Author Topic: El Nino impact on Sierra Cascade route this spring?  (Read 6989 times)

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Offline AndrewG

El Nino impact on Sierra Cascade route this spring?
« on: March 24, 2016, 09:13:21 am »
Hi, I am flying out to San Diego from the UK early May and planning on riding the Sierra Cascades route S to N, returning home from Seattle some 9 weeks later. In planning this trip, I had hoped to leave early enough to avoid the worst excesses of the desert heat, yet late enough for the mountain passes to be open. I am now getting somewhat concerned that the El Nino affect on this year’s snowfall could mean prolonged pass closures along the route. I know that every year is different and that when it comes to when passes open it has been as late as July in some years. Unfortunately I don’t have the flexibility of moving my dates back at this stage!

I’d appreciate any thoughts from those closer to the action whether I’m likely to run into real issues along the way and what my bail-out options might be? Indeed is it still to early to say? The Pacific Coast route might be an option, but presumably I’d run into the prevailing N-S winds at this time of year making for a less than enjoyable experience?

Offline jamawani

Re: El Nino impact on Sierra Cascade route this spring?
« Reply #1 on: March 24, 2016, 02:04:05 pm »
Ummmm -

In a normal year, the Sierra Passes don't open before Memorial Day.
Usually, Ebbett and Sonora do, but Tioga often doesn't until some time in June.
This year in California, the snow was only so-so until recently - now it's closer to normal.

The other issue is Oregon and Washington.
The Cascades have had 150% to 200% of normal snowpack.
Crater Lake Loop is likely to still be closed in early June.
Many facilities will likely still be closed before Memorial Day.

Here is a Snotel map of Western snowpack (California does not participate west of the Sierras.)

And total precipitation - (fortunately for you, there has already been significant melting)

And a pic from a few years back of Sonora Pass just north of Yosemite in late May -

PS - If there still is a big snowpack, you can do it - you just have to plan to camp at lower elevations.

Offline AndrewG

Re: El Nino impact on Sierra Cascade route this spring?
« Reply #2 on: March 25, 2016, 01:19:34 pm »
Many thanks jamawani for your prompt response. I hadn't appreciated that Memorial Day was a factor in clearing the passes. Typical luck for me that it's so late this year! When I read that Crater Lake had experienced record snowfall in December alarm bells started ringing for the OR and WA section of the trip. I had hoped that by the time I reached them it would be well into June. Also a detail missing from my older ACA map version was that the Angeles Crest Hwy SR 2 is also closed over the winter until end-May and I'd be hoping to get through there a week or two earlier...

Offline jamawani

Re: El Nino impact on Sierra Cascade route this spring?
« Reply #3 on: March 26, 2016, 01:31:51 pm »
Andrew -

I don't think you need to be too worried, but you will probably have to do a few detours.
Map 5 should be no problem - it won't be that hot, nor too cold at Big Bear.

Map 4 will present the first challenges - esp. with the Western Divide Highway.
The main roads in Sequoia NP and Kings Canyon NP should be open.
If you have the time - and you may wish to stretch it a bit early on -
You really should head on up into Kings Canyon - worth it.

Yosemite Valley will be stunning this May. Have you ever been there?
The first time is always so amazing for everybody. Esp. in May.
So, do not, under any circumstances, skip Yosemite - even if you have to detour.

You will be coming in from the South Entrance and have your first vista past the tunnel.
Although not posted, people cycling into the park can camp 1 night at the backcountry campground.
(This is NOT Camp 4 - way better - on a bend of the Merced River - but you have to ask at backcountry office.)

More than likely, Tioga Pass will still be closed - they May (5% chance) let cyclists thru.
Most likely you will need to detour via Sonora (Hwy 108) or Ebbetts Pass (Hwy 4) - both have very steep grades.
There is a big climb out of the valley to Crane Flats - Hwy 120 is not my favorite, either.
If you have the time Hwy 140 to Mariposa is lovely along the Merced River and way less traffic.

The east side of the Sierras should be no problem. Monitor Pass usually opens in late April.
Traffic should still be pretty light north of Topaz - but campgrounds may still be closed.
Lake Tahoe will be stunning will snow-capped mountains and blue water - - but chilly.

Map 3 has a couple of challenges and question marks.
First, I don't know why ACA routes you via Graeagle, Quincy, Greenville on Hwy 70 - which is kinda sucky.
There are great 95% paved county & forest roads via Loyalton & Chilcoot then north -
Or via Calalpine and Beckwourth then north - coming out via genessee and Taylorsville.
Perfect time of year, too.
(Poor server, but give it a few tries and it will come up - esp. with new tab)
You can pick up a Plumas National Forest Map in Truckee.

The next challenge is Lassen Volcano N.P. - the main prak road may not open until June.
Your choices are to skip the park and head north to Hwy 44 via Westwood and Hwy A21 -
Or to head into the park as far as you can go, then return to the dirt forest road from Mineral to Viola.

Next is a choice - I think that it is highly immoral, although legal, to bike on interstate highways.
The ACA route takes you around Mount Shasta - lovely - but you have to do some interstate, too.
Another option is to head north from Old Station via Bieber, Lookout, and Lava Beds N.M. to Klamath Falls.

I am almost certain that the loop road at Crater Lake will still be closed in early June.
If so, then you can still ride into the park from the south but will have to use Hwy 62 & Hwy 230 to go north.
Whether you ride via Mount Shasta or Lava Beds, you should consider riding via Rocky Point on Upper Klamath Lake.

So we've gotten to Map 2 and it should be warmer - in fact, Crater Lake might be you last detour.
If possible, do the Windigo Alternate - US 97 has wide shoulders, but insane traffic.
Bend and Sisters are super yuppie - but have all services - esp, bicycle needs.
US 20 over Santiam Pass also has a good deal of traffic -
You can take the longer McKenzie Pass option - if open - Hwy 242 then Hwy 126.
From Detroit to Hood River should have few cold weather issues.

In southern Washington, do consider taking the side trip to Mt. St. Helens N.M. - worth it.
Also, there is a lovely, paved forest road from Packwood to Longmire in Mount Rainier N.P.
And you can camp just outside the park - they have no hiker/biker sites in the park - boo!

Then Map 1
It's a pretty brutal series of climbs over ridges in the park to Hwy 123.
And I don't know why the ACA routes you over White Pass on US 12 rather than Chinook Pass on Hwy 410.
Tipsoo Lake, at Chinook Pass, has one of the most spectacular views of Mount Rainier.
Then Hwy 410 is a sweet, quiet ride down to the Naches Valley and fresh cherries in June.

The Yakima Canyon along Hwy 821 is sweet - hike across the ped bridge at Umtanum Creek to camp.
North and east of Ellensburg (all services) there are two options.
The ACA route largely follows US 97 - pretty busy in Washington, too.
A lovely, but challenging option is to head east from Ellensburg on Old Vantage Highway.
The challenge is getting across the Columbia River - the I-90 bridge has no shoulders and fast traffic.
There are three ways to get across:
1. Pick a low traffic time - just before sunrise, light but no blinding sun, and ride like hell.
2. Ask or pay someone at the motel/store/campground to shuttle you across.
3. Hitch a boat ride to the Old Vantage Highway landing on the other side.

If you can do #3 it is super worth it. Esp. if you camp in Vantage, you have time to arrange #3.
The old road on the east side heads up Frenchman Coulee - stunning, sheer cliffs.
Then the south service road to George, Hwy 281 to Quincy, and Hwy 28 to Wenatchee.

Next up - when you get to Chelan, do consider taking the Lady of the Lake up to Stehekin.
You can take your bike with you and ride deep into the rugged country of the North Cascades.
By the time you hit the Methow Valley, it should be green and lovely - despite last year's fires.
And Hwy 20 over the North Cascades should be long open with all campgrounds open, too.


Just a few suggestions.
Have a great trip.

The Three Sisters - near Bend, Oregon

Offline AndrewG

Re: El Nino impact on Sierra Cascade route this spring?
« Reply #4 on: March 26, 2016, 01:51:40 pm »
WOW! Thank you so much! Lots of information to digest and research further...

Having visited California a couple of times and been to Yosemite on road trips, I'm definitely excited by the prospect of cycling through such terrain. I've cycled in the Alps and the Pyrenees, which are stunning but the scale of the scenery in the USA is "awesome" as you would say!

It looks as if I'll have to go with the flow as I proceed north.

Many thanks once again, Andrew

Offline Patco

Re: El Nino impact on Sierra Cascade route this spring?
« Reply #5 on: March 26, 2016, 06:16:53 pm »
There are a number of pros and cons for riding on an interstate but I must ask, Jamawani, what the heck do you do to make it immoral? Should we be averting our eyes?

As for traffic on U.S. 97 in Central Oregon - as was pointed out, there are good shoulders. Insane traffic? Well, that has to be in the eye of the beholder. Traffic on 97 from K. Falls to Bend is anywhere from 4,000 per day to 20,000 per day as you approach Bend. The part of 97 that is on the ACA route has less than 10,000 vehicles per day. If you ride in any sort of traffic, you will likely not find this volume a bother. And again, good shoulders.

I agree that you may find the rim road and the north entrance to Crater Lake closed in early June, but if it is, you may wish to consider another road beside  Oregon 230 on the west side of the lake. For the most part, that is a narrow, no shoulder road, and while traffic is manageable, for me, when riding it, it can be stressful.

I second Jamwani's suggested route of Bieber, Lookout Road, and 139/39 to K. Falls as an alternative around Shasta. Good road. Not much traffic.

I hope you enjoy your visit.
« Last Edit: March 26, 2016, 06:21:05 pm by Patco »

Offline jamawani

Re: El Nino impact on Sierra Cascade route this spring?
« Reply #6 on: March 26, 2016, 07:31:54 pm »
Mercy chile!
If you have to ask what makes it immoral - -
then you are already on the slippery slope.
;-)   ;-)

PS - My AADT scale:
Under 500 - Sweetness
500-1000 - Pretty darn good
1000-2000 - Tolerable
2000-4000 - Irritating
Over 4000 - Revolting

Offline zzzz

Re: El Nino impact on Sierra Cascade route this spring?
« Reply #7 on: March 28, 2016, 10:18:54 pm »
I propose that ACA add a feature to the forum for "Reply of the Year" for the most thorough and informative answer to a posted question. And even though we are not even thru March, I will nominate Jamawani's post here. Well done, sir!

It sounds like he has done the route, or parts of it repeatedly. I, on the other hand have only done it once, and I did it from north to south, and I did it in September, all of which means my observations are much less useful than previous posts but I did want to add a couple of things.

Andrew; no where that I see here do you mention what size tires you are riding. The reason I bring this up is there have been several people who were very unhappy riding the Windigo Pass Alternate. It's a gravel road and reportedly a pretty crappy gravel road. Since I ride 28mm road tires I wasn't even giving it a try. Maybe Jamawni or someone else would like to comment on the minimum tire size they would take on that road as well as the gravel road into King's Canyon he also mentioned. As for what you avoid by taking the alternate, highway 97 on that 20± mile stretch, I didn't find it that bad. And not nearly as bad as some of the stretches of 97 up in Washington.

It sounds like Jamawani's alternate to interstate (I-5) north of Shasta is probably preferable. But if you want to stay on route I found that part of the highway to have a very clean shoulder and not too much traffic. Of course, coming from the north meant I was going down a big grade for the entire 8 miles and you will be going steeply uphill that entire time which means you will be on it for an hour instead of 12 minutes, but I will stick w the premise that as interstates go, this isn't a bad stretch. This is unlike the other stretch of interstate you hit along the Columbia River Gorge (I-84) which came pretty close to being the most unpleasent 11 miles in my life.

Also, I will give a big +1 to incorporating Makenzie Pass outside of Sisters. It adds 40 miles and several thousand feet of climbing because not only is there the climb up the pass but at the western end of the pass there's a good bit of climbing back to where you get back on Hywy 20. That said, Mackenzie Pass was a top 5 of all of that I saw on my trip. The road going up & down is great and the scenery at the top is fantastic, lava fields as far as you can see. It also gets you off Hywy 20 which is no treat to be on. And there is several weeks in spring/early summer where the pass is only open to bicycles and your timing may be just right for that.

That's my 2 cents.


Offline AndrewG

Re: El Nino impact on Sierra Cascade route this spring?
« Reply #8 on: March 29, 2016, 02:56:42 am »
Hi Pete,

Thanks for you input and what a great proposal!

I ride a Van Nicholas Pioneer Rohloff with 26" wheels so had ordered some 1.6" Schwalbe Marathon Supremes as the SC is down as pretty much tarmac all the way. I have been using 2" Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tyres for most of my touring in Europe, but was keen to keep the weight down as there is just the odd climb or two on SC route😉 Whilst 2" is probably overkill for most of the time on tarmac roads over here, I was glad last year when my trip involved quite a bit of off-road including gravel, sand etc in Norway and Spain. Hopefully 1.6" should be up to any diversions such as those mentioned or should I revert back to 2"?


Offline zzzz

Re: El Nino impact on Sierra Cascade route this spring?
« Reply #9 on: March 29, 2016, 09:19:16 pm »
Hi Andrew:

Your question appears to be to me but I'm going to have to punt on it because with my sissy 28mm tires I skipped the 2 roads in question. Hopefully someone who's ridden the Kings Canyon Rd & the Windigo Pass Rd will kick in here and tell you your 1.6" tires will be fine. I would hope so.



  • Guest
Re: El Nino impact on Sierra Cascade route this spring?
« Reply #10 on: March 30, 2016, 01:49:26 pm »
Here is a previous thread that mostly touches on Windigo:

Offline CyclingScientists

Re: El Nino impact on Sierra Cascade route this spring?
« Reply #11 on: April 02, 2016, 05:27:38 pm »
Such great info on this thread, thank you to everyone who's posted!
I was actually coming on to ask somewhat of a similar question as the opening question.

We are planning on starting down the Pacific Coast from Anacortes to San Francisco starting mid-May and then U-turning (via Western Express) and coming back through the Sierras to our starting point (probably starting that route mid-late June--likely late).  However, we have recently starting questioning this route because of the promise of vicious summer thunderstorms.  Can anyone provide any advice/info on what they've encountered in those months? My boyfriend has a very heavy respect for lightning and it is a big concern of his, particularly on the Sierra route where there might not be as many shelters to duck into if the need arose.  If it turns out to be a problem, we might have to start looking for another route back up north which doesn't sound like a fun task at this stage!

Thank you again for all the advice you've already provided on this route and in advance for any additional information!

Offline jamawani

Re: El Nino impact on Sierra Cascade route this spring?
« Reply #12 on: April 02, 2016, 11:35:25 pm »
PRISM  has excellent climate normals -

Click on the July precip and you will see that the Sierras get very little in July.
The Oregon Cascades don't get much and the Washington Cascades only moderate.
The Rockies have more severe storms - but it the Cascades do get a few.

The storms are usually orographic - i.e. created by the mountains, themselves.
The pattern is - clear mornings, clouds pick up in the afternoons, storms in late afternoon - if then.
You can judge if there will be storms by the degree of build-up.
Plus, you can ride early and be done by 3:00 to reduce the risk even further.

Specifically, the Sierra Cascades route in Calif has little risk of thunderstorms.
The risk is slightly more in Oregon since you will be at higher elevation more consistently.
And much of the Washington route is at lower elevation with little risk of precip.

Actually, fire may be more of an issue than thunderstorms - esp. by late July.
Last year had extremely bad fires, but this year has seen lots of snow/rain.
Fire risk should be considerably lower this year.


The ACA Western Express doesn't get you to Yosemite.
You should NOT miss Yosemite if you can possibly do it.

Keep heading south on the Pacific Coast to Watsonville -
Then inland via Hollister and Panoche - via J1.
Cut across the Central Valley (hot!!!) to Chowchilla -
Then via Mariposa and the lovely Hwy 140 into Yosemite.

From Yosemite pick up the Sierra Cascades.
(You can hit thunderstorms crossing Tioga Pass.)

Offline CyclingScientists

Re: El Nino impact on Sierra Cascade route this spring?
« Reply #13 on: April 03, 2016, 03:55:35 pm »
Thanks a bunch, jamawani, for the info! For some reason we hadn't really considered Yosemite at all but are now looking to see if we can incorporate it into our plans. 

Offline zzzz

Re: El Nino impact on Sierra Cascade route this spring?
« Reply #14 on: April 03, 2016, 07:58:05 pm »

People choose their route for all kinds of reasons. But you seemed open to suggestions in your reply to Jamawani so I'll add something here.

The SC is a great route but not every mile is equally great. A good portion of the part you selected is 260 miles on 89. Lassen NP is in there which is very nice but a lot of the rest is fair to middlin' and the area around Quincy is pretty thick w loaded logging trucks.

This is a thought experiment on my part so feel free to ignore part or all of it but it cherry picks some of the better stuff on the SC.

I'm suggesting you start in Klamath Falls,Or. which has a Amtrack station so you have a way to get there. Head north and get on the SC. You'll be about a 100 miles south of Crater Lake. Stay on the SC until you get to Goverment Camp/Mt. Hood (detour to take in Makenzie Pass as previously noted) . Then head east to the coast and start your Pacific Coast section of your trip. Ride south to SF as planned and pick up the WE and follow that back to the SC also as per you original plan. But instead of going north, go south on the SC. You'll go thru Yosemite, Giant Sequoia , & Kings Canyon. From there you can stay on route to Lake Isabella.

You're fairly close to Bakersfield there so that might be the place to end your trip. It's a big enough town that you should be able to arrange your transport home. If you have the time you can keep going but the route gets pretty scrubby for the next  couple of hundred miles.

Food for thought.