Zen On Dirt

Death Valley: From the bottom of N. America, we go UP


I have a phobia when camping: I’m deathly afraid of missing the sunrise. As someone who doesn’t subscribe to getting up early during ‘regular’ life, the thought of missing a single second of a sunrise seems blasphemous while camping, so I was up as soon as the sky started to turn. I counted the bivied bodies around me, trying to determine who was in each cocoon. I looked back at the snow covered flanks of Telescope Peak that had remained hidden from us the previous two days under a blanket of clouds. I looked  north to the endless expanse of land that John and I had covered in the dark. I looked to my big pile of food that the sag truck had transported for me and giggled.


John stirred next and I suggested we strive for an early-ish start to see if we could do a bonus 12 miles on the route to get up to Dante’s Overlook halfway through the day’s milage. After eating, grabbing a day’s worth of food for the bikes, and loading the rest of our junk in bags for the cars, we started off down the valley. The others were slowly waking and assessing the damage of 100+ miles in the saddle over the course of 15 hours.


The day consisted of a paved climb first to Jubilee Pass and on to Salisbury Pass before a screaming descent and back onto dirt on the Furnace Creek Wash road where another 17 miles of climbing would bring us to the high-point of the day at nearly 5,000 feet. This would be followed by a 30 mile downhill and then another 3,000+ foot climb to Camp 2 up Echo Canyon. And I wanted to add another few thousand feet of climbing to get to an overlook of the valley.

The paved climb was a bit of a drag as far as pedaling went. 107 miles the previous day led to a, well, slow start to the uphill, but the scenery was stunning and the traffic minimal. It definitely didn’t feel like a National Park. We stopped at the top of each pass to eat and take in the scene. With only 78 miles and a whole morning ahead of us, time seemed like a luxury. Until it stopped being morning and we started joking that we’d be finishing in the dark again.


The climb up Furnace Creek Wash made me wish I knew more about rocks and geology. While I’d gleaned a little bit from reading prior to the trip, it’d be an awfully neat place to look at with the knowledge of a geologist.


By mid afternoon, we were back up to 5,000 feet and ready to go down. It had been a long morning of uphill and as someone who definitely prefers the downhill to uphill, I was ready to coast. With a tailwind, what we did bordered more on flying than coasting. We reached the turnoff to Dante’s at 3:30 in the afternoon. With another 20 miles of downhill and then 10 more miles of uphill before the day would be done, we made the executive decision to bypass the overlook in exchange for what we hoped wouldn’t be a 9:30 finish to the day.

Instead, we took more pictures.


We traveled through the borax sand dunes that sustained the mining industry in the valley. Harmony Borax Works would use teams of 20 mules (or 18 mules and 2 draft horses) to haul the borax out to the nearest railroad 130 miles away. Hauling two 16-foot wagons loaded down plus a thousand gallons of water, those little mules would pull 36 ton loads up and over the passes. I think they operated 5 teams so they could have a load go out every other day.


We made our tourist stop for the day at Zabriskie Point, which overlooked the borax dunes and other amazing rock features. It was fun to see the number of cameras set up for time lapse on an overcast day which had not an iota of lighting change.


We finished our 4,500 foot descent and started up the canyon. 3,500 feet in 10 miles was the plan, which ends up being not much steeper than railroad grade on average. We reached the mouth of the slot canyon just as we had to turn our lights on. It was downright spooky shining lights up rock walls that reached far beyond the strength of my light. After nearly two hours of pedaling, we saw the welcome lights of camp in the distance. A 7:30 finish sure beat a 9:30 one.

Dinner and homebrew was consumed. It was delicious.

Morning again brought a whole new landscape that I hadn’t seen the night before, and the realization that I was starting my 32nd trip around the sun. Evan joined John and I for the final leg of the journey, 50-some-odd miles back to Beatty. With a leisurely start, we headed up the canyon finding beautiful grades and just enough chunk to stop all but the most intrepid 4x4s (i.e. we saw no one).


Once we were back up at 5,000 feet (from our local minimum at 500 feet at the bottom of Echo Canyon), we rolled a series of backroads through the mountains and through canyons before spitting out on the flat expanse of land between our mountain range and Bare Mountain.


Somewhere in there, we stopped for lunch. I pulled out left over Pad Thai from dinner. John trumped me with pizza. Evan outdid the both of us with chocolate pudding. When he pulled out the coffee flavored tequila, I swore that I’d never pass up a chance to go bikepacking with him in the future.


Crossing highway 95, we contoured back into another valley behind the multi-colored Bare Peak. And then up Tarantula Canyon, the steepest climb on the whole route. Topping out, we stopped for our final snack break. BBQ potato chips took the cake there. We were within seven miles of finishing, and it was all downhill. We enjoyed the late afternoon sun up high knowing that we’d finally be finishing before dark.


Before we knew it, we were back in Beatty, opting for pizza and beer at KC’s Eatery instead of the Sourdough Saloon (good choice). Again, it made me sad to get off my bike and roll it into our hotel room for the night. While the pizza and beer was delicious, and there’s really something awesome about watching bad TV from a hotel bed, I was just getting my touring legs on and would have gladly welcomed another night of riding into the dark over the impending return to reality.


Except that my ‘reality’ is really pretty awesome and I had a whole host of awesome lined up for the rest of the week.


In summary: Death Valley was cool. I missed out on seeing the Racetrack and Dante’s Overlook, so it holds the door open for a return visit someday. Riding with support was awesome on some levels, but it definitely made me uneasy to be riding through the night without survival gear. Riding solo can be fun, but having riding partners definitely made the experience what it was: a wicked good time.



2 thoughts on “Death Valley: From the bottom of N. America, we go UP

  1. You know, I was going to let this go. I was going to chalk it up to a poor choice of words on your part. “The climb up Furnace Creek Wash made me wish I new more about rocks and geology. While I’d gleaned a little bit from reading and listening to Phil, it’d be an awfully neat place to look at through the eyes of a true geologist.” But let’s face it, Eszter. You’re a writer. It’s your craft. Words don’t just happen. There is thought and anticipation that goes into the words you choose, into the structures of your sentences, and into the general tone of your pieces. “…through the eyes of a true geologist.” Perhaps you missed the part about my working as a geologist out in the Death Valley region for three years. Perhaps you missed the part that my masters thesis in geology unraveled 17 million years of tectonic deformation in the Miocene volcanic upper plate as its displacement along the Fluorspar-Bullfrog Detachment Fault unroofed the Bare Mountain metamorphic core complex. Perhaps you missed the part in the parking lot at Chipotle before we left Las Vegas on the way to Beatty where I pulled out the aerial photos in which the geometry of entire mountain ranges belie the regional tectonics at work that continue to shape the Walker Lane (surely you remember that, don’t you?). I tried to explain the geology we’d soon be driving through. You were bored. At least you seemed totally disinterested. Remember the “tourist” trip to Badwater later that Friday? Remember the stop off the side of the road where I pulled out more aerial photos, and even pointed out that the entire western face of the Black Mountains above Badwater defined the fault surface down which the eastern floor of Death Valley was dropping? Remember me waving my arms, pointing out that awesome fault surface that IS the western face of the Black Mountains? Oh right, you seemed bored then, too. Disinterested. Phil was talking…blah blah blah. I had nothing of value to say, nothing of value to add to any conversation. True geologist? Please. I hope you find one for your next trip. It will be perfectly fine if it’s someone other than me. Do enjoy your journey. I’ll continue to find joy in mine in spite of the occasional bad apple.

  2. Wording fixed. Sorry for the misinterpretation.

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