Cycling the Sierras
Crossing into California the first things we noticed were impatient horn blasts, drivers squeezing past, and even the odd spray of abuse. Not unusual in an Australian setting, but it made us realise that rude and intolerant driver behaviour had been almost entirely absent from our first few months on the road. So, our first days in California aside, America is definitely winning in the driver attitude stakes.
One of the selling points of the Sierra Cascades cycle route had been the opportunity to visit both high profile and lesser known National Parks along the way. With this in mind we’d purchased an annual National Parks Pass back in Alaska. For US$80 this gives us free entry to all federal parks and reserves in the country for a year. Both of us. Actually, up to four cyclists travelling together can use a single Pass. No wonder the National Parks Service is short of funds.
Visiting historic Park lodges, old Visitor Centres, and seeing classic photographs and signage from the early days of the American National Parks system is a step back in time. Some of the restored hotels and lodges are virtual museums – with fireplaces you could walk into and a sort of ‘log cabin’ chic. Despite the often arduous journey required to access many sites, the American public has long been captivated by their National Parks – old photographs show that clogged ‘roads’, crowds, and ramshackle development of hotels, railroads and entertainment venues is nothing new. Certainly the growth in visitor numbers (around 4 -5 million annually at Parks such as Yosemite and the Grand Canyon) poses some interesting challenges to balance recreational use with conservation.
The countryside here looked bone dry and parched, and in the afternoon heat everything had a bleached, washed out look….
Long hot days in the saddle with multiple ascents to contend with meant that there were some evenings when even the prospect of a shower failed to generate any enthusiasm – nothing much happened post ride until a significant amount. of caffeinated beverage had been ingested.
Our forays into various National Parks have meant opportunities to down bike and head for the hiking trails. It has been a humbling experience to be such a ‘lean, mean, cycling machine’ – and then to start walking and more or less instantly dissolve into a pathetic, wobbly-legged mess. Hard to take when gnarly old men (who probably qualified for their Seniors Card a decade or so ago) stride past us with encouraging smiles.
Riding through the tall trees, lakes, pumice beds, and house-sized lumps of lava in the Lassen Volcanic National Park, we paused to hike into the intriguingly named ‘Bumpass Hell’. Although the unfortunate Mr Bumpass undoubtedly deserves recognition for his efforts in exploring and promoting this area, he is mostly remembered for the misstep that plunged his leg into boiling water while guiding one of the first tour groups to visit the thermally active site. He subsequently lost his limb and for him it certainly was hell. We stayed firmly on the boardwalk and thus enjoyed an incident-free walk.
Our route has taken us through some classic ‘Main Street USA’ towns. Some are so neat and clean they look almost polished, Other places are ramshackle and virtually deserted. Local elections are coming up and electioneering signs are everywhere – ranging from the basic tacked up poster to giant billboards.
Entering Yosemite National Park from the east it was immediately obvious that we were in a wildly popular area. And the reasons were clear – the ride from Tioga Pass to Tuolumne Meadows, and across the high plains was stunning, with its photogenic placid lakes, contorted trees and soaring granite peaks. A day of low cloud and rain at high elevation ended with freezing overnight temperatures. Ed’s cycling shoes, left out to ‘dry’, froze solid; thus delaying our next morning departure while he tried to defrost them over the camp stove.
Descending to Yosemite Valley we kind of wished we hadn’t. The horrendous traffic and overcrowding made for a pretty stressful visit. Heading off for a walk early we managed to avoid the crowds – but as we descended back towards the valley we were greeted with a virtual wall of humanity surging up the trail. I gave up counting bodies after about 400 people passed us, and we quickly retreated to the rocking chairs on the verandah of the lounge at Half Dome Village. I suspect that this very pleasant facility was probably intended for lodge guests, but we certainly enjoyed the hiatus from the cramped and noisy campground.
Leaving Yosemite we encountered Ben, another Aussie on a bike. We quickly found that we shared a similar pace and interest in ice-cream and beer – and had no trouble convincing him that he would be missing out if he didn’t come climb a variety of long steep hills in scorching temperatures with us for a few days. As we rode we noticed that the forest was pockmarked with dead and dying trees – pine bark beetle having an increasing impact on trees already stressed by prolonged drought.
As usual we’ve found a variety of camping options. At one memorable commercial campground the owners seemed to take a liking to us and set us up on a lush grassy site, shifting a table for us and supplying a tablecloth(!) and running an extension cord so we could access power and wifi. We’ve discovered peaceful ‘closed for the season’ Forest Service sites (locked gates pose no barrier to determined, penny pinching cyclists); and really anywhere we can access a table scores pretty highly.
Passing Lake Tahoe, the area was dotted with some seriously upscale real estate, and inviting beaches.
Looking for a bush camp, our options weren’t looking good until we found a promising side track. This quickly began to wind its way steeply uphill, but after a couple of kilometres we had invested too much effort to quit. Confirming from a passing motorist that the track did actually lead to a lookout and trailhead we continued climbing, finally reaching an old fire lookout. With stunning views it proved to be a perfect spot to spend the night.
Stopping for water on the scorching hot ascent to Kings Canyon NP we found ourselves at the Fawlty Towers-eque Snowline Hotel. The amiable owner was happy for us to pitch our tents on the small patch of grass out front, and my enquiry about cold drinks was answered with ‘I dunno, have a look in the fridge’. Of course – we just helped ourselves from behind the bar and left the money on the counter. The dimly lit bar area was garnished with random posters, the odd oil painting, photos, a mannequin on the piano & other paraphernalia. The loo door could be found behind the full-size John Wayne poster. There were actual paying guests, and hopefully they were mildly amused by the bicycle sideshow that took place out front.
It’s been several months now since our rest break in Yakima, and the fatigue has definitely built up. Some days blurred into a mist of back pain and weariness from the relentless climbing. Those times when you can’t appreciate a scenic view because all you can do when you get off the bike is hang your head and blearily study the salt encrusted straps of your Camelbak. I hate it when my bike computer beeps accusingly as the ‘auto-pause’ function activates as I climb – making me feel that even my GPS device thinks my uphill progress is so pathetic that it’s not worth recording.
So around this time we got to meet up with a friend from Canberra – the chance to see a familiar face, catch up on news and feel a sense of connection to home was more precious than I can adequately express.
If Tony expected some reluctance on our part when it came to having a break off the bike, he would have been shocked at the willingness, no, make that glee, with which we leapt into his hire car for a day of motorised sightseeing. Thank you, thank you Tony for detouring out to see us – the lift in our spirits carried us long after you left.
Our climbs in the Sierra Nevada also carried us into the restricted elevation range of the Sequoia forests. These awe-inspiring monarchs were incredible to see, soaring high above us as we passed.
After farewelling Tony, we left Sequoia National Park in high spirits, buzzing along through more Sequoia forests, ascending the gi-normous Mono Rock, descending a series of smile-inducing switchbacks, and then spotting our first ‘lower 48’ black bear in a roadside tree – it was a magnificent day and we couldn’t have been happier.
Despite thinking we must be about done with the whole ‘bearanoia’ thing, the following morning I lay in our tent looking up at the overhanging tree, and realised that the thrashing branches above contained a large black bear. Further investigation revealed two cubs also feasting merrily on a berry vine that had engulfed the tree. Rather than cook our breakfast pretty much directly under their noses we adjourned to a nearby picnic table where we could watch them from a distance.
Finally emerging from the high Sierras, we diverted from the Adventure Cycling mapped route to head east to Las Vegas. With temperatures in Death Valley still hitting a max of 40C we increased our water-carrying capacity and headed off into the desert.
Winding our way into Las Vegas we had a last stop at Red Rock Canyon …
Virtually on the outskirts of the city, this was an ideal launching point, and the road fed us almost straight in to our hotel.
We’d been looking forward to the novelty of a real bed, with a pillow that didn’t consist of layered clothing topped off with a down jacket . In reality, while we enjoyed the bright lights and (more importantly) pizza, after three nights in the big city we were more than ready to leave …..
Rubber side down,
Ed & Gaye