Starkly beautiful everywhere you look…and dangerously hot at certain times of the year. Fortunately, January, when we went, is fine.
Click here to see the album on Google Photos.
The stretch of California 29 between Middletown and Calistoga has some of the best twisties I’ve ever encountered. You’re constantly leaning into turns while getting ready for the next one. Both on the uphill grade and the downhill side. Plus, all the action takes place within a beautiful forest.
Definitely not to be missed if you can get there. If I lived closer I’d probably ride it every week, weather permitting.
The whole point of this ride was to see Lake Berryessa, because it’s (a) quite large and (b) off the beaten path. So I expected to see some impressive views, and probably subconsciously assumed it’d be like Lake Tahoe in miniature.
The reality is… different. Not bad! Just different.
For one thing it’s set amidst relatively low hills. For another, the drought appears to have lowered its level pretty substantially (or maybe December is its low point for the year; it is a reservoir after all).
The giant wildfire that burned through the area not long ago didn’t help, either. Most of the ground cover along the route getting to the lake was just gone.
Or maybe it was the silence. I think there were only a couple of other people within a half mile of where I stopped. Very peaceful, very quiet… and somewhat eerie. I bet it’d present a totally different aspect if I came back during High Boating and Fishing Season.
I always stop at the Marin headlands visitor center off of 101. Why? Because the views are always impressive and often spectacular: even in fog and mist the Golden Gate Bridge rearing up above the water is a sight to behold.
But rather than post yet another panoramic picture I thought I’d highlight a lesser-appreciated side of the center.
Relatively few people go up to the seating area around this statue (those views are, after all, hard to beat!). But I find the figure of a merchant sailor oddly compelling. San Francisco got its start, after all, because it was a wonderful harbor and port (although it took the European explorers almost a century of cruising up and down the coast to find the entrance — fog and mist cut both ways).
as in, any you had would probably be knocked loose riding through the area.
Seriously, the ten mile stretch of the Berryessa/Knoxville Road starting a couple of miles north of the lake now holds the honor of Worst Road I’ve Ever Ridden. And I thought the previous record holder couldn’t be beat. I was wrong.
What impressed me the most — I think that’s the right phrase — was patches on top of patches next to potholes. There were times when I thought I was close to finding a sequence of potholes and patches which would toss me off my bike. Something like dodge A, hit B, recover, but hit C — which happened to be oriented just right — and go down.
Fortunately that didn’t happen. But I have to say I don’t remember much of the scenery because I was so focused on staying upright :).
I live in San Carlos on the Peninsula and generally try to avoid riding on US 101 like the plague. In addition to sporting a goodly number of potholes it always sports heavy traffic. What’s worse is when the traffic is heavy, but not heavy enough to slow it down. Nothing like riding in bumper-to-bumper traffic doing 70 miles an hour to give you a thrill :).
This stretch of US 101 in Marin County is, if anything, even worse. Because in addition to all the aspects of the Peninsula 101 (well, it >>is<< better maintained; comes of Marin County being a long-term political power center in California) it’s wider, has more exit and entrances per mile and built-in “waves”.
It’s also interesting the speed limit changes throughout the area, dropping to 55 around San Rafael… and no one, so far as I can tell, pays the slightest difference to the change. Come, I’ll be honest with you: I don’t ride at the speed limit, either. But it’s fascinating to watch traffic doing 80+ in a 65 zone and, once it gets into the 55 area… continue to do 80+. I guess speed limits, like stop signs, are optional :).
For someone used to the rolling hills and dense populations of the Peninsula and East Bay, not to mention the Marin bayshore, this stretch of California 37 is… odd. Very flat, very open and very unpopulated. One wonders why it wasn’t turned into an endless series of residential/commercial areas. It’s not that much further away from San Rafael, which is heavily populated. Presumably there’s some legal restriction on land use, but I don’t know what it is.
A friend of mine who grew up in San Rafael tells me there’s an interesting geologic history to the area. Something about volcanic activity without actual volcanoes. I’ll have to read up on that. Sounds intriguing!
After coming down Calaveras Road I opted to take a dog-leg detour onto Felton Road, which eventually put me onto Sierra Road to come into the San Jose area.
I’m really glad I did. Because the view dropping back into San Jose from Sierra Road is truly spectacular. I can only imagine what it would’ve looked like hiking into it back around 1800 or so: you’ve gone through a bunch of up-and-down mini-mountain ranges only to suddenly see a giant body of water sitting in the midst of a vast flat space appear before you.
Of course, nowadays that flat space is completely filled up by civilization. Which is stunning in a different way.
Sorry about no picture; I was getting a little punchy and wanted to get back to the flats. Worth the entire ride, though, all by itself.
Along about here I realized I was coming down off a pretty big hill. Maybe technically a small mountain. I knew I was going to be riding through hill country, of course…but coming from the north the ramp up is pretty gentle so it sneaks up on you.
Not so on the south side. It’s very apparent you were pretty high up.
Which made the bicyclists I ran into going the other way even more impressive. There’s no way I would want to do that climb on a human-powered bike.
When riding twisties one has to stay very focused on the road — at least I do — and avoid distractions. Of which, when you’re riding through a beautiful area there are many.
As I approached one particularly tight curve in the middle of nowhere I spotted a small herd of cows grazing on the side of the road. Not unusual…except the road hugs a hillside its entire length and has no clear spaces around it so I couldn’t imagine how the cows had gotten there. Walked over the ridge from the west, maybe? Possible…but I wouldn’t want to try it.
All of this created a distraction in a place where I really shouldn’t have let myself get distracted.
So of course it ended up being the one place where I encountered a car coming from the opposite direction. Initially hidden by trees and shadows. It made for an exciting few seconds on that one-and-a-half lane road.
I think it was a setup by the cows :).
The views all along this stretch are spectacular. Bright golden fields, dark green trees (at least before they dry out over the course of the summer) and bright blue water.
Unfortunately, it’s a very twisty one-and-a-half lane road with no shoulders and no turnouts on the downhill side. So you’ll have to check it out in person.
But it’s worth the trip. And not just for the scenery: the twisties are a fun challenge!
Well, not really…
But it’s remarkable how you can travel a few short miles, get on a road that looks and feels like it hasn’t seen much use, ever…and still be in the middle of a giant megalopolis.
So that’s where he wrote his law… 🙂
I’ve driven past Murphys on a number of occasions over the years, but never realized how charming a little town it is, ’cause it’s about a quarter of a mile off California 4. While I picked it solely as a convenient rest stop, I’m definitely planning on taking Barbara back to visit.
The downtown is really cute, they have a great park just off it, and, if you’re into wine tasting, you’ll find plenty of places to get your fill.
But it’s short of coffee shops. I only found two, and they happened to close the day I got there (a Thursday) before I could get my afternoon fix.
When I see these signs, I always wonder where the posters think the money to keep up their community comes from. No offense, but it sure isn’t coming from just local sources!
You can’t miss the power-generating windmills when you drive 580 east of Livermore.
But they look really different when they’re sweeping around right next to you as you ride by!
There are a lot of, if not rivers, large streams flowing through the Delta. Which means there’s need for a lot of bridges.
Most aren’t wide enough to allow large trucks or buses to pass each other going in opposite directions. So it’s common to run into stopped traffic, in the middle of nowhere, as one truck or bus waits for another truck or bus to complete its passage.
On the way home I stopped for lunch at what amounts to a seaside community that happens to be really far inland, pretty much at the east end of San Pablo Bay. Or at the mouth of the Sacramento River (I presume), take your pick.
Miles and miles of it! I had no idea California grew so much of what I think of as a mid-western crop. But there it was.
Riding this area proves, if proof was needed, that people really like fermented grape juice.
I hadn’t thought of this part of California as being home to vineyards…but it grows a lot of grapes!
Most people not from California assume it’s called The Golden State because of the 1849 Gold Rush at Sutter’s Mill (I know I did, before moving here).
The reality is it’s because the native grass, at least in Northern California, turns gold as summer wanes and the growth spurred by the previous year’s rain fades.
That was on beautiful display along this portion of my ride: miles and miles of golden grass, waving in the breeze, dotted with beautiful California oaks every thousand feet or so.
Crashes have a way of staying with you, particularly when they involve five days at Stanford Hospital and months of recovery from broken ribs. Which is why I’m especially leery of any precipitation, and always closely monitor weather forecasts before long rides.
So I wasn’t too happy when those rain drops kept falling on my head leaving Kirkwood Saturday morning. I was even less happy, after getting through the first minor “storm”, to ride through another, bigger one…on pavement that was pretty wet.
Fortunately, I was the only vehicle on my side of the road for many miles, the pavement was in excellent condition (thanx, CalTrans!), and the roadbed was well-graded.
But I was really glad to get out from under those clouds.
Within a couple of miles I encountered two interesting animals.
The first was a squirrel, sitting bolt upright on the side of the road. Clearly trying to figure out, with his tiny squirrel brain, just when it might be safe to dash across the road.
The second was a beautiful red/tan deer, also standing next to the road. I slowed down, figuring I might be able to sneak up on it and grab a quick picture. Which, in hindsight, was ridiculous: while my bike is not particularly noisy, it’s not quiet.
Of course, slowing down caused the deer to leap across the road in front of me. Fortunately, its sense of timing was better than mine.
Originally, I planned to stay overnight in Markleeville, it being the furthest east community on this ride. Sadly, if it has any hotels, they don’t participate in hotels.com, so I had to stay in Kirkwood instead.
There is a great little restaurant in Markleeville, though, that I really recommend: Alps Haus. The Caesar Salad is to die for. Of course, that may have been helped by the appetite I worked up dealing with all the twisties coming down out of Ebbetts Pass.
One of the things I love about riding, particularly in the mountains, are the interesting cloud formations you often see.
But since it takes almost 20 minutes to stop, unpack the camera, take the shots, and repack the camera, you’ll mostly have to just take my word for it.
A famous ski resort near the Bay Area that I’ve never skied, and before this ride, even knew where it actually was.
The condo complex’s corridors made me feel like I’d wandered into The Time Tunnel (extra points if you know what that is).
California 4 is a narrow and often really twisty road for many miles on each side of Ebbetts Pass.
Fortunately, it’s pretty lightly traveled (and I believe large trucks are banned).
I’m not sure who Ebbett was.
But he must’ve really liked to explore, because his Pass isn’t a really easily passable pass like Donner Pass.
It’s just over 8,700 feet above sea level.
There are a surprising number of surprisingly large lakes way up in the mountains.
What’s even more surprising, if I can overuse that word, is that almost all of them have at least a couple of people fishing them.
Despite the fact that they are miles away from anything.
This stretch of California 4 is a good technical workout: it twists and drops (when going from west to east) a couple of thousand feet in a relatively short distance.
Adding to the fun is that, in many places, an error can be costly. Because there are no guardrails.
One of the great things about heading north out of San Francisco takes place right away: you get to enjoy the spectacular panorama of the Golden Gate Bridge. Assuming it’s not too foggy, of course (click to enlarge).
I don’t think I’ve ever gone up 101 without making this stop, even when the weather is lousy. Because even then the view is frequently amazing, with billowing fog blowing around the Bridge and through the Gate.
Most definitely recommended!
The ride up Highway 1 takes you through a bunch of neat seashore communities (Stinson Beach, Point Reyes Station, Bodega Bay) before going really rural (a nice place for lunch is The Lodge at Point Reyes, where Sir Francis Drake Boulevard starts). You eventually climb up quite a ways as you approach Fort Ross, so named because it was the site, many years ago, of a Russian colony set up to provide food and logistical support to Russian fur trapping operations in Alaska.
Fort Ross Lodge is a neat little roadside motel/hotel that I stayed at. Beautiful views of the ocean, as well as some interesting looking birds. Plan ahead, though, for meals, as the only food nearby is a general store/restaurant that closes early.
The ride north out of Fort Ross is spectacular, particularly if you can do it on a weekday when there’s hardly any traffic. Beautiful ocean vistas, pounding surf, forest canopies…and turkeys.
Or at least one turkey. Who couldn’t even be bothered to fly away, or even pick up the pace of his walking, when I came upon him around a curve. No, he just gave me a brief, disdainful glance, and kept on his way.
Fortunately for both of us, Thanksgiving did not come early this year.
One of my goals, in plotting out these multi-day rides, is to stay as far away from freeways and major highways as I can. Besides the fact that too many four-wheelers don’t bother to check for riders when they change lanes, freeways are generally pretty boring. The point of a freeway is to get from point A to point B as quickly as you can. The point of riding, at least for me, is to enjoy the ride.
Which is why I found myself on Mountain View Road…and learned something I hadn’t anticipated. Yes, twisty, somewhat ill-maintained roads are technically challenging, and therefore fun. But you don’t actually experience all that much of your surroundings. Because you have to really pay attention to the road 🙂 . If you don’t , you may end up taking a side trip to a local hospital.
So I’ve restructured my trip goals. Add twisties when you want some technical fun. Minimize time on freeways to avoid boredom. And spend more time on better-maintained, and better-designed, highways.
How can you not stop in a place named Boonville? I don’t mean to insult the town or its residents; it’s a nice place to take a breather, with some fun outdoor cafes and restaurants.
But the name is the clincher. I applaud the sense of humor implicit in a community that would choose the name!
Lakeport is a small city located on the western shore of Clear Lake…which until I planned out this trip I didn’t even know existed, despite the fact that I’ve traveled up and down the 101 corridor it’s near for years. Shows the value of getting off those freeways! Clear Lake is the second largest lake in California, and the largest one (I believe) wholly within California (Lake Tahoe is split between California and Nevada).
I enjoyed a nice break in a shore-front park in Lakeport, and then stayed overnight at a B&B further south in Middletown. Which is itself a nice, albeit smaller, community that happens to have a great Chinese restaurant.
Sadly, the entire Clear Lake/Lakeport/Middletown area has been ravaged by major fires over the last few years. It’s really knocked the local economies for a loop; I hope they bounce back soon.
Highway 29 between Middletown and Calistoga is a great ride: part massive redwood forest, part spectacular views going south, with a good dose of twisties.
Definitely recommended, although it’d be even more fun on a day with less traffic than I experienced (it’s a major north/south route).
Before this trip I thought of Marin County as a place I drive through on the way to something. But not anymore!
The back roads take you through all sorts of beautiful vistas. Impressive hills. Vast, rolling plains of grass. Creeks and lakes and ponds. Forests. You name it, it’s there…and there generally aren’t many other vehicles around.
The ride is even worth the traffic you have to put up with to get back to the 101 so you can get over the Golden Gate Bridge.
Riding is, or should be, a total engagement experience…because if you let your attention stray, you can pretty much guarantee that’s when something unexpected is going to happen, which will require a quick evaluation and possible response. So it’s eyes on The Road, and any other road-like thing that connects to The Road.
It turns out, though, that that’s not enough. At least during deer rutting season.
I noticed the car in front of me jam on its brakes, so I naturally hit mine, before I even realized what the underlying cause was. “Oh, it’s just a doe, dancing around on the shoulder, no doubt spooked by the cars. Ride on.”
Which is when I had to jam on my brakes really hard, again, because that lead car’s driver had stood on his. Because it turns out the doe was only one half of a pair of deer, and that six point buck on the other side of the road was going to get to his doe, whatever it took.
Fortunately, lust had not quite turned off his entire mind, so he hesitated charging across the oncoming traffic, enough so that an accident was avoided.
New riding rule: when in a forest, sweep beyond the road and shoulders to keep an eye out for crazed wildlife.
I was a little nervous about riding the Monterey Peninsula given there was a chance of rain. Not much of a chance, and not for much rain…but even a little rain is nerve-wracking, particularly so on twisty roads next to sheer drop-offs. Protected by guardrails and separated by a shoulder, but the downside of an error is uncomfortably large.
So while I was relieved that I never encountered actual rain, riding through clouds on some good twisties got the old SI (sphincter index) up to 7, or maybe even 8.
Along the way I experienced another one of those interesting trade-offs that you have to master to ride successfully. Riding thru clouds means riding on roads that are at least damp, if not wet. Wet roads reduce traction, which encourages you to take turns more slowly, with less of a lean (you turn a bike by leaning, sort of like how you ski). But less lean means broader turns…which can put you off the built-in curve of the road, resulting in you, worst case, crossing the double-yellow. Which is inadvisable when there’s on-coming traffic. So you have to balance your rational caution regarding loss of traction through too much leaning, and the pretty important goal of staying in your lane.
Well, elephant seals at least. At least hundreds of them, scattered along every flat stretch of beach front that I rode past.
Accompanied, of course, by dozens of large ape-like creatures busily snapping pictures of them.
Thanx to Wikipedia and the original photographer for making this image available.
Morro Bay is an iconic, if less-known, image of California. Something about a very large rock jutting out of the ocean just offshore the downtown sticks with people (BTW, there’s a neat little French pastry/lunch shop right across from the rock; great food, great coffee, and you can study French there with a group of local residents most afternoons if that’s your fancy).
There’s an interesting story behind that rock. It turns out it’s just one of a number of similar onshore rocks that dot the landscape southeast of the city. They’re all the remnants, as I recall, of ancient volcanoes (technically, they’re volcanic plugs).
What’s even more interesting is that they mark the boundaries of an ancient tectonic fault, and used to be much farther south. Over millions of years they’ve migrated to their current locations…and are still, slowly, on their way out into the Pacific.
Okay, Atascadero isn’t really the middle of nowhere, and I don’t mean to either offend anyone who lives there or highlight any Bay Area arrogance.
But still, I was pleasantly surprised at finding a neat, old — but very well-maintained — hotel, The Carlton, in a place where I would never have expected to find one.
Atascadero has a nice little downtown area, too. Plus, best of all, there’s a great little Mediterranean eatery — Byblos Mediterranean Grill — right around the corner from the hotel.
One of the unexpected highlights of the trip was the passage from San Miguel up to Highway 198/25. I knew from past experience that the Monterey Peninsula was breathtaking; I had no idea the valleys east of the US 101 corridor were so spectacular.
Yes, almost the entire way is a one-and-a-half lane road, with stretches that are not particularly well-maintained. But the scenery, wildlife, geology and isolation more than made up for any riding inconvenience. Plus, I got to try out the “soft” setting on my FJR-1300ES’ electronic suspension.
I didn’t stop to take pictures, which would not have done the scenery justice anyway when done with an iPhone camera. But you can get a hint of what some of the geology looked like from this Google Earth screen capture of part of Peach Valley (click to enlarge in a separate tab/window):
What this doesn’t convey is how the sides of the valley look like they’ve been sliced open with a knife, as if they were just huge piles of sand that you were being privileged to see in cross-section.
In addition to many herds of cattle, several herds of deer grazing through cleared out fields, and a seemingly infinite supply of birds and squirrels, there were two particularly interesting wildlife encounters.
The first was with a fox. Stationed in the midst of a herd of cattle. Who studiously ignored him, while he studiously ignored them…and kept his eye on me.
The second was something I’d never seen before on a road, anywhere. I was coming up a hill, and around a curve, fortunately going fairly slow. Only to see a small creature dragging itself across the road. My first thought was that it was the survivor of a hit-and-run…until I realized it had a lot more legs than any mammal I’d ever seen. It was a tarantula! Speeding — in tarantula terms — across the road. Later on I saw a second one, also attempting to cross the road. Hopefully they both made it.
Highway 25 runs north/south between Hollister and Peach Valley. It’s a fun ride, good pavement, great scenery…and hardly any other vehicles, at least on a weekday in early October.
If you get the chance, take it north out of Peach Valley into Hollister. It’s the same ride either way. But running north you get some truly amazing views of small mountains rising out of the valley floor that are worth seeing.
San Benito County Road J1 has an interesting history. It’s also in mostly terrible condition, having last been (re)built in the 1960s, I believe.
At one point it was considered as a route for connecting US 101, or at least California 25, and Interstate 5. But the route that was actually developed (California 152) is shorter, and can connect directly to the 101 without having to go over the Pinnacles.
For all of that, it runs through some beautiful countryside. For the really adventurous, you can continue eastward off of J1 to the little town of Panoche, or even further through the hills to I-5. Be forewarned, though, that east of Panoche the road turns to graded dirt. There’s also a rather spooky ghost town, called New Idria I think, which was once supported a major mercury mine…that is now a Superfund site.
Part of my journey along J1 was spent trailing three heavy construction vehicles, which appeared to be transporting cement and cement-laying equipment somewhere. I’m not sure where they ended up, as they were kind enough to pull over and let me pass them after we got to the first relatively open area. I’d love to know what kind of major project was underway that required them to be in the ass end of nowhere.
Just past where San Benito County Road J1 takes a sharp turn north there’s a giant solar power facility under construction. The project has been underway for some years…and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s running into problems because of all the roof-top photovoltaic systems being installed throughout California (the state actually generates more power than it needs during daylight hours for a good part of the year).
Nevertheless, it’s an ambitious project in the middle of a beautiful and remote plateau (click to enlarge the images).
If you want to visit the Panoche Valley area I suggest you come in from I-5 to the northeast, rather than J1 from the west. The I-5 connection is much better paved, and offers not only some amazing vistas but also a number of public parks.
Not being a native Californian, my vision of the great San Joaquin Valley was always as one of the premier sources of food on the planet. Whatever component of a meal you can think of, I assumed it was grown somewhere in the central valley of California.
It turns out that’s not true.
After riding back and forth across it several times, I’ve decided what the San Joaquin really produces are snacks. Almonds, pistachios, avocados…if it’s tasty (and probably not something you should consume too much of 🙂 ), it’s here. And, to wash it all down, we grow megatons of grapes, to be turned into wine.
So from now on when I think of the San Joaquin I’ll think of it as Snack Capital of the World.
…not to be confused with South Fork, which is to the east (I’m sure there’s a story behind that), is a delightful little community nestled up in the foothills of the Sierras northeast of Fresno. Among many other attractions, it has several gas stations, which are useful when you’re spending your day riding around the boonies.
Just north of North Fork is a beautiful alpine lake, Bass Lake. I’m definitely planning on coming back to visit the area and do some hiking; it looks like a great getaway spot.
As an added plus, there’s good cellphone coverage from North Fork pretty much all the way up to Oakhurst and beyond. Which is helpful when you’re plotting election strategy back in your home town (I never realized how much more pleasant it is to talk about local politics while you’re winding through alpine forests on a well-maintained road 🙂 ).
I presume so, at one time. Because otherwise why would you name your community ‘Mount Bullion”?
This section of California 49 is a truly beautiful, relaxing ride. You’re high enough up so that the vistas are wide, but not so high that you’re contending with twisting switchbacks (which make it difficult to admire the scenery, at least if you’re trying to not become part of the scenery).
As always, playing the right tunes adds significantly to the experience. Had there been much traffic I suspect at least some of the other drivers would’ve wondered why that rider was doing some impromptu dancing in the saddle…
Click to enlarge the photos…
This was probably the highlight of the trip: a spectacular drop into a spectacular gorge cut by the Merced River. Followed by a tasty lunch in the Coulterville General Store & Cafe (highly recommended).
Click to enlarge…
Well, not from here; you have to go to Mt Wilson, outside of Los Angeles, to see that.
But you can see a working astronomical observatory, right near the Bay Area. And if its former star attraction, a 120 inch reflector, has seen its star wane in favor of even larger scopes in far more remote areas, it’s still impressive. Plus, the views are spectacular.
Just be prepared for a lot of work getting to and from the site, regardless of which way you come (tradition has it that there are 365 curves, one for each day of the year, coming west out of San Jose; and hard as that is to ride, I think the way coming east from Patterson is even more of a challenge, because it’s much steeper in parts).
Click the photos to enlarge them…
For all the time I’ve lived in California (going on 40 years now), I’ve always been in the relatively dry (Bay Area) or very dry (Los Angeles) parts of it. There haven’t been any major rivers near where I’ve lived (the Los Angeles River being the butt of many jokes). So I’ve tended to assume, unconsciously, that there just aren’t any major rivers in California.
This turns out not to be the case. They’re just not Mississippi-class rivers (then again, few rivers are). And they tend to be sucked dry, for agriculture and personal consumption, before they get near the coastal communities.
The Merced River is an example of this. It’s a good-sized river when it comes pouring out of the Sierras (I suspect it gets pretty wild & wooly after the winter rains), and runs to the west through the central San Joaquin Valley. But by the time it gets to the San Joaquin River (which runs north/south, I believe), it’s pretty much gone. Turned into all those tasty snacks we export around the world.
One of the things I’ve unexpectedly enjoyed about riding, at least when I go off the beaten path, is the wildlife I come across. You just don’t see this stuff on interstates, or even major roads. But it’s there.
Climbing west out of Patterson I saw one of these little guys scooting along the road (mine had beautiful blue-tinged tail feathers, unlike this guy). Followed immediately by another one.
I’m pretty sure they really were roadrunners, particularly given who I next encountered on the road.
I often look for ways to stay off freeways. I don’t mind riding them; but while they’re great for getting somewhere quickly, they’re boring. So when I was figuring out how to get out to Yosemite I thought I’d take some back roads east from Livermore (I generally get to Livermore by way of Niles Canyon/CA-84; it’s a lot prettier ride than 92 -> 880 -> 580).
They offered all the scenic and riding (i.e., curves) attractions I wanted…and something I didn’t want: really impressive speed humps roughly every quarter of a mile. For miles and miles.
Actually, calling them humps isn’t accurate. They’re more like speed plateaus: you jolt up about 6 inches, ride along for 10 feet on a higher plane, and then drop back down onto the roadbed.
They do a great job at slowing traffic. But they made the ride pretty unpleasant.
I almost always have my iPhone running Google Maps to navigate me when I ride (I also run Eat, Sleep Ride with Crashguard to send alerts to family members if I go down). In fact, part of the fun of planning excursions, for me, is poring over Google Maps and Google Street View to lay out a course. So I almost never end up going someplace I don’t expect to.
But I did this time.
Somehow — I think when I was setting up on my iPhone a route I’d planned on the desktop version of Google Maps — my route got tweaked.
That did two things. First, I ended up wandering around the area west of Modesto and south of Manteca. What clued me in that something odd was going on? Getting off of CA 132, only to end up back on it about 10 or 15 minutes later. But, hey, I got to see more of a part of California I’m not familiar with.
Later, I kept thinking the highway I was on was oddly familiar..odd in that I thought I was going a different way than I had in my previous trips across the San Joaquin Valley. I finally figured out what was going on when I remembered that I’d ridden CA 132 west out of Coulterville last year. Interestingly, the route I’d planned for this trip took me through Coulterville — there’s a general store/cafe there that I like — but it required a dogleg. So in the end I wound up getting to where I wanted to go…but not by the route I had planned, and thought I was following. Rode through some great scenery, too.
Cruising through one of the small towns that dot CA 132 I was surprised to find a small family of wild turkeys darting across the road. Right in front of me. In the middle of the town.
Even though I love turkey I’m glad I managed to miss all the members of the flock.
To pass the time while riding I often listen to music through the Sena 20S headset gear tied into my iPhone via Bluetooth. It also lets me take and make phone calls…although I’ve learned not to do that when the traffic gets, uhhh, interesting.
Music and sweeping curves go very well together. And this section of CA-132 has a lot of great, sweeping curves!
I discovered the Coulter Cafe when I road through the Merced River valley on CA 49 last year (Coulterville was where I left 49 and started heading west, back home).
It’s a great little cafe/general store! The food is tasty and the people are friendly; it’s a great place to take a breather and re-energize.
You can find more information about it here.
Finally, what you’ve been waiting for: a picture!
This is the cute little town of Groveland, CA, featuring the Hotel Charlotte where I stayed. Nice staff, nice rooms, plenty of parking and, most importantly, plenty of hot water. Groveland has a number of restaurants and cafes in it (although almost all of the latter close before 4 PM). Including a very nice Mexcian place just next door to the Charlotte.
It also has a reasonably well-stocked general store. Which is important when you, say, forget your iPhone charger.
Both literally and figuratively. Riding CA-120 through the park treats you to breathtaking vistas. But it also shows off some interesting (to me, anyway) rock formations. Some of which look like the result of dropping tons of mud into a huge pile.
…and you see them pretty much everywhere off of CA 120, starting about 10 miles after you peel off the road into the national park. And not just single mountains, mind you; entire ranges of them, spanning the whole field of view. Outstanding!
When I came around a corner on saw this opening up before me I realized that, whatever might happen, the trip was totally worth it.
…and also behind. Basically, you descend about 4,000 feet in not too many miles. Here’s what it looks like facing east down towards Mono Lake:
The last time I went through the Tioga Pass, many years ago (by car), it was November, and the area reminded me of the top of Haleakala Volcano on Maui. Or Mars: dry, little vegetation and lots of red earth. Early summer — technically springtime, I bet, since the snow has just recently melted off — is different. And much more beautiful:
It even offers spectacular waterfalls!
Riding US 395 north out of Lee-Vining, along Mono Lake, is a big change from CA 120 through Yosemite National Park. For starters, there’s having to turn left across traffic onto a one-lane highway where there are a lot of large tractor-trailers moving fast.
On the other hand, that lets me do something I rarely get to do: wind out my Yamaha FJR-1300. Nothing like shifting into fifth from second doing 60 MPH after less than a few hundred feet :).
I stayed overnight in Bridgeport, a nice little town about 20 miles north of Lee-Vining. The motel I was at, the Redwood Motel, was nice, if a bit funky (funky’s okay; and I got a kick out of realizing I’d forgotten to pack shampoo because every place I typically stay includes it with the room — yet another bubble I live in that I wasn’t aware of). There were a number of other bikers staying there as well.
I had a nice dinner at the Bridgeport Inn (I can’t share the link because it’s apparently been compromised by some hacker site; but the restaurant in the Inn is first-rate). Although I was surprised to find that what I thought was a typo on the specials menu — “Porkchops” — was literally true: my dinner consisted of two (big) pork chops, a large dinner salad, a big bowl of quinoa and multiple slices of garlic toast…all for less than $25, including tax (tip was extra). That much tasty food would cost a lot more in the Bay Area!
Oh, and here’s the view I got to see just around the corner from my motel:
Riding north out of Bridgeport on US 395 was an unexpected treat. Conditions were perfect for riding — high 60s/low 70s, little traffic, and not a cloud in the sky.
But what really impressed me was how peaceful and beautiful the green emptiness was. I’m sure it looks much more stark late in the year after the vegetation has dried out. But late spring/early summer…just gorgeous.
Sadly, there wasn’t any convenient/safe place to stop and take pictures. Which may be the clinching argument on getting a GoPro :).
Hard to believe that this route was established as a toll road. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a fun ride, with a lot of beautiful scenery. But pay money to take a wagon over it? I don’t think so.
Climbing to the pass from the west is a relatively gentle grade — relative to going down the western slope — with a lot of nice switchbacks offering great views of the valley down below and the mountains rising around you. Of course, you only get to enjoy those in brief glimpses since you sort of have to pay attention to the switchbacks.
I was surprised by the amount of traffic on the road. Not that it was bumper to bumper, or anything like that. But there was a steady stream of vehicles going in both directions. Oddly enough, I was the only rider that I encountered until I was quite far down the western slope.
I mentioned that the climb up to Sonora Pass from the west is relatively gentle. Relative to what you encounter coming down the western side of the pass. It’s quite a dive! In fact, I suspect the famous “brief 26% grade” is somewhere in this stretch of the road. My wrists certainly felt that way after things leveled out a bit.
There are some spectacular views of giant granite mountain faces lining the road here…which, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to photograph because I couldn’t find a safe place to stop. Definitely worth the ride, though.
That shot showing the canyon I’d just ridden down doesn’t do it justice because you can’t see how the road hugs and wraps around some of those mountain faces.
Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I haven’t ridden, or driven, all the freeways in the world. Then again, if there are worse ones I don’t want to ride them!
Altamount Pass has it all. Hills. Curves. Gusty winds. And, at the right time of day, just the wrong amount of traffic: not enough to cause speeds to drop, and too much for a significant subset of drivers to deal with. That amazingly stupid 10 – 15% who apparently think it’s a great idea to cut in and out of traffic — leaving maybe a car length of space to spare when doing so — while driving at 75 miles per hour. All to save, maybe, 30 seconds on their trip time.
Situational awareness is really important when riding a bike, particularly on a freeway. You have to plan ahead, and consider what your evasion route — preferably routes — will be if something drops in the pot in front of you.
Riding the Altamount Pass Friday mid-morning confronted me with an additional challenge: what do you do if there’s no evasive route? The traffic was such that a pair of idiots doing something stupid several lanes and many vehicles in front of me could ripple-fire back to yours truly…and there would be little or nothing I could do but stand on the brakes — thanx, antilock system! — and hope for the best.
Remember that comment I made about those annoying speed humps on the back roads through the Altamount Pass? Maybe they’re not so bad after all.
After doing the Sonora Pass I spent the rest of the day and night relaxing in the Long Barn/Mi Wuk Village/Twain Harte area.
The Long Barn Lodge, where I stayed, was a delight. It’s just off CA 108, but you rarely hear any traffic. It’s a peaceful setting in which to relax. It also has an ice skating rink (oddly not operating in mid-July) and, best of all, a very nice pool. Relaxing in which was a great way to end a great riding day.
The only downside to staying at the Long Barn Lodge is that you have to ride to find someplace to eat (the Lodge offers cabins with kitchens, but I was renting a room).
Fortunately, there are a number of small communities not too far away with restaurants, coffee shops, and the like. Twain Harte — named after two famous 19th century writers, only one of whom I know (Mark Twain) — is a neat little town which, among other things, boasts a Chinese restaurant! Which isn’t something you often find off in the mountains of California.
Once again, I was amazed at the value proposition. Here’s roughly $15 worth of food (only the picture doesn’t show the bowl of soup you get to start):
If you’re in Twain Harte, and enjoy Chinese food, check out China House of Twain Harte.
Riding westward out of the Sierras on CA 108 you’ll pass — and likely miss, since it’s not well marked — what’s billed as the longest/oldest covered bridge in America at Knights Ferry.
It’s worth a stop, though. You can’t ride across the bridge — it’s closed to all but pedestrian traffic — but it’s impressive nonetheless. Plus, there’s a nice little museum/information center maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers that tells the story of the bridge and the area.
It’s dark in here!
Featuring convenient helmet stand!
The very last part of the hike was a 400+ foot climb over a bit less than half a mile…with very little shade. Which I’m sorry to say really got to me.
So if it’s a hot day when you do this hike you ought to consider going clockwise around the loop we took. That way the steep grade is in the beginning. While the total altitude change is the same, it’s spread out over a much longer stretch of trail.
We passed a sign warning that people were working up ahead, and telling us to make sure they knew we were coming. As it turned out we didn’t need to do that because there was no activity the day we were there.
There was a bunch of cool heavy duty equipment, though. Rollers. A dump truck. A couple of backhoes. And a bulldozer.
Fortunately I managed to resist the temptation to look for the keys and take them for a spin…
The first part of the loop we took was on the Ancient Oaks Trail. It definitely lived up to its names, offering a good number of old oaks.
One in particular was truly magnificent. The trunk must’ve been a good 10 or 15 feet thick at the base, and some of the lower branches extended about 25 or 30 feet out. And it appeared to be in great condition.
It also stood in stark contrast to most of the rest of the forest, which was almost totally composed of second or third growth trees. Makes you wonder what the area looked like before the Europeans arrived…
We stumbled upon two of these guys foraging alongside the trail we were on. I think they were waiting until we had passed, because we only saw them after we had to double-back.
While they kept their distance they were not at all shy. I got into a bit of a staring contest with one of them. Even telling him that I’d be back for him in early November didn’t cause him to look away :).
One of the great things about this hike are the panoramic views of the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Pacific Ocean off in the distance (on clear days, at least).
Barbara spotted this interesting little fellow when we stopped for a drink of water.
His camouflage was excellent…at least during the dry season!