5 November 2014 - Reston to Las Vegas

Our late Fall destination for a bike trip last year was Death Valley where neither of us have been. There are not many organized bike trips during that time of year so we chose Bicycle Adventures' Death Valley National Park tour. Earlier this year we rode the Black Hills of South Dakota tour with BA and had a great trip. We've done several BA trips and think they are one of the better bike touring companies.

The trip began in Las Vegas with a shuttle ride from Las Vegas to the first days ride start in Rhyolite, Nevada just east of Death Valley. Unlike all other BA trips we've taken, we will stay in the same hotel Furnace Creek Ranch, for the duration of the tour. There are not many other options in Death Valley.

Southwest Air had a good rate for the flight to Las Vegas and there is no charge for up to 2 checked bags. Since we travel with Bike Friday folding bikes and another checked bag, we saved around $250 compared to other airlines. We planned to spend one night in Vegas, arriving around 4pm, staying at the Holiday Inn Express near the airport. We'll assemble our bikes, check them out, grab dinner, and prepare for the tour start in the morning. We're hoping our bags arrive after the brief layover in Denver.

6 Nov Thursday - Rhyolite to Furnace Ranch - 39.26 miles

Even though our flight from Dulles was delayed a bit we made our connection OK and our bags were transferred with no problem. At Las Vegas we were able to get a taxi with plenty of room for our bags. The driver spoke about two words the entire trip. The trip cost around $24.

The room at the Holiday Inn was fine; large enough for us to assemble our bikes without a problem. Before doing that we walked across the street to one of the Marriott hotels to eat at the Courtyard Cafe, a strange little eating area located in the lobby of the hotel. The fish and chips were surprisingly good. It took around 45+ minutes to put the bikes together, then we took a brief test ride in the parking lot. After a few minor adjustments the bikes were ready.

As expected, I was up early the next morning. At the airport I had purchased a small folding Bluetooth keyboard that I used to type these notes into my iPhone. After a decent breakfast at the hotel we hauled our bags and bikes across the street to the Fairfield Inn where we met one of the other guests from Lodi, CA.

The van arrived shortly afterward and we met our guides Ginger and Darryl. The other guests were picked up at the Bellagio. Riders were from Ohio, DC, Maryland, and California.

Once in Rhyolite the guides fixed a light lunch of bagels and pita with cream cheese spreads, lunch meats, grapes, and nuts.

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Driving through VegasBA van at Bellagio pickup pointGinger gives the first route rap

Kerie and I were the next to last to leave for our ride to Furnace Creek, which started with a long downhill then a gradual climb to milepost 13 then a really long downhill toward Furnace Creek. Most motorists gave us plenty of room. One motor cyclist passed close and loud. It was a rare treat to hardly pedal for 6 or 7 miles toward the valley. The surface of the road on the final 11 miles was the smoothest I've ever seen. Beautiful broad views of the valley, a stark landscape with no signs of civilization until just before Furnace Creek.

The "resort" is bare bones but acceptable. After the ride the guides provided another snack/lunch at around 4pm with lots of refreshments. Later Kerie and I walked over to the Death Valley 49er art display of Western-themed work. Death Valley 49ers is a volunteer group that "seeks to expand the public awareness of Death Valley." They hold an annual art show at the ranch and our tour overlapped with their stay.

The group planned to eat dinner at the ranch restaurant, the 49er Diner. A party of about 30 people showed up just before us, so Ginger decided we would move next door to the bar. It took a while to get settled and a while longer to have our orders taken only to have our drinks sent to another table. Thirsty guests were not happy. Food eventually arrived; good olive, mushroom, and onion pizza that Kerie and I split. Apparently the large Death Valley 49er group was overwhelming the food options which were very limited.

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Riding from Rhyolite on Route 374Entering Death ValleyWinding down at Furnace Creek Ranch

Tomorrow we have several bike/hike options, starting with a hike to Zabriske Point after a short shuttle ride, then riding to Badwater Basin with an optional ride along Artists Drive and then shuttling back to the hotel. We could also skip the hike and ride to Zabriske Point from the hotel, and then on to Badwater Canyon. Parts of the infamous movie Zabriske Point, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, was filmed there.

7 Nov Friday - Zabriske Point - Artists Drive - Badwater Basin, 21-27 miles

We had a good breakfast (veggie omelet and blueberry pancakes) at 49er cafe again. The breakfast crew was efficient, friendly, and the food was brought promptly and fixed well; the opposite of the evening crew and food. We decided not to do the optional hike to Zabriske Point from Golden Canyon. Instead I rode to Zabriske Point from the ranch along with a few other riders. After a short walk from the parking area there are good views of the Valley and I took lots of photos. Discovered that panorama photos on the iPhone must be taken vertically, not horizontally (portrait vs landscape).

Met Kerie at Zabriske Point and we both rode toward Badwater Canyon, the early part of which was downhill. Rode for a while with Ginger, until the turnoff to Artists Drive. She took off ahead of us join the two brothers. Along the way we met a rider from the Woman Tour and another rider from a Backroads tour; it's a big valley but limited riding options.

Artists Drive is a scenic, challenging ride with lots of climbing and some screaming downhills, some of which have very tight turns. One of the grades is 12%. Car traffic was light and slow. It was hard to find any shade so at one point we hid behind a large rock overhang to cool off. The temperature was getting into the 90's. Our evaporative cooling neck wraps really came in handy.

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Breakfast at the 49er CafeGinger prepares group for the day's rideRiding on Artists Drive

When we returned to the road to Badwater Canyon, Darryl was there with the van and a couple of chairs and cold drinks. Since the other riders were all in front of us and we faced a long ride with a headwind to lunch, we opted to ride the van. On the way there we passed the other riders who arrived at Badwater shortly afterwords.

Badwater is the lowest point in the U.S. at 282 feet below sea level. Water that flows to the canyon from the surrounding area is laden with minerals, including salt, hence the name Badwater. The soil is encrusted with salt and where visitors are allowed to walk it appears to be solid white salt. Lunch was Darryl's "poor man's caviar," lentils, capers, and feta; salad, chips, and Gatorade. Everyone but one rider opted to take the shuttle back to the ranch since we wanted to have enough time take the 3:15 p.m. drive to view the "artists palette" on Artists Drive at sunset.

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Scott leads in the group at BadwaterLunch at BadwaterSome of the guys hanging out at Badwater

Took lots of photos of Artist's Palette and our crew watching the colors change as the sun set. Darryl told us about his theory that at sunset you can tell how long it will take for the sun to set by holding your arm out and putting fingers between the sun and the horizon and counting 15 minutes for each finger. His method was surprisingly accurate. My photo didn't do Artist's Pallette justice. I don't think the conditions were optimal.

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Furnace Creek Ranch residentNot so colorful Artist's PaletteWaiting for the sun to set at Artist's Palette

Kerie and I made the mistake of eating dinner at the restaurant. The place was very crowded due to the 49er group. After eventually placing our order it took nearly an hour for food to arrive. The salad was mostly lettuce dregs and the salmon was a bit dry (yes, we should have known better than to order salmon in the middle of the desert). My lemonade tasted like water with half a lemon squeezed in. Our server was very apologetic and offered us the 10% "49er discount." It was morbidly entertaining to see how others in the restaurant dealt with the situation; "this is a nightmare" spoken at the table next to us, with hamburgers cooked wrong, no wine, very slow coffee, and to top it off, a long wait for the bill.

6 Nov Saturday - Ubehebe Crater to Sand dunes 40+ miles

Another day shuttling, starting the day with a ride to Ubehebe Crater which was formed when magma came into contact with water and the rapid evaporation caused the earth to explode. The crater is an impressive sight and there was almost no one around. We walked a bit of the rim and took some photos, including a panorama on the iPhone. Once again Kerie and I were the last to get on the road. At one point about 12 motorcyclists zoomed past us, some much too close. You would think they would have been more sympathetic to the plight of fellow two-wheeled travelers.

Ubehebe Crater iPhone panorama

The ride to the sand dunes was gradually downhill although we pedaled constantly, especially on the last section into a slight headwind. Great views of alluvial fans, including one with an interpretive sign explaining how they form.

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Ubehebe CraterTruck at Stovepipe WellsPalm trees at Furnace Creek

On the way to lunch at the dunes we passed two fully loaded women cyclists who were riding out of the parking area. We later learned from Darryl there were riding from Canada to Mexico. We arrived at the dunes just as everyone else was finishing lunch of tuna or chicken salad with chips and gatorade, so we didn't have time to see much of the dunes. One of the downsides of touring with a group is being on a relatively tight schedule, especially for slower riders.

Here's a 3 minute video of our ride from Ubehebe Crater to the Dunes area:

After lunch we boarded the van and got gas at Stovepipe Wells Village where the Woman Tours group had spent a night. Saw another loaded cyclist eating lunch with a group of tourists. Across from the station was a monument to some of the original Death Valley 49ers known as the Jayhawkers, who were traveling to the gold fields in California. They had abandoned their wagons which were burned and used as fuel to make jerky from most of their oxen. The plaque commemorates the event. They survived by walking to California.

Once back at the ranch I walked over to Death Valley Visitors Center to purchase a National Parks Service Senior Pass, commonly referred to as the "Golden Geezer Pass." As the park ranger said to me, "this pass expires when you do," and a quick tour through the center.

The final evening wine and cheese party was held at Ginger and Darryl's room. Afterwards we all walked over to the Wrangler Steak House where I had a good dinner of scallops, stuffed mushrooms, fried squash, and ice cream.

9 Nov 2014 Sunday - Ride toward Dantes View, then from Peak to Ranch

The day began with another shuttle ride to the start of the Dantes View ride. As usual we were the next to last to leave. Ginger had given the route rap the day before so some folks, including me, were a bit vague on the details. Most of us were supposed to ride to the trailer parking site, shuttle to the top and back, then ride from the parking area to the ranch. Two riders decided they wanted to ride to the top, an additional several miles with some very steep grades, up to 12%.

Darryl was delayed getting to the parking spot so most of the other riders kept going, which was a mistake as they didn't have time (or the inclination) to ride to the top. THis was our last day of riding and we still had a long shuttle ride back to Vegas ahead of us. Kerie and I were the only ones who stopped at the van, and since we thought everyone else was riding to the top we wanted to put our bikes in the van so we could at least ride down with them. On the drive to the top we ended up passing most of other riders who all wanted a lift, which was a bit awkward since Kerie's bike was blocking the van entrance. Darryl made it work but was likely not happy with the situation.

Dantes View panorama

The ride to the sand dunes was gradually downhill although we pedaled constantly, especially on the last section into a slight headwind. Great views of alluvial fans, including one with an interpretive sign explaining how they form.

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Drew pays the price for climbing Dantes ViewGuide Ginger looks a bit fresher after her climbTarantula on road from Dantes View

Dantes View is spectacular, with broad 360 degree vistas of Death Valley and Badwater Canyon to the west. The downhill grade from the view was very steep at the top. Wide cracks in the asphalt were very jarring. Later the GoPro camera bracket I had mounted on my handlebars snapped from the jostling. Fortunately the camera survived. Once beyond the steep part we had a lovely, downhill ride to the ranch, of course arriving last. Took the photo of a Tarantula on the way.

After a quick shower we brought our packed bags to the van and had a basic lunch of dry cous cous, fruit, and chips. We took a group photo then piled into the van for the long ride to Vegas with a stop at Pahrump for gas. The brothers celebrated with Pahrump chocolate eclairs but were extremely disappointed there was no custard inside.

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Between Furnace Creek Ranch and InnFinal lunch after Dantes View rideGroup photo before shuttle to Vegas

After the bike tour we decided to spend a couple of days in Zion National Park. See our Zion trip report for details and photos.