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Re: Off-highway biking in Yosemite Park #2 Aspen Valley (long)

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Off-highway biking in Yosemite Park #2 Aspen Valley (long)
August 19, 2010 12:16AM
Well, there wasn't any interest in my first bike posting, but I'll set down some things about the other four park bike rides before I forget it all. First, a few more comments about Foresta.

Foresta Road was built around 1912 to connect a 1200 lot development at Foresta to the world outside the park. Over a thousand lots were sold at low prices, but most remained undeveloped and later defaulted to the government for unpaid taxes or were bought by the feds. The plans for grand community buildings were thwarted by lack of money and fires. By 1962 only 85 lots with cabins remained in private hands. The adjacent Big Meadow and McCauley ranches were condemned by the government in 1964, and after years of litigation became part of the park. Numerous possible "improvements" were considered by the park service for these lands, but nothing eventually came of it. The Arch Rock fire in 1990 burned all but 18 of the cabins, and the park service had hopes of acquiring the whole area. But a vigorous campaign by the residents fought them off, and Foresta's cabins were rebuilt by the remaining owners on their odd patchwork of lots mixed with public lands. This explains the scattered, spread-out appearance of the place.

The remaining four bike rides are on abandoned segments of the original roads into the Valley from the north. Each of the three old roads had small settlements that serviced the travelers. They offered lodging and food and services for horse (and later automobile) vehicles. The three roads in question are Coulterville Road 1874 (which had Foresta), the old Big Oak Flat Road built in competition with it the same year (which had Tuolumne Grove, Crane Flat, and later the campground at Tamarack Flat), and the old Tioga Road 1884 (which had Aspen Valley, White Wolf, and the campground on Yosemite Creek). Of course, they had much more than that, but those are the ones relevant to this narrative. Of the four remaining rides, Aspen Valley is the best.

Ride #2 Aspen Valley 6.8 miles each way, 1200 foot climb

For a full resolution version of the map, go to
and use the magnifier on your browser. Note that the map software has somehow changed the name Aspen Valley Road into Rafferty Creek.

About a mile before the route 120 park entrance station is Evergreen Road, one of the main roads to Hetch Hetchy. About two miles along that road is the well-marked turnoff to Aspen Valley Road. which is actually the old Tioga Pass Road. About a mile up the road you will come to a closed gate at the park boundary. Unlike the gate at Foresta, this one is almost never unlocked, since it is a dead end spur into Yosemite Park. Turn around at the gate, and park on the shoulder.

I talked to the wilderness desks in the Valley and at Hogden Meadow about whether Aspen Valley Road was OK for bicycling. There was some head scratching; the question had not come up that they knew of. After consulting the rules (Bikes must stay on maintained roads. Aspen Valley Road is closed to public vehicles, but open to hiking, and is a maintained road. It is not posted against bikes and is an public route.) They decided that biking is allowed, since the rules don't forbid it.

If you have one of the National Geographic maps that shows the boundaries of the wilderness areas in Yosemite, you will observe the peculiarity that an extremely narrow corridor follows the old road to Aspen Valley. Beyond that the old road is a wilderness hiking trail until Harden Lake, where a similar corridor follows the road to White Wolf and the new Tioga Road (route120). The reason for this is historical. In 1918 the park boundary was farther east, and the park entrance station on Tioga Road was built at Aspen Valley. There were still some private homestead lands inside the park, and at Aspen Valley the land owner built a lodge, dining hall, and gas station. In 1927 the owner subdivided and sold a bunch of lots around the long narrow meadow there. This was not nearly as worrisome to the park officials as the large tracts of land in the park and adjacent to it that were still owned by the Sugar Pine Lumber Company, whose incline and logging railroad spurs were already knocking on the door. Through heroic efforts, enough public and private funding was found to buy or trade land for those forest tracts, resulting in the present park boundary about five miles west of Aspen Valley. But the couple of dozen summer cabins remained in private hands.

Aspen Valley in 1931. Photo from "Yosemite: the Park and its Resources" (1987) by Linda W. Greene

In 1940 the New Tioga Pass Road and New Big Oak Flat Road to the Valley were opened. The resort at Aspen Valley was doomed by this. Maintenance on the old Tioga Pass, Coulterville and old Big Oak Flat Roads soon ended. Aspen Valley Resort now belongs to the government and the buildings are gone, except for a few concrete foundations left over from the entrance station. But the summer cabin lots remain in private hands, and this is why the road still exists as a developed corridor through the wilderness area.

As a bike ride, this one is very good. The first four miles have a steady 5% grade, and are mostly paved with asphalt. Because of the very low traffic, the surface is fine for biking. The next 2.5 miles to Aspen Valley are more level, and appear to have never been paved. But they are still smooth dirt.

The ride is through a mixture of forest types. In some places there are huge old trees, about a yard in diameter. Ponderosa are the biggest, but there are some with very red bark (fir or cedar, I can't tell which) and a few big old sugar pines. One of the big red ones against the road has died and been sawed, revealing the rings. About 120 of them, which would put its infancy at about the time that the Tioga Road was built.

Other parts of the forest are much younger. All of them show signs of multiple fires. In a few places the fires had killed everything, leaving only new brush behind. Others had killed the big trees, but numerous trees about that half that size have grown up which show signs of some later fires. The big trees had years ago been singed black to about 20 feet off the ground, leaving green crowns. Interestingly, the ponderosa bark has shed almost all the soot and looks brand new, but the red bark trees retain all the soot and are pitch black for their lower 20 feet (and red above that).

Just before and after the Aspen Valley meadow, on the left, are two entrances to the loop road with the private cabins. If you stay to the right you will never see them. However, the handful of scraggly aspens at the old resort site marks a change in road surface (at least in August) to a layer of floury dust. This is no problem for real mountain bikes, but my wife's recumbent with its small wheels and city tires really struggled on the remaining three tenths of a mile to the trailhead. I would suggest that you turn around at the aspens, unless you wish to hike the trails. I've always wanted to see Bald Mountain, and it's not far from there. This is a portion of the park which sees very few hikers. Or anyone else. We did this last Friday afternoon, and saw exactly one vehicle, bringing a family in to their cabin for the weekend. They stopped to warn us about having seen bears near the road, but those were gone by the time that we passed by. They said that their cabin had been in the family since the 1920s, which is about right, and that they didn't think that they were allowed to sell it to anyone else. Don't bother to look for Aspen Valley in the real estate listings...
avatar Re: Off-highway biking in Yosemite Park #2 Aspen Valley (long)
August 19, 2010 12:46AM
We've hiked that road into Aspen Valley. The road is not designated wilderness so bike riding on it is perfectly legal. The area in Aspen Valley that contains all the old cabins is not wilderness either. Once you start up the old roadbed toward Harden Lake/White Wolf it becomes wilderness and bikes are not allowed. I have yet to hike that part of the old road.

Upon a closer reading of your post I see you mentioned the fact that the roadbed to Aspen Valley is not wilderness.

Old Dude

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 08/19/2010 12:48AM by mrcondron.
avatar Re: Off-highway biking in Yosemite Park #2 Aspen Valley (long)
August 19, 2010 07:07AM
I've hike the road a few times... twice with Mike... and
once coming in from the old trail from Tuolumne Grove.
Biking it sounds like a great idea from the park boundary.

It's been a LONG time (> 20 years) since I've brought a bike
to Yosemite.... and at that time Old Big Oak Flat from Hodgden to
the Tuolumne Grove was in great shape and great for biking.
Has something changed and it not maintained in such shape?

Hardly anyone goes to Aspen. The first time I went there in
late October I ran into rangers in a pickup right when I hit the road
after coming up from the SF Tuolumne. They said they never
see anyone. Were very surprised to see me.

Anyway... keep up the great info you are posting...
Re: Off-highway biking in Yosemite Park #2 Aspen Valley (long)
August 19, 2010 10:05AM
Bill-e-q wrote: It's been a LONG time (> 20 years) since I've brought a bike
to Yosemite.... and at that time Old Big Oak Flat from Hodgden to
the Tuolumne Grove was in great shape and great for biking.
Has something changed and it not maintained in such shape?

You would think that this would be a perfect ride. A little over 6 miles long, 1500 foot vertical, and with car access at both ends. The wilderness area boundary is along the east side of the road, so the old road is outside it. It has always looked like it is still a road to me, and the part up in the grove itself probably sees maintenance and rescue vehicles for the hordes of tourists.

However, I asked at the wilderness desk at the entrance station, and they said: "It's shown as a trail on the map. Therefore no biking."

Maybe the problem is the hordes of people. Like the walkways to the base of Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Falls....too many people for safe biking, so they forbid it. But that's a shame, because you could walk your bike for the short distance that the tourists use.
avatar Re: Off-highway biking in Yosemite Park #2 Aspen Valley (long)
August 19, 2010 10:26AM
Got it. Back around 1990 you could still drive on the road from Hodgden to the Tuolumne Grove.
We took our bikes on it instead. I have a picture with a car in the now "Tunnel Exhibit Tree"
and then another picture with our bikes inside it.
Once they closed the road to traffic entirely they must have forbid bikes too....

Re: Off-highway biking in Yosemite Park #2 Aspen Valley (long)
February 20, 2012 12:26PM
Dredgin this up from the past. in 2009 this road was recommended to me by the ranger in the campground office as a place to go biking. He said there was no better way to arrive at Tuolumne Grove than knowing that you road your bike on this road....

But I ride a road bike, not a mountain bike,. and even then this road was iffy. I only had to get off and carry the bike over one creek crossing (babyhead cobbles across the whole road0 but there was a LOT of crap on the road, and it didn't look like it was going to be removed soon.

The ranger was right---it was a very cool loop from Hodgdon to the grove and then back on 120

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