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Motorcycle Heaven on Sonora Pass

July 29, 2011

If there is a more perfect motorcycle route in California than the Sonora Pass Road, Arlie Ray Blacksheer and Sarah Kazmark can’t think of many, if any at all.

“We come up here for the views all the time,” said Blacksheer, a sales consultant at California BMW in Mountain View (Bay Area).

As he spoke, he held a pair of high-powered binoculars to his eyes, inspecting a rock face near the summit on the western side of the pass.

“The water is seeping right through the rocks!”

To his left, a torrent of water crashed through the snow from a waterfall above, creating a tunnel through the snowpack before emerging a hundred yards further on.

He handed the binoculars to his riding partner, Sarah Kazmark of Palo Alto.

“This makes me feel like I’m on top of the world.”

Certainly it would make anyone who rides a bike feel like he or she is on top of the world. And that’s not just about the views.

The road, S.R. 108, is a twisty-turny, smooth carpet of asphalt that connects Bridgeport on the East Side to Sonora on the western slope.

Many first-time riders to the Eastern Sierra head right for Tioga Pass and Yosemite National Park. But many veterans of motorcycle riding around here opt out of the Tioga Road.

First, the road isn’t all that great. It is frequently choppy owing to the mind-blowing traffic and temperature extremes. It has comparatively few twists – certainly nothing like the hairpin-laden Sonora Pass Road. It offers few skill challenges for veteran motorcyclists, and it costs money, too.
But the Sonora Pass Road has none of those kinds of downers.

Sonora Pass itself is at 9,624 feet. It is the second-highest highway pass in the Sierra Nevada, lower by just 321 feet than Tioga Pass to the south.

Blacksheer and Kazmark took the west-to-east route, which is preferred by many.

The City of Sonora is hot-hot-hot in the summer, but offers a wide array of restaurants and spots to gear up with water, snacks and so on. Escaping the heat is always welcome on a motorcycle, what with no air conditioning and the sun bearing down on leather-clad backs.

Once past Sonora, the road smoothes out and starts its ascent, offering lovely turns, perfect asphalt and relatively light traffic, even on the summer weekends. The temperature begins to drop, too – a welcome relief from the western foothills.

One of the reasons there is little traffic is that when the road gets closer to the pass, the hairpin turns and the steepness (up to 26 percent in some places), make taking a large RV or truck impossible.

But for a motorcyclist, the hairpins are perfect tests of machine and skill. The hairpins require a skill level that often is thrilling, both uphill and downhill. There are plenty of places to pull of the road.

There is, for example, Kennedy Meadows – a lovely flat that features a small store, with the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River running nearby.

After Kennedy Meadows, the fun really begins.

Blacksheer and Kazmark rode BMW 1200-cc touring bikes, beautiful machines that are almost built specifically for Sonora Pass.

One of the great advantages of BMWs is that they are quiet. They wisp through the woods rather than blat-blat-through them. This allows the knowledgeable traveler to think a little about what is in front of his or her face.

Ever see the great movie, “For Whom The Bell Tolls?”

It’s the movie version of the Hemingway novel and takes place in the mountains of Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

It wasn’t Spain.

It was set among the boulders and granite of Sonora Pass. It’s fun to imagine Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, Technicolor cameras, lights and action.

(The film became the top box-office hit of 1943, grossing $11 million. It was also nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning one.)

By following Blacksheer and Kazmark over the pass, it’s almost inconceivable that anyone even considered this a pass at all.

The first documented immigrant traverse of Sonora Pass appears to have been in the late summer of 1852 by a wagon train known as the Clark-Skidmore Company.

Subsequently, merchant interests in the communities of Sonora and Columbia promoted the route to California-bound immigrants, not always with happy results when immigrants discovered how difficult it was.

With the discovery of deposits and development of silver and gold mining east of the Sierra Nevada in the beginning of the 1860s, merchant interests in the counties on both sides of the pass pushed for development of a road that would enable them to improve transportation and trade. Surveying for a road through Sonora Pass began in 1863 and the road was in use by 1865.

In the 1880s the California and Nevada Railroad and its predecessor, the California and Mount Diablo Railroad, proposed to run a narrow gauge railroad over Sonora Pass with a line running from Emeryville - Stockton and then connecting with the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in Utah. The railroad never built track beyond the Bay Area.

But S.R. 108 was, in fact, built. That’s a lucky thing for the motorcyclists of California, such as Blacksheer and Kazmark.

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