Distance: 13.6-mile out-and-back
Elevation gain: 1930 ft
As with all the rides in Bestrides situated along Hwy 395, I encourage you to read the “Eastern Sierra” section of our By Regions page, to put this ride in context.
This is a fairly short, easy-for-the-area climb that starts 14 miles up W. Hwy 186 out of Bishop. People ride those first 14 miles all the time, and you’re welcome to, but I find the terrain dry and uninspiring (small rocks and brush), the road contour boring (straight, with unaltered pitch) and the road surface cursed with those horizontal expansion cracks filled with dribble tar every five yards, not a terrible surface but enough to turn descending into an endless series of kaTHUMP kaTHUMP.
Fourteen miles up the road there is a fork—Hwy 168 to the R and South Lake Road to the L. And if you take the L fork, magic happens. The road surface goes to glass and the contour takes on some character. The pitch moderates a bit, from phew to pleasant. And around 8000 ft elevation the aspens begin to appear. From then on, it’s as pretty a ride as I know, if the aspens are changing color (in 2023 they got serious on 9/28). Even if they aren’t, it’s a fine ride.
This is not a wilderness ride. Even though South Lake Rd. looks very small on some maps, it’s a manicured, wide two-lane with campgrounds, resorts, and guiding operations along the route, and you will see some traffic going to and from those places.
You’ll see from the figures above that this ride is, compared to the other climbing rides in our Eastern Sierra stable, shorter and flatter. For which I say, thank god. But if that disappoints you, there are steeper, longer rides all around you (see the By Regions discussion of the area).
As with most Eastern Sierra rides, there isn’t much to say about this one. Drive up Hwy E. 168 to the South Lake turnoff on the L (unmissable). Ride to South Lake. Ride back.
The first couple of miles aren’t impressive—more loose rock and brush. But the canyon steepens and the woods begin the appear. Soon you’re riding alongside a substantial creek (South Creek, I assume), which you can hear but you can’t see. Not to worry. What’s blocking your view are beautiful aspens, and soon you’ll get closer and get good creek views. It’s a nice, tumbling stream. Google maps says there’s a falls on the route, but you’ll have to seek it out—it’s not apparent from the road.
The pitch varies pleasantly from moderate to easy, until the last 1.5 miles, when things get more serious. The last half-mile or so is truly hard.
You top out at South Lake, a dammed lake with a resort, a boat launch, a dock, and the other signs of development. It’s not primitive, but it’s pretty. The road continues briefly, but I didn’t do it.
The return ride is a masterpiece of straight descending, with just enough curvature to keep you alert and that same glassy surface. Sustained 40 mph is easy. I took an hour and twenty minutes to ride to the lake and 19 minutes to return, and I didn’t push it.
Shortening the ride: Skip the last 1/2-mile pitch. If you’re really serious about making it easy, drive the first couple of miles, until the landscape gets good.
Adding miles: Ride the 14 miles from Bishop to South Lake Road, and/or the remaining miles on 168 above the fork. Hwy 168 deadends at Sabrina Lake, a particularly beautiful alpine lake that’s substantially prettier than South Lake, so even if you don’t ride up there you might drive there after your ride just to see it.