The Top 100 USA Climbs: A Long and Winding (but very fun) Road
by Bruce Pauly
Kind of an accidental start! I happened to be browsing in a bike shop one day with my son Dale. He noticed the first edition of John Summerson‘s Complete Guide to Climbing (By Bicycle) book (2007), and showed it to me. I flipped through it and was instantly fascinated by the various lists of US climbs and their descriptions. I bought the book; pretty much the rest was history!
Soon thereafter I made a spreadsheet of Summerson’s Top 100 US climbs, and I checked off those that I could remember having done during 30 years or so of road cycling, including SuperTour trips in the western US and Everest Challenges in the Owens Valley. Only about 80 climbs to go, and I began to arrange them into trips! Also at that point I had just completed a career change to geology academia, which meant summers off, so completing the project seemed vaguely possible, and certainly worth giving it a try.
I realized pretty quickly that I needed someone to do this project with me, for company and safety while riding, but also for logistical things like sharing travel expenses, trip planning, etc. Also this person would need to love climbing and be crazy enough to take on and want to complete the project in the first place. I asked longtime cycling buddy Steve Correll (Tucson, AZ), who was in the process of retiring, and he agreed to it right away! He made his own Summerson Top 100 climbs spreadsheet, so that we could compare lists and figure out which climbs one of us had done but not the other, so that we could go after those early on, to become synchronized.
First trip, New Mexico and Arizona: I flew to Tucson with my coupled travel bike. We rode Sandia Crest and Cloudcroft at Albuquerque, then closer to Tucson, Mt. Graham, Kitt Peak, and of course Mt. Lemmon.
Let the fun begin! At Tucson, 2011. Steve on left, Bruce on the right.
San Bernardino Mountains trip. Steve and his bike took Amtrak from Tucson to LA, they both arrived, but 8 hours late in the middle of the night. We rode Mt. Baldy, 39-Crystal Lake, etc.
Bakersfield trip. We rode many of the southern Sierra west side climbs, including mighty Sherman Pass from Kernville. We also made contact with local climber Sam Ames (mentioned by Summerson), attempting to arrange for an escort through the first couple miles of… private property… The Bear, a huge climb from the tiny town of Arvin. No luck, Sam didn’t want to jeopardize his relationship with the property owners.
Summerson’s second edition book appeared later in 2013, featuring a significant number of additions and subtractions to his first edition Top 100 list. I was in favor of revising our lists and plans, but Steve wasn’t… “moving goalposts, we’ll never finish!”. We devised a compromise, agreeing on a ‘one year to completion rolling frozen list’ scheme.
Bishop, more SoCal trips. Death Valley trip. Melinda joined us!
Melinda and Steve at Dante’s View, Death Valley.
Melinda and Steve’s Subaru fitted with a rack for three bikes… we had to be really
careful driving through dips!
Somewhere in Death Valley.
Ah, the geology! Zabriske Point.
Metamorphosed sedimentary rocks sliding down a huge alluvial fan…yay!!
SoCal, Southern Sierra (west side) trips. Vegas, Southern Utah trips.
Boise Trip. Steve and I both flew to Boise in early summer. We rented a car at the airport for a memorable ten-day trip with many climbs.
On the way up Mt. Harrison, ID.
East 14 Summit, WY.
Alternate 14, WY. We’re at the right place!
Last night back at Boise, packing up.
My last photo of Steve. Motel 6, Boise Airport.
A few days after the Boise trip, Steve died suddenly and unexpectedly in his sleep at home in Tucson. This was a sad, painful, and major setback for me, but nothing in comparison to Melinda’s suffering.
SLC Trip. Steve and I had already scheduled, planned and booked lodgings for our next trip later that summer to Salt Lake City. I wasn’t yet ready to continue climb-tripping without Steve. Luckily another friend, Bruce Eisner from South Lake Tahoe, met me at SLC for several big climbs, including fearsome Powder Mountain.
Only two climbs in 2016, both trips solo, and both huge top 10 climbs.
The Bear (Arvin, CA). Two miles of trespassing on private land required immediately at the start, but listed and described as climb #5 by Summerson. After much debate I decided I needed to go for it on a weekday morning at 6:30 am. Saw no one and completed the climb. I didn’t dare u-turn and descend, instead did a big counter-clockwise loop ride back to Arvin via Tehachapi. First of many climbs carrying Steve’s ashes up a climb for spreading at the top.
Mt. Washington (NH). Legendary, and ranked #1 by Summerson at the time (before the inclusion of Mauna Kea’s dirt section and paving of upper Pike’s Peak). Highly enjoyable climb, not only because it was #1, but also because it was a hillclimb race!
Mt. Washington: Ready to go; good weather!! Start area and bottom of the climb in the
Mass start - exciting!!
Made it! You get to keep the official Mt. Washington blanket.
View from the top.
On the Rock Pile…
At some point, I believe in 2017, I became aware of the PJAMM website and its wonderful searchable and sortable database of top climbs around the world. PJAMM also created a massive shakeup for my project in a couple big ways. The roster of Top 100 USA climbs and their rankings changed significantly due to standardization with the use of the (European) FEITS climb-ranking index, and several significant dirt climbs (Mauna Kea, Nate Harrison Grade, Sandia Crest Backside, Whitaker Forest, and Bear Creek Rd.) were now part of the Top 100 (mighty Mt. Washington, NH, with its mile-long hardpack dirt road segment, had always been in Summerson’s list). Bottom line, about 15 of my previously completed climbs were replaced by new climbs which I had to go do… the goal posts shifted in a big way!
Hurricane Ridge Trip. The most difficult climb in the Pacific Northwest. Steve and Melinda’s Vancouver-Tucson cycling buddy Bruce Stenning joined me for this ride
Climbing Hurricane Ridge, WA, with Bruce Stenning.
Top of Hurricane Ridge, with Bruce Stenning and Steve’s ashes.
SoCal (Nate Harrison Grade, dirt)
Tucson (Thanksgiving visit Melinda)
Thanksgiving 2017: With Melinda at LeBuzz Café, foot of Mt. Lemmon, Tucson.
Maui trip, December 2017, with daughter Claire & son-in-law Mandla. Did all the Top 100-ranked Maui climbs. A tough-weather day for Haleakala, but I got it done.
Top of Haleakala, with Claire! Full disclosure: Claire and Mandla drove me back
down in the rental car… freezing fog.
Big Island trip. Had my cross bike’s road and gravel wheels. Did all the Top 100-ranked ranked Big Island climbs. Main event was Mauna Kea, by now ranked #1 by PJAMM (including the substantial dirt section). This climb is like no other, and certainly deserving of the #1 rank! 42.5 mi and 13755’ from Hilo. 4.6 miles of gravel and loose cinders, beginning at mile 34.2 (elev. 9400’, 10-12% avg.). 42% atmospheric oxygen decrease from base to summit. Absolutely monstrous.
Back down in Hilo for breakfast. Mauna Kea in the distance (literally!), with a snow
Back up to the saddle, where I’d left the rental car at dawn. I’ve just taken a nap
and swapped from road wheels with 28 mm tires to gravel wheels with 44 mm
tires. Hopefully ready for the famous cinders!
Here we go.
Up to the task! Was able to ride the entire cinder section! Main problem was
fighting the tendency to slide inward (rear wheel especially) in each hairpin turn,
where the cinders were golf-ball sized, deep, and loose. 44mm tires just barely
Back on pavement and almost got it… what a sight to round the last hairpin and
finally approach the telescopes!
YEAH!! But, shadows were lengthening, it was cooling down, and I still had to
descend the cinders. Made it down to the saddle and the rental car right at dusk.
Phew. LLLLong day!
Only one climb in 2019: remote Westguard Pass East, east of Big Pine, CA.
Pandemic - no progress.
Fully-retired in Fall, 2020, so back onto the project with more time and incentive than ever before. Started with Onyx Summit near San Bernardino, CA. Done in SoCal at last, many fun trips to all those nice big climbs!
Onyx Summit: Long and pretty SoCal climb.
Colorado trip. 12 climbs! Cycling buddy Jennie Hamiter was on board for Trail Ridge, Lefthand Canyon-Brainard Lake, Pike’s Peak, and Mt. Evans.
Jennie just arrived in CO yesterday… Today we’re heading for Estes Park and
Trail Ridge Rd.!! No problem!
Roadside near Brainard Lake (Left-hand Canyon - Brainard Lake). It didn’t seem to mind us at all as we stared and took pictures.
We made it up Pikes!
Bighorn Sheep near the top of Mt. Evans.
Another Fourteener bites the dust!
Southern Utah, Albuquerque, NM. Solo trip. Main event: Sandia Crest Backside, which was difficult, rocky dirt (44 mm tires on the cross bike).
Cold Springs Summit (central Sierra, CA). Solo trip. I had been saving this for the 100th climb, but I realized that would probably occur in Fall, 2022. So I decided on Hwy. 33 - Pine Mountain Summit (Ojai, CA) for the finale in favor of likely nicer weather.
Best pie on the planet!
‘Froze’ my Top 100 list as of 31-Oct-21. I had until Oct. 31, 2022 to complete my list, or else the Nov. 1, 2022 PJAMM list would become my new list for the next year. Also made the decision that I would substitute The Bear (CA, rode in 2016, not on PJAMM’s current list) for Mt. Equinox (VT, #20 on PJAMM’s list, but the road is currently indefinitely closed to cyclists).
Visalia, CA trip. Whitaker Forest and Bear Creek Rd. (central Sierra); another couple of dirt rides that were recently added to the list. Super-scenic, in spite of forest fire burn zones.
USA Cross-Country Driving-Cycling Trip
1. Montana: Beartooth Pass North. Certainly one of the most beautiful climbs I’ve ever done!
Stupendous view north from near the summit of super-scenic Beartooth Pass
North. The ‘beartooth’ is visible in the right-rear of the photo.
With Steve at the summit.
Then I continued SE through Wyoming (visited Yellowstone) into Colorado for some nice Rockies riding in the Boulder area. Then onward to Chicago.
2. Baseball! A buddy of mine, Bill Wagman from Davis, CA met me at Chicago. I took a break from the cycling and we went to three minor-league and one major-league baseball games in the Midwest, where I had never been. Lots of fun times! I got to see Appleton, WI, Chicago, IL, Fort Wayne, IN, and Columbus, OH. Nice places!
3. Onward to New England: Mt. Ascutney (VT), Whiteface Mountain (NY), Burke Mountain (VT), Mt. Mansfield (VT). Getting close, 97 climbs now done!
Steve and I were always on the lookout for other cyclists that might have been sharing our mission. Whenever we saw other cyclists on climbs who looked like they might be climbers, we would draw lots to see whose job it would be to ask them. There was never success, and at some point we (later I) kind of gave up trying. Then I saw a rider at the base of Mt. Ascutney, VT. What the heck, I asked him, and he turned out to be Bruce Hamilton, and Stacy Topping pulled up a few moments later. I recognized them from various climb pages on the PJAMM website; they’re working on the Top 100 as well! We rode Mt. Ascutney together, and a few days later, the Race To the Top of Vermont (Mt. Mansfield). And they put me in touch with the folks at PJAMM, just in time for completion of my project! What a wonderful chance meet up!
Base of Mt. Ascutney, VT. Who are these folks!!
Whteface Mtn., Lake Placid, NY. Riding in the rain… let’s hear if for disc brakes!
Ready to Race To the Top of Vermont (on gravel!!)
We all made it up.
Recovery is important.
4. Next I headed west back to Colorado. Jennie Hamiter joined me at Denver for various CO rides, including Top 100 climbs Slumgullion Pass and East Portal Rd.; 99 climbs done!
98th climb: beautiful Slumgullion Pass, CO
STEEP East Portal, Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP, CO. 99th climb!!
Oct. 28, 2022. The 100th Top 100 Climb: Hwy. 33 - Pine Mountain Summit, from Ojai, CA. The grand finale at long last! And just in the nick of time, only 3 days before the list-reset deadline on Oct. 31, phew. Melinda, Jennie and Sam Lyons (PJAMM) were present for this one. It’s actually a long, scenic climb, fitting for my 100th, and much more difficult than indicated by it’s #98 rank.
Sam Lyons and Jennie Hamiter climbing Hwy. 33 - Pine Mountain Summit.
Beautiful view west from Hwy. 33, above Ojai via Sespe Gorge. The furthest
ridge in the distance is Santa Cruz Island, part of Channel Islands National Park.
Matching jerseys with Melinda at the Pine Mountain Inn.
Pine Mountain Summit. The climbing continues steeply to the right (east) from
here on a recently-paved Forest Service road to the top of the listed climb just
beyond Reyes Peak Campground.
Getting close to the summit, and sporting my new custom PJAMM Top 100
Climbs jersey (thank you Sam Lyons)!!
Reaching the top!!
At the top. Congratulations card and the photo of Steve both courtesy of Melinda.
Steve finishing the climb as well.
I loved all the road trips, particularly when some comfortable portion of them involved winging it for things like lodging and meals and route-planning. Exciting! Going to and seeing the interesting places and meeting the interesting people where the climbs happened to be was a great way to see the USA!
I like trains, but Steve LOVED trains. He also liked to arrange the nights’ lodgings while I drove. After a couple trips I began to notice that more often than not we spent the night in a town featuring heavy and noisy railroad operations… WooHoo?
Our favorite breakfast spot was Denny’s, especially if located near a Motel 6 in a railroading town; that would be Steve’s ultimate lodging score! We would wander into Denny’s already dressed in the day’s cycling kit, just as a means of starting conversations with people who noticed us. We would explain what we were doing, then revel in the wide range of responses. Eventually they would ask where we were going today, where were we yesterday, and where will we be tomorrow… the conversation was off and running! Our breakfast Plan B was always a bakery; Steve could pound more pastry items at a single sitting than anyone I’ve ever known, yet he always seemed so skinny!
Checking off the climbs was important. But much more important was the time spent doing the actual climbing, and all of the traveling, and sharing all of those experiences with Steve and/or other friends.
I’ve been very fortunate during the time span of this project to have unwavering desire and patience, good health, available time and resources, and lots of good luck. Equally important has been to also have the support and involvement of friends and family along the way. THANKS!