A Yosemite Ride

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Above: View of Yosemite Valley from the west. From the pullout immediately east of the Wawona Tunnel. Yashica Mat 124, Fuji Neopan Acros 120 Film. As always, click on a photo to view the larger version.

We had planned the ride for months. In January it was just a mention, a seed of an idea: Maybe we should ride up to Death Valley in the spring, before it gets too hot to ride there. Tim Devantier and I kept talking about it as the weeks passed. Mike Harmon was noncommittal, since he had things that tethered him to home and couldn’t easily leave for multiple days.

4-27-2013 Yosemite 083 WPAs the year moved on, the idea grew, gained some girth, and seemed increasingly real. We set the dates as April 26 through 28, which would give us one full day to explore Death Valley. We’d take some cameras, of course, and try to keep the film cool in a small Playmate cooler.

Left: Dogwood blossoms in Yosemite Valley.

Rather than stay in the austere Amargosa Opera House and Hotel in Death Valley Junction, California, we’d book rooms at the Stagecoach Hotel and Casino in Beatty, Nevada. It would only put us a few more miles away from the entrance to the National Park, but the accommodations would be better, since the Amargosa offered only the most basic of rooms with electric lights and a small bathroom. No alarm clock, radio, or television. The Casino also had a reasonably good restaurant, something that Death Valley Junction lacked. We booked the rooms at the casino two months before.

A Temporary Panic

A week before the ride, we began to watch the weather forecasts. On Wednesday, Tim and I checked the forecast within a half-hour of each other, then produced a flurry of email messages back and forth. The projected temperature for Saturday, the day we’d do the most riding in the valley, was 106 f (41 Celsius). The forecasts are often wrong and the real temperature could easily reach 110 f.

Though I’ve done it multiple times when I had to, I avoid riding through the deserts when the temperature is over 100 f. Anything over 100 is simply miserable. The wind chill factor is no help at all with the heat. One is just moving fast through a blast furnace.

A Quick Change of Plan

We got on the phones and worked through our options. Cancelling the ride was not a reasonable option, but changing our destination was. We briefly considered a number of destinations including a ride up the Pacific Coast. When we turned our thoughts toward Yosemite it struck a chord with both of us.

Though it was close to the southern entrance to the park, we didn’t necessarily want to blindly book rooms in Fresno. We found a Motel 6 further north, and a bit closer to Yosemite, in the town of Madera. Judging by the photos of the motel and rooms, it seemed a good bet. By Wednesday afternoon we had mentally recalibrated and were thinking about what cold weather clothing to pack, since it was likely to be considerably colder in the Sierra Nevadas than in Death Valley. 

The Ride

4-27-2013 Yosemite 061 WPWith all of the months-long calculations and a couple days of recalculation piling up, I was suddenly awake at 3:00 am and mentally ready to ride, though I had to hold off a bit because we were going to meet at Cajon Junction in the Cajon Pass at 6:00 am.

Because it seemed likely that the electric gloves might be needed in the Sierra Nevadas, I packed them in the saddlebag with the other “extra” cold-weather gear, but the only time I could have used them to good effect was in the Cajon Pass. By the time we met at the junction, it was too late to put them on. I never fired them up during the entire trip.

As luck had it, it was the perfect time to ride to Yosemite and back. It was early enough in the season that the tourists (like us) were not too thick on the ground and we nearly always could find a place to park off the road when we wanted to. With the exception of the cold pre-dawn ride up the Cajon Pass, the weather was never too cold or too hot.

Above: A giant Sequoia on Road 426, just past the park entrance on Route 41. Nikon SLR, Kentmere 100 Film.

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Above: El Capitan viewed from Yosemite Valley below.

After riding through the Mojave on Route 58, we made a stop at the Tehachapi Loop in Keene, a very small town in the Tehachapi Pass. Tim had never been on a group ride to the Loop, so when he pointed out the Keene exit, I nodded yes and we took the exit ramp , then rode past the Keene Cafe and up the 3-mile road to the view of the railroad loop. As luck had it, there was a long train descending the loop, crossing over itself, when we parked at the side of the road. Since I have many dozens of photos of trains on the loop, I didn’t bother to remove a camera from the saddlebags, but Tim got his first photos of the sight.

p1300072 WPAt Bakersfield we changed roads, leaving the 58 to take Route 99 north up the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. Route 99 is a fairly straight two-lane road through the farm country of the long valley, and it can be a bit monotonous at times, but it is a far cry from the soul-numbing boredom that sets in on Interstate 5, the north-south road that traverses the west side of the valley, so I try to route myself on Route 99 whenever I’m traveling through central California.

Above: Preferred parking for motorcycles at the Motel 6 in Madera, CA. Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX 01.

The Motel 6 in Madera was nearly perfect. The only thing missing was coffee pots in the rooms, but that was mitigated by the Denny’s restaurant across the parking lot. The owner of the motel, Mr. Patel, told us to park our bikes just outside the main entrance doors where he could keep an eye on them and when he was sleeping there were security cameras.

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Above: Upper Yosemite Fall viewed from the valley below.

On Saturday morning we ate breakfast at the Denny’s then walked back to the motel to pack the bikes, and were on the road toward Yosemite by 7:00 am. We worked our way toward Route 41, the southern entrance to the park via Roads 603 and 400. A few miles of Road 400 had such a bad road surface that it nearly seemed that we were riding on the streets of Riverside. Turning onto Road 415 the road surface smoothed out to the condition that all secondary roads should be in, would be in, if the various government agencies in California hadn’t failed in their duties to the people of the state.

Route 41 has been well-maintained and made for a relaxing, gently winding ride through the forest toward the entrance to Yosemite National. At the entrance to the park, we had to pay the $10 fee for each motorcycle.

4-27-2013 Yosemite 104 WPWith near-perfect weather and good roads through the park, the ride was quite a pleasure. Though very early in the season, there were plenty of us tourists and I heard several languages being spoken around me, most of which I couldn’t identify. Japanese, German, Danish, French, Italian, and Spanish are easy enough to identify, but throughout the day I heard multiple languages which didn’t give a clue to their origins.

Left: another view of El Capitan from Yosemite Valley.

At the Tunnel View we managed to secure a single parking space for both of the bikes, then walk across the road to shoot the long view down Yosemite Valley from the west toward El Capitan and Half Dome. That spot was the most crowded one of the day. After shooting from the vantage point with the Yashica Mat 124, Nikon SLR, and digital point and shoot cameras, I took over the cameras of a couple of traveling groups so they could all be in the same photos. Apparently it is okay to hand your expensive Sony A99 to a middle-aged, black leather clad man with multiple cameras hanging from his body and bad helmet hair, if you want one photo or five of your entire traveling group.

Working our way slowly through the valley, we frequently stopped to make photographs when the whim struck us. Because of their small size, it was relatively easy to find parking for the motorcycles. We could pull off the asphalt onto narrow shoulders that would not accommodate cars or SUVs, which is one of the advantages of motorcycling.

At the Ahwahnee Hotel in the village, we found a single parking space, walked through the hotel, bought drinks from the reefer, and took them out to a table on the patio. After a few minutes of relaxing at the table I overheard someone at another table explaining that one was supposed to let the waitresses bring food and drinks to the tables. “So they can collect tips…”, I thought. There’s an advantage to wearing black leather, I guess, since no one said a word to us about lounging on the moneymaking furniture.

4-27-2013 Yosemite 042 WPAfter making a couple trips around the loop of roads in the valley, we headed out of the park on Route 140, which follows the course of the westward-flowing Merced River. Numerous whitewater rafts were making their way down the river’s fast-churning water, filled with passenger clad in brightly colored life preservers and helmets. The road was smooth and curved gently along the water without a hint of the bone shaking ride on Route 400 in the morning.

Left: A view of the patio area of the Ahwahnee Hotel.

After stopping to eat a few miles north of Madera in the evening, we pulled into the motel parking lot some time between 6:00 and 7:00 pm, nearly twelve hours after leaving in the morning. It had been one of the best rides I’d ever had. I’d do it again this weekend if not for the additional one day’s travel on either end.

The ride back home the next day was fairly uneventful, except when Tim’s saddlebag opened itself up on an onramp in the Mojave and disgorged one of his favorite t-shirts, breaking the rhythm of the ride while I walked back on the shoulder of the freeway to retrieve it (he was in front of me and didn’t see the shirt get sucked out of the saddlebag). The temperature in the desert climbed up as we came down out of the Tehachapi area in the southern Sierra Nevadas. It was somewhere in the 90s and pushing up toward 100 f, but it didn’t feel too bad, and I wasn’t very worried about it, since I had my exposed film in an insulated lunch box with a large chunk of frozen “blue ice” to keep it from cooking.

In all, it was a very good 3-day ride; mostly good roads, good scenery, and weather that was generally not too hot or too cold. I can’t ask for much more…