Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Death Valley Bike Tour

What do you do – and where do you go – when you haven’t made any plans for Christmas, can’t book flights to anywhere, the skiing isn’t great and you’re a little injured anyway (Ash), you feel like doing a bike tour, but it’s 20 degrees and polluted in Salt Lake? How about a bike tour in the hottest place on earth?! 

I have long been acutely aware that not only have I lived not only a half-day’s drive from Death Valley but also – for a few years - only a few hours from it (in Ventura, CA) and that not only was it the biggest national park in the country but also arguably one of the wildest and most interesting places in the country and…… I’ve never been there.  Looking at a map showing the vastness of the place (about the same size as Connecticut), the many mountain ranges that soar out of the low valleys, and the fact that it’s 95% wilderness is a good start to understanding how nutty that place is.  Add in the fact that it gets a grand total of two inches of rain a year  and this summer hit 130 degrees and it adds up to a pretty unusual area.    So without giving it too much thought, we loaded up the touring steeds and headed back to the desert. 

We started in Shoshone, CA, about an hour west of Las Vegas, and a thriving community of 10 people.  Our plan for the first day was to ride to Furnace Creek, the general hub of Death Valley, and a very reasonable 55-72 mile ride, depending on your route.  There are three ways; the most common that is a state highway, the park paved route that goes over a 3000 foot pass, and another gravel road that goes between them.  In order to dive headfirst into one part of the Death Valley experience that scrabbly roads, high passes, and no chance for water we decided to take the third option, blithely assuming all would be fine. However, several hours into a climb that was slowed to a crawl by too-deep gravel, we were second guessing our call and were anticipating a thirsty night, since there were no cars on the road to poach water from.  

But we hit pavement at just the right time, and a 20 mile descent whisked us into Furnace Creek just as the 5pm lights out sunset hit.

Furnace Creek and its 23 mile-distant neighbor, Stovepipe Wells are the two outposts in an otherwise unusually-harsh landscape, and they are very good at serving the national park goers well.  Fancy hotels, restaurants, campgrounds, stores, visitor centers, gas stations, etc. all create these oases that tourists understandably flock to, not really thinking about how weird it is to have such amenities and comfort in a place that is so harsh and unforgiving that even plants don’t really live there.  But of course, all there needs to be is one decently-flowing spring – which apparently both places have - and Water begets all. 

From Furnace Creek we wanted to do the one-way ride through Titus Canyon, which first required a climb over 4200-foot Daylight Pass.  Years of living in the intermountain West a 4200 foot pass has come to seem fairly small, but when starting at a couple of hundred feet below sea level – which we seemed to be reminded of constantly!  I’m not sure why people are so fascinated with that fact? - it becomes a healthy grunt, and this time – anticipating a water-less night of camping – we were toting a healthy amount of water.  We were back on gravel to get up and over Red Pass 

to drop down into Titus Canyon, but this far more popular drive meant that the gravel had gotten pounded down into a very rideable surface, and the 5000 foot descent through Titus Canyon was indeed quite worthy; it’s the closest thing to a slot canyon road that I’ve seen. 

Note that the devious "Indians" "Deny any knowledge"......I see!  They actually, probably do know, but they deny it!  Fortunately we have the politically-correct NPS around to clarify things like that for us White People.  

Once we hit the valley floor we anticipated an easy cruise to a small campground that we confirmed prior had water (or at least, RV’s with poachable water and – hopefully – beer) but we got a good reminder that distances, hills, and elevations in such a vast area are easily misunderestimated, and we didn’t quite anticipate the 10 mile climb that awaited us at the end of the day and again gave rise to some concern that we’d be still grinding away after lights out (though with very little traffic that wasn’t a big concern) but again, true to form we coasted in to the campground with the all-important spigot, and the camp hosts (who were doing 6 months at this little scrappy campground in the middle of nowhere as their initial foray into retirement) immediately asked “do you guys need any beer?!” Yes, yes we do.  Merry Christmas indeed. 
A chilly breeze came through in the morning.  Note the camper in the left side with the associated towable SUV; the owner drove the 200 yards to go socialize with the camp hosts the night before.  These parks attract some rugged individuals.  
It seems like many interesting public places have had their quirky historical zillionaires who created monuments to/for themselves and ultimately for the people:  Acadia and Grand Teton National Parks have the Rockefellers, California has a couple of Hearst Castles, Portland has its Pittock Mansion, and Death Valley is no different:  it has Scotty’s Castle, with its own quirky characters.  Back around the turn of the century a fast talking guy named Walter Scott visited Death Valley and thought it looked like a great place for a gold mine, and started telling people how much gold there was.  He racked up a pretty good fortune talking people into “investing” in his venture (he was out-Ponzi-ing the soon-to-come Ponzi himself) but one of his investors decided to go out and check it out for himself, much to “Scotty’s” chagrin.  Long story, but Alfred Johnson made it to DV, realized there was no such mine or gold, but loved it so much that he built a pretty extraordinary castle near one of the few consistent springs, and then hired Scotty to simply hang out at the castle and essentially be the castle’s minstrel for the many notable guests who came and stayed there.  It’s now owned by the National Park Service, and not only is it a great ride to get there, the tour of the castle is worthy. 
the castle looms, along with palm trees, the telltale sign of water in these parts

I couldn't resist this shot of our fellow castle-goer....

pretty luxurious place for built a long time ago in a remote, bleak area

despite the fact that our tour guide looks like some sort of weird Tim Burton character here, she was very interesting and knowledgeable and seemed authentic in her "period attire"

a micro-hydro plant that the owner himself designed 
posterity in an austere region

We bought a comprehensive book called “Hiking Death Valley” and it’s quite full of awesome hikes, mild to wild.  Given that our trip was bike-based and more of an overview we didn’t do any of the bigger outings that the book offered, but we did do the “classics” that are quite worthy.  Most of them are into cool canyons; as jaded Utah desert folks the “slots” were not quite as mind-blowing to us as they seemed to be to our fellow parkers, but still all really worthy, beautiful hikes. Here are a handful of hiking pics:
the aptly-named Golden Canyon

the aptly-named Red Cathedral
Mosaic Canyon
Even a bit of slot-groveling.  An english couple we met decided not to let their kids do this because "the boulder might fall"....

Ash doing her best Katy Lee impersonation
A huge bridge in....Natural Bridge Canyon.  
Inspiration for the "Indian" petroglyphs?  
We met some jnteresting folks on our hiking forays.  Here are a few:
She was going big on this hike

I was impressed with these hiking boots; who needs Merrells?!
These guys just decided to hang at the trail head, skip the hike, and go right to the post-hike beer

these guys thought about actually getting out of their rugged desert-ready Samurai, but then thought the better of it... and left. 
this guy figured, "why hike into a canyon when I can just take a picture looking up into it?"
I think it's important to follow the rules in National Parks.  
an 800 foot deep crater from a notso-old (2000 years) volcano
we kept seeing this car at trailheads off some of the best road riding we'd ever seen, and couldn't figure out why the bikes were on top of the car!
Near Stovepipe Wells are some amazing soft sand dunes (that were used as the scenes for the planet Tatooine in the Star Wars movies). 
Lawrence of Arabia and undoubtedly a Bedouin tribesman.
recklessly heading over the 38 degree rollover....
I think these were the dune-specific Uggs
Why bother hiking the dunes?  just sit and take a picture of them! 
Since all roads in DV seem to converge on Furnace Creek, we found ourselves there yet again as we made our way back south, and afterwards with a combination of hikes and riding, worked our way back to Shoshone, climbing over one last 3000+ foot pass for good measure. 

On our way we went past Badwater, which apparently has some notoriety of being a few feet lower than other places in the valley.  Apparently walking out on the concrete pathway into the "pan" is one of the "things you do" in DV
I asked a ranger why the "park off pavement" sign was with the many "sea level" signs, and it's because so many people stop to take pictures of the signs.....I guess, like I did! 
We got a great overview of the Valley with some super high quality riding:

and some quirky characters:
I love coyotes and "know" that they are benign to humans, but this was one of three that sort of surrounded me?
So I hid.....
Is a shadow of a selfie still a selfie?  or is a selfie of a shadow still just a shadow?  

 and while we weren’t quite prepared for the numbers of people who converge on any given national park during “the season” (we should have known) and were ready to exit the NPS scene,  our taste of the incredible austere nature of DV and the glimpse of the potential adventures that DV has to offer will likely be fodder for future, farther-flung forays.  
Telescope peak is over 11k, the "pan" below is at -280; that's a big line.....
We are stoked because we just got some water from a coupla jeepers!  

1 comment:

  1. Tom, looks like a great trip! Mindy and I have also gone to Death Valley for two different Christmas trips. My favorite thing I've seen is "Tank Canyon", it's a must see! It's a granite slot-canyon. https://plus.google.com/photos/118285435613431382712/albums/5825774466044901697/5825774767574524754?pid=5825774767574524754&oid=118285435613431382712