A Week in the Southern Sierra

Emily Kenyon
October 2001

Conventional wisdom says that grizzlies are extinct in California. However, about 30 were sighted in North Fork the first weekend in October riding the Grizzly Century. This spectacular ride climbs some 10,000 feet through some of the most beautiful scenery in California, stopping occasionally for food that (dare I say it) rivals the Grizzly Peak Century. Baklava and sushi are among some of the more unusual offerings. Breakfast and dinner are also provided. The route includes a 20-mile out and back that some of us chose to skip (although the scenery is gorgeous along there, too), making about an 80 mile, 8,000 foot day. Others, on the advice of club member Nick Lucich (a Fresno resident) continued out that road and then closed the loop via the "high road" that connects back to the top of Beasore Road (for more details, see below).

A group of 8 of us stayed for a week of biking the southern Sierra. We had decided on three home bases with day rides rather than a point-to-point self-sagged tour in order to ease logistics (more riding, less driving) and allow for better meals. And boy did we have better meals, as each of us took turns trying to outdo the rest. Maybe I would have lost weight rather than gained if we'd done a point-to-point!

Sunday was an official "rest day," but two of us decided to try the "out and back" loop we'd skipped the day before. For those who want to try this alternative next year, continue out beyond the turnaround for the century to where the road T's. Although the road to the left is marked "pavement ends" it is in good shape, with only about 1/4 mile unpaved uphill and, later, about 2 miles of downhill gravel. Take it from a gravel-phobe that this wasn't too bad. I would even have stayed on my bike for the full 1/4 mile of gravelly climbing if a car hadn't happened by just then and ruined my concentration. The loop, starting from the Four Corners rest stop, was about 54 miles and 5000 feet of climbing. The rest of the group hiked in Yosemite, lounged by the pool at Wawona, or otherwise took it easy.

The following day, we moved house. After locking the keys in one of the cars and timing AAA's ability to break in, two cars started out for the trip to Shaver Lake and our next house rental. The third car, after dropping off the house key and returning the bedding we'd borrowed from a hotel, followed. What we in the third car didn't realize was that there was a better way to go than following the bike route. It took us 40 minutes longer than the others, but we did see a grey fox and were able to scout out the route for that day's ride. After dumping our stuff at the new house, we rode down route Route 168 to the Auberry Road (known to those of you who do Climb to Kaiser), then a gentle climb along Jose Basin Road to Italian Bar Road. Again, on the advice of Nick Lucich, we left Italian Bar Road at a place marked only by a hairpin turn, a gate, and a sign for Powerhouse #3. Lifting our bikes over the gate, we found ourselves on a totally deserted road, wonderfully paved, that climbs along the upper reaches of the San Joaquin River. The road, part of Southern California Edison's Big Creek project took us past a gorgeous waterfall, over a couple of scary metal bridges (stay to the inside of the curve, where the gaps are shorter and narrower, or better yet, dismount and walk across), and then to a stretch of road called the "Million Dollar Mile" because it took a million 1920's dollars to carve a mile of it out of the rocky cliff face. After passing the powerhouse, the road turned away from the river and headed UP a rather steep hill (13-16% grade for a couple of miles), before letting up a bit and depositing us at another gate leading to the Huntington Lake Road. Another thousand feet of climbing, then a descent brought us back to Shaver Lake. All in all, 48.7 miles, 5930 feet of climbing. For those who might want to try this the day after the Grizzly Century, take a right onto Italian Bar Road a few miles into the Grizzly Century route, and follow it across the river to the aforementioned hairpin turn and gate. You'll connect the dots by ending the day with the 168-Auberry Road-Jose Basin-Italian Bar Road descent that we did at the beginning.

Tuesday we thought we should back off a bit, so we took the Dinkey Creek Road out towards the McKinley Grove (sequoias) and Wishon Reservoir. Scenery here tends more towards the typical Sierra trees and granite. Lunch at McKinley Grove, followed by a nap, put two of us in the mood for more napping, so we turned back while the others continued on to Wishon Village, encountering a deer which dashed between bicycles across the road. Although this was supposed to be an easy day, it was 37.3 miles, 3620 feet of climbing for those who turned back early; about 56 miles and 5400 feet for those who did the full thing.

Wednesday had been reserved for the climb to Kaiser. We bid goodbye to two of our group, and a third lazed around town getting a massage, but the rest of us were back in the saddle. Again, Nick Lucich gave us a "secret" route, which takes off near Bald Mountain summit on Dinkey Creek Road. A sign for Dinkey Lakes trailhead was missed by 5 pairs of eyes (15 if you count our cycling glasses with prescription inserts!) because it was right between two trucks laying cable alongside the road. So, we did an extra 500-foot descent and turned back before finding the road. Nick had told us the road was "98.5% paved" which turned out to mean intermittent short gravel patches, some not even extending all of the way across the road. Other than a couple of hunters in trucks, there was virtually no traffic on what is essentially a paved snowmobile road. The chokecherries were still in evidence, and we even found some elderberries to try. Granite outcroppings made us feel that we had ridden above the soil line, practically into the stratosphere. We came out onto Route 168 at Tamarack Ridge and had to drop quite a bit before reaching Huntington Lake. By the time we got there, it was clear that we should not attempt Kaiser Pass (another 6 miles of climbing), as our missed turn had cost us too much time. A coke and a candybar refreshed us before climbing back up to Tamarack Ridge and a glorious descent back into town. 59.1 miles, 6290 feet of climbing.

Thursday, we were on the move again, and two more left us to get back in time for the Calistoga weekend. One person was content to drive SAG, and was rewarded by a sighting of not one, but two bobcats! The remaining three of us blasted down Route 168 to the Tollhouse Road and the town of Tollhouse. From there we took a left on Burrough Valley Road (becomes Watts Valley Road), then left on Maxon Road. At Trimmer Springs Road we went right (although your instincts tell you otherwise) to the town of Piedra, across a little connector road to Elwood Road, where we stopped for lunch catered by our SAG driver near Wonder Valley Ranch, the first dude ranch in the US. At this point, we'd lost almost 5000 feet of elevation and the weather was very warm. The remaining climb along Elwood was just plain HOT. We passed a small subsistence ranch with pigs, goats, feral fig trees, you name it, and a sign that said "Ruby Ridge 1992, Waco 1993, Gaeton Ranch ??" Scary. Eventually, we popped out onto Kings Canyon Road (Route 180). Although rather busy, this road takes a gentle highway grade up towards King's Canyon. Nick had suggested a couple of possible alternatives that would be less busy, although longer. The day was already stretching out pretty long, so we took the shorter of the alternatives, leaving 180 at Clingan's Junction, and following Dunlap Road to Millwood Road. Unfortunately, this involved losing some of our hard-earned altitude, and about halfway up Millwood Road, I'd had enough. There was our faithful SAG driver with food and caffeine-laced beverages. The other two were still hot to climb, so I traded places and became SAG, while the former SAG pulled on bike shorts, pulled his bike off the top of the car and accompanied the others up the hill. One interesting sight: A huge boulder perched at an improbable angle on another rock. Someone had propped a stick in the gap, but much as it seemed necessary, it was clear the stick couldn't be structural. Nick had suggested taking Todd Eyeman Road to Route 245, but we caught onto that too late, taking Millwood all the way back to Route 180. Millwood, formerly along the lumber mill flume that carried giant sequoia logs from the hills down almost to Fresno, I believe, turned out to be pretty steep at the top, but that didn't stop a trio of determined grizzlies!

I continued on ahead to check into the "rustic cabin" we had reserved at Grant Grove Village in Kings Canyon National Park. Arriving at dusk, I was a little taken aback to discover that rustic = propane heat but no electricity! The only light in the room was a battery powered lantern with a mini-maglite bulb, which went out about 15 seconds after I turned it on. I figured it was time to consult with the others, particularly as the only chance of dinner closed at 8 p.m. Retracing our route, I found the group at about the 6000-foot mark, just outside the park. After a quick huddle, they put their bikes on the car and we headed back to see what our alternatives were. Answer: none; just deal with it. We were able to borrow a more powerful lantern with recharged batteries, so we could at least find our toothpaste, although reading in bed was out of the question. After an okay dinner a la national park concessionaire, we took our books up to the common room of the lodge and enjoyed the fire and baseball playoffs game until it was time to turn in. The day's stats: 64 miles, 5020 feet of climbing for me; about 75 miles and 8000 feet for the die-hards.

Friday we decided we'd "take it easy" by riding out the General's Highway to Sequoia National Park. Of course, we had to go all the way to the Sherman Grove to see the biggest tree in the world (by volume): the General Sherman tree (nee the Karl Marx tree really!), and it was well worth it. A short hike on the trail led us to several other large trees (the General Lee, the McKinley, the Family Group, and a couple of weirdly wonderful burned and lightening-blasted trees reminiscent of a Giacometti sculpture. One, still alive, was totally hollowed out with a couple of windows out the sides and a skylight at the top. One of us, choosing to nap rather than hike, was awakened by a loud crack followed by a tree-sized limb falling out of a giant Sequoia. Amazing. Fortunately, the return ride was easier than the ride out. Although the altitude difference between the two ends of the road was only about 600 feet, we ended up with 5760 feet of climbing in 57.8 miles of riding.

Saturday, could it really already be our last day? Nothing for it but to ride into Kings Canyon proper. We had the brilliant idea of having a quick pre-breakfast of cereal, then descending into the canyon to Kings Canyon Lodge for breakfast. We toyed with the idea of having one of us drive the car there so we wouldn't have such a long climb at the end of the day, but then we all wanted to ride. After a thrilling (and cold!) descent we arrived at the Lodge and found it ... totally shut up. Good thing we had our pockets stuffed with fruit, trail mix, bars, pretzels, chocolate, you name it. Just beyond Kings Canyon Lodge, the road levels out pretty much and passes between steep cliffs above the South Fork of the San Joaquin River. John Muir said this canyon is "as wondrous as Yosemite" and he was right! The rocks varied from lime green to weirdly folded layers reminiscent of bargello needlepoint, to granite carved out by water and glaciers. After dropping down to water level, the road climbs again about 1500 feet to Road's End. We turned around, briefly considered sending one of us out by hitching to get the car, but then decided we'd ride at least as far back as Kings Canyon Lodge where the real climbing begins. A quarter mile short of the lodge, I (trailing a bit as usual) came across the other three in various stages of undress ready to climb down to a charming swimming hole just far enough below the road to give a little privacy. COLD, but it felt great. You didn't want to wait around and dog paddle, but there was enough sun to dry off quickly. Only later did we see the sign warning of sudden changes in water level and flow due to discharges from the dam a few miles above. Fully refreshed, we resolved to climb the rest of the way back to Grant Grove without resorting to hitchhiking. Turns out the grade isn't bad at all and, this late in the year, we had a fair amount of shade and a tailwind part of the way. From the Lodge, the climb is about 3800 feet, but quite doable. We even were tempted to descend a side road to check out the General Grant tree, but decided we weren't really ready to pay for it with another climb. Stats for the day: 71 miles, 7660 feet of climbing.

What a week. I'd encourage anyone who goes to the Grizzly Century to stick around at least a day or two and try some of these rides. Very little traffic (at least in October), beautiful scenery, wonderful weather, lots of good climbs. Hard to beat.