Incredible! That’s all I can think of to say about our 2011 High Sierra Tour. It was as if God had decreed: “Traffic…begone! Roads…repave thyself! Aspens…thou shalt turn unto Gold!” This 230 mile trip went from Manteca to Arnold the hard way, over three mountain passes that top 9,600 feet.
It’s hard for me to imagine that it was only one short year ago that I rented a BMW R1100RS from Dubblelju in San Francisco and started my journey of getting back into motorcycling after a hiatus of 20 years [see previous post].
Jumping on that rental after not riding for two decades and immediately heading off for a 600 mile tour that included three steep and twisty mountain passes earned me a new nickname from my riding buddies: “Stones.” Apparently I demonstrated intestinal (or lower) fortitude on that ride. From my perspective, I was merely suppressing sheer terror and channeling my riding expertise from days gone by as best I could.
Well, that was last year. Since then, I’ve put about 4,500 miles all over Northern California on my very own Kawasaki Concours as frequent readers of this blog well know. And this year, we decided to repeat our High Sierra tour but this time conquer Sonora Pass, Monitor Pass, and Ebbetts Pass in one day.
Our initial rally point was a Starbucks on Airway Blvd. in Livermore. From there, we rode out Interstate 580 and then onwards to Hwy 120 via the I-205 cutover. After gassing up our four steeds in Manteca—Kawasaki Concours, BMW R1150RT, Triumph Speed Triple & Triumph Bonneville T100—we headed down Hwy 120 and continued on Hwy 108 which goes all the way over the Sierra Nevada mountains by way of the Sonora Pass.
Riding on the Sonora Pass Highway was phenomenal. The roads had all been freshly paved and on this Friday in October were completely devoid of cars. We stopped for lunch at the National Hotel in the historic gold rush town of Jamestown and were treated to great food and a sparky waitress. After leaving Jamestown, we wound our way through the foothills and started our climb up and over the Sierra Nevadas.
We started to wind through mini passes and secret valleys tucked away in the mountains. Words fail me in how to describe just how beautiful it was. When we started to gain significant altitude near a spectacular lava formation named the Dardanelles, we rounded a corner and came upon an amazing sight — all the aspens had turned to brilliant yellow-gold. It was breathtaking. So much so, that the biggest problem I had was balancing the competing goals of keeping up the pace necessary to reach our destination before dark, and wanting to walk around taking photos of the scenery. I will definitely be making a trip back here next October and camping overnight with the primary goal being to fill a few memory cards with photos.
We continued on up, through, and over Sonora Pass, stopping for a few minutes at the summit. Seeing the elevation made me reflect on the fact that if we were airplane pilots instead of motorcycle riders, we would be mandated by law to be breathing from oxygen masks if only a scant 376 feet higher than the summit elevation. Thinking of this, and knowing that a mere three hour ride south would bring us to the second highest mountain in the contiguous United States, helped me put the sheer majesty of the Sierra Nevada mountains into perspective. I feel fortunate to have this world-class scenery in my own (relatively) back yard.
Moving down the back side of the Sierras brought us towards the Owens Valley, an absolute high-desert jewel shared by California and Nevada. From here, Interstate 395 goes north past Lake Tahoe and Reno all the way to the Canadian border, and south towards the Mojave desert. If you haven’t traveled down I-395 and seen Mono Lake, or the ghost town of Bodie, Tioga Pass the gateway to Yosemite, or the 14,505 ft. Mt. Whitney…you haven’t seen one of the most incredible parts of California.
Heading up I-395 from the Sonora Pass takes you alongside the Walker River which is beautiful all by itself. Many fishermen were trying their luck on its meandering banks. This part of the Interstate feels much more like a back country road than the 65 MPH superslab that it actually is—although the speed limit dips to 55 MPH or lower as the road gets curvier or as it passes through local townships—watch out for local Highway Patrol cruisers armed with radar. Soon enough, though, the turnoff to Monitor Pass came along and our trek up and over the Sierra Nevadas began once again.
One of my favorite parts of the ride was the climb up to Monitor Pass. Once you climb above the valley floor, you get a phenomenal panorama of the Owens Valley. This high, there are scant trees, and only mountain peaks on the horizon as far as the eye can see. But once on top of Monitor Summit, you pass through a dense copse of all-gold aspens that are only interrupted by the road cutting through their midst. More breathtaking scenery and worthy of stopping to explore. Alas, it was getting late and we needed to scoot.
After Monitor Pass, the road winds down towards Highway 4 which winds along the north fork of the Stanislaus river. Along this road are a number of small lakes that are gorgeous alpine gems. Kinney Reservoir, Mosquito Lake, and Lake Alpine are wonderful places to stop and picnic or try your hand at fishing for rainbow trout. But the shadows were getting long as we headed up towards Ebbets Pass—our final of three mountain pathways that were discovered when California was first settled—so fishing had to wait for a different trip.
The aptly-named Alpine State Highway—Hwy 4—is quite steep and twisty, providing a healthy challenge for riders on two wheels. More than one steep uphill hairpin turn resulted in unanticipated mid-turn downshifts, and less than elegant riding. Throw in a few handfuls of dirt and rocks in the turn’s apex, and you get pucker-marks on your saddle (sort of a man’s version of doing Kegel exercises). Ebbets Pass road provides about 30 miles of this riding, and it’s all one-lane, meaning no reflectors or centerline painted on the road. Not knowing if some vacationing family’s 6,000 lb. Yukon Denali is coming around each corner just adds to the suspense of the ride.
So, after getting chased by a high sierra rancher’s dog when slowing to reconnoiter a photo spot, we made the final hour ride from Ebbetts Pass to our cabin in Arnold—where we peeled our near-frozen fingers from the grips. But of most important at that point was emptying our saddlebags (and bladders) so that we could ride to the store in Arnold and fill up with vittles and beer. We found that the Saddleman saddlebags on the Bonnie were able to each perfectly hold a 12-pack of Budweiser, leading us to wonder if they were designed that way on purpose.
That evening was polished off with too much food, too much beer, and finding a neighbor who would drive two of our members to the local bar to check out the nightlife…and yet more beer. It’s always good to have a four-wheeled friend as a designated driver because if there is ONE rule in motorcycling—especially in the mountains at night—it’s that bikes and beer don’t mix.
The next day we had a great ride over backcountry roads to check out the local towns and scenery, but more about that in part two of this story. For now, it’s enough to bask in the glory of a ride well done over scenery almost too beautiful to imagine.
Ride Map: Click here for Google map
– Date: October 21-23, 2011
– Roads: Fresh paving, smooth and well-cambered the whole trip
– Scenery: Mountains, canyons, valleys, aspen groves, conifer forests
– Weather: Perfect: mid-70s in the valleys, mid-60s on the mountain peaks
– Ride: Rolling highways, sweeping curves, mountain twisties…the whole enchilada!
– Challenge: Intermediate to advanced (not for beginners)
– Food: Bring your own for during the ride, long distances between food availability
– Gas: Easily available, but plan well to not get caught dry between towns
– Rating: 5-stars (out of 5) for overall enjoyment
Stay tuned for part two: our Saturday ride on the gold country backroads
Additional Ride Photos: