Northern California is a land of superlatives. There seems to be more of the “biggest,” “tallest,” and “most” here than any one state has a right to. Of particular interest to motorcyclists are NorCal’s roads, which more than warrant a bit of hyperbole. These supremely twisty and technical thoroughfares require a motorcycle that’s up to the challenge, and what could be better on a tight mountain pass than a 2015 Ducati Monster 1200 S?
A City and a Valley
The continental breakfast at the Staybridge Suites in San Francisco has held our attention for much too long. Our group, 17 riders strong, finally starts picking its way through Bay Area traffic. I’ve joined the Westchester Beemers club on their annual summer tour, and this one promises to be one for the books. The club has enlisted the services of Cat and Nancy MacLeod of Leod Motorcycle Escapes to put together the ultimate journey through Northern California, with a heavy emphasis on finding the curviest roads in this dynamic region.
We cross the Bay Bridge on our way out of the city, gradually replacing the hustle and bustle with serene Northern California farm country. The further we get from the cool waters of the Pacific, the warmer it gets. At our first stop near Stockton, CA, the thermal liners get packed away—not to be seen again until our return to the coast.
After a quick lunch in the quaint town of Groveland, the real fun begins. Before long we encounter a long series of high-speed sweepers along SR 120. The Monster practically begs me to let it smash the 55 mph speed limit to bits; it’s not easy to hold back a thoroughbred. Soon I begin to catch glimpses of today’s real goal through the trees on the right. Yosemite Valley. The views get more and more stunning as the road winds its way down toward the valley floor. At the bottom, traffic backs up to a crawl, but I don’t care one bit. Vertical walls of granite tower to impossible heights. With my helmet on I can barely twist my head back far enough to see the top.
Yosemite has been on my short list of national parks to see since I studied the work of master photographer Ansel Adams in college. With all due respect to Mr. Adams, however, not even his greatest works can do justice to Yosemite’s grandeur. The park is roughly the size of Rhode Island and boasts some of the most striking scenery on earth. As I traverse the valley, Half Dome stands stoically in the distance bathed in afternoon light. The gigantic granite dome reaches 4,737 feet above my current location—truly an incredible sight.
Slicing the newly familiar roads back to Groveland, where a bed and a sumptuous meal at Hotel Charlotte await, my thoughts remain in Yosemite. It’s not often that reality exceeds the imagination. To quote Mr. Adams, “Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.”
Motorcycle & Gear
Pass Road Pilgrimage
The two highest pass roads of the Sierra Nevada are on the itinerary today. First up, Tioga Pass along SR 120. The climb to the top is relatively gradual with more sweepers than tight curves. As we climb higher, the views become steadily more dramatic. At 9,943 feet, Tioga is the highest pass road in California. Unfortunately, it has far more traffic than most passes in the area. The overlook at the summit is crowded with cars, and there’s no room for 17 motorcycles to squeeze in. As we descend the pass’ eastern slope, the turns get tighter and steeper while the sights get even grander. By the time we arrive at the Whoa Nellie Deli (a glorified gas station serving the best fish tacos I’ve ever had), we’ve already lost over 3,000 feet of elevation.
We swing north on 395 past the briny waters of Mono Lake before turning west and climbing back into the mountains on 108. Before us looms the steep, narrow, and impossibly twisty line of asphalt called Sonora Pass. At 9,624 feet, Sonora isn’t as high as Tioga, but what it lacks in outright height it more than makes up for in technicality. The switchbacks come fast and furious and are a dizzying delight. The grade reaches an incredible 26 percent at some points.
Another day and two more pass roads. After the technical tour de force that was Sonora Pass, I’m somewhat skeptical of Cat’s assertion that Ebbetts Pass will offer an even greater challenge. As we ride northeast along SR 4, we see sign after sign noting our ever-increasing elevation. Our tarmac path narrows to one lane with white stripes marking its boundaries. With several thousand feet left to climb, I’m taken aback by a sudden series of sharp, downhill switchbacks with cambers that are just all wrong. After escaping the odd and imposing descent, the climb to the 8,730-foot summit is nothing short of breathless excitement. The Monster pulls hard while the fury of its growl echoes off the steep stonewalls. The edges of the Pirelli Diablo Rosso II’s get thoroughly scrubbed as the trees in the valley below get smaller and smaller. But what goes up must come down, and the final descent toward Markleeville is nearly as harrowing as Sonora (Ebbetts Pass is just slightly less steep with a 24-percent grade).