A ride to Yosemite
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Posted by: Margie Goldsmith #179529
or, Shuddering switchbacks and scrumptious s’mores
I looked up at the last air-cooled model R 100 GS from 1995, hanging from the rafters of Dubbleju Motorcycle Rentals in San Francisco. There was also a pristine R 60/2 from 1965, one of Dubbleju (pronounced double-you) co-owner Wolfgang Taft’s favorites. I was most interested in the 2016 R 1200 GS that my husband, Jamie Anthony (#84815) and I had rented, because it was newer and had more options than his 2007 R 1200 GS back home in New York City. As soon as Jamie finished strapping our gear to the bike, we would begin our five-day road trip from San Francisco to Yosemite and South Lake Tahoe, drop off the bike in Reno, and fly home.
We planned this trip six months earlier, but the night before we were to fly out, Jamie received some unexpected news. That meant he would not be able to get to San Francisco till late that evening. I arrived that morning and used my free time to join a Hobnob Tour, "The Silver Kings and Railroad Barons of Nob Hill." I learned that "nob" comes from snob and "nabob," which is what they called a wealthy Brit who made his fortune in the Orient. Now the former robber barons’ Nob Hill mansions are hotels. Valerie, our tour guide, led us into the Fairmont’s Venetian Room where Tony Bennett first performed "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," a song he didn’t want to sing. By the apron of the stage is a red ruby heart, Tony Bennett’s time capsule; when opened, it will play his famous song.
I walked from Nob Hill back to the Hotel Zelos, smack in the heart of the city. No matter where I looked, I could see the Bay. No wonder Tony Bennett left his heart here; San Francisco is like nowhere else on earth. We had nabbed a dinner reservation at the Hotel Zelos’s trendy restaurant, Dirty Habit, but Jamie was in the air, so my friend Laurie joined me and we talked about riding two-up on our husband’s bikes. Both of us prefer to ride for no more than one or two hours at a time, unlike our iron-butt husbands. Just call us tender-butts.
Dubbleju marked up a map for us with the most scenic routes from San Francisco to Reno. Wolfgang was sending us up to Sacramento and then down Route 49 to Angels Camp, but as we were anxious to get there, we decided to cut the route short by going through Stockton. Duffle bags secured, we were off: over the Bay Bridge and onto the slab to Stockton, where we turned east on Route 4 towards Angels Camp. Soon, there were no more stoplights and we barreled along country roads surrounded by golden prairie grass swaying in the wind.
It was almost 2 pm and we hadn’t eaten since early morning, but ahead were only endless farms. I was ready to knock on a farmer’s door and beg for food when we arrived in Farmington (population: 200). Six motorcycles (five Harleys and one BMW) were parked outside a dive bar called Lagorio’s. An OPEN sign in the window complete with a blue neon motorcycle beckoned us in. Who cared if it was dark and musky and smelled like stale beer? We ate our huge turkey club sandwiches on an outdoor picnic table, and afterwards went next door to check out a store selling touristy Native American tchotchkes.
Back on the bike, it wasn’t long before we arrived at Angels Camp, also known as Frogtown because Mark Twain based his short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, on a story he heard there in 1865. Each May there’s a Jumping Frog Jubilee at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds. It wasn’t yet 3 pm and our hotel in Groveland didn’t look that far away, so when we saw the sign to Ebbett’s Pass (one of the don’t-miss routes Wolfgang had marked) we decided to do a quick out-and-back.
This National Scenic Byway is a 61-mile stretch of Highways 4 and 89 with unending miles of pristine scenery and a road that narrows to two lanes with steep, narrow portions and some precipitous drop-offs. There was a sign advising that vehicles over 25 feet long should not attempt this road, which meant not being stuck behind trucks, buses or RVs - just our kind of ride. The only problem was there was no sweeping view; we were always surrounded by fir trees. When we passed the emerald-colored Alpine Lake, the road narrowed almost to driveway-width. Jamie pulled over. It was past 4 pm and we’d been on the road six hours. Deciding it wasn’t worth it to continue, we turned around and headed back to Angels Camp.
We’d planned to take Route 49 to our hotel in Groveland, but Jamie was tired of riding. He found a shorter route through Jamestown and avoided going all the way to Sonora. I’ve seen many scary things in my life including avalanches and earthquakes, but never a road like this. It was called Old Priest Grade, and it’s easy to see why. You needed to pray to get through six miles of a super-steep grade with a limit of 25 mph, often decreasing to 15 mph. There were no guard rails and we were riding on the steep cliff side. The road started at an altitude of 2,450 feet and descended to 910 feet, with unending switchbacks and narrow hairpin turns. Looking down as far as you could see were cars that looked as small as ladybugs crawling along the razor-sharp turns. A sign warned drivers to turn off their air conditioning while climbing to prevent overheating. Jamie caught up to the car ahead and I could smell smoking brakes. While my husband likes to drive fast (though he is such a safe driver I am never afraid riding behind him), it was impossible to pass anyone. Some shortcut!
At Jamestown, there were only 18.3 more miles to Groveland and we’d been on the road almost eight hours. I couldn’t wait to check in at Rush Creek Lodge, the first new lodge to open in Yosemite in over 25 years. We’d take showers, have dinner and then head to the famous motorcycle hangout and oldest drinking establishment in California, the Iron Door Saloon. Groveland, including the Iron Door Saloon, looked tacky and touristy. I kept looking for the Rush Creek Lodge but didn’t see it. Jamie stopped the bike. "Where is it?" he asked. I hopped off, found the address, and Jamie programmed it into the GPS. "This can’t be right!" he said. "It’s 22.5 miles away!"
It was the longest 22.5 miles either of us had ever ridden. Finally, we pulled up to Rush Creek Lodge, surrounded by 22 acres of fir trees and just half a mile from the entrance of Yosemite. "The good news," I said, "is that we won’t have to ride far tomorrow." Jamie was too tired to smile, but he grinned when he saw our spacious room with a king bed, couch, comfy lounge chair and a terrace facing the swimming pool, two Jacuzzis and a fire pit. We ate at Rush Creek’s restaurant and later walked over to the wood fire pit where there were free - as many as you wanted - make-your-own s’mores. Happily, we gorged on burnt marshmallows mashed between graham crackers and melted chocolate - they almost made up for the day’s exhausting ride.
Yosemite National Park, which emerged from the ice a million years ago, is a wilderness paradise with endless miles of fragrant pine forests and sheer granite walls, the world’s playground for rock climbers. On first entering the park, we were disappointed because the trees we saw were mainly charred black Six years ago, the drought began and since, over 6 million trees have died. Then three years ago, there was a rim fire that burned 257,000 acres in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite. I was afraid we’d driven all this way for nothing, but after a few miles the park was magnificent with healthy lush forests dappled in sunlight.
The park was not crowded. We chose early September because the kids are back in school and weather is usually perfect. Just past a "SPEEDING KILLS BEARS" sign, a large deer bounded across the road. That made my day and I looked for more of them as we rode through a dark tunnel and on to one of the most famous views of Yosemite Valley. At Tunnel View, we saw our first views of Bridalveil Falls and El Capitan. We rode past black oak, incense cedar and gray pines up to 7,214-foot-high Glacier Point. From here we could see Yosemite Valley down below, Half Dome, Sentinel Dome, Yosemite Falls and all of Yosemite’s high country. The parking lot was full, but we easily found a place where only a motorcycle could fit.
I imagine you could spend a week in Yosemite driving some of its 748,036 acres, but we were still beat from all yesterday’s hours on the road, so we decided to return to the lodge for a swim and soak in the Jacuzzi. We were almost out of gas and had to go 20 miles out of our way to fill up. What we thought would be a light riding day turned into a six-hour marathon, so we were thrilled to get back to our room.
Early the next morning we checked out and headed back to Yosemite on the scenic high country Route 108 towards 9,934-foot-high Tioga Pass. This is the highest highway pass in California and the Sierra Nevada, and was the most stunning, scenic and diverse stretch of road in California. At the summit was Tioga Pass Resort, a rustic general store with a small café serving home-style cooked meals. The place became famous in 1852 when gold was discovered on Tioga Hill, but it’s much older than that; the first people to arrive here were the Paiute and Miwok Native Americans 10,000 years ago.
Descending the pass on our way towards the California side of Lake Tahoe was the most stunningly beautiful drive of all. Sometimes we’d pass what looked like a small wildflower meadow until I looked down and realized there was a huge gorge; other times we’d pass butterscotch-colored rocks rising hundreds of feet or we’d be looking up at the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Mountains.
At the bottom of the pass we rounded a bend and were looking straight out at Mono Lake, 70 square miles of a powdery blue saline lake. Tufa towers, surreal limestone formations, rose from the edge of the water. We thought about walking on a nearby boardwalk to get closer, but we’d already been on the road five hours and we still had two hours to get to South Lake Tahoe.
Lake Tahoe is 1,000 feet deep, and one of purest large lakes in the United States. In summer the lake’s tint is at its bluest. People come for outdoor sports and friends suggested we take the scenic 72-mile drive around the lake. Instead, we walked the few blocks from the hotel to the lake and had dinner at the Lakeside Beach House and watched the sun set on the lake. When we returned to the Coachman, the fire pit was blazing. You bet we indulged in the make-your-own s’mores!
For the next morning, we’d booked a hot air balloon ride, but unfortunately the flight was cancelled due to high winds, so instead we headed to the Camp Richardson Marina and joined a Rum Runner Cruise to Emerald Bay. We lay on cushions on the bow of the boat, mesmerized by the glass-smooth water surrounded by fir trees and mountains. We sailed to a miniscule island where you could see the ruins of a former stone teahouse created by the same owners who built nearby Vikingsholm Castle, a 38-room mansion now open to visitors. We looked up at the Raptor Time Shares, huge osprey nests perched on dead branches. The ospreys build and use them in the summer; in winter, the eagles take them over. To end our perfect day, we ate fish tacos on the outdoor terrace of trendy McP’s Taphouse while staring up at Heavenly Mountain.
Sometimes you just need down time, so the next morning we lounged around the pool before heading for sushi at Samurai Restaurant. Afterwards we headed up to the ultimate adventure: Epic Discovery on top of Heavenly Mountain. There’s a midway point to get off the gondola at the observation deck, 9,735 feet up in the air. You can walk around the platform to see the entire area. The Epic Discovery adventure park has zip lines, ropes courses, tubing and more. A moving ramp carried us along with our huge rubber tubes up to the top of the hill. The staff member up top gave us a push and we spun down the green astro-turf, laughing hysterically.
In case you’re wondering, I am not going to try and calculate how many hours I sat behind Jamie on this epic trip through all the ups and downs and switchbacks and riding more than 650 miles in five days; but I will say one thing - I am no longer a tender-butt. I am at least an aluminum-butt.
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