Most Epic Bike Climbs in California

#1
Whitaker Forest
USA, CA
#2
Tioga Pass
USA, CA
#3
Nate Harrison Grade
USA, CA
#4
Emigrant Pass East
USA, CA
#5
Horseshoe Meadows Rd
USA, CA
#6
Palomar Mountain South Grade
USA, CA
#7
Onion Valley Rd
USA, CA
#8
Monitor Pass East
USA, CA
#9
Mineral King Road
USA, CA
#10
Whitney Portal
USA, CA

Climb List: California
(sort by distance, difficulty, elevation and more)

Cycling California

Photos clockwise from top left:

Horseshoe Meadows; Tioga Pass; Monitor Pass East

Whitney Portal; Whitaker Forest (center)

Though based on a subjective standard, the following are what we at PJAMM Cycling feel to be the Top 10 Most Epic California Cycling Climbs.

#10 OF 10 CALIFORNIA MOST EPIC BIKE CLIMBS

WHITNEY PORTAL 

Cyclist on Whitney Portal Road with Mt. Whitney summit in background.

Cycling Whitney Portal

Ride 11.4 miles to 8,371’ gaining 4,595’ at 7.6% average grade. 

The Whitney Portal Road bike climb itself, along with Whitney Portal at its end, is the gateway to the amazing hike to the top of the tallest mountain peak in the contiguous United States.  This road is home to one of the top bike climbs in the U.S. and stunning views of Mt. Whitney as we slowly ascend toward it from Lone Pine in Owens Valley.

 

Whitney Portal’s unmistakable profile.

Mt. Whitney is unmissable from Highway 395, Whitney Portal Road, Lone Pine, and points below and east of it if you know what you are looking for. It is recognizable by its serrated ridge and peak profile far in the distance.  By “far in the distance,” we also mean very high above us -- over two miles of climb, straight up -- to get to it.

An epic bike-hike challenge is Badwater Death Valley to Mt. Whitney Summit - 154.6 miles gaining 21,695’.

Cyclingt California's most epic bike climbs - 4 cyclists at Badwater

Badwater, Death Valley, USA to Mt. Whitney Summit.

#9 OF 10 CALIFORNIA MOST EPIC BIKE CLIMBS

MINERAL KING ROAD 

Cycling California's most epic bike climbs - Winding Road sign on Mineral King Road in Sequoia National Park 

Mineral King Road -- Sequoia National Park

  Ride 25 miles gaining 7,054’ at 5.1% average grade.

This climb is remote, hot, and challenging from start to finish.  The road is extremely narrow as we ride towards and into the great Sequoia National Forest -- this is an epic and Bucket List Bike Climb.  

   California's most epic bike climbs - Biking on Mineral King Road - rock and narrow road

So many opportunities for a photo stop amongst the giant sequoias along the way.

   California's most epic bike climbs - Cabin on Mineral King Road during bike ride.

#8 OF 10 CALIFORNIA MOST EPIC BIKE CLIMBS

MONITOR PASS EAST 

Cycling Monitor Pass East California's most epic bike climbs - aerial drone photo of road, mountains and Topaz Lake.

Cycling Monitor Pass, home of the Death Ride, Tour of the California Alps -- an epic Sierra Nevada bike climb.

Aerial view west from location directly above Monitor Pass markers. 

 

Monitor Pass East is the most difficult of the Death Ride’s five climbs. 

California's most epic bike climbs - Bicycle ride up Monitor Pass East  - cyclist on roadway with view east of valley and mountains

Just leaving the lower canyon near the start.

Climbing Monitor Pass West by bike - cyclist approaching pass monument and marker

Monitor Pass Summit.

#7 OF 10 CALIFORNIA MOST EPIC BIKE CLIMBS

ONION VALLEY ROAD, OWENS VALLEY

Onion Valley Road in California’s Owen’s Valley

#1 Ranked Bike Climb in California, #6 US, #57 World.

Climbing Onion Valley Road by bike.

Ride 12.9 miles gaining 5,275’ at 7.8% average grade.

Onion Valley Road is California’s toughest cycling challenge, and one of its most epic.  This unique and brutal climb will test your resolve (particularly during the 100+ degree summer days) and reward you with a sense of awe and accomplishment upon completing the climb.  We LOVE Onion Valley Road and between 2011 and 2017 have had the pleasure(?) of riding from Independence, California to the Keasarge Pass Trailhead (end of the road) five times.  Twice Onion Valley Road has been the centerpiece of our one day epic climbing challenge (Horseshoe Meadow #7 US, Whitney Portal #14, Onion Valley #6 and White Mountain #10) which involves 22,000’ of climbing from dawn to dusk.

Cyclist nearing the top of Onion Valley Road

Onion Valley Road is located in the heart of the Owens Valley, which has the highest concentration of HC and Top 100 US climbs of any area in the United States.  Owens Valley is such an exceptional cycling hub that we also rank it as a Top World Climbing Area.

Cyclist at Onion Valley Road Elevation 9200 sign

Photos clockwise from top right -

2011, 2019, 2014, 2017.

Access to John Muir Trail here.

#6 OF 10 CALIFORNIA MOST EPIC BIKE CLIMBS

PALOMAR MOUNTAIN SOUTH GRADE

California's most epic bike climbs - Climbing Palomar Mountain by bike - intersection E Grade and Crestline Road San Diego County
 

Cycling San Diego’s Extraordinary Palomar Mountain -- The Alpe d’Huez of the US.

Ride 12.4 miles gaining 4,580’ to elevation 5,513’ at 6.9% average grade.

This is one of the most exceptional and unique bike climbs in California.  What separates Palomar from the others are the 18-21 switchbacks as you wind your way up the hillside (we count 18, but others count 21 -- perhaps pressing for further comparison to Alpe d’Huez).  This is one of the most popular bike climbs in California and the US.  

It’s all about the switchbacks on Palomar.

Occasionally it snows during the winter months at and near the top of Palomar Mountain.

Menu board at Mother's kitchen at finish of Palomar cycle climb.  

Mother’s Kitchen, home of the best Mountain Top Bike Climb Finish Apple Pie in CA.  👍

The best meal at the top of any climb in the US.

#5 OF 10 CALIFORNIA MOST EPIC BIKE CLIMBS

HORSESHOE MEADOWS ROAD, OWENS VALLEY

Hairpin #2 on Horseshoe Meadow Road, Lone Pine, Owens Valley, CA

Cycling Horseshoe Meadows Road

Ride 19 miles gaining 6,580’ at 6.2% average grade.

Horseshoe Meadows Road, home to the greatest set of switchbacks visible from a distance in the US (maybe the world!).  The view of Horseshoe Meadows’ famed switchbacks from Highway 395 is stunning; these monsters range in length from 1.7 miles for the lower segment, to half a mile for the fifth and upper segment.  

Hairpins on Horseshoe Meadows Road

This climb is simply a must do.

#4 OF 10

EMIGRANT PASS EAST, DEATH VALLEY

California's most epic bike climbs - Emigrant Pass, Death Valley National Park - climb by bike - cyclist in Stovepipe wells at Sea Level sign

Cycling Emigrant Pass East and West -- from the east this is a Top 100 US bike climb.

From the east (Stovepipe Wells) ride ride 22.8 miles gaining 5,367’ to elevation 5,316’ at 4.4% average grade. 

 

  California's most epic bike climbs - bike climb Emigrant Pass, Death Valley National Park - turn off air conditioner sign

This sign greets us as we leave Stovepipe.

This is a remote and absolutely epic bike climb in unforgiving Death Valley.  Be careful on this one as there is no support anywhere along the climb and, while you will encounter traffic along Highway 190 up to the Emigrant Canyon Road turn off, you may not see another soul after that.

Bike climb Emigrant Pass, Death Valley National Park - cyclist on road next to tarantula

Plenty of company on this climb . . .

. . . that is a tarantula, by the way!

#3 OF 10 CALIFORNIA MOST EPIC BIKE CLIMBS

NATE HARRISON GRADE 

Drone photo of Nate Harrison Grade and orange groves

Cycling Nate Harrison Grade

Ride 10.3 miles gaining 4,440’ at 8.2% average grade.

Nate Harrison Grade bike climb is a very steep ride in northern San Diego County, California.  The first mile is paved, but the majority of the climb is on a dirt fire trail with very steep grades.  There is intermittent pavement along the seven mile stretch from miles one through eight, but we would estimate 90% of the climb is gravel and rock with miles five through eight being particularly challenging, with a couple of stretches that are barely manageable on a road bike. We used compact chainring with 30t cassette and 28mm tires, Specialized Roubaix. Although extremely challenging, it is an epic and private climb.

Cycling Top 10 California Bike Climbs - Nate Harrison Grade - Drone photo of Nate Harrison Grade and orange groves

Spectacular switchbacks on Nate Harrison Grade.

climbing California's most epic bike climbs by bike  - Nate Harrison Grade - bike on gravel road

The old man’s bike used in March 2019.

Compact chainring, 42t cassette, 32mm knobs in back, 30mm road tires in front.

#2 CALIFORNIA MOST EPIC BIKE CLIMB

TIOGA PASS, YOSEMITE NP, CALIFORNIA

CA Most Epic Bike Climbs - Tioga Pass, roadway, sheer cliff, mountains.

This fantastic bike climb ends at the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park.

Cycling Tioga Pass -- one of the greatest bike climbs in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range

Ride 12 miles to 9,948’ gaining 3,272’ at 4.9% average grade.

 Tioga is named for an Iroquois and Mohawk term meaning "where it forks".  The most spectacular part of Tioga Pass is the sheer drop off that is dramatically obvious when you look back at the viewpoint at mile 8.3.  

 

Climb is in Inyo National Forest (1,903,381 acres; est. 1907)

   

IMG_0733.JPG 

Enter the park just past finish of climb.

#1 OF 10 CALIFORNIA MOST EPIC BIKE CLIMBS

WHITAKER FOREST  

Cycling Whitaker Forest -- one of the most difficult road bike climbs in California.

23 miles, gaining 7,240’ to elevation 7,586’ at 5.2% average grade.

Whitaker Forest is much more than just a challenging  climb, it is an exceptional experience.  Whitaker Forest is ranked #19 in the U.S. and #93 in the world, meaning there can be no disagreement to its claim as a very tough ascent.  In addition to tackling another very hard climb, with this one, you get some experiences that range from unique, to exceptional, to one-of-a-kind.

Cycling Top 10 California Bike Climbs - Whitaker Forest - cyclist riding bike through tree

Climbing Top 10 California Bike Climbs by bike - Whitaker Forest - pano of giant sequoia redwoods, roadway 

We are surrounded by giant sequoias for much of the ride.

BONUS CLIMB: CALIFORNIA MOST EPIC BIKE CLIMBS

DAWSON SADDLE, SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA 

Cycling Dawson Saddle from San Gabriel Reservoir - view of Hairpin curves.

Ride Highway 39 through a canyon along hairpins past Crystal Lake,

over the gate up to Highway 2, and on to Dawson Saddle -- 23 miles in all. 

Photo is of the roadway leading to the gate at mile 12 (Mt. Islip in background).

​Note:  Miles 12-18 of this climb are on a portion of Highway 39 that is closed to motor vehicles and cyclists.  Strava has “red flagged” this climb and prevents it from being considered a “segment.” Since miles 12-18 of the climb are on a closed road, we of course cannot recommend you do this climb and offer it on this page only because it is flipping epic!

Beginning of Dawson Saddle bike climb into the San Gabriel Mountains.

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Hey, they don’t say no bicicletta or vélo . . . 😈

But, of course we cannot endorse this climb, just point out that it is EPIC!

Perhaps our opinion is influenced by the  snowy, fogged-in adventure we had.

Hwy 2 to Dawson Saddle - last 5 ½ miles.