After a rocky launch this trip has quickly turned into one of my favorites. Cruising through all sorts of different Californias, spectacular vistas, giant trees…and the twistiest road I’ve ever ridden! What’s not to like?
Before leaving Coalinga for the Sierras I happened to do some more research on the area I’d targeted. And I’m glad I did! Because I discovered that by not taking the shortest possible route through the mountains to my next stop I’d get to see and experience a whole bunch of cool things I would otherwise have missed. Always check out the alternatives before finalizing your route!
My “new” route took me to CA-190 and the town of Springville in the foothills of the Sierras. As I crossed the San Joaquin Valley I was once again impressed with how many different crops are raised there. This route even included actual staples, like corn1!
It was also very windy, something I hadn’t experienced on my earlier trips across the Valley. It was “interesting” to experience the turbulence caused by giant semis blasting by me in the other direction at a combined speed of 130 miles per hour. I guess I should’ve realized that large, flat open spaces don’t do much to slow down air movements, so once they get started, they just continue to grow.
And there were a lot of semis, even on the back roads I was on! Square miles of cultivation require enormous freight capacity to get the food to places where it can be processed or sold.
I stopped in Springville to buy some Windex and paper towels to clean my windshield and face mask before climbing into the mountains. Not a single gas station along my route had cleaner fluid and wipers available2!
But it turns out that need was a blessing in disguise, because a woman in the general store directed me to a really cool lunch place, The Wild Oak. It bills itself as a coffee and pastry place. But it has some of the best salads, and the best balsamic vinaigrette dressing, I’ve ever had. Definitely worth a stop if you’re in the area.
Climbing the Sierras eastbound out of Springville was a blast! But not for the faint of heart. There are reputed to be over 200 curves — most with steep drop offs into the canyon the road follows — before you reach the summit. I didn’t try to count them. For that matter, I didn’t get to see many sights, either, because about half the time when I did so I ended up misjudging the entry vector into a curve (there were few straight sections) and had to work hard to not cross the double yellow. Not always successfully…but fortunately there was nothing coming at me when I did. Some mistakes you don’t pay for.
Once you get to the “summit” — at the Quaking Aspen Campground — the road opens up and straightens out, turning south. What’s neat about that is that you get to bomb along on what is essentially the spine of the western ridge of the Sierras. It’s possible, in fact, to go quite fast in some parts — there’s no one around, the road is great and there are long straight stretches. Not that I, of course, did any such thing.
The un-neat part of the journey is it runs through the edges of a massive wildfire from a few years ago. There are still a lot of live trees around…but there are a lot of burned, dead ones, too. I’m sure it’ll recover. But I’ll be long dead by the time it does.
A really cool part of the trip — and the other main reason, besides the twisties, I’m glad I changed my route, is the Trail of the Giant Sequoias. You can see more, and bigger, sequoias in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park. I’ve done that. But I know of no other place where you can walk up to examples of these stupendous trees right off an easily-driveable highway. The short hike wasn’t even a challenge wearing motorcycle gear. There’s even a gift shop.
Under the you-meet-the-most-interesting-people-on-the-road life category I ran into two young men hiking among the sequoias. When they stopped to take pictures of each other in front of one of the trees I offered to take a picture of both of them (they reciprocated and took a picture of me, too). I could tell from their accent they weren’t Americans, so I asked where they were visiting from. You can imagine my surprise when they said “Transylvania” (!!). To which I replied by asking “So, how’s Vlad doing?” They replied with “He’s sleeping”…to which I replied “Uh oh, that’s not a good thing!”, causing all three of us to burst out laughing3.
From there I road down into the Kern River valley to John McNally’s Fairview Lodge, where I’m spending the night. One of the amazing things I learned planning this trip is that the Kern River flows south out of the Sierras, because the Sierras split into east and west forks before they peter out. With the river between the forks.
Which is also why the summit on the western fork of the Sierras isn’t considered a pass. You don’t go over it so much as climb up to it and then run down into the headwaters of the Kern River. From where you can then go up the eastern fork of the Sierras, through the Sherman Pass, and down into the Inyo Valley. But that’s tomorrow’s chapter.
Postscript: right as I was finishing this post we were “strafed” by two fighter jets at low altitude. Very impressive! At dinner the hostess said she always found those low altitude runs surprising because “they don’t fly that low over Kernville”, which is just downriver.
Which prompted me to reply: “Hang on, you know the kind of guys who fly those things. They probably do it deliberately, to spook people in the canyon.” Because boys will be boys, no matter what their age, or their biological gender.
I’d previously dubbed the San Joaquin the Valley of Snacks because it seemed to be nothing but grapes, almonds and fruit trees ↩
You’re off my Christmas card list, Valero, because you let me down; I should’ve checked out the more expensive stations instead. ↩
Vlad in this case referring to Vlad the Impaler, the source of the Vlad Dracula story; if he’s sleeping it means he might come back to drink your blood. ↩