Introduction - Death Valley 2011 - CycleBlaze

Introduction

During a 2008 bike tour I spent 6 days crossing the northernmost Great Basin in Oregon. I was fascinated by its "differentness", with multiple north-south faulted mountain ranges, flat basins, desert plants, and salty lakes. The usual water rules don't apply. Instead of flowing to an ocean, all water evaporates. The experience left me wanting to see more of this strange region.

"Greatbasinmap" by Kmusser. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
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During a 2009 tour I spent 12 days in the western edge of the Great Basin where the lush Sierra Nevada mountains drop abruptly to arid basins. In the Owens valley I learned to appreciate how the Great Basin offers mountain views in every direction, but I was still merely on the edge wondering what it would be like to pedal across the empty, forbidding middle.

So in 2010 I pedaled across the middle of the Great Basin, crossing 15 mountain ranges between Carson City, Nevada and Cedar City, Utah. It was the most arid and unpopulated place I had ever toured, and I loved it. That tour gave me a good understanding of the region, but I still wanted to bike in the most famous and most extreme part of the Great Basin - Death Valley.

Snow-capped Telescope Peak (11,049 ft / 3368 m) overlooks the lowest, hottest, and driest place in North America.
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Death Valley doesn't lend itself to being part of a long summer tour, so I planned a shorter spring tour that was my first tour entirely in the Great Basin. Death Valley is familiar because my wife and I have done two car trips there. But this was my first visit with a bicycle and tent, and my first visit during springtime.

ROUTE

The tour's start/finish point is the town of Big Pine in the Owens valley in eastern California, at 3900 feet (1180m) elevation. By coincidence the entire tour is in one county. Inyo county is larger than 6 states (VT, NH, NJ, CT, DE, RI), but only half the size of California's largest county, San Bernardino.

This region is challenging for bicycle touring because of the wide range of elevation and scarcity of water and services. Elevation on the route varies from 279 feet (85 m) below sea level at Badwater, to 7676 feet (2326 m) above sea level in the Inyo mountains. The largest town on the route is Lone Pine, population 1655.

The tour turned out to be 13 days plus 2 layover days. I pedaled 560 miles (896 km) with 37,900 feet (11,500 m) of climbing, including 55 miles (88 km) of gravel roads.

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It's easier to visualize the route if you click the button in the upper right of the map and select "Terrain" view.

Map image with terrain view and many place names.
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Elevation Profile with place names.
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WEATHER DETERMINES THE SCHEDULE

My original plan was to start on February 27, but the weather was too relentlessly cold because of a strong La Niña in the Pacific ocean. Then I planned to start on March 24. But when I got there the first day's route was still icy from the previous day's storm. So I waited a day in Big Pine and started on March 25.

Five days later the weather became very hot, so I waited two days in Shoshone to avoid biking through Death Valley in 102F (39C) heat.

The weather turned cold again at the end. It was 38F (4C) and snowing when I pedaled into Big Pine at the end of the tour.

My original route plan included a third loop, a 2-day route to Rhyolite, Beatty and Titus Canyon. Just before the turnoff I decided not to do that loop. By happenstance, if I did that loop bad weather would have prevented me from going to Wildrose peak afterwards.

BIKE

This was my 5th tour on a Bacchetta Giro 20 short wheelbase recumbent. Except for a new rear rim the bike hasn't changed since last year's tour.

I reduced the equipment weight by 1 pound compared to last year, but the bike still weighs 100 pounds when loaded with food and water.

HIKING

I hiked 22 miles (35 km) during this tour. The most notable hikes were 8.5 miles round trip to 9064-foot (2750 m) Wildrose Peak and 4.5 miles in Golden Canyon. I also did short hikes at Scotty's Castle, Ubehebe Crater, Salt Creek, Badwater, Natural Bridge, and Mosaic Canyon.

My hiking kit consists of Keen sandals, a large lumbar pack, and a lightweight sun hat.
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GETTING THERE

The start/finish point is 650 miles (1040 km) from my home in southwest Oregon. I drove to Big Pine and parked my car for two weeks at the Starlight Motel. With the bike inside, my Prius got 46 mpg on the drive to Big Pine and 50 mpg on the drive home.

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