California’s Highway 395 runs north-south along the base of the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountain range. There are few towns along this byway to interrupt the vast geological expanse of rugged mountains that rise to the west and the rolling high desert to the east. The road stretches like taffy, seemingly attaching itself to a far-off matte-painted horizon that teasingly pulls further away with every passing kilometer. This is desolate, rugged terrain that’s served as the backdrop for countless American cinema westerns. It’s one of the most remarkable, and overlooked, stretches of road in the U.S.
…. At least that’s how I’ve sold it to Liam, and now he’s champing at the bit for some hardcore americana.
We base ourselves in Mammoth Lakes, a ski and mountain-bike town about five hours north of Los Angeles. At an elevation of 2130 meters, the town of Mammoth is known for its alpine lakes, long riding and hiking trails, road riding and a resort that offers year-round outdoor action. Driving in, we see the air has a thick layer of smoke that hangs over our destination. Hovering helicopters carry massive scoops water to a nearby forest fire that’s been burning for three weeks. As we pull up to our lodgings, my lungs immediately struggle with the thin and smoky air.
Greg, our photographer, and I are hosted at The Crib, a shared condo meant for endurance athletes who come to Mammoth for serious training. Although that hardly describes either Greg or me, we are sharing it with Justin Oien, a pro continental rider from the Caja Rural-Seguros team. He’s here for a block of altitude training before returning to Europe for a summer of racing. Having lived solo in his van for much of this block, Justin eagerly welcomes the company. He tells us that wind patterns make mornings the best time to ride to avoid the smoke.
MAMMOTH & THE OWENS RIVER VALLEY
I’ve ridden along the eastern Sierra Nevada quite a bit, but very little of it in the Mammoth area. When it comes to off-road exploring, the routes up here will be as new to me as they are to Greg and Liam. We meet up with a local rider for some advice on the Strava routes we have mapped out. She has little feedback for our course, so Liam, Greg, Justin and I just decide to go for it.
We head out on the Mammoth Scenic Loop, a classic local road route, before turning into the surrounding tree-shrouded forest roads. The ground is loose, soft and dusty. Three of us have all-surface bikes with wide tyres that grip the trail with confidence. Our adopted pro is riding his team bike, a De Rosa Protos with tight race geometry and slim 23mm tyres. His rear wheel fishtails and spins out with every one of his powerful pedal strokes. In spite of not having the right gear for the gig, Justin’s bike-handling skills show why he’s the pro and we are not. He takes every surface change, attacks every climb and charges every descent with a confident smile.
Eventually, our crew emerges from the tangled web of forest trails back onto 395’s familiar asphalt surface. After a quick water refill at a nearby rest stop, we cross the the highway and turn on Owens River Rd, a long gravel path that stretches to the horizon. The surface is much rockier and more exposed than the forest we’ve just left behind. Small rocks and pebbles create a more jarring ride, and hands, wrists and forearms fatigue from the ceaseless vibrations. This valley floor we are on skirts the base of some of the tallest peaks in the continental United States. The same peaks explored by John Muir and photographed by Ansel Adams in earlier times. Our road takes us along high-desert ranches with grazing herds, hot springs and quiet streams where anglers fly fish for trout.
After 90 tiring minutes of steady rouleur-style riding we cross the 395 once again, taking the dirt road that dead ends at Convict Lake, a breathtakingly photogenic alpine lake. We stop for a quick lunch before mounting our return to Mammoth. Justin and Greg choose headwind over any more dirt and ride the highway back. Liam and I, alternatively, take our chances with the unknown and follow a dirt path up a meadow. After some questionable twists and turns, we keep pointed north, knowing this will bring us all back together at the The Crib before the afternoon smoke once again creeps into town.
Yosemite is one of the most iconic destinations in America’s National Park system. The majority of its 4,000,000 annual visitors access the park through the main entrance on the west side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. On the east side of the range, there is a long 18 kilometer climb up to a back entrance to Yosemite at 3100 meters. This is the Tioga Pass.
The road is long, steep, winding and narrow. We decide to make the climb from Mono Lake, at the base. For Justin, it is a proper interval day; we will only see him as he passes us going up and down and back up and down again. Greg’s left his climbing legs at home, so he opts to sag us from the car. That means it’s really just Liam, me and distracted passing tourists making their way to the park gate.
We crawl our way up the long valley. On our right, we skirt a high, jagged cliff, which is far more comforting than the sheer drop-off we’ll have later on the descent back down. The road makes sweeping turns back onto itself as it winds its way upward past cold, mountain lakes into the clouds. Behind us, the usually imposing Mono Lake begins to look small, distant and insignificant.
As we enter the park, the entire tone changes. The road narrows, becoming more congested with drivers preoccupied by momentous scenery. We hit a fast, rolling descent that takes us past meadows, scenic vistas, streams and small ponds. The sun’s rays peek through the tall dense forest, casting an ever-changing chiaroscuro of shadows that require extra attention at these speeds. We make a quick stop at Tuolumne Meadows, where the general store is packed with a small army of nature-worn Pacific Crest Trail hikers who look like they’ve transported here from 1973.
Liam and I grab a quick snack and decide to knock out the massive descent back to the car before the park gets anymore crowded. Our 90-minute climb from the start of the day is now a blisteringly fast 20-minute descent to the town of Lee Vining, where we re-join Greg for a lakeside lunch.
THE MOUNT WHITNEY PORTAL
On our way back to Los Angeles, we stop in Lone Pine for a short ride ... and to find Liam some rustic pull-tab-beer-can americana. This is a one-street town lined with old wooden facades that belong to a different era. Originally made famous as a setting for classic Hollywood westerns, the town is now more commonly known as the gateway to Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental US.
We saddle up and head several kilometers west of town on Whitney Portal Rd. As the buildings fade away, we veer onto a dirt road. The immediate landscape is dotted by huge, undulating rock formations seemingly slammed to Earth by giants, while Mount Whitney dominates everything in the backdrop. This is the Alabama Hills.
Our time is short and we can only skirt the edges of these remarkable formations. We ride through natural arches, get briefly lost in natural mazes and glide up and roll over smooth drop offs into desert flow trails. In this one hour of riding, we generate a week’s worth of hard laughs and cheek-busting smiles. The Alabama Hills are high on our list for deeper exploration. Although grateful for the time we’ve had here, we know the brief stop has been little more than a single-bite appetizer that teases the palette.
This is typically the case for much of California’s Highway 395. Trips here never cease to inspire, if not cajole, the need to return soon. Sticking to the main highway is a certain, and rewarding, visual treat. The real adventure, however, happens by making unplanned detours onto the countless tiny dirt roads that spindle their way off east into the desert and west into the mountains.
Words & Images: Bryan Yates & Greg Erwin
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