The Mirage: Cycling Death Valley

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By Robert Annis. Photos by Ansel Adams, courtesy of the National Park Service. 

Death Valley National Park is just 140 miles away from Las Vegas, but the two might as well be on different planets.

Within minutes of landing at McCarran International Airport, I met up with a small group of virtual strangers to depart from the crowded neon oasis. Billion dollar high-rise casinos gave way to suburban strip malls and tract houses to dilapidated shacks and ancient Winnebagos to, finally, Joshua trees and mesquite thickets. The whirl of slot machines soon faded, replaced with the wind blowing across the Mojave Desert.

With a name like Death Valley, you know it’s not going to be a very hospitable place. Climb most of the park’s scenic vistas, and you’ll see a rocky, desolate landscape, the only signs of human life limited to a two-lane blacktop and a handful of buildings. It’s no wonder why so many famous sci-fi movies–”Planet of the Apes” and “Star Wars” among them–have been filmed here.

There used to be lakes here, but they have long since evaporated, leaving behind massive salt pans. While the first prospectors mined gold, their successors found mostly borax in Death Valley, carting the mineral away by the ton, using the 20-mule teams that gave the once-popular laundry soap its name. The area’s stark beauty led the federal government to establish it as a National Monument in 1933, with Death Valley finally achieving National Park status in 1994. It’s the largest national park in the lower 48 states, but thanks to either its name or reputation, it doesn’t receive a corresponding number of visitors.

Despite the hellish nature of Death Valley–it remains recognized as the hottest place on the planet, reaching 134 degrees back in 1913–many road cyclists consider it to be heaven on Earth.

Yes the summer in insanely hot, but the cooler months are exceptionally temperate; highs temperatures typically run in the upper 70s in early February, making it ideal for riders wanting a break from their cold and snowy existence elsewhere. Less than two inches of rainfall annually means you don’t need to worry about your riding plans getting rained out. With no winter to contend with, the paved roads remain silky smooth and pristine. Those roads also gradually climb and descend, with just a few leg scorchers scattered throughout the park’s 3.4 million acres. The summer heat might seem like hell, but in the winter and spring, it’s heaven for cyclists.

As any of my frequent ride companions know, I’m a magnet for flats. If there’s a sharp piece of gravel or stray sliver of glass in a 5-mile radius, I’ll find it…or at least my tires will. My first morning was no exception. A pointy rock less than a mile from the hotel precipitated a hasty roadside repair, which led to me pinching the new tube. Luckily the third time was the charm, and after a quick brake adjustment, I set off for Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the USA at 282 feet below sea level.

The 17-mile descent down to the basin was fast and easy. With no companionship beyond the occasional flock of canyon wren flying above me, I took in the desolate scenery unfolding around me. As the mercury rises, the shimmering heat emanating from the saltpan below give the illusion of water. I wonder how many 19th-century settlers made that trek, only to discover it was a mirage? At that moment, I’m even more thankful for the running water in my hotel room and the two bottles sweating in their cages.

I eventually make it down to the basin, which is marked by a parking lot, some small signs and a pit toilet. A few retirees walked the dry, cracked ground, while a seemingly bored teenager lay on a slightly shaded bench. I took in the slightly underwhelming scene for a few moments, then headed back up the road and an increasing headwind.

Despite the area’s science-fiction pedigree, my mind migrates to Werner Herzog, who has created some of the most gripping documentaries about the sometimes vicious relationship between man and nature.

“The universe is monstrously indifferent to the presence of man,” echoed through my mind in Herzog’s soft-spoken German rasp, and arguably nowhere on the planet is that more true than this sparse, desolate desert. Over drinks the night before Rich Jones the manager of the Furnace Creek Resort, told me of the frequent incidents where visitors and employees get lost, stuck or otherwise over their head in the desert. A few years before, a mother was found barely alive outside of her Jeep, its tires buried deep in the sand. Unfortunately her 11-year-old son wasn’t so lucky, finally succumbing to the extreme heat and dehydration after several days lost in the park. It’s hard not to consider your own mortality as you pedal slowly along. In the background, my creaky hub makes a slight clicking sound with each revolution–tic, tic, tic–the soundtrack, Herzog might hypothesize, of my life slipping away.

Pedaling through the appropriately named Artist’s Palette, you’re surrounded by colored rocks, as if the Timbisha Indians who lived here hundreds of years ago had painted them themselves. Rather it’s a happy geological coincidence, as the minerals combine with volcanic and iron ore deposits, creating rich swaths of reds, yellows, oranges, purples and greens. The wildflowers that Death Valley is known for would add even more brilliant hues, but I’m unfortunately just a touch too early for their annual bloom.

As I approached the junction to Highway 190, I spotted another lone cyclist pedaling north. I rose from the saddle and gathered a head of steam, desperate for some distraction and conversation. I gave a shout as I approached, perhaps spooking her a tiny bit. Having a wild-eyed, hobo-bearded stranger appear out of nowhere could be a little unsettling, so she quickly turned off into the Inn’s sister property, the Furnace Creek Ranch.

I continued onto the Visitor’s Center slightly up the road, where I refilled my bottles and poured over the topographical diorama in the middle of the room. I still had some life in my legs and wanted to find some more miles before sundown. Ambling over to the ranger station, I, of course, picked the one surly retiree who hated cyclists, bearded weirdos or maybe both. Sensing I was going to get little assistance, I decided to move on.

After a several more miles and a quick shower, it was time for dinner. That evening, I dug into the greatest slab of beef I’d ever tasted, the Wrangler Steakhouse’s Tomahawk Ribeye. The 16-ounce medium-rare steak was more than I could handle, but luckily the same could not be said about the Mohave Gold pilsners that went down smoother than water.

My dining companions and I ate under the stars. Death Valley is designated a Dark Sky park. The lack of light pollution allowing the stars to shine brighter than I’ve seen in years. I whipped out my iPhone and its StarWalk app to identify constellations and planets. Others pointed out shooting stars but before I can move my head they disappeared, disintegrated in the upper atmosphere.

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I was still somewhat full from the night before when I appeared in the Inn’s dining room for breakfast, but I wanted to try the Inn’s signature Death Valley omelet, featuring eggs, peppers, sausage and more. Several cups of coffee later, I was off on a Jeep tour through Red Wall and Titus canyons, the latter named after an ill-fated gold prospector who died of thirst after getting lost in the canyon in 1905.

Despite being recently graded, the road to Red Wall Canyon is pitted and bumpy. Our tour guide Emily navigates the narrow path down and back up the canyon expertly, but I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to ride my Giant Anthem mountain bike through the pass. (Bicycles aren’t allowed in either canyon.) Given the severe drops and steep climbs–and my meager technical skills on a mountain bike–I’m sure it would be a fun, albeit brief, adventure.

The Jeep tour ended an hour later than scheduled. My goal was to ride up to the 5,400-foot Dante’s View that afternoon, but the later departure threatened to throw a wrench in my plans. Ten minutes after making it back to my hotel room, I was kitted up pedaling. I knew getting up the mountain and back before sundown was going to be difficult. But I had to try.

Slumbering climbing legs refuse to wake from their winter hibernation as I started up the road for Dante’s View. Despite the relatively mild grade, I struggled to top 12 mph. As I turned west onto the road leading up to the peak, I watched the sun slowly making its descent. For the next five miles, I mentally bargained with myself, desperately wanting to add another 5,000-foot climb to my palmares. As long as nothing went wrong, I argued with myself, I would have just enough time to get back before the sun disappeared beneath the horizon. That’s when I heard a familiar German-accent chime in inside my head.

“I prefer to be alive, so I’m cautious about taking risks,” Herzog has said, and potential worst-case scenarios played out in my mind as I pondered his quote. Titus’ unfortunate end weighed on my mind, as did the reality of my circumstances. I was alone, in unfamiliar territory, pushing my luck on a lightly traveled road. I had eight more miles until I’d reach the peak, but those last few miles were much steeper, including a 19 percent grade the last quarter-mile. The darkening road added to the treachery—one mistake could send me flying over a guardrail. I had absentmindedly forgotten my lights on this trip, so I had no other illumination besides the vanishing sun. Knowing my luck with flats, what would happen if I punctured a tube and had to do a repair in the dark? There’s no cell service in this area of the park, and I had only been passed by a handful of vehicles that afternoon.

But I’ve always been one for taking controlled risks. After all, I’m a cyclist—I put my fate up in the air every day on the road and trail. I’m a strong enough biker that I know I can make it to the top in time. I haven’t gotten any flats that day, so maybe my luck has changed for the better?  Then I thought about this story I plan to write and how much better the article will be if things actually did turn south. What if I have to improvise a light with my cell phone or perhaps get stranded overnight? Where’s the adventure in turning around?

I change my mind with nearly every pedal stroke: It’s too dangerous. Hemingway wouldn’t quit. There are too many things that can go horrifically wrong. The article will be boring without a bit of drama. I know the smart thing to do, but I also know which story will sound better recounted over beers in the coming years. It’s a battle between brain and ego.

Like Herzog, I enjoy adventure, but I love life much more. I slowed to a stop, my decision made. The risk outweighed the reward. I took one last wistful look up the road, then headed back down to the Inn.

My disappointment was short-lived, at least for a little while, as the quick descent brightened my spirits. The road that took me hours to climb disappeared in minutes. When I noticed my speed plateauing, I stood and danced on the pedals, willing myself faster. I arrived back at the hotel just before the sun disappeared behind the mountains. Dante’s View would still be here when I came back. And I will come back.

If you go

Where to stay: If you’re feeling a bit fancy, check out the Furnace Creek Inn, an art-deco jewel built in 1927. Every room has an incredible view. The rooms are a spacious throwback to the days when visitors would stay for weeks, if not months. For less upscale lodging, the Furnace Creek Ranch offers cabins and RV hookups, and tent camping is available throughout the park.

Where to eat: There is gourmet fare at the inn’s restaurant—the bacon-wrapped dates are delicious, as is the garden risotto. The massive tomahawk steak at the nearby Wrangler Steakhouse is a bit pricey, but completely worth the financial and gastronomic indulgence.

Nearby bike shops: Bicycle rentals are available at the Furnace Creek General Store, but the selection is limited to mountain bikes for more casual riders. Make sure your bike is in working order before you get to the area: While the general store has an assortment of tubes and basic tools, there aren’t any bike mechanics in case you have a sudden issue pop up. The nearest specialty bike store is in Vegas, a two-hour drive away.

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