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%
Onion Valley Road is rated as the most difficult bike climb in California, #5 in the United States, and #35 in the world, with a Fiets Index score of 14.5. 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. 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.
The steepest ¼ mile is 15% and begins ½ mile past this sign.
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.
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’.
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 (that being Top U.S. 100 #7 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.
Enter Inyo National Forest at mile 3.8.
Upper center: Independence is the green area.
Center: The first four miles of road are seen coming from Independence.
We make our way through the middle set of the hairpins.
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??
Seven of the last eight hairpins on OVR, compared to . . .
. . . Passo Dello Stelvio, Italy -- the most famous hairpins in the world.
THE BLESSED FINISH!
The last stretch to the finish.
Access to John Muir Trail here.
Sign was in good shape in 2017, but . . .
. . . it sure had seen better days as of October 2019.
The John Muir Trail can be accessed from the Onion Valley Campground, at the end of our 12.9 miles on the Onion Valley Road Climb.
A great descent, though the freeze joints every 10 yards are annoying.
Roadway Surface and Traffic Report: The roadway surface in July 2016 was good and traffic has been very light the five times we have climbed Onion Valley Road between 2011 and 2016. The only irritation are the freeze joints in the road which are noticeable on the descent (see photo above).