My Adventure: circumnavigating the Sierra-Nevada Mountain Range

Sometimes life lets you make the most of an opportunity. My friend Ryan needed to travel to Merced, California, from the Los Angeles area at the beginning of March. Google maps estimated the drive time at about four and half hours one way, assuming no traffic out of the LA basin. While Merced-Macready field is served by a regional airline offering two flights a day from LAX, adding the commute to the airport plus the time through security prior to the flight didn’t present a much better option in terms of total travel time. With his new house near Chino Airport, my home base, I could offer the trip in about two and half hours total travel time, with two of those hours in the air in a Piper Arrow II. We could leave mid-morning and arrive comfortably mid-day. But if the weather looked sour he could just drive, leaving at dawn. There was the opportunity: a trip made-to-order for a VFR pilot.

ForeFlight route Sierra Nevada
Not a direct route, but an awfully pretty one.

As luck would have it, my copilot, Hector, was up for making the trip as well. Two pilots. One passenger. Three people to share in the expenses of the trip. Why not make the most of it? Sure we could make the direct run and return and split the expense. But if two could afford 4.8 hours on the Hobbs, three could afford 7.2. I spent some time with the charts and plotted a more interesting route within those constraints: Chino-Merced-Bishop-Chino. Merced and Bishop, California, are at nearly the same latitude, 103 nautical miles apart, but on opposite sides of the formidable Sierra-Nevada mountain range. For the Merced-Bishop leg, I worked out a course that would take us along the Sierra foothills 100 miles further to the north, crossing the range over Lake Tahoe, and then snake through high mountain valleys on the east side of the range past Mono Lake and down into Bishop. From there, we would fly the Owen’s Valley back down into the Mojave Desert and the LA basin.

Caveat: Technically, the Sierras end a bit further north of Tahoe, up near Mt. Lassen. So we did not completely circumnavigate the range as my title suggests. But we did cover the bulk of the range and, in particular, most of the high points, both literal and scenic.

One week before our departure date, the final winter storm of the year swept across the state. It even brought some rain to southern California and caused our temperatures to plummet into the low 60s. Things were working out. The low pressure system moved through and was followed by a ridge of high pressure extending from Oregon down to Mexico. The 24- to 48-hour forecasts called for clear skies, great visibility, and calm winds throughout the state.

River valley
“From the mountains, to the prairies…”
[Photo by Hector Mireles]

The day of departure, I was excited. I downloaded a new weather briefing when I awoke at dawn. Our planned route of flight had us proceeding west-northwest out of Chino towards Burbank, turning north to cross the Transverse Range over the Tejon Pass before entering the central valley of California and cruising up to Merced. But the terminal forecasts for Burbank had changed overnight. What had previously showed calm winds, now predicted winds out of the north at 20 knots gusting to 30 knots and AIRMET Tango called for turbulence over the southern California area below 12,000 feet. Despite the fact that Chino’s forecast still called for calm winds, experience suggested we would be experiencing a Santa Ana wind event that day. The sooner we got out of the basin, the better. I texted the weather update to Hector and suggested that we fly northeast over the Cajon Pass into the high desert and around the back of the Transverse Range into the central valley instead. We were in for turbulence either way, but this way would get us out of the basin in 20 minutes as opposed to 30 minutes going by the original plan.

On the ramp, waiting for the guys to make one last pit stop, I felt the wind starting to pick up. Zero to five out of the west during the pre-flight had turned around to ten to 15 out of the northeast prior to start. Here it comes, I thought. I briefed our passenger and we fired up. Sure enough, we had winds out of the east at 18 gusting to 23 on takeoff. Pilots were reporting moderate turbulence into and out of the LA basin. Hector did a great job maintaining pitch attitude while we were tossed about in our climb, but we fought off a stiff northeasterly headwind and once we crested the ridge into the high desert at 8500, we were greeted with smooth air for the next leg.

We took in the view of Rogers Dry Lake and Edwards Air Force Base as we crossed the desert over Palmdale and made our way towards Bakersfield and the central valley. Our groundspeed indicated that the wind had turned a little to follow the terrain, giving us a 15-knot easterly tailwind. Just as we reached the ridgeline of the Tehachapi range Hector said, “It’s going to get bumpy here.” With the smooth ride following the roller coaster climb, I replied “Really?” and then my head struck the roof as we were shook by a single severe bump. I should have known. We were crossing from the windward to the leeward side of the ridgeline. I tightened my seat belt further, but from there we had calm winds, clear skies, and a smooth ride up the valley to Merced.

The utopian portion of our trip took place the next day when the weather was even better. Winds aloft were forecast to be light and variable up through 9000 feet, with clear skies throughout the state. The pressure contours showed wider separation that the previous day of the area; the perfect day for high country travel. We were Go for flight.

Lake Tahoe from airplane
Lake Tahoe, a stunning sight from the air.

Departing Merced, I flew north along the Sierra foothills, climbing towards our cruising altitude of 9500. As we crossed the Merced River, Ryan asked what the vertical wall of rock was that he was seeing far to the East. The Merced River flows through the Yosemite Valley and at a distance of nearly 30 nautical miles, we could clearly make out the big granite walls of El Capitan and Half Dome. What a treat!

At 9500 feet over Placerville, we turned east to follow the American River up to Tahoe. Descending toward us from its headwaters at 7900 feet down through Placerville at 2500, the river cut a deep gorge in the Sierra foothills over a 35 mile stretch. While the gorge provided some altitude to extend glide in the event of an emergency, I quickly dismissed the tree-lined highway following the river as a potential landing spot. Once we were beyond return to Placerville, I kept my eyes on clearings on the ridge lines on either side of the gorge. It was a strange sight flying directly towards the mountains. Tall peaks at altitudes above ours lined the horizon. The gorge was rising below us and the peaks surrounding the Tahoe basin were coming into view. I eased back on the yoke and gently let us rise up to 10,000.

Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America and, being more than 1600 feet deep in the north end, is the sixth largest lake in the country by volume. Despite our aerial perspective, Hector was unsuccessful in getting the whole lake into a single photo. Its surface elevation is around 6200 feet, but it is ringed by peaks reaching up to 10,000 feet. The view of nearly 200 square miles of deep blue lake surface, surrounded by green forests of pine trees right at the water’s edge and terrain rising up to white snow-capped peaks, was breathtaking. I took us along the western shore at 10,000 to survey Emerald Bay before turning east across the lake to cross the eastern rim of the basin over the Kingsbury Grade. From there, the land fell off dramatically into the Minden Valley of Nevada, dropping from 10,000 feet atop Monument Peak to 4800 on the valley floor. We had crossed the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Sierra Nevada
Make sure the winds are light for this trip.

While we had been on flight following with NorCal approach and Oakland Center from Merced to Tahoe, I had the feeling they would have us squawk VFR for the leg from Tahoe down to Bishop. The terrain is very high throughout that region. At 9500, we were flying at about 3000 AGL from the valley floors, with peaks rising up past 12,000 feet on either side. Although we could have followed Highway 395 directly along the east side of the Sierras down towards Bridgeport, California, the sectional showed an awful lot of dark brown along that track. Instead, I opted to take us east from Topaz Lake towards Wellington, Nevada, before turning south towards Bridgeport. This put us on the east side of the formidable Mt. Patterson and gave us broader canyons and a desolate mountain highway for escape. Filing an accurate flight plan for our meandering route would have been a pain over the phone or over the airwaves, but I was able to export the route from ForeFlight and electronically file a long string of lat/long coordinates with Flight Service prior to departure. Although we overflew USMC Sweetwater (NV72), a private dirt runway used by the marines for mountain warfare training, we otherwise saw no other signs of civilization between Wellington and Bridgeport. I took comfort in knowing that Flight Service had our precise route on file and with the desolate Nevada Highway 338 below, we had plenty of options for putting down and being seen.

The most remote portion of our flight started south of Bridgeport when we departed from the highway and flew to the east along the northern shoreline of Mono Lake. For about 20 minutes, we were far from roads and communities (15 miles at one point) as we crossed the high plateau towards the remote town of Benton, California. The second reward for the risk of this route was following western side of the White Mountains down to Bishop, California. Lying along the California-Nevada border, the White Mountains rise back up to 14,000 feet. Somewhere there, amongst the many trees dotting the mid-elevations, grow the oldest trees in the world, the Bristlecone Pines. Of course, we weren’t able to pick any out while cruising by at 130 knots, but it was interesting to take their home as a whole. I’ll definitely need to return and survey these peaks on foot.

The first reward was the most spectacular sight of the trip. Ten miles to the east of the lake and 20 miles east of Highway 395, where we turned south toward Benton, we witnessed the snow-capped Sierras reflected in the glass-like surface of Mono Lake. In flight planning, I had worked out that position hoping for the best possible shot and was not disappointed. At 9500, we were only 2500 feet AGL over the high plateau, giving a shallow azimuth on the view. With 60 miles of visibility, we had a beautifully clear depth of field.

Mono lake

On the ground in Bishop, we debriefed the leg over lunch. We had traveled 295 nautical miles in two hours and 20 minutes aloft and seen some of the greatest natural wonders in the western US. The return to LA down the Owen’s Valley yielded more great views, including the east face of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48. The complete trip covered 784 nautical miles in just 6.5 hours aloft. Had Ryan had to drive, he would have spent 10 hours in the car at least, viewing the brake lights of a tractor trailer most of the way. His trip to Merced had given us the opportunity, but we definitely made the most of it.

3 Comments

  • I’ve done the track from Wellington to LA (Whiteman/KWHP) a few times and it is absolutely spectacular. It’s odd to be at 12,500 msl and still be looking UP at the mountains. One thing to bear in mind, the Mono Lake/Mammoth/Owens Valley area can be extra challenging when the prevailing westerlies are blowing hard across the Sierras and then into the White Mountains; two ranges with peaks ranging from 12,000 to 14,000 and separated by 50 miles. The mountain wave and accompanying clear air turbulence can rattle your teeth. This is the route where Steve Fossett crashed and more than one lesser experienced pilot has come to grief.

  • Awesome stuff Arlo! One of my favorite all-time lazy day (no wind day!) flights of all time is flying from LA to Mammoth, stopping at all the Owens Valley airports along the way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *