“I want to come back here after the thaw.”
Thus I remarked to my brother as we stared at the expanse of snow spreading out before us on Sherman Pass Road (Forest Route 22S05), the southern-most paved road over the crest of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. We were there in March of last year for a comparison test of the Kawasaki KLR650 and BMW G 650 GS Sertão, and we had no choice but to backtrack to a lower elevation.
Planted in winter, the seed for an adventure weekend germinated throughout the spring and blossomed in July. With fresh knobbies installed and our bikes loaded with camping gear and supplies, my buddy Paul Beck and I departed Ventura on a clear, sunny Thursday morning, covering 140 miles of boring pavement as quickly as possible. Just north of Bakersfield, we turned onto Rancheria Road, a rough-and-tumble, mostly unpaved road that meanders through cattle ranches before crossing into the Sequoia National Forest.
In Kernville, we topped off our tanks and stopped at the Kern River Ranger District office, where we picked up excellent, waterproof (and free) Motor Vehicle Opportunity Guide maps. The map shows all of the Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) trails in the area, with difficulty ratings, contour lines, campground locations, rules and regulations, and much more—a great resource.
After cruising along the Kern River on County Road 99 (Sierra Way) for a few miles, we turned onto Sherman Pass Road and began our ascent. The road tops out at 9,200 feet where a scenic overlook gives a commanding view of the Kern Plateau, a high-alpine area that includes the Dome Land and Southern Sierra wilderness areas, campgrounds and an extensive network of OHV trails. With elevations ranging from 8,000 to over 9,000 feet, the High Sierra provides cool respite from the dog days of summer.
We stopped to visit the Bald Mountain Lookout Tower, a mountaintop fire lookout tower run by the U.S. Forest Service. It’s open to the public, and at 9,430 feet, provides stunning views of the southern Sierra Nevada, including 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney, 89 miles to the north. When we arrived at the Fish Creek campground, we were greeted by Michael Spencer, general manager at BMW Motorcycles of Ventura County. He drove up in his kitted-out Jeep Rubicon towing a trailer loaded down with his BMW R 1200 GS Adventure, camping gear, coolers stocked with food and beer, and an extensive camp kitchen! Paul and I brought everything we needed to be self-sufficient, so we were pleasantly surprised by the decadent catering.
The next morning, Michael, Paul and I suited up and planned our day’s route. Near Fish Creek campground is the trailhead for Jackass National Recreation Trail (35E13), a motorcycle-only singletrack trail that follows a northerly 8,400-foot contour line between Jackass Creek and the western boundary of the South Sierra Wilderness. OHV routes are rated Easiest, More Difficult or Most Difficult, and Jackass was posted as More Difficult, dishing out the good stuff from the get-go. We picked our way over and around rocks, roots and other obstacles on a trail ranging from dusty hardpack to soft sand. My carbureted 1998 Kawasaki KLR650 struggled with the altitude, and so did I. It was slow going, but you couldn’t have chosen a more perfect day for riding, with cool breezes through the evergreens and a brilliant blue sky dotted with cottony clouds.
We picked our way along Jackass Trail for 5 ½ miles, then turned left on Albanita Trail (35E06), another singletrack route of middling difficulty. Whereas Jackass was flat and technical, Albanita went slightly downhill and carved its way through the trees with perfectly bermed corners—a two-wheeled rollercoaster through the forest. A real treat was skirting the edge of Smith Meadows, a wide-open, grassy clearing surrounded by alpine trees.
One challenge we faced was traffic. Not a lot, but at least once or twice an hour we’d be overtaken or passed in the opposite direction by riders zipping along the same trail on much lighter, more maneuverable dirt bikes. (Many of the OHV trails in the area are open to non-street-legal, green-sticker dirt bikes.) Passing can be tricky on singletrack, but rarely was it a problem. When we stopped to let a pack of dirt bikes go by and take a breather, I turned off my KLR. When I hit the starter button again…nothing.
Wind rustled the trees, crickets chirped and my starter clicked helplessly.
All the starting and stopping, without any high-rpm running in between, had run down my battery. Fortunately, we were about a hundred yards from where the trail intersected a paved road. Unfortunately, those hundred yards were uphill…at 8,500 feet of elevation. Paul helped me push, and we got the KLR to the road, but our attempts at bump starting were unsuccessful. That Michael had come in a Jeep with a trailer was not only awesome in terms of beer and food, but also because he was able to rescue me. Not only that, but he was willing to drive me 80 miles round-trip to Kernville to score a new battery (thanks to the kind folks at The Cycle Smiths, 760-350-9700) and restock our dwindling beer supply. To top it off, I bought a featherweight Ballistic Evo2 lithium battery that’s much lighter than the stock battery. When the KLR fired up again that evening, I was happier than a kid on Christmas morning.
Some of Friday’s rock hopping had damaged the skid plate and a few other items on Michael’s GSA, so on Saturday he stuck around the campground, leaving Paul and I to buddy-up. We made our way along the trail that parallels Sherman Pass Road and connects the campgrounds and trails together, then turned onto Mahogany Creek Trail (34E25, More Difficult). Being a Saturday, we encountered more traffic, but other riders were always polite. They never failed to comment on how surprised they were to see full-size adventure bikes—Paul’s BMW R 1200 GS and my KLR650—on the trail, to which Paul would retort, “It ain’t the bike, it’s the rider.” Our bikes weren’t as light and nimble as theirs, but they’re capable of handling the terrain. We just had to take it slow and be deliberate about picking our lines. We were having fun, enjoying the challenge and the scenery. Everything was peachy keen.
Then my KLR conked out again.
Oops. Seems I had fried a brand-new lithium battery in less than two hours. Culprit: bad voltage regulator. There wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that I’d find a replacement, especially since I was stuck on a high-alpine trail, miles and miles from the nearest cell phone tower, much less a Kawasaki dealership.
Paul and I ate lunch and considered our options. Michael’s Jeep and trailer would be of no use since we were at least a half-mile from the nearest road. Either Paul could tow me out with his GS, or we’d have to push the bike to the road. We didn’t have a dedicated tow strap, and what we did have snapped quickly.
Time to push.
But which way, 0.6-mile uphill, or 1.9 miles back the way we came? We opted for the shorter distance, but we paid the price every grunt and groan of the way.
It took us a couple of hours to cover just half the distance. We stopped often to catch our breath in the thin, high-alpine air or let other riders go past. About 100 yards below us was a parallel trail, closed to OHVs but smoother and with fewer rocks to climb over than Mahogany Creek Trail. I mounted the KLR and coasted diagonally down the face of the hill to the lower trail. We made a final push and, with more relief than I’ve felt in a long time (at least since I put in a fresh battery the night before), we got the KLR to the top of the hill. After dragging it under the “Road Closed” gate, I remounted, coasted downhill toward the road, and bump started the bike just before I reached the pavement. We made it back to camp just in time for dinner.
Luckily, my KLR started up the next morning—apparently I hadn’t fried the new battery after all, and the ride back to the campground recharged it. I was able to ride home under my own power. Due to the dodgy voltage regulator, the electrical system started acting up and the bike nearly overheated a couple of times, but I made it home nonetheless.
As Editor Tuttle likes to say, “an adventure isn’t always fun when you’re having it.” Dealing with my non-starting KLR, not once but twice, ate up a lot of time that we could have spent riding trails. Rock-hopping on big GSs had cost Paul and Michael a few parts—skid plates and engine guards got tweaked, hand guards and auxiliary lights got shattered—but those are the parts that are supposed to take the brunt of abuse. We were sore and had blisters after hours of labor-intensive riding (and pushing).
But we prevailed. We spent a glorious summer weekend riding in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. We shared lots of laughs and some well-earned beers each night around the campfire. We forged stronger friendships, honed our off-road skills and reaffirmed our commitment to two-wheeled adventure. It proved to be such an epic weekend that it inspired BMW Motorcycles of Ventura County to launch the GS Venture Challenge: The Year of the Ride 2013.