Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Yosemite: Hwy 120 Entrance to Tioga Pass

1 October 2016
110 miles, 10,800 feet total elevation gain

I got a chance to do a ride that I have long wanted to try.  A couple weeks ago, my friend Ravi asked if I wanted join him for a one day bicycle ride in Yosemite National Park to Tioga Pass.  This is a challenging ride for several reasons:

  1. The total distance is more than 100 miles.
  2. The total elevation gain is more than 10,000 feet.
  3. Much of the road is above 8,000 feet, where the effects of high altitude can become apparent.
  4. There is no one to support us like in an organized ride with rest stops, food, and support vehicles.
  5. There are almost no services -- no stores, no guarantee of water.
  6. The park is more than a 3 hour drive away, so we have to leave early and return late.
I couldn't pass up the opportunity.  I have already done three centuries this year, so my conditioning should be sufficient.  The weather for the weekend we planned was still expected to be clear.  This late in the season weather conditions can change suddenly, so an all-day ride risks treacherous weather.  We could not risk postponing it and getting deeper into wintery conditions.

Because the campgrounds and stores were closed, we needed to make sure we could get water somewhere along the route.  Ravi called the park and a ranger told him that water should be available outside the gate to the Tuolumne Meadows campground, which is 47 miles from the planned start.  That would sufficient for us.  And any food we needed would have to be carried along, so I packed 10 Clif Bars and a bag of crackers.

We made our plans to meet each other at 4:00am on Saturday at the Fremont Park and Ride lot, which is a common point between both our homes on the route to Yosemite.  My only concern was that I developed some pain in my left knee (likely tendinitis) the Tuesday before.  It was not serious, and I mainly felt it climbing and descending stairs.  It gradually lessened by Friday, so I decided to go through with it.  Postponing would have jeopardized the whole ride because of unpredictable weather conditions.

On Saturday I woke up at 2:45am (before my alarm), ate some breakfast, and got ready.  I left home at 3:30 and picked up Ravi at 4:00.  We drove straight to the park.  We saw very little of the scenic road as the drive was all pre-dawn.  Only when we were just outside the park did the sky start to lighten.

As we entered the park, the ranger station was closed.  The booth had a sign instructing us to enter and pay the entry fee when we exited.  This is where Highway 120 enters the park (one of four entrances) and is also called the Big Oak Flat Entrance.  There is a parking area just inside the entrance where we left the car.  We used the restrooms, filled our water bottles, and got our bicycles ready.  The route would be from the entrance, to the top of Tioga Pass, and the return the same way.  We got underway at 7:08am, which was soon after sunrise.

The traffic entering the park was light but steady.  Several people also parked at the same time as us, but they all looked like they were preparing to hike.  It seemed like we got several interesting looks from the others as bicyclists are an unusual sight at this time and place.

The weather was crisp and cool, but not particularly cold.  I had brought my warm clothes in anticipation, so I was comfortable.  Also the road starts uphill right away, so that gave is a chance to warm up immediately.  Ravi has done this ride before so he gave advice of watching the pace so we retain enough energy for the return trip.  The first half is mostly uphill, but not uniformly so.  The return trip will also include several uphill sections that we need to be prepared for.

Getting started.
We reached the junction at Crane Flat, which is the only intersection we would be encountering.  One way goes downhill towards Yosemite Valley, but our route headed uphill towards Tioga Pass.  We stopped briefly at a roadside pond to take a quick picture.  I was happy to find that my knee was giving me no trouble whatsoever.  In fact, it felt better than the day before.  If it felt good after 1000 feet of climbing, then I had some confidence that it would not hinder my ride.  I took my jacket off at this point since the day was warming and put on my arm sleeves.

As the day progressed, the amount of motor traffic noticeably increased.  The road is quite narrow, and there is no shoulder, so we had to ride on the edge of the traffic lane.  But we had no problem with the traffic. Usually there were not many cars in the oncoming direction, so people could pass us by driving partly in the other lane.  A couple times we were passed at close range by a large RV.  On one occasion, it seemed like the low sun was in the drivers eyes and they may not have seen us well.

At one point we noticed a motorcyclist zoom past us.  We saw him leaning deeply into the curves as he sped ahead of us.  Several minutes later, we briefly heard a siren.  We made sure to give the park ranger who approached plenty of room to pass us.  Ravi was riding ahead of me, and I saw the ranger slow and talk to him briefly.  After he sped away, I caught up to Ravi and asked what the discussion was about.  The ranger had asked him if we had seen a speeding motorcyclist.  Of course, Ravi said we had.  We had a discussion about what was going to happen.  Ravi guessed that the ranger would catch up the the motorcyclist and give him a ticket.  My suspicion was that the ranger in his SUV would not be able to catch up to the motorcyclist on the winding mountain road.

The route progressed nicely, and eventually we reached the point where the immense Yosemite Valley opened up on our right side.  The site was stunning.  I finished my second Clif Bar while still riding.  We kept expecting to reach Olmsted Point, a natural checkpoint at 35 miles, but it seemed farther than we expected.

As we passed what appears to be the entrance to the White Wolf campground, we saw the motorcyclist who sped by us earlier.  Again he took off in the direction we were heading, though this time he went fast but not at a crazy speed.  It did not appear that the ranger caught him, and we guess that he may have pulled in here while the ranger passed.

We passed by the Porcupine Creek trailhead and were a little surprised to see that the parking area was overflowing.  This was the first time we saw anything like a crowd in the park.  During the brief stop there, I took some Tylenol for the headache I had developed, which I guess was due to the altitude.  Not long after that, we reach Olmsted Point.  We guessed, based on our time so far that we would be reaching Tioga Pass around 1:30pm, which should give us plenty of time to get back with still some daylight.

We continued on and the road descended to Tenaya Lake.  After that, we reached Tuolumne Meadows.  We looked around for the campsite entrance to find the water we were expecting.  We passed the closed Visitors Center, and the store which was not just closed, but boarded up (probably to protect it from winter storms).  Finally we saw the campground and ranger station and stopped.  We asked the ranger about the water and he directed us to the faucet between the building and the locked gate to the campground.  We sat on a picnic table and I ate another Clif Bar and a big handful of crackers.  Of course, we filled our water bottles.  I was down to about one-third bottle, but now I had two full ones again.  We re-checked our time calculations and realized we had been optimistic.  We recalculated and guessed that 2:00pm would be the more likely time at Tioga Pass.

After some rest, we started again.  The road now would be a continuous uphill (though not particularly steep) until the end.  Fairly soon we passed a sign marking the 9000 foot elevation point. At this point my leg muscles were spent.  I was having difficulty pedaling.  I felt like I had energy, but my leg muscles were burning.  I would pedal for a while and then try to briefly coast to give them a respite.  Of course it was not possible to coast far as we were going uphill -- may just 2 second rests.

Finally we saw the booth marking the East entrance to the park and the highest point on the road -- 9945 feet elevation, making Tioga Pass the highest mountain pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  We lingered a bit, taking our pictures at the elevation sign.  The air was cool and the breeze was cold.  We had reached right at 2:00, matching our last prediction.  Now we calculated that we had four and a half hours to get back before sunset and that it should an easy task.  I put on my jacket for the cold descent.

Made it to the top.

The next part was probably the easiest part of the ride as it was all downhill back to the Tuolumne Meadows campground entrance.  The was the only place where we saw other cyclists -- a pair of bicycle tourers who were fully loaded with camping gear.  We stopped there again and again filled our water bottles as there would be no water until the end.  I ate my fourth (and what would be my final) Clif Bar.  After some more rest, we got rolling.

The next section was a climb out of Tuolumne Meadows to Tenaya Lake, then another climb to Olmsted Point.  I thought I would have deteriorated more, but somehow the rest at Tioga Pass and Tuolumne Meadows plus the long downhill section between recharged my legs, and they had energy again.  Ravi's progress was the reverse.  He was having difficulty breathing.  He is normally a stronger rider than I, but now he was struggling on each uphill.  I stopped at the top of each climb so that we could regroup.

There were more climbs after Olmsted Point as the road drops down but kept returning to near 8000 feet.  Our progress was much slower than we had expected.  There was nothing to do but slog onward.  The descents were cool, but the ascents were warm.  I needed to keep my jacket on even though I was starting to sweat on the uphills.  Finally we started getting to the point were there were more downhills than uphills.

We reached a point where we knew there were only two or three more uphill sections left before the long descent to the Crane Flat junction.  Ravi was in need of some hot liquids, so he suggested that continue straight to Crane Flat without waiting for him and he would meet me there.  If I hurried, I could get there by 6:00 and get a hot drink for him before the store closed.  I made it my mission.  I pushed myself and went as fast as I could.  My energy level had recovered so I was pushing through the few short uphills that remained.  This section of road was very new and exceptionally smooth.  This was the fastest part of the ride as I was able to sustain speeds of 35 miles per hour on the downhills.

I reached the store at Crane Flat at 5:58 and headed straight for the door, but found that they close at 5:00 rather than 6:00 as Ravi thought.  I felt bad for him since there was no chance at a hot drink now.  So I just had to wait for him.  Surprisingly, he rolled in only about 3 minutes after my arrival, so his condition was not too bad.  I explained that the store was long closed.  There was nothing to do but head to the car.  It was only 8 miles and mostly downhill, but we needed to hurry if we wanted to make it before sundown.

Just as we were about to depart, a park ranger came over to us and asked "are you the guys I talked to on the road about the speeding motorcyclist?"  We said yes and then he asked if we ever saw him again.  We explained that we did, coming out of what we thought was White Wolf.  He talked with us some more about it, asking us for a description the cyclist, his motorcycle, and his clothing.  The ranger explained that when he saw him, he was traveling more that 30 miles per hour above the limit.  He thanked us for helping him, though it looked like the motorcyclist would not be caught, nor even know that he was pursued.

The rest of the ride was smooth and fast again.  Again Ravi lagged a bit on the uphills, but I did not wait for him since I knew he would make it.  I reached what I recognized as the final small climb before the 2 mile descent to the entrance.  It was exhilarating to know that we would finish the ride before sunset (though we initially expected to finish sooner).  I reached the car at 6:38 and Ravi arrived just a few minutes later.

We packed up our bicycles, used the restroom, and changed clothes.  It had really cooled down now, but the temperature would not matter since all that was left was to drive home.  I desperately wanted to let Vaishali know that we were done and everything was okay, but would not be able to do it for a while since there is no phone reception until we reach the next town outside the park, still a good distance away.  I thought she would be worried about us since it had gotten dark and there was no way to communicate our progress the whole day.

When we reached the town of Groveland, we pulled over and I sent the text telling her that we were fine and on the way home.  Since this was the first signal my phone was seeing all day, a flood of notifications came in for the flurry of text messages that were coordinating the day's activities.  Aasha had a gymnastics evaluation, and at the same time Manoj was attending a classmate's birthday party.  I had no time to catch up on those.  We continued on.  Again, we lost the scenery along Highway 120 to darkness just as we had in the morning.

We briefly discussed stopping for some proper food, but decided against it.  Our current projection was that we would reach home around 10:30pm.  Although we were hungry, we were even more tired and did not want to push our return time back any more than it was already going to be.  Although Ravi offered to drive, I was full of energy (no doubt high from the accomplishment) so I elected to do the driving.  I had a can of soda and ate from my bag of crackers for quite a while.

When we got to the town of Manteca, we stopped for gas.  This gave Ravi a chance to get a hot chocolate, so he did manage to get a hot drink after all.  At this point, my energy level gave out and I handed the driving duties over to Ravi, who was able to manage the one hour of driving remaining to our meeting spot while I drifted off in sleep.

We reached the lot around 10:20 and parted.  I had not seen Ravi in a long time and it was great to ride with him again.  I thanked him for suggesting the ride.  It was great that everything worked out.  We discussed that we should make a real effort to do it again sometime next year.

All that was left was the half hour drive home.  Thankfully my nap had refreshed me so I was not struggling with drowsiness.  Unfortunately, I hit an unexpected detour on the way home because part of the freeway was closed for repairs.  I had to navigate myself through a maze-like part of town that I am not so familiar with.  And I was not at my sharpest, mentally.  However I found my way to a road I knew led in the direction home.  I took it and arrived back at 11:10.  I told Vaishali briefly about my day, but my main priority was to shower and sleep.  I was hungry, but way more sleepy.  Thinking about it, it felt surreal.  I was getting into my own bed, which I got out of that morning, but in between I was on top of Yosemite.  How crazy that is!

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