Bikepacking the Eastern Sierra

Words by John Tully
Photos by John Tully & Stephanie Alcala

At the last minute, I decided to join Steph on her four day bikepacking trip in the Eastern Sierra. Just like every awesome trip, there was very little preparation involved (or is that just me…) and of course, we waited until the night before to pack and research the route. We knew it was going to be a challenge to find water along the route, but we had tentative ideas of where to stop. Two hours of route-finding research and several downloaded maps later, we were ready—or so we thought.⁠

I decided to leave the mountain bike at home to gain more frame space & flexibility. My @surlybikes Straggler 1x with @wildernesstrailbikes Nano 40c tires was the choice for this route—it can handle just about anything. I packed four days of food and equipment into my @ortlieb_waterproof bags. My lack of suspension, limited gearing, and narrow tires definitely raised concerns going into the trails, but I was able to make it work.⁠⠀
We took off with our bikes loaded in anticipation of a healthy dose of type 2 fun! It was such a joy to ride surrounded by views of soaring granite peaks and sprawling, rugged desert. We were in what most people would call bikepacking heaven. Little did we know our first water source would be on the other side of 45+ miles of uphill sand. We only managed to drink 2 liters of water each for the whole day, leaving us quite dehydrated.⁠

Between heat exhaustion and lack of water and calories, I threw up twice—once while we set up camp. I was concerned because of my experience as an Alpine Climber. I’m all too familiar with it. We were at 9000ft and in the middle of nowhere in the Eastern Sierra Desert—this isn’t the place to give up.

I looked over at Stephanie only to find her in high spirits and positive energy as she laughed at me. It was enough to be inspired by her physical badass-ery.⁠

Day 1 was off to a rough start but we kept our spirits high. The morning of the second day was very pleasant with beautiful scenery and crystal clear blue skies. We were just south of Mono Lake in the high desert. Our breakfast consisted of cold leftover dinner and (thankfully hot) coffee. Because we were on a limited water supply we decided not to use more water than was absolutely necessary. ⁠⠀
We broke down camp, packed everything onto our bikes, and left with one liter of water each. We knew we had to make an important decision in the next 10 miles. Do we continue 10+ miles to stay on route and venture through the rolling hills on dirt/sand with a 50/50 chance of water supply at a campground or do we ride 20+ miles into town on the hot asphalt road with a major headwind. ⁠⠀
Both options would incur a level of discomfort, but we definitely didn’t want to make the wrong choice. Had we started with more water, we would have continued on route and took our chances of the 50/50 water supply. However, because of how remote we were and the uncertainty of the situation, we decided to take the more conservative route and head into town.

The 20+ miles with a head wind and major heat made it a challenge. We finally made it back to Highway 395 and to a small town called Mono City. Unfortunately there weren’t any convenience stores, but we saw a friendly neighbor who offered us their hose to refill our bottles.

Even though the trip was 100% sufferfest so far, we were able to enjoy the simple things like beautiful mountain views, the social isolation, and the (occasional) breeze. There is something to be said for riding through remote gravel areas in the eastern Sierra unsupported for four days.

We decided to ditch the route and head to Lee Vining for a nice cold beer, hot meal, and morale boost—literally one of the best decisions we made the entire trip! Once we were done at 6pm, we hopped back on bicycles and headed another 15 miles back into the hills to find a camp spot. 

We headed out to Upper Horseshoe Meadow, a very beautiful and pristine high alpine meadow. We were sure to load up on water and beer (or maybe I should say beer, and a little water…)—and you can’t forget the Oreos!

Upon arrival, we noticed a camper who was banging pots and pans, yelling at something in the distance. We were a bit confused and quickly realized they were trying to scare off a bear.

We arrived at our beautiful campsite with open views of the meadows, rolling hills, and a 360 degree view (in case the bear decided to return). We definitely enjoyed our hard earned beers and oreos and were treated to an amazing sunset in the alpine.

The morning of day 3 was the best yet! We were treated to thousands of stars the night before and woke up to the sun rising over the meadow. We enjoyed our abundance of supplies, making delicious oatmeal and multiple cups of freshly brewed coffee.

As we were packing up, I noticed Steph’s face suddenly wash over. “BEAR” she shouted, pointing. I quickly turn around to see a cinnamon colored bear, very healthy (and perhaps hungry) looking, about 100 feet away. Luckily this wasn’t my first bear encounter and instead of freaking out, we simply observed what the bear was doing. It turned out to be a very surreal moment as we had the chance to watch such a massive creature roam the forest. It was a very curious bear, but ultimately wasn’t interested in us. Although I admit I had second thoughts as we locked eyes several times. I made sure to say hi and let the bear know we meant no harm.

Once the bear walked off, we continued on our bicycle and rode alongside the beautiful meadow, then descended a thousand feet down the mountain side. The morning was great but tides changed quickly in the afternoon. We had multiple creek crossings, some of which we were able to ride through. We had to ascend a hill side for 1500+ feet. Between the sand and the steep grade we had to hike-a-bike for several miles. Interestingly enough, we were back on the route and thoroughly confused as to how so many people were able to make it up on a bicycle. We thought we were badass and tough!

The trail quickly turned into an aggressive hiking trail with huge boulders in the way. This was the turning point for Steph. She was clearly not performing 100% and experiencing potential heat exhaustion. We went into cruise mode

Little did we know, we still had the most challenging part of the day ahead. We had to descend a thousand feet down the side of a mountain on what might loosely be considered a “trail” to some people, but to our eyes was just a hillside. We went bikepacking to RIDE our bikes, not WALK them!

It took over two and a half hours to descend the mountain into June Lake. I’m not sure what took more of a beating, our bodies or the bikes. With an 80+ pound bicycle over our shoulders we continued down the grade into June Lake. We were definitely excited to reach civilization but also sad we only had one more day left.

Morning of Day 4 consisted of mixed emotions. We were half excited to be done suffering but also bummed about the basic simplicity of this trip. Only during Type 2 fun do you recognize the beauty of life. It’s a sure way to appreciate life and be thankful. Due to the limited space, it only allowed for the essentials and nothing more. There is something to be said about surviving in the backcountry with limited supply of gear and food.

We woke up with smiles and sunshine on our faces. We were ready to finish this tour and grab a victory burger and beer. On our way out of June Lake we got distracted by the June Lake Brewery and decided to make a quick pit stop for a celebratory drink. One IPA later, we knew it was time to head back or we would never make it! We started back on route and found that the trail was a lot more sandy than expected. Have you ever tried to ride a bike in the sand at the beach? Yeah, it doesn’t really work well. 

We decided to hop back on the 395 and finish strong on the road. Unfortunately we were reminded why we ditched the road in the first place, cars and big rigs zipping by at 80mph. We final made it to the Mammoth Scenic Loop and knew we were in our home stretch. 

We finally made it back to the car where fresh clothes and more beer awaited!

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