Onion Valley Rd Bike Climb - PJAMM Cycling

14.3
FIETS
12.9 mi
DISTANCE
5,275 ft
GAINED
7.8 %
AVG. GRADE

FULL CLIMB STATS

Photos By: Maxfield Bonta

INTRO

Onion Valley Road is rated the most difficult bike climb in California. This magnificent climb is located in the the heart of the Owens Valley which, with a base elevation of 4,500' and surrounded by multiple 14,000', peaks is one of the deepest valleys in the U.S. The Owens Valley is a mecca for road bike climbing and boasts the greatest concentration of Top 100 Climbs of any other area in the country. This bike climb is worth the trip to its relatively remote location.
The gradient profile tells the tale - this is a challenging climb along a relatively steady 8% grade.  65% (8.4 miles) is at 5-10% and 17% (2.2 miles) is 10-15%.  The steepest quarter mile is 14.7% and steepest mile 11%. 

See more details and tools regarding this climb's grade via the “Profile Tool” button above.
Roadway:  The roadway is in good shape except for the annoying expansion joints (linear ruts) across the road every 10 yards or so that are very noticeable on the descent. 

Traffic:  Milnimal.

Parking:  There is no problems finding parking in Independence or anywhere else along the climb route.  We have commonly parked at the start of the climb on West Market Street  (turns to Onion Valley at the west end of town)- MapStreet View
Provisions;  There is no place for food or water anywhere on the climb.  Stock up in Independence where the climb begins. 

Weather;  During the summer, you are unlikely to need more than a jersey.  In the spring and fall, you can encounter very cold and windy conditions along the climb.  Consult the PJAMM weather app for the forecast at the top of the climb before you begin and select your clothing accordingly. 
Before heading out on any cycling adventure check out our Things to Bring on a Cycling Trip and use our interactive check list to ensure you don't forget anything.
Lodging:  We have ridden seven times in the Owens Valley and have always used Bishop as our home base.  We also have stayed in Lone Pine when climbing Whitney Portal, Horseshoe Meadows, and sometimes for our Onion Valley climb. 

Altitude training:  If you're interested acclimating to altitude, the best place in the Owens Valley is the Glacier Lodge out of Big Pine 35 miles north of the start of the Onion Valley Climb (Map; Google Map + Reviews). You could also consider Rock Creek Lakes Resort at the north end of the valley 74 miles from the Onion Valley start, but it is not as centrally located to the 10 HC climbs in Owens Valley (MapGoogle Map + Reviews) - it is not as rustic as Glacier Lodge, but it is more pricey. 

See Owens Valley climb area page for 10 area HC climb, or, AllTrials Kearsage Trail from bike climb finish. 


ROUTE MAP

MEMBER RATING

Difficulty: Strenuous
3.6
Road
4.2
Traffic
4.2
Scenery

CURRENT WEATHER

NEARBY CLIMBS (0) RADIAL PROXIMITY

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MEMBER REVIEWS & COMMENTS

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Jun 5, 2021
difficulty: Extreme
scenery: 4
traffic: 5
road: 3
Jun 5, 2021
scenery: 4
traffic: 5
road: 3
Onion Valley Road is a great climb if you like steady grades and lots of scenery. Every time I do it, I think I'm not going to make it during the middle part that is quite steep but then it lets up just enough to keep going. This is tougher than any Tour de France climb I have done (because of the altitude) and can make for a challenging day when paired with Whitney Portal and especially Horseshoe Meadows. Is it harder than White Mountain or Horseshoe Meadows? It depends on your personal preferences; both those other climbs have more variable grades so they are shallower and steeper. OVR is an unrelenting grind for two hours (well, at least for an old man at 190 watts :).
Jun 2, 2021
difficulty: Strenuous
scenery: 4
traffic: 3
road: 4
Jun 2, 2021
scenery: 4
traffic: 3
road: 4
Coming from sea level this was a pretty tough climb. The 9% grade is fairly constant, complicated by the elevation. Temps at the bottom were about 80 degrees but cool enough at the top that vest/arm warmers were needed for the ride down. Hydration is key given the lack of cover so lots of sunscreen is a must.
May 31, 2021
difficulty: Extreme
scenery: 5
traffic: 5
road: 4
May 31, 2021
scenery: 5
traffic: 5
road: 4
Climbed Onion Valley Rd today (5/31/21). I started at 7 am to avoid the heat. The climb is definitely tough but with good pacing, it is management. I stayed at Independence which is very convenient. The views are awesome which helps motivate a solo rider like me.
May 30, 2021
difficulty: Challenging
scenery: 4
traffic: 4
road: 3
May 30, 2021
scenery: 4
traffic: 4
road: 3
Great scenery throughout. Cars weren’t an issue. I would divide this climb into three segments... first segment 1-3 miles easy warmup, second segment 3-8 miles HARD, third segment 8-13 miles much easier than the second segment with a few steeper section but pretty consistent grade. Pavement has cracks across the road for almost the entire 13 miles every 30 yards. It is the worst around 7 miles in which you definitely feel on the descent. This is NOT the hardest climb in California but if people want to think that it is than that is all good!
Apr 30, 2021
difficulty: Strenuous
scenery: 4
traffic: 4
road: 4
Apr 30, 2021
scenery: 4
traffic: 4
road: 4
Onion Valley is definitely among the harder climbs in the US, and also compares well to some of the tougher French climbs. Once the gradient kicks in, it never really lets up. At least it's constantly steep, so you can get into a rhythm!
ROUTE MAP
PROFILE TOOL

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CLIMB SUMMARY

Cycling Onion Valley Road: The highest ranked road bike climb in California

Ride 12.9 miles to 9,180’ gaining 5,388’ at 7.7%

A California Top 10 Most Epic Climb.

Climb summary by PJAMM’s John Johnson.

“Onion Valley is an amazing climb, perhaps the most difficult in California and is among the most difficult and spectacular in the world.  You will likely understand the beauty of the eastern Sierra Nevada at its starting point.  Enjoy the first few miles through the boulder field (and the views of the wall of mountains in front of you) as they are just about the only break you will get on this hill.  As you ascend the grade generally increases with the last ten miles averaging over 8%.  Just under 3 miles in you encounter steeper grade as the roadway begins to flow through multiple S curves.  With more solid grade comes a switchback to the right as the climbing gets down to serious business and a more alpine feel.  More switchbacks are encountered as you climb the ridge along solid grade and over several more cattle guards.

The long ramps and solid grade continue as you ride along the ridge of the massive Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Approximately halfway through the ascent a very dramatic section of stacked switchbacks with views and exposure must be negotiated which may be the visual highlight of the ascent.  As you ride higher a view stately pines are encountered and you can often hear (but not see) a rushing creek in the large defile to your south.  The views of massive Owens Valley here are amazing as you ride through multiple switchbacks and mostly steady grade over this stretch of climbing.  After this section several graceful S curves take you into an upper canyon and further up the wall with snow-capped mountain views most of the year.  A straight section due west then carries you toward the summit over still solid grade.  The grade only eases just before the summit and the hill ends at a parking area for hikers (the end is considered where the road splits at the beginning of the upper parking area - sign 9200 feet) in an alpine bowl.  The pavement continues for a short distance beyond this lower parking area and you will likely always find hikers at the summit.  Onion Valley is one of those relatively rare hills where you may rue the end of the climb.

Some report that due to the relatively steady grade and scenery they float up the road and due not consider the climb super difficult.  Just keep in mind this is a long and steep hill so go prepared.  The descent is hair-raising and perhaps the top overall downhill in the United States.  Onion Valley is significantly longer and almost as steep as Alp d’Huez, steeper and longer than the Tourmalet and the Galibier, and longer and as steep as the Madeleine, all famed French climbs that are regularly included in the Tour de France and considered among the most difficult used in that Tour…” (This quote is presented with the approval of John Summerson, from his book, The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike), 2nd Edition, pg. 138.)

Start climb in Independence, CA.

Onion Valley Road is rated as the most difficult bike climb in California (CA Top 10), #5 in the United States (US Top 10), and #57 in the world (see PJAMM Home Page for Top 100 World list) , with a Fiets Index score of 14.5.

Start

This magnificent climb is located in the heart of Owens Valley, which, with a base elevation of 4,500' and surrounded by multiple 14,000' peaks, is one of the deepest valleys in the U.S.  Owens Valley is a graben “down dropped” block of land situated between two vertical faults, creating the unparalleled extended steep grades along the valley’s eastern border with the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Owens Valley is a mecca for road bike climbing and boasts the greatest concentration of Top 100 Climbs of any area in the country.  For more information on other rides in the area, check out our Owens Valley Climb Area Page.  

Cycling near the top of Onion Valley Road, Owens Valley CA

The steepest ¼ mile is 15% and begins ½ mile past this sign.

Cycling near the top of Onion Valley Road, Owens Valley CA

Eastern Sierra Mountains -- extremely steep.

The 13 mile climb averages nearly 8%, and I did not see my Garmin go below 7% over the last eight miles.  And lets just say that was looking at it (read: down) a lot!  The grade is very steady at 8-9% with some segments reaching 12% and others 7% over the last half of the climb -- that, coupled with altitude, makes this a very challenging bike climb.

     View of Horseshoe Meadows Road from Onion Valley Road

 Horseshoe Valley Road to the left as we begin the climb.

When to Climb Onion Valley Road by Bike:  Well, more like when not to do the climb -- we are too close to Death Valley to be doing anything in the Owens Valley in the summer.  OK, honestly, we have done rides in and near Death Valley in the summer a lot, but do not recommend it.  The average high temperatures for the summer time frame are 92° in June, 98° in July, and 96° in  August.  We suggest May or September, as the months just before or after could put you into a snowstorm as we climb towards the top of this dead-end climb that tops out just above 9,000’.

Cyclist nearing the top of Onion Valley Road

How to Climb Onion Valley Road by Bike: Pick the right time and train well, as this is the hardest climb in California at 13 miles and 7.7% average grade (¼ mile at 13.4% and ½ mile at 11.7%).  The climb begins in Independence, California, at the corner of North Webster Street and Onion Valley Road (Strava Onion Valley segment start; Latitude: 36.80159, Longitude,  -118.20197).  We commonly stay in Bishop (40 miles north of Independence, and the start of the Onion Valley Climb) at the Creekside Inn, next to Erick Schat’s Bakery.   Together, the inn and the bakery make the 40 mile trip to the climb worthwhile.



Except for the first couple of miles, this climb averages nearly 8%  -- it is a very challenging climb.

While there is at least one climb in the area that rivals Onion Valley (U.S. 100 #7/World #69 Horseshoe Meadows), Onion Valley Road is almost uniformly considered the most difficult road bike climb in California, and rightly so.  There are no provisions along this route and the temperatures during the summer will often exceed 100 for the first half of the climb.  Cross winds are also a factor on the descent.

Inyo National Forest sign on Onion Valley Road, Independence, CA

Enter Inyo National Forest at mile 3.8.

Bicycle climb Onion Valley Road - Independence, Owens Valley and road leading from Indpendence

Photo Center:  Independence is the green area.

HAIRPIN HEAVEN

(10 giant hairpins)

Cycling Onion Valley Road - hairpins and owens valley

We make our way through the middle set of the hairpins.

Climbing Onion Valley Road by bike - cyclist on giant hairpin with mountains in background

Last hairpin, one mile to the finish.

There are eight giant hairpins from miles 9.2 to 11.8, over an average and consistent 8.1% grade.  Although Onion Valley Road’s eight hairpins fall 40 short of Stelvio’s . . . there is a bit of a resemblance, don’t you think??

Cycling Onion Valley Road - hairpins and owens valley

Seven of the last eight hairpins on OVR, compared to . . .

Bicycle ride Onion Valley Road - hairpins

. . . Passo Dello Stelvio, Italy -- the most famous hairpins in the world.

Cyclist at Onion Valley Road Elevation 9200 sign

Photos clockwise from top right -

2011, 2019, 2014, 2017.

Roadway Surface and Traffic Report:  The roadway surface as of October, 2019 was good and traffic has been very light the six times we have climbed Onion Valley Road between 2011 and 2019.  The only irritation are the freeze joints in the road which are noticeable on the descent (see photo above).

Those joints get old after a while on the descent.  😞

That’s a wrap!!