Lower Bear River Back Country Ride (All Paved)
Bill Condrashoff, Foothill Cyclists
When the weather gets too warm to ride in the foothills, I like to head up to Lower Bear River Reservoir where the weather is usually perfect on those days. Drive about 2 miles on Bear River Road off of Hwy 88 down to the dam and park there.
I almost always ride to the south over the dam on South Bear River Road and either make a small scenic loop out of Cole Creek Road. Or take Spur 19 down to the really cool flume flowing water out of Salt Springs Reservoir. In the spring of a wet year, you can sometimes time it to see the water spill from Salt Springs Dam. The spillway is a natural rock surface and it is quite the sight to see on a hot spring day.
The Cole Creek Road loop takes less than an hour without stops. But there are some nice places you’ll want to stop and view the Mokulumne Canyon from above. The road is not perfect but there’s not too much to complain about. There are cows roaming in the area and you might run across a group of them. I just keep moving and make sure they know I’m coming. You never want to surprise one when you’re close to it.
SALT SPRINGS RESERVOIR
You’ll be able to see Salt Springs Reservoir in the canyon below. If you want to go down to the lake, make sure you have good working brakes on both wheels cuz you’re going to need them. You might even consider stopping to let your rims cool on the way down. Spur 19 will take you down to Salt Springs Reservoir Road. The descent is steep and there can be obstacles like rocks, logs and cow pies on the pavement. Its only one lane wide so remember you may encounter a car around one of the many turns. Be careful!
To get to the spillway and lake, turn left at the bottom of Spur 19. There is a sign there that will help you in case you’re not sure. The lake is an out and back and it will take a least an hour to get back to Spur 19. The flume is about 1⁄2 mile down the road on your way to the lake. As you get near the dam, keep a look out for the spillway on your right across the river. If it’s operating, you won’t miss it. It’s uphill to the top of the dam and it gets steep in a few spots.
If you are at all worried about making it out of the canyon under your own power, don’t do the out and back to the lake. Instead, you can just go to the flume and turn around or turn right at the bottom of Spur 19 and ride out on Ellis Road up to the Hwy. Whether you ride to the dam or not, I recommend taking Ellis Road up to Hwy 88. Spur 19 is very steep and unrelenting and it’s going to hurt you if you trying riding up it.
Ellis Road has a mostly even grade and it is a very long climb. You can enjoy that time watching the flume and river canyon slowly sink away from you. The bottom part of the ride up Ellis is exposed and allows for good viewing. However, because of the exposure, it will be hot down in the canyon when the sun is high. On hot days, I recommend only climbing out of the canyon in the morning or before sunset.
When you get back to Hwy 88, turn right and go a little over 1 mile back to Bear River Road and coast down to the dam where you parked. A small scenic add-on option is to continue on Hwy 88 about 1 mile to the view point overlooking Lower Bear River Reservoir. Be very careful on Hwy 88. The shoulders are minimal in a few sections.
An option I like to ride to save as much energy as possible for the climb out on Ellis is to short cut the Cole Creek Road part by taking Bear River Road direct to Spur 19 then to Ellis. That’s about a 20 mile loop with a lot of climbing. Allow 2-3 hours for this ride.