Finding California 120

This comes from frequent contributor (and ever exploring) Jerry Bradbury:

I’m just back from a week in the high desert at the Silver State Classic Challenge where a lone JCW MCS was entered. I’ll report on that later after the results are posted and we see how he did.

On the way back, I stumbled accidently onto CA 120, and here’s a description of it. I thought MotoringFile readers would be interested.

Smiles are common currency among MINI drivers. A short trip to the store or a run to the post office can still bring a grin even after three years with the car. Every once in a while, though, you”‘ll run into a road that makes you laugh out loud and shout “WOO-HOO!” California Route 120 from its intersection with CA 395 to its eastern end in Benton is just that kind of road. It'”s an isolated, well maintained but seasonal 2-lane blacktop. It has rock canyon twisties. It has long straight stretches through the high desert chaparral and saltpans. It has a section of dips that will alternately nail you into your seat with vertical G”s and then unload everything and launch you into space if you have the courage. Route 120 has up hills and down dales and fabulous views of the White Mountain Range as you pass through the Benton Paiute Reservation on your way to its end. It is best explored in the early October when the colors are changing and just before the high altitude flying snow closes it for the winter.

This road is so remote it”s probably best to fold it into a trip to Yosemite. So let”s say you”‘ve done the Yosemite thing. You”ve hiked until your calves scream for mercy, seen Bridalveil Falls, forded the Merced River by hopping from boulder to boulder, hiked out to Yosemite Falls, practiced saying “Tuolumne” until you can do it with a straight face, done your Ansel Adams interpretation of Half Dome and at sunset watched through your binoculars as those crazy tech climbers half way up the face of El Capitan bed down for the night (“Hey, watch that first step in the morning, fellas, it”s a doozy”).

Today, as often happens in the fall, it may be rainy or overcast or cold or all three. You”re curled up on one of the Indian blanket couches in the Great Hall at the Awahnee Lodge after a nice breakfast, trying to decide whether to hang out by the fireplace and read a book or jump in the MINI and go looking for adventure and some sunshine. That'”s an easy one. Let”s go to Benton for lunch. So you remove all the loose stuff in the car that could roll around and head down the valley, turning right to join CA 120 up over the Tioga Pass. You”‘ll have to slog it out with the tourists on this stretch, even this late in the season, due to the spoilsport Park Rangers with ticket books who assiduously enforce the 45 mph speed limit. But the scenery is spectacular, so relax and enjoy it. You'”ll be glad you practiced saying “Tuolumne” as seemingly every stream, falls, meadow and rock you pass carries that name.

Finally you”‘ll pass the park”s east gate and head down slope toward CA 395. Turn right and pass along the western shore of Mono Lake, then turn left at the intersection of CA 120 and skirt the south shore. After bumping down a gravel track to view the south tufa, turn left again on CA 120 and leave the tourists behind. You'”ll pass through a burnover, a redwood grove, a canyon and then the road opens out onto the high chaparral.

Disclaimer: The author does not condone exceeding the posted speed limit at any time. To do so would be unlawful. On the other hand, if you find yourself on a long straight stretch of desert road with five miles of visibility in all directions and not a living soul in all that space, and you decide you want to open “er up, I can”t stop you.

Benton is so small, it”s not even a crossroads; it”s just a T in the road where CA 120 meets US Highway 6 at the foot of the White Mountains. Boundary Peak, The Jumpoff and Mt. DuBois keep Benton in the shade until nearly 9 AM in the early autumn. There is a small cafe at the intersection, run by the Utu Gwaitu Paiute Tribe. Inside, the white Formica counter is worn down to the brown under color. There are pictures of Native Americans on the wall alongside announcements of local tribal activities. A framed USGS topographical map has a hole punched out of it and is well thumbed around Benton. A sign over the door in back points to the “Convenient Store”. The staff is friendly, the coffee good and the cook (a short, roly-poly person with a big smile) is accommodating. Lunch specials are handwritten every day on a whiteboard next to the kitchen door and are well worth trying as long as you don”‘t expect mesclum salads and foie gras; the menu will more likely be cabbage soup and grilled cheese sandwiches – good hearty plain food.

From Benton, you can only go northest to Tonopah, a dying mining town in Nevada, or south to Bishop, California, or back up CA 120. Best to return the way you came for a completely different look. On the return trip, the eastern slope of the Sierras rises majestically from the high desert. Tall, cloud capped, big shouldered peaks wrapped in cloaks of dark green conifers trimmed here and there with ribbons of flame yellow turning aspens beckon. Back at CA 395, turn left and then right at Rte 158, the June Lake Loop, for a semi-secret run past waterfalls, aspen groves and four beautiful, quiet alpine lakes. The June Lake Loop rejoins CA 395 just south of the Tioga Pass Road that will lead you after this unforgettable day back to the Yosemite Valley. Motor on, dude!

  • Bruce Hord

    What’s to say? Great Jerry’s write up and pic’s are great.

    We have great scenery here in Northern Ohio also, but know that they are followed by several months of unspeakable weather. I shall come back to this article more than once this winter.

  • Blake

    Wow! Great write up!

    I never knew such great things were so close to my house! Yosemite Valley is only an hour from my front door 🙂 I will have to put this on my list of things to do when im off break in.

    Thanks for the tip 🙂

  • j

    el capitan in playstation2’s gran turismo 4

  • tanya

    That is a sweet ribbon o’ asphalt. So, did you ever sell that 04 JCW?

  • Steve

    Great write up. Been there done that. try a loop up hwy 108 over Sonora Pass down 395, up over tioga pass and down 120. with a stop at the Awanhee, of course. From Hollister, a long lovely 500+ mile long day. now is the time to do this as the colors ar incredible.

  • Sad Arthur

    So, did you ever sell that 04 JCW?

    Yep. She got a sweet deal too. After 3 months of marketing, I had to drop the price to $25K. Nobody appreciates the worth of the JCW kit yet, but nonetheless Sad Arthur now happily resides with the mayor of El Cerrito (I have visitation rights).

    SAII with LSD, JCW Everything, light Kotei wheels and Yokohama Advan 048 track shoes is anxiously awaiting his chance to flay Thunderhill on Halloween with the Unlimited Laps crowd.

    Author’s note: it’s AHWAHNEE, not AWAHNEE as I spelled it in the report. Sorry.

  • Duane

    I have spent a decent amount of time in those parts, due to regular snowboard trips to Mammoth. And I agree with everything in the write-up, except for one thing, the restaurant choice. The Whoa Nelly Deli located in the Tioga Gas Mart at the corner of 120 and 395, which can be seen by the trapeze set near the parking lot. It is a truly a diamond in the rough. The food is amazing from beef medallions to fish tacos.

    And when I get my 06 MCS in the next week and the snow starts to fall, you will see a Red/Black with a filled snowboard rack there on a regular basis.

    Great write up and can’t wait to recreate it.