Escape: Cycling Ebbett’s Pass in the Sierra Nevada

California has a longstanding reputation as a cyclist’s haven. Its unique rolling and rocky terrain has a perennial allure, and over the years, it has slowly crystallized into one of the world’s greatest cycling hubs. 

What lends such mystique to this breezy, ocean-side state? The reasons, of course, are endless. But one particular reason stands out: The mountains.

Mountains come in all shapes and sizes, but Ebbett’s Pass, in the northern Sierra Nevada range, has to be one of the greatest cycling climbs. It’s truly awe-inspiring.

Here are the details:

  • Distance: The climb itself is 13 miles (20 km)
  • Elevation Gain: 870 metres
  • Difficulty Rating: HC, Hors Categorie (toughest category for climbing)
  • Average Grade: Around 5%
  • Fun Level: HIGH

3 reasons why it’s a great climb:

  1. It’s tough, but won’t destroy you. The climb is roughly 13 miles (20 km) to the summit. Although it’s rated “HC” (Hors Categorie, which is code for “beyond categorization”), you need not be intimidated. The grade is steady at an average of 5%, and the roads are smooth. Solid cardio and a steady effort will get you up this one.
  2. The views are magical. I had the luxury of cycling down this pass at dusk, and the beauty was incredible. The enchanted mountain peaks surround you, as the vast, vaulted skies turn pinker with each passing moment. You can’t help but feel alive as you rush past the pines, just deep green specks peppered throughout the austere granite slopes. 
  3. It’ll boost your confidence. We all delight in feeling special now and again, and why shouldn’t we! Cycling is an excellent way to boost your confidence and test your abilities. This climb is well known among the region as belonging to the Death Ride, a day-long, epic ride that covers 6 mountain passes. The ride goes up both sides of Ebbett’s Pass, and cyclists train for months to complete this feat. You should be very proud by the end. Read more about the Death Ride here.

What drew me to this climb originally was #3 on my list. After reading about the Death Ride, I was determined to test my true grit and get a taste of real and epic mountain climbs right here in California. The day of the climb up Ebbett’s Pass, we set out slightly late, in the afternoon. We decided to start in Markleeville, a small town on Highway 89. 

Setting out from Markleeville

The road leading up to climb from Markleeville, is gorgeous, following a creek along its length. The scenery is amazing, and the roads are butter smooth. After a nice cruise you continue right on Highway 4 or Ebbett’s Pass Scenic Byway. The alternative is to stay on the 89 to the left and ascend Monitor pass (another Death Ride climb).

Check out the Strava route here.

We began the ascent up Highway 4, slowly pedalling higher and higher. The tall trees surround you and the road winds around curvy switchbacks, with grand scenery opening up about halfway up.

Getting higher

This is where it gets good. I had one of those special moments where you completely forget what you are doing, almost as if you are fully immersed in the beauty around you, and become one with the mountain. This feeling is rare, but precious, and organic.

I was a bit nervous that day, as I had mentally prepared for steep grades and a difficult workout. It didn’t end up that way, as the scenery was so phenomenal and the grades steady. I settled into a moderate pace and took in the surrounding beauty.

Views on the ascent
In awe of the beauty about half way up the climb

Towards the top, we weren’t sure where the finish was for a few miles. You will pass a trailhead and a small lake, before you reach the summit with a sign saying “Ebbett’s Pass, Elevation 8730 Feet.” From Markleeville we had gained approximately 1000 m. The views in this final stretch are less exciting, but your feeling of accomplishment will be immense. Don’t forget some arm warmers and a vest for the way down. Mountains can chill you to the bone! 

Version 2
The descent at dusk

The descent was beautiful once again, and I had to stop myself from taking multiple photos in order to get back to town before dark. There were a couple sharp and steep hairpin turns, but primarily smooth descending. From Markleeville and back, it was a 36 mile ride (58 km) and a solid workout–all well worth it. Afterwards, we had dinner in town at a quaint restaurant called Stonefly. The pizza and beer were a great post-ride treat, and the ambience is wonderful. I highly recommend it. Accommodations were at Sorensen’s, an equally lovely, small cabin resort just a short drive from Markleeville. 

 The verdict:

This is definitely one of my favorite climbs because of the phenomenal views and steady switchbacks. I would do it again in heartbeat. Well, maybe in a few heartbeats..


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