Three Mule Team: Bikepacking in Northern Death Valley – A Prospector’s Tale

We are three prospectors and this is our creed:

For over a hundred years, Death Valley has had its minerals extracted by machine and mule. Not just for gold and silver, either. Prospectors scoured the mountains for borax, antimony, copper, lead, zinc, and tungsten, packing out their load by mule. We are modern day Prospectors, however, we are not seeking riches, yet experiences, of which will be beaten into our soul by miles of washboarded and rocky roads. Our mules are our bicycles and we’ll take only photos, leaving no trace, taking nothing from this land. It’s given enough over the decades and its scars are still visible on the surface.

There’s no death in this valley, but life, at a micro scale, so nuanced that without the pace of the bicycle, might be passed over, unnoticed.


Image via Desert USA

The 20 Mule Team

After the US Civil war, people began moving west, in search of riches in form of gold and silver. It was a mass exodus, made famous by the “49ers.” In 1881, one such man, Aaron Winters, was living with his wife at Ash Meadows, nestled into the eastern side of Death Valley, up against the Funeral Mountain. Their home was a hut, made from earth, with a thatched roof. Shortly after, Winters learned of borax and its demand. He learned that when mixed with sulphuric acid and alcohol, borax burns a bright green when ignited.

Near Furnace Creek, Winters and his wife Rosie went out in search of soil samples to test. Late one night, they struck it rich, later Winters was signed over a $20,000 finders right check by Coleman, who immediately began mining borax. Twenty Mules were used to bring the borax loads into the closest rail line spur, 165 miles away in Mojave, California. After borax came other minerals and riches. All over the park, minerals were discovered and mined. Death Valley was a place a man could strike it rich.

Our Three Mule Team

Not interested in minerals, or precious gems, our team’s agenda was to mine for memories and trailblaze routes for bikepacking. My hope in all this is to bring cyclists to my favorite place on earth, through a series of rides and routes, all documented both historically and photographically. Death Valley requires a certain reverence, as it gained its name after nearly killing off an entire troop of 49ers. In the backcountry, not much has changed. There is no potable water and the weather can change in a blink of an eye. Death Valley is a living, breathing beast and one that can decide in an instant that your life is ripe for the taking.

Perhaps it was ignorance or arrogance, but Erik and Dylan discovered this lesson, the hard way, a few years back. If it weren’t for their brute strength, they might have suffered a different fate that weekend. My plan was to battle both ignorance and arrogance, so over the years, I’ve been studying the park’s 4×4 trails and dirt roads, in search for loops and routes which would be best experienced by bicycles.

We’ve already looked at our equipment, now let’s dive into the Northern Death Valley Loop.

Expectation Versus Reality

Never trust the elevation profile. While computers have made our lives easier in some regards, the complications they present often arise at inopportune times. Case in point, when planning this route, I immediately noted the 70 miles of elevation loss. 70 miles of descending. On a bikepacking route. It seemed like heaven! Granted, the terrain is rough, rugged and filled with moments that could surely break you or your bike off, without a second thought. What those elevation profiles don’t show, or in this case, didn’t show, was the 3,000′ elevation gain mixed in there… But before we get into that. Let’s go over reconnaissance.

Water and Warmth

Two things required for survival in the desert, during shoulder and winter months are firewood and water. I planned on dropping caches for each day, where we’d camp. The distance, divided by three days was easy. This time of year, it could be 90º in the valleys and 20º at elevation, and knowing how much water I consume, I made sure to leave 5-gallon water jugs, with a milk crate of firewood at each of our campsites, the day prior. It is of the utmost importance to cache water unless you plan on carrying everything for four days on your bicycle. There’s an interesting ratio of water needed, versus bike weight and ultimately, the exponent of the more your bike weighs, the more you exert energy and thus, the more you drink. Pack light, pack smart and ration your water.

Trailblazing

Nothing we’re doing here is new. So don’t take it that way. Others have toured by bicycle in Death Valley for decades, and even this route, as I came to find out later, is a popular Leadville training route for the locals of Big Pine, California. What my intent here is to lay out the route, with logistics, for others to take on one day. At a touring pace, nuances in geology, flora, and fauna, make themselves present, which might be overlooked otherwise. Ultimately, the more bicycles in ANY National Park, the better and the more people there, who read this website, the better it is for advocacy. Because, after all, you all know to Pack It In and Pack It Out!

Day 01: Eureka Valley

Eureka Valley is a graben, or a depression in the Earth’s crust, between two parallel faults. This valley connects Big Pine to the Grapevine Mountains and is home to the Eureka Mine, which was founded in 1905 by the Frenchmen, Pete Aguereberry. On the western edge of the Eureka Valley is the Last Chance Range, 3500′ mountains, with near-vertical cliffs. The Last Chance is known for their display of colorful, striped rock strata.

We parked at the intersection of Death Valley Road and Waucoba Spring / Saline Valley. Knowing the area was awaiting its first winter storm, we parked well off the road, allowing any plows plenty of space. If we got iced in, my Cruiser has plenty of recovery devices to get us out. Because the temperatures the night before dipped into the teens, it was a late start. On our agenda was around 35 miles down Death Valley Road, onto Eureka Valley Road and we’d set up camp at the Eureka Dunes for the night. Included in this routing is a 20-mile descent, through Joshua Trees – which we came to call Judas Trees, since Nature is Metal – and high desert shrub fields.

Two days prior, during my water and wood cache outing, the dirt roads were in horrible condition. Ten miles of sandy washboard so deep that even a 4×4 with 15psi in the tires was getting rattled all over. Then, the following morning, a grader was out, smoothing our path. This changed everything. Even on a 2.8″ tire, the road into the dunes was very enjoyable. However, the problem with freshly-graded roads is the “bullshit filter” of the park is removed, opening it up to anyone in a rental car, with a drone, to come ruin the serenity you’re there to enjoy. Hey, it’s a National Park. Deal with it.

We made it to camp, with hours to spare, as our edibles kicked in and beckoned us to take a nap. A long, four-hour nap ensued, just as the sun was setting. Knowing it’d be a cold night, we cooked through our firewood and climbed inside our bivvy sacks.

Day 01’s Route

Day 02: Dedeckera Canyon, Steel Pass into Saline Warm Springs

The story goes that in the 50’s, a group of explorers drove up a wash, just east of Saline Valley and were upset that a shallow canyon blocked their access to Eureka Valley. These men worked for a mining company and were packing dynamite. They loaded the walls of the canyon and blew away tons of rock, leaving a narrow passageway just big enough for their vehicles. Before leaving, they took an old piece of steel from the mine and wrote “Steel Pass” on it before leaving, named after Jay Steel, the group’s leader.

Our morning came when the sun broke over the Last Chance Range and heated up our bottles enough to make coffee. It was a slow one. While the land and air were still, our bodies wouldn’t stop shivering. Cup one went down too fast, followed by cup two, then breakfast and cup three. During this period, I began documenting Erik’s bike to keep my mind off this frigid state. As I shot his 4.6″ tires, my mind drifted to the time Cari and I scouted this route. Was there a lot of sand? I couldn’t recall. 33″ wheels at 15psi make EVERYTHING easy. What about 27.5″ with 2.8″? My morning was spent mulling over this fear.

Packing up came fast, as did body warmth. It’s a false flat out of the Dry Camps in the Eureka Valley, up to the fabled Dedeckera Canyon, the passage Jay Steel and his crew blew into the Last Chance range back in the 50’s. We left our dynamite at home and our bicycles were only 1x, not 4×4, but I knew we’d be fine. Hell, we’d probably have some fun along the way too.

The Canyon in the morning is something else. A silence rests there, almost as if the sun never touches the floor. Our movements were without rhythm, to not attract any worms, resting beneath the spice in the valley below.

I cannot help but think, part of the story behind Steel Pass is the iron-rich soil that colors the valley floor. Sure, Jay Steel and his crew blew a hole in the Last Chance Range, but what about all that iron? Surely there’s a tie-in there, somewhere.

Remember those 70-some-odd miles of descending? Well, they were put on hold by an interstitial climb. A 3,000′ elevation gain awaited us, before we descended down the remainder of Steel Pass, but not until we found the bathtub along the way. Want a location? Do some googling. The only hint I’ll give is it’s actually on an old park map, noted by an “S” for spring. There used to be a spring where the tub now rests.

The last ten miles to the valley below are for the books. An amazing, winding path snakes its way through the loose wash, past lava flow fields and miles upon miles of obsidian, a naturally occurring volcanic glass formed as an extrusive igneous rock. I stopped the group and showed them the field, adjacent to a cinder cone along the way down to the valley. The sun had just dropped enough to ignite the obsidian’s edges and the field sparkled.

Our plan was to meet Chas at the Saline Valley Warm Springs, a place that’s technically private property, inside the National Park’s boundaries, so certain rules can be bent. These Warm Springs are a haven for desert rats, both part and full-time. It can be a bit rowdy during peak seasons, but upon our descent into this oasis, we were surprised by how quiet they were. A “local” greeted us and told us Chas was at the lower springs, awaiting our arrival.

Chas just bought this four-banger Tacoma from his girlfriend’s dad and was looking to break her in but first, it was time to chill hard and recover from our rough and rugged day. We were all feeling a bit beat up and were fiending for a soak.

The next morning, I sent Chas UP steel pass and through Dedeckera, partially to allow him to break in his truck, with side-agenda of convincing him to pick up our water and wood cache. We told him where the tub was and a selfie followed that day with the note: “Steel Pass was wild!”

Day 02’s Route

Day 03: Saline Valley Road to Waucoba Spring Road

Saline Valley looks bleak and uninhabitable, yet was home in the late prehistoric era by the Timbisha tribe, who was able to survive its harsh and rugged terrain, by living symbiotically within this biome. In 1933, The Timbisha Shoshone were relocated from the area to nearby Darwin, California. A town which still stands today and gets their water from “Darwin Falls,” a famous hike in the park.

The Conn and Trudo Borax Company mined borax in the valley from 1874 to 1895 in its many dry lake beds. It wasn’t until 1903 that Salt mining began, continuing well into the late 1930s. In order to excavate the salt, a tramway was constructed in 1911 to carry the mined mineral over 13 miles from the 1000′ valley floor, well over the 8,500′ Inyo Mountains into Owens Valley.

The party was over. Now it was all work. Work to get back up out of the valley and over the 7,000′ pass back to our vehicles. The weather had been on our side, but my satellite GPS’ weather report said wind and lower temps were on the way. I didn’t want to spook the guys, so we rolled onward and upward.

At some point the day before, Erik wasn’t feeling so hot. Initially, he suspected the Indian food spot along Interstate 5 to be the culprit but soon he realized it was most likely the flu. It was slow moving for Erik, yet being the hardened bad-ass he is, we didn’t hear a single peep. Then, it happened. A switch was flipped and the wind began to howl from Waucoba Peak. I had feared this, and selected a campsite halfway up the climb, nestled in a sedimentary fold, which would block us from the wind, but that was a ways up the road. Let me tell you, there’s nothing more soul-crushing that seeing a road span on for miles upon miles.

With wind came the cold and the dust. It became evident that our vacation was over. Work was to be done.

Let’s just say we didn’t say much that afternoon and it wasn’t until our refuge came into sight that the group’s morale increased, as I had stashed two Obsidian Stout’s for our thirsty prospectors. Dylan and Erik smiled at the beer’s name and jokingly called the tour “John Watson’s Glamping Experience of Death Valley.” Jokes aside, I don’t think they were bummed in the least bit.

Day 03’s Route

Day 04: Waucoba Spring, to Opal Canyon and Into the Inyo

Waucoba’s geology is mostly composed of Cambrian Poleta Formations, which are hidden in plain-sight. Get it, open plains? Anyway. This area preserves the Cambrian bloom biomass through the presence of simple fossils of the Precambrian period. At one point, you could find archeocyatha, brachiopods, trilobites and many others, with little or no experience required. Further southwest, the mountains exhibit folds and faults, best observed from the higher elevations. At the bottom of Waucoba Spring is Opal Canyon and its neighboring mine.

High Desert mornings in the winter transform the soul. When the body is pushed to the extreme, a certain spirituality arises. The environment changes you, opening your eyes to your own mortality and thus, with the beginning of another cycle, you finally understand your purpose in life. For us, our purpose was to get the fuck out of dodge. 17-ish miles awaited us. Or was it 20? I’m not sure. The previous day’s calculations were off, by at least 8 miles and in that time, we had exhausted our water supply. I was hesitant to pack less water because I knew this day’s haul was the crescendo of the trip; a cacophony awaited. Sure enough, after the rolling hills, we reached the pass over Waucoba, noted ecologically by the introduction of high desert Juniper and Piñon trees.

At the pass, one of many descents awaited us, and yet we had a full day’s worth of climbing. Why oh why do we have to lose thousands of feet in elevation, only to drag our sore asses back up? The inevitability of it all had formed a patina on my soul, yet I was far from being hardened. As I climbed up through the plains and looked at the striations in the mountains, or the life that had clawed its way into the massive cinder cone at the eastern edge of the pass, I knew we’d make it out ok. Erik was breaking at this point, with the flu taking over his system and even Dylan was showing signs of fatigue. The entire trip, all I wanted was a milkshake from the Country Kitchen in Big Pine, so I fixated on that, while I tried my best to continue the documentation of our ride.

Corner upon corner, we finally reached our vehicles. I cranked up the ‘Cruiser and let the diesel engine warm while I aired up my tires back to road hardness. We refueled our bodies, broke down our bikes and discussed logistics. 30 minutes passed and that was 30 minutes separating my stomach from a milkshake. We had to boogy to Big Pine!

Our trip totaled over 100 miles and over 11,000′, with a majority of climbing the last day. It’s by no means an beginner’s route, but is by far one of the most diverse and beautiful trips I’ve even undertaken on a bicycle. With proper planning, education and the right group of Prospectors, you too can take it on. Just be sure to abide by the leave no trace mantra and pack it in, pack it out.

Day 04’s Route – which is slightly inaccurate due to my GPS watch being paused for a few miles.

Got questions? Drop them in the comments!

  • MrJustinPitts

    Great read. It’s always interesting to learn how landscapes speak to people and it’s obvious that desert basins evoke some powerful feelings here.

  • Patrick Jonathan Neitzey

    Thank you for this John

  • James Walton

    Fascinating history and epic beauty. Well done!

  • Holy shit – these are too good!

  • Hot Damn!

    • Knowing that you probably posted this comment in the middle of the Andes somewhere makes me smile. Ride safe, brother!

  • Bryce Rinkenberger

    Am I crazy or are all of these photos super grainy? It almost looks like you shot with high ISO? Great photos either way and awesome write up.

    • I added grain to soften the tones and decrease contrast. Sometimes I do it on lifestyle / landscape pieces.

  • Locke Hassett

    My favorite piece yet.

  • Savoldelli

    Amazing pictures and write-up JW!
    The pictures of Erik shredding in the desert started the Mad Max Fury Road flamethrower guitar riff playing in my head…;)

  • Ross Lord

    Kinda needed this to get through the winter months. Thank you.

  • Aaron Best

    Love riding in my Danners. Paired with race face pedals they’re perfect for the rugged desert riding here in SW Utah. Especially when you have a mechanical and are forced to hike-a-bike!

    • That’s my logic. Hiking boots for hike a biking and for scrambling up rock faces for photos.

  • Mike Major

    Such a great story and write-up. Getting better with every one.
    Well done.

  • Area45

    So damn good John. I’m headed there next month but it won’t be as rad as this trip. Thanks for fueling the stoke though.

    • Holler if you need any recommendations while you’re there! I have other juicy places…

  • Brendan Shepherd

    So epic. Good for you guys! Now THAT, is a killer loop.

    • So freakin’ good! I have some more routes I want to attempt before the ice hits the backcountry. It might have to wait for March though.

  • Marc Gasch

    Great set, can’t believe you carried the 1dx plus the 100-400 monster, plus all supplies for all this trip. Heavy stuff!

    • It’s a standard haul for me on bikepacking trips. The 1DX is the best all-rounder. I didn’t even go through a battery after four days of cold nights.

  • Pascal K

    wow, so good!!!!

  • Daniel Smith

    I think this may be one of my favorite posts you’ve ever done! The story, photos, and gear are all great! …Now if only you all had been Makers, you could’ve had that milkshake so much sooner.

  • Louis Reilly

    Looks like an amazing trip and as always well documented, but why no helmets in so much Radavist content?

    • We didn’t see a single car until the 3rd day. The whole trip was slow rolling. I dunno, we didn’t feel it necessary. Personal choices are best decided by the individual. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

      • Louis Reilly

        Since you are something of a trendsetter, I feel like you would be influencing folks to ditch helmets. Not strictly a personal choice when thousands of people see your photos. I’ve seen plenty of damage done on casual rides.

        • The way I look at it, helmets are a personal choice. There are strong opinions on either side, and I’ve found it’s best not to push agendas / personal beliefs on people, or argue it on a public forum. When / If the US offers free healthcare, helmet laws will change, much like Australia, where you can’t even get on a bike without a helmet. I’d say I wear a helmet 90% of the time, but off-road touring is not one of those times. People have free will, me not wearing one is not going to influence others to do the same, especially those with strong helmet convictions.

          I 100% respect your opinion, I just don’t agree, that’s all.

          • Louis Reilly

            Fair enough. I often times wish that I didn’t feel the need to wear a helmet – it sure would be more comfortable in many situations.

          • Cheers! Thanks for the conversation. :-)

          • garudablend

            I am humbled by your patience, Watson-San!

  • ericsedge

    Fantastic ! A buddy and I did this route last spring all self supported. I enjoyed your photos and write up, and would love to go again. We rode from the hot springs all the way out in one day, and that was insane ! I would be interested in where you camped to break that section up. Cheers !

    • You can check it out in the linked routes. It’s easy to see where we ended / began the 3rd / 4th day.

  • Kev

    So good dude. One of my favorite reads ever on the site. Couldn’t help but wonder what you would have done if your cache was missing when you got to a site…

    • We had enough water on our bikes to make it by, luckily. It just would have been hard.

  • James Stewart

    Dreamiest photo set ever. You are a master of your craft, man.

  • pawn_that_dude

    Great stuff. I was just in DV with my 80 series (no bike though). Man there is a lot of stuff to see there.

  • Joel Bernier

    So awesome — planning on hitting this in April for max bloom, although spring seems to be coming earlier… what are your thoughts on doing that loop counter-clockwise? End with a paved climb?

    • Hey Joel, sorry I missed this. Going UP Steel Pass would not be fun. You’d be walking a lot of it. Hell, I’ve never heard of a loaded bike going UP it without being pushed. It’s really loose / rocky / steep. Hope that helps!

      • Joel Bernier

        Hey man — no worries. I ended up doing to clockwise as you did. Epic. And now I understand why it would *not* be advisable to climb steel pass from saline valley (!). Great route, thanks for the inspiration! The trip was not without a bit of an epic in the tail: my buddy was struggling a bit on day three climbing out of Saline Valley, so I dumped my packs with him and sprinted to the car. Long story short, 25 miles in on Wacouba-Saline Rd, my motor mounts failed and left my car stranded there… Adventure ensued.