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For such a small town, Lone Pine really is in the center of a lot of special locations. Death Valley National Park is to the east. Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park are to the west. The portal to Mount Whitney is right outside of town. A few miles north of Lone Pine is Manzanar National Historic Site, where Japanese nationals and Americans of Japanese descent were interned during World War II. The BEST WESTERN PLUS Frontier Motel is a great base camp for exploration to any of these remarkable places.
Travis, the General Manager of the Frontier Motel, tells me that his family has owned and operated the property ever since it first opened in the 1950s. He claims that the Frontier Motel is the sixth oldest Best Western in the country. Travis has been running the place for three years, after a stint with the Army in Iraq. He has been supervising upgrades and renovations, all while striving to maintain the original feel of the place. He’s doing a great job – it’s a nice, comfortable hotel, a bit of a throwback in style. I like it.
Breakfast is served in a dining room off of the lobby. I make quick work of coffee, scrambled eggs and sausage before checking out of my room, loading the bike and waving goodbye to Travis and his front desk clerk, Emily. I decide to ride through Lone Pine one more time before I leave. I park to take a few pictures, and wander into a souvenir store that specializes in rocks. Jane at the cash register asks if I’ve ridden up to the Mount Whitney Portal yet. It’s a left at the only traffic light in town, and thirteen miles to the base of Mount Whitney. I’ll be able to see some cool rock formations called “The Alabama Hills” on my way. I’ve come too far not to ride another thirteen miles (famous last words), so I hop back on the bike and take a left at the light.
The Alabama Hills Recreation Area is a series of hiking trails and campsites administered by the Bureau of Land Management. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful area, with rocks forming striking figures, and hiking trails all around. Hollywood has long taken notice of these rocks, using them as the backdrop for many a Western film.
I ride about seven miles up the Whitney Portal Road, the snow capped peaks getting ever closer. I come to a “ROAD CLOSED DUE TO WINTER STORM” sign that forces me to turn around before I reach the base of the mountain, but it was still a worthwhile detour.
Back in Lone Pine again, I ride south. Before I can put the town in my mirrors, I stop at the Beverly and Jim Rogers Lone Pine Film Museum. This quirky little museum “celebrates and preserves the diverse movie history of Lone Pine, Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra.” They’ve collected original movie props, memorabilia, cars and costumes from films that have been produced in the area, and have regular showings of Westerns on Thursday and Friday nights, along with lots of other movie events. I could lose a day looking at all the exhibits.
But I have to ride on. My route today is a bit circuitous, because I can’t cut through Sequoia National Park. It’s still winter at elevation, and the roads that go through the park’s mid-section are blocked with snow, even in late March. I’ll have to retrace my steps and ride south on US 395, then ride on CA-14 for a few miles until I reach CA-178. I zip along Three Flags Highway, doing my best to keep an eye on my speed. Good thing, too, because the California Highway Patrol is out in force today. They must have heard how fast I was riding yesterday.
I ride east on CA-178, which turns out to be a fun two-laner with plenty of twists and turns. Warning signs hint that cattle might appear on the road at any time, but the only ones I see are munching on grass in the pastures, just as they should. I ride through Weldon on the way to Isabella Lake, a beautiful, serene lake nestled in the mountains. Locals call it “California’s Best Kept Secret.” The secret is out – it’s stunning. I stop for gas in the town of Lake Isabella, and reluctantly ride on.
CA-178 follows the path of the Kern River, which winds and twists its way through the canyons that it has carved over eons of flow. This makes for extraordinarily good motorcycling. I take it pretty easy, because the scenery is so distracting. Traffic is light, but everybody seems to have the same attitude. Nobody’s rushing to finish their path down this road.
I emerge from the Kern River Valley as the canyon opens up and the city of Bakersfield splays out across the flat land in front of me. Bakersfield is often the butt of California jokes, but it has some rich history. It just has kind of unfortunate geography. It’s flat and dusty and hot, and nobody really did much city planning to remedy that until recently. Today, there are plenty of great amenities in Bakersfield, and riding through town, I noticed some nicely landscaped parks and recreation areas that make the ones near my house look shabby. Go for it, Bakersfield. I’m glad that the town honors its musical legend, Buck Owens, who was responsible for the “Bakersfield Sound” in country music. Buck’s old club, Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, still operates some six years after the musician’s death. It’s right there in town, on Buck Owens Boulevard. Nice.
I stop for a cup of coffee and some water, today’s lunch. I know that I’m going to have a big dinner tonight, and with all those scrambled eggs and sausage back at the Frontier Motel, I’m not all that hungry yet.
I continue heading west on CA 58. After I leave Bakersfield and surroundings, I’m in agricultural country. California is a major producer of all kinds of agricultural products, from produce to fruit to wines to beef. With the cities dominating the news, it’s easy to forget that most of California is still wide-open space. Riding through the farmland of central California, I’m in awe at the vastness of our farmland. It’s not like the farms of the Midwest, with rows of corn and acres of sameness. It’s more sprawling, and each little valley seems to have a microclimate that changes the nature of what grows best. I spot groves of olive trees in one area, then groves of grapes in another hilly region. I pass what look like almond trees – I’m not good at this – or walnuts? Then, fields of onions, just starting to sprout. For a while, I spot small herds of cattle, lots of horses, a few sheep wandering. There are some mega farms that look quite industrial, and other small farms that look like family operations. Being California, I also spot Brahma Bulls, Texas Longhorns, llama and alpaca, ostrich and emu along the way. The variety is intoxicating.
So is the riding. Nobody seems to be on the road today, and the road follows its own course, darting around hills, turning left and right, and changing elevation constantly. I’m not pushing hard, just riding within my limits, and I’m still getting surprised along the way. It’s a challenging ride, but a lot of fun.
Soon, the air gets heavier and the temperature drops a few degrees. I’m getting closer to the coast. I pull over and turn on the GPS for the final stretch of the ride, because I’m not really confident about my directions. The Garmin guides me through Paso Robles, an elegant town that’s all about its horses. Finally, I reach Highway 1, and a short blast north brings me to Cambria. I follow the directions to Moonstone Beach and discover the BEST WESTERN PLUS Fireside Inn. I park in front of the office, and meet Justin, the assistant manager. He checks me in, and I load my gear into my room. It’s lovely, with a working gas fireplace and a little patio, from which I can see the Moonstone Beach Boardwalk and the Pacific Ocean. This place has million dollar views, no doubt about it. I grab my camera and head out along the boardwalk. I look over the edge of the boardwalk to the rocks on the beach below, and there are several enormous seals asleep in the afternoon sun. Just lying there, catching a few winks. The coastline unfolds up and down before me, but I get distracted by the wildlife. Some very assertive squirrels check me out to see if I’ve brought snacks for them. A bird lands on the railing beside me, chirping at me to demand attention. A few brave bunnies graze on the flowers that grow beside the boardwalk, paying no attention to me at all.
It’s time for dinner. I head across the highway to the main drag of Cambria, directly to my favorite restaurant in town. I know that I should explore more, but Main Street Grill has the best tri-tip steak sandwich in the world, and I can’t imagine eating anywhere else. Suitably gorged, I head back to the hotel for the evening. I’ll probably sit out on my porch for a while and listen to the waves. After a long day in the saddle, this is the perfect retreat.
NEXT: DAY FIVE: CAMBRIA TO SANTA BARBARA