California Death Valley Trip Report - Bishop, Saline Valley, Lone Pine
On the weekend of Feb 4-5th, I undertook a three night tour from my home town of Bishop to Saline Hot Springs in Death Valley National Park to Lone Pine. The route was 163 miles and included paved and gravel roads varying from very good to very poor (both paved and gravel).
I started on Thursday evening after work and was helped by a strong Northerly for the first fifteen miles South to the town of Big Pine. The winds were forecast to die down the following day, thankfully. From Big Pine I cycled East on the 168 for a short distance then up the steep Death Valley Road which goes over the White Mountain Range. As I had left Bishop at 3 PM I didn’t have much daylight but was happy to make 29 miles and set up camp after sunset in a wash along the road at around 6,200ft elevation. There was some snow on the shaded slopes and the water in my tent had started freezing in the morning. I was cold too and had everything I owned on and a jacket on top of my down sleeping bag. I had mulled only taking a bivy bag but was very happy to have decided on taking the tent which provided a vestibule in which to cook out of the wind.
On Friday morning I started cycling into a headwind at 9AM and covered the final four miles of the pass to the Waucoba Saline Road. From here it would be gravel and sand for the next 100 miles. The Waucoba Saline Road drops into Saline over thirty miles of mostly downhill. One spot is notoriously icy long after the surrounding snow has melted and it didn’t disappoint. I had to get off and walk my bicycle over three icy spots. The road starts off in fairly good condition and deteriorates quickly to stony washboard. I was constantly on the brakes which was hard work on the hands. One lesson I learned quickly was not to ride too close to the edge of the road. I caught the front pannier on a rock while going at a fair clip and the front wheel jumped about two inches into the road. Had I been closer it would have been ugly. After roughly thirty miles one comes to the junction with Warm Springs Road that leads to the hot springs. Another seven miles of loose gravel, sand, stones and washboard brings one to the hot springs. The place was not full and I found a superb campsite, set my tent up and headed for the pools for a soak. What luxury to end a hard day in such style! I had cycled 41 miles today. There is potable water at the hot springs however due to liability the National Park Service does not recommend drinking it. I started from Bishop with 6 liters and arrived at the springs with half a liter. The elevation at the springs is around 1,300ft and it was a warm night.
Saturday I slept late and lazed around for the first half of the day. I packed up slowly and had lunch then headed out at around 1 PM. I had intended to cycle fifteen miles or so. I cycled West back to the Saline Valley Road and then South around the lake. Shortly after I got on the Saline Valley road again there was some very soft sand which brought me to a standstill so I let my tyre pressures down and that made a huge difference. I just hoped they were not too soft to cause a pinch flat or damage a tyre as there was a mix of sand, severe washboard and loose gravel/stones to come and I didn’t have a spare tyre with me. The worst stretch of road on the journey was the South side of the lake with stretches of severe washboard and thick sand over and over for roughly ten miles before the road starts climbing gradually off the flood plain and up towards the South pass. As the afternoon wore on and I did the calculations as to how far I would have to cycle on Sunday and I decided to carry on until evening as I didn’t know what the road conditions on the pass would be. I had driven the route a few years back and couldn’t remember how bad it would be for a bicycle. I ended up cycling till 7PM, well after dark and had covered thirty miles at an average of 5 MPH. I recently received a Bell Muni helmet and a Blackburn LED headlamp as a birthday present from my wife. The headlamp clips right onto the visor. It came in really handy for the last hour and even though there was a fairly bright moon I needed the extra light. I found a sandy spot next to the road and pitched my tent at around 4,000ft elevation. During the afternoon three cars and a motorcycle had passed me but it was a quiet night and no one came by. I love the desert.
Sunday. I awoke at 6AM and started the day with coffee and oats with raisins. It just seems to taste better on the road! Sunrise was around 7AM and I was on the road by 7:20. I had 63 miles to cover today. The South pass lay ahead and twenty three of the sixty three miles were dirt or broken potholed tar. I wound my way slowly up the pass and was pleasantly surprised at the grade and surface. I was able to cycle the whole thing, albeit slowly. There was some ice and rocky patches but nothing I couldn’t ride over or around. There were two water crossings, large pools in the road fed by a small stream. One I was able to cross by walking along the edge of the pool and push the bike through the water. The other pool was iced over with thick ice around the edge. Too slippery to walk on so I had to bush whack around through some thick brush. Luckily the stream is small. During the climb I managed to catch my front panniers three more times on rocks jutting out from the banks along the road and once was knocked to a standstill nearly falling. Seems I learn slowly! After seven miles and two hours I reached the top of the pass and the Hunter Mountain Road junction with a spectacular view South into Panamint Valley. From here the road climbs a little to just over 6,200ft elevation before mostly descending all the way to Lone Pine at around 3,700ft. This section of the road is roughly fifteen miles and starts out as good dirt then gets quite rough and rocky as it drops down to Lee Flat where the washboard is once again terrible before turning to broken tar all the way to the junction with the 190, a very good paved road to Lone Pine.
This section took two hours. I aired the tyres back up to about three bar (44 PSI) at the highest point before starting the long descent. I would guess they had been around 1.5 bar (22 PSI). I stopped at the junction with the 190 for an early lunch. There is a large pile of sand at the junction which offered good protection from the wind. Now I was to join the busy 190 carrying the crowds who flock to Furnace Creek and the main tourist areas. The last forty miles to Lone Pine were into a stiff headwind. Fortunately it is mostly downhill with some long flat sections around the Owens Lake and I arrived in Lone Pine after three hours. I started from Saline Springs on Saturday with 6 liters of water and arrived in Lone Pine today with a sip. My wife picked me up later that evening on her way through. She had been in L.A. for the weekend and it worked out perfectly. Lone Pine is 60 miles South of Bishop on highway 395.
Equipment: Surly Long Haul Trucker. Apart from the handlebar, tyres, pedals and seat, the bike is the standard 2011 build. The handlebar is a heat treated Nitto Noodle drop, the widest I could get (48cm). The tyres are Schwalbe Marathon Supreme 26”x2.0” (I was waiting for Marathon Mondials which arrived the day after I left, of course), the pedals are Shimano M324 platform/clipless and the seat is a Brooks B17 Champion Standard. Surly Nice Racks on the front and rear and a full compliment of Arkel panniers; GT-54’s on the rear, GT-18’s on the front and a small handlebar bag. Fenders are SKS Chromo-plastic 65mm wide.
I weighed the fully loaded bike before leaving work on Thursday and it was around 115 lb. This included all tools, clothes, camping gear, food for three days, 6 liters water etc.
Overall a great short trip to some remote places with little traffic. Some of the riding is tough. Thick sand, severe washboard, steep climbs, big elevation changes, rocks and icy patches. Not for the faint of heart but definitely doable. My hands suffered a little due to the washboard but then I don’t wear padded gloves and my feet had some hotspots which were uncomfortable at times. I wore basic cycling shoes. My rear end was fine and I am very happy with the Brooks. I suffered some chafing from the chamois on my thigh on the last day.
The Arkel bags are superb with plenty of room. Zipper placement and many compartments make finding things easy. Very happy with the bike and racks too. Tyres could have been better but they worked. Riding in a straight line in the sand was a real challenge and sometimes I would find myself changing direction and there was nothing I could do about it. I am looking forward to trying the Modials on similar rides this Spring.