The world once rushed into California in mad pursuit of gold — plus the imagined bliss wealth could bring. The greatest part of that eager human flood channeled itself over high Sierran passes.
In weeks of October and November of this year, folks might think about reversing that route, in order to make an easier discovery: the golden leaves and rubies of autumn foliage, and the more reliable happiness that comes from relaxing in alpine nature.
Before winter locks up these highway passes in ice and snowdrifts, they provide intriguing goals for road trips, gateways to fall recreation in the outdoors, and incredible vista points.
Mid-fall is also a “shoulder season” in the travel and tourism industries, and that means camping and lodging options are far easier to come by, and often discounted as well.
Many of these passes will help you score insights into California pioneer history, too. This is not just because of the markers, signage and small local museums often found nearby, but also due to the fact that a great deal of this high country landscape looks much as it did when the argonauts slogged through some 170 years ago.
A word to the wise, though. Yes, most of our modern travel options offer big improvements over plodding oxen and groaning wagons prone to breakdown. But a huge RV is not that much of an improvement if you are forced to guide it along narrow, steep and winding roads.
So beg, borrow or rent a sports car if you can, or get a motorcycle if you know how to ride. Otherwise, I’d advise using the smallest and most nimble four-wheeled vehicle that you can. These passes are a perfect venue for car camping, and provide excellent options for day-hikes, angling, birding and outdoor photography.
TIOGA PASS — The highest California pass over which one can drive a vehicle is on Highway 120 in Yosemite, which crests at 9,941 feet. It’s the most vulnerable to weather closures, generally starting in mid-to-late November. But before then, it’s the gate to an alpine paradise. Park at many vista points along the pass and take an easy, lovely stroll on your first day at altitude.
Marvel at soaring granite monoliths, shimmering lakes and broad meadows. Campgrounds along the route are now closed, and the visitor center, gas station and store soon follow them in shuttering for winter. But that only makes the pass a wilder place.
Eastward, where Highway 120 drops down the flank of 11,000 Gaylor Peak, it goes by Tioga Lake and Ellery Lake campgrounds, run by Inyo National Forest service (www.fs.usda.gov/inyo), then ends in the town of Lee Vining, which has visitor services of all sorts; it’s also the headquarters for Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve. Note that going over Tioga requires a $30-$35 vehicle pass, but it’s good for a week. You can either go back the same way, or take Highway 395 northward to connect to another pass.
SONORA PASS — The crest of Highway 108, at 9,624 feet, offers a dramatic alpine vista. It’s the oldest of emigrant crossings: the Bartleson-Bidwell party with pack animals and livestock passed this way in 1841. Wagons attempted the gradually improved route only a decade later, with poor results. John “Grizzly” Adams said many broken axles and wheels littered the landscape in 1854.
The route begins at Sonora, 66 miles to the west. On the climb east, gather camping and recreation info at the Mi-Wok or Summit ranger stations of the Stanislaus National Forest (www.fs.usda.gov/stanislaus). The Strawberry Inn, about halfway to the pass, is a classic Sierra roadhouse, providing pine-paneled lodging, dining and a bar (www.strawberryinn.com ). Across the street, a store offers tackle, beer and other necessities.
You’ll also be able to revictual or lodge at Kennedy Meadows Resort (www.kennedymeadows.com), 26 miles further on. En route, you’ll pass a half-dozen forest service campgrounds. The last one before the pass is Deadman — named, of course, for an unfortunate pioneer — on the Kennedy access road. A campground on the east side is Leavitt Meadows, operated by the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest service (www.fs.usda.gov/htnf).
Sonora, like Ebbetts Pass to the north, features steep grades, one-lane roads and very tight turns, unsuitable for large RVs or vehicles with trailers. But small autos, sports cars and motorcycles can have a high old time.
EBBETTS PASS — Pioneer wagon trains never even tried to use the tight pass at the 8,730-foot crest of Highway 4. That’s a big hint to drivers of modern vehicles.
This route was blazed in 1827 by legendary mountain man Jedediah Smith, as he headed east to the Rockies to join a rendezvous with his fellow fur company trappers. A great base camp for modern travelers is the resort area of Bear Valley.
The western approach to the pass now has a few amenities that Smith might’ve liked. The Bear Valley Lodge (www.bearvalley.com ) offers dining, lodging and groceries; Mountain Adventure Seminars has climbing and lodging (www.mtadventure.com ), and Bear Valley Adventure Company can set you up for flatwater paddling, mountain biking, even disc golf and tennis (www.bearvalleyxc.com).
Three miles east is beautiful Lake Alpine with launch ramps and two campgrounds run by Stanislaus National Forest service. Another three camps are found on the way up to the pass, the last being Pacific Valley, seven miles from the summit. On the east side, the nearest campground is Silver Creek, almost six miles from the summit, operated by Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest service. (See links above.)
MONITOR PASS — One of the most scenic of all the high passes, this 8,314-foot crest on the shoulder of Leviathan Peak, slicing through a gorgeous grove of aspens, affords tremendous views to the west (of peaks in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness and Eldorado National Forest) and to the east (during a steep descent through high desert sage and juniper to Antelope Valley and the Walker River drainage basin).
This route, Highway 89 over Monitor, down to Highway 395, then 23.5 miles south to Highway 108, is a convenient link between several passes that can be traveled in either direction. Two campgrounds, Bootleg and Chris Flat, run by Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest service, are located on the 395 portion.
Over on the west side of Monitor Pass, 89 joins Highway 4, and the combined route leads north to the Alpine County seat of Markleeville, on the Carson River. A camp on the river is just south of town, run by the same national forest service. In town, you can find a handful of dining and lodging options, including the historic Alpine Hotel — with the Wolf Creek bar and restaurant.
Local lore can be garnered at the Alpine County Museum, and the visitor center for the county’s chamber of commerce is happy to supply more (www.alpinecounty.com ). Just 3.6 miles west of town on road E1 is the steamy soaking pool for Grover Hot Springs State Park, as well as its campground (http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=508).
CARSON PASS — Scouted by famed guide Kit Carson as he worked for John C. Fremont, this route was established over the Sierra in 1844. By 1848, it had become the Mormon Emigrant Trail; now 8,574- foot Carson Pass, is the crest of Highway 88 as it crosses the Sierra. On the east side, in well-named Hope Valley — where pioneers once recuperated from their trek across the Great Basin and fed and watered their stock — is Sorensen’s Resort (www.sorensensresort.com ), with its scenic collection of cabins, a fine cafe, and access to recreation options.
On the summit are trailheads and an information station for Eldorado National Forest (www.fs.usda.gov/eldorado), which also operates Caples Lake campground (four miles west of the pass). En route, you’ll go by Caples Lake Resort (capleslakeresort.com ), which offers cabin lodging, a restaurant and lounge, a marina and launch ramp.
Just over five miles west of the pass, you’ll discover the most classic Sierra roadhouse. The Kirkwood Inn, a rustic saloon and a restaurant, serves up hearty meals in a log cabin built by rancher Zachary Kirkwood back in 1864.
Editor’s Note: Paul McHugh is a Bay Area outdoors writer who also publishes novels. His most recent is, “The Blind Pool,” a political thriller. For more, go to paulmchugh.net.