Day 1: Big Pine to Eureka valley - Death Valley 2011 - CycleBlaze

March 25, 2011

Day 1: Big Pine to Eureka valley

I arrived in Big Pine just before sunset on March 23 after driving through a major storm. The snow level was down to 4500 feet, not good when I need to pedal up to 7700 feet. So I waited in Big Pine for a day to allow the roads to clear up. The Sierra Nevada mountains were shrouded in clouds all day.

The sky was clear on the morning of March 25. It wasn't much warmer, but it was sunnier and less windy. And I had great views of the 14,000 foot (4200 m) Sierra Nevada mountains rising abruptly above the 4000 foot (1200 m) Owens valley.

Early in the morning I drove my car up to the first summit to cache 2 gallons of water, a quart of orange juice, and two 24-ounce cans of beer. The road had a thin layer of ice at the top, but I was confident that sunshine would clear the road by the time I got there on the bike.

I started pedaling at 10 AM after the temperature warmed up into the 40's (>5C). On the north side of Big Pine I turned east on highway 168.

Looking back at the town of Big Pine, the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the southernmost glacier in the U.S.
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After 2 miles the road crosses the Owens river. Two years ago I pedaled the entire length of the Owens valley on US 395 but never saw the Owens river.

Owens river and the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
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Owens river and the western slope of the Inyo mountains.
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A mile east of the Owens river I turned right onto Big Pine-Death Valley road, past several warning signs. The road promptly starts climbing the Inyo mountains. The grade was relentless but not extremely steep. No more than 7%.

Big Pine-Death Valley road starting to climb the Inyo mountains.
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Big Pine-Death Valley road is paved through the Inyo mountains, but has 37 miles (60 km) of gravel after that. The road climbs in a big wash. The views of the Sierra Nevada mountains behind me were outstanding for a while. But eventually the walls of the wash obstruct the view.

Panorama of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
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Looking back, one final good view of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
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The road climbs 3800 feet (1151 m) to the summit which is 7676 feet (2326 m) elevation. There is no sign at the summit. A car went by every 15-30 minutes.

Approaching the snow zone in the Inyo mountains.
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As expected, the pavement was no longer icy when I got to the summit at 3:20 PM. I drank less than two bottles of water during the climb because it was cold. I put a gallon jug of water on the rear rack and filled water bottles with the second gallon. I left the half-full second jug on the roadside and started the descent with 2.4 gallons (9 liters) of water on the bike.

Descending the east side of the Inyo mountains I was surprised how much snow was on the ground. The snow cover and cloud cover made it much colder than the sunny climb.

Descending through snow and small junipers in the Inyo mountains.
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Joshua trees on the eastern slope of the Inyo mountains.
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At 4:30 PM I set up my campsite with a view of the Eureka valley and Last Chance mountains. My campsite was at 3830 feet (1160 m) elevation at the mouth of a side canyon 300 feet (90 m) above the valley floor. The walls of the side canyon obstructed the strong south wind. I had a great view to the east.

Free campsite with a view of Eureka valley and Last Chance mountains, the next range I have to cross.
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100 feet from my tent was a great view to the south, but it was MUCH windier there beyond the protective walls of the side canyon. Despite the wind, at sunset I went out there for a few minutes to savor the view.

100 feet from my tent was this view looking south in Eureka valley. On the right, the 700-foot tall Eureka dunes look small.
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Today's route is all paved, but ahead I can see where the pavement ends. The temperature was in the 40's (~7C) for most of the day. That's fairly pleasant when going uphill in the sunshine. It warmed up to about 60F (15C) for the last hour of sunlight at my campsite, but of course it cooled rapidly after sunset. Not a single car went by during the night.

Today's distance was short but the big climb and cool weather made it somewhat difficult. The wind was more of a nuisance when stopped (making me cold) than when pedaling.

Because of the cold weather I didn't drink as much water as expected. A 1 gallon cache probably would have been sufficient. My next source of water is at the end of tomorrow.

Distance: 31.9 mi. (51 km)
Climbing: 3823 ft. (1160 m)
Average Speed: 7.0 mph (11.2 km/h)
Maximum Speed: 34.5 mph (55 km/h)

Today's ride: 32 miles (51 km)
Total: 32 miles (51 km)

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