California: Extremes in America’s Far West

Text: Uwe Krauss • Photography: Uwe Krauss

This is not the best way to start our trip—but what shall we do? Today is one of those many days when the fog from the cold Pacific rules San Francisco’s weather. We had planned to ride across the Golden Gate Bridge and then cut east. But in these conditions, it doesn’t make sense. Instead, we head eastward across the Bay Bridge for a fast escape.

As soon as we get away from the water, the temperature rises dramatically. We’ve gone from 55 to 80 degrees within an hour. We’re now in California’s Central Valley, and it’s not very exciting. It’s flat and hot, but plenty of fruit farms dot the way. After we pass through Modesto, the environment gets quiet and traffic is fading away. The landscape is gaining character. The sun-baked foothills of the Sierra Nevada keep us occupied until we reach Coulterville. The village seems to consist of not much more than the main street, but that’s good enough. The original gold mining appeal is ranks it No. 4 among the most authentic western towns in the United States by True West magazine. Right at the entrance of town, the beautiful Hotel Jeffery receives visitors with California’s oldest operating saloon. Entering the “bat wing doors” is not only a step out of the merciless sun, but it’s also a step back in time. Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and John Muir must have enjoyed this place as we do today.

They probably continued their journey along Highway 120 into one of North America’s most scenic National Parks, Yosemite. Just riding through without stopping would be a waste of the land’s beauty. We try to sample a little of it while hiking one of the most rewarding routes in the park to Vernal Fall. After 1.3 miles we are standing in front of this impressive 317-foot-long curtain of water. But it gets even better. As we walk closer, a rainbow created by the spray enhances the spectacle. Once at the bottom again, we treat ourselves with a dip into one of the pools of the Merced River, which flows all along the Yosemite Valley.

Perfectly refreshed, we hop onto the bikes for some impressions from the saddle—but not for long. The scene forces us (as it has millions before) to stand there and just admire the picture created by two of the most famous granite rocks in the world, El Capitan and Half Dome. We cruise further up to Glacier Point, but it must have been a while ago when there was ice visible from here. The bird’s eye view into Yosemite Valley still is my absolute favorite. Far on the other side we already can trace Tioga Road, our exciting getaway toward the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. From the green mountains into the semi desert of Owens Valley where Mono Lake sits like a dark blue jewel, it’s a route of contrasts. Mark Twain didn’t favor the place much. He once called it “lifeless, treeless, hideous desert ... the loneliest place on earth.”

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the July/August 2014 back issue.