Saturday, May 16, 2015

Monitor Pass - Riding the Sierras Series.

Arguably for some, but inarguably for me, some of the best riding in the alpine country of the Sierras, and with some spectacular views! This stretch of Hwy 89 or Monitor Pass as it is called, is unlike the other highway passes which bridge the West side to the East (and entirely a different planet) side of the Sierras, in that it is entirely a two lane highway, and in my experience has also been *almost* always entirely deserted throughout the riding season. Which means, a much diminished chance of a smug Californian's snail paced Prius polluting your fun. In comparison Hwy 4 (Ebbetts Pass) while beautiful, is a one lane highway for about half of it's length, the stretches of Hwy 108 (Sonora Pass) are immense fun, but you will find it peppered with slow trucks and other four wheeled obstacles. Not to mention Hwy 120 (Tioga Pass) - the views are dramatic, countered by the astoundingly dense drivers and traffic you will encounter, either precipitating from or perhaps vindicating the 'retarded' speed limits on Hwy 120 as it passes through Yosemite National Park. 

This Road Report picks up right out of the town of Markleeville, CA on Hwy 89. Markleeville is a tiny town in Alpine County, which has grown quite popular with the motor sports crowd and is a good option for a brunch or lunch stop while you transit to or from the destination passes (Monitor/Ebbetts). You never know what you will find in Markleeville, CA.

Keep an eye on your speed and the posted speed limits approaching and leaving from Markleeville, CA - as is the mantra 'be mindful of in-town and near-town speed limits'. Ride safely. Leaving Markleeville, the highway runs abreast of the Carson River. The official turn-off to Monitor Pass is a few miles from here. On this short stretch you may find some campers, canoeists etc. recreating along the Carson River.

The turn-off to Monitor Pass is approx 5 miles from Markleeville. Riding straight ahead will lead you to Ebbetts Pass. Turn left here for Monitor Pass' roller coaster fun. The choice depends on what you are in the mood for. 
Unlike Carson Pass (Hwy 88) which is a highly traveled thoroughfare, which CALTRANS tries to keep open year-around, Monitor Pass closes it's gates in the Winter. CALTRANS had actually closed this pass a couple days before I rode through, due to a snow storm. They are surprisingly good, however, at clearing the road pretty quickly, as warmer temperatures aid them this time of the year.

It's a slow-meander and I am not talking about the riding on the west side as you climb up Monitor Pass. The road lazily wraps up towards the ridge, alongside Monitor Creek, and passes by Heenan Lake - which some stop at, but I didn't. 

It tightens up a bit as you are cresting the ridge, there are blind corners and sheer drops here, so watch your lines as you climb. It does afford you great views of the surrounding Sierra peaks, esp. if you were riding East to West. Monitor Pass is short enough that people are known to run laps. 

If you are lucky, you might even see some snow on those Sierra peaks - most likely not going to be so this year. There was some snow from a storm a couple days ago, but it was melting away - fast!

The top of the ridge has a distinct 'lonely highway' feel to it. You can see Leviathan peak in the distance - there is a dirt track which leads you to a lookout at the top of this peak, if you are adventure bike equipped, and feel up for a short detour, and maybe even if you aren't, you are an adult aren't you? Responsible for your own actions and decisions? :)

I was on a schedule and despite being on my V-strom, I chose not to. I was trying to get to Fernley, NV at a decent enough time, to borrow my friend Brian's Motion Pro chain tool to replace the chain and sprockets on the Strom. There are scattered groves of Aspens near Leviathan peak, which seem to be springing back to life after laying dormant for the Winter. I love dancing Aspens and they are especially photogenic in the Fall. 

Past Leviathan peak you begin the descent to the East side of the Sierras. The view from here is characteristically representative of what one imagines when one thinks of the Great American West. For some reason it also reminds me of 'Middle Earth'. 

There is pull off here well worth stopping at, highly recommended to pull over and breathe in the cool crisp air and absorb that view. It can be soft gravel, so when you kick that side-stand over, just be careful it doesn't sink in too much.. ;)

I have been here a million and one times, and I always stop here, it never gets old for me up here - never. Although, it does get cold up here and it was pretty cold today..Brrrrr..

Top of the world views at Monitor Pass. 

I was remarkably lucky to have both absolutely clean, clear and dry roads and to have caught the snow capped Sierras on this day. While the snow does add quite a bit to the visual impact, trust me the view remains perfectly dramatic without. 

The descent from the top of the world is a tight coil of switchbacks galore, this is undoubtedly the most fun part of the Monitor Pass highway. 

There are plenty of blind corners, but not all of them are, sometimes you can see the coiled ribbon like road twisting away into the distance. 

Which, can be to your advantage, as it gives you time to move away from morons who can't stay in their own lane, while also giving said morons a chance to move back into their lane. While, this stretch of the highway can be pretty deserted, that doesn't mean one may not encounter a dingbat piloting a four wheeled projectile. 

The descent to the east side is the roller coaster part of the highway. The ride to the top from the west is akin to the slow pull of anticipation to the top of the roller coaster, then you crest, followed by the free fall as the coaster lunges left ...

... then right ...

... then doubles back on itself once ...

... and then over again ...

That imposing valley that you admired from the top, seems almost close enough to touch now, despite the skewed view from the super-wide angle view of the GoPro. I have come to the opinion that the super-wide view of the GoPro takes a lot away from the sensationalism of these views, what your eyes see is much more dramatic than what the wide angle captures here. Perhaps a 50mm 'normalized' lens would do more justice here.

Almost to the end is a short rocky canyon, prone to rock slides, just a few more leans of the motorbike and you emerge to the flatness on the other side.

The Highway 395 junction is ahead. Hopefully, there will also be more Road Reports ahead on this blog. I will keep you posted, and hopefully you will come back for them as well. :)

Monitor Pass - Traveled West to East, just over 22 miles end to end from Markleeville to Hwy 395. 

Elevation at Markleeville - 5,531 feet. Leviathan Peak elevation - 8,980 feet. Elevation at 395 junction - 5,108 feet.

There is a Chevron roughly 4 miles north from the Hwy 395 junction at Topaz Lake on the Nevada side, if you need gasoline. If you are heading south, the nearest gas station could be 42 miles away in the town of Bridgeport. 

The standard disclaimers of  'This road report isn't meant to be a definitive road guide, please refer to CA DOT for latest road conditions, and peruse the road resources section at for more information' apply. 

Thank you for reading! :)


  1. Such beautiful pictures. I know I say this a lot, but you really do have beautiful roads and scenery in your area.

  2. California weather, and California motorcycling roads. You would be hard-pressed to beat either. :)

  3. Very nice!!
    I love this road!!
    We are so fortunate to be able to ride this road so close to us.
    I am always too lazy to stop for these nice pics.
    Really enjoyed this! Thx.

  4. Thanks Jeff! It is one of my favorites as well!
    Glad you enjoyed and thank you for your comment! :)


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