The view from two wheels: Biking trails count among Yosemite’s best-kept secrets

From the archive: This column was first published Sept. 11, 2008.

It’s not exactly a newsflash that Yosemite Valley is one of the best places on Earth to go hiking.

But what people might not realize is that this incomparable landmark is also a great place to go biking. Yes, biking.

One of the least-known facts about Yosemite Valley is the existence of more than 12 miles of paved bike paths and roads that are closed to automobiles.

And no matter how many times you’ve been there, exploring the Valley on two wheels is an entirely different experience than on two feet.

If you’re someone who owns more than one pair of Lycra shorts or likes to cruise around at 25 mph, it’s probably best to ride someplace else. But for recreational cyclists in no particular hurry, there are few better places to experience pure biking bliss.

“Whenever I have family or friends visit, I always tell them to rent a bike,” said Kenny Karst, spokesman for DNC Parks and Resorts, Yosemite’s concessionaire. “I think it’s the best way to explore the Valley.”

If you don’t bring your own set of wheels, beach cruiser-style bikes can be rented by the hour or day at Curry Village and Yosemite Lodge from the last weekend of May through early October. Helmets are included in the rental fee.

Tourists riding rented bikes cross the Merced River on Swinging Bridge in Yosemite Valley Tuesday, June 4, 2019 in Yosemite National Park. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

It should go without saying that biking in Yosemite comes with a few ground rules. The most important one is that bikes are allowed only on paved surfaces, and all trail riding is prohibited. (Sorry, dirt hogs.) The second is to always be aware of pedestrians, many of whom walk around with eyes fixed on the majestic surroundings while paying little attention to what’s happening on terra firma.

Another handy bit of advice: Don’t plan your cycling trip on a weekend in the middle of summer. Go during the fall or spring, when the weather is cool and crowds are light.

Having never biked in Yosemite, I took Karst’s advice during a recent visit and parked in the main day-use lot near Yosemite Village. After inflating both tires, I rode across the street and turned east on the bike path in the direction of Curry Village.

Again following Karst’s advice, I veered left toward Mirror Lake at the next junction and instantly found myself in a different world. Gone was the engine noise, replaced by the soothing sounds of gentle breeze.

A couple ride bicycles along Southside Drive in Yosemite Valley Tuesday, June 4, 2019 in Yosemite National Park. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

With Half Dome staring me in the face and Washington Column peering over my left shoulder, I continued pedaling until reaching dried-up Mirror Lake. Here, bikes can go no further, so I turned around and headed toward Happy Isles and Curry Village.

The road at the far eastern edge of the Valley is especially good for cycling because the only traffic you’ll encounter comes from the park’s fleet of clean-air buses. In other words, you won’t be breathing any black smoke.

After downing a bottle of POWERade, I set off to explore sections of the bike path that follow the Merced River. Even construction on Southside Drive (scheduled to be completed next month) couldn’t detract from the pleasure of riding over boardwalks and bridges in the vicinity of Cook’s Meadow.

Most people will require between 90 minutes and 2 hours to ride all 12 miles of bike path. If that’s not enough, turn around and pedal in the opposite direction. With so much to take in, it’ll seem like a different ride.

After pedaling around for about 4 hours, I started to wonder what it would be like if Yosemite Valley was closed to automobiles and bikes were the primary mode of transportation. This iconic place would be completely different – and certainly more peaceful.

That won’t happen anytime soon, but park spokesman Scott Gediman said the nonprofit Yosemite Fund is raising money to repave the Valley Loop Trail, an old horse trail that encircles the valley floor.

When completed, cyclists will be able to ride from the Yosemite Lodge past El Capitan Meadow all the way to Pohono Bridge. Now that’s something to get excited about.

“The Valley Loop Trail is something we really want to establish,” Gediman said.

So the next time you visit Yosemite Valley, leave the hiking boots at home and take the bike. No matter how many times you’ve been before, it’ll feel like a new experience.

How to rent a bike in Yosemite

Here is the latest information about how to rent a bike in Yosemite, updated spring 2019.

Where to rent: Yosemite Valley Lodge Bike Stand (until Nov. 17), located next to the pool, or at the Half Dome Village Bike Rental Kiosk (until Oct. 27), located next to the village’s front office.

Cost: $12 per hour or $34 a day for standard bike rentals. Helmets are free with a rental. ADA bikes, bikes with trailers, strollers, wheelchairs, electric scooters, and helmets are also available for rent. More information is available online at travelyosemite.com.

How it works: Bike stands are open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the rental season that begins in April. The last bike rental of the day is at 5:45 p.m. All bikes must be returned by 6:45 p.m.

Details: 209-372-1208 (Yosemite Valley Lodge) and 209-372-8323 (Half Dome Village).

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