Oakland to Chicago – Oakland to Woodfords
Denis Kertz, ©2001
This year Adventure Cycling (AC) came out with a Western Express route that starts in California and passes through Nevada and southern Utah before meeting up with their Transamerica route in Colorado. I decided that riding across Nevada on US 50, termed the Loneliest Road in America in a Life Magazine article in the 1950s, would be different and interesting. What made this particularly “interesting” was the challenge of riding through the desert for stretches of 60-80 miles without any services, most notably water.
So I planned a Labor Day weekend departure to California, flying to Oakland since I planned to visit friends in on the Oakland side of the Bay, and riding back to the Chicago area. The planned route was the Western Express meeting up with the Transamerica route in Pueblo, Colorado, and on through Missouri. In Missouri I would pass through St. Louis where I have family and then on to Chicago. So I bought a one-way ticket to Oakland on United Airlines since I had a $200 voucher from United for stranding me overnight in Cleveland. OK, I actually bought a round trip ticket to Oakland because the one way was ridiculously expensive as a non-stop and required 3 connections to get something reasonable and there was no way I was going to entrust United with my bicycle on 3 connections. That would have just been asking for United to send my bicycle to Cleveland while I ended up in Oakland.
My cycling equipment was a Litespeed Blue Ridge touring bike equipped with 9-speed Shimano SIS with bar end shifters. I used 36 spoke wheels on Mavic touring rims. Tires were 700x32 Continental TT2000 tires. My gearing consisted of 24-34-46 chainrings (Shimano XTR crank) and a 12-34 9-speed cassette, giving me a low gear of 19.5 gear inches and a high gear of 105.6 gear inches.
My bicycle was equipped with four Overland panniers, two medium sized front panniers and two larger rear panniers, and Scott clip on aero bars (used as a map holder). Finally, I had a Trek wireless cyclometer with front fork mounted pickup and the cyclometer mounted on the aero bar.
I carried a tent (North Face Road Runner) and sleeping bag with the intention of camping most of the time. As usual, I wasn’t interested in cooking so I planned to eat out along the way and carried no cooking gear. My bike weighed 30 pounds without panniers (but including racks) and 95 pounds with loaded panniers.
(For anyone interested in numbers, a table at the end of this report summarizes the riding statistics for each day.)
The first day is always stressful, wondering if you will miss your flight, bike will get banged up or lost, etc. I got up at 6:00 am, ate, and shut down the house. When the limousine arrived, the driver tried to fit the boxed bike in the trunk but it didn’t fit very well. Since I was the only passenger, he slipped the box in the back seat and I sat up front. Since the limousine was early I got to the airport early. United had a special check-in for over-sized luggage so I actually was able to check in quicker than if I had gone through the normal line but the price I paid was $75 to ship the bike, the pretty standard airline bicycle rip off. In addition to my bike, I checked my two rear panniers that were strapped together to make a luggage unit and a duffel bag that contained my tent and sleeping bag and one of my front panniers. I used my other front pannier to carry on valuables and fragile gear such as my camera.
The flight was uneventful although I got stuck in a filled row with a window seat on a four-hour flight. I did get to see a preview of Nevada, looking desolate, and I saw what was probably smoke from a forest fire in Yosemite. I arrived at about 11:20 am.
Leaving the plane I changed into my cycling shorts. I found a luggage cart and picked up my rear panniers and duffel bag at the baggage claim. When I moved to the oversized luggage entrance, it magically popped open and a guy asked if I was looking for a bicycle. I took that as a good omen and my bike looked unharmed.
I moved outside to an empty bench and started the assembly process. It took about an hour to put the bike back together with racks and fenders and another hour to get everything packed up. While I was working, I met a guy returning to the airport with his bike Friday that packs up into its own suitcase. I was next to a taxi stand and got several queries from the taxi drivers. At 2:00 I was ready to roll and was off.
I walked my bike away from the departure area and hopped on and was off with a few initial wobbles. The first part was a typical airport exit with little room but only for a short distance. I turned right on to Doolittle and then left on 61 (Davis), heading east. After 61 got me over the interstate on an overpass, I picked up Estudillo that ran parallel to 61 but with much less traffic. I saw an ice cream van but decided I hadn’t earned my first ice cream of the trip after only 5 miles.
Estudillo took me to Lake Chabot Road, which took me up my first climb that started fairly steep but eased off. When I came to a T, I took a right and stopped at a park. I was on my way to visit friends in Danville but they were at a Cal-Illinois football game and not due home until about 6:00 so I was in no hurry. I hiked to a couple of vantage points and took my first photos, after about 30 minutes of travel.
Returning to the bike I climbed just a little more and then began a descent back to the valley, looking for Castro Valley Blvd. After a ways without any sign of Castro Valley, I stopped and asked a guy working in his front yard about directions. He told me to backtrack three miles but I still didn’t find Castro Valley. Another inquiry got me on Foothill Blvd that intersected with Castro Valley. Heading east I passed Lake Chabot Road in a couple blocks and realized earlier I probably should have turned left at the T.
Shortly, I stopped for refreshments as I had forgotten to fill my water bottles at the airport. Then I picked up Crow Canyon Road that climbed over the East Bay hills. In San Ramon, I had a satisfying burrito at a place called 36 Gourmet Burritos. Continuing I picked up Camino Tassajara and started looking for Alta Vista Way where my friends, Jim & Leslie lived. When I came to the street I expected to be Alta Vista, the road sign showed differently. Then I noticed a woman waving and shouting along the road and finally recognized Leslie, who I hadn’t seen in quite a few years (in contrast, Jim is 6’5” or so and hard to miss). Jim & Leslie were just returning from the football game with their son, Rob, and saw me as they passed and turned on to Alta Vista Way. So I followed them the short distance to their home.
We spent the rest of the evening on their backyard patio, reminiscing on a pleasant California September evening. Of course, Rob, a senior in high school, had better things to do than listen to adults talk about the good old days. On the other hand, Jim & Leslie had two German poodles, Bell & Blue, who were oblivious to conversation and enjoyed romping through the house and the yard until Leslie put her foot down.
Today was visiting day. During a leisurely morning of coffee, breakfast, and reading the paper, Jim and I discussed routes towards Lake Tahoe to pick up US 50 through Nevada. The AC Western Express route started at the Golden Gate Bridge and passed through Sacramento on the way to Lake Tahoe but that didn’t make sense giving my starting point in Danville. Because heading to Lake Tahoe necessarily involved climbing the Sierras, there was somewhat limited routing available. Routes 88 and 4 looked like the most logical ones with route 108 another possibility although it was more southerly and a little more out of the way. Route 120 through Yosemite was another possibility. It was more southerly and out-of-the-way but almost certainly the most scenic and the most climbing. It was also questionable due to the forest fires in the area. Eventually I settled on Route 4 and Jim gave me 2 good AAA maps, one that covered the Bay Area to just east of Stockton and the other covered the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe.
Later, we decided to do a wine tour. We stopped at the Chouinard Winery near Livermore. After the obligatory wine tasting we met Damien Chouinard who had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Canada to Mexico. Damien described his ultra light setup that weighed just 8 pounds minus any food, not a lot more than many backpacks weigh when empty. We stopped at another winery where Jim/Leslie just bought some wine. Then it was homeward bound and driving part of the route I would take to Livermore tomorrow. Along the way we also stopped at the stable where Leslie keeps her horse.
I was the first one up at about 6:45 am. Jim got up a little later, followed by Bell & Blue, and made coffee and omelets. I was getting spoiled by now and knew it was good to be leaving before getting addicted to being waited on. Little did Jim & Leslie realize how close they came to getting stuck with an “older” teenager. Leslie joined us shortly as we chatted over coffee and breakfast. Finally, just before 9:00, I summoned up the courage to get going and, with little to pack, said my good-byes and was off about 9:15.
My planned route was to Livermore and then east, just south of Stockton. I started on Camino Tassajera and soon was passed by a number of other cyclists on this Labor Day Monday. One guy slowed to ask about my trip and offered that I had more climbing by taking route 4 rather than 88 but that 88 would have more traffic so it sounded like 4 was still the best bet.
Interestingly, some of the cyclists said hello as they passed and others just plain ignored me. One guy passed without a word and shortly did a U-turn and totally ignored me on the way back, as if I posed some threat to even glance my way. Another guy offered directions at my request at a stop sign and then circled back to ask about my trip. He did a double take when I mentioned my destination was Chicago and then said he was flying to Chicago that afternoon. I offered that he would beat me to Chicago.
After 5 miles I turned onto Highland Road. From there I needed to catch some side roads to make it to a frontage road along I580. Somehow I managed to miss both possible side roads, the only side roads around, and I had to backtrack 1.5 miles where I picked up Hartford. Hartford led to a couple of other roads to Vasco where I picked up the frontage road that led to Altamont Pass Road.
So far everything was essentially flat but I expected the pass to require some significant climbing, especially when I saw the grade for I580 along side the frontage road. So I was almost disappointed when there was almost no climbing to the pass. Yesterday on our return from Livermore, Jim pointed out some wind generators and said I would see more today. He wasn’t lying. There were hundreds of wind generators at the top, mostly 3 propeller turbines, but there were also a handful of generators with an elliptical loop rather than a propeller. The generators were pointed in several directions, apparently to take advantage of the various wind directions.
After descending from the pass, I picked up the Grant Line Road into Tracy. I stopped at a 7-11 for refreshments and I nuked a bean burrito around noon for food. It was plenty warm, probably around 90, but it didn’t feel bad although the cold refreshments were welcome.
After my break I continued a few more miles and then came to decision time. I needed to get from Tracy to Manteca but the only direct route was via I5, not legal on a bicycle. The legal way required a loop to the south and about 8 extra miles. So I exercised my prerogative of civil disobedience and merged onto I5 with a wide shoulder that was safe. Except that two other high-speed lanes merged from the right and I was faced with how to get across these fast lanes alive and get back to the shoulder. Fortunately, just when I got to where the lanes merged there was a short break in the traffic and I was able to easily make it to the safety of the shoulder.
I was only on I5 for 3-4 miles but that was enough. Traffic was horrendous in the other direction as everybody was coming back to the Bay Area at the end of the holiday weekend. Then I exited I5 to 120, which was also an expressway, but I immediately exited to Yosemite Avenue and rode into Manteca where I stopped for another break.
After the break, I stopped at a grocery store right before an intersection with 99 and bought some food. Continuing on I saw an amazing sight. From the east 120 momentarily joins 99 south and then heads west again. I passed through the 120/99 intersection where cars were turning left on to 99 south. There was a line of traffic, probably returning from Yosemite, as far as I could see waiting for the left turn light to get on to 99. As I headed east on 120, I checked my cyclometer and estimated the line was 5 miles long. I was tempted to U-turn and ride past all the traffic on the shoulder to show the advantage of cycling.
But I continued on to Escalon where I looked for a place to stay. My map showed a campground 3 miles south on the Stanislaus River so I stopped at a Subway first to eat. I didn’t take it as a good sign that the Subway server didn’t know about this campground. Nevertheless I rode 3 miles south and found the river but no campground, just a day use area with an explicit “No Camping” sign.
So I returned to Escalon with 6 bonus miles and looked around. I found a little city park that looked like it could be a possibility and was thinking about querying the local police when I realized the lush green grass was almost certainly the result of automatic sprinkling, probably at 6 am. So I checked out the nearby motel but I figured it wasn’t going to be a cheapie as it probably catered to the Yosemite traffic. I could only get a double on the first floor for $50 but I bit the bullet and signed in.
Overall, an easy first day with modest mileage. I did appear to get a little dehydrated as I suffered some cottonmouth. This was probably a reasonable experience in preparation for Nevada where water would be scarce.
I got up around 6:45. Packing was easy since I was in a motel. I checked out and headed down 120 about a half-mile to a Mexican restaurant that was the only place serving breakfast according to the motel operator. I had a stack of pancakes and bacon for $10.
I was off shortly after 8 and headed back on 120 to catch J6 heading north. Traffic was initially very heavy and I was very surprised. Then J6 divided and the road veering to Stockton took most of the traffic. I headed north until the intersection with 4 where I headed east. 4 was a newly surfaced road and easy riding although it developed some rollers. It had a reasonable amount of traffic but the 3’ wide shoulder was fine.
In a while I could see evidence that the day was not going to stay flat as I could see the start of the Sierra hills in the distance. Then I started my first real climb of the trip, a 3-mile, third lowest gear climb. A vista at the top gave a view of the valley across to the East Bay hills that were marred by an unsightly band of smog. Unfortunately I quickly gave up my hard earned altitude in a quick descent. It was already quite warm so I stopped for refreshments in Copperopolis. Then I started another 3-4 mile climb, regaining the altitude I had previously given up. After 12 miles I stopped again in Angels Camp at a Burger King for a large vanilla shake. I was also treated to a covey of teenagers from the nearby high school on lunch break.
I was now faced with a decision in early afternoon. I had already covered 45 miles. The first campsite along 4 was at Big Trees State Park that Jim had recommended. It was only another 24 miles, normally about 2 hours. However, I was currently at 1,380’ and Big Trees was at least 4,000’. So I had at least 2,600’ of climbing. I figured I could make it but wasn’t sure what the effect would be on my body this early in the tour. But it was too early to quit so I headed out.
I immediately started climbing again which was just as well since I needed to gain some significant altitude. After a good 8 miles I stopped at Murphys for another break. It was good I did because I started another climb of at least 4 miles that got me in my second lowest gear part of the way. Finally, I saw a sign for 3,000’ of elevation and then 3,400’ at Hathaway Pines. I was getting a few short downhill runs but I wasn’t giving up much altitude. Meanwhile, it had gotten so hot that all of the line segments on the LCD display of my cyclometer were displaying at least partially and I could no longer make out my display reading. Fortunately, the heat didn’t bother me that much.
At Arnold, about 3 miles from Big Trees, I stopped for a meal around 4:30 at a pizza place. I had a small thick crust pepperoni pizza and all the soda I could drink, which was a mistake to offer to a thirsty cyclist. I must have had 5-6 glasses of soda, so much that my legs were getting tired of walking back and forth for refills. The proprietor noticed and jokingly said he was doubling the soda cost.
When I headed out, I had another 4 mile climb so it was good I loaded up on food and drink. Finally, I found what I was looking for all afternoon, a sign saying Park Turnoff ¼ mile. I pulled into the park that was unattended and found the campground after some sign confusion. Cost was $12, which was a little steep considering that there were no shower facilities. So after setting up camp I cleaned up with a sponge bath. I had also wondered about the need to hang food and the provided metal food lockers gave me the answer.
A tough riding day with about 4,000’ of elevation and perhaps 6,000’ of climbing. Tomorrow would be interesting to see how my body recovered from a hard day.
It was a warm night and I never needed to zip up my sleeping bag. I got up around 7:30 and fixed my own breakfast of granola and English muffins since I wasn’t sure I could find a breakfast place. A ranger stopped by and collected $14, not the $12 I thought was the price. He told me he didn’t think food was available until Bear Valley, about 20 miles.
I finally left about 9:30 and began climbing, as I would for most of the day. Surprisingly my legs felt pretty good. Shortly I saw a sign for 5,000’. It was a great day for climbing with cool temperatures and the trees along the road blocked the sun. Yesterday started in the valley with sun burnt grass and gradually filled in with small trees. Now the terrain was hills with evergreen trees. Eventually I reach a visitor spot where I could see the Sierras in the distance.
After more climbing and about 23 miles I reached Bear Valley, which had a grocery store with a deli. I met another local cyclist who 30 years ago had ridden from Park City, Utah, to Denver. He filled me in on the local scene and offered that climbing Ebbetts Pass, due up tomorrow, was much better from the west as I had been told before.
After lunch my goal was Lake Alpine, just a few more miles. I thought it best to not kill myself by trying to climb the pass today after yesterday’s relatively hard day. So I climbed some more and I could feel the climbing taking its toll on my legs. I saw a sign warning trucks and large vehicles of a 24% downhill grade in 6 miles that I figured must be the descent from the pass.
I stopped at Lake Alpine. Their
restaurant closes during the week after Labor Day but they had a general store
and I had an ice cream cookie sandwich, the first of the trip. I picked out a nice campsite across the road
by the lake and set up for $15. The
lodge area also had a shower facility so I cleaned up for another $2. Then I headed back to the lodge for a
burrito and retired to my campsite to relax for tomorrow’s assault on the pass.
It cooled off overnight and I had to zip up my sleeping bag towards morning. I got up around 7:00 and slipped on my long pants and jacket since it was a bit nippy. I grabbed my granola and English muffins and headed for a sunny area by the lake and some warmth. Then I packed up and was off a little after 9:00.
The route immediately began climbing fairly steeply on a narrow road that wasn’t much wider than a normal lane. It was virtually continuous climbing with an occasional short respite. After about 8 miles I reach the Pacific Grade Summit at 8,050’, feeling pretty good since the pass at 8,730’ was less than 700’ more. But then began a steep winding descent that normally would have been enjoyable. However, I knew I was going to have to reclaim the hard-earned elevation as I quickly yielded about 1,000’. This was the descent of 24% that the sign I saw yesterday had warned about although I think the 24% was somewhat overstated although it was steep.
At the bottom I took a short rest and ate a granola bar and started out to reclaim my rightful elevation. The grade was steep and I finally yielded to my lowest gear and used it quite often on the remaining climb. About 1.5 hours later I reached Ebbetts Pass with virtually no respite on the climb. I rested at the pass in warm weather but there wasn’t much of a view. Much of the day’s climb was fairly scenic with sunlight streaming between the trees and I saw several deer in the woods.
The 15-mile descent to Markleeville was almost all downhill. The first 10 miles required only a few pedal strokes with the first 5 miles steep and winding and I kept feathering my brakes to keep my speed under control. I never let the speed get higher than the low 30s and then the low 20s as the terrain started to level out.
The view was much more scenic on this side of the pass with first a nice alpine lake setting and then an open vista with large, steep hills slanting into a narrow valley with peaks in the distance. It was quite cool on the descent with the speed and a headwind. I could have used a jacket but it was too much effort to find and unpack it.
About 1:30 I rolled into Markleeville, a small town famous for its annual bicycle Death Ride of 129 miles that ascends to the top of Carson Pass and climbs both sides of the Monitor and Ebbetts Passes for climbs totaling 16,000’. Of course, these riders don’t load their bikes down as I do. As I arrived in town, a young woman waved as she was walking in to the general store with a friend. I assumed she was just appreciating my ride when I saw two loaded bicycles outside the deli next to the store. These were two women riding from Incline Village at Lake Tahoe to Yosemite. The older woman was a veteran rider, having done a couple cross-country rides whereas the young woman was doing her first ride with very little previous cycling. She was somewhat nervous, as their route tomorrow would take them over Monitor Pass to 395 and down to Yosemite. The older woman had previously ridden the Nevada US 50 route and said it was a fabulous ride. We shall see.
After our conversation I took a short refreshment break at the store and headed north for a few more miles as it was still early afternoon. Leaving Markleville, I had a modest climb and was surprised how well my legs felt. I pulled into a store in Woodfords where the Pony Express once passed through. I had a sandwich and soda and rode 1.5 miles up 89 to the Crystal Springs campground. It was almost empty so I got a good spot. However, the campground was close to the road so there wasn’t a good spot from a traffic noise standpoint. This was a National Forest site and cost $10.
Copyright Denis Kertz, 2001. All rights reserved.