Distance: 67 miles one way
Elevation gain: 3015 ft
Here’s the rare opportunity to ride 67 miles in one direction, all of it really good. This ride is a trip through a lovely aspen-strewn Sierra valley, a famous climb up and over the most scenic of California passes, a long stair-stepping descent back to the foothills, a slalom course through vacation home country, and a final mellow leg though a classic old farming valley. It’s more than anyone is going to ride as an out and back, which is OK because I can only recommend it in one direction, east to west. See Shortening the route below for tips on how to arrange a manageable day if you don’t have a shuttle. I did the ride as part of a 4-day loop tour that started in Sacramento and passed by Lake Tahoe.
(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)
The first part of this ride, Hope Valley to Carson Pass, is famous as the fifth and last climb of the Death Ride. Park at Pickett’s Junction, where Hwy 89 meets Hwy 88. The parking is much more comfortable a mile east at Sorensen’s Resort (a great place to see aspens, hike, eat, or just hang out), and I’ll leave you to decide how you feel about using their parking lot if you aren’t spending money there. Ride west on 88 through the beautiful Hope Valley (if you can manage to do the ride in the fall when the Aspens are turning colors, so much the better).
Soon you leave the valley floor and beginning the stunning ascent to Carson Pass. The climb itself is pretty much of a slog—unvaried 6-7% pitch and pretty straight—but visually there is nothing like it. The last 3 miles of the climb are open in front of you, the road is carved out of solid granite, and the view of Red Lake behind and below you gets more and more striking as you ascend. It all looks easy on paper—about 1500 ft of gain—but the elevation is a famous sapper of legs here, so trying to power up the climb is asking for trouble. I settle in at a docile 5.5 mph, look around at my surroundings, and spin it out.
There’s a small Visitor Center at Carson Pass (with bathrooms). It caters to hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, which crosses the road there, and it’s a friendly and cheerful spot worth a stop. They even have loaner hiking poles. A lovely 2-mile round-trip hike to Frog Lake starts there, if you have an hour and brought hiking shoes.
If you’re just out for the afternoon, turning around at the Carson Pass summit will give you a 20-mile outing, and you get to see the scenery twice, but I confess the descent from Carson Pass is for me without reward. If you like straight, very fast, wind-blown, brake-straining coasting, you’ll love it.
If you continue on, the scenery stays classic High-Sierra wonderfulness for the next 30 miles—mighty granite, deep green forest, endless vistas. After the fast, sweeping descent from Carson Pass, you meet Woods Lake Road going off to the L, and you can take that road for a short, lovely ride to minute, picture-perfect Woods Lake, an ideal spot for a break, a bit of meditation, or an easy short hike.
Back on 88, you pass Caples Lake, then Kirkwood Ski Resort, then a moderate climb up to and around Carson Spur, a granite monolith (stunning vistas off to your right). Then it’s down to Silver Lake, a lovely area to take a break (more secluded than Caples) or camp. Past Silver Lake you do a straight, tedious climb (a tough way to start the day if you camped at the lake), descend, and begin watching for Mormon Emigrant Trail on the R. It’s prominent, but the main road is a fast descent here and you can blow past it.
Mormon Emigrant Trail, despite its name, is a road—a big, wide, fast roller coaster. It’s like Hwy 88 cubed—smaller, windier, same great vistas, and lots less traffic. It rolls up and down, mostly down, and it loses a lot of elevation over its length, so it’s tons of fun going east to west, with just enough climb in the rollers to make you feel like you’re earning this. Going west to east, the elevation change works against you, and that’s the only real obstacle to doing this ride in the other direction. Just past halfway you’ll pass the turn-off to North South Road, in our list.
Mormon Emigrant Trail debouches at Jenkinson Lake, AKA Sly Park, and the ride changes. Cross the dam and stay L onto Sly Park Rd., which traverses pretty wooded country but is built up with vacation homes and thus can be heavily trafficked. It’s a rollicking slalom descent, so if you can catch a break in the traffic it’s an absolute hoot—with traffic, the cars keep making you slow down. Stay on Sly Park all the way to Diamond Springs.
If the traffic is bothering you, there’s an escape route: Sierra Springs Drive (or Road). It takes off to the R soon after you start down Sly Park Rd. from the lake. Most maps think it’s a dead-end residential road into a subdivision, and it was, but if you summon your blind faith in me and head down it, it goes through the subdivision through a few spectacular esses (worth the detour by themselves) and turns into Starkes Grade Rd., which is a road so small it might as well be a rec path, and which descends gently along the most gorgeous little creek you’ve ever seen. You’ll think you’re in a Japanese garden. It’s a very special place. Our mapped route goes that way. Starkes Grade ends on Newton Rd., and you’ll need to go L on Newton for a ¼ mile or so to get back on Sly Park.
Somewhere in here Sly Park Rd. changes its name to Pleasant Valley Rd., and that tells you exactly what you’re in for: a very pleasant, easy ride through a traditional farming valley. Ride to Diamond Springs, where the riding quality drops off precipitously and our ride stops.
Shortening the route: If you only have one day and you can’t arrange a shuttle, I suggest you start at Carson Pass, look at the vista to the east, then ride west as far as you wish, then return. It’s 17.5 miles to the Mormon Emigrant Trail turn-off, and those miles will give you 3 lakes, 1 rock monolith, and lots of grand vistas. If you want a little less, turn around at Silver Lake. Remember, it’s uphill almost all the way back.
Adding miles: There’s good riding all around you on this ride. Near the beginning of this route you pass the turn-off for the Blue Lakes Road ride, and from the starting point you can ride east and south (mostly long, steady, trafficky descents) to Markleeville, a charming town with restaurants and a general store, and smack onto the Ebbetts Pass ride.
From the Diamond Springs end you’re close to an endless supply of good roads. Just north of you is Placerville, home to several good restaurants and the best hardware store in the world. Our Mosquito Rd. loop takes off from Placerville. See the Adding Miles section of that ride for other routes north of town. Going south from Diamond Springs, backtrack up Pleasant Valley Rd. to Bucks Bar Rd. on your R, take it to Somerset, and Mt. Aukum Rd. going south out of Somerset leads to the entire lower Gold Country. At this point, the world is your oyster.
Afterthoughts:An eatery worth seeking out in the area is the Hope Valley Cafe/Resort, 1/4 of a mile east of Sorensen’s, one of those character places the Northern California mountains do so well. It’s got great breakfasts and burgers, and is famous for its baked goods, especially its fruit pies, which people drive great distances to buy and which often are sold out by lunch time. But beyond the food, I just love the vibe. The signature cookie is called the Harley (Lisa, the boss, is a biker), and there’s a sign of the wall reading “Please don’t tamper with the cook’s buns.”
There are opportunities to resupply at the resorts at Silver Lake and Caples Lake (Silver has a resort at each end), and at the Kirkwood Inn (right on the highway, though the Kirkwood ski area itself is not). There’s water (for sale, I think) at the Carson Pass Visitor Center. There are no services on Mormon Emingrant Trail.
Carson Pass is kept free of snow in the winter, except for the occasional temporary avalanche. Mormon Emigrant Trail is not.