No Bikes Allowed in the High Sierra

There’s kind of a joke on Instagram right now. A joke hashtag that is, dubbed #NoBikesNoLikes. From what I can tell, it implies that if you’re a cyclist, and your followers are cyclists, all they want to see are bikes, bike rides and other cyclists. I get it. People can get very myopic about their interests, but there’s more to life, right? Obvious statements aside, we live in the great state of California, where the highest point and the lowest point cohabitate the same 100 square miles. In this magical place, you’ll be hard-pressed to find legit backcountry trails where bikes are allowed, if any. You can thank the Sierra Club for that. Equestrians and hikers greatly outnumber cyclists and a long time ago in a bureaucracy far, far away, someone, somewhere said “No Bikes allowed.”

This was written in stone and rather than get all in a huff about it, in recent months, I’ve kinda embraced the whole thing. Bikes aren’t allowed in Wilderness Areas. Got it. So what is? What offers a similar experience to bikepacking? Duh. Backpacking. Cari has experienced parts of the High Sierra I’ve never even thought to explore. Personally, if I take off four days from work, I want to be bikepacking or cyclo-touring some unknown region – to me anyway – of California. That’s why I moved to this damn fine state to begin with.

A few months back, Cari scored eleven permits to backpack on trails outside of Mammoth Lakes. The loop, as we planned it, was 40 miles and we’d tackle it in three or four days. Since the only provision was water – freezing cold snow melt – we’d have to bring in four days worth of food stored in a bear vault, clothing and other necessities, all fitting into a 70L or so backpack. We knew we were doing this trip early in the season, so we expected lots of snow, some plump, rushing rivers and potentially some GPS navigation, as much of the trail could be destroyed from the record snowfall.

Fell trees were a plenty and turns out, everything else on our list was bountiful as well but we’ll get to that in a little bit.

We all met at a campsite, just a few miles from the trail head the night before. Cari and I were well prepared, having already packed our food and supplies in Los Angeles before hitting the road in Ziggy Mojave – my Land Cruiser. So while everyone else was packing and buying supplies, I took a nap and relaxed for a while. As night fell, the campfire blazed on and my pre-mixed Manhattan cocktails went down easy. A little too easy at 9,000′ elevation. Soon, I was ready to pass out…

Morning called at 5:30am and we all scrambled to make coffee and breakfast before finally setting down on the Duck Pass trail at almost 9am. That’s a long time to get ready but remember, we had 11 people. Sheesh. Within a few miles, we encountered a German hiker who turned back, visibly upset. When asked why, he stated there was too much snow and he couldn’t find the trail. Panic worked its way through our group like “the wave” at a baseball game. I assured everyone it would be ok. I had a GPS and we’d be fine.

Duck Pass was gorgeous, with a minimal amount of snow scrambling and views to keep your shutter finger firing.

What we didn’t expect was the very steep and very sketchy section of snow to follow. It had to be at least a 50º angle, but felt near vertical, as our ledge in the snow was merely inches wide and the consequence – falling down the 100′ drift into freezing cold lake water – could be fatal. Later, when we had to wade through a small crossing, my bones ached from the cold. It was a temperature I’d never felt before.

Some hours later and we’d find our camp at Purple Lake, beside Purple Creek. I’m an early sleeper on trips like this, so at 8pm, I was in my tent, passed out. I knew the morning would come early – at 5:30am – and that we’d all be in the sun’s path by 6am, making it difficult to sleep in. Getting a good night’s sleep on the first day – even though we only walked 9 miles and climbed 2,500′ – meant I’d be good to go in the morning.

Our next day’s agenda was easy. 9 more miles and around 1000′ of elevation, we’d mostly be descending to Fish Creek, or rather Fish Valley. The problem is, we’d have a trecherous creek crossing at what is known as Second Crossing. Usually, this creek is 12″ deep, but after this year’s snowfall, it plumped up to waist deep, with flows of 70 CFS, or 70 cubic feet per second. That’s like having 70 thanksgiving turkeys pass you every second. It’s an issue when you’ve got 11 people hiking, one of which is 6 months pregnant.

Again, another German couple passed us going the opposite direction. Their cry was similar: “turn back! it’s too trecherous!” Panic ensued, which I tried to thwart: “We’ll be there in ten minutes, let’s go check it out.” The crossing went as expected: it sucked! Being the only one tall and strong enough to help the others across meant I’d be in the water for an hour, grabbing onto people’s arms as they inched their way across the rough and dangerous creek. Since I was in deep, rushing water, I didn’t have the chance to document any of it and that’s probably a good thing. It gives me anxiety even writing about it…

Risk vs reward is high in the High Sierra, however. Our campsite that night was divine. One of the better kept secrets on this trail.

Day three brought a challenge. We’d either hike out, all the way, topping 20 miles, or split it into two days, camping at Reds Meadow and leaving Mammoth Pass, plus the walk back to our car for the following morning. Cari and I had to get back to civilization on Monday for work, so we took off on our own. Then, as our maps were wrong, we spent over an hour searching for a bridge that was never there and before we knew it, the group caught up with us. We’d take off again, at a fast pace and made it to Reds Meadow by 2pm, with plenty of time for a late second lunch and a break before ascending Mammoth Pass.

Once we packed up and were ready to go, another set of bad directions foiled our plans, setting us back another hour or so. Soon, the group that was three hours behind us, caught up with us again as we circled Reds Meadow looking for the “Old JMT”, a trail that could cut off a lot of elevation gain onto Mammoth Pass. Turns out, that section of trail was closed ages ago.

The sun was setting and the wind was picking up. Cari’s feet were killing her, forcing her to a crawl up the pass, so I took the heaviest items out of her bag and transplanted them to mine, making her load easier and our pace equal. Before we knew it and long before sunset, we popped out at Horseshoe Lake and began walking with our thumbs out, hoping to hitch a ride down the road to our car. After hiking on dirt for three days, walking on asphalt was killing my feet.

One, two, ten cars passed and we were already halfway there when a local named Sean picked us up in his Honda CRV. Thinking we were JMT or PCT hikers, he struck up a conversation. We exchanged stories, trail conditions and other anecdotal tales to pass the time of our 20-minute car ride back to our truck.

Camping sounded good to me, but work’s responsibility meant I should use some of my airline miles to book a hotel with Wifi. The next morning, we met up at Black Velvet Coffee for a coffee, while myself and one other flicked away at keyboards on our laptops like wood peckers devouring insects in a fell tree. Cari and I loaded the truck up and headed down the 395 corridor with a few dirt roads on our list to explore for future campsites. One last detour on our drive home found us in an alluvial canyon, perfect for a rest and a snack.

Backpacking may be slower than bikepacking, but in that time, you’re allowed a different experience. The mind is able to sop up the trail gravy, like a buttermilk biscuit and in the end, you’re allowed a vista into a part of California that is closed to bikes. For me, these experiences all tie into a more complete understanding of California’s geological and ecological stories, so that I can, in tern, share them with you.

  • rocketman

    as much as I love being on a bike… backpacking into the Sierras is an incredible experience.. Love every trip. Nice photos too!!

    • It surprised me how easy it is compared to bikepacking yet the payoff is high, if not higher.

      • Chris Valente

        The next phase is to explore some off trail passes and lakes. It opens up a whole new world and ups the challenge level. I highly recommend Secor’s Guide to Sierra Peaks and Passes for some major stoke generating ideas.

        • We’ve got it. Cari’s been going out there for 15 years or so. This merely scratched the surface for us. :-)

          • Chris Valente

            Yeah my copy has way more routes flagged than actually done! I love that book, need to dig mine out again. Love these recent additions. Any increase of shots of the Sierra is a very good thing.

      • Equestrians and hikers greatly outnumber cyclists and a long time ago in a bureaucracy far, far away, someone, somewhere said “No Bikes allowed.”

      • I agree with you

  • Chris Andrews

    That campsite shot looks amazing. Pity about the leeches in the hot springs! In NZ we just have to deal with sandflies (really annoying small mosquito type insects) – still the roadside springs on the Lewis Pass are well worth it.

    • I’ve experienced flies in NZ first hand. They’re horrible!

      • Chris Andrews

        You just gotta keep moving! They go to bed around sunset, so a pro tip is to not put your fly up until then, stop them getting stuck inside your tent…

  • David Watts

    I fucking hate horses

    • Sigh. Yeah. I just hate their owners who think they own the land. It’s crazy to me that one user would deem themselves more important than the other. 🤷🏼‍♂️

  • Rad Pitted Inc

    Yes! Keep bikes out of wilderness areas and these areas remain big. Bikes are cool, but the feelings of smallness and insignificance that wilderness areas can provide are a lot cooler.

  • Tim Donahoe

    It’s never been “No bikes” that necessarily bothers me. It is the “No bikes, but Horses are allowed” that infuriates me. Horses are insanely destructive to trail systems. Over the top destructive. Anywhere you want to ban bikes, Horses should also be banned.

    • Agreed. After this winter, so many of our dirt roads and trails were fucked up by people taking horses onto muddy trails. Complete disregard or respect for trails.

      • redhead322

        Are hikers required to dig cat holes in this Wilderness? And if so, are equestrians likewise required to have a manure bag on their horses?

        • ha. I wish.

        • andyestridge

          Horses are required to use specific “weed-free” feed to prevent invasive species. Doesn’t keep you from stepping in it though :/

    • Will Reinking

      Its a valid argument. Horse goers, hikers, and bikers we are all fellow humans with the same goal in mind. Have a wild or, gnarly, pleasant, different, enjoyable time in OUR national forests and woods. Yes horses cause a noticeable amount of damage compared to hikers and bikers. What can we do? Bitch? Moan? Or we can choose to support our local trail building organizations with volunteer hours or by voice. These organizations have a direct, credible voice to to the Forrest Service to begin to implement change. What changes? More sustainable trails, and a healthy dialogue between all of us trail users could be a decent start.

    • andyestridge

      It’s a legacy thing. Just like with CA’s water rights, the history of the area & it’s people make it impossible to have a system that is “fair” to all methods of transportation. Not sayin I agree… them’s just the facts :/

    • breed007

      I help run a trail building organization that maintains around 130 miles of trails. We’ve had luck taking the “we welcome equestrian trails but are concerned about their interactions with other users” approach to successfully keep horses off almost all of our multi-user 1-track. In turn, the equestrians have developed/adopted some of their own trails which has the added benefit of educating them on proper trail maintenance and usage. Of course, we have access to a lot of land so politically that wouldn’t work everywhere. But if you can find a way not to simply tell them “no” it’s a whole lot easier.

  • redhead322

    How long ago was the fire at Mammoth Pass? Just curious. In other burn areas I’ve hiked through, I can’t help but wonder how long it’ll be for those areas to recover.

  • MGL

    is this you ramping up to introducing your truck blog? called it

  • Dave

    Nailed it John. Sometimes you gotta leave the bike behind, just because you love to ride doesn’t mean it is the best mode of transport for all adventures. That tent shot is unreal, light and framing are spot on!

  • I really like these general “outdoorsy” pieces. They feel genuine and make the site more about experience than product. Nice one John. Keep it up!

  • dickey

    Mmm, trail gravy.

  • Kevin Ehman

    been following since the early PiNP days and I’ve never enjoyed the content more than present, awesome photoset and story.

  • Nathan Carballo

    Highly recommend Inyo for your next backcountry trip, man!

  • Lovely! Annual family backpacking trips are what developed my deep love of the great outdoors. I don’t know that I’d be such a passionate mountain biker and professional trail advocate if my parents and uncles hadn’t dragged me all over the American West on foot-powered trips as a reluctant, surly teenager. There is value and beauty in many modes of travel through nature, and many ways to experience the great outdoors that are valid and powerful.

  • Kerry Nordstrom

    And by not painting yourself into a corner as strictly a cycling commentator, you bring in more “myopic” eyeballs from other disciplines ; )

  • GNARdina

    Biking is always the activity i do the most, but backpacking and kayak trips are always a great time and i enjoy them so much because I get to do them less. We’re gonna be out kayaking for three days on the Allegheny during the eclipse this year and these rare times I get to go out and spend multiple days on a river are always cherished.

  • hansgman

    ahh that bent front bumper bothers me..

  • Röbby Sanfranciskö

    Great post, just spent some time out in Northern Nevada and California with a good friend who has a rad ornithology job with GBBO.

    I feel like this post might be a good spot for a question I’ve had as finding some overlap on the forums isn’t as easy as I thought.

    I’ve been considering ordering a fancy new ReLoad messenger back pack as a general all around traveling bag. Would it suffice as a backpacking bag? What are some considerations of a messenger backpack vs. a traditional backpacking backpack. Anyone have any opinion on this?

    • Nice! I wouldn’t go the messenger bag route. It puts too much strain on one side of your body / shoulders. Backpacking packs are mostly supported at your hips – pending you get the size that’s right for you – and there’s hardly any weight on your shoulders.

      • Röbby Sanfranciskö

        You think even the fancy double shoulder strapped messenger backbacks would do that? Definitely DO NOT want to use my 13 year old Chrome kremlin single strap bag or anything of the sort.

        Just curious because I’ve never had a messenger backpack or a dedicated backpacking bag. Thanks for the input!

        • Chris Valente

          As John said, for a solid backpacking bag where you are carrying a fair amount of weight over extended period, you really need something with a beefy hip belt that supports most of the weight. 3 days of carrying that weight all on your shoulder will be rough. I have a huge messenger bag that I use for cross race gear, but all it has is a tiny webbing hip belt. Not ideal for carrying 20 or 30 lbs for days…

        • campirecord

          Its camping, on the trails with proper shoes and proper backpack and tent… don’t be like the germans…

  • Justin Kee

    what 12 year where you enjoying in 52?

  • auton0my

    Great story. Amazing scenery out htere!

  • charlesojones

    Great piece, John.

  • Helluva pun there in the final sentence.

  • Nathan Crissman

    John, dude, how many Cruisers did/do you have?! I’ve got an ’11 Xterra with an Old man emu lift but I’m about to make a step towards my first FZJ80.