Distance: 15.3 out and back
Elevation gain: 1410 ft
For years I avoided riding the west end of Hwy 4, since I knew it to be a big, busy, boring, touristy madhouse.
Turns out I just didn’t go far enough east. Hwy 4 is all those nasty things, at first, but the further east you go the more traffic and tourists it sheds—a lot of cars drop off at Murphys, then lots more at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, then lots more at Bear Valley, so that after Bear Valley the road is much of the time practically deserted. I did the ride on a Monday starting at 9:30 AM and most of the time had the road to myself. Obviously Saturday morning at 11 AM would be a different matter.
But the road is still big, straight, and boring. Until shortly after Bear Valley, when a magical thing happens—Tinker Bell waves her magic wand over that big, straight, boring road and, poof, it is transformed into a small, beautiful, meandering dreamboat of a road. And from that point, the next 7.5 miles are prime riding through gorgeous Sierra scenery. Maybe I’m just a good old California boy, but that high Sierra granite forest stirs me like nothing else.
The title of this ride is poetic license. Bear Valley is a nice place to start because it has unlimited parking, a grocery store, a bike shop, and other amenities, but the 2.2 miles of riding east of Bear Valley is as unpleasant as riding gets. It’s a dead straight climb on a huge empty road with unvarying pitch, and although it doesn’t look steep on paper the elevation (c. 7000 ft.) and your cold legs will make it seem so. I crawled up it at 4+ mph, and I’ll never do it again. Nor is it a pleasant descent returning, unless you like sitting on a bike with nothing to do except worry about crashing.
So my route actually begins after those 2.2 miles, at the Lake Alpine Snow-Park parking lot. I just thought that “Lake Alpine Sno-Park to Mosquito Lake” sounded tacky. If you want to ride those miles from Bear Valley to the Sno-Park, add 4.4 miles to our route total and about a million feet of elevation gain.
(Incidentally, there are two Bear Valleys: the first is right on Hwy 4, and it’s a community; the second is up Hwy 4 about 2 miles, then further up a side road on the L, and it’s the actual ski area. Skiers live in the community and shuttle bus to the ski area. I’m talking about the community.)
This route, like all Bestrides rides in this area, is snowed in during normal winters and is plowed open in the spring, usually some time in later June. I did the ride in early July after a historically heavy snowfall (2023) and road conditions were perfect, with patches of snow here and there in the trees along the route.
I saw no Mosquitos at Mosquito Lake per se, but the ride was very buggy and I recommend bug spray.
Drive to the Sno-Park and park. Between Bear Valley and here, you’ll see two signs that promise 24% pitches in the road ahead, but we’re not going that far.
A few feet past the Sno-Park the road transforms from boring into perfect. A short descent takes you to Lake Alpine, which you can see through the trees. It’s very pretty. Immediately after the lake you do the only real work on the ride, 2 miles of climbing, the first mile demanding (8%) given the elevation, but the scenery is so fine you’ll have much to take your mind off the pitch. After that, it’s all mellow rolling through perfect scenery to Mosquito Lake, which is itself a perfect little Sierra jewel of a pond. It’s prettier if you can get there when there is still snow on the shoreline (see photo), but one can only control so much in life.
Most lakes lie at the bottoms of watersheds, but Mosquito improbably sits just a few feet from a crest, the Pacific Grade Summit. Ride over the summit (signed) and around the corner to see the grand vista of everything to the east of you, and make a decision. The road ahead of you looks ideal, and it is—it’s the famous Pacific Grade, a legendary descent. Ride it if you wish—the riding remains good to excellent all the way to the Ebbetts Pass summit, down the east side along our Ebbetts Pass ride, and on to Markleeville—but unless you have a car waiting you’re going to have to ride back up Pacific Grade. It’s 2.5 miles long, steep (with moments of 24%, say the signs), and it tops out at 8050 ft. Know your limits. I turned around.
The ride back is dreamy—no extended descents but a series of thrilling little downs and little ups you can power up in a big gear and keep your momentum going. Good sight lines, no hairpins, a near-perfect surface, and the same grand scenery you just rode through make this as sweet a roller coaster as I’ve done in years.
Shortening the ride: You want to see Mosquito Lake and the vista to the east that follows. If you drive the 2-mile climb after Lake Alpine, you’re looking at a dead easy 11-mile-round-trip saunter.
Adding miles: See above. Hwy 4 to the west of Bear Valley isn’t bad for a few miles, so riding to our Spicer Reservoir Road ride is entirely doable. To the east from the Pacific Grade Summit, there is as much great riding as your legs can endure—see the discussion of Pacific Grade above.