Shortly after cresting Sonora Pass and starting down the eastern slope, Nevada's Wassuk Range and the Great Basin appear like a mirage.
The contrast between these stark high plains and the forested western Sierra makes the ride all the more interesting. Wide-open spaces reinforce the notion that anything's possible, including riding a bike over the Sierra Nevada.
In late May, or a week or two following Memorial Day, traffic is light, the passes have just opened, creeks are flowing, and the days are long, but usually not hot. The ride can also be done in the fall.
You can start anywhere in the Sierra foothills, but the old gold mining town of Sonora is strategically located. Temperatures are usually pleasantly cool for the 6 a.m. start. Four nearby highways head east over the mountains: Highway 88 over Carson Pass; Hwy 108 over Sonora Pass; Hwy 4 over Ebbetts Pass; and Hwy 120 over Tioga Pass through Yosemite National Park. Day 1 ends at Markleeville, Walker, or Bridgeport, depending on which loop is made and how far you're riding.
A good route calls for riding over Sonora Pass in the morning, lunch in Walker, finishing on a high note with a late-afternoon climb over Monitor Pass to Markleeville, where there awaits a hot meal and a hotel bed. The less strenuous second day starts with a climb over Ebbetts Pass and Pacific Grade Summit, followed by a long, gradual descent and then a final climb out of the Stanislaus River drainage.
A longer loop goes through Yosemite on the first day, by way of Wards Ferry Road leaving Sonora. It's 100 miles to the Tioga Pass summit, followed by a 10-mile descent and a 25-mile ride past Mono Lake and into Bridgeport over Conway Summit. Dinner in Lee Vining gives you a chance to rest and enjoy Mono Lake. Upon arrival in Bridgeport your legs tell you you've ridden 135 miles and climbed about 16,000 feet on the day.
The ride from Sonora on Hwy 108 starts with long, rolling hills through dense stands of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Twain Harte, Mi-Wuk Village, Strawberry, and Dardanelle offer convenient stops for food and drink.
Robertson, (5,230 feet), located on the south fork of the Stanislaus River, looks like a big red barn. It's worth stopping just to see the Big Foot replica, complemented by a bulletin board reporting local sightings.
A few miles beyond Strawberry, the terrain changes gradually to include granite outcroppings among the trees. The massive Stanislaus River drainage to the north forms a deep, forested valley.
You'll see a sign for Donnells Overlook, about 15 miles from Strawberry. Don't miss the view. Ride beyond the parking lot on the narrow trail that takes you to the overlook. Donnells Reservoir is 1,000 below (4,903 feet). Swifts buzz around like miniature dive bombers.
The smallest features on the lake's blue-green water stand out like Tinker toys. There's nothing toy-like about the snow-capped High Sierra to the east, and I always marvel how these formidable mountains can be ridden over in a matter of hours by bike.
Leaving the overlook, there's a fast descent and then a few short, steep bumps that take you to Dardanelle (5,800 feet). Stock up on food and drink at the store, your last chance for food before Walker. In May and early June the skies usually remain clear until the afternoon, when thunderclouds can build over the passes.
One year I got caught with my companions in a downpour of pea-sized hail at the Sonora Pass summit. Within minutes the road was covered in slush. We rode carefully down the east slope in a cold rain — me with frozen fingers. Bring foul-weather clothing no matter how nice it looks in the morning. At the other extreme, one year I was ushered up the pass by refreshing tailwinds on a sunny day.
As you start your final approach to Sonora Pass, give a close look at Eagle Creek flowing under the first bridge leaving Dardanelle. I've seen small gray birds called dippers "shoot the rapids" in search of food.
After a few more miles of gradual climbing along Clark Fork of the Stanislaus, you'll reach Kennedy Meadows (6,500 feet), the final level camp site. Beyond a steel gate that's closed in the winter, the road shoots upward along a granite ledge.
Straining at the pedals, you wish "The Window," wouldn't seem so far away. This hole blasted through a block of granite marks the point where the road levels off from its 18-22% grade.
The road climbs relentlessly beyond the Window, before plateauing and descending briefly.
Here's where Deadman Creek flows near the road, offering icy cold relief on hot days. This also marks the beginning of the Golden Stairs. An avalanche blocked the road at this spot in 1986, but snow plows cleared a narrow corridor.
The road winds serpentine-like through a the Golden Stairs, the steepest section of Sonora Pass. It's an 18% grade for a lot longer than you'd care to think about, peaking at just over 20%. The road signs marking 7,000, 8,000 and 9,000 feet (when they're standing) seem like they're close together, and they are.
The grade eases up shortly beyond the 9,000-foot sign, with ample opportunity to recover before Sonora Pass (9,624 feet). Usually the summit is dry, but I've seen it with snow nearly covering the road sign. Sometimes skiers use the nearby slopes into late June. Bring your camera for this and for the symbolic photo session at the summit sign.
The eastern side of Sonora Pass starts with a steep, straight drop, followed immediately by a short uphill and then a sharp left turn whose sudden arrival jolts the senses. The road continues down through a tall stand of pine trees, over a meadow, and then through pine trees and aspen.
The steep descent ends at Leavitt Meadows, where there was a log cabin store that brought welcome relief until 1993 or so. You may see troops from the nearby Marine Corps base rappelling next to the road.
A short drop brings you to scrub brush, granite outcroppings, and a wide valley, Leavitt Creek snaking through the lush Pickel Meadows. The adjacent U.S.M.C. mountain warfare training camp gets larger every year. Look for yellow-headed black birds to your right in the meadows just before the Hwy 395 junction. Take a left on Hwy 395 (6,950 feet) and it's all downhill to Walker along the Walker River. It's usually windy at this point, so hope for tailwinds.
After a relaxing lunch it's usually about 3 p.m. In the late afternoon, clouds may be forming over Monitor Pass. Unlike the other passes, Monitor is barren. You can see hundreds of miles to the east, north, and south. The pass winds upward at a steady 7-9% grade. There's a small patch of trees about five miles up where you can stop for water from a cold mountain spring. Watch for yellow and red tanagers in the high pines here.
Monitor Pass levels out a couple miles before the summit (8,314 feet). By this time of day the mountain air is cool, clear, and inviting as you roll up to a clump of aspen and the simple stone summit marker. There's still a flat stretch to cross and then a short hill before the descent, with its sweeping left-hander. The road then turns right into a narrow canyon and a 14% grade that sends you like a rocket to Hwy 89.
Take a right at the stop sign and follow the Carson River into Markleeville. Just before entering the town you'll see a wide, smooth meadow that looks like a golf course. You've done about 110 miles.
Markleeville (5,500 feet) has only two hotels (and one a couple miles away), so it's wise to make reservations. After a hearty meal, sleep comes quickly in the cool mountain air. Well, it's almost always cool in the evening. 1995 was one exception when record heat even made Markleeville unpleasant until late evening.
This is also the starting point for the infamous "Death Ride," which takes riders up all of the nearby passes and back again. If the name meant anything, which it doesn't, then I would have died a thousand deaths.
Day 2 starts with a ride back on Hwy 89 following the Carson River. Fishermen and kayakers try their luck here. For the next 10 miles the road climbs gradually, passing interesting igneous outcroppings, but it steepens after a left turn at a raging creek. The narrow road winds through pine trees on a grade of 6-12%. Looking back you can see the glaciated valley.
On the right, approaching the summit, Silver Creek puts on a waterfall display in the distance. Kinney Reservoir, also on the right, may still be frozen. It's only a short distance to the summit from here. The grade steepens in some sections to about 12%.
Ebbetts Pass (8,730 feet) is unremarkable as summits go, with the anticipated great views beginning on the fast descent to the lush, flat Hermit Valley 1,700 feet below.
The climb to Pacific Grade Summit (8,050 feet) and Mosquito Lake (shown at the start of this story) follows a staircase of steep sections up to 20%. Pacific Creek offers a convenient stop to rest for the final assault and to get a drink of delicious cold, clear water.
After Pacific Creek, the steep sections cut through tall pines and boulder-strewn landscape. When the road straightens after several switchbacks, more steep climbing follows. It levels off gradually and then there's a long section of gently rolling grades.
Following a brief descent, Lake Alpine comes into view, a favorite place for boaters, fishermen, and tourists. Climb a short hill and then begin a descent on the wide open road to Bear Valley (7,030 feet), where there's a well-stocked store off the main road at Bear Valley Lodge.
Now it's mostly downhill. The well traveled road passes numerous ski lodges, then Calaveras Big Trees State Park and Arnold (4,000 feet). As the altitude melts away, so does the tar on the road as the temperature soars at the lower elevations. Stock up on liquids in Murphys (2,171 feet) before the final climb out of the Stanislaus River drainage.
Parrots Ferry Road was, until the mid-1980s, narrow and bumpy. Today it's a wide, smooth, treeless road that bakes in the summer heat. A final fast descent drops you to the Parrots Ferry Bridge. The climb to Columbia is usually hot. In 1995 I had the misfortune of riding here on the hottest day of the year, a blistering 106 degrees. The newly paved blacktop shimmered in the sun. Fortunately the climb isn't overly steep or long.
Ride through historic Columbia, surrounded by the red brick buildings of the Old West. It's still another five miles into Sonora through outcroppings of volcanic rock, if you take the longer, less traveled route on Shaws Flat Road. This day's ride is about 92 miles. Help yourself to some cold watermelon and a beer and call it a day.