Sierra Nevada - Tioga/Sonora Pass
Sierra ride, fall 2003
On Friday, 24 Oct 2003, four of us began a late fall bicycle tour over
the Sierra as we often have in spring and occasionally in late summer.
This was later in the year than usual, so we planned with having less
daylight, deciding to drive on Friday afternoon to Sonora, our usual
starting point, and ride to Groveland on HWY120 the Yosemite highway.
John Woodfill and I drove to meet Jeanie Barnett in Sonora, and Brian
Cox, who could not take Friday afternoon off, drove to Groveland later
that evening to make a foursome. The three of us took Tuolumne Road
from Sonora (1750ft) to Wards Ferry Road for a short climb of 350ft
before descending to Wards Ferry Bridge (815ft) in the Tuolumne River
With a new coat of asphalt, the old hand laid paving stones were
finally covered making the descent smooth and swift. As we crossed
Wards Ferry bridge over the end of Don Pedro Reservoir that was some
50ft below high water, the abutments of the old one lane bridge were
visible below. The banked new and wide highway bridge that was built
to span the backwaters of the new Don Pedro Reservoir stands in stark
contrast to the ancient, seldom used and twisty one lane road it
serves. We saw no one from the start of the descent until we reached
Deer Flat (2579ft) before going over the hill (3000ft) to Groveland
After a comfortable nights rest in the Groveland Motel, we got started
with a hot breakfast before heading up HWY120 to Yosemite Park Oak
Flat entrance (4830ft). Old HWY120 was visible now and then, south of
the new road as it climbed every hill and dale on its way, as I recall
from rides before the new road was built. On the way, we passed small
groves of Maple and Dogwood with beautiful autumn leaves, and crossed
the south fork Tuolumne River twice before making the final climb to
the Park Entrance. Toll takers expect $10 for each riding bicyclist
but only $10 for a carful of bicycle riders with bicycles on the rack.
I took advantage of the old-timers fee and got a lifetime pass for $10
while the rest of the team had yearly passes anyway. We got a Coke at
the information office before heading down the road to Hodgdon Meadow
Camp Ground on the old Tioga Road. Just before the maintenance yard,
a "One Way - Do Not Enter" road comes in from the left over a small
hill. That was our road that I recall driving on formerly when it was
still open to car traffic.
Although pavement is a bit rough in places, we met no one in this
beautiful forest of Cedar, White and Red Fir, Ponderosa, Sugar Pine,
Maple, Dogwood, and finally Sequoia Gigantea Redwoods farther up. The
solitude and depth of the forest makes this an especially pleasant
part of the ride to Tioga Pass. The Dogwood, that has pale green
leaves and large white magnolia-like blossoms in the spring were
ablush in pink and red foliage from low fall temperatures. In
contrast, we had pleasantly mild temperatures as the day progressed
even though we were gaining altitude.
As we reached the Tuolumne Grove, we also met hikers who, as we, took
pictures in front of the giant Redwood and the Tunnel Tree. The most
photographed Redwood, next to the road has been fenced off, apparently
to protect its roots from trampling tourists, so we got a more distant
shot of this 20ft diameter giant. We joined the new road (6200ft) and
went down to the Crane Flat store and gas station for something to eat
and drink before returning to our route up the Tioga Highway.
Although most of the trees are evergreens along this route, the
autumnal feeling is inconspicuously everywhere. As we approached
White Wolf Road and crossed the divide at McSwain Meadows (8224ft) to
descend to Yosemite Creek (7487ft), clouds of smoke from controlled
burning of underbrush crossed the road. Warning signs of "Smoke on
Road" seemed to imply that cigarettes should not be smoked "off road"
but I may have misinterpreted that. Yosemite Creek was so dry, water
was hard to detect between its granite boulders.
On the gradual climb to Porcupine Flat, we had a grand view to the
south on our way to Olmstead Point (8470ft) where we stopped to view
Half Dome and other peaks that Brian, a regular Yosemite rock climber
could name for us. After a food break, we rolled down to Tenaya Lake
and climbed to the saddle (8639ft) between Pothole and Fairview Domes
before descending to Tuolumne Meadows. In the spring this was an
expanse of rich green grass and wildflowers whose grass had now turned
brown and the flowers, all but some scarlet Penstemon Xparishii, gone
for this year.
From here it's a gradual climb along Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River
to Tioga Pass (9943ft) on Dana Meadows, a broad flat saddle between
Dana (13053ft) and Gaylor (11004ft) Peaks. The cloudless sky,
streaked by many persistent vapor trails of airliners, apparently from
high relative humidity even at great heights, possibly a sign of
The slight headwind, that prevailed off and on most of the day, was
more noticeable as we crossed the summit to descended past Tioga and
Ellery lakes into Lee Vining Canyon. After the big sweeping turn at
9000ft we were in the wind shelter of Mono Dome (10622FT) that gave us
a slight tail wind from which Brian and I got a fairly high top speed.
We pushed a bit of wind along the flat runout of Lee Vining Canyon
before turning off on the old road into Lee Vining (6700ft) on HWY395.
Mono Lake, to the east, was pastel blue in the afternoon light with
just enough waves to make sitting ducks, of which there were many,
hard to see until we got closer to the water. We stopped at the
general store for some food and drink before pushing off toward
Bridgeport. Here on the east slope of the Sierra, groves of brilliant
gold aspen lined the road and made beautiful blotches of color in
small canyons up on the dry slopes sparsely covered with pastel green
From Lee Vining it was a 250ft drop to the lakeshore before we began
climbing the approach to Conway Summit, visible to the north. Conway
is a striking road as it makes its climb in one long ess-bend with two
quarter mile radius hairpin curves. The road offers a majestic view
to the south of Mono Lake and onward to Mammoth Mountain. We stopped
for some pictures of Aspen groves below the road and of the vast
landscape to the south before crossing Conway Summit (8148ft). Our
headwind was back as we descended along Virginia Creek toward
Bridgeport, the last few miles being flat along the east side of the
great marshy Bridgeport Valley.
Bridgeport (6468ft) is a quaint town with a beautiful Victorian
Courthouse and other historic mementos of past glory. Today it
appears mainly as a cattle gazing ground with its huge lush green
fields, fields that now were already brown from freezing weather that
Bridgeport has in abundance at night.
After an excellent dinner in the Bridgeport Inn, we walked past the
former dining hot spot, the Sportsman's Inn with it's huge dining room
nearly empty. Once again the value of good management was apparent.
After a good rest in the Silver Maple Inn, the Hayes Street Cafe cafe
was open bright and early at 6:00 on Sunday, even though we changed
from daylight savings time to standard time. However, we dropped in
at 7:00 just to make sure we weren't there on a false alarm. After a
delicious eggs, sausage, and hotcakes breakfast, the 20F cold outside
seemed OK. In fact it was rapidly getting warmer. After three flat
miles out of town, we started climbing Devils Gate Pass where riding
would be more warming than the wind was cooling. The good breakfast
came in handy for this.
The ride up Devil's Gate is a gradual one that rolls along the west
side of broad sloping grassy Huntoon valley that gets narrow before
the pass. The summit is deceptive from the south because after it
crests, takes another half mile to reach the real summit that appears
lower at first. On the way up, in the broad part of the valley, a
seemingly perpetual heard of sheep was grazing as usual, across from
"the brick house" that seems to be the shepherd's place. It looks
out of place there, all by itself surrounded by Junipers.
Farther up, we scared a bunch of Crows and two Golden Eagles from some
carcass on which they were feeding. My first reaction was that they
must be Turkey Vultures but that didn't work, there being none out
here, especially in the cold season. They flew away and out of sight
with graceful and slowly measured wing beats. By the time we reached
Devil's Gate (7419ft) with its jagged rock formations, the day had
warmed for the descent to Sonora Junction.
Fales Hot Springs looked the same as always, as if it were recently
closed and would soon open again. I don't understand how this place
can keep that appearance over all the years I have ridden past there.
We turned left at the junction of HWY395 and HWY108 (6909ft), rolled
across the dry swamp and descended to the West Walker River that was
flowing more briskly than I expected for the dryness of the summer.
The Marine Mountain Warfare School along Pickel Meadow has grown with
substantial buildings where not long ago, only tents prevailed. The
old main gate was closed and covered with barbed wire and the old
guard shack WAS Barricaded. A new entrance had a steep uphill
approach and concrete road divider blocks arranged in a maze to
prevent car bomb gate crashing. The only personnel we saw were guards
at the maze.
At the end of a nearly flat run of a mile or so, the road takes a few
steep jumps to climb around the narrows of the Walker river and
descends into Levitt Meadow where there was once a store of which not
a stone remains. We got out of out of our warm clothes and ate and
drank for the short six and a half mile climb to the summit. Just
after the Pack Station (7155ft) the road has its steepest grade of
more than 20% as it rounds a hairpin bend to make a half mile climb
that gradually eases up. I find this side of the pass easier because
it starts higher and has flat sections between the steep ones.
There are some good photogenic spots on this road as it climbs next to
Levitt Creek, one of which I always remember as the one that fools
some descenders. At 8200ft a sharp steep ess-bend with poor
superelevation is invisible from above because it lies behind a short
bump. In the spring this curve usually has snow banks that keep the
road wet, a surprise for the fast descender. Just the same it makes a
good picture for ascending riders taken from above. A second steep
ess-bend lies at 8900ft shortly below the final dip and quarter mile
climb to the top along Sardine Creek.
We got to the top fairly close together, this not being a climb where
reaching the top is more important than talking or waiting for a
friend. The effort of reaching the summit without blowing up is
paramount. Sonora Pass (9643ft) has a slew of warning signs as well
as a county line at the summit, showing that highway sign makers are
busy. The descent stars gradually as it makes a big sweep around a
small valley as it descends along Deadman Creek. The short section
between 8000ft and 9000ft, known as the Golden Stairs for its
continuous steep grade, but is not a fast descent for its tight
curves. At Chipmunk Flat (7954ft) there is even an uphill that takes
a bit of effort in the descent.
After the climb, a long descent sweeps down to a steep ess-bend
after which it flattens for a while before the final steep half mile
drop through the Rock Window, the climbing challenge on the ascent.
The steep part ends at Baker Campground in Kennedy Meadow (6268ft)
after which the road looks like most other highways as it descends
along the Stanislaus river to the Dardanelle (5765ft) store and gas
In spite of the steepness of Sonora Pass, it is not an especially fast
road. Its straight sections come between sharp curves and although
steep enough it is mostly not straight enough to reach the 100km/h
speed so often mentioned. Passing cars is relatively easy, the smell
of hot brakes being the telltale of their problem. In contrast, the
bicyclist, has so little weight and so much wind drag that heavy
braking is not required often.
We stopped at the Dardanelle Store for food and drink before taking
the last steep ups and downs on the way to Clark Fork Road (5671ft)
from where we climbed the two mile grade to Donnells Overlook
(6231ft). Donnells Reservoir was as low as I've seen it, similar to
Don Pedro, but from 1300ft above, it made little difference. From
here it's a roller coaster gradually loosing altitude before the fast
drop to Strawberry (5320ft) on the South Fork Stanislaus River. A hot
burrito at the store has been an old tradition that felt good for the
climb to Cold Springs (5720ft)from where it is nearly all downhill to
We turned south on Confidence-Tuolumne Road at Twain Harte and stopped
at the corner Frosty Freeze shop for a big root beer freeze. I was
surprised to to see that in Tuolumne (2577ft) the West Side Lumber
three foot gauge crossings were still in good shape and all the tracks
from the glory days of logging in place. On the way back to Sonora on
Tuolumne Road, we passed the tiny train station at Ralph, the junction
of the Sierra and Sugar Pine railways, where a historic marker
explains who Jonathan Florentine Ralph was and what trains ran there.
We got back to Sonora, or better said, to Wards Ferry Road in time for
Brian to ride to his car in Groveland, as we headed to Sonora to load
up and drive home in a traffic that looked more like rush hour than
Sunday evening. Saturday was 116mi and 13010ft climbing, Sunday 102mi
and 7020ft climbing.
Judging from the weather since, we were lucky to catch the last warm
days in the Sierra and a wonderful ride it was. Snow has fallen below
3000ft and in the hills around SF Bay.
Sierra Nevada - Tioga/Sonora Pass
An an Aoine, Deireadh Fómhair 4, chuir ceathrar againn tús le turas
rotháiocht déanach Fómhair, mar a dheineamar go minic cheana san Earrach
agus sa tsamradh déanach. Ba dhéanaí so sa bhliain, agus ba theirce an
solas, agus chinneamar ar thiomáint ar an Aoine go Sonóra, mar a dtosnaímís
de ghnáth, agus gluaiseacht go dtí Groveland ar mhórbhóthar Yosemite.
Thiomás le Seán Woodfill chun bualad le Jeanie Barnett i Sonóra, agus
tháinig Briain Cox, chun bualadh linn i nGroveland, agus an ceathrar a
dhéanamh dínn, toisc ná raibh an Aoine saor aige. Ghluaiseamar bóthar
Tuolumne ó Shonóra go Bóthar Bhád Farrantóireachta Uí Bháird a d'ardaig 350
troigh agus a thit go Droichead Bhóthar Bhád Farrantóireachta Uí Bháird i
scrogall Abha na Tuilumne.
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