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SECRET SPOTS OF THE WEST : SIERRA VISTA SCENIC BYWAY

Forest loop is blissfully lonely

The 70-mile drive, close to Yosemite, winds its way to remote woods, lakes and peaks.

August 17, 2008|Mary Forgione | Times Staff Writer

SECRET SPOTS OF THE WEST

We asked you to nominate your favorite vacation places in the West -- your travel touchstones, so to speak -- and you came back with a satchel full of suggestions. We sifted and sorted and chose six to explore for ourselves. Marvelous or mundane? You be the judge.

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"In most tourists' rush to get to Yosemite National Park, they overlook this beautiful drive," writes reader Susanne Waite of Coarsegold, Calif., in nominating Sierra Vista Scenic Byway.

THE SETTING

There's no way you've ever been on the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway because, quite frankly, no one has. OK, maybe Susanne. And the family of four whom I saw only once (and fleetingly, as if they were on the lam from the Blair Witch) during this six-hour, deep-forest massage in the western Sierra.

So where is this drive? The seasonal loop swings within 20 miles of the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park -- which, admittedly, has more spectacular natural formations -- but you feel eons away from the hordes at Half Dome.

The route starts on Forest Road 81 (a.k.a. Minarets Road) in the Sierra National Forest and continues on Forest Road 7 (a.k.a. Beasore Road), winding past hillside oaks at low elevation and, higher up, pine trees and granite boulders. We started near North Fork, which is the last place to find food, gas, beer, water -- and someone to talk to.

THE VIBE

My husband, Tom, and I began the trip at the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau in Oakhurst on California 41 in search of a map of the "scenic byway," a designation bestowed by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Even with the handout map, I needed a full-time navigator (GPS users may fare better) to keep me on course. Before starting the official loop, we took a recommended five-mile detour to the Exact Geographical Center of California. It was just a metal marker on a dusty chaparral hillside, but there's something strangely alluring about standing on the precise point where the state of California would balance on the head of a pin.

We backtracked to start at the official one-day route. The first stop was an overlook of Redinger Lake, a fat ribbon of blue on the San Joaquin River.

The second stop was my favorite: Jesse Ross Cabin, which was built in the late 1860s and once included an apple orchard. It's an easy walk to the little log cabin whose interior walls were covered in peeling pages of the San Francisco Chronicle from the 1930s -- early wallpaper or insulation?

We climbed to about 6,500 feet and stopped at gray speckled Arch Rock. But when we got back on the road, I made another realization: those little dashes on the map turned out to be a narrow dirt track, a.k.a. Forest Road 7.

The next few stops -- vast Jackass Meadow and granite spheres above Portuguese Overlook -- were pretty, but I was fretting about the rough road and the waning light.

That must be why I missed Globe Rock, which the brochure describes as a "geographical oddity" and whose picture resembles a lumpy rock ball of indeterminate size.

By the end, we had covered 70 of the sweetest but slowest miles we'd ever driven without being in a SigAlert.

OVERALL

So many trees, so little time. We ran out of daylight hours to continue on to the Nelder Grove of giant sequoias or Bass Lake. And, truth be told, the hiker in me got antsy to get out from behind the wheel and just start walking through some of the stunning scenery.

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Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau, 41969 Highway 41, Oakhurst, Calif.; (559) 683-4636. For a map of the byway, go to www.byways.org.

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