The Ebbetts Pass

Ebbetts Pass (SR 4)

ONE-LANE ROAD THROUGH CALIFORNIA’s LONELIEST COUNTY

HIGHEST ELEVATION: 8,730 feet
CLOSED FOR WINTER: Yes
ALONG THE WAY: Murphys, Arnold, Calaveras Big Trees State Park, Lake Alpine

WHAT TO DO NEAR EBBETTS PASS

Some Favorites From Our Expeditions

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    Take note of where the yellow line disappears and the pass becomes a one-lane road.

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    Look at one Sierra Pass while standing on another. Stop at the Cape Horn Vista to see a sweeping vista that includes the volcanic formations of the Dardanelles visible from Sonora Pass.

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    Roll down the windows when you come up on the cattle on the eastern end of the pass. In addition to moos, you’ll probably hear cowbells clanging.

The Ebbetts Tour

Touring the Ebbetts Pass on its course over the mountains starts in the foothills of Murphys and Arnold, passing by the giant sequoias in Calaveras Big Trees State Park, before moving to Bear Valley and the gate at Lake Alpine that seals the pass off in winter.

If it’s open, the road beyond climbs over the crest at nearly 9,000 feet before dropping down to connect with Highway 89, which offers two choices: head north to tiny Woodfords where there is a junction with Highway 88 (the Carson Pass route) or continue east to Highway 395 via the Monitor Pass, joining it near Topaz Lake.

The First Pass

The Ebbetts is thought to be where Jedediah Smith crossed the Sierra Nevada in 1827, making him the first white man to do so. His conquering passage came when he was leaving California, following the Stanislaus River enroute to Utah after his first fur-trapping expedition to the area.

But Seen by Few

Though the path he blazed is one of the oldest trans-Sierra routes, it didn’t became a major Sierra thoroughfare. Few immigrants used it, even though it was a mining route between Murphys and Nevada’s Comstock Lode. And not many travelers drive it today. It’s one of the least-used Sierra passes, even when it isn’t closed due to the heavy snow that buries it in winter.

Frankly, it can be a bit scary. At Lake Alpine, the dividing line disappears, and it becomes a one-lane road that stays that way for some time as it twists and turns past curves with hair-raising drops instead of wide shoulders and guardrails. It can be steep on the descent, too, warranting a shift down to first in some spots.

In addition, the surrounding area is quite isolated, even more so than the remoteness of other passes as they approach their summits. There’s not much human imprint here and lots of seemingly untouched wild. The Ebbetts resides in Alpine County, one of California’s least populated, with just over 1,100 residents in Bear Valley and Lake Alpine, Kirkwood and Hope Valley, and Markleeville and Woodfords.

The Ebbetts is named for John Ebbetts, who is credited with discovering the emigrant trail through here. He later pointed it out to a surveyor during scouting for the Transcontinental Railroad. It wasn’t ultimately chosen as the site for train tracks across the Sierra, and good thing it wasn’t given the major winter snow. But the surveyor still named the pass for Ebbetts after he was killed in a steamboat explosion.

The road over it started as a toll road called Big Trees to Carson Valley Road, which opened in 1864 to provide a route to the new silver finds in the Comstock Lode. It became a state highway in 1926. It’s also a National Scenic Byway. There are 150 around the country and just two in the Sierra — the other is the Tioga Pass. To earn the designation, a road must have archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational or scenic qualities.

Glacial Sightseeing

There’s plenty of views through your window along the Ebbetts — unless you’re the driver. If that’s the case, keep your eyes glued to the road, especially at the sharp turns where you share a lane with oncoming traffic.

But one place deserving of a stop is the Hell’s Kitchen Vista. Popular with climbers and bouldering enthusiasts because of the giant rocks strewn about, it’s also another prime place to witness the Sierra’s glacial legacy. Besides the erratic boulders that the ice carried here, you can see moraines. They’re the ridges of debris left behind like a bathtub ring after the glacier retreated.

Sonora Pass Sightseeing

The Ebbetts also offers a unique opportunity to gaze at one Sierra pass while on another. The Cape Horn Vista is one of the more expansive Sierra views and from here you can easily pick out where Sonora Pass cuts its own twisty path across the mountains.

The dark formations you see in the distance here are the Dardanelles, the enduring volcanic rock also visible when you’re traveling the Sonora. (As you look at this ancient geologic wonder, see if you can also spot the outlines of a sleeping lion and elephant.)

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