YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — The first snows have dusted 10,000-foot Tioga Pass and you can feel the nip of fall in the air. The hectic heavy summer travel is over and the pace has slowed, making it a nice time of year to take a bike ride in this majestic national park.
The oaks and dogwood are turning color and the leaves are falling into the still, black water of the river pools. It's been dry this summer in the Sierra Nevada, so the waterfalls are only wisps of their spring grandeur.
For years bicycling in Yosemite Valley has been popular, but for too long the only places to ride were the narrow, heavily traveled roads, and that could be downright dangerous. But no more.
The National Park Service has built a network of exclusive, paved bike-ways that loop eight miles through the most picturesque parts of the valley. These two-lane bike paths, with yellow center line and miniature stop signs at busy intersections, connect Yosemite Lodge, Yosemite Village, Curry Village, Happy Isles and Mirror Lake, all in the east end of the valley.
Completion of another 1.5 miles of bike-way between the chapel and Stoneman Meadow is in the planning stages and, within the next few years, the paved bike paths will be extended another seven miles into the west end of the valley, looping past El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls, park officials say.
The bike paths, some paralleling the roads, others taking off into the woods away from motor traffic, give park visitors a chance to escape their cars and give their tired feet a rest.
The Yosemite Park and Curry Co. has 350 sturdy if heavily used bikes to rent for $2.50 an hour or $10 a day. They rent only one model, a single-speed with balloon tires and coaster brakes. But it comes in various sizes and a baby seat can be fitted over the rear wheel to take along youngsters.
The bikes can be rented at two locations, Curry Village and Yosemite Lodge, between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily. No bikes can be kept out overnight. Otherwise there is no limit on where you can go or how long you stay out.
From the lodge you can pedal to Mirror Lake or Happy Isles and back in a morning, or if you pack a lunch you can spend the whole day, stopping in the meadows, wading in the river and exploring. In addition to the loops, cross-valley paths and narrow trail bridges provide shortcuts if you are in a hurry to get someplace.
For those who want to bike down into the west end of the valley, rangers have some words of caution. It has no bike trails yet. And once you start on this five-mile ride on the public road, you are committed. You can't turn back.
This road system is one-way only, looping down the north side of the valley to the El Capitan crossover and back up the south side.
"We require that when bike riders are on the roads they follow the same traffic laws as motorists," said ranger Donald Fox. "We've had people ride down a ways, get tired and decide to come back, riding against the traffic. Too often they get into trouble when traffic is heavy. We've had people get sideswiped, even get hit head-on by a car."
The Long Hauls
For most visitors, a morning ride from Yosemite Village up to Happy Isles or Mirror Lake--which also dried up this summer--is a good workout, but for hearty folks who like lots of exercise and bring their own bikes, Yosemite offers some real challenges.
Veteran bicyclist Nic Fiore, director of Yosemite's Badger Pass Ski School for 35 years, sometimes rides 50 miles a day, cycling from the valley to Glacier Point or Wawona, climbing and descending 2,000 to 3,000 feet in the process.
Fiore, who each year rides from the valley 95 miles up over Tioga Pass and down the east flank of the Sierra Nevada to Mammoth, cautions: "To take longer rides up here, you must be in top shape and your equipment must be, too. Check everything before you leave to make sure it's in good working order."
Fiore warned that riding on the narrow, two-lane roads that twist up through the mountain passes can be dangerous. Wearing a helmet "is a must" and cyclists should hoist warning flags to make themselves as visible as possible, he said.
For more information and reservations, write to Yosemite Park and Curry Co., 5410 E. Home Ave., Fresno, Calif. 93727, or phone the autumn hot line, (209) 252-2828.