Sunday, July 4th, 2010

Road: Horseshoe Meadows, Whitney Portal, and Onion Valley Climbs

It was 4:30pm on Friday before the 3-day July 4th weekend.  Following phone conversation took place between Erik and me:

M: I’m getting off work around 6pm. After that, should I go to the Female Friday Fandango?  (Note: This is a monthly female MTB ride/gathering organized by Passion Trails Bike shop 5 minutes away from my work.)
E: Sure. Go!
M: But… if we are going somewhere this weekend, I probably should go home and pack.
E: Right… (Brief pause) Yeah, go home and pack.
M: Are we going somewhere? Where?
E: We’ll go to the East side and do a few road climbs. What’s that toughest climb in California….  Onion Valley Road, I think?

Hmmm… I remembered now he had proposed this trip for my birthday this year, but I was more into mountain biking than into road riding and chose to stay local to do a couple of long MTB rides (Tour de Peninsula and pre-Solstic Coe 10k).  However, I didn’t have any MTB plans for this long weekend. My rear brake had been acting up. For the past three long rides, my rear tire went flat every time. I needed to figure out if there was anything wrong with my rim. And Erik’s bike was in a worse shape — it was in pieces and the suspension bearings needed to be replaced. Road riding sounded like a good idea. Still having work to do, I only had time to do a quick Google search on Onion Valley Road, and found this post from George’s Epic Adventures blog: The 10 Toughest Climbs in California. I printed it on paper to read on the road. In that blog post, he quoted John Summerson, the author of the book The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike) in California:

Most Difficult Climbs:

1) Onion Valley
2) Horseshoe Meadows
3) White Mountain

5) Whitney Portal

I got home at around 7pm and Erik at 7:30pm with two Burritos he picked up. At 8:30pm, Erik cranked the engine with me in the passenger seat and our two bikes and camping gear in the back. We got on our way. While packing, I thought about calling a couple of friends who could have been interested (Patrick and Alison, are you reading?), but an invitation so last minute would have sounded ridiculous and irritating. It has always been hard for us to plan activities with friends because we are not the planning type!

With a good audible book, The Help, playing from iTune Erik drove all the way to the East side. It was past 3:30am when we finally pitched our tent off Hwy 395 and we went to sleep just before 4am. It was too soon before I woke up feeling the warmth of the sun. 7:30am. I could have slept more, but it was getting too bright and too warm. The landscape revealed the two mountain ranges on both the east and the west sides of us, remote, vast, and majestic. I got excited. We packed up quickly.

Good coffee and a big breakfast were what we needed, and we got them at Alabama Hills Cafe and Bakery in Lone Pine. It was also the starting point of our ride.We would climb Horseshoe Meadows Road and Whitney Portal.

The rides in this area almost all start with a long stretch of gentle uphill on a straight road. We took it easy and played with the cameras we carried.

3.5 miles of riding finally led us to the start of Horseshoe Meadows Road, supposedly the 2nd toughest climb in California and 4th in the US. At the start, you can already see the switchbacks in a distance that snake up the mountain.

I pressed the lap button on my GPS and the climb officially started. There seems to be an unspoken rule that many of us subscribe to about hill climbs — you do not put a foot down unless you are about to keel over. That means you eat, drink, stretch, rest, and take photos while pedaling. That’s how the below photos were taken. (Hover the cursor over each photo to get the description and click for the larger version.) I settled in my own pace and gradually pulled away from Erik. While going up the switchbacks, I looked down whenever I could to look for him and whooped at him when I could see him.

I passed Erik on the straight section. See you at the top. I was excited to see Erik one switchback below me and I cheered at him. I could not believe how far I had come. I saw hang gliders setting up their rig. I took a couple of photos of them. They cheered for me while I pedaled on.

Even though I read the print out from George’s post, I somewhat got the wrong impression that the climb was no more than 13 miles long (probably got it mixed up with Onion Valley road). So, when I saw that the lap distance went to 14, 15, and still kept going, I wondered if the God was playing a trick with me — what if the climb never ended? The gradient was quite friendly. However, there were a few hot spots in my feet that were hurting and the saddle was feeling too hard already (I hadn’t been riding my road bike for quite a while). Finally, when I reached a summit at about 16.4 miles, I almost called it victory (and almost put my foot down), but then I saw the next uphill section after a brief dip. It was not until 3+ mile later that road finally came to an end. That was a loooooooong climb! And now it was over. Whew!

After a while, Erik rolled in. We took a break, ate, refilled our water bottles, and took a few cheesy summit shots.

When Erik rode up, he pulled out his camera to take a picture of me before he stopped. Self portrait self portrait My bike and me.

On our way back to the car, we stopped at a few places to snatch a few more shots.

Walt Point. The hang gliders were there earlier. I learned that they didn't take off because there was not enough lift at that time of the day. Looking at Lone Pine where the start was. We took Tuttle Creek road back which took us through Alabama Hills. An interesting cave and rock flow.

It was hot when we got back to the car. The sun was at its full blast. The air conditioned stores and shops were very inviting. But the thought of not riding up Whitney Portal when we were right at the bottom of it did not come across my mind. We refilled our water bottles again (two each). At around 3:15pm, we were on our way again. This time, neither of us felt chipper. I took this photo (self portrait) while passing Erik on the way up Whitney Portal. We were hot and tired.

I took this photo (self portrait) while passing Erik on the way up Whitney Portal. We were hot and tired.

I  took this photo on the straight section. You can vaguely see the road zigzagged in the mountains.

Looking up at Whitney Portal Road in the mountains.

As it turned out, it was a climb much harder than I expected. It was supposed to be rated ONLY the 5th toughest climb in California, 3 places behind Horseshoe Meadows Road, which we just completed. The heat definitely played a role. The climb only came into shade near the very top (last two miles) and even then, it was not continuous; otherwise, it was fully exposed in the sun and the breezes were rare to come by. The grade felt progressively harder. I remember looking down at GPS and kept seeing 11-13% gradient in the last five miles, and even though the grade eased off a tiny little bit near the top, the road surface got rougher, so it felt hard all the way. Two sentences were ringing in my ear constantly, “Inch by inch, I will get there.” (my own motto) and “Here is to sweat in your eye.” (Erik’s motto)

Whitney Portal Road climb

On this climb, I was happy to have my granny gear. All the effort was in pedaling that I did not take more photos until I got to the very top. I then took a break before riding down little ways to greet Erik who was really hurting on the climb. The heat really got to him. But he persevered.

Erik nearing the top of Whitney Portal. Erik making the final push for the summit.

At the summit, he dipped into the snow melt pool to wash away the sweat crust on his face. That must have felt good. Then a few summit shots were in order.

Erik washing off the sweat on his face. A view at Whitney Portal. Two tired but happy riders. self portrait at Whitney Portal

And guess what, a road that took me 2 hours to climb only took me 21 minutes to descend. That was a helluva fun descent! We so earned it. Another thing we earned would be a hearty meal. We asked the guy at the front desk of Whitney Portal Hostel, where we took a much needed shower ($5 each), where the Whitney Portal Store was since I read that their BBQ was supposed to be really good. I thought it should be next to the Hostel (same business owner). The guy pointed outside and said, “It’s about 15 miles up that road (Whitney Portal Road), and the store is right there.” Erik and I looked at each other knowing that we would not be having that BBQ today. But we did have a very satisfying dinner at Mt. Whitney Restaurant in Lone Pine.

Dinner at Mt Whitney Restaurant.

Oh, earlier I mentioned that the heat got to Erik. It sure did! The new sports drink we brought (swag at Napa Valley Dirt Classic) did not work well for him and it upset his stomach. Plus, he had not been riding that much (mountain or road). When we got down, he dry heaved a bit, which scared me because I had never seen him like that before. With the shower and the dinner, he felt a little better. I was thankful that the heat exhaustion did not materialize into something worse. I was also exhausted when I went to sleep after 10pm. But I was too exhausted to fall asleep (this was nothing new) and it took me a long time to actually doze off. But then I was woken up frequently by the gusty wind flapping on our tent. I had hand washed our riding clothes (the other clothes we brought would be too warm for the weather) and had them hanged on the tent poles.  When we finally got up around 7am, I did not feel rested at all. However, I was very surprised that my legs were feeling fine. Actually, I ran (literally) back and forth multiple times between the restaurant and our car to fetch stuff and did not feel any soreness at all. Wow, last night’s dinner must have worked wonder.

We had our breakfast again at Mt Whitney Restaurant before we headed over to Independence, where the start of Onion Valley Road was. A little July 4th parade was happening, so we took a little tour of it. We were tourists after all.

Breakfast at Mt Whitney restaurant Parade vehicle Parade vehicle Parade vehicle

The cattle guard, the official start of the climb, came shortly after we started. I pressed my lap button again. I told myself to take it easy since this is the “toughest” climb in California. While taking it easy, I took quite a few photos on the ride.

It was not climb to me where exactly Onion Valley was. It was spectacular view nonetheless.

Looking back down on Onion Vallery Road. Looking back down on Onion Vallery Road. Looking back down on Onion Vallery Road.

Having expected this climb to be tough, I made sure to settle in a pace that would neither tax my lungs nor tax my legs. I also wanted to leave plenty in my reserve in case we could fit White Mountain in our agenda later in the day. As it turned out, the entire climb was at a moderate grade. The road was designed such that it was not easy to tell where the road went when you look up from below, so it was a little easier psychologically. Before I knew it, I was close to the top, so I raised my pace a bit as you can see from this GPS profile.

onion valley road profile

As soon as I reached the top, I turned around to go meet Erik a short distance behind me. Here he is coming up only with about 1/4 miles to go.

Erik coming up Onion Vallery road Erik coming up Onion Vallery road Erik coming up Onion Vallery road Erik coming up Onion Vallery road

It’s a habit now — summit shots:

Summit of Onion Valley Road Summit of Onion Valley Road self portrait Posting with the sign

Having done it, I probably would not call it the toughest climb I’d done (Whitney Portal felt harder), but it sure was one of the best climbs I had done. The view was spectacular on this climb. On the way down, we stopped to snatch a few more shots.

Onion Vallery road Onion Vallery road Onion Vallery road Onion Vallery road

When we got back to the car, I asked Erik about White Mountain (it starts from Big Pine). He suggested we should end the day on a good note. Knowing that we needed to get back before Monday, I was not too heartbroken that we called it a day. Guess I would have been happy either way. So, we again showered and ate in Lone Pine. Feeling good, we walked around town and got ourselves some good coffee before we started our long drive back home. Lone Pine claims to be the home of Golden Eagles. I think we saw them.

Mt Whitney Restaurant Good coffee at Expresso Parlor in Lone Pine Is that Golden Eagle? Is that Golden Eagle?

It was really hot when we walked around in Lone Pine (mid-nighties at least). I guess I was happy that we were not riding then. Erik had to take a dive whenever he walked into the sun.

My GPS tracks:

(Note: why all 3 sites?)


Horseshoe Meadows and Whitney Portal: (71.1 mi/11367′)

Onion Valley Road: (27.3mi/5432′)

P.S. I had a discovery on these climbs — the ascent data on the GPS is rubbish! Think about it, on a climb, the total ascent should be equal to or greater than the altitude change, right? On these climbs, I kept glancing down at my GPS and found that the altitude change was much faster than the increase in the total ascent. No wonder Garmin connect and MTBguru both show greater total ascent numbers than that’s shown on the GPS. Rightly so!

P.P.S. Stats:
When my friend Alison and I talked about the perception of difficulties of these hill climbs (she said that she’s not convinced Mt Washington “is really harder than our tougher local climbs”), it got me curious. I put together below table for comparisons. The stats all came from my own GPS (Garmin Edge 305). As you can see, the total ascent (in feet) numbers are lower that those officially reported out there, but at least these numbers came from the same device, so the comparisons should be consistent.
. I suppose Onion Valley Road was the steepest (over all) of all three. It sure did not feel that way.

P.P.P.S. Oh, in case it was not obvious from my post, there is a water spicket at the top of each of these three climbs, although there was a hand written note taped to the one on the top of Onion Valley Road saying “Please boil the water before drinking.” There is at least one outhouse at the top as well.

24 Responses

  1. George Vargas - The Red Eyed Vireoon 05 Jul 2010 at 10:28 pm

    Great report. I didn’t realize you went up THIS weekend. I was actually supposed to go this weekend but had a last minute child care situation arise. I usually go up on Thursdays and Fridays. How funny if we would have run into each other.

    I plan on going up again real soon. This Thursday and Friday I have to stick around home because I am anxiously awaiting my SRM Power Meter. It should arrive Thursday 7/8. It is really cramping my style since I just want to be up in the Sierras climbing on Thursday morning.

    Thank you for reading my blog and commenting. I hope you find the other climbs as exciting. One of my personal favorites is Shirley Meadows. I recommend you guys try that one. Combine it with Sherman Pass for a nice century.

    If you follow my blog there are a lot of EPIC climbs on the horizon!!


  2. Patrick Herlihyon 06 Jul 2010 at 11:28 am

    I so wish I could have been there with you (thanks for thinking of me) – I was in Philadelphia in any case.

    Wonderful climbs and fantastic writeup! Adding these to my list… 🙂

  3. mudwormon 06 Jul 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Hi George, thanks for kindly leaving your comments. On Saturday whole day, we did not see another road cyclist on or off bike. On Sunday, we saw three coming down it when we just started on Onion Valley Road and those were the only three we saw. It’s nice you had easy access to the East side. 7.5 hours of driving is a bit too much for us to do on a regular basis, but I definitely would like to check out more riding in the area. We shall return. Climb on, George! -Mei

  4. mudwormon 06 Jul 2010 at 8:50 pm

    You are one of the few I know personally who would seek out the hills to climb. Alison is another one. She has even ridden Mt. Washington, the #1 rated toughest climb in the US! Dirk must belong as well; after all, he finished Alta Alpina Challenge. Who am I missing…

  5. George Vargas - The Red Eyed Vireoon 06 Jul 2010 at 9:36 pm

    It is my pleasure to “meet” others that love to climb. I might write my own piece at some point about climbs or climbing or something like that. I thought about doing Alta Alpina but the drive was too far. All that time driving I could be climbing or recovering from climbing. What epic climbs do you have in your area? Maybe I will come up there and tackle them.

  6. mudwormon 07 Jul 2010 at 11:53 am

    George, people would probably say there are no epic climbs in the area (for those, you go to the Sierras), but there are hard climbs in the area. When you are here, check out Bohlman-On Orbit-Bohlman (see my stats at the bottom of the post), and do it 4 times, then you’ve got yourself an epic ride. :mrgreen:

  7. Jeanneon 07 Jul 2010 at 4:32 pm

    I love your blogs! Good job. Especially packing up so fast and driving into the night. Then riding the next morning early. oh my goodness.

  8. mudwormon 07 Jul 2010 at 5:29 pm

    Well, you know me well, Jeanne. Never efficient at packing, I was also amazed that I was able to get in the car so fast. Not planning on cooking helped. I did forget a few items, but I managed to get by. The ride next morning could hardly be called “early” since our start time was after 10am. I shudder at the thought of a 5:30am start for the Death Ride that’s coming up this weekend.

  9. Sorcereron 13 Jul 2010 at 11:41 pm

    Great riding you guys!

    Last weekend Chris and I joined a small group (total 7 riders) and rode our road tandem from Morgan Hill to San Luis Obispo. A double century! It was a blast.

    Coe Tour de Swim Holes this Saturday July 16.

  10. mudwormon 14 Jul 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Wow, a double century on a hot summer day! Nice job, you super couple! We sadly won’t be able to join the Coe Tour de Swim Holes. As a matter of fact, we probably won’t be able to see Coe until September since all our weekends have been booked. That’s okay. It’ll still be there.

  11. Cbnocalon 20 Sep 2011 at 8:26 pm

    Loved reading you TR. I went down and did Whitney Portal by myself as well as Horseshoe Meadows. I was down the same week of the EC Challenge and did that for the 2nd year in a row on the fly. Climbs on the east side of the Sierra’s rock. Heading there this weekend to support a friend on EC but hope to get Onion Valley. My last quest there. have you done Townes Pass? See you on the hills

  12. mudwormon 27 Sep 2011 at 9:23 am

    Hi Cathy, wonder if you already did Onion Valley by now. What do you think of it? I have fond memories of it. So pretty up there. I’ve not heard of Townes Pass, but will look it up now. Maybe once our DIY house renovation is done, I can try to get back in shape for it. 😎

  13. brian begleyon 08 Dec 2013 at 9:57 pm

    HI Mai

    Great write up. I am looking forward to peeling the Onion and Horseshoeing the Portal summer of 2014. I have got some great ideas from your posts. Thanks for sharing.


  14. George Vargason 09 Dec 2013 at 7:02 pm


    If you guys like to climb check out the camp I am putting together for March 17-21.

    I am still working on the “copy” but the highlights are there.

    over 400 miles and 50,000 feet of climbing in a 5 day cycling camp!

  15. mudwormon 15 Dec 2013 at 9:41 pm

    Hi Brian, thanks for dropping a kind note. Hope you get to enjoy the climbs as much as we did (or even more) when the summer comes. Don’t wait till it’s too hot though.

  16. mudwormon 15 Dec 2013 at 9:42 pm

    Hi George, thanks for the information. The camp looks fun!

  17. brian begleyon 15 Dec 2013 at 11:45 pm

    it does look good as do your write ups. I love your for the sense of accomplishment your feel from climbing and conquering challenges.
    I would love to meet you, then get dropped by you 🙂


  18. brian begleyon 15 Dec 2013 at 11:51 pm

    hi George

    the link above is not deliverable. any othe links about the camp?


  19. George Vargason 16 Dec 2013 at 4:22 am

    Sorry here is the link to the 5 day, 400 mile, 50,000 feet of gain camp

  20. mudwormon 16 Dec 2013 at 10:15 am

    Thanks Brian. Haha… don’t we cyclists all dream of dropping others on a climb. Yeah, now that you know what we look like in cycling gear, please don’t hesitate to shout out mudworm if you see us out on the road. Mr. Mud is used to it now. Would be fun to meet and trade pain stories.

  21. mudwormon 16 Dec 2013 at 10:23 am

    Dang it, George, now you make me look bad as if I lied earlier. Ha, maybe my home computer was just smart enough to figure out and correct the link. Actually, I looked it up when I first received the email notification about your comment a week ago, although I only found out yesterday that I still needed to approve it in order to make it public despite that you were a return commenter. Seems that you added some more content/info to it. I just started looking into similar climbing cycling tours in Europe. You might just be a pioneer in the States.

  22. George Vargason 16 Dec 2013 at 10:30 am

    Hello Mudworm,

    It’s not your fault it’s mine. Can you believe when I registered the domain name I misspelled cycling? Yeah me an avid cyclist and MBA graduate lol! Anyway I didn’t realize I had misspelled it until I typed the correct spelling into the address bar and it wouldn’t come up. I registered the correct domain name and re-posted the link here.

    I have been adding content as I have been getting questions from viewers. Do you have any questions? I am also considering putting together a camp in the Lone Pine area to tackle many of the epic climbs available within a such a short drive.

    What do you mean by your comment of “You might just be a pioneer in the States”

    Pass the link around to your climbing friends. Spots are filling up fast!

    George Vargas

  23. Brad Hickson 25 May 2014 at 7:15 pm

    Hi! Great pics and ride detail. Thanks! Quick question: I’m going to be in Owens Valley for 3 days of riding this summer — have 2 of my rides already picked & am trying to decide Onion Valley or Horseshoe Meadows for the third. Which would you recommend for beauty/fun? (Both look like they’ll kick my butt!)

  24. mudwormon 25 May 2014 at 8:01 pm

    Hi Brad, it’s a tough call, but if I have to pick one, I’ll pick Onion Valley. It’s beautiful out there. Have fun!