Of the many reasons for cycling into Death Valley, these gorgeous sand dunes next to Stove Pipe Wells are among the top. Portions of Star Wars were filmed here.
I didn’t have to bicycle through Death Valley, but how could I resist. It is known as the hottest, driest, and lowest place in North America. It holds the world record for heat at 134° F, receives an average of less than two inches of rain a year, and is 282 feet below sea level at its lowest spot. It also happens to be drop-dead beautiful and is close to balmy in spring.
So I packed up my panniers at Isabella Lake and hit the road. Four days of moderate cycling were ahead of me before I arrived at Stove Pipe Wells in the heart of the Valley. At least I was hoping they would be moderate.
Day one was a three-beer day. It wasn’t overly difficult; it’s just that I made a novice mistake, one that can cost you dearly in the desert: I didn’t carry enough water. I know better. Over the years I have lectured hundreds of backpackers and bicyclists on the necessity of staying well-hydrated. Yellow pee is bad. (There is a newspaper at Burning Man in the Nevada Desert called “Piss Clear” to remind Burners of this fact.)
I was carrying two, one-liter bottles of water on my bike, close to a half-gallon. I should have been carrying four. By the time I had cycled 8-miles downhill to the town of Lake Isabella and then climbed for 35-miles and 3000 feet to the 5,250-foot Walker Pass, I had consumed all of it. I had drunk my last drop and was sucking on the nipple of my water bottle like a hungry baby sucks on a tit. Had screaming like a one-month old helped, I would have. What’s worse, not a drop was to be had before I reached my day’s destination at Inyokern. I had arrived in the great southwestern deserts of America where people are few and water is less.
Fortunately, it was only 15 miles and much of the way was downhill on a gentle 6% grade. I arrived at Inyokern, found a cheap motel, and consumed several glasses of its bad tasting water. Immediately afterwards, I headed for the restaurant across the road and had my three beers. Gulp, gulp, gulp. That night I was peeing clear, several times. The first thing I did the next morning was to go out and buy a two-liter back-up bottle of water and add 4.4 pounds to my bike. Here’s the thing, I never drank it; I never had to. But I carried it the next 9000 plus miles, as a reminder.
My next two days of cycling were typical desert cycling with nothing but me, rattlesnakes, scorpions, jackrabbits, mining operations— and the US military. Vast areas in the southern desert regions of California and Nevada have been set aside for practicing war and testing weapons. Leaving Inyokern, I biked through Ridgecrest, the site of the US Naval Air Weapons Station, which covers some 1,100,000 acres, an area the size of Rhode Island. It includes 329 miles of paved road and 1,108 miles of dirt roads, none of which were available to me. It did share the sound of jets flying overhead, however. One was so close it almost knocked me off my bike, so to speak. “The sound of freedom,” an air force pilot friend told me. Right.
I decided to spend my night in Trona, since my other option was camping out with the scorpions. Trona was founded as a company town to harvest its namesake mineral, trona, which you probably know as baking soda. Employees were paid in script that could only be used at the company store. (So much for shopping around for the best price.) Trona is still known as a mining town, rightfully so. And it is also known for having the only dirt football field in the US. Grass won’t grow there. The team is known as the Tornados. They should probably be called the Dust Devils. I saw several as I biked through the area.
I am not sure what particular mineral this huge white mound in Trona consisted of, but I don’t think it was baking soda.
My goal for the next day was to bike through the Panamint Valley to Highway 190, the primary route into Death Valley from the west, and then climb up and over the Panamint Mountain Range down to Stove Pipe Wells, where I would be meeting a friend the next day. It was close to 76 miles with zero services along the way, miles and miles of nothing except magnificently lonely desert and million dollar views. I left at seven and made it to Highway 190 around two. Hiding out behind a highway sign, the only shade I could find, I contemplated the road snaking up the mountain and thought, “NO.” I would be climbing close to 4,000 feet in 12 miles in the heat of a Death Valley afternoon. Panamint Springs, known for a good restaurant, its shade and cool water, was a mile or so in the other direction with a minimal climb. My decision was easy… and it was one of my better decisions on the trek.
The road out of Trona was so empty, I would have loved to come across a burro. You will see a lot of roads like this as Peggy and I follow my bike route through the Southwest.
A view of the road through the Panamint Valley.
Looking up at the Panamint Range, the mountains I had to bicycle over.
The sign that welcomes you to Death Valley today.
I was on the road at six the next morning. Within twenty minutes of starting my climb, I was out of the saddle in my lowest gear, travelling about three miles per hour. The climb to Town Pass was the most challenging climb of my journey. On the steepest parts, I would pedal 100 times and stop for a quick break. Only sheer stubbornness kept me on the bike and not walking. I was still irritated at having to walk through the snowstorm on Greenhorn Pass. The total climb took me four hours. I don’t think I could have done it the day before. What goes up, must come down, however, and there was a splendid downhill into Stovepipe Wells. The only challenge was that my bike wanted to go over 40 miles per hour. I told it no.
Climbing up this pass was one of the toughest climbs of my journey, much tougher than climbing over the Rockies.
The road into Death Valley couldn’t match the 13% grade coming off of Green Horn Pass but it was definitely steeper than the 6% coming off of Walker Pass.
My friend joined me at noon and I allowed her to give me a ride over to Furnace Creek and Park Headquarters. I had earned a break. It was Easter weekend so we ended up camping with RVs in the overflow area. No matter, I slept solidly that night. The next morning, we biked down to Bad Water Basin and the lowest spot in Death Valley. It was all downhill, which sounds like a good thing, except we had to pedal, in low gear. That’s how strong the head winds were. The good thing was they almost blew us back up the mountain. We arrived back in camp and discovered that my beautiful, light weight and expensive Moss tent had disappeared. My stakes hadn’t withstood the wind. I found it a tenth of a mile away, pretty much trashed.
Still, I enjoyed Death Valley, as I always do, and I enjoyed the break in my solo journey my friend provided. The next morning, we attended a non-denominational Sunrise Easter service on top of a sand dune. I said my goodbyes, hopped on my bike, and headed for the glittering lights of Las Vegas.
Peggy and I took the above and following photos as we retrace my original 1989 bike trip. (We’ve now made it to Nova Scotia. Traveling by van is considerably faster than by bike! Eventually, my posts will catch up.) Our friends Ken and Leslie Lake joined us in Death Valley and Las Vegas.
Another view of the sand dunes next to Stovepipe Wells.
This is the same parking lot at Furnace Creek where my tent had flying lessons. Ken, Leslie, Peggy and I were about to enjoy afternoon snacks.
People who have never been to Death Valley think of it mainly in terms of heat and desolation. It is actually quite beautiful. This photo was taken in Twenty Mule Canyon.
Zabriskie Point is a short distance from Furnace Creek. I biked right by it on my way out. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Our friends Ken and Leslie Lake in Golden Canyon. Ken, too, has bicycled across the US.
Another view of Golden Canyon. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
We just missed the major display of flowers in Death Valley, but I caught these guys in Golden Canyon.
This gargoyle-like rock was on the edge of the Canyon.
Devil’s Golf Course is on the way to Bad Water. The Panamint Mountains are in the background.
Ken and Leslie, 282 Feet below sea level at the lowest point in North America.
I’ll conclude with this volunteer we found at Furnace Creek demonstrating how to make arrowheads. For a moment, I thought Santa Clause may have made a wrong turn.
NEXT BLOG: On to Las Vegas