Bicycle Touring the Mojave Desert and Death Valley

The Mojave desert occupies a large part of Southeastern California, including Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. Death Valley is just to the north of the Mojave desert, and has similar climate, vegetation and wildlife. This area is ideal for winter bicycle touring (November through February), with a vast network of lightly travelled dirt roads, typical temperatures in the range 30°F (-1°C) at night to 70°F (21°C) during the day, little rain or snow, ability to camp essentially anywhere, and resupply options in towns easily reached from the backcountry via lightly travelled roads. Touring this area in the summer (May through September) is not advisable, due to intense heat and need to carry huge amounts of water to replace what is lost perspiring. October and April can also be very hot. March and April are the best months for wildflowers, but these same wildflowers attract heavy motor vehicle traffic, which makes for unpleasant conditions for bicyclists. Thanksgiving (last week of November) and Christmas holidays (last week of December) also have considerable motor vehicle traffic in the national parks. Otherwise, winter has the fewest tourists to the national parks in the area. Finally, average wind speeds are at their maximum from April through June, and minimum from November through January, which is another reason to prefer the winter months. Even though average wind speeds are lowest in the winter, there are occasional storms which can bring strong winds, typically from the north though not necessarily. Typically, these storms last for several days then the weather becomes calm again for several weeks.

The Colorado river marks the eastern boundary of the Mojave desert. Because it is 2000 feet lower in elevation, and hence much warmer than the Mojave, the Colorado river basin or Sonoran desert is a good place to retreat when winter storms hit the Mojave and make conditions there unpleasant. Winter storms typically only last a few days and then conditions are mild again for several weeks thereafter. (Mild to me is overnight temperatures no lower than 30°F (-1°C), daytime temperatures at least 45°F (7°C), no or light rain and snow.)

Here is my journal and photos from touring this area in Nov/Dec 2011.
Here is my journal and photos from touring this area in Nov 2012 to Jan 2013.
Here is my journal and photos from touring this area in Oct 2013 to Jan 2014.
Here is my journal and photos from touring this area in Dec 2014 to Jan 2015.

DryCyclist is another source of photos and information about bike touring in the Mojave area. That site played a major role in inspiring me to take up desert bike touring.

Recommended maps and other navigational tools

Selected landscape map pages from the California Road and Recreation Atlas by Benchmark Maps (2010 edition), 1:300,000 scale, with lat/long grid (NAD83 datum), and relief indicated by shading and elevation in feet of selected peaks. Cut pages out and trim margins so folded pages fit into 12"x12" Aloksak, so as to protect maps from tearing and prevent them from being blown about by the wind. I carry two of these 12"x12" Aloksaks: one for the page or pages I am currently using, one for the remaining pages. Hand-write page numbers on the trimmed pages, since the printed page numbers are part of what will need to be trimmed. These are very high-quality maps, certainly much better than the DeLorme and Rand McNally road atlas maps with respect to the network of dirt roads. These Benchmark landscape maps attempt to give an indication of the quality of dirt roads. Roads indicated as being "unpaved" are typically graded hardpack gravel, and thus easy traveling for off-road bicycles, even when wet. Then again, some of these roads may have patches of sand or loose dirt which turns to sticky clay when wet. Roads labelled "four-wheel-drive" or "other/unclassified" are less reliable, and may be private and closed with locked gates or abandoned and overgrown. I found this classification system and everything else about the Benchmark maps to be fairly trustworthy. In general, roads which are difficult for bicycles (sand) are also difficult for motor vehicles. Since the more significant dirt roads are regularly used by ranchers, it makes sense that they are kept in fairly good condition.

The Benchmark maps are missing a dirt road running between the powerline road east of the Piute mountains and Highway 95 just north of the Nevada/California state line. GPX file for this dirt road here, view in Google maps here. About 3 miles of this dirt road involves deep sand, where I had to push. The alternative to this dirt road is to continue on the Mojave road to Hwy 95, then north about 5 miles to the Nevada/California state line. The problem with this alternative is that the California stretch of Hwy 95 lacks a hard shoulder, whereas the Nevada stretch of Hwy 95 has an excellent hard shoulder. This alternative also has several miles of deep sand.

Trails Illustrated maps for Mojave National Preserve by National Geographic (2006), 1:125,000 scale, with UTM grid plus Lat/Long markings (NAD27 datum), relief indicated by topo lines plus shading, printed on tear-resistant and water-resistant material. An excellent map, but only covers a portion of the Mojave desert, which is why the road atlas maps are also needed. It is possible to get by without this map, but first time visitors to the area might find it useful. There is a similar National Geographic map for Death Valley. However, the road network in Death Valley is limited and easy to follow, and so more detailed paper maps than the road atlas maps are not really necessary there for bicycle touring.

GPS of some sort is essential for finding your position on the paper maps, and a mapping GPS loaded with topo maps is highly advisable. I use the Garmin Etrex 20 loaded with Garmin 1:100,000 topographic maps for the entire United States. The topo information is invariably accurate and will remain accurate. But the road information, obtained from the Census TIGER road database, has many errors with respect to the dirt roads. Supposedly, the Garmin 1:25,000 topo maps have a more accurate road database. The Etrex 20 has a small display, so is cumbersome to use for route-planning. For all these reasons and also because any GPS, like any electronics, can fail in the field, the mapping GPS should be used in addition to paper road atlas maps, rather than as a replacement.

Most bike tourists will be carrying a smartphone for voice communication and internet access. It is possible to use the smartphone as a substitute for a dedicated GPS. For example, the Gaia GPS app, which runs on both Android and IOS, supports downloading offline topo maps from a variety of sources and thereby converts a smartphone to an excellent mapping GPS. On the other hand, dedicated outdoor GPSs are typically more rugged and waterproof than smartphones, run on field-replaceable AA batteries rather than requiring a charging system, can be mounted directly on the bicycle handlebars, and having a dedicated GPS plus a smartphone allows the latter to serve as backup in case the former fails. More on the subject of GPS here.

In addition to GaiaGPS (using OpenCycleMapping or other topo maps), I also use the MAPS.ME (OpenStreetMapping maps), Here (Navteq maps), and Sygic (TomTom maps) apps, with the appropriate map data downloaded to the smartphone in advance, so that no network connection is required to use these apps in the field. These other apps are mainly for street mapping in cities, but sometimes are also useful in the backcountry. For example, the Sygic app, when zoomed out, provides a nice 3D terrain overview.

Crude north-south orientation can normally be easily determined from the sun. However, there have been times when I wanted more precise orientation, such as to identify a ranch that was visible 20 miles away across a valley, using a combination of my paper map and my known current position on that paper map. Accuracy of orientation to within about 10 degrees is sufficient for this, so no need for a fancy compass with sighting mirror, just a simple fluid-filled compass with degrees marked on the sides. Declination of magnetic north is between 11 and 13 degrees east of true north in the Mojave area as of 2012.

Getting to the area

My first tour to this area began in Lone Pine, California and the second tour in Bishop, but Big Pine is probably the best starting point. Advantage of starting in Big Pine (aside from being easy to reach from Reno, Nevada, where I live) is this makes it easy to visit the northern part of Death Valley National Park (DVNP). Big Pine is about elevation 4000' and the northern parts of DVNP are at similar elevations, with the road between reaching a maximum elevation of about 7500', while the main part of DVNP (Furnace Creek area) is at sea level. So if you start in Big Pine, you have a moderate elevation gain at the very start, and after that it is all downhill. By contrast, if you try to reach the northern part of DVNP starting from the southern part, you will be pedalling uphill the whole time, on a monotonous paved road, and thus missing out on the experience of 80+ miles of straight downhill. Also, the northern part of DVNP starts to get uncomfortably cold in late December and January, due to the higher elevation, so it is probably best to visit it first and then move south as winter advances. There are times when it might be difficult to travel from Big Pine to the northern part of DVNP after mid-December, due to snow in the passes, though this snow doesn't usually last long on the ground. Worst case, you'd have to backtrack to Big Pine, then pedal or take the bus south to Lone Pine and enter the park through Panamint Springs, the road to which is open year-round. Then visit the northern part of DVNP for another trip. Unlike motor vehicles, which can get stuck in snow or sand, bicycles can always be pushed or carried back to hard ground.

Big Pine is easily reached from Reno via the CREST bus, operated by Eastern Sierra Transit Authority. Bike rack on the front of the bus. Reservations recommended, since bike space is limited (2 slots in the bike rack). In theory, you could pedal between Reno and Big Pine via highway 395, but the shoulder is narrow in spots, traffic is heavy, and there may be snow in the Mammoth Lakes area, which gets piled up by snow plows onto the shoulder, leaving no room for bikes. Not recommended.

There is no major advantage to ending a tour in Big Pine or the other towns in the Owens valley. On my first trip, I pedalled back to Lone Pine, via the Panamint Valley, and picked up the northbound CREST bus there, there but it would also have been possible to pick up the northbound CREST bus in either Mojave or Inyokern.

For November or earlier, weather might be mild enough to allow travel by mostly dirt roads between Reno and Death Valley, passing through or near to Gabbs and Tonopah along the way. Keep a close watch on the weather forecast. Winter storms can bring bitter cold and strong winds to this part of Nevada, all of which is above 4000' elevation. Bring along selected landscape map pages from the Nevada Road and Recreation Atlas by Benchmark Maps if choosing this option. (GPX file for downtown Reno to downtown Carson City here).

For someone flying into Las Vegas, with a bike as luggage:

For someone flying into Los Angeles, with a bike as luggage:

For someone flying into San Francisco, with a bike as luggage:

Resupply

Bicycle shops

Accommodation

Rates do not include sales tax, typically 10%.

Other

Death Valley Road Conditions. Requires Facebook account.

Desert Bicycle Touring Recommendations

See here.