Destinations: Five Sierra Nevada Mountain Passes

A short primer for touring five notable and scenic Sierra Nevada Mountain passes.

Sierra Nevada Mountain Passes - sign warning of steep, winding roads

Winding steep roads are a hazard for trucks but a playground for motorcycles.

Photo by Joe Berk

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What: The Five Passes, a magnificent region in Northern California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.
How to Get There: From points south, take California state Route 395 north (a magnificent ride in itself). Turn left at state Route 120 and you’ll be in the zone!
Best Kept Secret: Azzo’s Restaurant & Bar, a delightful Italian restaurant in Jamestown, Calif. Try the pesto linguini with chicken and mushrooms!
Avoid: The winter months, and starting out without checking the road conditions. Some of these passes are snowed in as late as June! 
More info: MotoFoto.cc

Between 250 and 64 million years ago, when dinosaurs walked the earth, a series of cataclysmic tectonic shifts rocked the region we now know as the West Coast of America and formed the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Fast forward to 170 years ago, and people started making roads through these mountains as they opened them up to mining and logging. Although it wasn’t planned this way, those roads and their magnificent passes have created some of the best riding on the planet.

Rather than simply designating a single point as a destination, this month’s focus is on a region, and in particular the great northern Sierra Nevada Mountain passes. The surrounding foothill regions are interesting, but the mountain passes are the real story — especially if you’re on two wheels. There are five passes in particular that are beyond awesome, with incredible scenery, elevations, grades and the always-significant “T-factor.” T, of course, stands for twisties.

Working from south to north, we’ll start with Tioga Pass, perhaps the best known of all the passes. Located along state Route 120, it’s the eastern entry point for Yosemite National Park, and at 9,943 feet it’s the highest pass in all of California. It’s an awesome ride, and the best news is that it’s but one of several magnificent paths through these delightful mountains. Pine scents, fresh air, deep blue skies, stupendous scenery, and yes, there’s more to come.

Sonora Pass along state Route 108 is the next northern Sierra Nevada pass in our series. It’s the second highest elevation (just 300 feet lower than Tioga), and with grades of 26 percent (yes, really!), it’s the steepest. Pioneers took this route as early as 1841, and when the gold rush began in earnest the road saw a lot more use. This route runs from Sonora on the western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Bridgeport along the eastern edge. Both are great towns, rich with heritage and providing numerous photo opportunities.

Ebbetts Pass at 8,730 feet is on yet another scenic Sierra Nevada route, California’s Route 4, which runs from San Francisco on the western edge of the state all the way to state Route 89 in the eastern Sierra Nevadas. Along the way, you’ll pass through aptly-named Alpine County (I can still smell the pine trees as I type this!), you’ll traverse Ebbetts Pass, and then travel through the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, a truly magnificent area.

Monitor Pass (elevation 8,314 feet) on state Route 89 is another great path through the Sierra Nevadas and is one of my favorites. At its western end it runs right into state Route 50. From there, you can turn right and take it up to Lake Tahoe, or turn left for the long run back to Sacramento. I know which way I’d go!

The last of our five passes is Donner Pass, but it’s not nearly as exciting as the first four. Interstate 80 runs through Donner Pass, and the surrounding scenery is beautiful, but it’s slab riding all the way. It is, however, a quick way to get across northern California and on to Reno.

In addition to the passes, there are wonderful surrounding areas well worth exploring. California’s Gold Rush Highway (Route 49, named for the Gold Rush of 1849) is one I particularly like, with many interesting towns along the way. Sonora, Calaveras and Jamestown are three that spring to mind.

We used Sonora as our base camp, and it was a great place to stay. The Gunn House in Sonora is a magnificent bed and breakfast, and the downtown Best Western is a safe bet, too. Sonora has an active night life and numerous top-notch restaurants.

You can’t do all of these roads and passes in one day; a better plan is to devote a day for each pass. The total miles won’t be high, but the T-factor mentioned earlier means you’ll need — and want — the time. This is the kind of riding experience you don’t want to rush — what would be the point? The scents, scenery, and surrounding locales should be savored and surveyed, much like sampling a selection of fine wines. MC