Highway 4 to Highway 395
Sierra Nevada Range, California
Alpine & Mono- COUNTY
18 Miles - LENGTH
Super fantastic, smooth, main highway - PAVEMENT
Delicious, Dreamy, Delectable - CURVES
Hwy 4 to Hwy 395 - CONNECTS
Markleeville, Topaz Lake, Walker- GAS
Ride Monitor Pass....
Quick Ride: Enjoyable ride up and over 8300-foot mountain pass, Stunningly scenic with broad open views. Connects Highway 4 with Highway 395. Perfect leg in your journey for a Highway 4 / Highway 108 all-day loop to ride three mountain passes in one day.
Monitor Pass. I thought if I really focused on what to share with you about this mountain pass, some sort of inspired epiphany might come to me. For many years, this has been a favorite pass for many a local rider despite the short length of only 18 miles.
My sweeper often comes to me as we approach this pass, do you mind if I lead, he asks with a knowing grin. It’s all you I reply, take the lead. A decade ago, I might not have given that up. We mount up in Markleeville after topping off and head up towards Highway 4 Ebbetts Pass along the Carson River. Five miles later, a left turn onto Highway 98 Monitor Pass, and the tour group takes off accelerating up Lexington Canyon towards the summit.
Monitor was once a mining camp nearby. It was named in 1863 after the Civil War ironclad Monitor, which fought the Merrimac at the start of the Civil War in 1862. Monitor Creek and Monitor Pass retain the name dating back to the original mining camp.
The Hayabusa beneath me burbles a steady note emanating in ripples of happy sound. The bike tools along and instead of chasing after my tour group swimming in neck snapping horsepower & sparky knee pucks, I take it slow attempting to memorize each curve. There is no other traffic on this late Friday afternoon. Curves here are smoothed steady affairs of unfiltered puppy dog happiness. Pavement is dreamy smooth and often rather clean with a slightly wider stance allowing truck wheels to stay on pavement without kicking up rocks onto the road.
Two miles up Lexington Canyon, the map labels this as Loope, but there is nothing here. Not even a hint of a town although there was a post office here in 1898 through 1908 which served the local mining operations.
Monitor Pass in present day is a paradise for UTVs and dual sport capable bikes. LP Canyon Road heads north from the ghost town of Loope and you can ride to the summit of Colorado Hill. LP Canyon Rd heads up into the hills and splits off in multiple directions along the California-Nevada border.
Heenan Lake is a 130-acre lake alongside Highway 89 eight miles in that is known for its lahontan cutthroat trout, a native species of the east side of the Sierra Nevada. The lake is strictly catch-and-release open to fishing only in the fall. The Dept of Fish & Game takes up to 2 million eggs annually from the cutthroat in Heenan Lake during May for restocking 30 other lakes in California & Nevada.
For example, 322 females produced 56,760 eggs which are then fertilized. Yearlings are reared from these eggs, and then a small portion returned to Heenan Lake each year. The rest are used to restock lakes in the eastern Sierra. A dirt road leads a short distance to the lake and the dam is clearly visible. The area surrounding the lake is 1700 acres of the Heenan Lake Wildlife Area at the 7100-foot level and managed by the Dept of Fish and Game.
Heenan Lake is a small 130-acre lake along Monitor Pass
The lake was originally a marshy depression, but a dam was completed in 1925 by the Dangberg family to irrigate ranches and farms downstream. Heenan Lake is thought to have been named after a Mr. Heenan who worked at the nearby Leviathan Mine during the 1860s and was killed in a mine blast.
Leviathan Mine is a few corners up the road. This road appears to be paved, but only for a few hundred feet. Leviathan Mine Rd is a graded dirt road for several miles but as it nears the mine becomes increasingly rough and is better suited for dual sports with higher ground clearance. The mine site can’t be seen from Monitor Pass, but spans 250 acres and dates to 1863. The word Leviathan is a biblical term for a huge marine animal. Like many mines of the time, it was given a name suggestive of great riches. Over the next seven years through 1870, 500 tons of copper sulfate was removed to be used in silver ore refining. Nearby Virginia City in Nevada was known of massive amounts of silver removed from regions beneath the town.
Tryon 9978', Highland 10935' and Silver Peak 10772'
By 1951 after changing owners several times, the site was expanded into an open pit mine for sulfur growing another 50 acres and a 400-foot-deep pit while 500,000 tons of sulfur was removed. Mining at the top of a mountain had unintended repercussions. The mine here contaminated nearby creeks with arsenic and several other residual chemicals from mining operations. Several creeks around the site join together flowing directly into Gardnerville on the Nevada side then all combining into the East Fork of the Carson River. Site cleanup began as early as 1983 with multiple attempts and methods to restore the site and contain the bleed into area creeks.
The open pit was filled in and graded over, but over time, the site was declared a Superfund site in 2000 and was added to the National Priority List, a list of national hazardous waste sites eligible for long-term cleanup and restoration. However, from the motorcyclist’s perspective, you’ll never even know it’s there other than a tiny sign and an unmarked paved road heading north.
A short distance from the Leviathan Mine entrance are three gravel pullouts, but skip those. Further up 1 mile is a paved pullout where you hope that camper in front of you will pull over. It’s also a fantastic view to the southwest of three peaks in front of you: Tryon 9978', Highland 10935' and Silver Peak 10772'.
There’s a sign here for the Robert M. Jackson Memorial Highway & the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness created in 1984. The view as you near the 8000-foot level of the range in front of you is the 161,000-acre Carson-Iceberg Wilderness. This wilderness region lies on both sides of the range.
Robert M. Jackson was a valued public servant and an outstanding citizen of Alpine County. A Public Works Employee for thirty years beginning in 1946, Mr. Jackson surveyed this area on horseback, engineered, constructed and realigned many local, county and state routes – Including this 18-mile span of state highway 89 over Monitor Pass that traverses both Alpine and Mono Counties.
The further we get away from Highway 4 Ebbetts Pass towards the summit, the more the terrain changes to less trees, and more sagebrush. The sagebrush smells divine in summer during warmer weather and has a sweet smell that fills the air. Sagebrush gives off a powerful, pungent fragrance because of the presence of camphor, terpenoids and other volatile oils.
While the western side of the Sierra can get 50 inches of rain per season, the area around Monitor Pass, now on the eastern side of the Sierra may only get 15 inches, the vast majority of any precipitation falling as snow. One inch of rain generally converts to about 13 inches of snow, which still works out to 16 feet of snow around Monitor Pass. However, that number varies greatly in the type of snow. One inch of rain can produce up to 50 inches of very dry powdery snow with the right temperature and conditions. Snowfalls vary greatly atop the Sierra from year to year and during the recent 4-year drought that took place in California, the pass stayed open through mid-December, and opened back up in mid-January 2015.
The bowl at the double summit atop Monitor Pass 8314'
The following winter, the pass didn’t close at all. Conversely, the 2016-2017 winter saw large amounts of snow giving the pass its latest opening in 13 years in early May. But most passes in this region open mid-May.
It’s not uncommon for nearby Highway 120 Tioga Pass to have 50 feet of snow over the pass and open in mid-June. If you want to see the maximum amount of snow, watch the open and close dates on several different websites and target your ride as close to the open date as the snow melts very quickly in late May, early June as temperatures rise.
The CalTrans website is updated most frequently for road conditions. Take a look at the photos of the Highway 4 Ebbetts Pass for pics one ride in June with 15 feet of snow along the edge of the road as we rode by with a tour group.
Highway 89 begins to curl up to the summit through several S-curves, climbing steadily without any tight hairpins. The view is tough to not gape at as there are few trees and the view to the west is all snowcapped mountain peaks that reach to nearly 10,000 feet. It’s hard to resist the temptation to stop at every overlook. Sight lines are broad and you can see up the hillside at any approaching traffic as you climb.
Groves of white quaking aspen trees begin to appear as you near the summit. These trees are common at high elevations. When we make one final ride through here in September as the leaves begin to change, these trees have brilliant yellow and orange leaves and are very photogenic with those brilliant colors juxtaposed against their white trunks.
Two S curves through the aspen grove and Monitor Pass peaks over a ridge into a short straight. In the bottom of the bowl are two dirt roads headed north and south. Both head to nearby peaks, perfect (again) for the UTV. On the east side of the bowl is the actual Monitor Pass where a small granite marker has been placed with the 8314-foot elevation. It’s the perfect photo spot for pass baggers, those seeking pictures of their bike with the sign at the top of every mountain pass.
Notice that building ahead atop Leviathan Peak. That's an abandoned fire lookout anyone can ride up to. Worth the dirt road excursion to see the view.
Dead ahead is a little building atop Leviathan Peak in front of you. That tiny building is a fire lookout. For many years, my curiosity gnawed at me. There are no road signs, but it’s obvious there’s a road up there. It took a peek on Google Earth to figure out how to get up there. The dirt road to the top of Leviathan Peak is .3 miles from the Monitor Pass summit sign and 1.4 miles to the summit. There is no road sign or any indication this dirt road goes anywhere, but Leviathan Lookout Rd, Forest Road 31057, leads up to the fire lookout at 8942 feet, built in 1958.
There is a pullout about one mile up the road if you want to walk up. Not a soul around, I rode right up to the summit through two hairpins. The road itself is in very poor condition with rocks, washouts and off-chamber grading. There is a gate 2/3 up, but it was open on the day I was there, and I rode right up on my Z1000 to the summit which was slow going but was a rather simple but careful affair with 350’ of elevation gain.
Road 31057 to the top of Leviathan Peak to reach the abandoned fire lookout
Click Slider > to view a visit to Leviathan Peak Fire Lookout
The lookout is abandoned, but the peak is now used for communication equipment atop a 100-foot-tall tower along with a large solar array. A vault underneath the lookout holds even more communication equipment. The unobstructed view from nearly 9000 feet is breathtaking, especially with the snow capped peaks to the east. If you have the time, the ride up to the summit is well worth it.
Stunning views of the Antelope Valley
The descent down the eastern side of the pass is another high stimulus thrill ride as Highway 89 passes through another quaking aspen grove and falls past the Alpine County line into Mono County. (pronounced mow-know, not mah-no, mah-no was what your girlfriend had in high school.)
As you flow across the county line, one of the most striking vistas in all of California Motorcycle Roads presents itself. One can’t help but pull over and attempt to absorb the scene as best as the brain can comprehend. There’s a paved pullout here that is the perfect place for a photo.
It’s too easy to park and take a quick snap of Slinkards Valley and continue your journey, but a few more minutes of time offers a tremendous view. There’s a whole of lot of space to absorb.
However, if you have a bit of time, what appears to be a nearby pile of rock 100 yards away through the sagebrush is actually a mini-crest of a mountain top. Walk on over and climb up the rocks. The view here is looking straight down on the northern edges of the Antelope Valley.
To the east is Smith Valley, to the north is Carson Valley. The state line runs right through the middle of Topaz Lake, and all that civilization on the Nevada side is casinos. If it’s late and you need gas or food, head for the casinos at the Nevada border.
The vast majority of the Antelope Valley below is on the California side of the border. Pasture and circular irrigated fields produce a green in the desert along with the West Walker River running the length of the valley. The base of the range below is the very western edge of the Great Basin Desert, an expanse of land, much of it wilderness, that stretches clear across the entire state of Nevada, Idaho and western Utah. It is a temperate desert with hot, dry summers and snowy winters due to high desert elevations, the majority over 3900’.
A broad depression known as Slinkards Valley presents itself with Slinkard Creek running right down the middle of the valley. At the far end of this is Napoleon Canyon. Mountain ridge tops surround this valley.
James Slinkard, who was the road supervisor of Douglas Co., Nevada from 1862 to 1865, built a road alongside Slinkards Creek into what became known as Slinkards Valley. A dirt road still flows up the valley and connects with Hwy 395 as Mill Canyon Rd (Golden Gate Rd connects to Slinkard Canyon) at the south end of Coleville. Boarshead Rd is the dirt road you see from the summit flowing up the valley. It’s not marked along Highway 89 but is 3.3 miles west of Highway 395
The descent off the summit is pure joy. Motorcycling at its best. Describe the perfect riding experience? This is it. Look no further. Perfect pavement, endless curve, impressive views, unencumbered views spanning across mountain tops. Ride it fast, ride it slow, makes no difference. Descend off this broad viewpoint curving downhills through two switchbacks and then a series of easy does it S-curves.
There is one final section of Monitor Pass and Highway 89 squeezes into a narrow canyon of Slinkards Valley weaving left and right along the creek. Corners are signed at 25 mph and they can occasionally be dirty with sand bleeding off the road cut. These last curves are blind corners so leave a margin of error in your pacing. Popping out of the canyon into a short straight provides a much-needed exhale after riding the length of Monitor Pass.
Slider > of the ride down to Highway 395
Where to next?
South: At Highway 395, you’ll have the option to circle around to Highway 88, but a better option is plan to make a loop and head back over the Sierra via Highway 108 Sonora Pass. Further south is Highway 120 Tioga Pass across Yosemite NP and Highway 120 to Benton Crossing, its eastern counterpart headed east along the bottom on Mono Lake. Ten miles south is the tiny town of Walker along Highway 395. We have brought may tour groups to this tiny town for the West Walker Motel, a small 9 room motel built in the 1940s. A recent renovation has improved the interior of the rooms while preserving the 1940s nostalgia. Bodie Ghost Town is not far away at Bridgeport.
North: Circle around north via Highway 395 to Highway and climb back over the Sierra Nevada via Highway 88 Carson Pass or over to Lake Tahoe and north on Highway 89.
East: Riding Highway 89 Monitor Pass eastward will take you directly to Highway 4 Ebbetts Pass and these two roads are often combined together to ride from Highway 395 all the way into the Central Valley and into the San Francisco Bay Area. When you hit Highway 4, a turn north will take you into Markleeville for fuel and eats.
Pashnit Motorcycle Tour group while riding Monitor Pass
A few years ago, some riders developed a rating system for roads to rank them from best to not so best. They added in all the pertinent mathematical formulas, twistiness, pavement, engineering, scenery, remoteness and finally, character. In the end, they compared them all, added up the mathematical score and came out with a clear winner. The authors named Highway 89 Monitor Pass as the best motorcycle road in the state of California. I have to admit that as a connoisseur of roads for motorcyclists, I never wanted to create a rating system for roads. Which is why this site has never had anything like that in the last 20 years. Read the description, absorb the photos, glue the legs together in your journey. You decide. Who am I to say what type of road you’ll like? I have no idea. That’s your job.
Highway 89 Monitor Pass - Photo Gallery
MORE INFO: Highway 89 Monitor Pass
RIDE IT on a PASHNIT TOUR
18 Miles - LENGTH
Main highway, perfect- PAVEMENT
Fast, smooth, numerous, large elevation change - CURVES
Highway 4 to Highway 395 - CONNECTS
Markleeville, Topaz Lake, Walker - GAS
Markleeville, Topaz Lake, Walker- LODGING
8314 ft- PEAK ELEVATION
38°41′42″N 119°46′49″W - Markleeville
LISTED CONNECTING SIDEROADS
Forest Road 31057(dirt)