountain. Itís worth it: they will fill your bottles with ice before adding
From the summit just under 10,000', you descend to just under
8000' at the junction. Then you have to call your climbing legs back to active
duty. Another reason for doing the Sabrina Lake spur second is that it is not as
long, nor as steep as the South Lake deal. Itís four miles from the junction
to the lake, climbing from 8000' to around 9200'. As you are heading back up
into the same terrain you just left on the other road, itís no surprise that
this road behaves in just about the same way. (I had no photos at all of the
Sabrina Lake climb, so I threw in one more nice shot of the South Lake ascent.
What the heck: it looks the same on both roads.)
is, first of all, a long, straight grade running up the side wall of a
canyon--this time along the middle fork of Bishop Creek. Iím not sure what the
gradient is on this too-long stretch, but I know I found myself cutting some
shoelaces back and forth across the road. Iíd guess it has to be a sustained
8% or perhaps a bit more. Not quite brutal, but a good, solid grunt near the end
of the combined climbs. But wait...thereís more! You finally reach a blessed
little flat spot, where you can soft pedal and catch your breath while rolling
through a charming meadow along a boggy, marshy section of the creek. However,
lurking on the far side of this brief reprieve is the kid brother of that last,
nasty pitch at South Lake. Once again, the road necks down to one lane, gets all
twisty, and grapples its way up the final mile at something on the high side of
10%...not as bad as South Lake, but still pretty stout work.
The payoff for this final, gasping, wheezing effort is another
lovely lake snuggled down in a cradle of magnificent granite spires. Also--much
better than the snack food kiosk at South Lake--there is a quaint old
chalet-style restaurant, with indoor and outdoor seating, serving basic but
tasty chow for hungry hikers and bikers, with a million dollar view off the
deck. I rewarded myself for the big climb(s) with a basket of french
fries...kicked back on an old sofa, put me feet up, and soaked up the sun and
the scenery. Life is good!
And now--once the pommes frites are stowed away--the downhill is there, ready
for the plucking. Itís a good downhill, but not a great one. All those long,
featureless miles of moderate climbing lower down the mountain translate into
long, featureless descending. On the bright side, with a descent this
non-technical, you can spare an eye for whatever nice scenery is flying by. Some
of the steeper pitches do allow you to pour on the coal in the speed
department...50 mph is easy if you want it.
Altogether, from Millpond Park, I racked up 51 miles and 7000'
of gain, with about seven of those miles being the flat stuff at the bottom of
Sherwin Grade-Rock Creek-Mosquito Flat
The main claim to fame for this climb is that, when you reach
the tippy top trailhead at Mosquito Flat, you have made it to the end of the
highest paved road in California (at 10,250').
The locals call this a 22-mile climb with over 6000' of
elevation gain, but that is kind of an arbitrary fiddle...a bit of geographic
spin doctoring. The final climb, from the junction with Hwy 395 at Tomís Place
to roadís end is only 11 miles, with 3200' of climbing...some of it over 10%.
But the conventional local wisdom is that to get to that final ascent, you have
to climb up from Round Valley, way back over by Bishop, down in the 4000'+
region. What youíre then doing is really two or even three distinct climbs,
depending on how you define a climb. It certainly is the best way to tackle this
package, if only because the first climb in the bunch--Sherwin Grade--is the
best part of the whole ensemble.
started again from my camp at Millpond Park, logging an extra 11 miles each way
on the valley floor before hitting the first real climb. Instead of a 44-mile
round trip and 6000'+ of climbing, I ended up with 66 miles and 7100'. Some of
those valley miles were very nice and some were only so-so. I have included a
picture of Round Valley to give an indication of how nice it can be. And
hooray!...no alluvial fan!.
No doubt the locals have a precise spot in mind for the official
beginning of the climb when they say itís 22 miles long. But I had a hard time
telling where the Round Valley rollers left off and the real climbing began...so
gradual is that first run up to the rocky hillside. Once you get to Paradise
Lodge--a charming old restaurant beside Lower Rock Creek--you know you are
climbing in earnest. This is Sherwin Grade, and it meanders back and forth
across an open, rocky hillside for about five miles before summitting at 6427'.
This is as entertaining as the South Lake approach was boring. Here, the road
loops back and forth in a slinky sort of way, like a big lazy snake slithering
up the hill.
over the top, there is a jazzy little descent back into the gorge of Rock Creek.
It drops 300' in around a mile, and then returns to uphill for four more miles
through a pleasant forest of firs and broadleafs. None of this is very
steep...easy going. This road, by the way, is identified as Old Rock Creek Road
up to the summit, and Lower Rock Creek Road on the north side of the hill. We
have been travelling in a northwesterly direction for most of the ride up to
this point. Now, after one connector mile on Hwy 395, we arrive at Tomís Place
(a small community of no particular distinction), and the route heads uphill on
Rock Creek Road, almost doubling back in a southwesterly direction now, headed
for that Ultima Thule of paved roads...Mosquito Flat.
In spite of having cranked right round the compass from NW to
SW, Rock Creek is still our constant companion alongside the road...sometimes
right there, making a big, splashy show with cascades and rapids, and sometimes
wandering off a ways to leave us high and dry.
Overall, this is a nice road. The creek is pretty; the woods are
too, and the grade varies occasionally to get you out of the saddle or settled
back down for easy tempo work. They say the steepest pitches hit 11%, and that
sounds about right. Never killer, but a lot of it: constant uphill effort for
over 20 of those 22 miles.
miles up from Tomís Place, you hit Rock Creek Lake, where there is an old
mountain lodge that serves wonderful fruit pies. But you have to do a 1-mile
round trip off on a side road to get to the lodge and the pie. Worth it?
Maybe...but I skipped the pie and stayed with the climb, up, up, and up, above
the lake. Over those last two miles, the scenery improves a bit...not that it
has been all that shabby previously. Itís the usual high-country payoff to
which we have by now become accustomed: the higher you go, the better it looks.
In the last mile, the road shrinks to one lane again, a la South Lake and
Sabrina, and it does get a bit steeper too, although not as brutal as those
other two finales. Itís only right that this highest of all roads should
finish with a little panache.
Roadís end is another trailhead/parking lot, with Rock Creek
doing one last star turn through a marshy meadow. There are no developed
conveniences at this turnaround, nor any especially diverting scenic attractions
(although it is all very pleasant in the generic, high-Sierra manner). So after
a brief snack, a little sun worshipping, and a little streamside meditation,
itís time for payback: a big withdrawal from the gravity bank.
too technical about this upper Rock Creek descent. Most of the time, just hang
on and let it run. That goes for the miles back down Lower Rock Creek Road as
well...altogether, about 16 miles of enjoyable descending...some of it
moderately exciting, but most of it simple cruise-control miles. After working
back up that 300' bump on the backside of Sherwin Grade (amidst very dramatic
rock cliffs), all that ho-hum descending comes to an end. The drop down the
south side of Sherwin is a total blast: five miles at about 6-8%, all on perfect
pavement, all beautifully engineered for maximum cycling fun. One elegantly
curving corner after another, all nicely cambered...this is as good as it gets.
If all 22 miles had been this primo, I donít know if I could have handled the
overload of bliss. Five miles is probably about my limit when the going gets
For me, the Sherwin Grade part of this package of climbs was the
highlight--both climbing it and descending it--and the highest-paved-road deal
was cool, but not as epic as I had expected. Glad to have done it so I can check
it off my list, but I probably wonít be back too soon.
Well, there you have it: more than anyone but a diehard biker
would ever want to know about some obscure Sierra climbs. It has taken me about
as long to write about these roads as it took me to climb them. Other
Traffic: next to nonexistent over almost all of these miles. A
few of the roads to lakes had more vacation traffic, especially when we rode on
weekend days. Overall, traffic was not a problem.
Air: for a rider who spends most of his time near sea-level, a
week of peaks topping out repeatedly around 10,000' put a big burden on the
oxygen delivery system. Even for a tourist, piddling slowly up the grades in a
comfy gear, this was constant struggle. To race up these giants, as they do in
the Everest Challenge, the Death Valley Stage Race and other hillclimbs--going
fast and going anaerobic--it would be an extremely cruel challenge. My hat is
off to anyone who can complete those monster rides.
I thought about calling this column Itís Not About the
Miles...the point being that between the epic lengths of these climbs and the
lack of air to breathe, and--for the week I was there--the terrible heat, one
can get thoroughly worn out in a relatively short span of miles. Itís true. I
had planned to do at least 100 K every day for seven days in a row. On paper, it
looked well within my window. In fact, I only hit 100 K twice, and yet, in spite
of logging some really measly miles, I felt like I got my ticket punched every
Iím back home now. Tomorrow Iím going out to climb some of
those ďlittleĒ Sonoma County climbs: Harrison Grade; King Ridge; Coleman
Valley...steep suckers, but not very long, and with bushels of air to breathe.
Iíll get my ticket punched again, but it will take 90 miles to do it, instead
of 40 or 50.
Bill can be reached via e-mail at this link.
Bill is also a fabulous artist and was responsible for the
t-shirt and poster artwork at last year's Manhattan Beach Grand Prix. You can
check it out here.
Other articles by Bill on the Daily Peloton:
They Make the Big Bucks
to be a Happy Climber