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Destinations: Five Sierra Nevada Mountain Passes

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

| September/October 2011

  • Sierra Nevada Mountain Passes - motorcycles parked by roadside of Sonora Pass
    Taking a break near Sonora Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The views are beautiful and the traffic is light - perfect for motorcycle touring.
    Photo by Joe Berk
  • 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

  • Sierra Nevada Mountain Passes - motorcycles parked by roadside of Sonora Pass
  • Sierra Nevada Mountain Passes - sign warning of steep, winding roads

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:

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.

Dale E, Wood
10/22/2011 2:30:58 PM

How did you miss Old Forty on Donner Pass? Twas the only road over this pass until I-80 was built in the late fifties. It still exists, mostly, and one going east on I-80 can exit at Cisco Grove and drive two laner over the pass and down to and along side of Donner Lake. Maps are a handy way of finding roads. Hmmmm.

James Kmetovic
10/13/2011 9:33:15 PM

You took the wrong Donner Pass. Continue on 89 up the west side of Tahoe, through Tahoe City to Truckee. Follow the signs to Donner Lake. Your looking for Historic hy 40, Old Donner Pass. Up the hill you go. When you reach Sugar Bowl Ski area, turn around and do the section again.

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