The Big Climbs of Lone Pine, CA
Words and photos by Ryan Wilson
Highway 395 through Inyo County is renowned amongst cyclists in California as a jump-off point for some of the best riding in the country. All of the highest roads in the state intersect this stretch of road tucked between the Eastern Sierras and Death Valley. None loom quite like the 10,000ft+ Horseshoe Meadows near Lone Pine, CA.
A couple weeks ago when I heard rumors that Horseshoe was being cleared of snow/debris and opened for the season, the gears started turning, and I invited my buddies Jeff and Gus to get their first taste of riding in the Sierras.
The forecast was predicting a high of 80 degrees in Lone Pine, but when we pulled in at 8:30am it was already there, so it was pretty clear that the forecast was full of shit, and it was going to get hot, quick.
The ride starts with a rolling climb through the rocky Alabama Hills (made famous by the infinite number of old western films shot here), before opening up to a long, sloped desert floor that climbs steadily up to the base of the mountain along a straight road. It’s along this stretch of road that you see what separates Horseshoe Meadows from the other big climbs in California… the sheer scale of the switchbacks etching their way up the front face of the mountain. The first time someone spots them in the distance, the standard response is “wait… that’s where we’re going?!?” No other road in California is quite as intimidating from the bottom.
By the time we got to about 9,000ft, we were all pretty cooked, and the roar of a roadside cascade was calling our names, so we re-fueled a bit, dipped our feet, and re-filled our bottles with some probably questionable, but ridiculously good snow melt water. There was only another 1200ft of climbing or so to the top, but at that altitude, it felt like twice that.
Along the descent we couldn’t help but stop to take in the massive views of Owens Valley around just about every bend (I’m usually guilty of this anyways). With every foot of elevation lost, the road below became more clear, and it was becoming more obvious that the valley was going to be blazing hot.
We continued descending back down into the Alabama Hills and soon hit the intersection at Whitney Portal road. It was about 100 degrees out at this point, all three of us were dead tired, and it would have been an easy decision to call it a day and head back to Lone Pine. Knowing we’d be in this position at this spot before the ride, I decided to stash a few cokes, bananas, and water here thinking it might be the only thing getting us up another big climb. After taking a few #selfies with a couple horses, and downing our 100 degree cokes, we said screw it, and started heading up Whitney.
Whitney Portal is a bit shorter than Horseshoe (topping out near 8,300ft), but it is oh so steep. Especially with 7k feet of steep climbing already in our legs, and the mid-day sun beating down. The first half is deceptive because you haven’t hit what looks like the base of the mountain, but the grade is already steadily cranking up over 10%. Once you round that big switchback though, and Mt Whitney (the highest peak in the contiguous United States) comes into view, the pain starts to fade, and it’s hard to think about anything other than the massive granite peaks surrounding you.
All in all we did 10,800ft in under 65 miles, which makes this one steepest rides of this length I’ve ever done. So if you’re looking for some high quality type-2 fun. Look no further.
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