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Biking the Mojave Fall 2007 - Introduction
I biked through Death Valley in October 1996. It was 109°F at Furnace Creek. The area is beautiful, but it was way too hot at that time of year. I knew I wanted to come back on my bicycle when it was cooler. This year it worked out to take about 3 weeks after Thanksgiving. I ended up spending 18 days to cycle from Palm Springs to Las Vegas. I spent about half of that time in Death Valley NP. In Baker I met a group of cyclists on racing bikes with a support vehicle. They were cycling from Palm Springs to Las Vegas in 2 days. I saw a lot more desert than they did.
Coachella Valley and Joshua Tree National Park
I crossed the Coachella Valley on Ramon Rd. It was over 70°F, probably the warmest day of the trip. It wasn't 'til I turned onto Thousand Palms Rd. that I felt like I was heading out into the desert on my own. The San Andreas Fault system runs along the northern end of the Coachella Valley. The faults allow groundwater to rise to the surface resulting in a number of California fan palm oases. It's wonderful to see oases in the desert.
It was a 1300m climb on Berdoo Canyon Rd. to the Coachella Valley-Pleasant Valley saddle in Joshua Tree NP. I didn't see a single person or vehicle in Berdoo Canyon. Climbing out of Pleasant Valley I saw the first person, a fellow adventurer. Patrick was walking solo across Joshua Tree NP from west to east. That's a heck of a trek. That park is huge and has only one known spring. Patrick had set up two water caches before his trip.
Amboy Road and Mojave National Preserve
I bought enough food in 29 Palms to last 4 days to Baker. Heading east on the Amboy Rd. I met the only other touring cyclist of the trip. He had come down from Bishop through Death Valley NP, Baker, Kelso, Amboy - much the same route I was planning to take. When I met him, he had run out of food. I shared some almonds with him but didn't have much sympathy with his plight. The reason he didn't buy food in Baker was because there wasn't a health food store! Well, I told him there was a grocery store in 29 Palms, but it might not be up to his standard.
One of the things I was looking forward to on this trip was experiencing the transition zone between the Sonoran Desert (lower, farther south) and the Mojave Desert (higher, farther north). Creosote bushes grow in both, but most other flora is limited to one ecosystem or the other. In the transition zones you can see a mix of vegetation. What I saw ended up being less dramatic than Washington County, Utah where the Colorado Plateau, the Basin and Range country, and the Mojave Desert all come together. Joshua Trees were the main ecosystem indicator for me. I knew I was climbing high when I started to see them.
I was surprised how much traffic there was on the Amboy Rd. It wasn't much, but a lot of the paved roads that I was on during the trip would have one car every 10-30 minutes and perhaps none all night. The only truly busy roads were the road north out of Baker (on a Saturday morning) and the Pahrump-Las Vegas superhighway which has a wonderful bicycle lane.
I climbed Sheep Hole Pass to get into the Amboy Valley. It was in the Amboy Valley where I became accustomed two aspects important to cyclists in the Mojave:
Distances are deceiving. You can see really far. It takes much longer to cross these valleys that it appears that it would.
The slight inclines up alluvial fans or other fill climb a lot more than they appear to. In Colorado I'm not accustomed to seeing the whole climb since there are usually canyon climbs here. Leaving Amboy, for example, I climbed over 3000 ft. on a slowly rising alluvial plane. It took hours.
I enjoyed time off the bike to walk out to and up Amboy Crater. The following day I climbed to the top of the Kelso Dunes. And one day later I climbed one of the cinder cones east of Baker. I enjoyed having a diversion each day. Each of those areas is beautiful in its own way. The creosote bushes in the Amboy Valley are particularly green because of the shallow water table. Kelso Dunes are simply fantastic, and the cinder cone area with over 30 cinder cones and not another person felt like another planet.
In Baker I bought enough food to last 10 days and ate at the Mad Greek at my brother's recommendation. I had taken a rest day the previous day because of rain, and Baker was a bit flooded. Folks were out pushing water around with brooms. At the store the locals were telling each other how much their roofs leaked.
Death Valley National Park
Heading north of Baker the saddle that separates the Silurian Valley from Death Valley is only about a 50' climb. From there I left the pavement and stopped at Saratoga Springs to see the incredible wetlands in the desert. I had planned on climbing the Ibex Dunes, but wind was blowing sand off the top of the dunes and everything was still a bit wet from the rain. The following day I reached the pavement, took it for 5 miles and then headed west up Warm Springs Canyon.
The 1400m climb up Warm Springs Canyon was not the longest of the trip, but it was the toughest. The climb started out hard from below sea level in Death Valley and continued to be hard all the way to the saddle leading into Butte Valley. I struggled in my easiest gear (which is really low) the whole way. Surprisingly I walked very little. It always seemed to be just slightly easier to pedal than to walk.
Butte Valley felt remote. The views to the east were phenomenal giving Greater View Spring its name. I could see range after range. I stopped at Stella Anderson's place and cut some chicken wire to repair my glasses. The rattling had loosened a screw which I couldn't find. It was important to get a good fix since I wore those glasses a lot riding in the early morning and late afternoon. I found I had about 10 hours of light to ride in with perhaps 45 minutes of twilight on either end to mess around in camp. The sun was theoretically up for 8 or 9 hours, but it was often a lot less than that in the canyons. My repair job worked well, and I didn't even strip the threads so the glasses are good as new again :)
Mengel Pass is rough and keeps too many people from taking this route between Death Valley and Panamint Valley. Down in Goler Wash I met Rock(y), one of two residents of Ballarat. His father is the other. Rocky was poking around Goler Wash with his girlfriend who was visiting from LA. He had worked with various mining operations in the area, and I enjoyed his stories. It was also fun to talk with his Isreali girlfriend. We compared this desert with the eastern Mediterranean desert where I have also cycled.
In Ballarat the following day I talked with Rocky some more, but the girlfriend had already returned to LA. There are a surprising number of springs on the west side of the Panamints (due to faults, I'm sure) and a surprising number of fighter jets playing overhead. I scared a coyote into some bushes near a spring and then was scared myself by the jet passing just overhead. Once the quiet returned I could hear the coyotes, packs of them, howling and yipping in the bushes. The yipping made it sound like there were a lot of youngsters. Fun to hear the bushes make such unusual noises.
Hunter Mountain to Racetrack Playa
I was pretty tired this day and finally made it to Panamint Springs where I had planned to get water. There's a store as well, but they really only have candy bars. The restaurant, however, was able to sell me some bread and cheese. I bought a veggie burger for lunch as well. That rejuvenated me enough to climb about half of the 1100m paved climb that afternoon.
I was lucky that the following day was stunningly warm since I climbed to over 7000 ft. The 1100m paved climb was followed by 600m of climbing on a dirt road. I'm sure it ended up being more than that since there were a number of descents thrown in as well. To give an idea of the terrain the only two flat places I went through that day were named: Lee Flat and Ulida Flat! Lee Flat was filled with the most Joshua trees I've ever seen in one place. I camped in Ulida Flat next to one of the only Joshua trees out there.
I made it over Hunter Mountain, through Hidden Valley, down Lost Burro Gap, and arrived at Teakettle Junction with enough water to be able to make the ~16 mile detour to Racetrack Playa. Of course I'd seen photos of the moving rocks at Racetrack Playa, but I was absolutely blown away being at the site in person. It's not simply the amazement of seeing the evidence of the moving rocks and all the different directions and shapes of the tracks, but also how well preserved the area is. It wouldn't take too many people moving rocks from the tracks, driving on the playa, or walking out there when the surface is wet to really ruin the magic of the place. Additionally Racetrack Playa is so big and so flat. The flat playa blends in in the distance with the hills miles away. I loved this place. I was lucky enough to be there when I was. The rain from 5 days earlier had completely dried out, and it rained some more just 10 hours after I was there.
I recovered my stashed gear and water at Teakettle Junction and headed uphill into a cold, stiff wind climbing out of Racetrack Valley. By this point in the trip I had started to associate Joshua trees with cold weather. At the saddle in the twilight I made it my goal to descend far enough down to get away from the Joshua trees and perhaps into warmer weather. It was practically dark by the time I got off my bike, but I succeeded! It sprinkled off and on all night, but I was dry and fairly warm.
Through the bottom of Death Valley
The downhill continued all the way to the pavement at Ubehebe Crater, but I had to push the bike a bit once I got to the lava/cinder area. The black sand of the roadbed was much finer and deeper than the surface of most of the descent. Getting to Ubehebe concluded what I had planned for this trip. The only thing left was to get to Las Vegas. Berdoo Canyon, Mengel Pass, and Hunter Mountain had all been hard excursions, but each took about a day less than I had (conservatively) expected. I had time to make it a pleasant, easy ride to Vegas. I hiked around Ubehebe Crater and relaxed in the wind at the parking lot. Only two cars plus a ranger came by during the ~3 hours I was there. Each car stopped, the occupants got out, took a couple photos, and were driving away less than 2 minutes later. Incredible! This place is the middle of nowhere. I couldn't understand why anyone would drive so far and spend so little time. It turns out though that Ubehebe is only a 10 mile detour from the Scotty's Castle road.
I didn't make much distance this day even though it was flat and I had a tailwind after Ubehebe. I camped illegally near the paved road but was careful to avoid washes since I could tell it was going to storm. Storm it did. The wind bent my tent sideways, and rain poured down for hours. Death Valley received about a third of their annual average rainfall in this ~6 hour period. It was December 7, and it rained almost as much as it had from January 1 to December 6. The nice flat sandy spot I had chosen for my tent was just a bit lower than the surrounding area. The whole area was really quite flat, but the soil there can't absorb water very quickly. In the middle of the night I found my tent sitting in an inch or so of water. Only my thermarest was above it. I moved the tent in the pouring rain, but it was too late. Most of my stuff was pretty wet. Both pairs of socks and the bottom of my down bag were soaked. I wrapped my feet in a wool scarf like a Ace bandage and tried to get some sleep.
I was up early in the morning. I had managed to keep my down coat fairly dry so I put that over my damp clothes to ride away in the morning. Tons of rocks up to the size of softballs had poured across the 2-lane paved highway out of washes that were only a foot or two wide. It had snowed down to 4000'. In every direction were snow-covered peaks. I was so lucky to be down low, near pavement. The dirt roads that I had spent much of the last week on were probably impassable that morning. Ulida Flat where I had camped two nights earlier was probably covered in snow. I was able to keep warm biking in my down coat, but I was down at sea level, the warmest place around!
The sun came out. Everything warmed up. The views were phenomenal. In spite of the damp clothes it was a fantastic day to be cycling. At Furnace Creek I was directed to the sunny employee picnic area where I pulled everything out of my bags and dried everything out while enjoying lunch and wine from the grocery store. I hung out there for 2-3 hours before anyone else showed up. It was Herb, the night maintenance man. Enthralled with the bike he asked lots of questions about touring and the LHT specifically. He kept getting calls on his radio but continued to talk with me. Herb plans to live on his bike for a while and had been researching bicycles. I enthusiastically encouraged him since I know from experience that a lot of folks discourage that kind of crazy plan. Before he left to finally answer one of his calls, he asked me, "did you find the free showers?" I hadn't. Hohoho, that shower felt wonderful.
I spent a rest day at Furnace Creek and talked to Herb to 2 or 3 more times. I also met Mary and Paul from Rogue River, Oregon, who invited me to dinner at their campsite. I didn't carry a stove on this trip. The hot meal that Mary put together was the best meal of the trip. She had dried tomatoes and zucchini from their garden, a hot sauce with peppers that they grew, a jalepeno artichoke dip as an appetizer, and plenty of red wine. Was I ever a happy camper!
And on to Las Vegas
Back on the bike I rode south with a tailwind past Badwater all the way to the 5 miles of paved road that I had ridden between Saratoga Springs and Warm Springs Canyon over a week earlier. Instead of heading south to Baker I climbed Jubilee Pass. The following day I climbed Salsberry Pass on the coldest day of the trip. I simply couldn't warm up since I couldn't get away from the wind. And then I came to Tecopa Hot Springs! That cut the chill even though the wind was so fierce that I was dry within minutes of getting out of the pool. Around the corner I stopped at a RV park to get some water and ended up spending an hour talking with the 75-year-old man who runs the place with his wife. He ran an ultra-marathon when he was 55, had biked from Las Vegas to Sedona, had run a bunch of marathons. In the summer they leave Tecopa Hot Springs and explore the country in their 35' motorhome.
Later that afternoon I came upon Victor. Stopped at the side of the road, he handed me a Guinness and two granola bars. We chatted for a while using his car as a windbreak. He's taking a break from his 'round the world bicycle trip on a crazy rig that he built himself.
The following morning the only indication that I entered Nevada was a sign reading "Inyo County Line". Lower down on the same post was a smaller sign at an angle because it was falling off. That sign said "leaving". About 3 cars passed me in an hour, and then a car stopped. It was the couple from RV park in Tecopa Hot Springs. She had baked muffins that morning, put together a package of them for me, and handed them to me! They were still warm! Oh, I was cycling with a big smile yet again! I was on a gradual climb that continued all the way to Mountain Springs Pass. To get an idea of how long the climb was, consider that the couple drove all the way to Las Vegas, went to the dentist, drove back, and passed me just one minute before I crested the pass. They honked, smiled, and waved as did I. The first 2000' of descent was fast and cold, but I was warm and happy in my down coat.
My last excursion before Las Vegas was to ride through the scenic Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. The cliffs and cemented sand dunes in that area reminded me much more of the Colorado Plateau than anything I'd seen on my journey through the Mojave Desert. In the morning I rolled into Vegas, found a bike shop, boxed my stuff, and took a taxi to the downtown Greyhound station. In Denver a day later I rebuilt my bike at the Greyhound station for the short ride to Market St. Station. I took the bus to Boulder and rode through the snow to get home.