Sierra in the Fall
Oct 19-21, 2001

Autumn is my favorite season to hike and bike the Sierra Nevada. Traffic is light, the air is crisp, and deep blue skies set off the golden leaves of aspen and cottonwood. By late October a snowstorm could snuff out the sunshine at any time, but the lure of a late season bicycle tour is hard to resist. The five-day forecast calls for a weekend of fair skies, so off I go.

My trip starts with a drive east on Hwy. 4, which is a busy six-lane freeway at the sink for central Sierra water, the Sacramento River delta and urban communities of the East Bay. In another few days I will follow Hwy. 4 again, but then cycling west on a narrow mountain road that reaches the source of the water at over 8000 ft in the high Sierra. The nearly 300-mile loop will encompass the alpine meadows and granite domes of Yosemite, high pastures and pinyon woodlands of the eastern Sierra, and deep coniferous forests and steep divides of the western slope. It's some of the most spectacular mountain scenery one could hope to see in three days of cycling.

Base camp is the small foothill community of Columbia, which has a couple of modest motels and an authentic, if somewhat touristy, gold-rush town that is now preserved as a state park.

Above the Canyons (Columbia - Yosemite - Lee Vining, 116 miles, 10,900 ft)

At dawn I leave the Columbia Inn and roll down to Sonora for breakfast, accompanied only by the ore trucks from the Columbia marble quarry barreling by on the early morning shift. The main drag through old-town Sonora is usually a logjam of logging trucks and recreational vehicles, but at this early hour it is nearly deserted.

"Kinda chilly out there", says the waitress, as she serves the pancakes. "Just the last couple evenings it's started feeling like fall." My bicycle tour of several weeks ago finished here in plenty of heat, so I welcome the change.

At 1800 ft elevation, the historic gold-mining town of Sonora is "below the snow, but above the fog", as the residents like to say, and is a boomtown once again, in people rather than precious metals. I escape the burgeoning east side of town by exiting on Old Ward's Ferry Road and ramble through pastures dotted with oak. After the warm-up the road gets down to business, making an elevator descent to the Tuolumne River, which seems a bit overwhelmed by its 1500-ft canyon. At the bridge, I punch the "up" button on the elevator and quickly warm to the climb up the opposite wall, wondering if anyone but a bicyclist can fully appreciate this twisty one-lane road. Near the top of the ridge, the road crosses Deer Flat and joins Tioga Rd. (Hwy. 120) at Groveland, which was once or twice a boomtown, but is now proud to be a gateway to Yosemite National Park.

On Tioga Rd. east of Buck Meadows, the Rim of the World Vista peers over the canyon of the Tuolumne, where the river makes a challenging whitewater dash between its two reservoirs -- Hetch Hetchy and Don Pedro. In the pullout a couple of motorcyclists are taking turns posing with their Harleys, so I offer to take a group shot. That done, they bemusedly rearrange the motorcycles to take a snapshot of Rivendell bicycle and its rider "hangin' out with the wrong crowd." When I ask where they are headed, they rev engines and reply, "Across the County Line. Inyo." This strikes me as a suitably distant and vague destination in a territory where county lines are more meaningful than city limits.

I climb up to the Big Oak Flat entrance station and comment on the light traffic while forking over the $10 fee to let my bicycle into the park. The ranger eyes the lightly loaded bike and remarks meaningfully, "It's getting close now." Many of the services and campgrounds are boarded up and battened down, ready for the first snow that will close the pass. The park that is usually jam-packed with tourists feels like a ghost town.

The steady climb from the park entrance at 4880 ft gives one plenty of time to contemplate the forest, but offers little in the way of views. At Crane Flat the store is open, but I have provisions enough for the next 60 miles, so continue without stopping. The road crests at just over 8000 ft and crosses the White Wolf divide into the Merced River drainage. On the short dive to Yosemite Creek, the forest thins and alpine scenery begins to unfold.

The road spends many undulating miles around and above 8000 ft, presenting spectacular views of the high Sierra that culminate in the overlook of upper Yosemite Valley and Half Dome at Olmsted Point. The bracing wind makes it easy to imagine the glaciers that helped to shape this spectacular landscape.

Though Tioga Pass, at 9945 ft, claims distinction as the highest paved pass in California, the climb is rather uneventful from the west, being the final bump in a series of gentle grades that never seem to net any elevation gain. I ride past the east entrance station and cross the county line into Mono County, wondering if the motorcycles have reached the Inyo County Line yet.

The landscape changes dramatically from lush meadows and sparkling granitic rocks of the high Sierra to dots of sage and brown volcanic rocks of the Great Basin. In thirteen sweeping miles, the road drops 3000 ft down the eastern face of the range. A headwind dampers the descent, but allows plenty of time to enjoy the frosty pink sunset reflected in Mono Lake. I roll into Lee Vining at dusk, perfectly timing the close of a short autumn day.

Along the Eastern Front (Lee Vining - Monitor Pass - Markleeville, 89 miles, 5700 ft)

At its inland location and elevation of nearly 6800 ft, Lee Vining is well into the chill of autumn. I warm up with coffee and pancakes at Nicely's before heading north on Hwy. 395. The well-graded 1350-ft climb to Conway Summit gives spectacular views of Mono Lake and the mountains to the south. The descent follows meandering Virginia Creek to Bridgeport, with its landmark white Victorian courthouse and other historic buildings. The picturesque setting in green pastures against a palisade of glistening peaks makes its original name of "Big Meadows" seem more appropriate.

The wind allows good sailing up the 1000-ft climb to Devil's Gate, but changes its mind for the 2100-ft descent through the gorge of the West Walker River. A few weeks ago the road was torn to shreds, and the new chip seal has done little to improve the surface compared to the original smoother pavement left on the shoulder.

In the town of Walker the trademark teepees of the Toiyabe Motel ("Come as a stranger, leave as a friend") are down to a framework of poles, and a cool breeze replaces the hot dusty gusts of early summer. To my disappointment Walker Burger is closed for the season, as the temperature has warmed enough to justify a strawberry milkshake, though admittedly that threshold is fairly low. The markets at either end of town are open, but I have enough onboard rations to make it over Monitor Pass, so continue rolling down the gentle slope of the Antelope Valley.

I ride through the small towns of Coleville and Topaz, which seem to have no obligations to travelers, and turn west at the junction with Hwy. 89 to start the 3300-ft climb to Monitor Pass. Here the wind finally cooperates and I'm glad to accept the lift. The moderate and consistent grade allows one to put the bike in autoclimb and enjoy views of the Great Basin quite literally stretched out below.

Near the summit the grade slackens, though the wind is undecided, and I cross the county line again, this time from Mono to Alpine County. I stop at the stone monument that looks like a tombstone marking the summit of the 8314-ft pass. Aspens that were golden rivulets on the hillside a few weeks ago are now more twig than leaf. Their bark has invited numerous carvings, and in attempting to cover the traces has only succeeded in framing them with a crinkled border.

The descent to the East Fork of the Carson River goes quickly. I follow Hwy. 89 north at the junction and continue along the river to Markleeville, which once serviced mines, ranches, and lumber mills, but now caters to motorcyclists, sportsmen...and the occasional bicyclist. I arrive at the hotel earlier than planned, but a hand-written note taped to the office door reads "Welcome to the Toll Station, Jeanie...cabin in the back on the lawn". After riding many anonymous miles, I appreciate the personal greeting. The cabin is being remodeled and has a newly installed blowtorch of a heater, which is soon put to work drying bike togs.

"It could happen any time now", says the manager when he finally stops work long enough to check me in. "Any clouds that come through here will dump snow." He should know -- Alpine County holds the state and national records for monthly snowfall and total depth. Fortunately, there are no clouds in sight.

I check out the menu at the dining room of the Cutthroat Saloon and overhear, "we've got sixteen salmon and twenty-six chicken dinners coming in -- think that's enough?" With a quick count of motorcycles and jeeps outside, I return promptly at 5 pm to snag a plate of salmon. Good catch!

After dinner I check the weather forecast, which notes an "atmospheric disturbance" of some sort headed for northern California. I pick up some thick wool gloves at the market, return to the cabin that is now a steamroom, and fall asleep dreaming of snow biking like Snowshoe Thomson over Ebbetts Pass.

Across the Crests (Markleeville - Ebbetts Pass - Pacific Grade - Columbia, 87 miles, 6000 ft)

The morning dawns to woodcutting weather in the mountains, when frost edges the grass, the air hints of wood smoke, and a chainsaw on distant hillside is laboring to finish the woodpile before the snow flies.

This late in the season the restaurant opens at 9 am, or "whenever they feel like it", but the market is brewing coffee at 8 am, as scheduled. I warm up with a quick cup and grab breakfast for the road.

The short descent from Markleeville to the river is brisk, as it commonly is even in summer. The few high clouds gathered over the ridge cause little concern and appear ready to dissipate at the first rays of sun. It's a peaceful ride up the river, where yellow cottonwoods dot the banks and a few fishermen are out casting their lines.

At the turn-off to Monitor Pass, I continue south on Hwy. 4, which crosses the Carson and begins following Silver Creek to its source near Ebbetts Pass, 2800 ft above. Knowing what lies ahead, I enjoy the gentle cruise upstream to the sound of rushing water.

At the 7000-ft elevation marker near Silver Creek campground, the road narrows to a single lane and rises dramatically. In tight switchbacks and steep humps it climbs the wall to a high valley where Silver Creek cascades from Kinney Lakes in a subalpine setting usually only enjoyed by hiking the backcountry. I wind around the small reservoir and make the final haul to the top of the pass at 8730 ft, where the view disappears in the trees.

The descent is a 1600-ft direct run to Hermit Valley, where the North Fork of the Mokelumne River winds quietly through the rusty meadow. There's just enough valley to peel a Snickers bar and then the fun begins again on Pacific Grade, a rambunctious 1000-ft climb that dedicates itself to crossing the sharp divide between the watersheds of the Mokelumne and Stanislaus Rivers. The memorably steep sections of over 20% are mercifully short, and the reward is an expansive view of Pacific Valley and the upper drainage of the Stanislaus River.

The steep roller coaster descent levels out at Lake Alpine, where the lodge has a well-stocked grocery and makes a nice stop for lunch on the veranda in sunny weather. But the building is closed and boarded up for the season, so I continue on down to the ski town of Bear Valley and stop at the taqueria for a giant veggie burrito. Its quick disappearance by ravenous cyclist amuses the cook and local patrons, who seemingly have nothing better to do than wait for snow.

Hwy. 4 is a rolling downhill from here, save for a short climb to Calaveras Big Trees state park, where a ride through the redwoods makes a nice side trip for longer days. The descent to the foothills leaves the cool mountain air behind, so I shed some layers and stop at the roadside stand for a large fresh apple cider. The cheerful lady with round face and apple-red checks notices my bicycle and says, "Oh you're the one that goes back and forth and back and forth." Although I may not be the one she has in mind, it is an amusing commentary on my trans-Sierran trips this year, which undoubtedly appeared rather perfunctory to anyone who cared to notice.

It's a fast descent with busy traffic down to Murphys, where I stop at the cafe for an iced tea before beginning the final leg to Columbia on Parrott's Ferry road. After a few short hills, the road dips down to the impounded Stanislaus River and then makes the final haul up the ridge in an exposed climb that can be very hot and stifling in summer.

Back in Columbia, I cool the bike down by taking a walk around the old gold-mining town. The harmonica plays a melancholy "Scarborough Fair". I get some old-fashioned peppermint chews from Nelson's Candy Kitchen and relax on the worn wooden bench, soaking in the last of the mountain sun before returning to the lowlands for the winter.

Two weeks later snow dusted the high Sierra, and in late November the passes closed for the winter.

Jeanie Barnett

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