Highlighted Roads: Highway 41 • Glacier Point • The Ahwahnee • Yosemite Valley • Highway 120 Tioga Pass • Mono Lake • Highway 108 Sonora Pass • Big Hill Rd • Columbia SHP • Calaveras Big Trees Sequoia Grove • Highway 4 Ebbetts Pass • Highway 89 Monitor Pass
Each time I ride into the Yosemite Valley; I’m amazed we have this in our backyard. The sheer scale of the valley defies the senses. Walls of granite push straight up 4000 feet, and if you look closely, you can often see tiny specs of color, climbers making their way up the sheer rock walls. Stand at the entrance to the valley at the right time of the year, and you can view multiple waterfalls cascading off granite walls in multiple places. One of which, is one of the tallest waterfalls on the North American continent. Yosemite became America's third national park when Congress set aside over 1500 square miles of land (a region about the size of Rhode Island) under federal jurisdiction with the rest of the park.
John Muir, a native of Scotland who grew up in Wisconsin, first set eyes on the Yosemite Valley in 1868. “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite,” the amateur naturalist wrote. He wasn’t far off. But you have to actually come here to understand what he meant by that observation. Pictures cannot capture the sheer scale, size and grandeur of this place.
We’ll start our visit to the park with riding straight for Glacier Point at 7200 feet. If you have never visited Yosemite, it’s a stunning introduction to the valley as you can walk out to a viewpoint and directly in front of you is Half Dome which peaks at 8800 feet. It seems close enough to touch, and even a minor zoom lens on a camera will allow you to zoom in on people sitting atop Half Dome staring right back at you. A short walk from the first viewpoint, and you’re able to look straight down 3200 feet, higher up than the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa which stands at a mere 2717 ft tall. Glacier Point is like no other viewpoint you’ve been to, it’s also one of the highest natural viewpoints in the United States where you can look straight down over 3000 ft.
Descending from Glacier Point, we’ll pass through the Wawona Tunnel. At 4,233 feet long, this is the longest highway tunnel in California. Wawona Tunnel was bored through solid granite bedrock and has evenly spaced ‘windows’ that tease a glimpse of what’s at the end of the tunnel. As you exit the tunnel, a broad view of the valley arouses the senses. Tunnel View provides one of the most famous views of Yosemite Valley. The view looks eastward into Yosemite Valley, and includes surrounding features, such as the southwest face of El Capitan on the left, Half Dome on axis, and Bridalveil Fall on the right. If you have never visited Yosemite before, this introduction is quite stunning, enough that a steady stream of tourists pull into a small parking lot to drink in the view.
For all the vast land area that Yosemite NP covers, the majority of us will simply experience the valley. Ice Age glaciers played an essential role in shaping Yosemite's landscape. Most of this ice had melted away due to natural warming by about 10,000 years ago. What's left is a U-shaped mountain valley. Views abound in every direction, and we’ll need to stop along the way to take a moment to absorb the size and sense of space the valley has. Located at the eastern end of the valley is the Ahwahnee Hotel, this is our midday destination.
The Ahwahnee Hotel has become the crown jewel of national park lodges, the benchmark by which all others are measured. The Ahwahnee was designed and built in the 1920s with the specific goal of attracting well-to-do clientele. In the following century, the Ahwahnee has more than fulfilled that ambition, hosting presidents and royalty as well as other famous personalities within its walls.
Inside the Ahwahnee, the grand fireplace is so large, you can stand inside it. The Ahwahnee Dining Room is a must-see. The 34-foot-high beamed ceilings soar above floor to ceiling windows that showcase the beauty of the surroundings. A meal here is a fitting climax to our morning. But wait, there’s more. We’re not quite done yet.
Above Yosemite Valley is Tioga Pass, the highest mountain pass in the state at nearly 10,000 feet. Meandering at first, Tioga Pass builds in a crescendo of visual stimuli, arriving at Olmstead Point at 8418 ft, which provides the perfect visual of the northern side of Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and a view of Tenaya Lake to the east. Half Dome again seems close enough to touch. Olmsted Point was named after famed landscape architects, Frederick Law Olmsted (who was best known for his design of New York's Central Park) and his son, Frederick, Jr. Olmsted was also instrumental in the protection of Yosemite in the 1860s, as he worked with Senator John Conness of California to designate Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove as public lands under the protection of the State.
After leaving Olmstead Point, the visual orgy continues with Tenaya Lake & Tuolumne Meadows. Tenaya Lake’s glassy surface mirrors the mountaintops that surround it with an elevation of 8,150 feet. Nearby Tuolumne Meadows pushes off north in brilliant green grasses surrounded in smooth granite rock. At the far end of the meadow is what appears to be a portable tent. This is the local general store and a worthy stop for ice cream.
The climb isn’t over, and we need to climb another 2000 feet to reach the top of Tioga Pass at 9945 ft. At nearly 10,000 feet, we finally reach the crest of the Sierra Nevada Range and begin our descent to Mono Lake. The mountains here climb straight up and the road descends quickly dropping 1000s of feet in elevation in mere miles finally reaching Lee Vining and Mono Lake.
The Sierra Nevada Passes...
Day 2 involves riding the Sierra Nevada Range over 9000 ft mountain passes, Ebbetts and Sonora Pass are right outside our door. Ebbetts Pass, one of the Sierra's highest mountain passes at 9624 ft, welcomes you twisting up and over the range.
There's much to see, and a thrilling vista is at every turn. There will be plenty of time to take in the sights, shoot some pics, and enjoy the ride. Ebbetts Pass actually has two summits with a saddle like depression in the middle. This is the Sierra Nevada at its best. The highlight of Highway 4 is a section of road at the crest with no center line, narrow, twisty and incredible vistas. This portion was also recently repaved. Plus the mountain lakes alongside the road we'll have to check out.
One our favorite roads tucked away is Big Hill Rd to Middle Camp Rd, a ride that offers up a taste of the Sierra Nevada Foothills. It leads to the Gold Rush town of Columbia, left in a state of suspended animation. Stepping off the bike is a doorway into a day in 1852. A few miles away, we need to check out Calaveras Big Trees, a sequoia grove right along our route. These massive trees defy the senses and if anyone volunteers they’ve never seen a sequoia, we’ll have to check out this grove of trees.
Sonora Pass has even more stunning scenery. The 9624 ft. summit includes a 26% grade and some aggressive switchbacks. There are very few roads anywhere this steep, and the smell of brakes is everywhere.
After descending out of the Sierra Nevada, it’s only a few miles back to our lodging and a hearty dinner within walking distance. It's been another weekend of great riding, and if you’re headed back over the Sierra towards home, you can even ride Tioga Pass a second time the opposite direction. We'll be looking forward to riding with you again.
Tour: Friday, October 06, 2023
Meet: 40208 Highway 41, Oakhurst
Arrive: 7:00 AM, Safety Brief 7:30, Depart 8:00 AM
Cost: $460 per rider, $109 Passenger
This tour includes narrow, steep paved mountain roads. Mountain passes include steep 26% grades and negotiating hairpin corners. All roads on this tour are paved.
EXPERIENCED RIDERS ONLY:
This mountain tour is not recommended for beginner riders or Very Large Motorcycles. Riders are expected to have at least several years of enthusiastic experience on their motorcycle riding remote challenging paved mountain backroads along with at least 5000+ miles of concurrent recent experience.
This tour is limited by the amount of rooms at our host lodging. We have booked rooms months in advance and our tours sell out by the end of January. Get on our mailing list to be the first to know about new rides. Tours are planned & announced in the late fall of each year.
Book early to ensure a spot on this new ride. Check with us to see if any available spots are open. Some of our rides may have waiting lists to be able to join the group.