Four days and 1147 miles in April 2019 from the Central Valley to the Pacific coast, across the Carrizo Plain, over the Tehachapis to the Mojave and Death Valley, returning back home along Sierra…
The 2018-2019 rainy season in California proved to be a bit shy in the early months however by January the atmospheric rivers roared. With record breaking snow levels in the Sierra and above normal rainfall in the rest of the state, the long dormant seeds of California’s native vegetation exploded as the days lengthened and temperatures began to rise. Considering the ravaging fires of last summer, the landslides associated with burn scars were limited and the verdant landscape was renewed.
The maps above show how this year’s precipitation (top) is substantially greater than in the past 20 years (bottom) that have been considered drought conditions for much of the Western U.S.. Note the scales. (Northwest Climate Toolbox)
All of the rain gave me the opportunity to consider this spring’s moto to view the best of the super bloom. Joining me on this two wheel road trip was fellow rider Pete, on his Bonneville T120, and I on the Kawasaki Versys. This was to be our third loop around California to enjoy what the state has to offer in terms of the best two seasonal transitions: fall to winter and winter to spring…
Day 1 Merced to Cambria (Approx. 266 miles)
Selecting a route that would showcase the variety of climate zones in California wasn’t a difficult task. Our route would take us from Merced, our home in the Central Valley, on SR 59 and 152 to Dos Palos where we traveled south on N. Russell Rd. through South Dos Palos then west on W. Shields Ave., crossing over I-5 continuing west on our favorite back road, Old Panoche Rd. through Panoche Valley and the Coast Range foothills.
Old Panoche Road is a winding road through open range, blue oak, and gray pinion pine foothills where golden eagles, Western bluebirds, the oak titmouse, the Lewis’s woodpecker, yellow-billed magpies, and phainopepla are resident. Mammals in the area include three federally endangered species; the San Joaquin Kit Fox, Giant Kangaroo Rat, and Nelson’s Antelope Squirrel. The American Badger is also native to the valley. Endangered reptiles in the valley includes Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard. When approached from the west slope during winter you’ll see mountain bluebirds and flocks of sparrows down from higher elevations. During spring, Swainson’s hawks nest along this road.
Not all of the sunlight goes into photosynthesis as the controversial Panoche Valley Solar Farm is now generating 130 megawatts of power serving San Benito County. Originally proposed at 399 MW, the cost was estimated at approximately $1 billion. The project faced lawsuits from three environmental groups who charged that project would harm native species such as the giant kangaroo rat, blunt-nosed leopard lizard, San Joaquin kit fox, and various bird species. The project was downsized to 247 MW and eventually 130 MW in 2017 after a settlement was reached. [Wikipedia]
Once over Paicines Pass, twisties and sweepers made for a quick descent down to the Paicines Store. Now likely powered by the PVSF, the store’s kitchen produced wonderful chili verde and asada burritos that powered us until dinner. Controversies are abundant in our changing world. It’s nice to have something like a small country store making a legit chili verde to reassure that as some things change, some things remain the same. Well, maybe now the lights are solar powered.
It was on to Hollister, San Juan Bautista, and Castroville for a fuel stop for the machines and our connection to the iconic SR 1. With more traffic than we prefer, Hwy 1 is a beautiful route to enjoy especially exposed to the elements as one is on a motorcycle. The winding road to the Big Sur, Lucia, Gorda, Ragged Point communities, often isolated by the ravages of rainfall induced landslides, all dodged atmospheric bullets this wet season as closures were temporary unlike in 2017.
IThe Mud Creek Slide, which rained debris in one of the state’s largest landslides, destroyed a quarter-mile section of the roadway. The road had been blocked since May 20, 2017 near the tiny town of Gorda, 65 miles south of Monterey, where the slide occurred when a quarter-mile section of the two-lane road fell into the Pacific Ocean at Mud Creek, along with 50 acres of hillside. The Soberanes Fire in 2016, along with other slides along the route, including an eight-month closure that bisected the town of Big Sur in 2017, meant an even longer wait for an uninterrupted drive along the cliff-hugging highway that kept us on an interior route last year.
The road was open and though we may have wanted to lean a bit more into the curves, sightseeing tourists kept us vertical as we slogged down the highway. Though it was cloudy and cool and the traffic slow, we dressed for the conditions and, making the best of the slog, enjoyed the vistas down to Cambria which were stunning.
How about some witnessed natural history?
Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorusare) are very unusual woodpeckers that live in large groups, hoard acorns in granaries, and breed cooperatively. Cooperative breeding is defined as more than two birds taking care of nestlings in the nest. At Nepenthe, a group of acorn woodpeckers gathered acorns by the thousands last fall and wedged them into holes they’ve made in tree trunks, telephone poles, or side of the restaurant. Several were flitting about perhaps inspecting their cache or catching insects, another source of food. These birds will mate in the fall when the acorns are plentiful that is unusual for most birds. I suspect this display was less to impress than to capture a tasty insect or a vintage acorn. It was at Nepenthe afterall…
And now for some cultural history…
State Route 1 was one of the most difficult routes to build particularly along the Big Sur coast. The state first approved building Route 56, or the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, to connect Big Sur to the rest of California in 1919. Federal funds were appropriated and in 1921 voters approved additional state funds. San Quentin State Prison set up three temporary prison camps to provide unskilled convict labor to help with road construction. One was set up by Little Sur River, one at Kirk Creek and a third was later established in the south at Anderson Creek. Inmates were paid 35 cents per day and had their prison sentences reduced in return. The route necessitated construction of 33 bridges, the largest of which was the Bixby Creek Bridge. Six more concrete arch bridges were built between Point Sur and Carmel.
No wonder infrastructure doesn’t get done like back in the day…
After 18 years of construction, aided by New Deal funds during the Great Depression, the paved two-lane road was completed and opened on June 17, 1937. The road was initially called the Carmel-San Simeon Highway (Route 56), but was better known as the Roosevelt Highway, honoring the current President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A 1921 law extended Route 56 south over the county road to Cambria. [From Wikipedia]
We made it to the campground just in time for fish tacos in Cambria at the West End Bar and Grill. As state campgrounds go, the San Simeon Creek Campground is nearly perfect. Just a few miles from Hearst Castle and Cambria, it’s a fully equipped campground. The ocean lullaby ensures a great night’s rest.
After a hearty breakfast at Cambria Mimosas Steak & Seafood and fuel at the local Shell Station, day two beckoned… sans mimosas.
Day 2 Cambria to Panamint Springs (Approx. 342 miles)
From Cambria we would head east on California SR 46, south on US 101, and east again on SR 58 detouring south of Bakersfield through McKittrick, Derby Acres, Maricopa, Taft, and SR 166 to Mettler and weaving in and around back roads through some serious agriculture to Arvin. The southern Central Valley (San Joaquin Valley) is ironically home to fossil fuel production and large scale farming often in the proximity of, if not on the same, acreage. Descending from the foothills, pumpjacks and pipelines dominate the landscape. Further down slope orchards of almonds, avocados, walnuts, pistachios, oranges, tangerines, lemons, and fields of potatoes, carrots, lettuce, garlic, and onions with an occasional pumpjack interspersed. We saw cattle and calves, sheep and lambs grazing on rangeland where oil extraction was taking place. Hopefully, as the roadside banners remind us, the food will grow as this year’s (abundant) water flows.
In spite of large scale oil production and agriculture, it was on the outset of this leg of our spring tour that we were astonished by the super bloom. The coastal foothills and westside plains were ablaze with color, the density and scale of which I’ve never seen. The timing of the this year’s rain on the plain was exquisite.
After a quick fuel stop in Arvin, we began the ascent over Tehachapi on SR 58. The darkened skies were intimidating as we wove through truck after truck slogging up the pass. Once over Tehachapi Pass, north on SR 14 and 395 the skies cleared. However, confronted by brutal headwinds, we were buffeted to and fro through Bradys and Brown, with a blustery stop at Pearsonville for gas where our helmets came in handy to deflect the wind causing other patrons at the Shell/Subway to grimace as they were pelted with sand and other debris while filling up. Somehow we missed seeing the Uniroyal Gal (a.k.a. the Hubcap Lady) in Pearsonville. That’s the sort of thing that will turn a grimace into a smile…
From Pearsonville, just south of the 9 Mile Canyon exit on US 395 that takes you over Sherman Pass, a route I’ve taken on a bicycle three times, it was on through the Red Rock Canyon, Little Lake, Coso, Coso Junction, Dunmovin, Haiwee, and Grant in increasing headwinds blasting us to Olancha where SR 190 took us east to Panamint Springs. I made the best of the conditions as I tucked in the slipstream behind a Jeep Wrangler. With a taller windshield and the Jeep, my ride was a bit more pleasant than Pete’s with his swave minimalist cafe windscreen. Given the frequency of the winds in this region, I’m pretty sure the number of settlements named on the map outnumber the residents on that stretch of road. Not so much of a super bloom there as the timing of the considerable rain that occured in the desert wasn’t as prolific in the production of wildflowers. Or maybe the wind blew all of the flowers’ seeds away…
As we began the descent into the Death Valley Monument the winds tapered, yet once again our desire to lean into the twisties was stymied by a group of gentlemen tourists cautiously riding their shiny Harley Davidsons as we shared the road. Once again we enjoyed the vistas freed from having to determine the line and apex of the next turn.
If you look closely you’ll see the Father Crowley Overlook in the Google Map screen capture below. I wonder what it was that was overlooked with this Father Crowley fellow…
Arriving at the Panamint Springs “Resort”, all was forgiven and forgotten about the raging viento as we were greeted with calm. Once our tents were pitched and sandwiches and a cold beverage were consumed at the definitely desert funky Panamint Springs Restaurant we were ready to enjoy the big sky perhaps to see a stealthful F-18 or F-15e from the nearby Nellis AFB, Edwards AFB, NAWS at China Lake, or NAS at Lemoore buzz this Star Wars Canyon.
The Panamint Springs Resort was originally owned and operated by Buffalo Bill Cody’s cousin, Agnes Cody. The motel was opened in 1937 when the first toll road was constructed traversing the Panamint Valley. A post office operated at Panamint Springs from 1940 to 1946. Change comes slowly to the desert, but who needs a post office when you have free WiFi?
As the sun was setting the light reflected off of the harsh desert terrain softened as the warmer wavelengths of the spectrum illuminated the landscape. Snow topped Telescope Peak glowed in the setting sun.
We were invited to share a campfire with our campground neighbors with whom we shared stories of our travels. As we watched meteorites flash across the night sky with the Milky Way as the backdrop while contemplating the planets, stars, galaxies, clusters, the question of how big is the universe and then what? What defines a “thing” and how big can they get? The next “thing” I knew it’s morning in the space time continuum and it was time to Jet Boil some java…
After sharing itineraries with our other campground neighbors we packed up the gear and headed south.
Day 3 Panamint Springs to Three Rivers (Approx 256 miles)
Day three would take us southbound on Panamint Valley Rd. also known as the Trona/Wildrose Rd. (SR 178) through Trona, the absolute garden spot of the Eastern Sierra Mojave region.
Entering Trona one is at once struck by the industrial mineral production and isolated feel of the place. Passing by multiple roadside dumps of the remnants of times of greater prosperity cast something of a pall over the town despite being a very pleasant sunny, windless spring morning. I’m pretty sure automation and international markets have some responsibility for the decline of Trona. There is a high school. In fact it’s one of the best maintained facilities in the town. The baseball and football fields were sand. I can’t imagine taking a short hop as a shortstop or what being tackled as a receiver would feel like. Then again, it’s probably preparation for the hardscrabble life that awaits after graduation…
Pete has quite an appetite for such a compact fellow. Since earlier we hit the road without breakfast we decided to stop in Trona for a bite to eat where he recalled his first stay at the now closed Pinnacles Motel some thirty years earlier. Since the Esparza’s Family Restaurant was one of two eateries in Trona, we dropped in. There didn’t appear to be any evidence of a thriving community as we rode past shuttered businesses after abandoned houses. The server was very pleasant and a couple of mothers and their “free range children” arrived as we were seated. A few minutes later a couple of auto-tourists dropped in. Take out orders were dispatched. I guess their business model works for what appeared to be a town on its last leg. We discovered that in its previous life the restaurant was a fancy Fox Movie Theater (opened in 1954–my birth year–so it wasn’t exactly ancient history). The boomtown appeared to be considerably busted but my Belgium waffle, two eggs, and bacon were delish.
Some more history courtesy of desertusa.com:
Trona is home to the Searles Lake playa located in the Searles Valley on Hwy 178 in the Greater Mojave Desert. Searles Lake is one of a chain of pleistocene lakes which were formed during the Ice Ages. The dry lake bed contains a plethora of sodium and potassium minerals of the carbonate, sulfate, borate and halide classes, due to long sedimentation and evaporation processes which occurred over a period of about 150,000 years.
The dry lake also contains the Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark which consists of more than 500 tufa spires. Trona Pinnacles has been the site of many movies and commercials because of its prehistoric mystical appeal. Over thirty film projects a year are shot among the tufa pinnacles, including backdrops for car commercials and sci-fi movies and television series such as Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Disney’s Dinosaur, The Gate II, Lost in Space, and Planet of the Apes.
A short jaunt south on SR 14 brought us back to last spring’s route over Walker Pass on SR 178 to Wofford Heights and Kernville with a slight variation. Stopping in Kernville for fuel and a lesson in credit card fraud prevention, we got conflicting reports about our intended route on the Great Western Divide Highway over the Sequoia Crest. Since we knew that the Sherman Pass Route over the Sierra was snowbound, we had planned to take Mtn. Hwy 99 to Johnsondale catching the GWDH to where it becomes California SR 190 through Camp Nelson and Springville joining Yokohl Valley Drive to SR 198 and Three Rivers for the night. Alas, the road to Camp Nelson was closed for the winter as reported by a young fellow on an Yamaha Fz07 or was it an 09? Despite my checking with CalTrans before departing and being assured the route was opened, he said that there was a gate across the road that morning and that he turned back.
Instead we traveled over Alta Sierra on SR 155 through Glenville and Old Stage Rd. into Porterville. North on SR 65 through Strathmore, Lindsay, and Exeter we then turned east on SR 198 to Three Rivers for the night. The compensating feature of missing out on the Great Western Divide Highway was that the air was deliciously scented by the blossoming citrus in the region.
Just as we were anticipating arrival and setting up camp in the Sequoia National Park at the Potwisha or Buckeye Flat campgrounds, we encountered a long line of stop-and-go traffic near the Kaweah Terminus Dam. Damn, it must have been Spring Break traffic filling the park! As we rolled on we discovered that a terrible accident involving a pick-up that appeared to be smashed in some sort of head-on collision. We later learned that medi-flight responders evacuated victims.
Rolling on, the traffic cleared in Three Rivers however, upon approaching the entrance station to Sequoia National Park, we noted that only two of the fourteen campgrounds in the entire park were open (see the introduction about snow) and they were full. The friendly ranger referred us to a couple of private campgrounds in Three Rivers and lo and behold we discovered the Three Rivers Hideaway right on the Kaweah River.
We shared a section of the campground with a fellow who introduced himself as Chris, based in Colorado, who was kayaking the spring runoff in California. After dinner we sat around the campfire sharing what brought us there and came to find that he was a professional kayak river guide. He proved to be a fascinating adventurer, at once humorous and humble. His website, whereisbaer.com, is filled with content of his many world wide wet adventures. When asked if he had a favorite river Mr. Baer simply replied, “Yep, the one I haven’t yet run.”
That’s a line I’ll steal when I’m next asked about a favorite moto tour!
Day 4 Three Rivers to Home (Approx. 283 miles)
Our final day took us on another variation of last year’s route to SR 216 to Woodlake where a delightful breakfast was enjoyed at Dora’s.
This year we continued north into the hills instead of staying in the valley through Auckland, Badger, Sierra Glen, Pinehurst, and Cedarbrook, all quaint Sierra communities along right-wrist-fatiguing-twisties and sweepers. North through more of the same sorts of wee settlements named Dunlap and Squaw Valley. A short westward bump on SR 180 and north again on Ellwood Rd. and Piedra around Pine Flat Reservoir through Trimmer on E. Trimmer Springs Rd. to Maxon, Watts Valley, and Burrough Valley Rds. delightfully adorned in best springtime array.
Enroute to Tollhouse Rd. we discovered that Dry Creek was wet. We also noted several folks on a springtime ramble who were picnicking along side of the bucolic Maxon Rd., or was it Watts Valley Rd. or Burroughs Rd.? Regardless, the spring splendor was evident on any winding country road in the vicinity.
Reaching SR 168 a quick right hand turn took us up to the Cressman’s store on the way to Shaver Lake where some caffeine chased by a lime Bubbly hit the spot.
After the caffeine-sugar rush at Cressman’s, we turned tail on SR 168 and headed, north on Auberry Rd. Before dropping down to Auberry and New Auberry (?) to Kerckhoff Lake we encountered a view of the Sierra crest that competed with the many twisties for our attention on the namesake road, which was neither new nor old, as we headed down to North Fork. This view is comparable to that of the Mile High Vista on the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway that you can access in North Fork or in Bass Lake on Beasore Rd..
More twisties up Rd. 274 to Bass Lake and Yosemite Forks where we joined SR 41 through Oakhurst zipping onto SR 49 into Mariposa for petrol for the Triumph.
Like Sea Biscuit returning to his stable, we continued zipping on SR 49 to the Mt. Bullion Cutoff where we dropped down Guadalupe Grade on SR 140 to Catheys Valley being careful to slow our zipping as that section crawls with CHP anxious to ticket unaware tourists. To avoid the speed trap, we took Hornitos Rd. to Merced Falls and Snelling Rd. to G St. finally arriving at home sweet home to the affectionate gaze of SoBe eagerly awaiting a reward for being a good dog (and only driving Toni, Kyndra, Luna, and Dakota just a little crazy).
Four days and 1147 miles from the Central San Joaquin Valley, across the Coast Range to the Pacific coast, bisecting the Carrizo Plain, up and over the Tehachapis, to the Mojave and down to Death Valley, & back along western slope of the Sierra home.