Ride over Sherman Pass across the Kern Plateau
Quick Ride: Ride over 9000 ft across the southernmost Sierra Nevada Pass
I’ve always had a thing for paper maps. Tactile, tangible, they speak, oh, the journeys we will have together, of endless squiggly lines and deserted mountaintops. Ever since my first ride across the United States done with xeroxed pages of a Rand McNally Road Atlas of North America, that 5000-miles-in-9-days experience has stayed with me, even thirty years later. Each morning, I pulled out my highlighter and traced out the planned route, then slid the new piece of copy paper into a Ziploc bag, and scotch taped it to my fuel tank. Each fuel stop over the course of 5000 miles, I had to peel back the Ziploc bag to fill up the gas tank, then reattach the Ziploc bag, with even more layers of scotch tape, laden with layers of copy paper of the Western United States.
Fast-forward a few years, a few decades, still staring at a 2-dimensional paper map, this time headed for the Southern Sierra Nevada. I had learned there was another mountain pass in the Southern Sierra Nevada Range. Carson, Ebbetts, Sonora, Tioga, get all the attention, we’re done, right? My paper map showed a narrow, thin line, on par with what could be a dirt road. And, I had learned of a place called the Domeland Wilderness, it had wilderness in the title, and it led to a place known as Kennedy Meadows. A community so remote, they don’t even have electricity and phone services only arrived a few years ago. The only logical thing to do was ride in that general direction to check it out.
Sherman Pass Rd climbs to a 9200 ft summit in the Southern Sierra
Highway 395 borders the eastern edge, and the Kern River Canyon borders the western edge of this mountain plateau, ensuring this region remains wild, remote, and isolated with zero commercial development. The Kern River splits the southern Sierra Nevada Mountain Range into two separate fingers, flowing southward into Lake Isabella. The western finger has Forest Road 23S16 along the spine, and the eastern finger is the Kern Plateau.
Much of this area in the Kern River Canyon was burned in the McNally Fire of 2002 which was a massive fire for the time, burning 150,000 acres or 234 square miles. Over 400,000 trees were re-planted during the recovery phase after the fire, but the scar is still clearly visible over two decades later.
Aftermath of the 2002 McNally Fire along Sherman Pass Rd
Sherman Pass spans 67 miles from the Kern River Canyon to Highway 395, and fuel stops have to be planned carefully if you have a low-mileage bike in the 120-mile range. The sign at the start of Sherman Pass reads Next Fuel 75 Miles. Fuel is available in Kernville, but Sherman Pass Rd is located 20 miles north up the river canyon from Kernville. The total ride from Kernville over Sherman Pass to Highway 395 is just shy of 100 miles to fuel, prudence says be prepared.
There is an above ground fuel tank at the halfway mark at Kennedy Meadows, but (1) you’re assuming they have fuel, and (2) they’re open, and (3) they have power. Since there is no electricity in Kennedy Meadows, the business runs off a portable generator. Gas here is expensive, but you may top off a gallon or two is all you need for peace of mind.
The ranger station is located on the west side of the plateau and there are four primitive campgrounds. You’ll see many dirt bikes along this ride, as the Kern Plateau is an active destination for off-road aficionados with over 25 different developed trails.
The Kern Plateau, at the southern tip of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, is a remote, high elevation plateau offering a retreat from the heat of summer and beautiful outdoor settings for almost any outdoor recreation activity. Consisting of more than 950 square miles, the Kern Plateau has served as a summer destination for many generations and cultures, beginning with the earliest Native Americans.
Today popular outdoor activities include camping, hiking, off highway vehicle use, and horseback riding along with the traditional hunting, fishing and cattle grazing. In the winter the area offers excellent over snow vehicle (OSV), snow shoeing, and cross-country skiing opportunities.
The author dwarfed by rock formations near the 9200 ft summit of Sherman Pass
Sherman Pass begins climbing from the 3800 ft level and quickly climbs through the 5,6,7,8000-foot levels with the use of numerous switchbacks. What makes Sherman Pass unique in the litany of aforementioned central Sierra Nevada Passes is the compactness of this ascension. Where the Central Sierra Passes take their time to reach the summit (from the west), Sherman Pass hurriedly climbs into the sky in dramatic fashion, with amazing wide-open views to the west across the Kern River Canyon. Nearing the top, make sure to pull to the side and look back down into the canyon, as the layers of s-curves and hairpins stack up one level after the other to reach the crest. At the summit is another pullout with a vista looking east across the Kern Plateau. The elevation here at the summit is 9200 ft.
Sherman Pass Vista
Take a pause at Sherman Pass Vista, you can see much of the Kern Plateau in the Sequoia National Forest. On a clear day, you can see beyond this 205,160-acre plateau to Mount Whitney, about 40 miles away to the northeast from the vista.
Bald Mountain Lookout at 9382 ft is located six miles east of the Sherman Pass Vista, and scans over 1000 square miles with a view of Domeland, Golden Trout and South Sierra Wilderness. From atop the fire lookout tower, visitors can see Olancha Peak and Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States and the Sierra Nevada Range, with an elevation of 14,505 feet.
Sherman Pass Vista at 9200 Ft
Bald Mountain Lookout
Bald Mountain Lookout is a manned lookout tower in the Domeland Wilderness on the Sequoia National Forest. From Sherman Pass Road (22S05) take the dirt Bald Mountain Lookout Road (22S77) and follow the dirt road until you reach the tower. Bald Mountain Fire Lookout first became active in 1951. The lookout used today was constructed in 1955 from materials brought in via a mule train along trails before roads were carved out by logging companies in the 1950s. Bald Mountain Lookout is located at an elevation of 9,430 feet off the Sherman Pass Road near Black Rock Station in the Southeastern most portion of the Sequoia National Forest, Kern River Ranger District. It is also used for BLM and Inyo Forest Fire traffic. The lookout is open to the general public Thursday through Monday.
Bald Mountain Fire Lookout is open to the public and reached by the dirt Bald Moutain Lookout Rd (FR 22S77)
Several years ago, Sherman Pass was chip sealed - my Pashnit Tour group was there the day after. Road Construction, Next 32 miles, said the sign. Ooy. My Z1000 streetfighter beneath me went a little squirrelly, wiggling back and forth. Have you ever ridden atop a layer of marbles? Rocks flew ping-ping off my 200 series rear tire at the riders behind me, and they appropriately backed off, spread out and stayed in a staggered formation.
This has happened several times through the years, and each time, that particular ride became the stuff of legends. As if surviving the experience made the ride all the more memorable due to the danger, the adrenaline, and the squirrelly marble sensation. We finally reached the end of the long stretch of chip seal descending from the summit onto the flat plateau and I pulled the tour group over to make sure we all survived, culminating with fist bumps and high-fives being the order of the day.
Overall, the consensus, was let’s not do that again, was the agreed upon reaction. The rest of the ride into Kennedy Meadows was uneventful, as it should be. There are several alpine meadows visible as you descend off the summit, the most easily accessible is Paloma Meadows at 8400 ft, adorned in green grasses and surrounded in pine trees.
Kennedy Meadows, not to be confused with the other Kennedy Meadows along Highway 108 Sonora Pass, is a natural stopping point in the journey over the pass. The site has a welcome outdoor patio to enjoy lunch at the Chuckwagon BBQ and a small store to buy curio items all stamped with Kennedy Meadows. I got the kitchen magnet. Both establishments are centered around the Pacific Crest Trail hikers that pass through, welcoming you to ship packages via USPS to either business, where they lie in wait for hikers to reach the milestone location of Kennedy Meadows. There is an above ground fuel tank at Kennedy Meadows, and if you need fuel, despite the cost, this is the only place to top off the tank to put your mind at ease of the repeating thought of “Am I going to make it?”
Free camping is offered to Pacific Crest Trail hikers, and there’s often a few hikers hanging out at the store. Many pick up packages of supplies that are mailed to the Kennedy Meadows General Store addressed to them. During Summer months, movies are shown in an outdoor movie theater on Saturday nights beginning at dark.
Pot belly wood stove at Kennedy Meadows Store
There are three main campgrounds in Kennedy Meadows, Kennedy Meadows CG, Fish Creek, & Troy Meadows. There are also plenty of disbursed camping off trails like, Hooker, Jackass, & Monache Meadows. In addition, there are a many trails for riding dirt bikes on and get lost for days. Disbursed camping is plentiful for large trailers and groups as well.
Every year during August, Kennedy Meadows hosts Cowboy Days with a horseback poker ride, events, a live band, and rib eye steak dinner at the general store. There are also lots of spaces to bring your horses and park/camp and ride the many dirt bike trails based from Kennedy Meadows.
Pashnit Tour group stops by Grumpy Bears Resort for lunch
Grumpy Bears Resort
A few miles east of Kennedy Meadows is the Grumpy Bears Resort, which offers dispersed camping, showers and also welcomes hikers traveling along the Pacific Crest Trail. There is also a small restaurant here & the perfect stop for lunch.
The one time I showed up at Grumpy Bears Resort with a tour group in tow, rolling into the dirt parking lot, we entered a small barroom with a V-shaped bar that we all sat around under a deer antler chandelier. There were no lights on as there’s no electricity, just sunlight flooding through large windows.
The walls inside are adorned with many years of memories, countless photos, a full bear skin, old west pistols, a huge snake skin, spurs and the requisite yet elusive jackalope. The owner made sandwiches for our riders and food was terrific. When I asked for a receipt for lunch, I was handed a handwritten slip of paper that said ‘Grumpy Bears Lunch’, $15.00.
Nine Mile Canyon
Remember that part about this region being a plateau? It’s generally flat, which also means the road is flat, meandering through the sagebrush. Speeds are fast and smooth until Sherman Pass reaches Nine Mile Canyon. While the ride is two lane and smooth, Nine Mile Canyon drops 3000 feet in the last 10 miles to Highway 395. The ride here is fast, twisty, and wide open.
The wide-open nature of the road invites speed, headed up, or headed down. While there are several long stretches of guard rails, most of the ride has few if any barrier between you and the canyon below. Lack of attention may have you riding off a cliff into the canyon.
In addition, this is a desert, so keep an eye out for sand in the road. Add in blind corners and a narrow mountain road mean a truck is headed straight for you when you least expect it, anticipate opposing traffic using the whole lane and not paying any attention to lane discipline. But thankfully you can see a long way off down the canyon wall, and you’ll likely be able to see opposing traffic headed for you a long way off.
Halfway down the canyon, the Los Angeles Aqueduct pops out of the ground, bounces across the canyon, and then disappears again into the ground. The road cut visible on the other side of the canyon curls around the hillside and rejoins with the aqueduct on the other side of the mountaintop. Joshua Trees line the sparse hillsides at certain elevation bands.
Westbound video starting out on Nine Mile Canyon, headed uphill
Nine Mile Canyon Photo Gallery
MORE INFO: Sherman Pass Rd
RIDE IT on a PASHNIT TOUR
100 Miles - Kern Canyon to Highway 395 - LENGTH
Fairly well-maintained, remote highway - PAVEMENT
10% grade, Endless banked curves with tight hairpins - CURVES
none, lots of dispersed camping - LODGING
9200 ft- PEAK ELEVATION
35°45′17″N 118°25′31″W - Kernville
35°48′35″N 117°52′23″W - Pearsonville, CA
LISTED CONNECTING SIDEROADS:
Western Divide Highway continues the ride