Distance: 27 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2989 ft
(A Best of the Best ride)
The Death Ride has made its three summits—Carson, Monitor, and Ebbetts—famous. The three climbs are very different. Carson Pass—included in the Carson Pass Plus ride—is an almost straight slog whose selling point is its magnificent vistas. Monitor Pass is a monotonous, seemingly endless straight grind up through featureless high desert country I find esthetically without merit. Many riders love it. I’ve asked them why, and it seems to come down to how you feel about straight 50-mph descents. I don’t care for them, so Monitor isn’t in my list.
Ebbetts Pass, on the other hand, is one of the four or five best rides in California, a challenging but always rewarding climb along rocky steams and through pretty Sierra Nevada forest surrounded by classic High Sierra granite and big canyon views, with a road contour that is constantly varying—no long, tedious slogs, I promise. And the descent is even better—very much in the running for best descent in California. The road surface is as good as a road surface that experiences California high-country winters can be—the top few miles are a bit rough on the descent but most of it is close to glass.
(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.)
Begin at the intersection of Hwys 89 and 4. There’s a large dirt parking lot at the intersection. The route is simplicity itself: ride south on Hwy 4 to Ebbetts Pass, then turn around and ride home. There’s a road sign immediately after you get on the bike reading “24% grade ahead,” and it isn’t lying, but that’s Pacific Grade, which is west of Hermit Valley on the other side of the pass and our route doesn’t go that far.
For two miles you ride along the east fork of the Carson River, which is a sleepy little stream, so the climbing is 1% or less. After you cross the river on a bridge, you start climbing and climb without interruption save some whoop-de-doos near the turn-around.
Once on the far side of the river, the road cuts over to Silver Creek, which has considerably more fall than Carson, and you do 5 miles of pretty, easy climbing along the creek and through forest.
About 7 miles in you hit a 12% stretch, and from then on nothing is easy. From here to the summit you’ll average 6%, with frequent moments of 8-11%, all made a notch harder by the elevation, which tops out at 8,736 ft.—expect 6% to feel more like 9%. The work continues right to the summit—I find the last 2 miles as hard as any part of the route. But the road contour and the scenery are always changing, so you never get bored and the steepness, when it comes, doesn’t overwhelm.
Every mile of this ride is eye candy. You begin with the stark beauty of the Carson River canyon. Then you move into green meadows and aspens. After you leave Silver Creek you scale the side of a big canyon, and there are frequent grand vistas of where you’ve come from as you climb. Higher up are some of the awe-inspiring granite crags for which the Sierra Nevada is famous. If you want to maximize the scenic wonderfulness, do the ride in September-October when the aspens are turning colors, but don’t wait until it snows, when the road closes.
At the signed and unmissable summit, turn around and begin 13 miles of ridiculously wonderful descending—the nearest thing to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad on a bike. There are places where you’ll have to tell yourself to stop laughing with glee and pay attention to the job at hand. The road surface is pristine, the curves are railable and no two are alike, and the pitch is ideal—steep enough for long runs of 30-35 mph with next to no braking. Early in the descent is a mile of breath-taking, swooping whoop-de-doos you flash through at 35 mph—I know of nothing else like them.
Highway 4 is a “major” route through the Sierras, but it has little traffic, because most cars choose other routes. Unless you’re doing this ride on a summer weekend (never a good idea), once you leave Carson River, which is busy with fishermen in the summer, you should be pretty much alone. I last rode it on a weekday morning in September, and I saw 15 vehicles, or slightly more than a car every two miles. And the sight lines are grand, so the few on-coming cars announce themselves in advance.
Adding miles: The easiest way to add 10 miles is to start the ride in Markleeville, a small, charming little town that lives entirely off outdoor sports (mostly fishing). Since it’s the base for the Death Ride, you’ll be welcome. The five miles from town to the start of our route is well worth riding, mostly along the east branch of the Carson River through a dramatically stark landscape made starker due to some minor fire damage. There is one noticeable hill.
At Ebbetts Pass you can continue on down the back side and keep riding west as far as you like. The Death Ride goes a few miles past the summit to Hermit Valley and turns around. I hear it’s a fine ride and that the climb back up to Ebbetts isn’t bad, but I haven’t done it (see the diverse opinions among readers in the comments below). If you’re touring you can ride Hwy 4 all the way to Angel’s Camp and Hwy 49, but you’ll face that 24% climb up Pacific Grade leaving Hermit Valley.
In Markleeville you’re not far from the Blue Lakes Road ride and the Carson Pass Plus ride and everything else detailed in the Adding Miles section under the Carson Pass ride. The ride from Markleeville to Sorensen’s is almost all trafficky, straight, monotonous, moderate climbing—totally ridable but the classic definition of grind.
The Diamond Valley Rd/Carson River Road loop, just north off Hwy 89 by Woodfords, is a pleasant, flattish (750 ft of gain) 12 miles through surprisingly desert-y country, good for a recovery day. Don’t go on a hot summer afternoon—it’s very exposed.
You’re parking at the base of Highway 89, the Monitor Pass ride, which I can’t recommend but which many others adore.
Afterthoughts: Ebbetts Pass is closed by snow in the winter.
You shouldn’t need to resupply water on this ride, but if you do, there are two formal campgrounds along Hwy 4. On hot days I take a third water bottle and cache it when the climbing gets taxing.