Road Cycling in the Valley of Death
Words and photos by Ryan Wilson
Death Valley National Park is one of those places that frequently gets overlooked as a destination for cyclists. Probably because it’s too miserably hot to do just about anything there for a good portion of the year. There’s also no cell service at times for 40 miles in any direction, and some of the best roads in the area are some of the most isolated in the country. That sounded right up my alley, so I planned my first visit in November 2012, when I was looking for some new mountains to ride while the Sierras were snowed in.
Compared to many of the other big road climbs in California, the first thing you notice in Death Valley is how impossibly straight so many of the roads are. You might not know you’re climbing if the pedals weren’t pushing back as hard as they are, and the dotted yellow lines weren’t crawling by. You realize pretty quickly that the end of that straight line that eventually climbs 5,000ft just isn’t getting a whole lot closer.
The first ride I ever did in the area was climbing over Townes Pass from Panamint Valley, just outside the park, into Death Valley itself. It wasn’t until I peaked out of the canyon walls at the top of Townes Pass that I fully realized the scale of this place. A vast sloped valley surrounded by mountains that seem to go on endlessly. The road descends about 5,000ft into this massive open space, and while ripping down a long, smooth descent on a road bike is a blast, I know that every foot of descent has to be made up on the return trip, so most of the time is spent trying to block that thought out of my head. The descent ends at a tiny “town” called Stovepipe Wells. It’s basically one store, one hotel, and that’s it, but it makes a good re-fuel stop. Then it was time for the long slog back over the east side of Townes Pass.
If I had to recommend one road ride in Death Valley though, I would go with Dante’s View. This ride starts near Furnace Creek (the other Death Valley town), and climbs from the lowest point in North America (-282 feet), to over 5,600ft overlooking the valley. The first half of the 26 mile climb is gentle, along a smooth road that passes by a classic spot at Zabriskie Point. The road gets a bit more angry when the grade cranks up after turning onto Dante’s View road, and the last half mile is extra fun (if you’re into Masochism).
One detour worth taking is a trip over to the Mars-like, single lane, Artist Drive, which winds about 9 miles through some trippy multi-colored canyon walls before ending near Badwater Basin.
A couple other Death Valley routes worth checking out: