Furnace Creek – Death Valley, California

It has been many years since we did an organized bike trip, but on the occasion of one of Kellie’s milestone birthdays (no, she will not dignify that question with an answer), Jim surprised her with a Backroads trip to Death Valley.  The ride included three days of biking and one of hiking through the vast, dry valley and up a couple of the mountain ridges.

We and 15 others were picked up in Las Vegas by our stellar group leaders, Jay, Cal and Leni, and were driven two and a half hours west to our home base, a true oasis called the Inn at Death Valley. This lovely resort, with its imported and irrigated palm trees, was built in the early 1900s when the borax mining industry was booming.  In recent years, it has undergone a multi-million-dollar renovation. The Inn is situated in the foothills of the Panamint mountain range, overlooking the tiny tourist town of Furnace Creek. While this affords it spectacular views of the valley, it also required us to climb the last mile of each of the rides, the longest of which was 48 miles.

Travelling with us on their maiden bike trip were our friends Harry and Nicole Geller. Not only had they never done an organized bike trip, the only biking they’d EVER done prior to this trip was on beach cruisers along the packed-sand shores of Kiawah Island in South Carolina.  But they crushed it – all 123 miles!

The first day’s ride, after arriving at the Inn and having the first of four delicious lunches prepared by our group leaders, was to a salt flat called Badwater. This particular point is the lowest in all of the contiguous United States – 286 feet below sea level.  The 35-mile roundtrip ride itself was a bit surprising: despite being in an endless flat valley, the road that we and automobiles travelled was rolling, with long gradual climbs and descents. 

Yes, we had to ride on the side of a two-lane, shoulder-less road the entire three days, as a car, truck, motorcycle and/or RV wove around us every five minutes or so. Riding single file, often widely spread apart, was disappointing to Kellie, who loves to chat with Jim and other bikers as she rides.  In fact, she’s not a fan of solely “being in her head” for any long ride, and despite the beauty and grandeur of the mountains, these rides were no different. On day two, she positioned her phone so she could listen to an audiobook as she rode.

The scenery was fascinating, nonetheless. It was our first time in Death Valley, so we were in awe of the multiple colors and compositions of the topography, from the smooth white salt flats and harsh rubble terrain on the valley floor to the light gray, red, brown and black stratification of the mountain sides.  As we encountered each new surface type, we couldn’t help wondering how covered wagons once navigated this brutal landscape. And that’s not even taking into account the temperature extremes! 

(We lucked out travelling there in mid-November; it was in the high 70s during the day and in the low 50s at night.)

On the second day, we rode to Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, an area where several acres of sand dunes emerged unexpectedly in the middle of the valley. Apparently dust and sand from the surrounding mountains are blown into this part of the valley which was famously used to represent an intergalactic desert in one of the  Star Wars movie. While 13 miles longer than the previous day’s ride, starting in the relative cool of the morning, rather than in the blazing mid-day sun, made it a far easier ride.  And like all of Backroads’ trips, a support van was stationed with water and snacks every 12 miles or so.

That’s R2D2 coming up behind the Gellers
A ghostly fellow rider in Rhyolite

For the final day’s ride, we were transported to the ghost town of Rhyolite, which consisted of only 2-3 remaining ruins from its early 1900’s heyday. Then we faced the most challenging part of the trip – a four-mile, 5% grade climb through the mountains from the Nevada side of the valley. Dropping into Death Valley (in California) was a joy, though! The first four miles down were steep and exhilarating, then the next 10 miles were a fun rolling descent.  Then we retraced 12 miles from the previous day’s ride to arrive back at the Inn, where we and the Gellers enjoyed (another) post-ride happy hour on the lovely stone terrace outside of our rooms and took in the breathtaking views. 

Unfortunately, there were no breweries in Furnace Creek, but Jim did enjoy a Death Valley Pale Ale from Indian Wells Brewing Company in Palm Springs. Kellie was forced to partake of other libations in celebration of Jim’s and her birthdays (his is two days before hers) and of their truly memorable bike tour.

Have you survived a trek through Death Valley? Please share in the Comments section below.

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