The 10 Hardest Bike Climbs in California

#1
Onion Valley Rd
USA, CA
#2
Horseshoe Meadows Rd
USA, CA
#3
White Mountain
USA, CA
#4
Sherman Pass West
USA, CA
#5
Whitney Portal
USA, CA
#6
Hwy 39-Dawson Saddle
USA, CA
#7
Nate Harrison Grade
USA, CA
#8
Mineral King Road
USA, CA
#9
Whitaker Forest
USA, CA
#10
South Lake
USA, CA

Climb List: California's most difficult climbs
(sort by distance, difficulty, elevation and more)

Cycling California's most difficult climbs

Cycling the Top 10 Road Bike Climbs in California

Photos clockwise from top left:

Whitaker Forest (Kings Canyon/Sequoia NP); Onion Valley (Owens Valley); Nate Harrison Grade (San Diego);

Mt. Baldy (Los Angeles) and Whitney Portal (center; Owens Valley).

#1 OF 10

ONION VALLEY ROAD, OWENS VALLEY

bike climmb Top 10 US Bike Climbs - Onion Valley road with Owens Valley in background

Climbing Onion Valley Road by bike.

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

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

Onion Valley Road is California’s toughest cycling challenge.  Between 2011 and 2017 PJAMM Cycling has 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 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.

bike climmb Top 10 US Bike Climbs - Onion Valley road with Owens Valley in background

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.

Onion Valley Road - Top 10 California Bike Climbs - Cyclist nearing the top of Onion Valley Road

#2 OF 10

HORSESHOE MEADOWS ROAD, OWENS VALLEY

Cycling Top 10 CA Bike Climbs - Horseshoe Meadows Road - Giant hairpin switchbacks seen from highway 395

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 state highway 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.  Our first experience with Horseshoe Meadows was when we hopped the gate in May 2011 and rode into a desolate area through snow flurries -- not the brightest move!

Hairpins on Horseshoe Meadows Road

Along with Whitney Portal #14, Onion Valley #6, and White Mountain #10, Horseshoe Meadows is one of the four must-do climbs along a 40 mile stretch of Highway 395 in the Owens Valley.

#3 OF 10

WHITE MOUNTAIN, OWENS VALLEY

Bike climb of White Mountain, Owens Valley - cyclist gives thumbs up on road with mountains in background 

Cycling White Mountain.

Ride 20 miles gaining 6,390’ at 5.8% average grade.

Last but not least on the US Hardest Bike Climbs list is White Mountain.  Though it’s not the steepest (at 5.8%), nor the longest (at 20 miles), it is definitely still a challenge, particularly during the summer months when the temperatures at the start of the climb are commonly in triple digits.  

This climb begins at Death Valley Road, after all!  This was the finish of our Four Owens Valley HC Climbs in a Day trip in 2015 (22,000’ of climbing, 100℉+.  Here’s how PJAMM looked at the end (luckily we had a pacer for the final stretch!):

Cycling white mountain with road, cyclists and sierras in background

#4 OF 10

SHERMAN PASS 

Cycling Top 10 California Bike Climbs - Sherman Pass - cyclist on bike on road

Cycling Sherman Pass.

Ride 15.5 miles gaining 5,305’ at 6.5% average grad.

The Sherman Pass bike climb in California is a very challenging climb in a remote region of the southern Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in the Sequoia Nation

al Forest.  Before you get excited when seeing Sequoia National Forest -- a la Bear Creek Road, Whitaker Forest, Highway 198, and the like -- do not be misled. While this climb will surely test your climbing abilities, it should not be mistaken for climbs on the southwestern side of the Sierra with much more lush surroundings, not to mention actual Sequoia Redwoods along the routes.  

Sherman Pass is a hot, dry, private climb on a narrow road with minimal traffic.  If you are one to check off the toughest climbs in a state/country/the world, then this is a good climb for you.  If views precede challenge on your priority list, you may do well to rethink this one.  We have climbed this brute twice and know it fairly well.  Its landscape has sadly been decimated by wildfires over the years and it lacks a bit on the forest side.

#5 OF 10

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 in California, and 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.

Mt. Whitney is unmistakable 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 and very high above us -- over two miles of climb, straight up -- to get to it.

Cycling Top 10 California Bike Climbs - spires of mt whitney summit 

Unmistakable profile.

July 2017 - Badwater Basin to Mt. Whitney Summit.

#6 OF 10

DAWSON SADDLE 

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 recommend against attempting the climb and we offer this page for its historical significance only.

#7 OF 10

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. A good description of this ride is found at MountainBikeBill.

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

Spectacular switchbacks on Nate Harrison Grade.

In 2014 and again in March 2019 we road Nate Harrison Grade on road bike (2014) and road and cross bikes (2019).  In 2014 we rode with compact chainring + 28t and 28mm tires and did not descend; it was a tough climb, but manageable.  In 2019 we used a Specialized Roubaix (compact chainring + 42t cassette + 32mm knobby tires) and a Specialized Crux cross bike (28t chainring + 42t cassette + 38mm tires) and did descend.  It was easier getting up on the bike in 2014 than descending in 2019.  We recommend for the average but fit cyclist (one of us was 34 and an exceptional cyclist, the other 62 and average but fit cyclist) at least:

  • Compact chainring.
  • 30t cassette or bigger.
  • 30mm tires or bigger.
  • Descending with a mountain bike is not preferred.  We prefer the Nate Harrison Grade Loop which we did in 2014.

Climbing Top 10 California 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.

#8 OF 10

MINERAL KING ROAD 

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.

The Mineral King Road bike climb is very close in proximity to two other Top 100 US Climbs in California: Highway 198 (1.5 miles away), and Highway 21-245-180-198 (22 miles away). You’ll find it in southern Sequoia National Park in the Central Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.  Keep in mind that this is an exceptionally difficult climb.

   

Ride into Sequoia National Park and the spectacular sequoia redwoods

   Cabin on Mineral King Road during bike ride.

#9 OF 10

WHITAKER FOREST  

Cycling Whitaker Forest: One of the most difficult road bike climbs in California.

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

Whitaker Forest is much more than a challenging  climb, it is also an exceptional experience.  Whitaker Forest is ranked #19 in the U.S. and #93 in the world so 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.

Our favorites on this climb are:

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

On how many other climbs do you get to ride through a 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.

#10 OF 10

SOUTH LAKE

Cycling South Lake, Owens Valley, California

#24 Top US Bike Climb

Ride 19 miles, gaining 5,625’ to elevation 9,840’, at 5.4% average grade.

This is a tough climb to over nearly 10,000’ elevation.  The first half of the climb is on Hwy 168 with moderate traffic.  It is the second half of this climb that distinguishes itself - along a very lightly travelled road with lovely scenery ending at a beautiful man made lake.