Yosemite Tour

I was introduced to this four-day tour by the Sacramento Bike Hikers, who used to do it every year, and for that I’ll always be grateful.   The loop has enormous scenic variety and an iconic destination that amps up the drama from the first pedal stroke.  Not every mile is rewarding.  There’s some boring flat straight stuff, there’s some traffic dodging, there’s some rough road surface, and there are way too many people in the Park.  Yet it remains a grand, bucket-list experience.  Just say it with me: “riding my bike to Yosemite.”  Right.  You’re down for it, I know.

It’s not at all daunting.  The climbing is mostly quite mellow, and there’s only one longish day, and that’s almost all downhill.  For that and other reasons, I don’t recommend trying to shorten the ride.  This is really one of those rides you want to keep epic.   Try to talk a friend who wants to go to Yosemite into driving a sag wagon.   But I’m a realist, so after we walk through the tour we’ll talk about ways to shorten it.

If you have a National Park pass of some sort, remember to pack it before setting forth.  It does no good to remember it on Day 3 as you approach the Park entrance.

Day 1

Distance: 49 miles one way
Elevation gain: 2630 ft


(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 in Merced.  You can take yourself and your bike there via Amtrak, or you can park on the street across from the Amtrak train station.   Ride due north out of town on G St., which becomes Snelling Rd. (I’ll let you work out the details, but it’s a pretty straight shot).  Snelling dead-ends at Hwy 49.  Go R and ride into the town of Snelling, a tiny town with a standard country grocery store on the main street.  All the riding so far is dead boring—laser straight, and either flat or long very gradual rollers through nondescript grazing land, sometimes into a headwind, so in keeping with our principles I should really start the ride in Snelling, but how would you get back to your car?  I promise, the ride will never be this unrewarding again.

The rolling hills past Hornitos

The rolling hills past Hornitos

Go through Snelling, onto Merced Falls Rd. and make a  R turn onto Rd. 16 to Hornitos, which is almost a ghost town but usually has water at the tiny municipal park (not always).   Our route takes a R turn just before town and becomes Hornitos Rd, but if you want to stop to use the picnic tables or find water you need to go L into town, then come back to Hornitos Rd.  We’re talking all of 100 yds here—it’s easy to see when you’re there.   Check out the historically significant remains of the “little ovens”—that’s what “hornitos” means in Spanish.

From Hornitos, the riding turns magical if you’re there in the Spring when the grass is still green.  You’re in huge, smooth rollers through endless meadow.  There is nothing but you, the road, and the grass.   Don’t just get this leg over with—stop often to breathe in the spirit of the fields.  Remember that scene in “Superman” when Clark Kent stands in the middle of an Iowa cornfield and the camera crane pulls back and up and you can see corn for what seems like miles?  This has that feel.

A few miles past Hornitos, take Old Toll Rd. off to the L.  Right off the bat the climbing can seem intimidating and the road surface is poor, but neither lasts long and it’s a very cool little back road to the back road you were just on.   Once the initial climb is over, Old Toll Rd. rolls pleasantly and prettily to its dead-end on Hwy 49.  Take 49 to the R and ride to Mariposa, a thriving mountain town with good food and good inexpensive motels.  Don’t miss “world famous” Happy Burger at the northwest end of town.  If you like quirky drive-ins, as I do, it’s a treasure.   Spend the night in Mariposa.

Day 2

Distance: 24 miles one way (to Cedar Lodge)
Elevation gain: 1880 ft



(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.)

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Descent to the Merced River

Ride out of Mariposa northward and take Hwy 140 to the R at the edge of town.  You’ll stay on this road all the way to Yosemite National Park.   140 does a mildly entertaining, fairly straight climb for about 4 miles, rolls a bit, then plummets dramatically down to the Merced River, which you will follow upstream to the Park.    Try to ignore the fact that you’re going to have to ride up this descent in two days.

Where you meet the river, there’s a nice little rocky almost-beach on the L, called Briceburg on some maps though there’s nothing there but a small rock kiosk and a picnic table.  Stop and dip your feet in the river.   Continue on along Hwy 140 to your lodging in the El Portal area.   This is classic ride-along-the-river stuff, an imperceptible climb with the lovely Merced constantly along one side and a wildflower-speckled rock wall on the other.  This is a main entrance route to the Park, so you’ll see traffic, but passing is easy so it’s never been a problem.    Spend the night in the El Portal area (see Afterthoughts).

This is a short day without hard work, so it would be possible to ride on to Yosemite and stay in the Park, but the ride from El Portal to the Park isn’t easy and you’d transform an easy day into a hard one.  But it’s possible.

Day 3

Distance: 28 miles out and back to Valley fork (from Cedar Lodge)
Elevation gain: 2008 ft (to Valley fork)


(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.)

Pack walking shoes/sandals and any Park passes, photo ID’s, money you need to get into the Park, and a lock.  It needn’t be mighty—you’re just deterring the casual thief—but you’ll definitely want to leave your bike to do some short hikes to falls and walk through the Ansel Adams Gallery, the Miwok village, and other delights.

Traffic's not bad if you're early

Climb to the Park: traffic’s not bad if you’re early

Continue on up Hwy 140 and into Yosemite National Park.    This leg is like nothing you’ve ever ridden before.  It’s a lot of moderately steep climbing along the edge of the Merced River, which is falling and tumbling spectacularly on your immediate right.   It’s much more elevation gain than you’re expecting if it’s your first time.  The road is a very narrow two-lane without shoulders, and the traffic is fierce, made worse by the tour buses and public buses which ply this route constantly.  To make matters worse, there is often a low rock wall on your right shoulder (see photo), about a foot from your right knee.  It won’t obstruct your view, but it makes it almost impossible to pull over for traffic.  Sounds like a nightmare, but for some reason it doesn’t come off that way—it comes off as an adventure, and I just love it.    The traffic never seems hostile.  Perhaps everybody understands, We’re ridin’ to Yosemite!   The horrors of this leg are cut by about 80% if you hit the road early (like 8 am).

If you’re riding from Cedar Lodge (see Afterthoughts), you can dodge the traffic along half the route by taking the back road on the other (north) side of the river, called Incline Rd. (I don’t think it’s signed).  It takes off to the L just before the highway crosses the river, and it parallels the river within sight of it.  It goes R and returns you to the highway at an interesting old railroad exhibit.  It has no merit except an absence of traffic.  And it returns you to the highway before the steep, crowded, narrow, walled section of road, so you aren’t avoiding the hectic climb.   But it’s very quiet.

At the Park entrance you’ll need to pay or show your pass with photo ID.   If you have a pass, some rangers let you bring in anyone in your cycling group on it.  Some rangers don’t charge cyclists at all.  But I heard a story about a ranger at a National Park entrance who charged each half of a tandem separately.   Whatever—life is too short to quibble.    After you pay, you still have some substantial riding before you reach the valley floor.  I’ll let you explore the Valley on your own, with these few suggestions:

1. Don’t not do it just because you’re too cool to ride in National Parks with a bunch of tourists on rental bikes for their one ride of the year.   It’s Yosemite.  It’s wonderful.  Get in the spirit.

2. As you approach the valley, the road forks and you’re forced to go R because the traffic in the valley is always counterclockwise.  Immediately after that fork, on the R, is a little spring, called Fern Spring, a round puddle of water you could almost jump across.   It’s not on most maps, but it’s easy to see if you’re watching for it, and there’s a little sign.  Do not ride by this without stopping.  It’s a sacred Indian spring, and you can and must fill your water bottles here.  The water is incomparable, the setting is quietly spiritual, and most tourists drive right by in search of waterfalls, so you may have the place to yourself—no small thing in Yosemite.   If this all sounds incredible, ask the Ranger when you enter the Park and he’ll confirm it.

3. The road system in the valley is fairly complicated for a National Park, but there is no secret back road that will lose the crowds, so don’t look for one.  The nearest thing to out-of-the-way is the road to Mirror Lake at the east end, which most tourists don’t ride because it’s too steep for them.

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El Capitan

4. The best “secret” falls in the park is behind the Ahwahnee Hotel.  Ride to the hotel, park, and walk due north to the rock wall that’s 100 ft off the road.    Falling and sliding down this rock wall is the Royal Arch Cascade (unless it’s late in the year).   It’s way under the tourist radar, but it’s swell.  You can look up the rock face and see the water come down, you can stand right by the water as it lands, you can stand in it if you want to, and you’ll probably be alone as you do these things.

5. Have lunch on the terrace of the Ahwahnee Hotel.  It isn’t expensive.  If you need me to tell you why you should do this, I can’t talk to you.

Tunnel View

Tunnel View

6. Ride up to Tunnel View, for the view.  It’s only a 1.5-mile climb up from the Valley and one of the world’s most famous vista points.  You’ve seen it all your life, in photos.  It’s even better in real life. It used to be called Inspiration Point, but some bureaucrat decided that name was too apt and decided to change it to something ugly.  Don’t let him fool you.

7. If you want to ride your bike to the Valley but not in the Valley, you can lock up your bike anywhere and take the free, efficient, and pleasant bus shuttle service to any prominent spot around the oval.  You can even ride a bus from your El Portal motel, though I’m unclear on why you’re doing this tour if you do.

Ride back to your El Portal motel.  This return ride is pure joy—all downhill, at first steeply so, then just delightful and effortless, on good surface through some very nice curves.   The sun setting behind your destination (assuming it’s nearing the end of the day) lends a special beauty to the river, the rock walls, and the lush woods.   The traffic out of the Park never seems as bad as the traffic in (where do the cars go?).   If you can catch slack traffic, there is no better ride.

Day 4

Distance: 70 miles one way
Elevation gain: 2516 ft



(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.)

You might consider adding a lay day here.  If you have the time, it’s nice to take a day and go for one of the rides above the valley (see Adding Miles) or just get off the bike, bus into the valley, and become a walking, shuttle-busing tourist.

If not, we’re going to ride all the way to Merced in a day, which is a fair number of miles but except for the big climb out of the Merced canyon at Briceburg it’s all downhill.  Ride back the way you came to Mariposa.   The climb up from the river to Mariposa is long, moderately steep, and largely monotonous but never daunting, and the vistas are good.   From Mariposa, you could ride back the way you came, and feel free to if you want to see it again, but there’s a good alternative.   Ride down the main street, which is still our old Hwy 140, to the obvious fork at the southeast edge of town.  Take the L fork onto 49.   Soon Old Highway goes off to the R (it’s signed).  Take it all the way until it dead-ends back on our old pal Highway 140.  Old Highway has some lengthy stretches of poor road surface, but it’s a small, car-free wanderer through back country hills with great views and a nice spirit of adventure.

Old Highway: it's an adventure

Old Highway: it’s an adventure

The good riding is now over.  Go L onto Highway 140, which is now big, open, and straight with a big shoulder.  Cars regularly whiz by at 70 mph, and it can be windy, and you have 9.3 miles of it.  Then take N. Cunningham Rd. to the right.  Cunningham (which is dead flat straight and even more of a drag than the highway) soon turns L and becomes Bear Creek Rd.   The worst is over (unless the headwind persists).   Bear Creek is a fairly pleasant, fairly interesting flat roll through richer and richer farm country, then city outskirts, then Merced proper.  Work your way back to the train station.

Adding miles:  Once in Yosemite you can ride either of two iconic roads that climb up from the Valley floor: the ride to Wawona and the ride to Tioga Pass.  Each is a substantial effort.

To ride to Wawona, pack a light (for the tunnel).  Take the Wawona road going R from the Valley loop road right after the first fork after you enter the Park.    Stop to take in the Tunnel View vista (see photo above).  Feet beyond Tunnel View you ride through the Wawona Tunnel, which is pure hell.  It’s long, dark, trafficky, wet, and slimy.   Unless you have great lights, it’s hard to see and be seen.  It’s worse coming back, by the way, since it’s slightly downhill and you’re braking on the slime.  Once past the tunnel, thank St. Christopher and begin a long, moderately dull climb through classic Sierra forest.  Once I saw a hawk circling above a huge pine tree just off the road, and the hawk was at eye level.

After the obvious summit, enjoy the long, ripping, relatively straight descent to Wawona.  Wawona is the quiet, off-the-beaten-path symbol of Yosemite before it became an outdoor Disneyland, a grand old resort with picket fences, big verandas, Adirondack chairs on the lawn, and a few quiet, tasteful guests.  It’s a perfect place to buy lunch or eat the one you brought, nap in a lawn chair, and reflect on how good it was in the old days.   Ride back the way you came all the way to your starting point.  You can continue on, but if you do there is no way back to El Portal that doesn’t pass through Mariposa and commit you to a 100-mile day.

To ride to (or toward) Tioga Pass, before you enter the Valley loop go L on Big Oak Flat Rd., then R. on Tioga Rd. and ride as far as you like.  It’s a long road with many good turn-around points, the most prominent being Tenaya Lake, Tuolomne Meadows (pronounced TWAH-luh-mee, for you outlanders), Tioga Pass, and Lee Vining for the famous fish tacos at the Whoa Nellie Deli.

Afterthoughts: Where you stay in El Portal matters.  You’d think a village at the entrance to Yosemite would be a small place.  Yes and no.  The “El Portal” address is used to refer not only to the village of El Portal proper, which has a pizza parlor, a market, and other amenities, but also to everything else for miles along the road.  So if you stay at the Yosemite Cedar Lodge (where I always stay, because it’s very nice and cheaper), according to the address you’re “in El Portal,” but in fact you’re 6 miles down the road from the village (and thus 6 miles further from Yosemite).  This makes the ride from your motel to Yosemite longer and harder (the 6 miles is a gradual climb), and it means you’re further from services.   Cedar Lodge has a café and a restaurant, but both are often closed out of season, and they’re your only food options.   There are no other services there.    If you don’t want to eat at Cedar Lodge or they’re closed, and you don’t have a sag wagon for supplies, you might well find yourself riding a moderately taxing 12 miles (round trip) for dinner or groceries.   But it also makes your return ride from the Valley better, because those 6 miles are a mild, dreamy descent in the late afternoon.

Time of year matters on this ride, because it affects the scenery and the crowdedness of the Park.  I always do it in the spring, when the grass in the foothills is green, the wildflowers are out along the Merced, and the waterfalls are flush with run-off.  But the full waterfalls bring crowds.  In Summer the crowdedness of the Valley is much worse.  In winter there is deep snow.  Fall might be nice—I don’t know.  Think about it. 

One-Day Versions of the route: If you only have a day, you can still get the best of the route thusly:

Medium day: ride from El Portal into and around the Park and ride back.  Include the short side trip to Tunnel View.

Long day: Ride from Mariposa to and around the Park and ride back.   Including the spur to Tunnel View, it would be a 90-mile day with a significant total vert.

 

One thought on “Yosemite Tour

  1. LesB

    A nice one-day ride is from the valley floor to Glacier Point. At the Point you can get lunch at the concession there. And tourists will be wowed by your athleticism for having done the ride, even though to us cyclists 3K of gain is not such a spectacle.

    On the return you will coast most of the 30 miles.

    Watch your speed descending into the tunnel. On my ride I entered at 30mph, and the road inside was wet, and I couldn’t get traction enough to slow to a speed that I would be comfortable with. So I was stuck screaming through the tunnel on a slippery surface and couldn’t brake enough to slow down untill I emerged from the other side where the road was dry. One of my scariest experiences on the bike.

    Reply

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