Ride to Cherry Lake Reservoir
Tuolumne - COUNTY
52 Miles - LENGTH
Some new pavement, fair - PAVEMENT
Mountain, Smooth, Endless - CURVES
Tuolumne to Cherry Lake Reservoir to Hwy 120 - CONNECTS
Sonora, Groveland - GAS
California Sierra Nevada
Cherry Lake Rd Loop
Quick Ride: Remote loop in the Sierra Nevada Range unknown to most riders but well worth the extra time to ride this twisty excursion out to Cherry Lake Reservoir, located north of Yosemite National Park.
Every rider wants to know about the unknown road.
The ride no one has ever heard of, the ride easily passed over, the one you rode by unwittingly. My bookshelf has book titles that include phrases such as Scenic Driving California, Motorcycle Journeys through California, Backroads of California and Adventure Guide to California (This road is not in any of those books.). However, from the motorcyclist’s perspective, we want to hear about The Best Rides in California, but what ‘best’ means to you may mean something different to me. What I do know after multiple decades of designing road trips for bikers is there are several universal likes that all bikers can get behind. We want remote regions as in no people. We want length, as in many miles, and we want smooth pavement.
Oh, and can you make that last all day? As in Endless Curve? I might know a place.
Cherry Lake Rd starts off as a no center line mountain road
Prior to the entrance of Yosemite National Park along Highway 120 is one of these overlooked rides. It heads up to Cherry Lake Reservoir and then back to Tuolumne (pronounced too-all-oh-mee) via Cottonwood Rd. Picture no center line for the first 24 miles to the reservoir and some backwoods curves- this ride winds up and down two different mountain canyons, and then heads on over to the Cherry Lake Reservoir. Endlessly twisty is the norm for these regions of the Sierra Nevada.
You can find the southern leg of this loop 14 miles west of Groveland along Highway 120, the northern entrance (of three) into Yosemite National Park. The hurried nature of tourist traffic is no one is headed for this road and no one knows it’s even there.
The southern half of this loop is surprisingly smooth for a mountain road of this caliber this deep in the forest. It’s also worth mentioning this remoteness also contributes to autos on the wrong side of the road coming straight at you. Lane position in blind corners should always be pre-planned.
To stay off Highway 120 and add more even twisty to your day, approach this ride from Coulterville coming up the hill from Highway 49 The Little Dragon. Turn east onto Greeley Hill Rd, connect with Smith Station Rd and this twisty bonus will take you right to this road while avoiding all the tourist traffic.
Forest fire along Cherry Lake Rd in the late 1990s
Same spot a few years later, the forest quickly recovers
What you can’t see from Highway 120 outside Groveland is the nearby Rainbow Pool, a small waterfall on the South Fork Tuolumne River that falls into a pool of water. A massive rock above the pool provides a jumping point into the water. Locals know this place, and it will be busy during hot summers. To reach it, follow the signs or upon turning north off Highway 120, head west into the canyon. Cherry Lake Rd will be the opposite direction eastward, running parallel to Highway 120 at first. Elevation here is 3000 ft and will climb up to a modest 5000 ft at the lake. Snow levels hover at 3-4000 in the foothills if you plan on riding in winter. Peak elevation along this loop is 5600 ft.
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
Five miles in, Cherry Lake Rd splits at a Y in the road. The road to the right is Mather Rd, FR 1S02. Mather Rd is a single lane paved road into Mather 8 miles to the east. Mather Rd follows along the top of the ridgeline looking down on the Tuolumne River Canyon. Mather Rd is a steady climb to Camp Mather as it was built over the top of the original railroad bed for the Hetch Hetchy Railroad from Groveland to the building site of the O’Shaughnessy Dam. Built in 1917, the railway was used to transport all the materials needed to construct the dam completed in 1923. The railway also provided excursion trains for San Franciscans who could board a train Friday night, view the Hetch Hetchy valley, then make it back to San Francisco by Monday morning. The tracks were pulled up during 1944 from lack of use and Mather Rd laid over the top of the railroad bed. Mather Family Camp is the jumping off point to reach Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Camp Mather was originally built in the 1920s during the construction of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and O’Shaughnessy Dam that closed off the canyon.
Once the reservoir was completed in 1923, Camp Mather was no longer needed. By the mid-1920s, the City of San Francisco designated the property for use as a family recreation area. The Jack Spring Dining Hall built during the construction of the dam is still in use today 100 years later. It was named Camp Mather in honor of Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service. Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is another 9 miles beyond Mather. The main road (Evergreen Rd) to reach Camp Mather is right outside the main park entrance, but if single-lane twisty mountain roads are your thing, this is an alternative to Evergreen Rd.
Spillway at O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir completed in 1923
The Tuolumne River & Kirkwood Powerhouse
Beyond the turnoff for Mather Rd, the Tuolumne River is reached 8 miles north of Highway 120 after dropping into the canyon. It's all downhill to the Kirkwood Powerhouse built in 1967 which has three Pelton turbines to generate electricity.
Water is sourced from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and flows right out of the side of the mountain through a massive penstock and to the valley floor. There is a small forest service community in the canyon. A dam upstream is assessable on the north side of the Tuolumne River which has its headwaters at the 8000 ft level inside the Yosemite National Park boundary (due east of this ride) and drains nearly 2000 square miles of mountain terrain.
To hike up the canyon, base at the Preston Falls Trailhead and you can hike into the Tuolumne Canyon. Preston Falls are located 7 miles up the canyon.
Headed back out of the valley you will be thrilled by the sequence of curves headed up the side of the mountain and then around it and back down to Cherry Creek Canyon.
Massive water pipes known as penstocks connect the reservoirs and power houses
My Yamaha Venture on Cherry Lake Rd moments before the brakes locked up
To Brake or Not to Brake
It was here as I was riding up out of the canyon that my front brakes failed. The motor began to strain as I felt the front brakes clamping down and refusing to release. Not like in the movies when Indiana Jones shoves a flag pole into the spokes of the baddies chasing after himself and Sean Connery, rather a gradual heat induced failure of the caliper tightening up on the disc and unable to release. Idiotic instinct is to just give it more gas, yeah, that’ll fix it. My caliper had other ideas and clamped down on the disc with vigor and wouldn’t let go. There I sat in the middle of the mountains with a motorcycle that wouldn’t move. I was sweeping the tour group, and they were all far ahead of me while I was lollygagging in the back merrily taking pictures. They’d come looking for me at some point, right? I had only paid a $1000 for this motorcycle and used it for freeway commuting to my job 60 miles away.
A few days earlier I had the impulsive idea to take it on a 1000-mile weekend ride. It could best be described as rickety. This was my second Yamaha Venture and I had put 60,000 miles on my first one in two years after wandering all over North America. No car helps boost the overall mileage count.
The Venture had linked brakes. The brake lever controlled the left caliper while the foot pedal controlled the right front and rear. And therein was the solution. Parked along this deserted stretch of Cherry Lake Rd, I unbolted the front left caliper and zip tied it to the fork tube. I still had brakes using the foot pedal. And we were off again, headed up Cherry Lake Rd. The next day, the rear caliper also locked up, and I simply unbolted that also and zip-tied it to the bike, then rode the 500-miles home with only the right front caliper working and lots of engine braking.
Subsequently, sold that bike; I believe the Craigs List phrasing is ‘Mechanics Special’, and bought a Honda ST1100 for commuting duties. After that ride, stuck to the Hayabusa for touring, to which I’ve since ridden another 125,000 miles on the Hayabusa. Much more reliable.
Removing the rear caliper. Just one caliper left.
Along the way, a rarely unused aqueduct flows alongside the road, providing a scene worth stopping to grab a photo. A 6-mile-long tunnel carries water from Cherry Lake where it enters a large diameter penstock popping out of the mountainside and flowing straight down 2100 feet to Early Intake Powerhouse.
Cherry Creek then originates back to the twin reservoirs of Cherry Lake and Eleanor Reservoirs.
These reservoirs are also connected to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir inside the Yosemite National Park boundary to balance out the distribution of stored water in dry years. Last used in 2015 during an exceptionally dry period in Northern California, water was allowed to flow from Cherry Lake and Lake Eleanor into Hetch Hetchy which provides the drinking water for 2.6 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Historic Lower Cherry Aqueduct
Historic Lower Cherry Aqueduct was constructed in 1916-17 to provide water for hydroelectric power generation to support the construction of O'Shaughnessy Dam and other upcountry facilities of the Hetch Hetchy Water and Power (HHWP) system. Electrical generation to power nighttime lighting and indispensable construction tools began in May 1918.
To ensure the availability of water for continuous power generation, HHWP constructed Eleanor Dam on Eleanor Creek in 1916 to convert the original shallow lake into Lake Eleanor Reservoir - the first of HHWP's upcountry facilities. Water released from Lake Eleanor flows down Eleanor Creek for about 3.5 miles to its confluence with Cherry Creek, then down Cherry Creek to the Cherry Creek Diversion Dam. Here, headgates can be opened to allow water to flow into the Lower Cherry Aqueduct, a 3.3-mile-long system of flumes and canals that directed water to the Early Intake Powerhouse, located on the Tuolumne River about 12 miles downstream from the O'Shaughnessy Dam site.
Rarely used aqueduct runs alongside a portion of Cherry Lake Rd
The aqueduct was subsequently extended past the powerhouse via flumes and canals to an outfall at Early Intake Reservoir, a short distance upstream of the powerhouse. There it could be diverted into the Mountain Tunnel of the Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct to provided auxiliary water supplies for the San Francisco Bay Region. It continues to serve that function today.
Modifications to the system over time included installation of sluice gates at the diversion dam, and replacement of some segments of open canal with large-diameter pipes.
Early Intake Powerhouse was decommissioned in 1967. Its functions were replaced by HHWP's Holm Powerhouse, fed by a water tunnel that conveys water from Cherry Lake and Lake Eleanor, and Kirkwood Powerhouse, fed by a water tunnel from Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
Aqueduct emerges from the mountainside and runs alongside portions of Cherry Lake Rd
2013 Rim Fire
This aqueduct system was damaged by the 2013 Rim Fire, so named for its proximity to the Rim of the World vista point, a scenic overlook on Highway 120 leading through Yosemite National Park. The Rim Fire in late 2013, started from an illegal campfire, spread at an alarming pace burning 100,000 acres of national forest land in the first four days along the northern boundary of Yosemite National Park while 15,000 local residents near the fire lines were ordered to evacuate. The fire was suppressed a month later but by then had burned 257,000 acres, roughly 400 square miles. The Rim Fire continued to smolder for up to a year later due to lack of rain and snow in the high country. The wildfire also shut down two of three hydroelectric plants and threatened the drinking water supply for 2.6 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area while burning to within one mile of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
The fire forced the transference of water from Hetch Hetchy to reservoirs at lower elevations and further away from the wildfire at downstream reservoirs clear across the state in San Mateo and Alameda Counties. Salvage logging took place after the fire along with replanting, and you’ll see the efforts of replanting along the way approaching the Tuolumne River.
Fifteen miles north of Highway 120, Cherry Lake Rd intersects with Forest Rd 1N04 (National Forest 31). This is a paved single-lane mountain road combined with FR 3N01 bisecting the Cherry Lake Loop northward all the way to Cottonwood Rd. FR 3N01 (NF 31) meets up with Cottonwood Rd 9 miles later near Reed Creek.
As you approach Cherry Lake, there’s a paved access road to the base of the earthen dam via FR 1N07 / Cherry Oil Rd. There’s a locked gate as you get close to the base of the dam, not sure why you’d want to ride down there, but the road is paved to Cherry Creek.
The ride to Cherry Lake is narrow, no margin for error and surprisingly fair pavement. Cherry Lake is 23 miles north of Highway 120 and requires a turn east to reach the lake. If you ignore the turn at the lake, the ride continues towards Tuolumne via Cottonwood Rd to complete the northern half of the loop.
View of Cherry Lake Reservoir, over the ridge line to the east is Lake Eleanor
Cherry Lake Reservoir
Cherry Lake Dam was completed in 1956 at a height of 315 ft and created a 1535-acre lake at the 4700 ft level. In-flows into the lake originate in the Emigrant Wilderness at the 8800 ft level. A paved road leads to the dam, and then stops at a campground along the west side of the lake. You can ride across the earthen dam to join up with a dirt road that extends north a short distance along the lake edge but this doesn't actually go anywhere. The gate across the spillway and dam closes December to April. Vehicles use it to access the east side of the lake and drive down to the water's edge as the lake level rises and falls through the seasons. This campground along Cherry Lake also provides the perfect base for dual sport riders as all roads to the east are now dirt fire roads. The day-use area is on the west side of Cherry Valley Dam with a boat ramp and a designated swim area.
Spillway at Cherry Lake Dam
Every few years, the lake may have most of the water released for maintenance on the infrastructure. Lake levels were dropped in 1988, 2012 and again in 2017. If your intent is to boat or fish on the lake, best to check out water levels at the lake ahead of time.
In addition, what you can't see from Cherry Lake is over the hill on the east side of the reservoir is Lake Eleanor, a remote mountain lake that has not one paved road leading to it. However, one can ride across the Cherry Lake dam to the east side and turn south onto FR 1N14 and ride 4.5 miles to reach the Lake Eleanor Trailhead parking and hike the short distance to the lake. FR 1N14 is a dirt fire road. Lake Eleanor has an unusual dam shape known as a concrete multiple arch dam which bears similarities to the dam on the June Lake Loop and being completed in 1918 dates from a similar time period in dam design. Lake Eleanor is also inside the boundaries of Yosemite National Park.
I like surprises. We all do. Motorcyclists in particular love one specific surprise. New pavement. I’ve ridden the Cherry Lake Loop multiple times over the years and led motorcycle tour groups through this section, but the last ride was the best.
Brand-new fresh pavement for several sections of the ride on the northern leg of Cottonwood Rd from Cherry Lake back to Tuolumne spread a broad smile across my helmeted head.
Cottonwood Rd is two lanes for the duration with broad sweeping curves and surrounded in thick forest.
Large cattle range signs are painted on the road surface. Another reminder that much of the Sierra Nevada is open cattle range, and it’s possible to come rolling around a corner and have a cow in the middle of the road.
Growing up on a beef farm, I will tell you with a degree of familiarity, they are not the smartest animals. Regardless of how happy they are. The calves are skittish and unpredictable if you come up on one blazing around a corner.
If non-stop deserted mountain curves are something that might cause you to smile, this is your road. Reservoir building created this road and the curves are smooth, constant, and delightful. This ride also lacks extreme hairpins or sudden decreasing radius turns that might give cause for surprise.
Cottonwood Rd has several long stretches of dreamy smooth brand-new pavement
At the halfway mark on the Cottonwood Rd leg is a concrete bridge over the Clavey River. There may be cars parked along the road and people walking along the road headed for the bridge. Starting from the east side of the bridge and one mile upstream is God’s Bath, one of many not-so-secret swimming holes locals love during hot summer days. Locals will hike up to a waterfall that plunges into a pool surrounded in granite walls of rock forming a small canyon. And, there is no easy path or walking trail. The trek begins with descending into the steep canyon while hanging onto a rope. Picture repelling. Once in the canyon along the river, the rest of the trek involves climbing over car-sized river rocks, more rope and large granite boulders. This day I was in full leathers, we’ll save the repelling for another day. If you plan on coming here, do some advance homework.
Bridge over the Clavey River to God's Bath Swimming Hole
Spring runoff can create dangerous currents and heavy water flows over the rocks and locals will be quick to tell you a story of someone who recently died here or was injured either jumping off the rocks or even being sucked under by the powerful currents. At the falls is a glory hole you can jump into, but to exit the glory hole, you’ll need to swim through an underwater opening in the granite wall of the glory hole that resembles an underwater cave. Several people tragically die here it seems each year, swept away in the current, or held underneath by powerful eddies at the waterfall or among the large rocks. Again, do your homework before coming here.
The Clavey River will continue its downward fall until it joins with the Tuolumne River and flows towards Wards Ferry Rd and into Don Pedro Reservoir. The Clavey, Creek and Tuolumne will converge into Don Pedro Reservoir and all flow under Graffiti Bridge.
The ride stretches another 17 miles from the Clavey Creek Bridge to Tuolumne with one more river crossing at the North Fork Tuolumne River. If you’re riding counter-clockwise, you’ll never notice the road name change to Fish Hatchery Rd. No road signs and no junction, but your GPS may get confused. We’ve always called this entire northern leg Cottonwood Rd, but it goes by several names per your mapping program.
Some years ago, my mapping program claimed this road didn’t exist. Software built by someone who’s never set foot in this county claimed it didn’t connect to Cherry Lake Rd and back to Highway 120. It does. And there’s only one paved road. Stay on the main road and no issues with road signs and directions.
When Cottonwood Rd loops over the North Fork Tuolumne River we’ve got only a few miles to Tuolumne. What you can’t see from the river bottom section is the railroad bed that runs along the north side of the road.
Spot fires still burning a month after the 2014 King Fire
West Side Rails – Tuolumne City to North Fork /Tuolumne River Railroad Tracks
Originally known as the West Side Rails – Tuolumne City to North Fork /Tuolumne River railroad tracks, this railroad bed does intersect Cottonwood Rd about 4.5 miles from Tuolumne near the River Ranch Campground and is now a hiking & mountain bike trail. Originally built by the West Side Lumber Company, the railroad bed was built by hand with picks and shovels on a relatively flat trek into the canyon to bring out lumber. At one time, there were 70 miles of track in the region. This three-foot narrow-gauge railroad first operated under the name of the Hetch Hetchy & Yosemite Valley Railroad, starting in 1898. Most of the tracks have been pulled up, but some stretches of track remain forlorn and forgotten. On the motorcycle, you’ll never notice it unless you’re looking for it.
Envision more twisty goodness in the last few miles into Tuolumne. This ride is remote and very little if anything of significance along the way. Towns, none of those. People, none of those either. But from the motorcyclist’s perspective, it has curves, and a lot of them. It doesn’t need all that other stuff, but what it does have going for it is exactly what you’ve been looking for.
The Hose Cart House in memory of those who fought fire and originated the first volunteer fire dept. in the town site of Summerville in 1885.
Where to next?
To ride the Cherry Lake Loop clockwise: Ride to Tuolumne and point the GPS to Buchanan Rd which appears as a residential street. There is a white small shed (pictured) housing fire hose equipment. Riding southbound, two options when you reach Highway 120, turn east towards Yosemite National Park and check out Hetch Hetchy Reservoir or turn west and pick up Smith Station Rd back to Coulterville and Highway 49 The Little Dragon.
The Cherry Lake Loop connects Highway 120 Tioga Pass with Highway 108 Sonora Pass. To reach Highway 4 Ebbetts Pass, consult the directions on that page to bypass Sonora and ride around the city to avoid the traffic and congestion