Highway 89 – Crossing Monitor Pass



Ask any experienced photographer “what is the best camera?” and they will almost always tell you “the one you have with you.” Having had a few solid point and shoots, a big SLR with interchangeable lenses, and a few iPhones I can now clearly see the wisdom in that statement. With the advent of Lightroom for Mobile and the iPhone camera getting better I’ve often left the SLR at home in favor of a more portable camera.

I know the SLR will generate the best quality photographs. And a part of me dies every time I develop iPhone photographs knowing the SLR would’ve generated a much sharper photograph with much richer color. Yes, I know Lightroom does a better job than Apple’s camera app as it processes raw negatives. I’ve taken a couple of great photographs recently with my iPhone. However, it’s just not an SLR.

My SLR camera takes up most of my top case on the motorcycle. It’s heavy. It’s hard to use the viewfinder with a helmet on. Using live view on the camera takes a ton of battery. But damn, it takes a good picture.

Today I decided to go east and south over one of the lesser traveled Sierra passes. Monitor Pass travels over the far eastern edge of the Sierra before falling into The Great Basin of Nevada. It’s one of the last passes to close in the winter and first to open in the summer. It’s the furthest pass away from the Bay Area but just down the way from where I’m staying in South Lake Tahoe. It’s the perfect afternoon ride!

Markleeville is a small, isolated town about half an hour south and east of South Lake Tahoe. It’s the county seat of Alpine County, California’s least populated county. The county only has about 1200 people and almost 20% of them live in Markleeville. I’ve not spent much time in Markleeville. I usually just pass through on my way to somewhere else.

This time I stopped, parked my bike, and did some walking around. Markleeville was abounding with fall color. I was particularly taken with a small tree just outside of the post office. The yellow leaves against the blue sky really popped and was begging for a photograph. I kind of saw it as the kid saying “Me! Me!”

Markleeville’s Main Street has a few restaurants, general store, post office, an all-in-one government building, and a couple places to hang your hat for the evening. Even at 30 miles an hour if you blink you’ll go through it. Right in the center of town is a bridge going over the Walker River. The river’s banks have a number of trees sporting lovely fall color.


Highway 89 squiggles out of Markleeville towards Highway 4. Highway 4, also known as Ebbet’s Pass is the most technical of the Sierra crossings. A lovely venture onto its own, my bike and I continue heading south towards Monitor Pass. What surprised me was how much of this area was burned. I was in the Sierras on the other side of Highway 4 about mid-July and remember a bunch of smoke blowing over the mountains. Putting two and two together, it turned out this was the area that was burning.

The pavement, however, couldn’t have been better. Highway 89 has a number of smooth, predictable turns with a couple of tight surprises to keep the ride fun. Most of the trees heading up towards the pass hadn’t hit their peak color yet but those at the top of the pass were screaming yellow.

The westbound view from Monitor Pass is lovely. The road stretches out over a high alpine meadow carrying its travelers deep into the Sierras. The eastbound view however is anti-climactic. It’s not until a few miles later that the eastbound view really opens up. I don’t have a name for this place. You just know it when you see it. The view extends for miles into the Great Basin to the east with the high mountain peaks of the Sierras flanking you to the West.


The burn definitely continued into this area. In many ways, the burn is worse here, but it’s clear the highway provided a welcome fire break as only one side of the road is burned.

Although the SLR camera requires more care and feeding, I’m enjoying the quality and creative opportunities this camera affords. I don’t quite have the best system for carrying the camera on my bike but the flip-up helmet definitely makes using it easier. The colors are more vibrant and the detail just pops into each and every photograph. I know why it’s not standard equipment for me, but it’s fun to use every once in a while.

On the way down Ebbet’s Pass is calling my name. I take the bait. Highway 4 I have had a long and complicated relationship starting with pouring rain in the middle of summer on my first crossing. Fortunately, the sun was out and very few cars were around. After a couple miles I got stuck behind a particularly slow-moving vehicle I needed to pass. I made the pass more quickly than I should’ve and consequently had to make a hard break as I also underestimated the severity of the next turn.


Fortunately, I stayed up and the bike and I kept rolling on. Situations like that remind you in a very profound way that there is a very narrow margin between good and downright horrible and to stay on the good side of the line with plenty of margin. At about 7500 feet in altitude with the sun sliding behind the mountain things got cold quickly. I had to abort my mission of seeing Ebbet for another day at another time.

I’m learning that’s the great thing about adventure. It’s less about starting and stopping but creating a lifestyle and culture that centers around exploring the world we live in. Looking forward to the next one.



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2 responses to “Highway 89 – Crossing Monitor Pass”

  1. John O. Avatar

    Hey Dan – just stumbled on your twitter handle and blog via the Atlassian blog. We have much in common – IT, tech, Agile, photography and motorcycles — I also own a yellow VStrom (with 1/10 the miles so far). If you’re every out my way (SLC), let’s plan a ride!

    1. Me Avatar

      Sounds great John! Hopefully, we can connect soon. Thank you for saying hello. 🙂

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