March 4, 2014

Alive in Death Valley

As soon as I saw Phil's post about a potential 3-day loop through Death Valley National Park I had to make it happen. K and I drove through once before, way back in 2001, and I had been longing to get back for more exploration.

The original plan was a self-supported bikepack, but as the group grew to include a few friends who were interested in car touring we 'con'd' them into hauling some of our gear & food. (ok, probably too much stuff, but we were most appreciative to have it) So, a special thank you is in order to Michelle, Kathleen & Doug for loading down your vehicles with our stuff. The route would be a mix of dirt roads, jeep trail and pavement. No singletrack whatsoever. Would this still be fun on a mountain bike for 230 miles??

This trip was about to become more interesting as the driest place in North America had rain in the forecast!?!? We were undaunted as this would provide us with a unique perspective.

Phil arrived at 6am to pickup Eszter and I on Friday morning. We drove to north Phoenix where we waited for Michelle & Sabine to complete our mini caravan north. While sitting in the parking lot a donut shop was spotted...then the staring ensued. Ok, I give in, I'm grabbing a donut. Usually a roadtrip donut isn't something of note, but sometimes an exception must be made. Enter this:
Starting the trip off proper: maple/bacon donut from Desert Donuts, piping hot too!!
Back on the road we made good time on our way to Beatty, NV roughly 1 1/2 hours NW of Las Vegas on US95. Phil printed out a series of satellite imagery of the area chock-full of geologic notes showing the movement of the plates along the fault lines. To the untrained eye, like mine, it may simply look like cool rock formations or distant mountains, but Phil is able to relay the story of how it all connects and why it looks the way it does.

We checked in at the Exchange Club then rolled out for some good 'ol fashioned sightseeing. Our first stop was the ghost town of Rhyolite, NV only a few minutes outside of Beatty. The old townsite ruins were cool to see, trying to imagine life during its heyday. For me, the really interesting part of Rhyolite were the random art pieces strewn throughout the desert.
Time slowly erasing mainstreet.
Joshua trees & creosote are the tenants of Rhyolite now.
Parked for good.
The aroma of creosote was palpable.
Miner: yes, Penguin: huh?
Ghostly rendition of the last supper.
Ghost rider.
This place needs a little more color.

Venus of Nevada, Lego style.
Imagine camping here and waking in the middle of a starry night to this.
We entered the park and while dropping down into the valley, Phil spotted a couple of bighorn sheep on the hillside next to us!! First time I've ever caught a glimpse of one in the wild and we counted 6 of them!!
A couple of bighorns not far off the road.
We paid our entry fees at a roadside kiosk and took in our first views of the valley floor below. This was the first moment when I started to grasp the sheer scale of this place.
Coming through Daylight Pass into Death Valley.
The weather was holding up, actually seemed to be clearing, as we made our way over to Badwater - The lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.
Even on a cool overcast day Badwater Basin has a menacing feel to it.
Sea Level is waaaay up there.
The rain began to fall and the few tourists who were there fled the scene.
Our turn for the touristy group photo.
Pretty neat to see a sizable amount of water here.
Our trek onto the salt flats ended when Sabine's hair began to stand on end!!
We had intentions of making it up to Racetrack Playa, but the weather turned for the worse as a steady rain was now falling. On our exit from the park we could see the mini headwaters of a hundred rivulets forming over the rutted rocky terrain. A rare sight in Death Valley you had to see to believe.

The evening was capped off at the Sourdough Saloon in Beatty. An odd place for sure, where drinks are ordered in the back billiard room and food is ordered up front at the bar!! At least we had plenty of leftover pizza for the ride.

Day 1: Up, Down and Across.

Eszter and I twisted Phil's arm once again for a more civilized wake-up call. Everyone prepped for the day and we were set to roll out around 7:30a from Beatty.
The group all set to head out. Photo by Michelle.
Off we go. Photo by Kathleen.
We had a nice warm-up on a few miles of pavement on our way to the Titus Canyon turnoff. The road was open and had drained nicely from the prior evenings rain. Some puddle dodging was met as we meandered up the first climb of the morning.
Ilya & Phil on NV374.
30% chance of showers were in the forecast, but the sun was peeking out early!
Ride the snake west...
A quick downhill was met with a nice climb up to Red Pass.
Eszter topping out.
Photo op time!! It felt like we were about to descend into the Grand Canyon!!
Group shot, thanks to Evan.
We pushed off from Red Pass starting a 5000' descent to the valley floor. The weather was still holding up and the upper reaches of the road were in good condition, only an occasional puddle dodge was needed.
Ez dodging one of those puddles.
Talk about a short lived boom town!!
Relics from the past could be spotted all along the route in one shape or another.
Earthen home or mine entrance?
Taking in the views & history.
The canyon begins to tighten and with it the road deteriorated into a washed out mix of mud & rocks. We tried to steer clear of the mud, but in the end it was unavoidable - so enjoy it!!
Many of the petroglyphs near the road were obscured by the modern day variety.
Earliest known smiley face??? Hmmm.
This was one of those stop dead in your tracks moments. The rocks are doing what??
We came upon this scene, 2 4x4's stuck behind a washed out section of road, later we found out the Park Service closed the road. I'm sure it was quite a scene a day earlier. Photo by Evan.
The narrows of Titus Canyon.
Time to sacrifice my bandana for a clean(er) bike.
Evan, Eszter and I spent the next 20 minutes or so wiping down our bikes. My bike was rendered a singlespeed for the time being, I was hoping the next couple of downhill dirt road miles would knock more crud loose. The other three riders were still up in Titus Canyon, we assumed enjoying the scenery snapping pictures. We later found out that Ilya broke his rear derailleur and was in singlespeed mode all the way to Furnace Creek.

Eszter and I decided to press on since we were only 25 miles into the day and it was now past noon. The rest of the day would be flat riding, half paved, half dirt to camp, but it was still a long 80 miles away. I dove into my feedbag only to find one slice of mango & 3 swedish fish!!! Nooo!!! The rest had bounced out during our fun mudbogging session. Drat.

Down at our intersection with pavement, my bike was still stuck on one gear. Out came the camelback as I sprayed down my drivetrain & re-lubed. Presto! Back in shifting business.
The miles melted away, until a park ranger blurted over a megaphone for us to ride single-file!!
Now we're getting somewhere. Down, down, down we go.
One of the borax mining sites.
Furnace Creek campground had exactly what we needed, a wash station!!
I made a quick stop in the visitor center to get my National Park passport stamped.
Ez and I somehow got split up leaving the campground, but I ran into Evan and the motored caravan at the Visitor center. I was munching on my leftover pizza when Ez came back from the general store looking for me, I'm glad she did as we were still 40+ miles from camp.

We pushed off so I could make a pitstop at the general store when Phil, Ilya & Sabine came riding up. We urged them to head back to the campground to hose down the bikes. Armed with fresh gummy bears & gatorade we rolled out into the now sunny late afternoon.
Whoa. Glad we were riding bikes!!
Furnace Creek Inn, $360/night gets you in. Free gets you a nice roadside campsite and stars.
Golden hour approaches and it was magnificent.
We fought a stiff headwind over this section.
Plenty of photo ops without a need to stop.
We reached our turnoff onto the Westside road, another dirt road into camp. We figured it would be in good condition since it was more out in the open and it was. The first few miles of dirt led us across Badwater basin and some very cool looking salt formations.
Lone hiker on a river of salt.
A fantastic golden hour shot of the salt formations by Kathleen.
The salt here reminded me of a 3-day old east coast snowstorm.
After crossing the salt flat and a couple of cars, we were all alone as the sun went down. Mile after mile the dirt went by, with it went the wind as well much to our delight. It's a bit strange to ride through such an expansive landscape and not see any free ranging cattle, no airplanes overhead, no birds chirping, just the sound of our tires on the gravel road. Well, there was one cricket, ONE.

We were still a few miles away from our designated camping spot when I had to stop for a snack. The cloud cover that was hanging over us all day magically disappeared allowing us to gaze upward into a billion stars. I think if we would have had our sleeping gear we may have just camped right there.
One of the various points of interest along the west side road.
We were now approaching camp when all of a sudden a green light flashed up ahead...what was that?? A minute later we see it again, this time we could tell it was a laser pointer. We were hoping it was a beacon to our camp, but our guesstimates on remaining mileage and field of depth weren't jiving. A few minutes later, 9:30p, we reached the light and our car caravan campmates who were indeed flagging us down. They ended up relocating a mile or so from Phil's water cache set up months earlier for better car access.
Another sure sign this was our campsite!! Photo by Michelle.
We weren't in camp more than 5 minutes when we spotted a couple of LED's way across the valley floor. Sabine, Phil and Evan were making their way down the paved route and to us looked so far away. We flashed the laser in their direction a few times then watched the lights slowly make their way left to right.

I settled in after a nice warm meal and fell asleep staring upward into the starry night. The others rolled into camp sometime around 11:30p that night, but I didn't hear a thing.

Day 2: Let's do some climbing!!

The pre-dawn stillness was interrupted by the rustling of sleeping bags. Time to get moving. This day promised to be the toughest in my estimation. Shorter by 27 miles from day 1, but still an 80 mile day with 4X the climbing! The elevation profile wasn't looking too friendly, but sometimes climbing grades are tough to decipher on paper.
Beautiful view of Telescope Peak to start the morning.
Camp 1, full of amenities.
The riding group would take differing approaches on this day. Sabine took the day off to do some sightseeing and let Ilya borrow her bike. Phil and Evan opted for a shuttle up & over the two initial paved climbs. Eszter and I hit the road after breakfast, trying to wake up our legs for the upcoming inclines.
Dry Lake Manly.
The shoulder of the road was showing some color.
First pass of the day, legs starting to come around.
The ensuing 8 mile 2000'+ climb up to Salsbury Pass finally got my legs into gear, but Ez's legs were revving higher as I couldn't match her cadence. She was kind enough to wait for me at the top and shared some maple bacon Kettle chips!! We both then enjoyed a 35+ mph descent off the backside to our turnoff at Greenwater Valley rd.
The long straightaways afforded me glimpses of Eszter.
Clouds rolling in as the road bends downward.
Two climbs down, two to go!!
Long, fast, 'free' miles will put a smile on your face.
The beginning of a gradual 17 mile climb.
The profile sure looked like a climb, but in reality Greenwater Valley rd was just uphill enough that you had to pedal. We made our way towards the crest noticing how the distant mountains played mind tricks on depth perception. Stare at a mountain as you pedal and it appears to fade farther away!! Freaky. At the top we stopped for the windiest part, why did we do that? Anyway, we bundled up because we were about to embark on a massive 30 mile downhill!!
The subject of our staring illusion.
12 miles of downhill dirt.
We had a brief moment where we were determined to make the climb up to Dante's view. The overcast sky and the idea of a 5 mile climb at 16% persuaded us to keep the bikes pointed downstream.
Suddenly I was craving cream cheese brownies.
The fast paved descent brought an ever changing landscape. We were in constant awe.
We were settled in to our downward trend for well over an hour when the track abruptly went left. It was getting late in the afternoon and we had a brief discussion on whether to beeline to the Echo Canyon turnoff and try to make camp 2 before dark or stick with the route. It didn't take us long, practically in unison, stick with the route. We peeled off to the left into 20 Mule Team Canyon and what we encountered next was undoubtedly the highlight of the day. Clearly we made the correct decision.
Are you kidding me?
Not only was the scenery stunning, the dirt road was 'hero dirt' and closed to motorized traffic on this day!!
Still buzzing from 20 Mule Team Canyon we spotted a touristy viewpoint a few miles down the road. We rode up to the overlook and our jaws dropped open once again. Welcome to Zabriskie Point.
It doesn't look real.
This hiker had the right idea.
Every direction provided its own unique landscape.
I'm glad we had overcast skies, a rare treat in these parts.
The light was beginning to fade as we turned onto Echo Canyon rd. The profile showed a 3000'+ climb to camp 2 and we were hoping against hope that the next 8 miles didn't include a ton of pushing. A few vehicles passed us coming & going on our way up. As I rode past one couple they asked where we were headed and where we had started. I mentioned that we were on our second day and almost 170 miles into the ride, they countered with 'are you two still talking?' Ha! We were loving it.
8 mile uphill finish to camp 2.
We almost made it to the canyon mouth before needing lights. Darkness fell and we settled into granny gear every so often catching a glimpse of the towering walls in our lights path. A little bummed we couldn't see what we were riding up, but stoked we were riding!!
A view we missed due to darkness, thankfully Kathleen captured it!!
As we neared the camp spot we came across a gallon jug for DV230 riders and an empty Yuengling can!! Oh, we're close now! Where's the green laser?? No laser tonight, but a few minutes later we found the rest of the crew hanging out sharing stories from the day. Ilya was the only one unaccounted for and 15 minutes later he too rolled into camp.

Dinner was cooked, homebrews shared and once again the lingering cloud cover pushed off in favor of the Milky Way. Two nights in a row, are you kidding me?
Kathleen once again captures the scene beautifully.
The only problem on night 2 was the constant pestering of mosquitos!! Mosquitos. Really? Here? Sometime after 2am I was finally able to tune them out and drift off to sleep.

Day 3: Up & Out, Back to Nevada.

The last day was by far the shortest, only 43 miles back to Beatty, NV so there was no rush to get going. We finalized our gear dropoff & hotel arrangements since only Evan, Eszter and I were riding & staying in Beatty. The others opted for a cool night out on The Racetrack.

The three of us still had some climbing to do before exiting Echo Canyon. We made our way up the grade marveling in our new-found surroundings.
Evan taking advantage of a small freeride area.
We had been waiting for this section of HAB, only lasted a minute or two.
Telescope Peak comes into view as we top out of a side canyon to the high desert.
The jeep roads begin to point downward.
Another canyon descent before opening up to the wide open desert.
We initially blew by this turn, brilliant old jeep connector!!
What?!? No casino at the Nevada state line!!
A long gradual downhill sandy trek to US95. Bare Mtn on the horizon.
We were cruising along ticking off the miles and about ready for a lunch break. We each picked a spot in the sand and showed off our offerings: Pad Thai for Eszter, leftover pizza supreme for me, then we watched as Evan prepared a bowl of chocolate pudding!! Damn. Trumped. Before we could sulk too much the cafe Patron tequila came out and all was well.

I like tracking all my rides via GPS, perhaps the geek in me, whatever. I get a little annoyed when the device doesn't operate like it should. So with only 20 miles or so left the Garmin decided to start cycling power. I played the game for a few re-boots, then opted for a fresh set of batteries from Evan. That seemed to do the trick, but my batteries should have been good as they only were used for two charges. A few more miles down the road I figured it was simply a loose connection in my charger, something I better pay closer attention to in the future.

We crossed US95 and began a gradual ascent around the backside of Bare Mtn. We left the well graded dirt road for a more primitive feel passing by an active gold mining operation.
One of the few signs of civilization on the day.
The climb up Tarantula Canyon proved to be the steepest of the entire trip.
BBQ chips save the day atop Secret Pass. It's all downhill from here!
Munching on snacks at Secret Pass it started to sink in that our ride was about to end. There was one downhill through Fluorspar Canyon left, we could practically see Beatty from our perch. No lights needed. We all bombed the descent taking in the last views of the rugged terrain. What an incredible 3 days of riding, fully exceeding all my expectations.
Evan enjoying the final downhill.
Colorful rocks abound!
Beatty, NV.
Amargosa River .
Beatty: 'Chicago of the West'.

Death Valley 230
We sure saw a ton of cool things during our time in Death Valley, but by no means did we see it all. In fact we left quite a bit on the table for the next visit. Some of the others went out for more sightseeing opportunities and they shared some amazing photographs. Here's a few of the highlights courtesy of Kathleen, as you can see she's a wizard behind the lens. Check out her full album here.
Dante's View.
Ubehebe Crater.
The rest of the gang at Teakettle Junction.
Racetrack Playa.
Sand dunes.
Skidoo ghost town.
In the end, my question was answered. You can have a great mountain bike ride without singletrack. Thanks Phil for putting the route together and opening my eyes to the wonders of Death Valley. We had a rare opportunity to experience this known hot spot in cool damp conditions which only heightened our enjoyment. Thanks again to Michelle, Kathleen & Doug for lugging around more items than you bargained for. It was a fun group to hang with, if only at the camping spots!!

I'm also really glad Eszter slowed down a bit to ride with me, great company and as always great food! I appreciate you allowing me to poke your brain about some other long distance events I have my eye on, I learned a lot. Check out her blog for more epicness!

All the pics that didn't make it here:


  1. Looks like an amazing ride, nice job documenting it all!

  2. great writeup! was wishin' to be out there to see those stars