Every two weeks, the Ultimate Sunday Bike Ride attempts to bring to you an interesting, challenging or scenic cycling adventure in the Bay Area and Northern California. This week’s ride combines all three of those elements at their extreme and the ride can, without hyperbole, be consider the quintessential Ultimate Sunday Bike Ride.
Cyclist and author John Summerson rates this climb number two of the 100 hardest climbs in California in his book The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike) in California. Your own arrival in Horseshoe Meadows will be after an epic few hours that you’ll not soon forget.
In order to bag the more serious climbs in California, you generally need to go east, to the Sierras, and to discover the biggest and the best that range has to offer, you’ll need to travel Highway 395, which runs north-south the along the eastern slope. This ride begins in the tiny town on Lone Pine, sitting at 3,700 feet at the top end of the gorgeous Owens Valley. Allow at least five hours or more to complete the 49 mile, 7,000-foot ride, and in summer an early departure is essential to escape the afternoon heat and possibility thunderstorms at higher elevations.
We’ll set out west from downtown on the Whitney Portal Road to get a satisfactory warm-up, climbing up through the Alabama hills (rated a cat 3 climb) and then making a left on Horseshoe Meadow Road. As we look head toward the clearly delineated switchbacks on the slope ahead a sense awe and anticipation (or perhaps dread) will likely well-up for what so obviously lies ahead.
At just past nine miles, the grade picks up and the climbing begins in earnest. The first switchback is three miles long and nets you 1,300 feet at a pretty steady 6-7% grade. The views to the White Mountains to the west and Owens Valley are beyond stunning and make for a good distraction from the next notch of suffering you’ll encounter on the second switchback. This one's shorter at one and half miles, but now tilting at 7-8%. At 14 miles, and the start of third section, you’ll be at 7,000 feet. As you near the fourth dogleg, you might see hang gliders launching into the abyss below if conditions are right. Hopefully, your physical and mental condition are right as well, for the average pitch once again tilts upward, averaging 9% as we turn back to the west and leave the valley views behind. The approach to the final climb commences after you’ve made the false summit at mile 19.7 (at 9500 feet), so enjoy the brief downhill, as you’ve got 4.3 miles and 750 feet more to the meadow before you end this self-flagellation at 10,011 feet above sea level. As you may have suspected, this climb manages an HC (beyond category) rating.
Needless to say, the descent is fast (and long) and often dicey–one should note any rock slides or boulders in the road on the way up. Also be sure to pack a windbreaker, fingered gloves and leg warmers, as you’ll be sweaty after the grind up and it can be cold, especially at speed, on the way down. At the bottom straightaway, make a right turn on Lubken Canyon Road for a very scenic roll back into town and hopefully reward yourself with some tacos and cervezas from the truck parked on the corner of Whitney Portal and 395.
The cycling season in the Eastern Sierras generally begins in mid-May and ends mid-October, so prepare for any kind of weather. Don’t do this climb alone, unless you have sage support. There are a number of videos of this epic ride up on YouTube, this one is pretty typical of the ascent and descent (about four minutes in). I had the pleasure of making this awesome climb, fully supported, with Studio Velo Cycling Trips in the Fall of 2011 – they also have a spring trip available in late May.