Page Contributor(s): Ron Hawks, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
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Cycling South Lake, Owens Valley, California
#26 Top US Bike Climb
Ride 19 miles, gaining 5,625’ to elevation 9,840’, at 5.4% average grade.
Visit our Owens Valley Top World Bike Climb Area page.
The South Lake bike climb is one of the Top 100 most difficult climbs in the U.S. that begin in the Owens Valley on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the central/eastern portion of California. Other Top 100s in the area include: #6 Onion Valley, #7 Horseshoe Meadow, #10 White Mountain, #14 Whitney Portal, #29 Rock Creek, #34 Lake Sabrina, and # 81 Pine Creek.
The first 11.7 miles of the climb are along Highway 168, which is a bit disconcerting at times with cars whizzing by at highway speeds. The 11.7 miles to the turnoff to South Lake is a 5.6% grade with an elevation gain of 3,500'.
Start at the intersection of Red Hill Road and Highway 168.
“The climb to South Lake shares its starting point and much of its length with Lake Sabrina. However, this one has a surprise in store toward the end. At mile 11.6 turn left toward South Lake. After a small dip you enjoy several miles of shallow grade with some mountain views ahead. Toward the end of the route the trees close in a bit and the roadway narrows. Soon you encounter several steep sections with grades running from 10-14%. The torture is short lived howeer as the grade eases and the trees part just beofre the very top. The scenery is amazing on this section and the climb mercifully ends just above the stunning namesake lake at the end of the upper parking lot (route dead ends) at almost 10,000 feet.” (This quote is presented with the approval of John Summerson, from his book, The Complete Guide to Climbing by Bike in California, pg. 118.)
As with all Owens Valley climbs, we ride through Inyo National Forest much of the climb.
Inyo National Forest sign at mile 4.2.
The climb begins gradually as you ride for four miles towards the eastern Sierras (which seemingly take forever to reach) at an average grade of 4%.
First segment of the climb.
Highway 168, Bishop is the green patch top middle of photo.
Ride through a wide canyon from mile 6.5 for five miles to the South Lake Road turn off.
There’s a lot of straight for the first 11.8 miles of this one.
Turn left onto South Lake Road at mile 11.8.
First 11.8 miles = 5.8% to elevation 7,970’.
Final 7.2 miles at 5% to elevation 9,831’.
Store and restaurant at mile 14.
Fall colors in October.
But, you can also get snow in October!
End of the road.
One of the many Owens Valley climbs above 9,000’.
South Lake, just before the finish.
Dam and parking lot right bottom -- finish is in the parking lot.
Traffic and Roadway Surface Report: The roadway surface is excellent and there is a good bike lane most of the way along Highway 168. Traffic, as can be seen in the YouTube video, travels by very fast along the 11.7 miles of highway and this is not a stretch of road for the faint of heart. The last 7.2 miles are much calmer and very scenic.
That’s a wrap!