Interested in a little bovine accompaniment on your mountainous road trip? I, for one, prefer to view cows that are corralled away from roads. Nevertheless, on this motorcycle excursion, plenty consider the road as theirs. (Moreover, I don’t like to argue with critters that weigh more than my bike, gear and self combined).
In brief, this little ride is a loop from Bakersfield, CA, northeast along Route 178 to Lake Isabella, picking up Route 155 north which then turns back west over the mountains and finally heading south via Woody Road/South Granite Road which lands one back in Bakersfield. The trip is about 111 miles for local riders, and if you are from LA, it’s over 300 miles up and back. Of course, if you’re the kind who also takes delight in impromptu off-pavement adventure riding, then it’s easy to make this into an overnight motorcycle camping trip enjoying the mountains and scenery of Sequoia National Forest.
So what’s this about plenty of cows in the road?
Well, I didn’t see any in the middle of Bakersfield. And I sure am glad they weren’t in the middle of Route 178 (aka Kern Canyon Road) while rollicking northeast to Lake Isabella between various mountains at arms length on the right and the cascading Kern River on the left. And even though you don’t need to watch out for wayward cows on this section, be sure to keep your spider sense active as the meandering chain of blind and near-blind turns keep you unaware of what caged-critters may be floating over the double yellow to greet you “Hello!”
A side note regarding local dangers is that the water itself is sometimes referred to as the “Killer Kern” and there are posted signs tabulating the amount of lives the River has consumed since 1968.
Rt. 178 is primarily a two-lane highway that turns into a divided, limited-access freeway approaching Lake Isabella. It’s really a fun ride, snaking up from about 400 feet elevation in Bakersfield to approximately 2500 feet at the lake surface. In addition, if you can enjoy the road during off-peak recreational times, all the better. The Kern River is famous for its white-water rafting, kayaking and fishing and you will likely see picnickers and hikers along the road, too: so there are plenty of others who like to travel through here.
What about bovines in the road?
I assure you, they’re waiting ahead!
Although I didn’t observe any cattle on Lake Isabella water-skiing, jet-skiing or windsurfing, plenty of non-bovines do. The infamous cows of this ride seem to prefer hiking and camping as their form of recreation and there’s plenty of that higher up in the mountains.
Lake Isabella is one of the largest reservoirs in California and is the main water supply for Bakersfield. In 1953, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Kern River to create this recreation area amidst the lower Sierra Nevada Mountains. So it’s here we exit Rt. 178 and head north on Rt. 155 along the waterfront to Wofford Heights. Rt. 155 takes an abrupt left turn into the mountains at about 8 miles, although you might miss it, since the pavement itself goes into town. Going into town is a good idea anyway since there won’t be any gas for a while. Wofford Heights is a relaxing, lakeside community with less than 3000 residents so grab some fuel for the bike and belly.
Heading up into the mountains along Rt. 155 is just as twisty as Rt. 178 but it’s less traveled.
The highest elevation on this road is also the highest on our trip: Greenhorn Mountain Summit at 6102 feet. Greenhorn Mountain would be more aptly named Bovine Mountain since for six miles along the road, primarily west of the summit, the area also serves as open range grazing for cattle in the Sequoia National Forest. Now I’ve ridden through other open range areas around the Western US and I have encountered a lone cow or so in the road a few times over the years. However, for the two days I spent there this past weekend, the bovine critters made themselves very well known. With all the acres of mountain forests around them, several dozen preferred to hang out on the roadside shoulder, or even directly on the pavement. And if you like to do a little adventure riding off the pavement, they seem to REALLY like the dirt roads.
I observed plenty of cattle on the shoulders of Rt. 155, including a few that were completely blocking the pavement. However, coming around one blind turn I encountered parts of a herd on both sides of the asphalt with one fine bovine dead center in my lane. Had I been riding a little more aggressively we would have had a much more intimate meeting.
And when I opted for a little off-pavement riding, I was stopped several times by these creatures setting up roadblocks and checking me out as some kind of space alien on wheels. Fortunately, with a blast of my alien space horn, these earthly creatures were inspired to trot away: Which is ideal when they trot off the road. However, when they decide to trot away and stay on the road, you can pop your cattle-chasing cowboy hat over your helmet and give out a loud “Yippee,” while motoring along right behind a few thousand pounds of clopping bovine.
It’s even more interesting when you are amongst a herd of these creatures and they start stampeding immediately in front while kicking up a dust storm. I’m glad my alien motorcycle engine was also inspiration to keep them moving away, and am specifically glad they didn’t get so spooked that they stampeded over me.
Anyway, all kidding aside, this part of the forest does require a higher degree of road-riding alertness. Unlike in Yellowstone National Park or Theodore Roosevelt National Park where it is very common to see Buffalo and other animals on the pavement, and visitors expect to see them there, I, for one, was not anticipating to see any cattle on Rt. 155 (although there is a sign noting the open range).
I spent the night at Cedar Creek Campground, at 4800 feet elevation, and the cattle were near enough where I could hear them in the evening and early morning, and I could see a few nearby (another group on the road), although none wandered into camp.
Route 155 continues to noodle west through the mountains and is a great source of amusement with endless twists and turns. A point of caution is that there are very few road signs indicating the corner radius. Whether you are approaching a mellow sweeper or a hidden, super-tight hairpin, you certainly won’t know what’s around the corner until you get there. Some of these sections can be attention-intensive unless you are really motoring along quite casually.
The endless turns open up while coming down the western edge of the mountains. By the time you get to the little hamlet of Woody, the road is an uncomplicated flow of easy turns and it’s here where you’ll pick up the rural road (also called Woody) marked for travel back to Bakersfield. Woody Road starts out as a narrow ribbon of old pavement, which widens when it becomes South Granite Road where you can wind out the MPH’s in between the rolling golden-brown hills and oil country. The cows are corralled through much of the ride out of the mountains and back into the San Joaquin Valley – which is where I prefer to see them.
Be sure to wear your space alien gear to help keep the critters at bay!