A Weekend Riding Bikes on Endless Dirt Roads in Owens Valley

Out of all the places in California, Owens Valley and its surrounding areas are my favorite. You’ve got the High Sierra to the west and Death Valley to the east. Unfortunately, this late in the year, spending time in Death Valley limits you to the air conditioning confines of your car, or Telescope Peak and its extreme elevation and in the High Sierra, this year’s snowfall of epic proportions still has many of the roads and hiking trails closed. With limited options for altitude, Cari and I decided to explore the valley floor after my week in Chico. Once my work “obligations” were finished, I picked her up from the Sacramento airport on Thursday afternoon and made the traverse into Owens Valley.

We had a general itinerary but no confining plans. We’d start north and head south, exploring areas that were new to us, in some regard. Unfortunately, this means a lot of driving if you’re planning on making it the length of the valley in one weekend, but we made the best of it.

Our first day was spent exploring the obsidian mine roads surrounding Mono Lake, combing the rugged fire roads for bits of shiny, black rock, before making our way to Antelope Spring road to find a campsite for the night. Once there, I began laying out a ride that would take us from our hilltop perch to the beautiful Hot Creek Geological site. Here’s where Owens Valley really shines. There are endless dirt roads and double track here. Endless. In fact, you could draw a giant circle on a map and easily find a route that adheres roughly to your scrawl. We did just that. 20? 30 miles? No big deal.

The terrain makes for an accessible afternoon, as challenging as you’d like to make it with undulating hills making up the only elevation gain. The roads are mostly hardpack dirt, or “gravel” as people like to label it, mixed in with sandy stretches, giving my 47mm tires a run for their money. After five hours on these meandering, open roads, we headed back to camp for cast-iron dinner and a cup of whiskey. Our site was so ideal, it was hard to press on in the morning, but my closet geologist girlfriend had a special surprise for me…

Lake Crowley and its surrounding area have a few hidden gems. From hot springs to strange geologic formations, you could spend a week there and barely scratch the surface. Cari has always wanted to see these pipe vesicles on the lakeshore, formed by the degassing of the Bishop tuff. Like some fallen Roman Temple, or a lost coastal city, they reach to the sky, propping up the sandy, sagebrush filled plains. They’re only accessible by rugged 4×4 vehicle, and my Land Cruiser had no issues driving through the deep sand on the lakeshore.

At this point in the trip, I was sick of driving and wanted to perch up somewhere beautiful to watch the sunset over the Sierra. We scratched our heads a bit before decided to venture to our favorite place in the Southern Owens Valley: Alabama Hills.

Nestled outside of Lone Pine, these “hills” are actually made up of two forms of rock: weathered metamorphosed volcanic rock and biotite monzogranite. Many of these rocks end up with vertical joints and arches formed by spheroidal weathering. It’s an alien landscape, especially when you take into account the highest peak in the lower 48 looms overhead, still snow-capped. Mt. Whitney brings tourists to this area, but many of which keep coming back for this unique place and its plentiful dispersed camping. We set up our tent at the end of a rugged bit of trail and bathed in solitude as the day faded out.

In the morning, we planned out a route with as much known, as unknown. We had found traces of what appeared to be singletrack connecting our very own campsite with Whitney Portal Road. From the best we could tell, it was around 10 miles of high desert trail, that meandered through boulder fields and across washes. You can only find it by looking at Google Earth, as not even maps or any cycling app displays its location. Our ride would take us along the Movie Road, through the landscape that John Wayne and Tremors made famous in Hollywood films, before dumping onto the freshly-paved Whitney Portal Road and finally, ending on some of the most scenic singletrack in the area.

Sometimes, things work out better than planned, prompting Cari to land a big high five as we rolled back to camp, unscathed and perhaps a bit sunburnt. It was a somber moment, when we realized our adult duties beckoned us to return to the hustle and bustle that is Los Angeles living, but we were able to smile knowing this wonderland is only a two and half hour drive from our home.

  • hans

    damn, can’t wait to get back there. nice photos dude

  • James Walton

    Doin’ it right!

  • edelman

    @john Can you do a post on your Land cruiser? I’m in the market for one myself. Is it automatic? Is there a good mechanic you like in LA? I have questions!

    • Beau Street

      I’m with this guy, been looking to pull a diesel one out of Canada, would love to see what you’re working with.

      • Do not bring one in from Canada. Do a Japan direct vehicle. Less mileage, better condition and easier to bring into the US. Duke at YotaImports.com does a great job. He’s crazy, in a good way. Highly recommended.

    • It’s getting painted now and a few add-ons are en route. Will do once it’s “finished” – finding a mechanic is easy and parts too. Automatic, RHD, turbo diesel. rear, front, center locking diffs, a factory stock fridge in the center console.

  • Amazing photos as per usual.

    Also worth a pit stop in this area: Jael Hoffman’s scrap metal wonderland just off the 395 near Olancha. We did a little Q&A with her recently here: https://www.latigocoffee.com/jael

    • That place is wild! Never been, but see it from 395.

  • breed007

    You just broke into the wrong goddamn rec room.

  • charlesojones

    Like you, I fell in love with riding and exploring in this region. So much so I’ve been living there (part-time) for a number of years now. With the wide variations in altitude, good riding can be found anytime of year. Road riding is also quite good here as well. Lately I’ve been exploring by fat bike. The chubby tires are slow and clunky, but they work well in the soft sand and pumice, which opens up even more options for exploration. If you’re ever in the area and need a hot shower, cold beer and a couch to surf on, just PM me. Thanks for the photos.

  • Jooci

    Great set of shots! Could someone please point me towards the make / model of the bars on the Elephant Cycles?

    • They’re Jones Bend Bars

      • Jason

        … and the rack/basket?

  • Ian Reiman

    I might actually be able to get my geologist girlfriend into riding bikes after showing her this post. Awesome stuff as always!

  • supr3mo

    Beautiful photo set!

  • spencer harding

    been meaning to check that road in #28 for awhile now

  • Everything on the M?? you on the 135mm as well?

    • Yeah, #28 is a 400mm on my Canon 1DX. Everything else is the M – 21mm, 35mm, 90mm, 135mm

  • Pascal K

    what an awesome gallery!

  • Richard

    Freaking great. Great photos, great landscape, great living vicariously. Thanks!

  • Jason Carroll

    Dang…some beautiful photos.

  • PNT

    Love it!

  • auton0my

    Awesome pictures, looks like an amazing place to ride. Putting it on my bucket list. Would you mind posting some GPS/Strava/RideWithGPS routes?

    • We didn’t use any really. Just looked at Google Maps wherever we decided to camp and planned out 25-30 mile loops.

  • Bill Meadows

    badass man…. best place on earth. been exploring that whole area since i was about two years old!!!!! we rode from LA to Mammoth a few years ago, thats another great way to experience the valley!!!!! still cracks me up with missed each other at hot creek by only a few hours!!!!

  • abellyahknow

    Thanks for the inspiration, John/Cari. Gonna check out Hot Creek trail with the hubby on Sunday.