A Winter Ride down into Kings Canyon

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.

Kings Canyon National Park in California lies in two pieces. There is a piece outside the canyon at 6000'+ elevation with remarkable giant sequoias and there is the piece which contains part of Kings Canyon proper and the high peaks. The road connecting the two pieces runs through Sequoia National Forest land and "is not plowed" in the winter. But the road is actually plowed, at least from time to time. Furthermore, from the point where the locked gate blocks the road (at about 5800') the road is often clear of snow because the elevation is lower and the weather warmer. So the idea was to drive to near the gate, and then bicycle down into the canyon and then explore it in relative solitude before riding back up to my truck. I decided to go after some cool rainy weather in the nearby Central Valley, which was followed by warmer sunny weather.

winding road

The ride started out wonderfully, since the road drops from 5800' to 3000' with spectacular vistas regularly. Though the road wasn't open to cars, it looked like the potentially snowy parts had been plowed within a week or so. Most of the road was clear of snow, though there were some wet parts and some icy parts since it was before 9am and still pretty cool out. I couldn't go too fast on this descent because of the icy bits and because there are a number of small rockslides that left rocks in the road, some as large as sheep or so. Even on the clearer stretches I couldn't go too fast, since there was a lot of gravel and residue on the road, probably due in part to the fact that there isn't the steady stream of traffic to clear the road of tiny debris. But it was beautiful and I saw nobody at all. I've always liked riding on paved roads covered with leaves and pine needles. I was a little cold on the descent despite tights, shorts and thin wool pants with a wool top and jacket, but it is hard to keep warm when coasting.

There were plenty of aging yucca blooms. I used to ride often in the Angeles National Forest near LA and always enjoyed the towering yucca blooms there in the spring, especially when they first came up. There is a small lodge in the national forest part but that looked deserted. Somebody had left a highway-type sign "Caution Ice- cream crossing ahead" so I got the impression the people who plowed the road and minded the lodge had some fun... I scared myself a bit by picking up some speed and then coming around a corner to find a bunch of helmet sized rocks blocking the road. I was able to thread my way between them but resolved to slow down when I couldn't see very far ahead.

little washout XO2 in SNF

Near the bottom of the road is the most spectacular part, with the road clinging to the canyon wall as it follows a remarkable horseshoe bend along the river. The Kings river was flowing very well there with some snowmelt and the canyon walls are pretty impressive there. Right where the road crosses the river is Boyden Cave, but a little exploration convinced me that it was closed up tightly for the season. The road began going uphill along the river but climbed pretty gradually. The waterfalls were flowing very nicely and the river looked great. As I got further up the canyon and into Kings Canyon NP, there started to be patches of snow. Though the elevation is lower (~4000') the canyon and the forest shade the road so there were places where the soft snow was a couple of inches deep. Riding in snow isn't too bad, though a prolonged gentle uphill is hard to sustain. But at first the snowy patches were not often longer than a few hundred meters, so that was no problem. After entering the park, I did see some human footprints in the snow but not very fresh ones and no other signs of anyone. The canyon was great; in the summer, this area is blistering hot and crawling with tourists and RV's. But I had the place to myself and there were tons of small animals around. I saw one larger cat; either it was a very large bobcat or a smaller mountain lion but I saw no deer or sheep. The river and falls and forests were great. The snow got to be more continuous after a while, with longer pushes through soft snow. But there were still the occasional ridable patches, which went much quicker than the pushing! The snow was too soft to ride on top of; the pedals would hit the snow hard enough to make riding uphill difficult. But it wasn't too bad. I stopped up past Cedar Grove but still a couple of miles from the road's end because the ridable patches were pretty much disappearing. I had a nice lunch and started working my way back down through the snow. Gentle downhills on soft snow like that are pretty manageable so that worked well, although it is much harder work than riding downhill on dry pavement! Once I got back to the places where there were long stretches of ridable stuff, I could relax and roll downhill and let my stomach digest its lunch since climbing back to the truck was going to be a lot of work.

pebble on road little falls posing in snow

Climbing up was slow going but pretty enjoyable. On the way down, this stretch seemed to have tons of rocks on it; on the way up, they seemed pretty sparse. I guess that isn't surprising considering at 36mph things come up much faster than at 6mph. I had stashed a liter of water partway along the road, so that I didn't worry about running out. But I didn't put it in a prominent enough spot to keep me from worrying about missing it. I did find it easily, but I had worried about having gone by it for a while before it looked like the right place. I should have left it near a more prominent feature like a sign or a such instead of leaving it at a spectacular viewpoint, since there were many of those.

It got a bit cloudier on the way up, but I was still warm from going uphill and was down to wool top and shorts except when I stopped to rest. I was making pretty steady progress but got disappointed in myself when I accidentally fell asleep at viewpoint I'd stopped to rest at. I don't know how long I slept; it wasn't that long but still it was a mistake that could have been serious. I was making nice progress upwards and there were spectacular views to the east of the higher peaks in the Sierra, including a number I've been up from the east side. As I got up past 5000', there were wet spots from the melting snow and things were a little cooler and breezier, enough to warrant tights again. Then after some more climbing, I heard the shouts of kids playing in the snow and knew I wasn't far from the gate. Despite my nap, I still managed to get back to the truck by 4pm, so I was happy with how hard I'd been working.

My bike is a wonderful Bridgestone XO-2, which is everything a "hybrid" should be but usually isn't. 26" wheels with 1.4" slicks will go anywhere except very soft stuff that needs flotation. And the "dirt drop" bars are great on pavement or rougher stuff. I took a pannier full of clothes, lunch and gear so I was ready for harsher conditions than turned up. I like riding this bike anywhere and I'm particularly happy when I can use it riding to places where a skinny tired bike would struggle or far enough that a fat tired upright bike would be too much work.

Ride data: 61 miles, ~4500' gain: 5800' -> 3000' -> 4700' and the reverse left at 8am, back by 4pm.


The January 1997 warm winter storms damaged the road considerably. There were pictures in the Fresno Bee of large bulldozers and heavy equipment beginning repairs on sections of the road which were heavily damaged. I expect it will be a while before the road is in reasonable shape. Also, I have heard that the amount of plowing varies from year to year and depends of course on the current conditions. I shouldn't need to remind anyone that once in the park, riding is allowed only on the paved roads. For current conditions info, evidently a good place to call is the Sierra NF folks at: (209)338-2251

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