Through the Valley and Over the Pass
Photos and words by Ryan Wilson
On many occasions over the last couple of years I’ve gazed at the old, abandoned road that zig zags its way beyond 11k ft, above an already stout paved climb outside of Bishop, CA. Thousands of feet up these rugged slopes is a gateway to the John Muir Wilderness. I’ve made quick forays a little ways up it in the past (on bikes ill equipped for the condition of this particular road), but I knew that doing this thing right would require a bit of time and planning.
There were a few different route possibilities, but the one that kept me daydreaming was making a loop by coming around from the backside of the pass via Rock Creek. This would, however, require traveling through roughly five miles of designated wilderness trail before arriving at the actually road, which may not even be rideable itself at that point. Now, wilderness trails around this area are a no-bike zone, and this is most definitely NOT a story about trail poaching, so I knew I had to plan for extended hike-a-bike. There are plenty of trails that don’t allow cyclists for me to get upset over, but this is not one of them. It was very important to me that we not touch a single tire on any trail that was designated as wilderness.
We started the sustained 25 mile climb up to the highest pavement in California with backpacking bags on, in triple digit Owens Valley heat in the late afternoon. Intentionally, we left behind proper bikepacking/touring bags to deal with the added back weight during the ride so we could save a couple pounds on the hike.
We took a quick stop at the always popular Tom’s Place near Sherwin Summit and continued climbing as the sun dropped and temps dipped into the 50s. We arrived at the trailhead about 45 minutes after sunset and started disassembling our bikes to strap them to our packs. Wheels off. Seatpost off. Frame secured to the bag, then piecing everything together over that with straps and bungie cords.
I’ve learned on previous attempts trying to do similar routes that simply possessing a bike on these trails (even if they’re not fully assembled or touching the ground) can bring on unwanted attention, so we hiked in for the first few miles under what was luckily a very bright moonlit sky. Passing one picturesque lake surrounded by granite peaks after another. Crossing streams that only really seem treacherous when you’re rock hopping and your therm-a-rest wiggles out from under its strap, jumps out of its pocket at the perfect moment and you hopelessly watch it rush down stream and out of view… oops. Eventually, around midnight we staggered to a stop and setup camp near Long Lake, which was just before the final push up and over the western side of the pass.
We woke up at first light with sore necks, shoulders, backs (ok most everything was at least a little sore) and hit the trail early. About a half mile up we started to hit the snow line along the last set of switchbacks, which was nice and soft from the sudden heat wave. Eventually we post-holed our way to the pass and sat there for a few minutes with at least a little bit of relief knowing we were close to leaving the designated wilderness area, so we would soon have 20 pounds off our backs, and that it was all downhill from there.
The trip down was a bit of a rough one and would have probably been significantly more fun on a fatter tire at times, but we were on Cross/Road bikes to save weight, so we had to take the endless scree strewn switchbacks with a bit more care than usual.
We finally hit the pavement with relief and were greeted by a ripping tailwind down an already rippingly steep and fast descent back to civilization, which is arguably the best way to forget about how sore your shoulders are.