Sierra Spring Ride 2003

Discussion in 'rec.bicycles.rides archive' started by Jobst Brandt, Jun 21, 2003.

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  1. Jobst Brandt

    Jobst Brandt Guest

    Spring Tour in the Sierra 07-06 June 2003

    I rode with Jeanie Barnett, Brian Cox, Ray Hosler and John Woodfill on a spring tour starting in
    Sonora California, riding over Sonora Pass, Devils Gate Pass and Conway Summit, to Lee Vining on the
    shores of Mono Lake. The second day took us from Lee Vining over Tioga pass to Groveland and through
    Wards Ferry Rd back to Sonora, a trip of 238 miles and 22250 feet of climbing.

    Sonora lies at the base of three excellent bicycling routes over the Sierra, Ebbetts Pass to the
    north, Sonora Pass in the center and Tioga Pass on the south. They are linked on the east side, from
    north to south, by Monitor, Devils Gate, and Conway Summit passes to make two day loops between
    adjacent Sierra crossings possible. However the big loop, the trip we were not about to do, includes
    both Tioga and Ebbetts and the three passes on the east side. It requires good conditioning and
    plenty of endurance, something I have tried only three times, all with success.

    We met in Sonora on Friday, 6 June for dinner at the former Wilma's Flying Pig that is under new
    ownership and now called Cafe Europa. It offers a different menu although some former employees were
    there to greet us. Ray Hosler arrived later because he could not get off work early enough to beat
    the rush hour out of the San Francisco Bay Area. I had a good night's sleep and ate in the motel
    room for the usual
    6:00 AM start.


    Under a clear sky but with unusually warm and humid air, we headed up hwy 108 eastward out of town.
    In spite of the early weekend hour, there was a thin but steady stream of cars, or better said
    trucks and SUV's, that were fortunately platooning so that we had long pauses between their passing.
    A few miles out of Sonora, two lane HWY108 becomes a divided four lane highway with generous
    shoulders for a two mile, 800 foot climb to Twain Harte. After Twain Harte the road climbs gently
    through a fir and cedar forest past the former logging towns of Confidence, Sugarpine, Mi-Wuk
    village, Sierra Village, Long Barn, Stoddard Springs and on toward Cold Springs.

    All of these places, as Sonora itself, show the remains of a giant timber industry that operated
    several hundred miles of logging railway some of whose rights-of-way have become roads and others,
    trails open to non motor vehicles and hikers. Today the Sierra Railroad, the main connection to
    civilization for the endeavor, is the only survivor and it isn't hauling much. We stopped in Mi-Wuk
    village for some refreshments and then crossed the divide from the Stanislaus drainage to the rim of
    the Tuolumne gorge that gave us a panorama toward Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy Valley, the water supply
    for San Francisco known as the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, a project that John Muir fought without
    success to the end of his life.

    About a mile before reaching Cold Springs, at Frazer Flat (5600ft) elevation, we turned north on a
    paved forest road and descended to the South Fork Stanislaus River and Fraser Flat Campground,
    previously Camp Fraser of the Strawberry Branch of the Sugar Pine Railroad. This is a
    rails-to-trails project of the Forest Service, one of several in the area, complete with extensive
    research on its history by Pamela Conners. And bicycles are welcome! The clear air, absence of
    traffic and the spring forest made this an idyllic route. We reached the Stanislaus with its clear
    rushing snow-melt roaring down the canyon at a "top-deck" Bailey Bridge, known as a Panel Bridge in
    the US Army.

    We stayed on the south shore of the river and headed upstream on a branch of the logging railroad to
    Strawberry. Although unpaved and closed to motor vehicles, the road was easily ridable except for an
    occasional fallen tree across the road. With its gentle 3% grade and alignment that one expects from
    railroads, it wends its way just above the churning river. Bright red Snow Plants were everywhere
    along both hwy 108 and the railway trail. A weasel ran across the trail, looked at us, and decided
    to go back to the river, with its black tipped tail straight up.

    There were Forest service markers linking a guide book that explained what existed during the timber
    cutting era to the various sites along the route.

    Most railroad and sawmill machinery from this area vanished un-chronicled and is lost to us today,
    although excellent books on other nearby operations were written by Hank Johnston, Fred Stindt,
    Mallory Ferrel, Adolf Gutohrlein and others. As I ride through these forests I can imagine hearing
    the steam and roar of those days because I was fortunate enough to have seen them run at the end of
    their time. The rails that were still operating were the three foot gauge West Side, and the
    standard gauge Pickering railroads, operating respectively from Tuolumne City and Standard.

    We stopped at the Strawberry store (5340ft) for a bite to eat before heading up the long grade to
    6000ft after which there are long rollers to Donnell Lake Overlook (6300ft) on cliffs, almost
    vertically above the reservoir 1200ft below. The water was a murky blue, partly covered with huge
    driftwood rafts from avalanches that swept the forest into rivers upstream.

    From Donnell Overlook the road descends from here the road descends four miles to Clark Fork
    junction (5671ft) where the road abruptly changes from a customary state highway to a twisty and
    steeply rolling road with little gradient correction over the terrain. These, although steep, make
    little difference because they are short and the scenery worth every moment of it. The road flattens
    again at Brightman Flat and Dardanelle (5765ft) where we stopped at the store for "lunch".

    The Dardanelles are truly the narrows through which the Middle Fork Stanislaus is a raging torrent
    of frothing water, no place for man or beast. Although we saw none, in the past, dippers, the odd
    stubby water bird that walks under water nests in the granite walls just above the water.

    The road crosses to the north shore and gradually begins to climb but reveals nothing unusual until
    just after Baker Station (6200Ft) at the entrance to Kennedy Meadow campground where the road curves
    upward and vanishes around the cliff. This is it! Around the curve the road is visible a half mile
    away and 600ft higher and no zigzags in between. The road crests through a square cut known as the
    rock window with the kicker of 20%+ gradient. We took pictures and cooled off here before continuing
    up the less steep section along Deadman Creek and the big ess-bend before more level terrain.

    Along this moderately climbing section at Chipmunk Flat we passed the 8000 foot marker and after
    climbing a small hump, could see the ess-bend at 8500ft, the base of the Golden Stairs that jump up
    to 9000ft in the next half mile. The road makes a break at just above the 9000 foot marker and
    gives the impression of being flat to the bicyclist, but descending the same section makes
    impressive how steep the "flat" part to the summit is. I was working hard with an upset lower
    digestive tract but made the grade OK but a bit slower than I prefer. Ray was having some cramps
    but also made it over the top.

    We had been riding under clear skies but after the window clouds began to form giving us pleasant
    shade to ride in while most of the sky was still blue. After the summit, where the snow had almost
    gone after being plowed open only two weeks before, we descended on the best road conditions I have
    seen with no water or gravel on the road and no rough pavement. The descent was a dream and was no
    disappointment at the first steep dip about a quarter mile over the top. As usual, without effort,
    53mph was reached at the bottom of the dip after which the road rises at 16% and required strong
    braking to safely negotiate the following crest that has a slight curve at its top.

    I am sure that I have never descended this grade as swiftly and without traffic. At the bottom we
    regrouped as we rolled toward the USMC Mountain warfare school that was once a place where existence
    was tough and lodging was in pup tents aligned in orderly rows. Now, there is a paved airstrio and
    huge air conditioned buildings, helicopter shops and barracks built in concrete and having gabled
    metal roofs.

    As we coasted down the road, we were hit by large single raindrops but the road remained dry, having
    been heated by the sun until shortly before. The mountains behind us were draped with virgas (rain
    that evaporates before reaching the ground) leaving a clear view of the crest beneath the dark
    clouds. We dropped down Pickel Meadows to the bridge over the West Walker river (6700ft) and climbed
    to Sonora Junction with hwy 395 (6950 ft), passing swamps where we saw Yellow Headed Blackbirds that
    nest there along with other waterfowl such as Cinnamon Teal Ducks and Herons.

    The rain stayed in the mountains while the wind of the thunderstorm helped us up Devils Gate as we
    rode along Hot Creek, passing the perpetually closed Fales Hot Springs. Devils Gate Summit (7519 ft)
    lies in the narrows of Pimentel Meadows, where tall red rock formations form the "gate". The road
    gradually begins its descent on a long straight and gentle grade down Huntoon Valley before it opens
    into rich green Bridgeport Valley. The gently sloping valley is practically a swamp with grazing
    cattle among thousands of light blue wild iris and rich deep-green grass.

    The descent from the pass wasn't as fast as I anticipated because the wind died shortly beyond the
    top. Just the same it rolled well and we got to Bridgeport at a good clip. We tanked up on some food
    and drink before heading south to Conway Summit and Lee Vining on Mono Lake. A bit past the road to
    Bodie, the noted ghost town to the east, I got a flat tire caused by a bad patch. Meanwhile Ray and
    Jeanie continued on as I put in another tube and got back on the road with John and Brian.

    The light foreground and dark mountains and thunderclouds as a backdrop mare a beautiful and unusual
    landscape. The climb up the pass is gradual and easy even though we had mainly a crosswind. We could
    see Jeanie and Ray about a mile ahead, so I made an effort to reduce that gap before the summit.
    They had made a photo stop and just got rolling downhill when we came darting by, our crosswind
    having become a tailwind as we turned the corner after the summit.

    Conway summit often has strong winds and, I assume, for safety the four lane road is continuous
    across the center divider that is only a six foot section bounded by double yellow lined. In such
    winds, vehicles are often blown across the median onto the other side. Years ago when I descended in
    60mph winds from behind and to the side we were blown across the road before we could respond. This
    time we were better off with a tail wind and mostly headwind after the horseshoe bend. Just the same
    we recorded 55mph as we went into the bend.

    We rolled into Lee Vining in time for a shower in the El Mono with "Steam Heat" advertised from eons
    ago. They have radiators but they aren't steam powered any more, just hot water. We love the place
    for its antiquity. After a hearty meal at Nicely's we got a good night's rest having covered 125
    miles and climbing 13200ft.


    We got to Nicely's for breakfast at 7:00 AM although they start earlier, mainly because we seemed to
    have a consensus about getting plenty of sleep. After a big breakfast we rolled out of town using
    the old road up to hwy 120 to Yosemite. Yesterday's wind and rain had moved on and we climbed under
    clear skies but relatively warm air. As we passed 8000 feet, the air changed to the usual crisp cool
    mountain air we usually get even at the bottom of the hill.

    Since the Tuolumne Meadows store was not yet in operation for the summer, Ray and I stopped at Tioga
    Lodge (9550ft) a mile or so below the summit. It was a pleasant ride from the top because it was
    wind still and refreshingly cool compared to the weather yesterday. We also noted that Tuolumne
    meadows had no snow except in sun sheltered areas even though we had read reports of excessive snow.
    The hot weather of the last two weeks seemed to have erased all those stories quickly.

    We took some standard photos at Olmstead Point that exposes an excellent side view of Half Dome and
    many other noted granite edifices of the park. The road is not all downhill and has a few longer
    climbs on the way to the valley but the descents are long enough to give even the most adamant
    downhill coaster enough. We stopped at Yosemite Creek (7481ft) that glides by swiftly but not
    threateningly so. One could even imagine rafting downstream... except that all this water goes over
    Yosemite Falls. However, the description:

    "The falls are visible for several miles up and down the valley - part of a two-stage drop of 2,400
    feet as Yosemite Creek emerges from miles of gentle meandering across the Eagle Creek meadows in
    the high Alpine backcountry north of Yosemite valley and cascades over the towering granite cliffs
    to meet with the Merced River far below."

    Is not what you would like to encounter on a raft. After a snack and some drink we climbed to White
    Wolf campground (8871ft) and began the long descent to Crane Flat where we took the Old Big Oak Flat
    road through the Tuolumne Grove of giant redwoods, the location of the Tunnel Tree that has a tunnel
    cut through the trunk of a living redwood. The old road is in poor repair, being closed to motor
    traffic for many years now. At the bottom, at Hodgdon Meadows, it joined the well maintained service
    road to the corporation yard where it climbs to the Big Oak Flat entrance station.

    After tanking up on some drinks from the vending machines we headed off to Groveland over the long
    gradual contours of hwy 120 as it rolls along at about 3000ft to Groveland making three and four
    hundred foot ups and downs. At Groveland we got a taste of the heat down in the canyon as warm
    valley air made us get a good drink before heading to Wards Ferry 2030ft below and climbing 1220ft
    back up the other side.

    There were river rafters coming down to the bridge where a construction crane like the kind used
    for hoisting advertising signs on highways was pulling the rafts up to the road. It was toasty
    warm down there and didn't get better until we were two thirds up the hill and out of the canyon.
    That climb was one that I recall from other hot weather rides as one to take with care. We got to
    Sonora at about
    7:00 p.m. having ridden 113 miles and climbing 9050 feet. We loaded the car and had a fairly
    unobstructed 130 mile cruise back to Palo Alto.

    Jobst Brandt [email protected] Palo Alto CA

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