If the sheer notion of a road trip strikes you as boring, well, maybe you should give it a pass. Specifically, aim for one of the high mountain passes that provide incredible vista points and gateways to outdoor recreation in the central Sierra. Arrive at one or more of these high points, and you'll add beauty, excitement and discovery to any journey.
And score insight into pioneer history, as well. Except for the paved roads that cross them, many of these high regions look much as they did back in the days when emigrants to California struggled through, some 160 years ago. Long before they could homestead lush fields or pan glittering beds of placer gold, early settlers had to scout out notches through the towering Sierra, through which they could urge their lowing oxen and groaning wagons.
Our current methods of travel are much easier. And outdoor activities like fishing, hiking and camping are no longer rigorous tests of survival skill but sports.
A visit to the High Sierra remains an opportunity to sniff fresh air, admire vistas and gain some notion of how travel used to be.
The highest pass in California over which one can bring an automobile is on Highway 120 in Yosemite National Park, and tops out at 9,941 feet. It's breathtaking, in more ways than one. Take it easy on your first day at altitude, and take time to marvel at granite monoliths, alpine lakes and meadows. Campgrounds are at White Wolf (tent cabins available), Yosemite Creek, Porcupine Flat and Tuolumne Meadows (tent cabins) where there is also a visitor center, gas station and store (www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/camping.htm, or www.yosemitepark.com).
East of the pass, where 120 drops down the flank of 11,000-foot Gaylor Peak, a traveler finds Tioga Pass Resort, with cabins and a restaurant (www.tiogapassresort. com), as well as Tioga Lake and Ellery Lake campgrounds, run by Inyo National Forest (www.fs.usda.gov/inyo).
Yosemite requires a $20 entrance fee, but it's good for a week, so you can return over that pass or explore other portions of the park.
The crest of Highway 108, at 9,624 feet, offers a dramatic alpine vista. It's the oldest of emigrant crossings: The Bartleson-Bidwell party with pack animals and livestock passed this way in 1841. Wagons attempted the gradually improved route only a decade later, with poor results. Grizzly Adams said many broken axles and wheels littered the landscape in 1854.
The route begins at Sonora, 66 miles to the west. On the climb east, gather camping and recreation info at the Mi-Wok or Summit ranger stations of the Stanislaus National Forest (www.fs.usda.gov/stanislaus). The Strawberry Inn, about halfway to the pass, is a classic Sierra roadhouse, providing pine-paneled lodging, dining and a bar (www.strawberryinn.com).
Across the street, a store offers tackle, beer and other necessities. You'll also be able to dine, stock up on supplies or lodge at The Dardanelles, 21 miles down the highway (www. dardanelle108.com), or at Kennedy Meadows Resort (www.kennedymeadows. com), another five miles.
En route, you'll pass a half-dozen Forest Service campgrounds. The last one before the pass is Deadman named, of course, for an unfortunate pioneer on the Kennedy access road. A campground on the east side is Leavitt Meadows, operated by the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest (www.fs.usda.gov/htnf).
Sonora, like Ebbetts Pass to the north, features steep grades, one-lane roads and very tight turns, unsuitable for large RVs or vehicles with trailers. But small autos, sports cars and motorcycles can have a high old time.
Pioneer wagon trains never attempted to use the tight pass at the 8,730-foot crest of Highway 4. That's a big hint to drivers of modern vehicles. This route was blazed in 1827 by legendary mountain man Jedediah Smith, as he headed back to the Rockies for a rendezous with fellow trappers.
A great base camp for modern travelers is the resort area of Bear Valley. The Bear Valley Lodge (www.bearvalley lodge.com) offers dining, lodging and groceries; for local cabin and house rentals, call Joel Barnett, (209) 753-2334. Mountain Adventure Seminars has climbing and lodging (www.mtadventure.com), and Bear Valley Adventure Company can set you up for flatwater paddling, mountain biking, even disc golf and tennis (www.bear valleyxc.com). Three miles east is beautiful Lake Alpine with launch ramps and two campgrounds run by Stanislaus National Forest.
Another three camps are found on the way up to the pass, the last being Pacific Valley, seven miles from the summit. On the east side, the nearest campground is Silver Creek, almost six miles from the summit, operated by Humboldt- Toiyabe National Forest.
One of the most scenic of all the high passes, this 8,314-foot crest on the shoulder of Leviathan Peak, slicing through a gorgeous grove of aspens, affords tremendous views to the west (of peaks in the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness and Eldorado National Forest) and to the east during a steep descent through high desert sage and juniper to Antelope Valley and the Walker River drainage.
This route, Highway 89 over Monitor, down to Highway 395, then 23.5 miles south to Highway 108, is a convenient link between several passes that can be traveled in either direction. Two campgrounds, Bootleg and Chris Flat, run by Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, are located on the Highway 395 portion.
On the west side of Monitor Pass, Highway 89 joins Highway 4, and the combined route leads north to the Alpine County seat of Markleeville, on the Carson River. A camp on the river is just south of town, run by the same national forest.
In town, you can find a handful of dining and lodging options, including the historic Alpine Hotel with the Wolf Creek bar and restaurant. Local lore can be garnered at the Alpine County Museum, and the visitor center for the county's chamber of commerce is happy to supply more (www. alpinecounty.com).
Just 3.6 miles west of town on road E1 is the steamy soaking pool for Grover Hot Springs State Park, as well as its campground (www.parks.ca. gov/?page_id=508).
Scouted by famed guide Kit Carson when he worked for John C. Fremont, this route was established over the Sierra in 1844. By 1848 it had become the Mormon-Emigrant Trail; now 8,574-foot Carson Pass is the crest of Highway 88 as it crosses the Sierra. On the east side, in well-named Hope Valley where pioneers once recuperated from their trek across the Great Basin and fed and watered their stock is Sorensen's Resort (www.sorensens resort.com), with its scenic collection of cabins, a fine cafe, and access to recreation options.
On the summit are trailheads and an information station for Eldorado National Forest (www.fs.usda. gov/eldorado), which also operates Caples Lake campground (four miles west of the pass). En route, you'll go by Caples Lake Resort (capleslakeresort.com), which offers cabin lodging, a restaurant and lounge, a marina and launch ramp.
Just over five miles west of the pass, you'll discover the most classic Sierra roadhouse. The Kirkwood Inn, a rustic saloon and a restaurant, serves up hearty meals in a log cabin built by rancher Zachary Kirkwood back in 1864.