25 Ways to get over the Sierra Nevada Mountains

Pass-bagging is a time-honored Alpine pastime (no
pun intended), the idea being to see how many mountain passes
you can ride over in a given period of time. Fortunately, we
don't have to go all the way to the Alps just to knock off a few
passes; we have a bunch in our own backyard, just to the east
of the Bay area.

The Sierra Nevada is a stunning chain of mountains,
running roughly from the Tehachapi Pass on CA 58 between Mojave
and Bakersfield some 430 bird-flying miles north to Fredonyer
Pass on CA 36 between Susanville and Red Bluff.

In between are a whole bunch of passes very much
worth shooting. Late June is the best time to go, with many
hours of daylight and the snow, if not entirely gone, at least
pushed to the sides of the roads. Of these passes, at least
nine have no pretense at all of being plowed out in the winter.

The simplified score-keeping system has X number of
passes and summits in Y days; the more sophisticated version has
you taking the height of each conquest and adding it all up.

The Sierras are a rugged lot of mountains, young in
geological terms - only a million years old and still growing;
as recently as 1872, there was some serious activity. It is a
faulted system, wherein great pressure from underneath forces a
break in a thin spot in the earth's crust, and up go the

To approach these mountains from the western side is
nothing spectacular; that is the far side of the fault and the
sfopes roll relatively gently down into the San Joaquin Valley.
But to see the mountains from the east, the Nevada side, is
dramatic. They seem to go straight up, which dealt a mortal
blow to many emigrant hopes in the 1850s. You not only had to
get across the high desert to reach the east side, but then had
to figure out how to breach that imposing escarpment.

Today, it's easy. Running along the east side is US
395, along the west is CA 99. All the passes run more or less
between these two north/south highways, though you'll hear a lot
about CA 49 and CA 89, as well.

Heading east from San Francisco Bay, I'd recommend
picking up CA 132 off CA 99 in Modesto and heading right
across the valley into Coulterville. A great old town, with a
great old 1899 hotel, the Jeffrey. From there, it's J20 up
Greeley Mill until it ends at CA 120, which heads east through
Yosemite, where you fork over $5 to the Yosemite Park Ranger at
the gate at the top; I'd rather support my national park system
than the B-2 any day. It's a long, wonderful climb up over
Tioga Pass (el. 9,941'); the road surface is new, but it wasn't
always that smooth. The great Sierra Wagon Road (original
name) opened up in 1883. After the pass, it's a steep drop
down to US 395, Lee Vining and Mono Lake.

Head north over Conway summit (el. 8,138'), through
Bridgeport, then over Devil's Gate Summit (el.7,519') to the CA
108 turn-off. Shoot past the US Marine Corps mountaineering
base through Pickel Meadows, by Walker Mountain, and a very
steep, twisty climb over Sonora Pass (el. 9,642'). Then, it's
a long run down past Kennedy Meadows to Sonora. Busy, little
town - county seat and all that, but you want to be shed of
the place and head north on CA 49, turning right on E 18 to
Columbia. Great place - living history, etc., and a
magnificent hotel, the Fallon.

Continue on over the Stanislaus River until E18
ends at CA 4. A right, and you're making a long, gentle run up
to Ebbetts Pass (el. 8,730'), compliments of a Major Ebbetts.
For what it's worth, this is my favorite of all the Sierra
passes. Nice road, few cars; it was never used by emigrants,
but after the discovery of gold In Nevada, it did develop into
a stagecoach route. CA 4 runs into CA 89, where the Silver
King River is joined by Loope Creek. Just up the road is
Markleeville and beyond that, CA 89 and 88 run together for a

At Picketts Junction, CA 88 becomes the Old Emigrant
Road and goes up over Carson Pass (el. 8,573'). 'Twas Kit
Carson hisself who investigated this route back in the early
1840s, and that, in turn, became the Pony Express route in 1860.
Come down past Carson Spur and take the turn to the right,
the Mormon Emigrant Trail, which hooks you up to US 50 at
Pollock Pines.

That's the way the pony riders went, but they
continued on down to Placerville, whereas you want to turn right
on US 50 and head back over Echo Summit (el. 7,362'). This was
the old Johnson Pass road, named after an American who set up
ranching in Alta California before the United States annexed it.
Apparently, his name was too common and he lost out to Echo
Lake for posterity.

Drop down to Lake Tahoe and pick up CA 89, skirting the
west shore. It runs right into 1-80, and you go west to clear
Donner Summit (el. 7,239'); anybody who doesn't know the story
behind that name flunks the history test.

At Chubb Lake, get off the Interstate and onto CA 20 to
Nevada City, where you pick up CA 49 going north. Gorgeous
riding, but at Camptonville, you have a decision to make. Here
is a dual purpose option, but nobody will accuse you of being a
wimp if you stick to the paced roads. The right turn leads to
Henness Pass (el. 6,806'), the only remaining dirt road over
the Sierras; these are bonus points. The Henness Pass Road was
opened in 1852, and later served as the main route between
Virginia City, Nevada, and Marysville, California. The pavement
ends just beyond Camptonville, and doesn't start again till
Jackson Meadow Reservoir, and then things get a little bumpy.
If the weather has been good, the road is eminently passable,
even on a full-grown touring bike - just go very slowly. You'll
think you're heading into primeval wilderness, but before long
you'll realize the loggers have been there before you. Lots of
them, apparently. Those in search of a low- grade thrill should
hunt out the Gallway Road turnoff of Henness Pass Road, which
cuts north to the Yuba river and Downieville. None of this
switch-backing nonsense, the road just goes straight down.
About a one-in-five grade on dirt. If you lock up your
wheels, you'll slide all the way down. Don't do it!

Should you choose to opt out of that one, you can
head up CA 49 along the Yuba River on a magnificent
motorcycling thoroughfare with good pavement, little traffic,
and open curves. Downieville is on CA 49; head up-river and
in 30 miles you'll be at Yuba Pass (el. 6,701'). Keep on CA 49,
crossing CA 89, and you break out into the great Sierra Valley,
lying at about 4800 feet. CA 49 dead-ends at Vinton, hard by
the headwaters of the Feather River. A jog right on CA 70
parallels you with the Pacific Western Railroad, and you go up
Beckwourth Pass (el. 5,221,), while the train goes under the
pass. James P. Beckwourth was one of the original California
trapper types. He came over this pass in 1851, and it proved to
be the easiest way to cross the Sierras.

There is a 60-mile drone from Hallelujah Junction up
US 395 along the eastern flank of the Diamond Mountains, which
constitute the northeastern corner of the Sierras, to
Susanville. There, you pick up CA 36 and hustle over Fredonyer
Pass (el. 5,748') and down 1200 feet to Lake Almanor.

If you want to do this properly, continue on CA 36 over
Morgan Summit (el. 5,753'), continuing on to Mineral, where you
turn left for the Mill Creek loop (CA 172), picking up
Mineral Summit (el. 5,264') along the way.

Think you're done? Not a chance. You've merely taken
the northern tier. If you have to go home, you can ride down to
Red Bluff or Chico and head back, but the diehards will run down
to do the southern section. I'd follow CA 89 all the way back
down to USA 395, adding Luther Pass (el. 7,740') and Monitor
Pass (el. 8,314') in the process. Then, it's a long,
CHP-observed, 220-mile drone through the little town of Walker,
past Bridgeport (don't count Devil's Gate and Conway Summits
again), over Deadman Summit (el. 8,041'), Bishop and Lone Pine,
the access to Whitney Portal.

At 14,494 feet, Whitney is the tallest of the Sierra
Mountains. Mt. Whitney, by the way, is named after Josiah
Whitney, a 19th century geologist. You're now passing through
Owens Valley, once a fertile ranching and farming area until a
real estate speculator pulled a fast one and re-routed 90
percent of the water so Los Angeleans could keep their lawns
green. (Sounds like something out of "Chinatown.')

A few miles after Little Lake, Nine Mile Canyon Road
(J41) cuts to the right. Now you're headed up the road that
goes past Kennedy Meadows (same Kennedy, different meadows)
and Blackrock Mountain, peaking at Sherman Pass (el. 9,200').
This, by the way, was named after General William T. Sherman
who, as a young officer in the late 1840's, was assigned to the
Monterey garrison. It's a steep drop down to the Kern River,
where you'll turn left and follow the river down to the town
of Kernville. Stay on the east side of Lake Isabella and when
you hit CA178, go left over Walker Pass (5,250'). If you're
wondering who was this guy Walker who dropped his name all over
the Sierras, it was Joseph Reddeford Walker, a frontiersman of
the first order who prowled the mountains for many years, first
coming out this way in the 1830s.

Down to CA 14 and hang a right. (For more bonus
pints, you can turn west four miles South of Robber's Roost and
go up a dirt road to Bird Spring Pass [el. 5,300'], then come
out via Butterbredt Summit [el. 5,220'] to Jawbone Canyon and
CA 14.) Stay on CA 14 and go south to the Randsburg Cut-off,
which cuts west to meet up with CA 58 and takes you over
Tehachapi Summit (el. 4,065'), where the Sierras and the
Tehachapis come together. Sixteen miles farther on is the
Caliente turn to the right, puffing you on the Bodfish-Caliente
Road back up to Lake Isabella. This takes you through Walker
Basin; the man did get around. Go up the west shore of Lake
Isabella, turn left at Wofford Heights onto CA 155. At the top,
you're at Greenhorn Summit (el. 6,102'). Go right on the forest
road and, after 7.3 miles of good dirt, you'll be up at
Portuguese Pass (el. 7,280'). Turn left, and 5.7 miles down the
mountain is the turn to White River, a dirt road that gets you
back on the pavement five miles later at Pine Flat. Keep going
straight and you'll soon be over Parker Pass (el. 6,400').

Now, that's it. Yes, there are a couple of small summits
I missed, but these 25 passes and summits (including the three
bonuses) give you a grand total of 175.569 feet, if my
arithmetic is correct. That should keep you entertained for at
least a week.

To get home from Parker Pass, I'd go down the road two
miles to the Western Divide Highway, a great ride which will
drop you into Springville - from there, you can choose your own
way back to the Bay.