Page Contributor(s): Luke Hise, Phoenix, AZ.
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Horseshoe Meadows Road
Cycle 19.3 miles, gaining 6,582’ at 6.2% average grade.
View north of Hairpin 2, just before Hairpin 3.
“Horseshoe Meadows in California’s Owens Valley, is another very difficult eastern Sierra Nevada climb (look for the giant switchbacks on the flanks of the Sierras along Highway 395 just south of Lone Pine, CA). It is one of the most difficult ascents in the state of California as well as the United States. The climb beings over moderate grade (and a cattle guard) but in spectacular surroundings and soon enters a canyon. Just over a mile into the climb you pop out into the open and at mile 1.7 you enter a unique one lane road section through a horse pasture with big mountain views ahead. After just over a half mile the road widens a bit and rolls up the hill. Soon more solid grade arrives to take you to Horseshoe Meadows Road.
At the junction turn left on Horseshoe Meadows Road to find very shallow grade. You can catch your breath here and get your mind prepared as you contemplate the terrain ahead of you. From this point the slope gradually increases as it runs up a ridge. Soon you are ascending over solid grade. Abruptly you encounter a short descent, climbing resumes for just over half a mile and then another short descent takes you by a small ranch. Once this descent is past your reach the crux stretch of climbing on the hill as you must negotiate the largest set of switchbacks the author has ever seen. This stretch is also the steepest overall of the ascent but some of the best views on earth down into Owens Valley can help get you to the top. Long straight sections of solid grade are capped by tight turns along with exposure in places.
At the end of the last switchback the grade eases a bit and the road turns inland for a short distance. Soon a few more switchbacks carry you higher up the mountain face and over continued solid grade before you turn inland one last time. At mile 15.9 the road descends sharply for 0.8 miles and then resumes climbing along moderate4 grade and among increasing tree cover. The road then flattens on top and at mile 18.8 turn right toward the stables and pack station (straight to reach a parking area in an alpine setting) over moderate grade and the hill crests (unmarked) at just over 10,000 feet shortly thereafter…” (This quote is presented with the approval of John Summerson, from his book, The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike), 2nd Edition, pg. 140.)
With a Fiets Index score of 14.5, Horseshoe Meadows Road is ranked the second most difficult climb in California, #7 in the United States, and #69 in the world. Located in the heart of the Owens Valley (PJAMM Owens Valley Climb Page), which at 4,000' and surrounded by 14,000' peaks makes it 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 U.S. and Top 75 California Climbs of any area in the country. Owens Valley is a graben (“down dropped”) block of land between two vertical faults, creating the unparalleled extended steep grades along its eastern border with the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Before heading out to cycle Horseshoe Meadows Road, be sure to rely on our list of Things to Bring on a Cycling Trip, and use our interactive checklist to ensure you don't forget anything.
Unquestionably the greatest and most admired part of the Horseshoe Meadows climb is its dramatic hairpins carved into the mountain that can be seen from miles away. However, the first three miles of the climb up Lubken Canyon Road are some of the most scenic you will find in the United States.
Nope, not a postcard! One mile up Lubken Canyon road from the start.
Lubken Canyon Road -- note the four giant hairpins in the background (six miles).
Turn left on Horseshoe Meadows Road, off Lubken Canyon Road at mile 3.2.
View up to the first hairpin after turning onto Horseshoe Meadows Road from Lubken.
We enter Inyo National Forest (1,903,381 acres, est. 1907) at mile 7.4.
View north of the Owens Valley from mile 7.4.
View approaching hairpin #2.
11 mile mark; Elevation 7,550’ -- Owens Valley is at 4,000’.
Though Horseshoe Meadows doesn’t have the grade that its neighbor, Onion Valley Road, #6 most difficult cycling climb in the US, 21 miles north has (8.2% average grade vs 6.5%), it is 4.5 miles longer with 800' higher elevation and 1,200' more climbing. There are no provisions along this route and the temperatures during the summer will often exceed 100 degrees for the first half of the climb (see weather map, below). One of the most unique features of this ride are the massive switchbacks, easily observable from Highway 395 four miles to the east. The first switchback at mile 8.7 is 1.7 miles, gains 651' with a 7.1% average grade (switchback #2 1.2m / 467' / 8.3%.)
Behold . . . 😉
This is a view north of the southern section of the Owens Valley.
The four giant hairpins that can be seen from miles away on both Highways 395 and 136 (the road to Death Valley) are the most dramatic that are visible from any roadway in the United States -- the sign of Zoro is carved into Horseshoe Meadows Road! The hairpin segment is 5.2 miles beginning at mile 8.6 and carries a 7.7% average grade.
Legend has it . . . nah . . .
There are actually six hairpins, but only four are visible from ground level at a distance.
This is a drone aerial photo from 1,600’.
As seen from Highway 395 just south of Lone Pine, near Lubken Canyon Road.
As seen from Highway 136 coming from Death Valley.
As seen from the lower portion of Horseshoe Meadows Road.
Hairpin #1, mile 8.7, elevation 6,530’.
Hairpin #2, mile 10.3, elevation 7,220’.
Hairpin #3, mile 12, elevation 7,800’.
Hairpin #4, mile 13, elevation 8,275’.
Hairpin #5, mile 13.6, elevation 8,580’.
THE LAST 5 MILES AFTER THE HAIRPINS
Just before the 0.9 mile -5.2% (255’) descent at mile 16.
When to Climb Horseshoe Meadows Road by Bike: The average high temperatures for the summer time are 92°F in June, 98°F in July, and 96°F in August. We suggest May or September, as the months just before or after could put you into a snowstorm as you climb towards the top of this dead end ride that tops out just above 10,000’.
It can be mighty cold up there . . .
PJAMM’s Bruce Hamilton braves the elements May 28, 2019.
Photo location: 2/10’s mile east of intersection of Whitney Portal & Horseshoe Meadows Roads
Line of sight: 10 miles to Whitney Summit and 8.5 miles to Horseshoe hairpins
How to Climb Horseshoe Meadows Road by Bike: Pick the right time and train well, as this is the second hardest climb in California at 19.3 miles, 6,582’ gained at 6.2% average grade (¼ mile at 14.7% and ½ mile at 11.6%). This climb begins just south of Lone Pine, California on Lubken Canyon Road at 36.54224, -118.05151 latitude/longitude. We commonly stay in Bishop (57 miles north of Lone Pine, and the start of the Horseshoe Meadows and Whitney Portal climbs) at the Creekside Inn, next to Erick Schat’s Bakery, but have also stayed three times in Lone Pine at the Best Western Plus Frontier Motel which is a decent place to stay.
Stacy Topping checks off yet another US Top 100 Climb!
In 2013 and 2015 we included Horseshoe Meadows in our Four of the Top Five Climbs in California in a Day trip and at 22,000’ of climbing with an average grade around 7% in 100 degree temperatures, this is quite the adventure.
Horseshoe #1 of four in 2013.
Horseshoe #4 of four in 2015 (stupidly done two days before Death Ride).
Roadway Surface and Traffic Report: The roadway surface in October 2019 was good. Traffic has been very light the six times we have made this climb between 2011 and 2019.
We hopped the gate and bootlegged it our first time in May, 2011.
Ran into snow at the top, though.
Sign near the finish.
That’s a wrap!
No . . . Wait, there’s more!
FROM WHITNEY PORTAL/HORSESHOE MEADOWS INTERSECTION
Switchbacks of Horseshoe Meadows (photo right center) from Whitney Portal Road.
The alternative route begins at the intersection of Horseshoe Meadows and Whitney Portal Roads. On this route we ride 19.5 miles, gain 5,821’ at 6% average grade at a Fiets index of 10.98 (versus PJAMM’s charted route: ride 19.2 miles, gaining 6,582’ at 6.2% average grade). Here’s the link to the map for the alternate route.
Travel through cool canyon and rock formation at the outset of this route.