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Tioga & Sonora Pass Weekend

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Old June 15th 04, 04:55 PM
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Default Tioga & Sonora Pass Weekend

Sierra Spring Tour 2004

After an earlier ride over the Sierra two weeks ago, John Woodfill who
couldn't make the other trip and I headed for Sonora in the Sierra
foothills on Friday, 05 June. We took our usual route across the
Dumbarton Bridge from Palo Alto over SF bay, taking Niles canyon to
Livermore, and over Altamont Pass to the California central valley.
The route passes Tracy, going through Manteca, Escalon, and Oakdale
from which HWY108 heads east to the Sierra over a dry hilly grassland,
spotted with oaks and volcanic outcroppings. This usually hot
landscape in summer was just warming up for its first hot weekend but
hadn't gotten uncomfortably warm yet.

Because I had just ridden over Sonora Pass and back over Ebbetts pass
two weeks ago, we chose to ride through upper Yosemite Park over Tioga
Pass and back over Sonora Pass. As we often had for many such rides,
we stayed at the Sonora Gold Lodge Motel eating dinner at the
Washington Street Steak House, formerly Wilma's Flying Pig. We
decided it no longer deserved recommendation.

Saturday, 13 June:

As usual, we got on the road at 6:00 from Sonora (1796ft) riding up
HWY108 to Tuolumne City road from which we headed south on Wards Ferry
road, gradually climbing in cool air as the sun rose over the horizon.
Not admitting to any change over the years we rode the same gears we
have had for many years. Only climbing speed has decreased. I am
still using a 46-50t with 13-15-17-19-21-24t cluster and it works.
Wards Ferry road climbs gently for a bit before it crests, gradually
tapering to a narrow road, first giving up its center strip and
finally shrinking to driveway width, as it reaches the rim of the
Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. This is not a place to go off the road
and hope to survive.

Although scenic, Wards Ferry road is no shortcut with its ancient
narrow and tortuous route through this 2000ft deep gorge of the
Tuolumne River (816ft) from which it climbs again to 3000ft over a
ridge to Groveland (2844ft) on HWY120. Wards Ferry Road having been
resurfaced a couple of years ago no longer reveals its hand laid
stones, although high ones were still exposed here and there. The
road is so narrow that a HUMVEE-I would have difficulty keeping its
outboard wheels from protruding over the abyss.

http://tinyurl.com/2l99z (Tuolumne City JCT)
http://tinyurl.com/32mkc (Wards Ferry)

Three pickup trucks, presumably of kayakers, were parked at the bridge
where many cliff swallows and white throated swifts darted about
feeding their young in nests under the bridge. Beyond the bridge the
road climbs steeply along the south wall before leveling off a bit
after a few sharp bumps as it climbs up the rocky canyon to Deer Flat.
This a pleasant grassy valley from which Deer Flat road crosses the
ridge to Groveland. In mock caution, "stop-look-listen", we crossed
the trackless right-of-way of the Hetch Hetchy RR used in building the
SF water project of the same name, years ago, in the grand Canyon of
the Tuolumne. I like to imagine what SF Mayor "Sunny" James Rolph and
Michael Maurice O'Shaughnessy did when riding, in Pullman cars with
diner and observation lounge, to camp Mather as Rudyard Kipling might
say, in more-than-oriental-splendor as they took inspection tours of
the project.

http://www.sfmuseum.net/bio/mmo.html (O'Shaughnessy)
http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist2/ghiway.html (G. Highway)
http://livingclassrooms.org/lbo/curr/3RhinoSkin.doc (Kipling)

We stopped for food and drink at the Market before continuing to the
Big Oak Flat entrance of Yosemite National Park on "new" HWY120.
Parts of old HWY120, Big Oak Flat Rd, are still in use with steep
excursions into adjacent valleys serving small vacation settlements
and camp grounds. I recall climbing all those hills years ago on
earlier tours and was glad to be on the new HWY that only rises and
falls over gradual grades of about 200 feet height, staying roughly at
3000 feet to near the park boundary. HWY 120 crosses the South Fork
of the Tuolumne river three times on our route.

At the Big Oak Flat entrance (4900ft) to Yosemite Park we didn't try
to sneak in as in the past. Instead I boldly presented my "Golden Age
Passport" that I purchased last year that got us both in legally for
no more than the cost of one entry fee for the rest of my life. I
think they don't expect oldsters to make many trips to national parks.
Apparently the park service has changed its mind on charging each
bicyclist on a bicycle for entry while six bicyclists in a van with a
bicycle rack only once.

At the information office and vending machines we tanked up on soda
pop and an extra one for the climb to crane flat. We had bananas and
medjool dates in the touring bag instead of "energy bars". From here
we took our usual route to the east side of the entrance plaza, where
a road heads off to Hodgdon camp grounds and park maintenance station.
This was once the old Crane Flat road, no longer open to cars. It
branches off at the red cursor on this map:

http://tinyurl.com/2m4xv (Crane Flat entrance)

The road heads down past Hodgdon Meadows Campground where it has an
"Authorized Vehicles Only" sign as it continues to the maintenance
yard, just before which a narrow paved road comes in from the left
with a "One Way Do not Enter" sign. This is it. Here pavement
becomes narrow and shows many years of deferred maintenance. We
crossed Bull and Crane creeks where dogwood trees, some still in white
blossoms as we got farther up the road. We saw many butterflies and
of these many were strikingly bright yellow Swallowtail butterflies.
At Tuolumne Grove big trees, we met hikers, coming down from the
parking lot about a half mile away on HWY120. We persuaded a German
tourist to take our picture in front of the largest tree before
continuing to HWY120 and heading eastward toward Tioga Pass.

http://tinyurl.com/3aplw (Tuolumne Grove)
http://tinyurl.com/2kwdo (Crane Flat JCT)

We didn't backtrack to the Crane Flat (6190ft) junction but turned
east since we were well enough stocked with food to the summit if need
be. We climbed steadily to the third crossing of the South Fork of
the Tuolumne River, where it is most spectacular with snow melt
crashes down a steep boulder strewn gulch that roars with energy and
froth. It was running well but with a light snow pack it wasn't as
spectacular as in some years. It was along here that a young bear
sauntered across the road, fortunately while there was no traffic.

The road takes up its climb once more with an almost continuous grade
to White Wolf at 8200ft where it crosses the divide between Tuolumne
and Merced watersheds to descend to Yosemite Creek (7480ft). It was
running fairly high and, no doubt, making Yosemite falls below in the
Valley a good show. This section of road gives a spectacular panorama
of the granite walls south of the Yosemite Valley. The view got even
better at Olmsted Point (8400ft) that gives a view down Tenaya Canyon
with a side view of Half Dome among other expanses of glacially
polished granite that surround it. Tenaya Lake (8150ft) lies to the
east from Olmsted at the base of Tenaya Peak (10500ft) with its smooth
grey face rising directly out of the lake. We saw only two rock
climbers on the face, the season having just begun.

http://tinyurl.com/35xns (Olmsted Point)
http://tinyurl.com/2cv86 (Tuolumne Meadows)

From the lake, two longer climbs got us over over a ridge at 8640ft
that dropped us back into the Tuolumne watershed in Tuolumne meadows.
There was no snow here and the meadows were rich with green grasses
along Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River that was flowing briskly. The
sight of ice cold crystal clear water rushing by is always an
inspiration for me, possibly because I am too urbanized. We stopped
at the store to notice they had high elevation (elevated) prices, but
make up for that the big tent was well stocked. The $3.06/gal regular
gasoline was a first for me. With new energy in our tanks we headed
up the last climb that gradually rises to the Tioga summit station
(9943ft) where the ranger wasn't interested in bicycles as we rode
through and took customary summit pictures in front of the sign.

http://tinyurl.com/2u8vk (Tioga Pass)

From the summit it's a swift roll down to Tioga and Ellery lakes
before the descent to Lee Vining (6700ft) where HWY120 meets HWY395.
Although there were mixed breezes all day, there wasn't much wind
until rounding the turn for the last straight run to the bottom of
this 8% grade. In spite of taking a flyer off an SUV and a Harley
with side car, the oft claimed 60mph was not quite achieved.
Descending through the narrows at the bottom of Lee Vining Canyon a
panorama of Mono Lake 330ft below the town of Lee Vining (6800ft)
spread before us in stark contrast to the granite landscape behind.

http://tinyurl.com/36csa (Tioga east slope)
http://tinyurl.com/2gfrv (Lee Vining)

We got a snack at the grocery store and headed north toward Conway
Summit whose entire climb is visible with two long traverses of Conway
mountain north of the lake. Mono is a salt lake that supports a
variety of crustaceans on which gulls and terns, among other species,
raise their young on predator free Paoha Island. Predators don't like
swimming in dense brine. We saw mostly California Gulls and some
Common Terns as we rode along the lake.

http://tinyurl.com/2bmss (California Gull)
http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/Infocenter/i0700id.html (Common Tern)

As we descended to near lake level, on an essentially straight section
of road, various emergency vehicles with traffic control and orange
cones directed traffic around the scene of a car that had overturned
at full speed and slid on its roof. People who have not experienced
the road shoulders of HWY 395 are caught unaware that the black
shoulder is deep black volcanic gravel spread for traction in winter.
It was this shoulder that caused my crash on Monitor Pass 50 years ago
because it is like trying to ride through dry beach sand. The only
thing to do once on the shoulder is to try to stop while not making
any corrective steering motions, for these will most likely cause a
car to roll-over or bicyclist to collapsed a wheel.

http://tinyurl.com/274ex (Conway Summit)

On the climb to Conway Summit, just before the last curve, a beautiful
panorama of Mono Lake, Lee Vining and Mammoth Mountains opens to the
south. From Conway Summit (8138ft) a long gradual slope heads north
to Bridgeport, with one steeper section before the JCT with SR617
(6927ft). With a slight headwind we cruised easily into town Just in
time to get a Root Beer Freeze at the Frosty Cone shop that closed
minutes before. Interestingly we reached Bridgeport (6465 ft) at
seven o'clock just as we did a few years ago in the fall when that was
when it got dark. We stayed at the Silver Maple Inn, next to the
beautiful white Victorian courthouse with flagpole and cannon on the
lush green lawn. We showered and donned our street clothes disguise
before crossing the street to the the Bridgeport Inn for an excellent
dinner with a fine salad and and slept like logs after 136 miles and
15800 feet of climbing.

Sunday, 13 June

Having little more than 100 miles ahead of us, we slept in and got
breakfast of orange juice and a stack of hot cakes at the Sportsman's
Inn. Having feasted for dinner that got us on the road. After a stop
at the excellent market at the west end of town, we headed west across
the broad grassland that surrounds Bridgeport and whose perpetually
wet acres slope gently to Bridgeport Reservoir (6455ft), a large
shallow artificial lake through which the East Walker River flows to
ultimately join the West Walker before ending in Walker Lake where
they evaporate. Without drainage canals the valley would be a swamp
rather than the rich grazing land for hundreds of cows from early
spring to late fall.

http://www.nvwf.org/issues/iss_wlkr1.htm (Walker Lake)
http://tinyurl.com/3h2fm (Bridgeport)

HWY395 heads due west straight as an arrow for a bit more than two
miles, that at first glance look more like a half mile, at the end of
which, a farm house lies, whose front door seems to have been the
surveyors target. Here the road takes a 50 degree turn north up
Swauger Creek to Devils Gate. After a narrows, a broad Huntoon valley
opens with a solid modern brick house and red barn across the road. A
perpetual heard of sheep keeps the grass in the sloping valley short.
This morning there were two herds of sheep, one in the middle of the
valley, the other at the upper end, both tended by shepherds who lived
in a small trailer and who had Great Pyrenees sheep dogs that kept
order. The only thing we heard was the yacking of magpies that are
common here most of the time.

Farther up this gradual slope we got back into pine trees as the road
curved around to the west and leveled off a bit on the way to the
first summit to reveal Devils Gate (7519ft) between volcanic cliffs a
half mile ahead. The backdrop is barren hills of grey to deep red and
black granular soil. A pleasant dense grove of aspen surround a
highway maintenance house at the summit while farther down, the
"forever closed" Fales Hot Springs lie behind a chain link fence
looking as though someone were renovating the house. This Spa has not
in operation since I first saw it more than 40 years ago.

http://tinyurl.com/23f43 (Sonora Junction)

As we rolled down the north slope, a slight breeze picked up blowing
every which way as we made the big 180 degree hook along Hot Creek to
Sonora Pass JCT (HWY108) at 6950ft. We turned west on HWY108 to
return to Sonora. As we rolled past the swamps that border the road,
we watched for Yellow Headed Blackbirds and just about when we thought
we were past their favorite spots we saw many of them in the reeds on
both sides of the road. After a swift descent to the West Walker
River (6696ft) we climbed to Pickel Meadow past the USMC Mountain
Warfare School. After a half mile of flat road, large warning signs
advised against trailers and warn of tight curves and steep grades up
to 26% just before the climb begins.

http://tinyurl.com/2dv58 (Pickel Meadow)

The first steep bumps are impressive after grades on ordinary highways
as are the sharp crests and curves although the road has a center
stripe and two lanes. This first steep climb got us up to Levitt
Meadows and Levitt Station (site), the store and residence being long
gone. The road begins to climb at the Pack Station and then vanishes
around a curve that is one of the steepest parts of this climb, as
steep as the climb around the steep Ess and the one that climbs out of
Sardine Creek as well as the last 50 yards to the summit. Looking
back from any one of these places is startling with the road just
ridden so far below.

The climb went well considering on other rides of the past things were
less easy, probably because competition interfered or breakfast didn't
go down well. The difference between descending this approach and
climbing it is interesting because although we know the road well by
now it still evokes memories of rides past and what parts were hard
and easy. The steep Ess is a tough spot going up and a dangerous one
down because it is hidden below a sharp verge and is usually wet.

I recall once as two of us were competing down this hill and suddenly
found ourselves on the sharp descending curve covered with snow melt.
We didn't crash but we didn't forget the incident. This time the upper
curve was covered with oil where someone's engine blew up, pouring its
guts onto the road. These places are full of scars from incidents.

http://tinyurl.com/373c2 (Steep Ess)

The last dip through Sardine Creek, the one that easily exceeds 50mph
descending and requires hard braking on the subsequent 18% up-grade
looks amazingly step in the other direction. Fortunately there are a
couple of leveller spots in the last quarter mile that make the steep
bump at the Sonora Pass summit (9643ft) easier while the magnetism of
the summit pulls. Besides we had a cool breeze in our faces and a
clear sky. Unlike Saturday, jet planes left no vapor trails, the
high altitude humidity being extremely low as it often is with a
cloudless sky.

It was a great descent down the Golden Stairs and through the Rock
Window to Kennedy Meadows, stopping at Dardanelle (5765ft) for
something to drink and a Snickers (power bar) before heading off to
the climb from Clark Fork JCT (5671ft) up to Donnell Vista (6800ft).
Donnell Lake, 1200ft below, was fuller than two weeks ago and had
large rafts of driftwood trees that had been felled by avalanches. A
single white throated swift darted past as we took in the view across
the canyon toward Ebbetts Pass and Hells Half Acre.

http://tinyurl.com/3fk9c (Rock Window) [at cursor]

Although much of the route is downhill, there are a couple of climbs
before the two mile descent to Strawberry (5340ft) where we stopped at
the market for a refresher before the two mile climb up to 5720ft at
Cold Springs. At Twain Harte junction (3920ft) we turned south on
Tuolumne City Road, a little traveled route that is practically all
down hill to Tuolumne City (2577ft), a true company town before 1960
when the map was made. The famed West Side Lumber Company with 100
miles of three-foot gauge logging railroad along the Tuolumne river
canyon owned the whole town. The Sierra RR, hauled the lumber to
market. Both RR's are still there, the tracks untouched but

http://tinyurl.com/2vnvc (Strawberry)
http://tinyurl.com/368se (Tuolumne)

Alas, the Frosty Cone shop was no more so we had to settle for some
cold drinks at the market down the street. We crossed the West Side
RR tracks coming into town and on the way out. At the top of the
grade, at Ralph, the former junction of the Pickering RR that served
Strawberry and logging camps all the way to Soap Creek near Bear
Valley on Ebbetts Pass road. The Pickering rails are gone but the
Sierra RR is still there.

http://tinyurl.com/245d3 (Ralph)

From Ralph it's all down hill to Sonora on Tuolumne City Road, past
Wards Ferry Road and down Washington Street and the Sonora Gold Lodge.

136 miles, 15800 feet climbing Saturday
102 Miles, 6550 feet climbing Sunday
Jobst Brandt


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