Cycling Through History in Death Valley National Park

The neon hub of the American West is Las Vegas. An oasis for many, plopped just outside the California / Nevada border, in an otherwise inhospitable zone if it weren’t for the constant intravenous drip of water and tourism capital.

As Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi outlined in their manifesto, Learning from Las Vegas, the “ugly and ordinary architecture, or the decorated shed,” epitomizes man’s ruin. My interpretation of this architectural masterpiece is man’s inability to create anything that competes visually with the natural world, just beyond the boundaries of this neon wasteland. This is not a cynical view of development, or architecture in general, rather a point of departure for this particular trip.

“The human argument for setting aside vast stretches of the American desert as parks and preserves and wilderness and plain open space always includes the importance of unspoiled vistas. As the only real difference between Las Vegas and Death Valley is that we made a strategic decision to fill one with casino hotels and insurance company headquarters and neighborhoods while leaving the other more or less intact for the mutual benefit of humanity and the plants and creatures and ecosystems in such a mostly wild place.” Ken Layne, Desert Oracle, #016.

Death Valley prides itself on being the Hottest, Driest, and Lowest National Park. It, along with the deserts of Africa and the Middle East, is one of the hottest places on Earth, with temperatures exceeding 120ºF frequently during the summer months. In fact, the highest temperature ever recorded was 134ºF (56.7ºC) on July 10, 1913, at Furnace Creek. As its name implies, Death Valley is indeed made up of a series of basins, bordered by mountain ranges, of varying geologic characteristics. From the striped strata of the Last Chance Range, to the colorful, mineral-rich Funeral Mountains and the alien-like, almost science fiction-native, Amargosa Range.

Within its confines, with Owens Valley to the West and more extensive Nevada Deserts to the East, Death Valley is home to varying desert biomes. Over the years, I’ve spent as much time as modern life – and temperatures – allow, exploring these regions, both to fulfill my natural itch to document its flora, fauna, and geological offerings, as well as seeking its potential for cycling routes. Let me tell you, it ain’t easy.

Death Valley rests much like the 49ers found it in the 19th century, although without the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, for which the park was almost named after. Instead, the Parks Department chose the more foreboding “Death Valley,” a name given to this place, after a group of prospectors parished one summer. One of the by-products of underdevelopment in the park is its rugged landscape, inhospitable to human beings during the summer months at the lower elevations, and vice versa. Come winter, however, the temperatures are favorable for cycling. Pleasant even. Although within the higher elevation comes colder temperatures and even less daylight.

Undertaking routes by bike in this park, especially in the backcountry, takes planning and that’s what I’ve been doing over the past few years since moving to California. Armed with maps, guidebooks, and all the necessary equipment, I’ve tried connecting the dots in order to create routes that are best suited for bikepacking and hub-and-spoke style rides. Some have proven to be successful, while others, riddled by deep sand and dead ends, have not. Creating routes in this part that are not just passable, but enjoyable can be challenging. Getting people out there, with their bikes, away from the tourists, buses, RVs and other commonalities of a National Park can be an expensive and arduous task, something I cannot do alone by myself.

Showing people Death Valley, or at least my favorite parts of Death Valley has brought me great joy in the past and for many inhabitants of the Western United States, their experience of the park has often been limited to the higher trafficked, more accessible regions. My desire is to always leave the beaten path, to drown out the crowds and light pollution, to find areas of the park that are still untouched by pavement, just like how those fearless 49ers left it, and show cyclists these areas.

As you might imagine, bringing a group of friends to such a remote place is no easy feat, which is why I jumped at the opportunity to work with Subaru, who wanted to pull together a cycling trip with me and I had just the expedition in mind…

We, nine of us, all cyclists, from various fields of interest and experiences, left the land of the ornate, the land of the Decorated Shed for a vast landscape more impressive than any construct both realized or proposed and older than even mankind itself. Much like frontiersmen, we loaded our Crosstrek with all the necessary equipment and headed west to a secluded section of the park with the only agenda being an attempt to better understand our surroundings, the park itself, its history, and the biomes that would surround us while a 50 mile ride through some of the areas most rugged roads.

The cast of characters, men, and women, all had no idea what to expect, aside from a specific pack list I supplied, noting the temperatures and terrain we’d encounter. “This is a mountain bike ride, better suited for fat tires and we’ll have to carry large amounts of water.” Is how the first phone call began, a sentiment I tried my hardest to emphasize and will emphasize to any of you who also would like to undertake this outing.

Our plan was to set up a base camp at the ruins of the Quackenbush Gold Mine, nestled between the juggernaut that is Hunter Mountain, in the Cottonwood Range, in the central region of the park. From there, we would undertake a hub-and-spoke style ride, leaving from camp in the morning and returning, hopefully, by nightfall. Time would be our number one concern, as everyone had been briefed on the rubber and water ratio we’d each need – i.e. the biggest tires you have access to, and at least 4.5 liters of water.

Routing in this region of the park can be unpredictable at times, with snow and ice being a concern, tied in with the road conditions themselves. Many of these roads are labeled as “4WD and High Clearance” although I’ve seen even the most ill-equipped rental cars venture into these areas in the past. None of this matters for the bicycle, however, until you hit deep sand. We still need to get out to the backcountry first. Our convoy of Crosstrek careened effortlessly through the creosote fields, through windy backcountry roads, in the most comfortable experience I’ve had driving in Death Valley.

Totalling in around 50 miles, with around 5,000′ of climbing, my plan was to head up Hunter Mountain Road, in an abrupt climb in the cold morning air, to Saline Valley Road, over Lippencott Pass, onto the Racetrack, past the Grandstand and the Racetrack Playa, down to Tea Kettle Junction, into Hidden Valley and back to camp, nestled amidst the remains of the Quackenbush Gold Mine. It was a big undertaking, with a big group, with big expectations. This is one of my favorite regions of the park and I wanted people to have plenty of time to take it all in. We’d be passing through some key areas, which provide insight into Death Valley’s history, beginning with…

Hunter Mountain

Juniper, Piñon, springs, and wildlife aplenty. Four things you might not expect in the desert, yet like the Shoshone people, the settlers of this region relied on the abundant life here in the Summer months, when the rest of the park was in the grips of ill-tempered heat. Hunter mountain is named after William Lyle Hunter, born in Virginia in 1842. William came to the Death Valley region in the late 1860s. During the time when the Cerro Gordo mine was taking off, William and his wife, a woman from Virginia City, Nevada, took to the Cottonwood Mountains, to what was called the Ubehebe section back in those times. They initially struck copper, before pressing on to what is now known as Hunter Mountain.

William and his men were surprised to find such lush, green hills in this region, accompanied by springs, perfect for cattle and mule grazing. Without this veritable oasis, William would have a hard time packing out his riches. Later, this green patch of high desert became known as Hunter’s Ranch Mountain. The news of this veritable oasis spread, resulting in more mines being dug in the area, including the Quackenbush Gold Mine. Eventually, this area would be known as the Ubehebe Mining District. While the name Ubehebe’s origins are unknown, it is said to be Shoshonean, meaning “big basket.” Other translations include “basket in the rock” or “basket in the sand.

Saline Valley

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

Lippincott Mine Road

On some maps, this old mining route is labeled “Ubehebe Road,” a throwback to the region William Hunter helped gain notoriety in the late 1890s. William’s exploits brought more prospectors to the area, including George Lippincott, who opened the Lippincott Lead Mine in 1906. The main product from the Lippincott Mine was ore, used by the US during World War I. Later, during World War II, the Ubehebe area was used for artillery drills, promptly closing the mine. It wasn’t until 1946 that Lippincott’s Southern Lead Company resumed and upon closure in 1951, the mine was still producing two full loads a week and consisted of twelve unpatented claims. Still to this day, stands a 625-foot long tunnel, from which lead, silver, and zinc were extracted.

Racetrack

Named after the playa at the end of this long, winding, and often washboarded road, Racetrack is nestled between the Cottonwood and Last Chance Ranges, offering access to remote regions of the park, as well as one of the park’s oldest mysteries, the “moving rocks.” It wasn’t until 2014 that scientists finally deduced what caused the fragments of the Grandstand, or a cluster of Quartz-Monzonite, also called Adamellite, in the middle of the playa to seemingly float across the surface, leaving mysterious tracks in its path. These rocks are of intrusive igneous origins, which are not light by any means, some even weigh 700lbs, so how were they moving and most importantly, how were they leaving tracks?

The National Parks Service, in conjunction with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego note that: “First, the playa fills with water, which must be deep enough to allow the formation of floating ice during cold winter nights but shallow enough to expose the rocks. As nighttime temperatures plummet, the pond freezes to form sheets of “windowpane” ice, which must be thin enough to move freely but thick enough to maintain strength. On sunny days, the ice begins to melt and break up into large floating panels, which light winds drive across the playa pool. The ice sheets shove rocks in front of them and the moving stones leave trails in the soft mud bed below the pool surface.”

Reportage

We left Las Vegas promptly one morning after breakfast and drove towards the town of Beatty, Nevada for lunch. While there, everyone began to understand the relationship between the raw, unadulterated desert and this longstanding town. Beatty once thrived as a mining outpost, when the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad arrived in 1905. When Death Valley’s mining operations were slowed or shut down, Beatty suffered. It’s the last stop when traveling westerly into the park, making it an ideal location for lunch.

Time was not on our side. In December, the sun is barely in the sky for 8 hours while in the basins, thanks to the neighboring mountains. I knew exactly when we had to be where and approximately how long it’d take our caravan to get to our destination. Not one to normally crack the whip, I found myself mushing on our train of Subaru Crosstrek vehicles into the park.

Ubehebe Crater was our first stop, mostly to regroup before heading into the backcountry, via Racetrack. At Teakettle Junction, we turned off through Hidden Valley and towards our camp for the night. Waiting for us at camp were the talented ladies at Dirty Gourmet, who prepared meals and snacks during our stay, an unexpected, yet welcomed addition to the weekend’s agenda. Soon, the sun fell behind the mountains and with its descent, the temperature followed. The crackle of the firewood would soon sing us to sleep like some desert lullaby.

Mornings in the high desert are brutal. Even with the sun rising at 7am, real warmth can’t be felt until much later. That’s the price you pay for such excursions. It made the morning slower than planned, as we began wrangling the group together. After a brief rundown of the day’s agenda, we took off, up the steep and abrupt climb over Hunter Mountain, where at the top, a twenty-mile descent awaited us.

It was at the top of the mountain that the real fun began. We’d leave the refuge of Juniper and Piñon for the alien-like landscape of Saline Valley Road and its massive Joshua Trees. This road, much like Racetrack, had been recently graded. Oftentimes, this means large rocks are kicked up and the dirt can be loose and soft, but we were all equipped for the undertaking.

Right around when our hands began to cramp from their white-knuckle grip on our bars that we were met with the fabled Lippincott Pass. We were greeted by the “High Clearance 4×4 Only” sign and began to wonder if our 1×1 vehicles would make it up the 2,000′ climb from Saline Valley onto the Racetrack. Having driven this track multiple times, I remembered it being steep, but was it rideable on a bike? Truthfully, this was the only stretch of the route that I had yet to ride. Surprisingly, everyone charged on, unintimidated.

Almost two hours later, we had reconvened at the top and began sussing out our options. We had to continue on, yet this stretch of the ride is the most magical, beckoning for our time, patience and attention. It’s in this valley where time stops and as we were walking out onto the playa, en route to Grandstand, I could finally look back on the day’s accomplishments. Being able to ride bikes in this area, with a large group of cyclists had been a dream of mine since first driving out, years ago. It had finally happened. As I watched the shadow of Ubehebe Peak encroach on our makeshift snack encampment, it became apparent that we might not have enough daylight left to finish our outing.

Logistics fluttered like a flock of pigeons vacating a public square, as a full fleet of Subarus were headed our way to whisk us back to camp since we had run out of daylight. We had to at least make it to Teakettle Junction. This part of the ride is when everyone broke free at their own pace and pushed on to our final destination. We wouldn’t be able to complete the route, but the journey had finished, in my mind anyway, as soon as we stepped out onto the playa.

Riding in the desert isn’t about checking boxes or setting expectations, it’s about finding yourself, in a plain of nothingness. It’s about understanding the nuances that make this region so unique and contemplating the historical significance of these very roads we traversed. For me, every pedal stroke has been made possible by the frontiersmen and women who broke ground here, trailblazed, mined and set out to discover riches, both of the mind and body.

It’s this legacy that brings people to Death Valley and hopefully what inspires you too to travel here, bike in tow.

As we signed our teakettle that we brought to leave at the Junction, the sun began to set, diverting all eyes to the west. Amanda remarked about how beautiful it was, meanwhile our Oregonians were just excited to see the sun, period. The wash of red and orange light was interrupted by the headlights from our vehicles, arriving at an opportune time to take us back on warm seats to camp and our warm meals that awaited.

That night we all slept like pack mules after a long day’s haul. The morning came and with the sunrise, warmth. Our day’s agenda included lunch at the Stovepipe Wells Saloon and a quick hike through Mosiac Canyon, named for the breccia formations found in this wash’s slot canyons. It was Sunday and we still had to drive back to the land of the neon signs, from the land of the neon landscape…

December’s exploits in Death Valley sated my desert existence, yet my own conquests of the area are far from over. Hopefully, each of these riders have mined their own tales from our high desert experience and maybe, just maybe, they’ll return one day with their own plans.

I’d like to thank everyone who came together to make this trip happen, beginning with Subaru. Without their support, this venture wouldn’t have left the ground. To each of these amazing souls who came along for this ride, thank you for your patience and truly adventurous spirits. The tears of laughter and beads of sweat mixed to concoct a truly mind-altering experience.

____

Follow each of these rider’s own stories on Instagram: Gabe, Emily, Moi, Amanda, Brooke, Jeremy, Julie, and Kat.

This post was made in partnership with Subaru

  • Harrison Shotzbarger

    Seems like using hitchracks for a bunch of loaded bikes may have been a better option – hah!

    • The bikes on the roof racks stayed wayyyyy cleaner than the hitch racks. They were out of the dust vortex.

      • Harrison Shotzbarger

        he thinks of everything…

        • I’m flattered but I wish that was the case! haha

    • Brooke Summers

      A larger vehicle, sure, hitch racks are a go-to. But the Crosstrek, while capable, is still a compact wagon with a low roofline. Loading my hardtail was super easy.

      • Amanda

        The fact that I was able to lift my fully-loaded bike (including 4.5 liters of water!) onto the roof rack with my spindly arms and without any help is a testament to what Brooke said. :)

  • Area45

    It’s pretty rad that you put this together John. I’ve long thought about riding off road in DV but it’s just such a big logistical nightmare. It’s such an amazing place though. Been cool to see your recent trips and how you handled the route and planning. I’ve got an area that I want to explore. Would love to chat with you about it one of these days.

  • Brooke Summers

    The only time my stomach hurt more than my legs because the laughs exceeded the climbs – and those were big steep backcountry roads! Thank you Subaru and @johnprolly:disqus for a most memorable close to 2017. Death Valley, I will be back! Small geo 27.5 fat tire hardtail with mounts, I’m looking for you!

    • Thanks, Brooke! Sounds like you might dig the 26+ Crust Bike offerings. Hrmmm…..

  • Amanda

    This was seriously one of the best experiences ever. How can we declare your the Mayor of Death Valley?! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

  • Scott Mason 🌮🚲🏔

    I’m heading to DV solo in March en route to Joshua Tree. This is going to be my roadmap for sure. Thanks John; I hope the roads stay dry and my tires are big enough!

    • If you’re going to drive this route, you’ll need high clearance and 4×4. I wouldn’t do it unless your vehicle is trail-equipped. There’s also a lot of ice on the north face of Hunter Mountain down towards the bottom. It can be very, very dangerous. Bring a shovel and cover the ice with sand and run 4WD to get down it with your tires aired down.

      • Scott Mason 🌮🚲🏔

        Excellent info, thanks. I assumed it would be rideable in March. It was my hardtail tires I had concerns about. Sounds like I need to keep researching. I appreciate the response!

        • Oh, I thought you were talking about driving it. A hardtail will be good to go. My bad!

  • Edward S. DeLorme

    When were you at Tea Kettle junction???

    • 12.09.17 16:45 🤙🏻

      • Edward S. DeLorme

        I must have missed you by a day or two…I don’t see my teapot hanging…lol.

        • Yeah, I was there on the 6th as well, pre-driving / riding the course.

  • AdamBike99

    Pleeeease tell me Subaru shot their latest commercial with you guys…

    • I wish. We woulda brought Fred the ET with us.

      • AdamBike99

        Dang. They really missed an opportunity IMHO…

        • I was just stoked they liked the idea of a Death Valley MTB ride. Not many large companies would be into that. All in all, they were a breeeeeeze to work with.

  • Harry

    Hey Ive got one of those Cool Grey Khaki Crosstrek’s! Im glad its now certified radavist #cool. Resale value through the roof

  • Kurt Schneider

    Excellent. Excellent. Excellent.

    I made the mistake of going through this story, followed immediately by coverage of the International Kook Exchange trip…and now nothing makes sense. Aside from bikes, and something inflatable, both adventures look to have been a blast, but couldn’t be more different.

    • Or just presented differently. We played with inflatable stuff too (Fred, the ET.) Honestly, these Death Valley trips I did in December (the DV Tour and this ride,) brought about a stronger emotional connection for me to the content. I spent a lot of time researching the areas we rode in or around and attempted to undertake longer-form writing. I love the Kook Exchange. I think their approach to bikepacking is exactly what this industry needs: less seriousness. So yeah, in that regard this DV piece is very different than the Kook’s work, different in presentation, similar in spirit.

      • Kurt Schneider

        No doubt. I’d be happy riding a couple of weeks with either group.

  • We need to set up a Go Fund Me page for moi’s phone.

  • Dexter

    What an epic looking trip.

  • ech0ech0

    Love that you included the history of the tribes of the area! Great report