The Best Rides in the High Sierra

Touring Yosemite means more than a loop around the Valley. We show you the best rides in the High Sierra

Half Dome, Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour
Half Dome is practically the official logo of the High Sierra—it's perhaps nature's most famous glacially sculpted handiwork.Photography by Andrew Cherney

“I wouldn’t miss this for anything—this is bully!” Teddy Roosevelt once remarked on a hike through Yosemite. ’Course, that was back in 1903 and ol’ Ted was on foot, but even if you were to visit this National Park Service jewel next week astride a V-twin, you’d be inclined to agree with the superlatives the 26th president uttered about the place’s mind-blowing scenery.

In fact, you’re probably living under a (granite) rock if you’re not familiar with Yosemite Valley, the park’s grand centerpiece. Sprayed by thousand-foot waterfalls and framed by otherworldly granite temples—Half Dome’s practically the official logo of the High Sierra—it’s perhaps nature’s most famous glacially sculpted handiwork.

A trip to the thesaurus can’t do this landscape justice, though; it’s one of those places you have to see with your own eyes. And what better way than rolling through on two wheels? Even with its well-touristed reputation (over 3.5 million pilgrims a year visit), this slice of the High Sierra is a back-road bonanza—if you know where to look. That means dodging the soul-sucking traffic the area’s become known for, but then, that’s easier on a bike. While you have only four choices of blacktop by which to access the park, there’s more to Yosemite than just the Valley. With eight national forests on either side, you’ve got a vast menu of routes to choose from, even if you’re just yearning for an untrammeled byway. Plan ahead, pack light and make for the “paradise that makes even the loss of Eden seem insignificant,” as Roosevelt’s pal John Muir put it.

Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour
The most photographed scene on Earth? Probably. Snap a shot of it for yourself at the Tunnel View pullout, off Highway 41Photography by Andrew Cherney

Classic Yosemite: The Postcard Stuff

If I'm approaching the park from the north/west, I like to base out of Jamestown, an old Gold Rush­–era burg stocked with enough flophouses and speakeasies to satisfy basic needs. The National Hotel's a beauty for both food and lodging, but more generic accommodations can be had if you're just looking for a bed. The atmospheric Railway Historic Park's right down the road, plus the Harley dealership in town will set me straight if something rattles off my Dyna. There are a handful of scenic routes in the general vicinity, and the town itself is alongside Highway 108/49 near Yosemite Junction, where you can pick up Highway 120 and roll up to the Big Oak Flat entrance of Yosemite (the west side) in less than two hours.

Coming from the south, I usually set up in Oakhurst. Like Jamestown, it's big enough to provide a gamut of services, plus Highway 41 runs right through the middle of town (with other scenic alternatives nearby). It's a geographically desirable 15 miles south of the park's Wawona entrance and best of all, Highways 41 and 49 converge right outside of town—so you have two options to get into the park. If you want authentic local flavor, try the Velvet Rose for a kitsch-y vibe (and cheap drinks) or the Mountain House up the road for kickass pancakes. Alas, there's no real marquee hotel to hole up in, but plenty of generics—I like the Oakhurst Lodge, a pleasant joint in the middle of town.

Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour, map
There are a few different ways of getting into Yosemite like going through Jamestown or Oakhurst.Map Courtesy of Robert Biron

Highway 120/Tioga Road
The highest motorcycling pass in California is no secret—you'll be sharing this high-flying road with everything from Electra Glides to Winnebagos, so bone up on your passing skills. Tioga Road traverses the park from its western boundary to its easternmost point, and it's an entertaining ride most of the way—from Crane Flat in the west, it runs up to granite-rimmed Tenaya Lake then into boggy Tuolumne Meadow. And do pull over at Olmsted Point—the exposed slab offers some of the best views in the park, with granite formations straight out of a (good) acid trip. The final climb to Tioga Pass—9945 feet of thin air—gives almost no warning of the switchbacks lurking on the other side. Better to pause for a burger at the Tioga Pass Resort and take in the alpine scenery before committing to a 3000-foot descent in just 11 miles; it's a helluva trip down. You can make Tioga part of a loop if you decide to indulge in peak bagging (see page 64), but it's just as easy to enjoy the road on its own merits. Give yourself time though—it can take the better part of a day (and that "highest pass" status means Tioga's often closed well into the spring due to snowfall).

Half Dome, Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour
For our money, the best view of Half Dome is from Glacier Point.Photography by Andrew Cherney

Highway 49
This character-laden, scenic north-south artery runs just west of Yosemite. Highway 49 from Jamestown and Sonora ambles south past the turnoff for Yosemite at Moccasin; pick it up from Oakhurst in the south. The road's fairly untrafficked outside the towns and gets downright rambunctious with its undulations a dozen or so miles south of Coulterville. Here, the path coils around the Merced River Gorge, giving you yee-haw G-rushes and stellar views of the surrounding peaks. After the fun's over, reward yourself with a stop in Coulterville, a forgotten old mining hamlet with a sleepy demeanor. Tuck into some ribs at the vintage Magnolia Saloon in the Hotel Jeffery (Teddy Roosevelt decamped here before his famous hike into the Valley) and kick back with other riders who frequent the joint. Any of the roads out of here are guaranteed to wake you back up anyway.

Tenaya Lake, Highway 120,  Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour
Tenaya Lake is one of the worthier stops along Highway 120.Photography by Andrew Cherney

Highway 140
Mile for mile, this is probably the most consistently scenic route into the park and, most of the time, the least trafficked (relatively speaking). From Highway 49 at Mariposa, the (usually) well-paved Highway 140 unwinds northeast through Midpines and, about a dozen miles from the park, slips into a detour across the Merced River. That's because a devastating slide last summer buried the busy byway under tons of debris loosened from the top of Ferguson Ridge. The detour reconnects to the original route a little ways upstream (though a permanent fix is still years away according to Caltrans officials). The payoff for all this meandering is the last section after the park entrance, where you get glimpses of Yosemite's big-name attractions.

Bridgeport, Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour
The eastern side of the Sierra holds treasures like Bridgeport's 100-year-old courthouse.Photography By Andrew Cherney
Convict Lake, Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour
Also found on the eastern side of the Sierra is Convict Lake.Photography by Andrew Cherney

Highway 41
My favorite entrance into the Valley makes the grade not just because I usually duck into Yosemite from the south, but also because it's a pleasant drive with nice road characteristics, good scenery and tolerable traffic. (Though on summer weekends it can be a zoo). Outside the park, this road is called, cleverly enough, the Southern Yosemite Highway. And, of course, it gives you access to that most classic of all vista points, Tunnel View. My advice? Make like the masses, pull over here and snap a shot of what's perhaps the most photographed scene on Earth—the Yosemite Valley trench, displaying El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall in all their glory. You won't be sorry.

June Lake Loop, Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour
June Lake LoopPhotography by Andrew Cherney

Yosemite Village Loop—41/140/120
Yosemite Valley's too stunning to be comprehended in just two dimensions, so do go. Ideally, you want to avoid the place on summer weekends—unless you like stewing in traffic with 1000 other steaming bikes (you can always park and hop a free shuttle in the Valley). Regardless, it's worth the price of admission ($20 per motorcycle for seven days), even with the teeming masses. On the valley floor, 120 parallels the Merced River, merging with 41 coming in from the south. The combined road becomes one-way heading east all the way into the Valley. There's no gas here—top off in Crane Flat or Wawona and be prepared to pay top dollar. Once you're in, you're subject to excruciating 25-mph speed limits, trains of tour buses and bottlenecking crowds. Minimize stress levels

Bodie, Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour
The best-kept ghost town you'll ever see, Bodie.Photography by Andrew Cherney

Secret Yosemite: Leave the Masses Behind

Bag That Pass
If you base out of Jamestown and like nosebleeds, you're in luck. A loop going east on 108 allows you to bag two skyscraping bits of asphalt. The entertainment starts just outside the little blip of Dardanelle (population: 2, last time we checked) and heads uphill to the Sonora Pass, where you'll be sucking in clean atmosphere at 9,628 feet. Take a deep breath too, because the downhill drop is a series of brake-shredding twisties all the way to the junction of U.S. 395, 35 miles later. (Head south on 395 into Bridgeport for a well-deserved pit stop afterward; bikers are very welcome in this town.) Continuing south along 395 will put you at Lee Vining and the turnoff to Hwy 120 for the loftier Tioga Pass. Off 120, veer left onto Big Oak Flat Road to go to Yosemite Valley or stay on 120, which eventually leads out of the park.

Bodie, Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour
Bodie is worth the 13-mile detour off Hwy 395.Photography by Andrew Cherney

Everyone's Dying To Get In
Seven or so miles south of Bridgeport is Highway 270, the turnoff to Bodie; this well-preserved ghost town and State Historic Park is definitely worth a gander if you've come this far, even if a portion of the 13-mile entrance road is unpaved. (It's completely manageable on almost any bike; I've done it twice with a Kawasaki Nomad.) An original ghost town from the late 1800s, Bodie stands today in a state of "arrested decay," according to the State of California, which runs the park. Apparently that means it looks just like it did when the last residents skedaddled more than 50 years ago. There's a story about a little girl whose family moved from San Francisco to Bodie. Depending on how you read it, she wrote either, "Good, by God, I'm going to Bodie" or "Goodby God, I'm going to Bodie." Once you experience the place's eeriness, you'll have no trouble deciding for yourself.

Mono Lake, Tufa towers, Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour
Mono Lake's Tufa towers are a stark contrast to the Sierra backdrop.Photography by Andrew Cherney

Got Mono?
If you're in the Bridgeport/Bodie neighborhood, you may as well give Highway 120 another shot too—in the other direction. Eastward from 395, this pleasantly surprising bit of pavement sweeps and roller-coasters to Benton before the Nevada State line (and there's a particularly sweet stretch just past that that serves up gaga views of Mono Lake and the Sierra from the southeast). Hang on to your bars here—the hilly parts of road are enough to pop you out of the bike saddle as you crest each rise. Connect to Highway 6 south at Benton for another 40 miles of just you and pavement all the way down to Bishop, where you can reconnect with 395. (Or you can duck into Schat's Bakery in Bishop for a loaf of mouthwatering Sheepherder's Bread…)

Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour
Lakes, ponds, and waterfalls are scattered all around Yosemite.Photography by Andrew Cherney
Yosemite Falls, Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour
Yosemite Falls is definitely a highlight of all the pockets of water you can find around Yosemite.Photography by Andrew Cherney

Looping June
While we're on the subject (and you're in the area), the June Lake Loop is worth a detour as well. This small spur road off U.S. 395 veers to the west just south of Lee Vining, where Highway 120 and the Tioga Pass lead out of Yosemite. Heading south, the gorgeous 17-mile drive follows an old glacial canyon past the shores of Grant, June, Gull and Silver lakes before reconnecting with U.S. 395 on its way to Mammoth Lakes. It's too short a stretch of pavement to be a destination in and of itself, but if you're on the east side of the park, it's worth the leisurely drive—especially if you plan your trip in autumn, when the cottonwoods are really showing their colors (this area's one of the Eastern Sierra's most famous fall color spots).

Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour
The mountains and valleys of Yosemite create a variety of different amazing views throughout the year.Photography by Andrew Cherney

Get Lost
The drone to Oakhurst from Fresno can be deadly boring, so a detour onto the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway might just be in your future. You can pick up this refreshing alternative heading north from Fresno off Highway 41, on the turnoff for North Fork Highway (look for County Rd 200). The official starting line is north of North Fork on Forest Road 81 (impress your buddies: North Fork is the official geographical center of California) past O'Neals. Along the way, you'll catch unexpected views of killer geologic formations and panoramas of the Sierra Crest, and Mile High Vista makes a good spot to pull over for a snack. The forest becomes more dense until the shimmering waters of Bass Lake unfold at the northern part of the loop (which ends just north of Oakhurst).

Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour
Glistening waters lined with dense trees are among some of the spectacular sights of the High Sierras.Photography by Andrew Cherney

Go Here First
Yup, it's another spur road, but this one's a scenic revelation. Glacier Point Road peels off from Wawona Rd. (Hwy 41) at Chinquapin Junction and ducks into dense forest for 16 miles of sweepers. The drive up puts you face-to-face with a number of sheer drops, but at the end is probably the best pavement-accessible high-elevation viewpoint in the Sierra Nevada range. From here, 3200 feet above Yosemite Valley, a stupendous vista stretches for miles before you. You'll see Vernal and Nevada Falls on one side and Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls cascading 2400 feet down the other. Sunset at Glacier point brings big drama (and crowds), as the sun illuminates Half Dome while the rest of the Valley's in shadows.

Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour
If you haven't already, be sure to add Yosemite to your bucket list.Photography by Andrew Cherney

Soak It Off
The Eastern Sierra is home to more than a few natural hot springs. After a long day in the saddle, we like to kick back with a soak at Hot Creek, about 10 miles southeast of Mammoth Lakes, off Highway 395. Ask the locals for directions.


Destination Highways Norther California, Yosemite, High Sierras, motorcycle tour
"Destination Highways Northern California" is a resource to use for planning your next trip to NorCal.Photography by Andrew Cherney


Mad Maps Sierra Nevada/Gold Country Map
It's like someone planned your weekend for you. This biker-friendly map gives you routes, dining and fuel accommodations all in one foldout package.
The definitive Web site of motorcycling roads gives you write-ups, ratings and photos of scenic routes all over the West Coast.

Destination Highways Northern California
A couple of good-natured Canucks have gone and published the astoundingly informative and entertaining Destination Highways Northern California, with routes and detailed descriptions of rides.

The Branding Iron
(Highway 140, Merced)
Fuel up at this 50-year-old roadhouse before you hit Yosemite.

Mountain House
(Highway 41, Oakhurst)
Breakfast, lunch, dinner in a warm setting.
(559) 683-5191

National Hotel
(Highway 108/120, Jamestown)
Rest upstairs and grab some grub below.
(800) 894-3446

Tioga Pass Resort
(Highway 120)
The trifecta of touring: sand­wiches, beer and views.

Sandino's Velvet Rose
(Highway 41, Oakhurst)
High kitsch and cheap drinks. 'Nuff said.
(559) 641-6600

Schat's Bakery
Fluffy loaves of bread to die for.
(760) 873-7156

Yosemite National Park or

Bodie State Historic Park
Go for the ghosts, stay for the photo ops.

Railtown State Historic Park
You never forget your first railroad roundhouse—this one's more than 100 years old.

Wawona Hotel

Ahwahnee Lodge

Oakhurst Lodge
(888) 431-9907

National Hotel
(800) 894-3446

Hotel Jeffery
(209) 878-3471

Yosemite has 13 campgrounds
(but book early):

Eaglerider Bakersfield
(661) 397-4079

Jamestown Harley-Davidson