“No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs—anything—but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out.” –Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
I happened upon this quote a few of years ago and since decided to make it a personal mission to enjoy self-propelled adventures in as many of the 59 national parks as possible, quite a few of which are accessible by bike. Although I have explored large chunks of Yosemite on foot over numerous backpacking adventures, I had never seen it by bike. Tioga Road, arguably one of the most scenic drives in the country, deserves to be experienced from two, human-powered wheels. With a ride length of almost 100 miles and 9,000 feet of climbing, I settled on this as my birthday challenge for the year.
Rising before dawn in the Hodgdon Meadow Campground tucked away just inside the west gate of Yosemite, I attempted to make breakfast and break camp as quietly as possible before driving the few miles to Crane Flat where I could leave the car for the day. At roughly 6,200 feet, Crane Flat sits at the start of Tioga Road, 46 miles from Tioga Pass and the east gate of Yosemite.
I readied my gear—water bottles filled, with plenty of food, extra layers, and emergency supplies thrown in the backpack—before moving to pump up tires and apply chain lube. Grabbing my back tire, I noticed it was flat—not just low, but FLAT. With no obvious signs of a leak, I thought perhaps it was just the altitude and pumped in 110 psi. The tire seemed ok, so I figured I would simply keep an eye on it and if worse came to worse, I kept a spare tube under my seat.
With the sun high enough now to make visibility acceptable, I hopped on the bike, eager to get rolling. Riding out of the parking lot, I tapped the left shifter to move up to the big ring. Nothing. That’s odd. I try again. Still nothing. I get off the bike, mess around with the front derailleur, then try again. Nothing.
Frustrated by the thought of this ride not happening due to a series of stupid mechanicals, I decide I could accept the back tire risk and with a full 9,000 feet of climbing ahead of me, riding in just the small ring seemed like no big deal. I would simply coast down hills and on the flats. I hopped back on my bike and set off up Hwy 120.
The first few miles roll through dense forest, at times threadbare and seemingly still smoking from the Rim Fire last year, accented by the occasional waterfall cascading down beside the road. With a morning temperature of 38°F, frost still caked the rough tarmac and my extremities suffered in the cold.
After a steady climb, I eventually reached the 8,000 foot elevation marker. As you have already gained 1800 feet in elevation, it is easy to get sucked into the mentality that you are halfway there. For roughly the next 30 miles, however, you will continually gain and lose elevation, seemingly never making any progress apart from distance.
I stopped regularly to check my back tire, noticing distinct levels of deflation, but continued on regardless. Breaking through into the high alpine, as the miles and numerous ups and downs ticked away, I passed by famous waypoints—Yosemite Creek, the backside of North Dome, Porcupine Flat where groups of backpackers were readying their food stashes and gear.
Around mile 30, I finally reached Olmsted Point, the infamous turnout with expansive views into Tenaya Canyon and Half Dome towering in the distance. As marmots looked on waiting for anyone to drop or share a morsel, I took a long break and set out to fix my back tire, now almost completely flat again.
While chatting with a nice, elderly Japanese tourist who lamented his days exploring Yosemite in his 20s, I took out my tool kit, tried spraying sealant inside the tire, followed by a couple of shots from my CO2 cartridge. Things were looking up.
From Olmsted, the road quickly drops down to Tenaya Lake, and to one of the most beautiful sections of the ride—around the lake, then breaking out into the subalpine zone, surrounded by steep granite domes on either side, until you are finally spat out into the vast expanse of Tuolumne Meadows. This early in the season, the meadows were still waking up from their winter slumber, yet to don the colors of spring but beautiful nonetheless.
A quick break to enjoy the views and another check of the tire proved it seemed to be holding up better than before. From the meadows and Lembert Dome, it’s a non-stop climb past the 9000 foot elevation marker and up to Tioga Pass.
Earlier, I had gotten confused by wooden posts on the side of the road marked with “T” and a continually climbing number. If they were mile markers, I didn’t seem to be making much progress. So when I saw the Mono Pass trailhead sign and subsequent “Stop Sign Ahead” indications, I was elated—I knew I had made Tioga Pass and the eastern entrance to Yosemite. (I later found out the posts represented turnout markers).
At almost 10,000 feet in elevation, plenty of snow still blanketed Dana Meadows and hung on Dana Peak. After a few snapshots at the gate under the Tioga Pass sign, and with another couple shots of air into my back tire, I set off for the long 46 mile ride back to the car.
The ride back to Olmsted Point went relatively quickly—a nice long descent into Tuolumne, rolling hills past Tenaya Lake, then one big climb back to those Half Dome views. With an average grade of 3-4%, none of the hills are particularly steep—you rarely need to brake when descending. But some of hills can feel long, especially at mile 70 beneath the warm afternoon sun and without much gas left in the tank.
By late afternoon, I finally returned back to Crane Flat. All in all, the ride took around 8 ½ hours to complete. Could I have done it faster with a big ring and fully inflated back tire? Perhaps. Did it matter? Nope. The ride was all about enjoying Yosemite from the bike.
“A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.” ―Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
IF YOU GO
Traffic: Ideally, I would have loved to do this ride during the small window of opportunity when the park service has finished plowing Tioga Road but before they open it to motorized vehicles. Yosemite doesn’t like to actively broadcast this, however, so you need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, with no guarantee of getting to ride the entire route. With the freak late season snowfall, I missed that window but decided I could accept the light level of pre-Memorial Day traffic. Plus, I wanted to ride all the way to Tioga Pass.
Yes, there were plenty of Cruise America RVs and caravans transporting large foreign tourist groups, but in general, I felt much safer on Tioga Road than I ever do on Hwy 1 outside my house. There is rarely oncoming traffic at the exact moment when someone needs to pass you, so they easily drive right by giving you a wide berth. I was the only cyclist out there that day, so mostly a novelty to motorized tourists.
Communication: There is no cell coverage for pretty much the entire route. An AT&T customer, I received one 4G bar at Olmsted Point and two Edge bars at Tuolumne—just enough to send an “I’m ok” message. The rest of the ride was through a complete no service zone.
BF Goodrich Tires: Even for self-propelled adventures, you still need a way to get to the national park or trailhead. With a variety of seasonal, off-road, and performance options, BFG tires are trusted by many to get them safely to the places they want to play. On my Subaru, I use the Advantage T/A, which provide great all-weather grip and responsive handling even when I need to take the car off-road over mud, dirt, and rocks.
Water Filter: This early in the season, none of the potable water stations are open. With almost unlimited access to water sources (lakes, creeks, waterfalls), you have every opportunity to refill your bottles. I brought my Platypus Gravityworks, but a Steripen would be simple and easy to throw in your pack as well.
Tools: If something happens to your bike and you are 30 miles in, you need to be able to fix it. Or be really good at thumbing a ride back to your car.
SOL Emergency Bivvy: Although an extremely remote possibility given the amount of traffic, I was fully prepared to stay out overnight if required. I knew that at a minimum the Tuolumne Hut stays open year round, but in the event I got stuck somewhere else, I would be prepared. To this end, I also brought a lighter with me so I could make a fire.
Sunscreen: You are exposed for most of the ride at a high elevation, so ample sunscreen is a must.