Jodi hatched the idea for this tour. To be honest, it's world class. You won't find better cycling anywhere. If you're hungry for a few days of hard, wild, gorgeous cycle-touring, have we got the route for you.
After a summer focused mostly on my retirement from nearly thirty years of teaching, selling our house in Tehachistan, and moving to Bishop, we felt it was time to get back on the tandem and pound away at the local mountains. We hadn't done a tour since 2015. It was time to put away the rock climbing gear and the hiking boots and load up the Greenspeed for some slow, painful, uphill grinding.
Here's an overview of the route :
Day One: Bishop to Benton Hot Springshttps://ridewithgps.com/routes/26423027
We decided to dispatch the long straight section first, i.e. ride the loop counterclockwise. This turned out to be a mistake, which I'll explain later. First, we had to load up the good ship Greenspeed, which I came to call Li'l Miss Pig-Iron. I'd call her fat, but that would be gender-biased body shaming. Let's just say she's "big boned." I shudder to think what we were pushing up these mountains. Thankfully, we have insanely low gearing. Racing glaciers uphill does take patience, however.
In the morning cool, with a forecast to die for, we headed out for the open road, northbound. The riding was fast and easy to begin, a teaser, a lure to get us into the jaws of the grind ahead. The road plays tricks with us that way. In no time, the hustle and bustle of the booming metropolis called Bishop was in our rear view mirrors, and the the great wall of the White Mtns. flanked us on the east while the Chalfant Valley drew us in.
Once beyond the town of Chalfant, however, the road decided to get serious: Climbing steadily and a snappy, snappy headwind beating us back. We got seriously worked. The overall gain and distance were not extreme, but the combination of conditions and, no doubt, being the first day of a tour combined to leave us in pretty rough shape by the time we got to Benton. I was dreading the climb up to the hot springs and camp. We shot-gunned a cold orange juice and dug in to the hill once more, only to be stopped when the chain got caught between the rings. Ugh. After a short, greasy struggle, we resumed the ascent and then...to our delight, we realized we'd cracked it. The hot springs were within sight and mostly a gentle downhill. The final climb had been mercifully short. We zipped down to the old resort and checked in to our campsite--oh, the delight. Not cheap--$50 per night--but each of the half dozen or so sites has a PRIVATE HOT TUB, the perfect antidote to a hard day's cycling.
In the evening light, a little pinot in hand, we went for a walk through the sage and enjoyed the local scene in town:
Later, we visited with some new friends who happen to actually live next to the campground. That night, a stiff wind whipped through the aspens and tamarisks. I dreaded some of the hard work the next day implied, but I tried to sleep anyway. Fortunately, the campsite was sheltered from the wind, so at least the tent wasn't whipping around. As sometimes happens, my metabolism was cranked way high from the effort, and evening was warm, so I sweated and flopped around much of the night in what would become a recurring theme for the tour. I always seemed to be a bit too warm, at least for part of the night. Quite a spell for late October.
Day Two: Benton Hot Springs to Lee Vininghttps://ridewithgps.com/routes/26423036
We set the alarm for 5AM. We had a serious dragon to slay, and dangerous out-sized reptiles be not slain by sleepin' in. I brewed coffee while Jodi packed the tent. By about 6:30AM, still in the dark, we rolled away from the beloved hot tub and up into double-digit grades and the slow work of climbing to the pass over the Benton Range. Of course, a headwind kicked in. Of course.
A Jodi shot of the morning sun on the craggy Benton crest:
After an hour and a half of painful cranking, we busted the pass and dropped into the stunning Adobe Valley. In answer to our prayers and the sacrificial roasted leg of lamb seasoned with fresh garlic, lemon peel, rosemary and thyme we'd had for dinner the night before, the winds died so that we could live.
Jodi shot of the sunrise over the Benton crest:
Happiness is a windless morning:
What followed was a pleasantly fast rolling traverse of the valley to the base of the next crux: a 2,000 ft. climb to Sage Hen Summit. It began with a double-digit pump through a narrows. Beyond, it opened to continuous stunning vistas, the White Mtns. behind, the Glass Mtns. to the north. We gunned for the Sierras, somewhere out of sight far, far above.
One of our greatest struggles on these climbs was that the padding on our seats had broken down over the last couple of years, so our butt muscles/sit bones were aching badly after about 20-30 min. of pedaling. Also, we tend towards hot feet from the high pedal position and the continuous effort of climbing. In short, these were some long, tough miles. But if one persists, one is rewarded, isn't one?
Jo shots of our arrival at the summit---the Sierras at last:
What followed was a chilly, rolling descent down to the pumice and forests between the Mono Craters and Mono Lake, a weird, stunning world.
Jo shot of the lake:
But the road was not finished with us. After rounding the north end of the Mono Craters--what Jodi informed me were the youngest mountains in North America--the route hooked and climbed in a brutal little stinger. We pulled through, pouring sweat into the afternoon sun to, at long last, cruise down to Hwy 395 and thence, without too much climbing, to Lee Vining and camp. Rest day tomorrow!
Day Three: Lee Vining LaziesWe had our first coffee at camp, but then spent a bunch of time at our favorite cafe on the East Side--Latte Da, great people and organic coffee, free wifi, views of the lake, and all kinds of great seating. We read, ate, showered, and staggered around on our touring-shocked legs. (These shots taken the morning we left--after breakfast at the cafe.) The mornings were brisk--26 deg. F.--but by the afternoon, we were in shorts and light shirts, until the sun fell behind the Sierras. The temperature changes were astonishing.
Day Four: Lee Vining to Tom's Place and French Camp
The amazing warmth persisted for our big run to the south along Hwy 395. This route has excellent wide shoulders and provides great cycling. On this day the traffic was light with some big breaks in traffic early on probably the result of road work to the north. While today's ride had some respectable altitude gain, the grades were much more manageable, and the day was as good as they come. We reveled in our good fortune, grateful for health, freedom, fitness, and a day to remember.
Jo shot of the Ritter Range in the distance from 395:
This shot gives you a sense of the road conditions and the often awesome shoulder. Unfortunately, it turns to a not-so-great chip seal at Deadman's Summit that continues almost all the way to Tom's Place. Oh well. From Tom's Place all the way to Ridgecrest, the glassy wide shoulder continues. Yeah.
Whatever shade you can find!
French Camp in the afternoon:
Jodi's idea: I balked at hauling it up the grade to the campground, but it kept the brewski damn cold and helped with the half and half for the morning's Black Gold. Good idea and her photo, too.
It was time to cook. Jodi had assembled a pretty awesome Indian style backpacking dinner for this night--a curry/chicken/veggie thing that was excellent. The simple pleasures of camp life....
Jodi's shot of the sunset on Boundary Peak:
Day Five: French Camp to Bishophttps://ridewithgps.com/routes/26423060
After nearly twelve hours in the tent, we emerged to a 36 degree morning. I got down to business with the brew, and Jo worked on the tent and starting a fire she'd set the night before. Previous campers had left firewood--bonus. We would be among the last of the campers for the season as the campground was set to close Oct. 31st.
Then it was time to push off and enjoy a tremendous drop back into Bishop with very little climbing--boooyah. Put on the layers and dust off the discs brakes, honey. It's time for the slalom event.
Jodi shots from the last day: This is in the narrows of Lower Rock Creek, the old highway.
Back in the valley:
Home at last:
This route is blessed with some of the best cycle touring conditions you will ever find--anywhere. The shoulders are usually good and often excellent, and the same can be said for the pavement. Where there isn't much shoulder, the traffic is unbelievably light. At times we could wait twenty minutes between a single vehicle. One weirdo coming from the opposite direction did flip us off. Whoa, dude. Sorry for you! Hwy 395 will have the "heaviest" traffic but even that is light by most standards. Most of the time on this route, you'll feel out there and on your own--rare for paved cycling. As a contrast, consider the so-called "classic" Oregon coast, what many call a cycle touring dream--not me, however. According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, State Hwy 1, the coastal highway and touring cyclists' "dream tour," in 2015 averaged a daily--that's every day, folks--traffic load of a low of approx. 21,000 cars to a high of 165,000 cars, depending on location. The overwhelming majority of those cars are on the road during the day in the summer peak cycling months. In many places, you can expect thousands and thousands of cars per hour zooming by as you "enjoy" the beautiful Oregon coast. Gah. Been there. Done that. Won't return.
Like all touring, this loop has its demands. The climbing is big and remote, so you have to be fit and prepared for fixing any problems that might arise--no bike shops except in Bishop and a long way between services. Temperatures in the Owen's Valley can be extreme in the summer, frequently topping 100 deg. F. I suggest doing this route in late spring or the fall when valley temps are in the 70's to low 80's. As noted, be prepared for sub-freezing nights, but the days will be delightful.
We pedaled in the counterclockwise direction, thinking to get the long, boring stretch out of the way first. Well, we did, but we suffered, too. The winds tend to be out of the north, so that long, boring section is likely to be longer and more trying because of it. I want to do this loop again, but we'll tackle it clockwise. This has some advantages and drawbacks. You DO have to battle the huge climb out of Bishop first off, which can be daunting, but it has the benefit of a generally moderate grade and beautiful curving route and a nice stretch along Lower Rock Creek for cooling off and general beauty ogling. The run from Lee Vining to Benton Hot Springs will be definitely easier with better grades and--dig this--about a thousand feet less climbing! You'll roll into the hot springs on a screaming downhill with great views. The last day will be almost all downhill to Bishop and over quickly.
Oh, and DEFINITELY get reservations at Benton Hot Springs. We got the last site, and that was for a Monday night. Plan ahead.
Gear Talk Corner:
As you can see, we ride a weird rig, and this compounded our challenges quite a bit. Lighter rigs would make the going easier for sure! We'll try it on single trikes next time. One of my favorite pieces of kit was the stove, an Optimus stove featured in the cooking shot above. The current model is called the Optifuel, and I can't recommend it highly enough. Key to long distance touring is fuel availability, and this pup burns virtually anything and does very well on unleaded gasoline--cheap and everywhere. It simmers very well, too.
Well, that's it for this installment of our touring madness. Get out and get wild. Life is short.