NOW that Monitor Pass has opened for the season (thank you Caltrans!) it seemed like a good time to post up a few hints on riding one of the most iconic passes in the California Alps.
ESPECIALLY because while we await the opening of Highway 4 between Lake Alpine and Centerville Flats (Ebbett’s Pass), it’s a great training ground for any ride at altitude, including America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride (just under a week out!), Tahoe Truckee Gravel (forest fun five weeks out), the Deathride (seven weeks from Saturday!) and the Mammoth Gran Fondo (a September cap off to the summer).
MONITOR is monolithic compared to say, Ebbetts, which is longer, yet more gradual. Similarly, Carson has some flat spots and so allows for some breathing room. Monitor. Not so much. The views are breathtaking, though, especially in the early morning hours when heading east and dropping down from the pass.
BOTH sides, west and east, of Highway 89, are short, steep and declivitous.
EACH is approximately nine (9) miles long – ALL UP, or down, depending…
Supplies Are Scarce
AT least on the climbs, that is. Markleeville is five (5) miles away so certainly you can load up (at the General Store), fuel up (at Al’s – for your vehicle; or Cutthroat, Outwest or Stonefly – for you), and take a nature break. Heads up – the port-a-potties were removed recently from County properties so look to the local establishments for facilities. The Chamber will likely have its portable pissatorium back soon; not sure about the other locations, though.
CARSON River Resort, between town and Monitor Junction (the confluence of Monitor and Ebbett’s Passes) is another place to get basic supplies and also a great place to stay, especially if you have a trailer or camper.
BIKE shop? you ask. Unfortunately not. We’ve talked to the owners of the General Store (Andy and Avery are totally supportive of cyclists) about stocking some basic provisions (tubes, tires, etc.) at the store and they’re amenable. With the summer cycling and riding season kicking into gear I guess we should get our ca-ca together and get that done. Ok, it’s on my calendar.
ONCE you are on the road from the west side, there is NO WATER until you get to 89 and 395 (Topaz). There is a hidden spigot there – not really hidden, just hard to see – at the BLM “pullout” just east of the Topaz Center Fire District (a Deathride rest stop). It’s right by the vault toilet on the northeast corner. Look for the red handle.
Weather Is Always A Factor
FOREST-LIKE on the west side; moonscape on the east. The terrain is “very Sierra-front” style. Steeper and rockier on the east side of the Sierra Crest, more sloping and green on the west side. As such, the weather can be vexing, especially the wind. Not always is it really windy but most days there is some wind.
HOTTER on the east slope than the west, unless you’re coming up the east side later in the day, it can be a grueling sweat-fest midday, even mid-morning. That’s one reason the Deathride climbs Monitor first: starting at 5:30 a.m. means you can be back over and heading up Ebbett’s before it gets too hot on Monitor. Depending on your fitness, I’d suggest allowing for an hour, to an hour and a half of climbing per side. Baking in descending time and nature breaks and such, I’ve found 3.5 to 4 hours is my sweet spot to do both east and west.
IN late fall or early spring I’ll often wear a sack back. In it goes a vest, extra gloves, neck-thingy and a spare cap. If I’m planning on hammering up hill I’ll even throw in a spare jersey. You can work up a pretty good lather on the ascent and so those dry pieces of wardrobe come in handy for the descent, and the vest oh so valuable when you’re hitting 30, 40 or more MPH on those downhills.
HERE’S an example of the temperature variations you’ll encounter on a “normal day” (if there is ever a normal day in the Sierra):
AT 9:00 a.m. ’twas 72 degrees Fahrenheit at the western base (Monitor Junction) and just a bit later, as our recon was by vehicle, the temp. was 58 at the Pass. About an hour later, the mercury was hitting 80 on the east side (Topaz).
THERE’S not much cover on either face of Monitor. On the east side, you can get some shade at Boy Scout Corner, about four (4) miles from the start. On the west there are some dappled patches near the start of the climb, around Heenan Lake (3.5 miles from start) and again closer to the 8000 foot mark. And at the pass itself you can get some respite from El Sol courtesy of the aspens, who often quake with excitement when visitors are about.
THERE’S no cell service either. BOLD Once you get to Whorehouse Flats (yeah, it was, and still is, a real place) there’s no service until you get to Topaz. And in case you were not aware, it’s pretty much Verizon only in Markleeville. Not sure about that ol’ east side, however.
DO a lot of stuff in the Sierra and want to step it up a notch? I carry an InReach Mini on my travels. I can text my contacts when there is no cell service and help is just an SOS away.
BECAUSE it’s so exposed, the wind, as I alluded to earlier, can howl some days. Usually down either face, but sometimes you’ll get some crosswinds so pay attention on those descents if that’s the case. I’ve found that Monitor is not as temperamental as Carson (thunderstorms, with hail, happen often in the summer) but it’s not to be taken lightly either.
UV arm “warmers” come in particularly handy, as they can be used for both the hot hill climbs and those daredevil descents.
A Few More Resources
CHECK out our virtual climbs of both sides of Monitor Pass on FulGaz.
STAY tuned for more on that by way. Our California Alps Cycling Club Room on Fulgaz will be launching shortly. You’ll be able to access all of our rides from one place and we’ll be hosting some group rides and workouts in June, with some cool prizes to boot.
ALTA Alpina Cycling Club’s Training Series still has a couple more weekends available – June 3rd and June 17th. You can Kick Some Passes Asses! ® with some local cycling experts.
CURRENT Markleeville weather and air quality is always available on our website.
SOME previous posts that you may find helpful:
- Training for the Deathride? Here’s the Number One Thing You Should Do
- Climbing Mountain Passes – 5 Key Things to Know
- Want to be a Better Climber – Here are 5 Nuggets of Wisdom
REMEMBER and honor the fallen on this Memorial Day and please, ride safely.