Onion Valley Road

Ever since I came across John Summerson’s ‘The Complete Guide To Climbing (By Bike) In California’ I’ve been dreaming of riding up all the accessible big mountains in California. Whitney Portal, Onion Valley Road, Horseshoe Meadows, White Mountain, Mt. Baldy (a Tour of California classic) the list goes on and on. I bought the first edition, then the second edition. The first edition was a precursor to Strava opening up a world of epic rides. The second edition added even more routes and is still relevant today even though Strava makes it easy to find hidden gems.

Having owned both the editions and skimming through both multiple number of times, I never really act on it. Sure I did the rides close to home, climbs in the Santa Monica mountains along the Pacific Coast Highway. Rides up the Los Angeles Crest Highway with it’s amazing views of the suburban sprawl that is LA. I used to take my bike to San Diego while visiting my cousin and did rides in the Anza Borrego desert area. But those epic Eastern Sierra rides were missing. After undergoing wrist surgery and the physiotherapy there after, my climbing had completely stopped but I started riding my bicycle more consistently enough to have some semblance of structured training.

Early in 2019, our Canadian Permanent Residency application got approved. Which meant our time in California was coming to an end. I took to Summerson’s book with more urgency and started plotting which of the big mountain climbs I could still chalk up. I had been riding regularly enough to be confident to do the climbs without being utterly miserable. Late in April my friend Brian posted a backcountry skiing activity on Strava, the trail head of which was at the top of Onion Valley Road. I asked what the road condition was and he said it had been plowed all the way to the top. I checked the weather forecast and it looked promising. Independence CA, is just over 3 hrs from Pasadena, so I decided to start really early in the morning and aim to start riding by 7-7:30am. I packed the car and bike the previous evening.

I woke up on time and was on the road right on schedule. It was only when I reached CA-14, about 30-40 mins from home that I realised that I had forgotten my helmet! I decided to carry on driving, road traffic would be minimal on the ride so the risk wouldn’t be too high. I have driven countless number of times through Independence, always taking note of the intersection of Market & CA 365 and the sign that says Onion Valley Road with an arrow pointing left and the recreational signage for camping and fishing. Well, today I would finally be riding up the road on my bicycle! I had driven part way up the road when we went to Mt.Tyndall as the trail head for Shepard’s pass is along Onion Valley Road. I parked at the edge of town and got ready, since I had driven in my cycling gear, getting ready just meant taking the bike from the trunk and putting the front wheel on. I stowed all the gel and bars in the small camel back that I was carrying and secured the car keys in the pocket and was ready to roll. It was a little cold but I had my arm warmers and booties on. The sky was as clear as it could be. The Eastern Sierras stood in front as an intimidating wall, albeit a very picturesque one with the mountain tops capped with snow.

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It was very peaceful rolling through town. I wasn’t parked too far Market St and a few pedal strokes later I was already out of town. Here we go! 20 kms of nothing but sustained climbing at 8% avg gradient. Just outside of town is the Independence camp ground. There were a few campers there who were just waking up or making breakfast preparations. I rolled past them and out on to the open vista. It was slowly sinking in that I was finally out here on my bicycle! I was also happy that there weren’t any cross winds as climbing up this initial section with no shelter from the wind would be downright miserable on a windy day! I passed the left turn for Shepard’s pass, now on to roads untraveled. Looking up from here it was impossible to see where the road actually went. That is in part the fun of riding up mountains, one knows that the road goes to a place called so and so but from where you are you can’t see how, it just seems to disappear. I guess that’s the whole enjoying the journey thing! Well, it is especially slowly revealed on a bicycle, more so with me riding!

Having read trip reports and general Strava research, I knew the campground at Grays Meadow would be about 9kms into the ride. It is along the Independence creek, so the thicket of trees I was seeing in the distance had to be it. The road had been fairly straight till this point but a couple of turns later the Inyo National Forest sign came into view with the campground entrance on the right. It had started to get a little warm so I decided it was time to take the booties off. I stopped by the sign and removed the booties but they were too big to stuff in my small backpack so I just placed them under a rock behind the sign. The campground had a few campers and an elderly gentleman rolled up on his gravel bike. We exchanged a few pleasantries and I wished him a happy ride. I had a sip of water and some of the energy bars I had before starting off again.

From here I could see some switch backs on the upper slopes. The climbing to the campground had been steady with the gradient gradually increasing. Now this was the business end of the climb. The road had been running next to Independence Creek all along but after the campground it took a sharp right and crossed the creek over a bridge and started climbing the shoulder of the mountain. The views were starting to open up beneath and after switching back left higher up the road I could see all the way back to Independence. The road kept climbing as it hugged the mountain side on the right creeping up further deeper into the valley with the creek down below on the left. I was soon at the switch backs I had read so often about. The air was getting thinner, the gradient was unrelenting but I was grinning ear to ear. The switch backs were an absolute joy to ride. Looking back down after switching back I could only think of how beautifully the road had been laid out. It was like a ribbon neatly placed on the mountain. As with every big mountain climb, I was counting down the kms to the finish, self motivating about only so many more kms to pedal. The switch backs had taken me so deep into the valley that I couldn’t seen Owens Valley at the bottom anymore. One final switch back and I could see the road carried on straight for a while into the open alpine bowl, the roads end!

I finally made it to the end of the road. I took me about 2hrs50min. The trail head at the end of the road was mostly empty. I stopped by the sign which read “Onion Valley Elev 9200” and took in the surrounding beauty. I ate some well earned energy bars and took a few photos. After resting for a little while I headed back down. I think I go through all this suffering just to enjoy that plunge downhill! I had the road all to myself climbing up except for the odd car coming down the mountain but on the way down I passed a few cyclists making their way up the switchbacks. I greeted them with a friendly nod zooming past them as they continued their battles with the road. The fast ride down required extra care as this road has expansion joints every few meters making it not the most pleasurable downhill ride. I was soon down by the campground and stopped to pick up the booties I had stowed earlier. From there getting back to the car took another 15mins. It was pretty warm down at this elevation. I put the bike back in the car and got changed. Had my post ride recovery drink and headed home. As great as I was feeling about the ride and looking forward to more riding in the Sierras, I would soon fall pretty sick and be in the hospital for a week. So much for the best laid plans….

Elapsed Time Moving Time Distance Average Speed Max Speed Elevation Gain
03:37:28 03:07:30 43.50 13.92 72.72 1,604.00
hours hours km km/h km/h meters

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