In Death Valley: Daylight Pass - Looking Back With 2020 Vision, Part I - CycleBlaze

January 11, 2020

In Death Valley: Daylight Pass

Another day, another pass.  Today, it’s Daylight Pass.

Death Valley offers two different types of cycling experiences for road cyclists: long, generally flat rides along the valley floor, or long, generally steady climbs up one of the passes that cuts through the surrounding ranges.  As we discovered with our climb toward Dante’s View though, it’s pretty chilly up on top in the dead of winter.  

Daylight Pass though, a minor road that continues on to Beatty, Nevada, is a bit lower elevation than the major east/west accesses. Topping out at 4,317 feet, it feels like one that might be within our reach as long as we dress appropriately for the descent.  And, if it’s starting to feel too cold it offers a bailout option: we can stop climbing about halfway to the summit at Hell’s Gate and drop back down to the valley floor on a different road that angles off to the southeast, making the ride more of a loop than just an out and back.

One other advantage of Daylight Pass is that it’s within range for a ride that starts right from our lodge.  We hang around our tiny room until about nine thirty, by when the day has warmed up to the low fifties, and then head out.  We want to get an early start so that we’ll be on the descent during the warmest hours of the day.

The ride begins with seven miles on Highway 190, the primary road through the park that continues on to Furnace Creek and up the east wall toward Nevada.  This is the same road we first dropped into the valley on, and that we rode at the start of the climb toward Dante’s View two days back.  It’s a narrow two lane road with zero shoulder - it turns to sand and gravel as soon as you leave the pavement - but at this time of year the traffic is so light that it’s not a safety concern.

The look when I walk to the office at 7 for my morning coffee: sunrise and moonset over the Panamint Range.
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On the road, we pass Mesquite Dunes only about two miles from our lodge. Another of Death Valley’s major attractions, it’s one we plan to visit one of these afternoons toward sundown. The dunes look fairly small, but it’s an illusion of the grand scale here. They cover 14 square miles, and the highest dunes are about 200 feet high.
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On Highway 190, Rachael checks back to see if the peleton’s gaining on her; but it’s a long, empty road. It’s the main east/west road through the park, but we only see a few cars in the seven miles we’re on it this morning.
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Coyote! This one crossed the road just in front of Rachael and quickly melted off into the brush. One of the advantages of an earlier start - most desert animal life is nocturnal.
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Still on Highway 190, crossing a low ridge that cuts across the valley floor here - I think it tops out at roughly sea level before dropping again. This is a zoomed photo, so distances are a bit deceptive - that traffic jam ahead is still about a half mile off.
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This part of the valley floor is a large salt flat. It looks like a light dusting of snow, and has a sparkling, crystalline look in the morning light. I don’t know the name of that small formation ahead, but it reminds me of a giant crimped samosa. I must not have had enough for breakfast.
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A different low formation, with the Grapevine Mountains beyond. Our pass is up there somewhere to the right of Corkscrew Peak, the highest point in the range ahead.
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Crossing another low roller, still on 190. We’re up about sea level here but will drop about 200 feet before climbing out the far side of this trough. We’ll finally leave 190 for Daylight Pass Road at just about the last point of the road that you can see here, still about two miles off. And,you can see Rachael down there, about a half mile ahead of me.
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OK. We’re done with the prelims now, and are finally on the climb. It’s all uphill from here: 7 miles to Hell’s Gate, or 13 miles to the summit of Daylight Pass. We’re still on traffic-crazy 190, but will finally leave it when we reach the base of the formation ahead.
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After about seven miles, we finally leave Highway 190 for Scotty’s Castle Road, the long run up the north end of the valley that eventually bends up and over the mountains into Nevada.  It’s a long ride - we climbed up to the state line on this road last time we were here, starting not far from here at Titus Canyon - it’s roughly a 20 mile steady climb, with a mind blowingly long descent back to the valley floor.  I still remember coasting fast down toward the Badwater Basin, visible far off in the distance, and a full hour later it was still far off in the distance.

Today though, we only follow this road for a mile or two before branching off to the northeast on Daylight Pass Road.  From here, the climb begins in earnest, and maintains a quite steady 6-7 percent grade for the next 13 miles.  We settle in, find our rhythm, and delight in a beautiful climb on a virtually empty road.

Seven miles up, we reach the junction at Hell’s Gate.  This is one of the gateways to the park, with all the facilities: a fee station, toilets, an information board, even a picnic table.  It’s choice time - we could keep climbing to the summit or drop down Beatty Cutoff Road.  We’re both feeling strong, weather is glorious, and the road ahead is still virtually empty.  

An easy decision.  We climb on.  Six miles later we’re at the summit, just yards really from the state line which must be just down and around the bend on the other side.  We consider biking down to it for a photo opportunity, but not for long.  We’ve done what we came for, and it’s getting chilly up here.  Time to turn back. 

Near the base of Daylight Pass Road.
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On the climb. Looking back we see: the junction with Scottys Castle Road; Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes; and the Panamint Range. And, if you look closely you can see Stovepipe Wells, that thin white smear just above the dunes. With a super telescope, I imagine we could see our car parked in front of the lodge from here.
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Going up, for the next 13 miles. Empty road - we see one car coming into the park about every five or ten minutes, and none at all going our way.
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Corkscrew Peak, the high point in the Grapevine Mountains that we saw in a shot from the valley floor earlier. Not so far off now.
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and up. We’re beyond Hell’s Gate now, on the top half of the ascent.
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Another look back. Stovepipe Wells is still visible out there, as well as Highway 190 climbing west into the Panamint Range.
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Still on the case.
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An even closer look at Corkscrew Peak.
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Nearing the summit, just around the bend to the left. Going this way, it’s still shirt sleeve conditions.
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Rachael’s turn for a summit shot. She’s looking cold - we’d best head down.
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The descent is a role-reversal, sadly enough for Rachael.  It’s her turn to turn hypothermic, and she struggles to make it down the thirteen mile descent.  She made the same mistake I did two days ago, by not putting on all of her layers on at the summit - she put on her jacket, but not her second layer, warm gloves or leggings.  Fortunately conditions are better today - the wind isn’t as strong, and we’re biking into the full sun.  She’s able to recover a bit when she stops and just stands in the sun from time to time.

At Hell’s Gate again, we stop for a quick lunch before continuing on and for Rachael to put on her remaining layers.   She’s stable, barely, but is shaking pretty badly when we finally bottom out.  Dedicated documentarian that she is though, she stops partway down the pass to change the batteries on her GoPro so she can provide you, dear reader, a complete look at this pass.

Partway down the pass, we pass a couple climbing the other direction - a younger and stronger couple than us, and really attacking the climb.  Then, fifteen or twenty minutes later I’m almost shocked when the woman passes me like I’m standing still, pedaling furiously downhill and looking like a road warrior.  I hadn’t even hear her coming until she was almost on my shoulder.  She must be topping 40 mph, and soon disappears in the distance.  Then, a minute later here comes her partner. - I hear him coming behind me in a soft whir, and then he blasts past and disappears after her.  They’re so silent coming behind you at such speed, that it’s pretty unnerving.  I’d rather be passed by a car.

Off the edge of the world.
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It’s a fast, cold job dropping back down again.
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Back at Scotty’s Castle Road again, finally nearing the bottom.
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Rachael’s in pretty sad shape by the time we reach the valley floor again, but she recovers quickly once we’re on the flats and she starts pedaling again and generating some heat.  By the time we make it back to the room seven miles later she’s feeling almost normal again, and more interested in unloading video than hopping in the shower.  Tough gal.

We had thought this might be the day we would stop in at the Mesquite Dunes.  In fact, in the morning we had even speculated that we might just stop off on the way back to the room.  Out of the question though when we biked by this afternoon - and once back in the room neither of us is really interested in stirring much again.  We’ve had enough for the day, and are pretty happy to head to the restaurant as soon as it opens, nd crash early.

Back on the salt flats.
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One of these days before we leave, we have to get out there. Not today though.
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Video sound track: A Horse With No Name, by America

The dunes at dusk.
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A last look at Corkscrew Peak. Nice to know what we’ve been looking at out there.
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We see virtually no bird life here, except right at dawn and dusk when a few dozen ravens congregate in the trees behind the lodge.
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Ride stats today: 42 miles, 4,700’; for the tour: 882 miles, 46,400’

Today's ride: 42 miles (68 km)
Total: 882 miles (1,419 km)

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Jen GrumbyLove how that America song pairs so perfectly with the video .. what a landscape!

I was tempted to put in the comment, "Wow!" on almost every photo .. but I'll just give today's collection a collective "Wow!" How lucky we are to live in a country big enough to escape from the gnarl of suburbia into such awe-inspiring beauty.

Love the shot of the Ravens, too. I was wondering what critters you might hear out there. In the absence of birdsong, have you heard any chirping insects?
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3 days ago
Scott AndersonTo Jen GrumbyLittle birdsong, even less insect chatter. I don’t recall seeing any insects at all, other than the ever present ants. think it’s just too deep into winter here. Most nights it drops to near freezing. I’m sure it will come to life in another month or so.
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2 days ago