Eastern Sierras – Onion Valley – The Toughest Single Climb in California?

Onion Valley. The 5169 ft, 7.8% monster of Owens Valley. The #1 toughest single climb in California, according to John Summerson’s The Complete Guide to Climbing (By Bike) In California.

A few stats from Summerson’s book:

  • Elevation Gain: 5169 ft
  • Length: 12.5 miles
  • Average Grade: 7.8%
  • Steepest Mile: 9.2%
  • Steepest 3 Miles: 8.5%
  • #1 Most Difficult Road Bike Climb in California
  • #3 Most Difficult Road Bike Climb in the US
  • Steepest 10 Mile Climbing Section in California (8.3%)
  • #5 Steepest 5 Mile Climbing Section in California (8.5%)

Onion in all its glory:

I’ve now ridden Onion twice – once from 395 and once from Gray’s Meadow – and truly enjoyed both ascents. Of course, this is Owens Valley – just about all of the climbs are incredible. This last trip, I took a long weekend and enjoyed some fun cycling, hiking and camping. This was my schedule:

  • Camp at Horseshoe Meadows Thursday night (just over 10,000ft)
  • Friday, descend down Horseshoe Meadows Road, then climb back up to camp (reverse climb!)
  • Camp at Onion Valley Friday & Saturday nights (just over 9,000ft)
  • Saturday, hike Kearsarge Pass
  • Sunday, descend down Onion Valley Road, then climb back up to camp (one more reverse climb!)

Horseshoe Meadows, needless to say, deserves its own entry. If you’ve ever driven 395 through Lone Pine, you’ve probably seen the massive switchbacks carved into the mountains above Lone Pine. An impressive sight, and an impressive climb.

This ride, however, is all about Onion Valley. This time, since I was camped at the Onion Valley Campground (the top of Onion Valley Road), my plan was to descend down to Gray’s Meadow Campground (situated right where the road finishes climbing the valley floor and starts climbing the mountain itself), then climb back up. However, if you want credit for conquering Onion Valley, you’ll have to start at the bottom at 395 (which I did on my first ascent of Onion Valley).

Starting from 395 is mentally challenging, as you climb up a (nearly) unchanging desert floor for nearly 2,000 ft of elevation gain. A few shots from my 2011 climb of this stretch:

Looking back:

The one cool oasis you pass on this grueling stretch:

Finally, Gray’s Meadow!

If you made it this far, you’ve already climbed 2,000 ft. And, if you climbed Onion like I did in 2011 during midday temperatures, you climbed it in 90 degree heat. Not that fun (hint: in summer, wake up early and start climbing as soon as you wake up).

This time, I made sure to start climbing at a saner time. After a leisurely breakfast of oatmeal at Onion Valley, and packing everything up at camp, I started the descent from the OV campground at 8:04AM to start climbing from Gray’s (3,000 ft lower) at 8:15AM (yes, this is one fast descent). A quick note about this descent – ridiculous. I averaged over 37mph descending, hit over 50mph – all while taking the curves cautiously and never pedaling to gain speed. This is one quick descent. Just watch the expansion joints in the asphalt, especially up higher, and the occasional rock debris.

Back to Gray’s.. the very first part of climbing from Gray’s is a fun little traverse up a hill that goes straight to the sky:

.. before throwing you towards the mountains themselves:

The drainage you will (eventually) be climbing up (if you look closely, you might just see the road carved into the terrain):

At this point, the terrain is still dry, but the scenery starts opening up as you finally start switch-backing up:

The road to be climbed:

Yup. Pretty tough to beat the eastern Sierras.

That little hill you climbed from Gray’s Meadows (Gray’s is that splotch of green next to the road):

Rugged scenery along the way:

The scenery stays spectacular as you climb up the valley:

As you climb through this section, you slowly close in on the creek that provides nourishment to the trees in the above photo.

A quick glance right, and more ruggedness:

Nearing the creek:

After switchbacking at the creek, you are rewarded with the first of many views back down the road just climbed:

Of course, you aren’t rewarded with an easy grade – this is solid 8%+ suffering. One more view back to distract you from your suffering:

You wanted rugged? No problem!

Nearing 7800ft, the grade kicks up a bit for a few tough switchbacks:

Steep, but scenic:

Wait, I climbed up this?

The last thousand feet of vertical gain are quite striking and rugged:

Again, does it get any better than this?

The road above, as seen through a couple of sentinel trees:

One of the final switchbacks, only about 500 vertical feet below the finish:


When you hit the point where I took that photo above, I guarantee you’ll look right and take a second look. A set of switchbacks like that is not something you see everyday.

Same spot, but looking up the valley:

Words? I lack appropriate ones to describe such scenes.

The final, very scenic push to the top:

This last section rewards you with a very slight mellowing of the grade, at least compared to the last 5 or so miles at 8-10%. By no means is this last stretch easy – it is still a solid 6-8% at nearly 9,000ft elevation.

Enjoy the final, slightly more mellow finish:

The top!

Tough climb? Yes. Climbing from 395 is especially tough, as the first 2,000ft involves relatively monotonous climbing. While not very steep, it wears on you. Once you finally hit the mountain and start the switchbacks, the grade kicks up and never really lets up – the one saving grace is that the grade never really gets that steep.

So, toughest climb in California? No, not in my opinion. Personally, I’d put a few climbs ahead of Onion Valley. White Mountain, Horseshoe Meadows, Shirley Meadows East – at a minimum, I think I’d rank those as tougher. With that said, Onion Valley is right up there as one of the toughest and most scenic (assuming you enjoy desert scenery for the first half) climbs in California.

In short, if you live in California and enjoy climbing by bike, Onion Valley should be on your short list. Do it.

Strava’s Segment:

The rest of the photos from the climb.

Cheers, and happy climbing!

The Discussion

see what everyone is saying

  • Jason July 2nd, 2012 at 8:56 am #1

    Congratulations on getting this one on the books. Its great to see you posting again. Thanks.

  • Henry July 23rd, 2012 at 4:41 pm #2

    Yeah! Great to see you posting again.

  • ian thompson December 18th, 2012 at 2:30 am #3

    I love this road but not as much as I love 9 mile, Sonora Pass, Monitor and Ebbetts. Do you guys really find this to be a tougher climb than Sonora E or west? Just curious?

  • Rick July 27th, 2013 at 7:38 pm #4

    Just did this climb the the first time, but it’s not the toughest unless expansion cracks are figured in . Today, July 27, 2013 luckily it started raining at upper gray’s, 58 at the top 80 at the bottom. Just picked the right time and day, I guess. Used 38/26 gearing and 23 out of the saddle. Great blog.

  • The Swarm, the Warm and Avoiding Harm | Velobum September 27th, 2014 at 1:19 am #5

    […] the road, certainly I did not see any fields of onions, not even post-harvest stubble. Regardless, this article portrays the Onion Valley climb as the toughest in California and the 3rd toughest in the US, while […]


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