Sierra Nevadas: Three Days and Three Rides in California’s Motorcycle Playground
For most motorcyclists, riding the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California means cruising over passes like Ebbetts, Carson, Monitor, Sonora or Tioga, or visiting the great national parks like Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon.
Preferring less-traveled roads, my trio of Sierra rides covers some of the overlooked mountain roads on the western side of the central and southern Sierras. In the late spring through early fall, you can ride fantastic deserted roads past beautiful blue alpine lakes, awesome granite formations and lush forests.
The first ride starts on the east side of Bakersfield, California, heading up State Route 178 from the intersection at State Route 184. This twisty route up the Kern River Canyon is quite scenic, with views of the rugged river and massive rock formations. At Lake Isabella, State Route 155 heads north, but I’m not on it long before riding into Kernville for gas and breakfast at Cheryl’s Diner. Then I cross over the Kern and turn north to parallel the river on Sierra Way. This is semi-arid, sparsely forested country, with burned areas near the Tulare county line that have been slow to recover.
As the road climbs, I encounter more and more curves and thicker forest before reaching the Johnsondale Bridge over the Kern. From here, one could take Sherman Pass Road east over the Sierras to Kennedy Meadows and State Route 395. SPR can be a real challenge, however, as it’s a driveway-wide road full of potholes and covered with sand and gravel, with several blind curves. Today’s ride is more relaxed, so after crossing the bridge I ride onward on Sierra Way, entering beautifully forested terrain. Farther along there’s a stop sign where the Western Divide Highway begins, which will take me to Redwood Meadow campground and the Trail of 100 Giants, an easy walk through one of the premier groves of giant sequoias, some of which are estimated to be up to 1,500 years old. This is the Giant Sequoia National Monument (not Sequoia National Park) so I’m virtually by myself—no tourists.
After a serene walk among these beautiful giants, I’m back on the bike, swaying through curves bordered with cinnamon-colored tree trunks before State Route 190 takes me down to the valley floor and Springville. About halfway down this very curvy road that passes through dark tree shadows and bright sunshine, near the Tule River powerhouse, there’s the interesting old remains of an 1870s flume that was used for transporting water down to the valley.
Just east of Springville, Balch Park Drive (J37) is a pleasant country road bordered by grassland and ranches that takes me to Yokohl Valley Road at a tricky “Y” intersection, where the asphalt mambo really starts. I dance among the golden hills for a while before following the signs to Exeter, which has a small-town atmosphere and a mid-20th century look, with 20 murals on the walls around town depicting some of its history. The Wildflower Café serves up an excellent late lunch, then I leave Exeter heading west and north for a night in Fresno.
The second ride is an enjoyable loop that starts and ends in Fresno. I leave town on State Route 168, which undergoes several name changes while providing enjoyable curves and scenery. The fun begins in the foothills, with gentle curves weaving through grassy horse and cattle ranchland. A few miles after gassing at Prather, 168 turns into a wide four-lane with giant sweepers providing vistas of the San Joaquin Valley. Eventually it morphs into a windy, narrow two-lane flowing into Shaver Lake. Here I take Dinkey Creek Road toward Wishon Reservoir, a wide two-lane with open gentle curves. This is lush forest country with granite formations and grassy meadows. It’s early, so I’m dealing with kamikaze deer and ground squirrels. After 16 miles, McKinley Grove Road demands more attention, starting out with several miles of tight curves through beautiful forest. Reaching McKinley Grove, a small stand of giant sequoias, I make a rest stop. As the only person here, the spiritual sense of these living giants is striking.
Nearby Wishon Reservoir at 6,550 feet elevation, and Courtright Reservoir at 8,170 feet, form a pump storage hydroelectric system. When electrical demand is low, water is pumped from Wishon up to Courtright. When there’s high electrical demand, water is released from Courtright through turbines to generate electricity—like a huge storage battery! You can ride up to Courtright Reservoir and view more gorgeous granite-topped mountains on a mostly deserted but narrow, potholed and sandy paved road.
After cooling off in the high country, I start swinging and swaying back to Shaver Lake to take State Route 168 northward toward Huntington Lake. Just east of Shaver this road gets quite twisty, but then transforms into a nice open two-lane with sweeping curves. Here it’s nice to recover from the earlier riding demands and simply enjoy the mountain scenery. Cruising down into the Huntington Lake basin, there are great views of a beautiful alpine lake. At the headwaters of Huntington is the Portal Powerhouse, a 10,000-kilowatt hydroelectric generating unit that receives a dramatic blast of water through a 15-foot-diameter tunnel.
Leaving via Old Huntington Road through Big Creek, the road is so narrow there’s no room for a centerline and it’s covered with sand in several places. Below the dam is a large burn area where brush and numerous 6- to 8-foot baby pines have regrown. Halfway down Old Road is the operating center for Big Creek Hydroelectric System, home of the hardest working water in the world. From the Sierras, it flows through numerous hydroelectric generating plants in a stair step manner all the way to the San Joaquin Valley.
After Big Creek, open curves and lush green forest scenery take me to Shaver Lake, where I enjoy a leisurely afternoon lunch on a sunny patio. Then it’s a relaxing solitary cruise on State Route 168 down the mountain to my Fresno motel while contemplating the wonderful mountain roads I’ve just enjoyed.
On day 3, leaving Fresno via State Route 41 to Friant Road takes me to the base of Friant Dam and the town of Friant. After a left on Road 206 and bearing right on Road 145/Road 211, the road becomes a hilly two lane with lots of curves through grassy pastures with horses and cattle. Eventually I reach Road 200, which meanders by more ranch land up to North Fork and then to South Fork. I fuel up here—there isn’t gas until I come back down the mountain—and continue on Road 225, looking for Minarets Road (Mammoth Road/Sierra Vista National Scenic Byway/U.S. Forest Service Route 81). The occasional USFS 81 sign keeps me on the Scenic Byway. Minarets Road begins five or so miles out of North Fork and bears off to the left at the Mammoth Pool Mobile Home Park. Before I turn left onto the Byway, I continue right on Road 225 (Italian Bar Road) for a mile in order to reach the geographic center of California, denoted by a monument. Once fully centered, I head back to the Scenic Byway.
Starting up the mountain, I’m leaning through curve after curve, with the San Joaquin River on the right and passing through semi-arid forest with stands of oak trees in fields of shrubs and grass. Around 4,000 feet, the trees take over until I’m riding through shaded canyons of tall pines. This is a great road to exercise your tilt meter while watching for the occasional logging truck and deer. Soon I reach the Jesse Ross Log Cabin, which was built in the late 1860s and is one of the oldest standing log cabins in the area. Back on USFS 81, I continue weaving through more curves in awe of this spectacular Sierra beauty.
Soon I arrive at Mile High Curve, with great views of Mammoth Pool Reservoir in the San Joaquin River canyon, followed by Mile High Vista with more stunning Sierra scenery. But today my goal is Arch Rock, almost at the end of the paved part of USFS 81. At the marked Arch Rock turnout there’s a short walk to one of the few California rock arches. This one seems particularly unlikely and precarious.
It’s 11 miles back down 81 to USFS Route 6S71, a well-maintained but narrow and curvy slalom of pavement that passes through magnificent forest and lovely meadows. After 13 miles of slalom pleasure, I reach Beasore Road (USFS Route 7), turn right and head up the mountain at a relaxed pace over gentle curves through exquisite forest. After about six miles there’s a “PAVEMENT ENDS—1,000 FEET” sign, but the pavement continues, just with numerous potholes. Globe Rock is ½-mile farther, a large granite sphere resting atop a small rock perch. This unusual geological feature was once a gathering place for the Mono Indians, as seen by the many grinding holes in the surrounding rock.
Turning around, I cruise down USFS 7 by Jones Store, relaxing on a sedate mountain road in cool forest. On the last section before Bass Lake, the curves really tighten and I have to start concentrating. Reaching Road 274 I hang a right and motor to the end of the lake, looking for Road 222 on the left. This takes me to The Forks, a resort, store and restaurant. After a super grilled ham and cheese sandwich, the right fork signed for Oakhurst starts me on the way back to Fresno via Roads 223, 221, 200 and State Route 41.
After three days of riding like this, I always have a hard time believing that I’m able to take in such a magnificent display of mountain scenery, bold granite formations, beautiful meadows and blue alpine lakes just by jumping on the bike and taking off. Choosing the less-traveled roads of the Sierras also means not having to contend with traffic or hoards of tourists. It’s a memorable experience you can repeat whenever the weather cooperates.
(This article Sierra Nevada Secrets was published in the April 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)