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Destination: California

The Down Side of Kings Canyon : Mountain biking: into ravines, up scenic highways in the Sierras

June 01, 1997|RICHARD ROBINSON | Robinson is a teacher and freelance writer based in Fresno

GRANT GROVE, Calif. — We had just topped out at 6,800 feet and begun our long descent into what the National Park Service identifies as the deepest canyon in North America outside of Mexico. We knew our knobbies (mountain bikes) would be groaning down some steep stretches of asphalt, but we hadn't really anticipated the intensity. My twin brother, Bob, wanted to take it slow heading down, so he sat up to get the most wind resistance. I, on the other hand, went into a downhill skier's tuck that shot me ahead of him like a bullet . . . or was it a stone, free falling down a ravine?

At first, even though it was steep, the road curved gently through rolling hills of shady coniferous forest. Then we hit the ridgeline, emerging out of the forest and onto open semiarid terrain. A wall of rock to one side and just the tops of trees and shrubs to the other hinted at the drop-off beyond the road's shoulder. The road steepened and tightened its curves.

Tires humming. Grip the brakes hard and lean right. Hope no cars are coming. Quick glance behind. Brake again and lean left. Curve after curve. Our legs weren't pumping, but our adrenaline sure was.

We began this 15-mile screamer only three miles after the start of the ride. It dropped us nearly 4,000 feet down to Boyden Cavern, the lowest point of our trip.

On our two-day ride down the canyon and back up again, we'd pass through Sequoia National Forest, traveling mostly east, reenter Kings Canyon National Park at Cedar Grove and end up at the aptly named Roads End. We would then turn around and bike up the hill again. Seventy-one miles of challenging California Highway 180 lay ahead. (We were lucky that road conditions were excellent last year. This winter, however, flooding damaged Highway 180, and some sections of it will be closed to cars and bicycles for construction at least through June, and possibly into July.)

My brother was on my daughter's bike rather than his own familiar and slightly larger bicycle because this ride had been kind of a last-minute lark.

After backpacking and cross-country skiing for about two decades, my brother, a Sacramento-based freelance writer and photographer, and I, a teacher from Fresno, wanted to expand our outdoor adventuring to include mountain biking. We had just returned to my house from a failed attempt at cross-country skiing the Sierra High Route across Sequoia National Park. We were sore and a little bit blistered so, naturally, the idea of a grueling, adrenaline-inducing bicycle ride popped into our heads. Perhaps we felt driven to master a challenge after the disappointment of our skiing adventure. We had thought about biking Kings Canyon for years. No matter that Bob didn't have his bike along. We borrowed my teenage daughter's and set off on the one hour's drive by car to the starting point of our bike ride at Grant Grove.

On another lark, a few years earlier, we had backpacked most of this stretch of road, so we were, at least, familiar with the terrain. That was during the winter when the road is closed to traffic--due not to snow, but to rock slides that are prompted by freezing water that expands and cracks rock, dropping boulders down onto the roadway. This time, however, we'd be competing for space with automotive monsters, including RVs with wide, protruding rearview mirrors that can be lethal to bike riders.

We took off from the Grant Grove visitor center. Our first challenge was a steady 300-foot climb, taking us to Cherry Gap pass--at an elevation of 6,800 feet, the highest point of our ride. Near Cherry Gap, we saw a biker with loaded front and back panniers. "You're almost there!" he yelled at us in encouragement, not knowing we had just set off on our trip.

Most of our ride would actually take place in Sequoia National Forest, outside Kings Canyon park. Kings Canyon National Park was put together by joining several different segments of land at different times. On a map, then, the Grant Grove area, with its towering sequoia trees, stands out like a thumb from the rest of the park. Therefore part of the ride from the "thumb" to the "hand" of the national park has to occur outside park boundaries.

From Cherry Gap to Boyden Cavern and the south fork of Kings River there are only occasional inclines to let the brakes cool. Most of the way there is little or no shoulder, so we had to be particularly cautious of traffic. Our pace at this point was 10 miles in about 20 minutes, weaving through hairpin curves. Our first stop was at Junction Viewpoint, where we saw, looking from bottom to top, the juncture of the south and middle forks of the Kings River; and Spanish Mountain, at 10,051 feet the highest point in the area and the high point from which geologists measure the depth of the canyon.

We also were looking down on Kings Canyon Lodge, the only motel or hotel along our way, situated next to Ten Mile Creek on Barton Flat.

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