Cycling through Death Valley, powered by REI

Death Valley has intrigued me ever since I got to California and has since been on my list of places to visit. I even went as far as buying a book on hiking Death Valley. REI, however, came up with the perfect solution for me: a 3 day cycling adventure and a chance to visit the driest and lowest locations in North America. Sounded like fun.

The adventure began with an orientation meeting of the participants with our two guides, Maryanne and Nick, at the REI store in Henderson, NV, about 15 minutes away from the Las Vegas strip by car. While we got to know each other, the guides gave us a run-down of the next 3 days, what to expect and go over the logistics.

One word about the weather: Death Valley is usually associated with sauna-like temperatures and one would not necessarily think that booking a cycling trip to go there is necessarily a pleasant way to spend your free time. While this might be true of the summer months, winter usually presents itself with more moderate temperatures with highs in the mid 70s and lows around freezing at night. This time, it turned out to be a little cooler and a little windier than usual, which luckily in the end did not turn out to be much of a problem. A much colder front had already passed through the area a day before we headed out to start our adventure Friday morning.

Day 1: Drive to Scotty’s Castle, ride to Stovepipe Wells

The whole group (11 participants, 2 guides) met in Henderson at 7am on Friday and we hit the road in the REI van, with our bikes on top (I opted for renting a Giant Defy 2 from REI for $150 for the trip) and our luggage in the trailer in the back. We headed Northwest, past Vegas and Mt Charleston towards the Northeast entrance of Death Valley, with stops in Indian Springs and Beatty. After about 3 hours, we made it to, Scotty’s Castle, our (driving) destination for the day. While Maryanne and Nick prepared our bikes and lunch, we took a tour of the castle. It was ok, although I felt that most people were anxious to finally get on their bikes and ride.

Lunch was quick and once everyone got changed into their bike gear and transformed into “Weekend-Lance-Armstrong-Wannabies”, we were ready to go. This first ride took us over 44 miles of Death Valley vastness and coming here for the first time, it certainly was a great opportunity to take in the scenery with the valley spreading out to the left and right of the road until the plain makes way to the mountain ranges. The ride was mainly downhill with an elevation loss of close to 3,500 feet, with just a few minor uphills in between. With the wind also working in our favor, the ride turned out to be a nice cruise to Stovepipe Wells, where we checked into Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel, our quarters for the next 2 nights. After dinner at the local Toll Road Restaurant, everyone was pretty much ready to hit the pillow and get a good night sleep before day 2 of our adventure.

Day 2: Furnace Creek to Badwater Basin

We started the day by meeting over breakfast at 7am and then driving to Furnace Creek about 30 minutes away, which was our starting point for ride #2. Even though it was less mileage than ride #1, it turned out to be a little bit harder, due to doing a loop through Artist’s drive and up to the viewpoint at Artist’s palette. The rest of the way to Badwater Basin, however, was a blast and supported by tailwind, I reached a max speed of 40 mph on one of the straight downhill sections. Arriving at Badwater was beautiful, with clear skies and the massive salt flat spread out in front with the mountain range holding Dante’s View (which we were supposed to go up the following day) in our backs. As soon as everyone had made it to the Basin, we ventured out into the salt flat, took pictures and relaxed from the 30 mile ride, followed by lunch overlooking the Basin.

Using our trusty support van, we then made our way back to Stovepipe Wells, however stopping at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes to play in the sand and have some fun. The wind picked up a bit, so it was not as pleasant as we initially hoped so we could maybe stay until dusk, but we still managed to get a few runs in with the sandboards our guides had brought with them.

Back at the hotel a much needed shower back at our hotel followed by dinner and a drink at the Badwater Saloon concluded day 2 of the trip. Everyone seemed to be a bit sore after 2 days of cycling, however Maryanne and Nick saved the biggest challenge for the last day.

Day 3: Dante’s View

Sunday morning, we got up to an early start, checked out and said goodbye to the Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel and headed back to Furnace Creek for breakfast. The weather forecast wasn’t lying when it had predicted chilling temperatures in the 40s in the morning, however the skies were clear and the sun shining brightly. Not many reasons to complain. We then drove to the junction of Hwy 190 and Furnace Creek Wash Rd, via Zabriskie Point, where Maryanne dropped me and Stefan, a fellow rider, off so we could conquer Dante’s View, a 13 mile stretch with an elevation gain of 3,400 feet. The rest of the group got dropped off at mile 7, so they did not have to do the full length of the way up. Up to their drop off point, the ride was actually pretty mellow with a steady grade of around 4%. After that, however, the incline increased up until mile 12 and for the last 0.7 miles (switchbacks) went up to an intimidating 23%. With a lot of cursing and sweating, I finally reached Dante’s View at 5,475 feet and was greeted with incredible views of Death Valley, Badwater Basin below, snow-covered mountaintops in the East and even Mt Whitney in the distance. Absolutely gorgeous. Certainly the highlight for me on this trip. A speedy descent down the mountain brought us back to where we started and at a close by rest stop area we had lunch before we made our way back to Henderson via Pahrump.

Thoughts on the Trip

When I had initially booked the trip, I was not really sure what to expect apart from the info that one can get from the REI website about the itinerary and the daily mileage. And, of course, the fact that you are going to Death Valley. My experience with REI had always been great each time I walked into one of their stores and the fact that the trip was not exactly cheap, I figured REI will live up to its reputation and deliver. And they did. Very much so.

Maryanne and Nick were fun, energetic, organized, supportive and just great to be around and hang out with. It certainly showed their experience of having done 30+ trips that year alone. The average age of the participants was way above mine, but we all got along pretty well and had fun together while sharing this experience. The rides felt more catered towards leisurely riders as well, however, as one of my fellow participants pointed out, “You can make any ride hard. Just pedal faster.” So from my perspective all 3 rides provided the opportunity for decent workouts, certainly the last one up Dante’s View, and since everyone was allowed to go at their own pace, everyone was able to get out of it whatever he or she wanted to.

To conclude, this trip met and in parts exceeded my expectations, I had a lot of fun and would certainly recommend this trip to others who would like to experience Death Valley not from an air conditioned car but from their bike saddle.

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