Wednesday, September 20
We woke up to a cold and windy morning in Mammoth Lakes. Once again, I was up with the sun.
While making my coffee, Greg came out of his tent and told me we needed to discuss today’s ride. The previous night, we had made plans to ride down to Panamint Springs to see “Star Wars Canyon.” Star Wars Canyon is a narrow canyon near Death Valley where military jets from Edwards AFB, China Lake, and Nellis AFB make low-altitude passes following the canyon’s curves. There is a vista point off the highway at the edge of the canyon, and the planes pass by at eye level. It was to be a short day, as Panamint Springs was only 153 miles – a 3-hour ride – away.
Greg told me he had looked at the weather forecast for Tioga Pass, since we would be crossing tomorrow. The forecast was calling for snow overnight, and Greg was concerned snow would close the highway, and we’d be stuck taking a much longer route to Mariposa on Thursday. I checked the weather forecast myself, and saw there was a 50 percent chance of snow in the pass.
We had two choices: continue to Panamint Springs and chance it – risking a ride just shy of 400 miles, taking Highway 395 south to Kramer Junction and then taking Highway 58 west to Highway 99 in Bakersfield; or forget Panamint Springs and cross Tioga Pass today. We decided the longer trip on Thursday was not worth it, and chose to cross Tioga Pass. We made a plan to cross the pass and camp in the Yosemite Valley for the night.
We packed up and headed into Mammoth Lakes to fuel up. We stopped at a Shell station, which was out of the ordinary because Dave and Greg typically, and religiously, stop at Chevron stations. After fueling up, I saw Greg had parked his bike by the store entrance and was taking a picture of it. He soon showed me why. Earlier this year, Greg had taken a motorcycle trip to Baja, Mexico, and had returned home through Mammoth Lakes. Greg got caught in a freak spring snowstorm and stopped at the Shell station. Greg showed me a picture of his motorcycle parked in the exact same place with the ground covered in snow.
We headed out and turned north on Highway 395.
After leaving Mammoth Lakes, it became fairly windy on the highway. As we approached Lee Vining, it was getting difficult to ride the motorcycle straight due to the crosswinds. I had looked at the weather report earlier and saw 25-30 mph sustained winds were forecast, with gusts up to 50 mph. I didn’t have an anemometer, but I’d guess the forecast was pretty spot on. I did what I could to keep the bike going straight — loose grip, light pressure on the bars on the left side toward the wind, and leaning my body toward the wind. It worked to a point, but my bike still wanted to veer to the right. Nevertheless, I carried on.
We made a right turn onto Highway 120 just south of Lee Vining. A short way up the road, Dave and Greg stopped on the side to take a picture. The vantage point gave me a great sense of the size of the Sierra Nevadas. Sitting at the base of 10,000+ft peaks will surely make even Andre the Giant feel small. It was also a little intimidating – we had to go up there! I’m sure the early settlers to the area thought the same thing. At least I had a road to get me there!
We started up the pass, and I soon lost sight of Dave and Greg, as usual. There were lots of other motorcyclists out on the road — Highway 120 is a popular route for them. I was perfectly fine, riding at my own pace and letting the faster folks pass me by so I could take it all in. I was taken aback by the amazing views of the mountains, and the sheer drops off the edge of the road. The road was fairly steep, but I don’t recall seeing anything as steep as the 26 percent grade in Sonora Pass. The winds continued through the pass, rocking my bike during turns, but I found my happy place and did my best to counteract them.
I passed by a resort that had been crushed by the record snowfall of the previous winter. Nobody ever thinks of snow as heavy until there’s a lot of it. Nature never ceases to amaze me with how something small like snow can cause so much damage. I passed by Ellery and Tioga Lakes, where cars full of tourists had stopped to take pictures, their jackets and other clothing flapping in the blustery winds. Mountain passes are typically windy places. The narrow opening between peaks acts like a funnel, channeling air through, compressing it and speeding it up, until it can spread out again on the other side.
I reached the top of the pass, where it must have been about 40 degrees. That’s to be expected at 9945 ft – the highpoint of California’s state highway system. I felt bad for the poor parks employees at the fee station who had to stand there in the cold.
The top of the pass is an entrance point for Yosemite National Park. Most people think of Yosemite as just the valley, but there are many other beautiful parts to the park. I had never been to any of them other than the valley.
I was amazed at the awesome scenery of this portion of the park. Many times I said, “Oh my God,” and “Wow,” in my helmet. Lush meadows and granite domes abound. Yosemite is much more than the valley, and Tuolumne Meadows along Tioga Rd. is a beautiful place.
We stopped at the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center to stretch. Tuolumne Meadows is a vast meadow, wedged between Lambert Dome on the east and Pothole Dome on the west. Hikers and tourists criss-crossed the road. RVs had to be dodged. We decided we would head into Mariposa for lunch, then return to the valley to camp at historic Camp Four.
We continued west past Pywiack Dome and Tenaya Lake … onward past picturesque Olmstead Point, where the road is literally cut into the side of a granite dome. From here, I was able to catch a glimpse of the valley’s iconic Half Dome – a view I have never seen before.
We carried on down the windy road, where the pavement – made with aggregate consisting of granite quarried inside the park – sparkles in the sun like diamonds. I turned on my video camera in hopes to capture the glimmering bits in the pavement. Someday this phenomena will be gone, as there were several places where the road had been covered by ordinary black asphalt.
We passed Big Oak Flat and turned toward the valley. On the right were hillsides I remembered being covered with trees just a few years ago. The trees were no more, erased from the landscape by fire, leaving a vast view of an empty valley.
As I approached the tunnels leading toward the valley, I caught a glimpse of El Capitan and Half Dome from the road. There’s something special about seeing them from the back of a motorcycle, a feeling you don’t get when confined inside a car with a roof on it. Motorcycles provide a panoramic view of the world around you, making you feel you are a part of the scenery instead of simply viewing it.
We rolled into Mariposa and stopped for lunch at Happy Burger, which boasts “The Largest Menu in the Sierras.” Surely enough, the menu was about 8 pages long with numerous items on each page. We placed our orders and made use of the WiFi. While watching the order window, we all gazed upon the glory that was someone else’s steak sandwich – the thing looked amazing — and wondered why we had not ordered such a delicacy. A decision was made to come back again during our stay.
After Greg put out a message out on Facebook about crossing Tioga Pass today, and where we planned to camp, we decided we would just check into the campground at the Mariposa Fairgrounds a day early to secure good spots. Once again, making good decisions has come into play.
We went to the fairgrounds and set up camp on the grass lawn. I was looking forward to sleeping on soft ground instead of the hard campsites we’d been at before. While I did have an air mattress, anyone who’s owned one can tell you that they all deflate through the night. Comfort prevails.
We set up our camp and introduced ourselves to the other early birds. We were all pretty tired, so the night ended early. Wouldn’t you know it, just after we went to bed it started raining and carried on for a few hours.
Tioga Pass was closed in the morning … snow.
Day 4: 138.9 miles. Total Distance: 820.22
Highways Taken: US-395, CA-120, Big Oak Flat Rd., CA-140, CA-49