A Snowy Bicycle Ride out to Glacier Point

By Sean Cleary (cleary (at sign) scisun.sci.ccny.cuny.edu) Copyright by Sean Cleary, cleary (at sign) scisun.sci.ccny.cuny.edu, permission granted to reproduce electronically for noncommercial purposes only.

bike in snow

The road out to Glacier Point in Yosemite NP is a paved road from highway 140 going past the Badger Pass ski area out to Glacier Point, a wonderful vantage point on the rim of Yosemite Valley. Glacier Point is a popular destination in the summer, when you can drive right out to it, and in the winter, when you can ski out there from Badger Pass (about 30 miles roundtrip.) In the spring, after the ski area closes, though, there isn't enough snow to ski on but there is too much snow to open the road to cars. So this is where the mountain bike comes in. Sometimes mountain biking is enjoyable for its own sake, but also a mountain bike can be a useful backcounty tool. I've used my bike as a tool in a number of ways, including approaching rock climbs, peak-bagging, and turning "one-way" hikes into hike- bike loops. My bike seemed like a good way of getting out to Glacier Point with current conditions.

In the winter, the road is plowed as far as the ski area but now since the ski area is now closed for the season, the road is closed at the highway. So I thought that even though there were likely to be snowy sections, it would make a nice bike ride since it goes to some really nice areas and wouldn't have any cars on it. (During the summer, there is the usual Yosemite traffic of RV's and distracted tourists.) Soft snow was more likely to be a problem than hard snow so I decided to head out in the evening and see how far I could get, and then make faster progress in the morning after the snow had a chance to re-freeze overnight. Also, there was a cold front coming so I figured that there would be a nice cold night and hopefully cold conditions to keep the snow firm. I laid my pack and snowshoes across the rear rack of my bike, bungeed them in well, and off I set past the locked gate at near the highway at Chinquapin, elevation 6000' or so.

I set off about 6pm. The first 5 miles were nice; the road had been plowed regularly so that cars could drive to Badger Pass. The road gains about 1200' from highway 120 to the ski area and there wasn't much snow until close to Badger Pass. With 25+ lb pack and snowshoes on the rack I wasn't setting any speed records but it was great riding alone in the forest.

After Badger Pass, the road definitely showed that it hadn't been driven on in months. Some places where the snow had melted were covered in pine needles, which was quite nice. There were more snow patches. At first these were remnants of drifts or sections in shaded areas and were only 50-100' long. With some momentum it wasn't too bad to bike through them, though the ones that were uphill were worse.

A little later, after the road was in a more shaded area, the snow patches got more frequent and longer. Riding on this stuff was harder, especially on the uphills. Sometimes I could ride along the shoulder of the melting snow, and sometimes I'd have to walk through the soft stuff. I found that with some momentum, I could do ok in the soft stuff as long as I kept the front wheel from sinking. That wasn't hard with all the weight in the back, but I did manage to have one spectacular crash when the front half of the bike broke through the crust and got stuck so I flew over the bars, to be hit by the snowshoes. The bike was stuck in the snow up to the headset, so over the bars wasn't really as far as it normally is.

After a long snowy downhill with some walking, I crossed the bridge over Bridalveil Creek. After that, the road was visible more and there was some nice riding mostly on pavement and pine needles for a few miles. Then some more patches and uphill before the road headed north and up again. That was nice since that was a long stretch with no snow at all. After that, it was back to walking with the bike for a mile or so uphill on softer snow. After 8pm and 13 miles in I decided to stop to sleep.

After a cheese and sausage dinner, I bagged and hung my food and slept on an ensolite pad. I woke up during the night when my pillow (my pack) was dragged out from under my head by a curious coyote. That's a rude awakening. It dragged my pack (mostly empty) 20 feet away before I realized what was going on. I thought it was a bear, at first, and yelled at it to go away, but it was just sitting there looking at me. After finding my glasses and more yelling and some menacing gestures and thrown sticks, it scurried off. I had forgotten how used to people animals in national parks get... It was a pretty healthy looking coyote, too; much more massive than the ones I normally see in drier or desert areas. I have no idea what it was looking for in my pack; all the food and aromatic things like sunscreen and garbage were bagged and hung a fair distance away. Maybe there was some leftover food smell in there; it was pretty much empty except for some rain gear, maps and keys. Anyway, I didn't sleep as soundly after that. No other night visitors, though. A little snow fell overnight but less than half an inch.

In the morning, the snow was much firmer and the riding was great. I left my sleeping bag and most of my stuff behind which made for a lighter pack. I also decided to leave the snowshoes behind since I was already at 7500'+ and it looked like the snow would be well-consolidated enough so that they wouldn't be needed. With my pack lighter, I was able to wear it on my back and ride nicely on the crusty snow.

Unfortunately, the sludge from the riding the day before had frozen solid overnight on the bike. My bike had been turned into a 2 speed, since the rear cluster was any icy goo and I couldn't get the chain onto the big ring in front. I had cleaned the bike up before I fell asleep but it was dark and I didn't do a very good job. I figured that since I could make do with my 2 speed (20x28 and 34x28), I would worry about more gears when I needed them. Riding out for the first few miles was great; uphill on firm snow but nothing too steep. I decided to go up Sentinal Dome (8100'). There is a dirt road that winds up to near the summit; it was steep with some snowy patches but not too bad and the summit was great. It was still cloudy and cold (~30 deg F) but there were great views of Half Dome, El Cap, the Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite Falls and the higher Sierra Nevada. After coming back down to my bike, I cleaned out the cogs and had to work some on my trigger shifters to get the rear derailleur changing ok.

Then I rolled down from there to Glacier Point, on mixed firm snow and clear parts. Descending one switchback, I saw a coyote staring at me. I wondered if it was the same one I'd seen the night before. It also was on the massive side for a coyote; 60+ pounds. It took some waving of my pump before he trotted off. It didn't seem fair; I am terrified of dogs and the only large mammals I saw on this trip were coyotes. Oh well.

There were some nice views as I got close to Glacier Point. One of the overlooks was either damaged over the winter or they were halfway through repairing it in the fall. >From there, I could see that Vernal, Nevada and Illoutte Falls were all flowing at full blast far below. Glacier Point itself was breathtaking. It is quite a vantange point and it was nice to have it to myself. There wasn't too much snow there and it was nice to see all the parking lots and souvenir stands without the usual buses and crowds that fill them! It was still cold and cloudy and looking threatening when I set off, but I was glad there wasn't any sun to soften the snow and make my ride worse.

Climbing back up from Glacier Point (7200') to the turnoff at Sentinel Dome (7800') was not too bad, though I had to walk the bike in a number of places since the road is steep and there wasn't enough traction to ride up sometimes. After that, it was great heading downhill on crusty snow. It began to snow harder but it was quite nice, actually, though the wind had picked up. I collected my snowshoes and sleeping bag (which had been dragged out by visitors unknown) and continued down in sloppy conditions on the mostly clear downhill. The snow was sticking here and coming down pretty hard, but I was warm and happy and having a great time. At some points it was snowing quite hard and visibility was pretty poor. I looked for a woodpecker that sounded ridicuolously close and loud but couldn't see him for all the snow falling.

I was able to ride up a reasonable number of the uphills on the way back, though I still had to walk a number of times. And the long snowy uphill before Badger Pass was a long walk. Some of the places that were clear the day before were now icy, but overall the conditions were better for riding. >From Badger Pass, it was all downhill and nice. It would have been nice to ride that when it was dry, since it was pretty much a guarantee that there were no cars. But with the snow it was still nice and I was back to my truck and rolling back down to Yosemite Valley by 10am or so.

Techincal stuff

Distance about 35.5 miles roundtrip

Average speed 6.7 mph, including all the walking.

Tires: I rode an old Ritchey Mega-Bite in the front and an IRC Geo-Claw in the back, a combo I'd ridden in hard and soft snow before. They worked great.

I didn't try to mount SPD cleats on my snowshoes, BTW. Not a high enough q-factor!

I got a backcountry permit from the park service. I didn't mention the fact that I planned to have a bicycle with me, but then again, they didn't ask. They probably thought my request was a little strange. BTW, I think as far as they are concerned, Glacier Point road is closed so that goes for bicycles as well as cars. It is certainly open to walkers and my (limited) understanding of public rights of way would suggest that thus it would be open to cyclists.

Distances and elevations, etc: (rough approx, from memory, not a map)


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I rode out this way again a few times in Fall 1996, finding the road in great shape and in fact plowed. Presumably this was to help with the big construction projects at Glacier Point. In any case, it was beautiful and sunny and the road had only a few icy patches so the riding was fast and wonderful. Unfortunately, a precious roll of shot film seemed to jump out of my pannier at some bumpy point of the ride, so I lost some nice shots not just of that ride but also some hiking in the higher Sierra. Here are a few shots from another bike ride out there, including the obligatory tourist shots from Glacier Point of Half Dome and the high Sierra.

More Updates

The heavy warm January 1997 storm has been reported as damaging sections of the Glacier Point road. The most likely spot for such damage that I would guess from the reports is the bridge across Bridaveil Creek, but there may be other damaged places as well. I am sure that opening the road will be a bigger project than normal, and furthermore with all the other more urgent disasters in the park, it may be quite a while before it is open. Now (summer 1997) the road is open to motor traffic and the campground at Bridalveil Creek is open to camping, on a first-come/first-serve basis, so don't bother calling for reservations if you are headed that way.

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