In Death Valley: Artists Drive & Badwater - Looking Back With 2020 Vision, Part I - CycleBlaze

January 10, 2020

In Death Valley: Artists Drive & Badwater

After yesterday’s energetic and chilling adventure, we opt for something a bit tamer today.  It begins with a special treat: breakfast at Death Valley Inn, the posh resort at Furnace Creek - rooms here are more than double the cost of staying at more rustic Stovepipe Wells.  I think Death Valley Inn serves the only a la carte breakfast in the valley though, and we’re ready for a break from the cold cereal breakfast in the room we’ve been getting by on for the last few days.

Plus, we’re hoping that the inn will have WiFi.  They do, at a cost, and it’s excellent - super-fast.  We enjoy a great breakfast and then hang around in the lounge for an hour or two, waiting for the day to warm up and catching up on the blog.

At 10, Rachael heads off to the restroom to change into her bike clothes for the day’s ride.  At 10:02, she returns with the unhappy news that she has forgotten her bike shorts back at the room.  It’s really amazing how hard it is to avoid oversights like this.  It’s always something, and it’s either one of us.  Her turn today, mine tomorrow.

No worries though.  We’ll just take a quick trip back to Stovepipe Wells to pick them up - which, unfortunately, is 20 miles off, in the wrong direction.

Artists Drive

Today’s ride begins with a loop through Artists Drive, another of Death Valley’s star attractions.  A nine mile, one way paved loop through the foothills of the Amargosa Range, it’s a fantastic ride through eroded, magically colored ridges and ravines.

And, it’s hilly as the Dickens.  We biked through this on our last visit also, but had forgotten how hilly and challenging this road is - you never gain all that much elevation but you’re always climbing or falling, often steeply.  What we remember about this ride though, aside from the spectacular rock formations, was that we were out here too late in the day.  We didn’t make it back to the highway until after sundown, with still a few miles to bike back to our car.  The drive itself is a narrow, twisty road threaded between the cliffs, and much of it was in dark shadows for the last few miles.  Not the most comfortable situation.

We’re not making that mistake again.  This time, we’re doing Artists Drive first.  There are two advantages here.  First, it’s daylight.  Second, almost no one is sharing the road with us, because people don’t start showing up here until late in the day, when the setting sun brings out the colors to their best effect.

There’s one disadvantage though - we’re not seeing it when its colors are at their best.  Our plan for this is to get back to the car before sundown and then drive the road, stopping here and there for a relaxed and safe look.

So, we’ll show you a bit of Artists Drive twice: once now, and once at the end.

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Jen GrumbyA ribbon of highway!
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Patrick O'HaraYikes! Not my favorite type of riding. Rollers!
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Scott AndersonTo Patrick O'HaraThey’re pretty serious dips, alright. They get your attention in a car too.
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Badwater

At -282 feet, Badwater Basin is the lowest surface elevation in the Western Hemisphere.  We can hardly sink so low as to come to a Death Valley without sinking so low, so we’re off.  From Artists Drive it’s about 10 miles down Badwater Road along the valley floor to the low point, where there is a bit of tourism infrastructure - a parking lot, a trail that wanders off across the salt flats, rest rooms, and exactly one picnic bench.  As much development as you find anywhere here outside of the two resort developments.

Badwater Road is about fifty miles long, following the east bank of the basin until it finally climbs out of the valley at the far south end.  It’s a gently rolling ride most of the way, gradually rising or falling at most a few hundred feet.  The distances seem immense - long, straight roads ahead of you with only a few cars visible for miles.  Like everywhere else in Death Valley, the scale and the huge open vistas dwarf you.  

At the low point, we are in luck - the only bench is unoccupied, so we snare it and enjoy our lunch looking across the basin.  Then we lock up the bikes and walk off across the salt flats with the other tourists.  It’s a relatively sparse crowd today, and like everywhere once you get even a quarter mile away from pavement you lose nearly everyone.  By the time we’re a half a mile out into the basin, we’re sharing this awe-striking spot with only a few others.

We hadn’t really thought to walk out so far ourselves, but we’re intrigued by an apparent mirage in the distance.  It looks so real that we’re not sure, so we keep walking.  And it’s no mirage - the recent rains have resulted in enough runoff from the mountains so that there is a small lake in the middle of Death Valley.   Amazing to see the mountains reflected with this shallow, transient lake in a place that gets only two inches of rain per year.

We end up walking about a mile out into the basin, and take quite a bit longer than we expected.  As a result, we don’t make it back to the car until shortly before sundown and really end up missing the best of the fireworks on Artists Drive.  Which is fine - for me anyway, standing alone out in the middle of the basin, looking at the mountains reflected in the water and at the ranges all around, was a more than fair trade-off.

Note that we have two videos for the day: one of the ride, and one shot from the window of the Blue Whale as we drove through Artists Drive at sundown.  And note that in both videos, a la Alfred Hitchcock, Rachael makes a brief cameo appearance.

Also, note that there are few captions.  Maybe later.  Out of time, gotta ride.

Southbound on Badwater Road
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Looking across Badwater Basin at Telescope Peak in the Panamint Range.
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Bill ShaneyfeltBack in the mid to late 50s there was no path... or picnic bench... or parking lot. Just a wide spot, and we poked around the crunchy and wet salt, so rough you would not want to walk on it.

Did you see brine shrimp and brine flies?
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Scott AndersonTo Bill ShaneyfeltSaw no shrimp, but didn’t go looking for them either. We were more taken by the salt formations and the faux-mirage.

I’m sure it must be a much different place now, but it’s still pretty easy to get lost and alone. If you get just a bit away from the big attractions, you have the world to yourself.
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Jen GrumbyGreat photo of you two!
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Scott AndersonTo Jen GrumbyThanks! We don’t get many portraits, and when we do one or the other of us manages to spoil it somehow. Lucky this time.
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Along Badwater Road, on the way back to the car.
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On Artists Drive again.
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Jen GrumbyThose colors!
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Scott AndersonTo Jen GrumbyThey’re pretty amazing, alright. This whole loop is great, especially if you’re at a time of day when no one else is out on the road.
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Ride stats today: 31 miles, 2,400’; for the tour: 840 miles, 41,700’

Today's ride: 31 miles (50 km)
Total: 840 miles (1,352 km)

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