High Sierras Tour June 2008

| August 16, 2008 7:22 pm

by Jerry Schonewille

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This ride grew out of an idea of joining Donnie’s 3-Day Ride to the Start of Sierra to the Sea and then doing “something” after that. That something turned out to be 1-week of riding self contained in the High Sierras. Originally the plan was for me, Ranger Rick, and Dick to do the tour beyond Bear Valley but in the end I ended up doing it solo. Rick had to drop out due to an early departure for his annual summer stay in New York. Dick had to return home from Bear Valley after learning of a family emergency.

Preliminary maps (which need to be updated) can be seen here.

Thu Jun 12: 44 mi, 250 ft

Donny’s group would start in San Jose and ride over Mt Hamilton to Patterson the first day and to Columbia the second day. We (Dick C, Paul M, and me) started from the Manteca ACE station instead.

I had taken the bus from Sacramento to Stockton the day before and rode my bike to Lathrop where I spent the night at the new Best Western. The next morning I rode to the DMV office in Manteca to renew my driver’s license. My appointment was at 9:00 AM. I arrived 8:50 and was out by 9:10. After returning to Lathrop and checking out of my motel I rode back to the Manteca ACE station to meet Dick and Paul who had taken the train from San Jose. We then rode about 30 flat miles to Oakdale and spent the night.

Fri Jun 13: 53 mi, 3000 ft

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Dick and Paul near Knights Ferry

Starting from Oakdale meant we had a much shorter ride to Columbia than the folks starting in Patterson. We got an early start anyway to beat the heat and anticipated getting to Columbia well before Donny’s group. Arriving early wouldn’t do Dick or Paul any good since their camping gear was in one of the sag vehicle accompanying the main group. I was riding self contained and had my camping stuff with me.

Just before Knights Ferry a solo rider heading the other way turned around and asked us where we were going. She was pleased to see us on back roads (River Rd) rather than busy Hwy 108. When we explained our plans she said it was possible to get to Jamestown from Knights Ferry on back roads avoiding Highway 108 on that stretch.

We got to Knights Ferry too early and the store was closed, so we went across the street to the fire station to get our water bottles and camelbacks refilled. I fired up my computer and analyzed the alternate route suggested by the local rider. We saw it would add about 10 miles but not much more climbing so we decided to go for it. I really enjoyed this Hwy 108 bypass. We saw no cars the first 10 miles. Eventually we got back on 108 just 3 miles short of Jamestown and hated it. This is a good route for future rides that start in Oakdale. I think the extra 10 miles would be too much for rides starting further upstream.

Columbia was hot – it was still in the 90’s at 8:00 PM that night. The next morning it had cooled to 62 degrees.

Sat Jun 14: 31 mi, 4900 ft

We had now joined up with Donnie’s group and I did my duty by driving one of the three SAG cars from Columbia to Murphy’s. That left us with a 40 mile ride with about 5000 ft of climbing from Murphy’s to Bear Valley.

I got a head start from Murphy’s but most everyone caught and passed me by the time I got to Arnolds for lunch at the Blue Coyote. This was a regroup point and everyone on the tour (about 45 riders) stayed until Russ and Sheila presented Donny with a thank you card and cash gift contributed by the riders.

This was my first ride up Hwy 4 and I didn’t particularly enjoy it, remembering a much nicer ride up Hwy 88 two years ago. There was some confusion at the final rest stop before Bear Valley and I was happy to offer my services to drive one of the sag cars to the end. By then most of the climbing had already been completed, and I was ready to call it a day.

The camping situation at Bear Valley was pretty dismal, made worse by thirsty mosquitoes and huge ants. I crawled into my tent after dinner to escape the buggers and fell asleep not long after. Packing up the next morning added another dozen or so skeeter bites.

Sun Jun 15: 28 mi, 2100 ft

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Jerry at Ebbetts Pass

Seven of us remained (Donny, Kim, Eric, Jeff, Holly, Jan, me) to ride on to Grover Hot Springs State Park near Markleeville. I offered to drive one of the two remaining SAG cars from Bear Valley to Hermit’s Valley. This would knock off about 12 miles but I would start riding at the same elevation as Bear Valley.

The character of Hwy 4 completely changed above Bear Valley. The centerline dissapeared and soon it became a winding mountain road about 1.5 lanes wide. There were some very steep sections, specially going down Pacific Grade. This was more like it and I was looking forward getting back on my bike.

I parked Donny’s van at Hermits Valley (one of the riders behind me would later drive it forward) and proceeded to climb the back side of Ebbets Pass – 1700 ft over 4 miles, an average of 8% grade. Normally this would be pretty difficult for me but the combination of perfect weather and spectacular scenery and no automobile traffic made this a very special and enjoyable ride. Also, it has been my experience in previous tours that I usually don’t get up to full strength until after 3 or 4 days. I think I had reached this point now – indeed, the next morning I stopped after leaving camp to make sure I had everything because my bike felt so light!

When I got to the top of Ebbetts Pass I found 4 other riders who offered me ice cold water from bottles they had previously stashed in snow banks that still remained even in June. Within 5 minutes the two sag vans arrived. I rode down to Markleeville seeing many riders climbing up, no doubt training for the upcoming Death Ride. We each rode down the mountain at our own pace and regrouped for a fine lunch and ice cream the deli in Markleeville. Then we rode mostly uphill to Grover Hot Springs State Park about 4 miles away. We were lucky to have reservations for site #24 which proved spacious and level and near restrooms/showers.

Later we all squeezed into Donny’s van and drove down the hill to Markleeville for dinner and then returned to camp for campfire, marshmallows and later, a game of cards.

I was the first to call it a night, having stayed up way past my usual bed time of dark.

Mon Jun 16: 42 mi, 2700 ft

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View from Luther Pass

Everyone except me went on a hike before returning home. From this point on I would be riding solo.

I said my goodbyes and rode down to Markleeville and then on to Woodfords for a breakfast sandwich. Then to South Lake Tahoe by way of Hope Valley and Luther Pass.

When I got to top of Luther Pass I saw 4 riders coming up on a dirt trail on road bikes. They told me there is an alternate route from where Hwy 89 splits from 88. I haven’t found this on any maps but they assured me it is a paved road (until the last ¼ mile) with lots of shade and no traffic. I’ll look for it next time.

I had initially planned to camp at Bliss State Park just north of Emerald Bay but decided to stay at Camp Richardson instead. This would put off some steep climbing around Emerald Bay until tomorrow plus give me more time to be a tourist. Also, Camp Richardson was close to town and made it easy to get beer and food. The camp was okay but pricey ($30 for up to 2 tents) and overrun by loud families. It was obvious that school was out and vacation season had begun.

Several campers came by to ask me about my trip. This would happen the next night too. It seems people are just more curious when you are traveling solo as opposed to traveling as part of a group.

Tue Jun 17: 49 mi, 1600 ft

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Emerald Bay

Had breakfast at the Cafe right at camp then rode north on Hwy 89 along the west (California) side of Lake Tahoe. I noticed studying the AAA map that doing a full ride around Lake Tahoe takes you through 5 different counties as well as two states.

My decision to stay at Camp Richardson rather than Bliss State Park proved to be the right choice. Riding around Emerald Bay was pretty special and I stopped at every lookout and information center along the way. Plus there were some pretty steep climbs – not a problem early in the day with fresh legs but not much fun at the end of a long day. There is one stretch on Hwy 89 that is scary, with Emerald Bay on the right and Cascade Lake to the left with no shoulder and sheer drop-off beyond the edge of the road on both sides. I’m sure riders who have ridden around the lake know the spot.

After Meeks Bay I saw a bike trail to the right and followed it. It proved to be bizarre, crossing Hwy 89 several times and just disappearing at times then re-appearing out of nowhere. I finally abandoned riding it. In Tahoe City I found the trail that leads along the Truckee River down to Squaw Valley and it was very nice.

I stopped at the American Bar in Truckee for a beer and to contemplate my next move. I was scheduled to spend the night at Donner Memorial State Park but frankly I was tired of my blood being sucked dry by mosquitoes and I decided to check out hotel options. Even mid-week there was nothing available for less than $120 (plus 10% tax) so I abandoned that idea. Went back to plan-A and ended up spending just $3 for a very fine hiker-biker site at Donner Memorial State Park (plus 50 cents for a 5-minute shower). No charge for yet more mosquito bites. I had the campground pretty much to myself. Very nice park, other than being close to Hwy 80 and traffic noise.

I carry quite a few battery powered electronic gadgets and am always on the lookout for power outlets to charge the batteries. There were none at Donner, not even in the restrooms. Still, I spent time surfing the internet inside my tent using my laptop computer and a new broadband modem from Verizon. I was still within the 30-day trial period for the modem and this trip convinced me to keep it. I can now get fast (DSL speed) internet connection anywhere where I can get a Verizon signal – which is just about everywhere. Many times it is faster than wifi. I’m definitely connected!

Wed Jun 18: 52 mi, 3100 ft

The plan today was to ride from Donner Lake to Sierra City and camp at the National Forest Wild Plum Campground. This would be my sixth consecutive day of camping but this time at a primitive site with no showers. I did not fancy yet another night of dealing with mosquitoes so I decided to check out motels before resigning to camping again.

The ride from Truckee to Sieraville along Hwy 89 was nice with light-to-moderate traffic that thinned the further I got away from Truckee. At Sierraville, which is basically the junction of Hwy 89 and 49, I turned west. Hwy 49 was great. It was pretty flat going west from Sierraville for about 4 miles until the Hwy 89 split. Then the climbing started leading to Yuba Pass– about 1700 ft over 6 miles so the overall grade was pretty gradual. By now the traffic had died to almost nothing other than occasional motorcycle tourist. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced more friendly waves and horn toots than on this section. Around here folks are very much into outdoor activities and the phrase “get off the road idiot” is not part of the local language.

After the summit is was 12 miles of sweet (30-35 mph, no brakes) downhill to Sierra City. This was fantastic riding, surrounded by pine forest and perfect warm weather the entire way. I missed not sharing this with my buddies Dick and Rick but at the same time I was very happy to be here doing what I enjoy so much.

I passed the turnoff to Wild Plum Campground and continued on to Buttes Resort in Sierra City about 1 mile downhill. I took the last remaining cabin (#10) without hesitation. It had a private patio overlooking the Yuba River and was secluded from the other dozen or so cabins. At $85 it was also the lowest priced cabin available. This place sells out even during mid-week. Sierra City is a great getaway location and everything is within short walking distance. No cell phone or internet coverage up here.

I had not eaten lunch today, snacking instead on trail mix and pop tarts and fruit. So I walked about 150 yards to the local market and got a sandwich that would also serve as dinner. Much later, about 8:00 PM, I walked across the street for a night-cap and met a woman who is a schoolteacher at Nevada City (my destination tomorrow) and for many years has a tradition of booking a 2-day stay at Buttes Resort immediately after the school term ends, just to unwind. She has tried all the cabins and now always books #9, reserving it eight months in advance. She, along with others, cautioned me about the terrible climbs facing me tomorrow but I assured everyone I’m up to it.

Thu Jun 19: 57 mi, 3600 ft

I had a fine breakfast at the same establishment that served me beer the night before, arriving promptly at the 8:00 AM opening and having the outdoor garden all to myself. Yes, even at 8:00 AM, sittng in the outdoor garden was delightfull.

Today’s ride would start with 25 miles of downhill, continuing the great 12 miles of downhill that ended yesterdays ride but now loosing 2500 ft in elevation over twice the distance. This is bicycling heaven and the weather could not have been more perfect. Light traffic and friendly waves from by passers continued.

Unfortunately, after nearly 40 miles of downhill over two days dropping about 5000 ft, there are now canyons to climb out of after each of three river crossings (different forks of the Yuba River). The first two are moderate with about 700 ft climbing at 5-6% each but the last is the most difficult with a climb of 1700 ft over 5 miles, much exposed directly to hot sun and automobile and truck traffic. It was getting hot and I pulled over several times when shade provided relief from the sun. Traffic increased noticeably but drivers continued to be courteous and respectful. All in all the climbing was about as I expected and I patiently plodded along knowing I would eventually reach my destination.

Once in Nevada City the climbing did not stop and actually got pretty steep in the residential streets as I looked for the Outside Inn. Interesting that homes and commercial buildings are interspersed on the same streets rather than residing in different zones. I found the Outside Inn, got their smallest room at $70 AAA rate, and called it a day. I was pretty much running on fumes at this point. The historic downtown core was just a quarter mile below my motel and I walked down after having sufficiently recovered from the day’s ride. A bit too commercial for my liking – I found Sierra City to be more genuine.

Fri Jun 20: 80 mi, 2400 ft

I faced the final day of this tour with still no plans on what to do afterward. I decided to stay three days in the Folsom area to unwind and figure out my next step. I got on Priceline and was able to get the Residence Inn in Arden, but this meant the last day would be about 75 miles of riding, the longest day of the trip. This did not concern me since I knew the last 35 miles (after Auburn) would be gradual downhill or flat.

I saw on the television news that temperatures were predicted to be over 100 degrees. I hit the road 7:30 AM and already the temperature was over 80. I found a great route by searching the internet that would get me from Nevada City to Auburn on back roads. Lots of rollers and a very enjoyable ride, much of it on a road called Dog Flat. I stopped in Auburn at 11:00 AM for breakfast. This was about half way into the ride and I had completed almost all the 2000 ft of climbing that would occur today. The last 35 miles, though downhill (the last 20 miles along the American River Bike Trail) proved difficult due to extreme heat. It was well over 100 degrees now and the water I kept drinking didn’t provide much relief as it too was at about the same temperature. Once I got off the bike trail and rode toward my hotel on city streets it really hit me just how hot it was. It was unbearable to stop at traffic lights and be hit with the heat radiating from the asphalt. I pulled over at a fast food place and must have gone through three 32-oz cold drinks. Air conditioned room and lots of ice water helped me recover when I reached my hotel, but I was still pretty wiped out.

Averaged 50 miles, 3000 feet of climbing per day. Can’t wait to get back to the Sierras. I’m already planning a tour to Yosemite and the Eastern Sierras for early September.

— jerry schonewille (aka vagabond jerry)

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