The Sierra Cascades Bicycle Route runs roughly parallel to the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail along the Cascade Range and Sierra Nevada from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. This route is characterized by volcanoes, long stretches of forested countryside, busy towns, deserts, orchards and everything in between.
Leaving Truckee you'll circle the western half of Lake Tahoe, then climb into the Sierra Nevada. Several of the passes on this section are closed during the winter, and might not open until late spring/early summer if it's been a heavy snow year. You can check road opening dates on the California Department of Transportation's website listed on the map.
Hollywood Of The High Country
Throughout much of the 20th century, the town of Truckee was one of Hollywood’s favorite locations for movie making, with scenes for roughly 100 movies shot in the Lake Tahoe area (as were those for several popular television series, most notably Bonanza). The town was already a popular tourist destination by the turn of the twentieth century, thanks in large part to its beautiful mountain setting and fact that the railroad had arrived early on the scene (the Central Pacific, which later became part of the transcontinental railroad, came to town in 1868). Therefore, plenty of accommodations and other services of the sort needed by film crews were to be found in Truckee when the movie industry fired up.
The first known filming session took place in 1910, when the Selig Polyscope Company came to Truckee to make a movie about the Alaskan wilderness in winter. A string of silent feature films followed, including Troubador of Eldorado (1916), The Brand (1919), In the Frozen North (1922), and The Call of the Wild (1923). While filming his 1924 silent epic The Iron Horse in the area, it’s reported that the legendary director John Ford demanded authenticity to the point that he had an old locomotive hauled up and over Donner Summit, just as the Central Pacific had done in it 1868: on skids, using Chinese laborers and fifty head of horses. Another movie featuring scenes shot near Truckee was The Gold Rush, a highly successful 1925 silent flick starring Charlie Chaplin in his “Little Tramp” role.
These movie projects were a boon to Truckee’s economy, providing employment for some locals while also keeping the eateries and rooming houses abuzz. Consequently, the citizens began working to lure even more movie makers. Town leaders created the Truckee Motion Picture Association, and additional filmmakers began showing up, as did the actors needed on the other side of the camera—the likes of Tom Mix, Wallace Beery, Greta Garbo, Will Rogers, and Clark Gable could occasionally be spotted around Truckee in the early days, while later came silver-screen gunslingers like John Wayne and Henry Fonda.
A handful of the many other movies filmed at least in part around Truckee include The Frozen North with Buster Keaton in 1922; The Moon’s Our Home, a 1936 feature with Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullivan; The Leather Pushers, a 1940 movie starring Richard Arlen and Andy Devine; and Island in the Sky in 1953 with John Wayne, Ward Bond, and Lloyd Nolan (and filmed largely at the old Truckee airstrip, though the story “takes place” in Labrador). In the modern era, footage was shot in the Truckee area for such films as the 1985 Brat Pack classic St. Elmo’s Fire; and Misery, a 1990 Stephen King tale starring James Caan and a particularly sadistic Kathy Bates.
Natives Of The Region
Some of the first human residents of the Tahoe area were Paiute and Washoe Indians, tribes composed of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Prior to the Anglo occupation of their lands in the mid-1800s—a mad rush exacerbated by the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode, the first major silver strike in the U.S.—the Washoe spent summers in the Lake Tahoe area, which they considered their cultural and spiritual center. There they hunted game in the forests, fished the lakes, and collected the roots, berries, and plants needed to carry them through the winters. In autumn they would move to the nearby Pine Nut Mountains, where they harvested large stores of the range’s namesake piñon pine nuts, an important staple for the Washoe. Winter would find them residing primarily in the valleys to the east of the Sierra Nevada, including the Carson and Washoe valleys. Today, the tribe maintains four communities, three in Nevada and one in California at Woodfords.
The Paiutes were, and still are, centered in the area of Pyramid Lake, approximately fifty miles north-northeast of Lake Tahoe. In the early summer of 1860, mounting tensions between white settlers and these Indians culminated in a pair of violent battles known as the Paiute War, or Pyramid Lake War. Approximately eighty whites were killed in the May and June battles, while as many as 200 Indians are thought to have died. The timing of the skirmishes coincided with that of the short-lived Pony Express, which began operations in April 1860, and the mail service was disrupted as several stations were raided by Paiutes. In a familiar story, however, the upshot was that the Indians were outnumbered and overpowered, and the Comstock area fell solidly under Anglo control, with Fort Churchill established to help keep the peace.
A couple of decades later a Paiute shaman named Wovoka became important to Indians throughout the West, as it was he who developed and promoted the Ghost Dance tradition.
Also known as the “Indian messiah,” Wovoka was born around 1856. At age fourteen, after his father died, he went to live on the ranch of David Wilson, where he received his Anglo name, Jack Wilson. Around the mid-1880s, Wovoka began piecing together prophesies and mythologies from various Indian tribes, along with components of Christianity, melding them into the Ghost Dance religion. In 1888 he declared that in a vision he had received a request from the Great Spirit, who asked him to spread the word to Indian tribes everywhere that by practicing the Ghost Dance they would help shepherd in an era of renewal and abundance, bringing back the buffalo and deceased loved ones. Following the teachings of an earlier Paiute prophet named Tavibo, Wovoka urged his disciples to dance in circles and to sing religious songs. Deliverance was not to be passively received, he said, but ushered in by means of ritual dancing and strict moral conduct.
While Wovoka’s Ghost Dance religion spread throughout the Indians of the West, it is most often associated with the Lakota and the Battle of Wounded Knee. Having paid a visit to Wovoka in 1889, a delegation of Lakota brought the Ghost Dance back to their home in the Dakotas, where converts fabricated sacred Ghost Dance shirts reputed to be bullet-proof. However, in the wake of the massacre of Spotted Elk’s band at Wounded Knee Creek late in December of the following year, Wovoka lost his standing as a prophet and religious leader. He lived out his life as Jack Wilson, dying in 1932. Ironically, though Wovoka had meant it to be a spiritual ceremony that would promote peace, the Ghost Dance was mistakenly identified as a war dance by some U.S. Indian agents, who outlawed its practice.
A Parade Of Parks
As you proceed south through the Sierra Nevada, you’ll be treated to the sensual delights—the sights, scents, and sounds—of some of Mother Nature’s most wondrous handiwork, much of it contained within federally protected parks.
First up is Yosemite National Park, which hardly needs an introduction. You’ll pedal along the Tioga Road through the very heart of this park about which John Muir, the Scottish-born pioneer conservationist who was key to its 1890 creation, said, “No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite ... The grandest of all special temples of Nature.” With elevations ranging from under 3,000 feet to over 13,000 feet above sea level, Yosemite is biodiversity defined. Best known for its sheer granite faces and dramatic waterfalls, including 2,425-foot Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America, it is those and much more.
One of the first, and truly among the greatest, wilderness preserves in the world, Yosemite’s three-quarters of a million acres hold verdant meadows, hushed valleys, and forests of giant conifers. A landscape formed by ice moving across rock, the park reverberates with the classic landforms association with glaciers: U-shaped valleys, polished rock faces, terminal moraines, and ragged peaks. Highlights you’ll visit include Tuolumne Meadows, a sweeping subalpine grassland that cradles the meandering Tuolumne River, the entire scene embraced by cloud-scratching domes and peaks; the namesake Yosemite Valley, known worldwide for its cascading waterfalls, beautiful and sometimes bizarre rock formations, and verdant meadows (and some 12 miles of paved bikeways); and Wawona, home to a collection of historic buildings known as the Pioneer Yosemite History Center.
After losing elevation to pedal through part of the San Joaquin Valley and brush against the city of Fresno, you’ll bear east to regain the forested mountains—and we do mean forested. Giant Sequoia National Monument, created in 2000 by presidential proclamation and managed by the U.S. Forest Service, protects more than three dozen groves of giant sequoia trees situated in two geographically distinct units (you’ll visit the northerly of the pair). Here on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada in California is the only place the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is found. Dispersed along a mountainous belt roughly 250 miles long and no wider than 15 miles, the trees grow primarily at elevations between 5,000 and 7,500 feet above sea level. A close relative of the coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) found farther north and west in California, the giant sequoias are a bit shorter than their cousins, but more massive, making them the world’s largest tree in overall volume.
A fire-adapted species, giant sequoias grow to nearly 300 feet in height and more than 30 feet in diameter. The tree’s rugged bark protects the organism from fire, thereby permitting the heat to help open the cones and scatter the small seeds. Fire also clears debris from the forest floor and helps to maintain a nutrient-abundant bed for the seeds to sprout and grow in. Not surprisingly, the trees’ insides often reveal a story of past forest conflagration: showing up on the cross-sections of many sequoias that have been cut and inspected are numerous scars, indicating fire damage, along with the asymmetrical tree rings that grew to cover the scars.
Next, you’ll ease along Highway 198 into the much older Sequoia National Park, the second national park designated in the country (after Yellowstone). But this park is not only about giant sequoias. While many of the world’s evergreen forests are dominated by a single species of tree, that’s not the case in the forests blanketing the low- to mid-elevation slopes of the southern Sierra Nevada. Here dispersed groves of sequoia mix with other conifers, including incense-cedar, white fir, ponderosa pine, and sugar pine, making these some of the most extensive and diverse stands of old-growth coniferous forest remaining on Earth. Did we mention big? The park’s General Sherman Tree, in terms of volume, is the largest living thing in the world. In 1975 researchers determined the tree’s volume to be slightly over 52,500 cubic feet. Its Union Army compatriot, the General Grant Tree, while slightly smaller, owns the distinction of being the only living thing designated a national shrine by the U.S. Congress. It is a living memorial to the men and women who have given their own lives in service to the United States of America.
And monster-sized trees are not the only superlatives of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: The far eastern side of the park holds the western slopes of 14,496-foot Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Lower 48. What a place!