Sierra Nevada Moto Camping

I’m not sure what possessed me, but when I heard about the Sierra Stake Out motorcycle camping event in Emigrant Gap, CA, I decided that I was going to go, I was going to do it alone, and I was going to make it into an epic California road trip.

 

A Little Background

I’m not a hardcore biker. I do ride a Harley-Davidson, but it’s a moderate-sized “Street Bob,” not one of those big rolling couches with bags and trunks to accommodate long road trips easily. I’ve only been riding for 5 years, and this would be my first long camping trip — I’d need to pare down to the bare essentials and strap them all on to the back of the bike.

I’d never done a trip like this solo before, on a bike or otherwise! On my Harley, I’d mostly done little errands and day trips around Orange County with The Litas, a ladies’ motorcycle social club. And I’d camped and road-tripped before, but always in the company of family or friends. This was going to be a lot of uncharted territory for me!

 

The Plan

The Sierra Stake Out is a 3-day/2-night motorcycle campout, and this year, it would officially start at noon on a Friday. My plan was to leave before sunrise on Thursday, riding “the scenic route,” up beautiful US Route 395, which travels around the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. I’d enjoy a long day on the road, hitting some interesting stops I found via Google.

My plan was to get about three-quarters of the way to the final destination and find a place to camp out — which should not be a problem, as the area is surrounded with national parks and forests, all with myriad campground choices.

Then, I’d wake up early on Friday and ride that last leg fairly quickly to get to the event at start time and stake out a good camping spot! I’d enjoy the camp out, and then ride home in one day “the fast way,” down I-5, which runs through the center of the state. It would be a long haul, but that way, I wouldn’t have to miss an extra workday.

 

Preparation

For the bike:

One of the first things I did to prep for the trip was to get my motorcycle in for an oil change and a checkup. Riding alone, I didn’t want to take any chances on a mechanical problem. I also assembled a little toolkit to carry with me. In a neat little bag, I added some appropriate-sized wrenches, a multi-tip screwdriver, pliers, and the most important items: duct tape and zip ties! Because I knew that everything I’d take with me would need to be attached to my bike, I also bought a bundle of bungee cords and a little cargo net, so I’d have some options. And finally, while my bike can get over 200 miles on a full tank, I decided to pick up a small gas can, so I wouldn’t have to worry about mapping out fuel stops! I decided on a RotopaX 1.75 gallon gasoline pack, because of its sturdiness, cool spout system, and handy design with lots of handles and holes that would make it easy to strap onto the bike.

For me:

All of my previous camping adventures involved a car, so I was used to being able to bring “everything but the kitchen sink!” Camping via motorcycle, probably similar to backpacking, really forces you to get choosy about what to bring. Luckily, I could make plentiful stops along the way for food and water, and my final destination would also provide water and food options — so I didn’t have to worry much about that. Just the basic camping gear would do, along with a hammock, as I heard there would be a lot of great tree options!

For clothing, I needed to plan for temperatures ranging from 45-90+, so layers were definitely in order! I packed a cozy base layer for cool nights, some sweats, and a few extra t-shirts for hot days. I also brought some swimming gear in case I wanted to jump in a lake or river, and a super light microfiber towel.

When I ride, I always wear full safety gear, including: heavy leather riding boots, Kevlar pants, a mesh Kevlar riding jacket, a helmet, and riding gloves laden with protective plastic knuckles (which I think look really hardcore!). All of this protection comes with a cost — I’ll be sweaty on the hot parts of the ride, so I need to make sure I stay hydrated. For this, I decided to wear a CamelBak (which I originaly purchased for bicycling!) so I could sip water while I was on the road.

Here’s a quick shot of everything I’d be bringing:

1) RotopaX gas can  2) Microfiber towel  3) Inflatable sleeping mat  4) Clothing, packed into a Ziploc Space Bag  5) Hammock  6) A mini LED lantern  7) LED headlamp  8) CamelBak  9) Sleeping bag, packed into a Ziploc Space Bag  10) 1-person tent  11) Tri-leg camp stool

I tied the tent to my handlebars, safe behind the windshield. The rest, I jammed into a large duffel that I’d bought at an old army surplus store. It was the perfect size to sit neatly on the fender, strapped to the sissy bar on my bike.

Loaded Bike

Fully loaded!

Pro Tip: I was concerned about the paint on my fender getting worn/scratched from the load, so I added a layer of puffy, non-adhesive shelf liner. It did the trick! No wear or scratches.

The Voyage Begins

I actually left the house and got on the road before the sun came up. I beat the morning traffic completely and got to watch the sun rise over the desert as I sped towards Route 395.

Desert Sun

After I was on 395 and getting settled into my journey, the sun made its way overhead and the heat really cranked up! I quickly sucked down the contents of my CamelBak and started dumping bottles of blue Gatorade in there at every gas stop.

 

First Stop — Fossil Falls

Fossil Falls Lava RocksFossil Falls is an ancient dry waterfall, with rock from lava flows and unique formations created from glacial melt. I found this little gem on the internet, and it seemed like a place that was not heavily traveled! A fairly nondescript (and BUMPY) dirt road takes you from 395 to a parking lot about a mile in. You can take a path from the lot and explore the lava rock formations right away, which are interesting in and of themselves, but hike just a little further and you come to the incredible dry falls!

It started getting reeeally hot while I was hiking around at Fossil Falls, so much so that after I’d left and got back on the road, my iPhone basically stopped functioning and showed this warning screen! I dislike riding without my phone, because I have bluetooth speakers in my helmet and love having a little background music, as well as navigation. So, I sped on to the next gas station, where I and my phone could both cool off a bit.

The best way to cool off fast!

 

Stop Two — Manzanar

Despite the fact that stopping (or even slowing down) in the heat was a sure-fire way to end up a sweaty mess, I felt like I needed to make the stop at the Manzanar National Historic Site — this is where the Manzanar Internment Camp was located during World War II, and is now a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the Japanese-Americans who lived there. It was an amazing site, with tons of historical photos and artifacts, as well as interactive features that really take you into the past.

After you go through the museum, you can get in your car (or hop on your bike!) and take a path around the grounds, where they have replicas of historical buildings and signs pointing out where various features of the camp used to be. It culminates at this monument, built in 1943 by one of the men who’d lived there.

A Slight Change of Plans

As you might notice in the photo from Manzanar above, the sky turned dark fast while I was there. There was actually a bit of lightning and thunder while I stood there! The rain hadn’t reached me yet, and I decided I’d better get back on the road FAST and try to outrun it. I didn’t really plan for rain, and did not have any rain gear with me. It seemed like I was going to make it.

My next planned stop was a little hike in Inyo National Forest’s “Forest of Ancients,” which contains Methuselah, one of the oldest known living trees! It was germinated before the Egyptian Pyramids were built!!!

But alas, the rain started. It was just a sprinkle here and there, but menacing clouds promised more in store. I twisted the throttle and sped off to the closest gas station I could find. When I got there, I pulled under the overhang just in time. It started raining. I decided to stick around and have a bite to eat, and by the time I finished, the rain had stopped.

I very nearly turned around and went back. I wanted to see those ancient trees! But, the sky was still dark, and I realized that I should probably find my accommodations for the night and get set up before night fell. So, I continued on.

 

The Storm

Unfortunately, the rain returned. Hard, pelting rain that hurt to ride into. It forced me to slow down a bit. As I suffered along, I noticed another motorcycle coming from the other direction, and the rider shook his head at me as he passed. I wasn’t sure how to interpret that, so I just kept going. I should have guessed… the rain got even worse!! My boots were filled with water. I was just entering the town of Bishop and I made the executive decision to just stop and stay there for the night at a hotel, where I could dry off and be assured a good night’s rest. Of course, shortly after I got myself booked in, the rain stopped, and the clouds drifted away. Ah well.

 

Day 2

I needed to leave early again, before the sun came up, so I could get to the event campsite in time to grab a good spot! The problem with leaving early here, is that the temperature is significantly lower until the sun gets up into the sky. I found myself slightly unprepared for riding in the cold, and shivered along for a few hours, stretching out my fingers to try to keep the blood flowing. I finally stopped at a gas station, where I treated myself to a big cup of coffee, enjoyed at a leisurely pace, while I warmed up a little before continuing on.

 

Mono Lake

While I didn’t have a lot of time for sightseeing on this day, I knew that I needed to stop at Mono Lake! It is a saltwater lake, formed at least 760,000 years ago. The lake is highly alkaline and the chemistry causes the formation of these alien-like limestone formations called “tufa towers.” This lake has an interesting ecology because of its chemistry — the water holds brine shrimp, and the beaches are COVERED with tiny alkali flies. I was almost scared at first, seeing this blanket of flies on the ground, but quickly discovered that they move out of your way as you walk to them, making a soft group buzz as they rise and almost glittering as they move aside for you. And once you discover that they move for you, it almost becomes a fun game, to walk around and have this carpet of tiny flies part for you! 😂They don’t bother you at all, as they eat algae and bacteria from the lake. Because of the high availability of brine shrimp and flies, there are also a lot of birds around the lake.

There are trails around the lake and you can camp along its shores. I wish I could have stayed and explored a while longer, but future adventures called me back to the road!

Lake Tahoe

The ride was beautiful and fairly uneventful for about two hours, until I arrived at Lake Tahoe. I wanted to take the road that goes around the lake because I had never been there before. While beautiful, that cost me some time! There were a few spots of road construction where workers were resurfacing the road, one side at a time, so they were stopping traffic alternating to let one side continue at a time, using the paved surface. Traffic was slow and heavy. In California, motorcycles are allowed to ride between lanes on multi-lane roads, something I am very grateful for in hot weather. But, because this was only one lane, I was forced to sit in the traffic and wait… and my bike started to overheat. Most motorcycles like mine are air-cooled, which becomes a challenge when you’re stuck in traffic like this on very hot days. A telltale red light flicked on near the speedometer, and I was forced to pull over, shut down, and let it cool off for a little bit. Luckily, when I turned the bike back on, the light was off, and traffic seemed to have lightened enough for me to at least keep moving, albeit slowly.

Lake Tahoe is this stunning shade of aqua blue, and surrounded by rock and majestic pines. There are beaches, water sports, hiking, places to camp, and in the winter — it’s an incredibly popular ski destination, surrounded by great resorts. You can tell that the town itself thrives on tourism — filled with little cabins, lots of charming shops and markets, and good-looking bars and restaurants. This was yet another place I wished I could have spent more time exploring. Hoping to return and spend time on and around that beautiful lake.

 

Cisco Grove — Camping

Finally, I made it to the event site in Cisco Grove, at a quiet RV/camping resort on the Yuba River, surrounded by rock and beautiful trees. Though I did arrive right on time, there were already a lot of riders checking in, and good shady camping spots were going fast! I carefully zipped down the dirt roads, through the trees, looking for an open spot to set up my camp. The sites were often set back from the main trails, so that as I went along and peeped into the sites, I often found them already occupied. But finally I found a fairly shady spot, equipped with two perfect trees from which I could string up my hammock! I parked my bike and set up camp.

Pro Tip: If you’re a new rider doing some camping, make sure to pay attention to where you park your bike, backing into your spot so you can pull out easily; and make sure to put a rock or a kickstand pad underneath your kickstand if you park on a soft spot, so you don’t wake up to your bike lying on its side! A little foresight here can save some time and frustration later.

 

The event was amazing. While I arrived alone, I quickly made friends with surrounding campers and enjoyed talking about camping and motorcycles, whilst enjoying some adult beverages and the musical entertainment provided to us. There was even a bike show! I think the judges must have had a hard time choosing amongst some of the beautiful and creative entries.

 

Yuba River

One of the highlights of this camp spot was that it was steps away from the Yuba River. While I am told that the flow of the river can be quite strong at times, it was perfect for swimming and exploring during my stay, and I couldn’t resist taking a dip!

The river is filled with little pools that were deep enough to jump into, nooks and crannies to explore, and smooth rock to slide down! I could imagine filling up a cooler with your favorite drinks and snacks and spending a whole afternoon here, just enjoying the water and sunshine.

 

The Ride Home

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and Sunday arrived quickly. I woke up around 7 to the sounds of tents being disassembled and engines starting up, as riders began breaking down their campsites and heading home. I’d made a point of getting to sleep at a “decent” time the night before, so I’d be able to stay alert for my long ride home. It would be about a 9 hour journey. I made quick work of packing up my camp and getting it strapped back onto the bike. After a few days of this, I felt like an expert! I said my goodbyes to my new friends and got onto the road home, back to Orange County.

Though I was ready to sleep in my own bed again and enjoy all the comforts of home, I found myself wishing the trip had been just a few days longer, so I could spend more time exploring the sights off Route 395 and the beautiful Sierra Nevadas. I know I will definitely return again soon!