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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):

Read the Full Ride Report

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