Bicycle Touring the Nevada Backcountry

Much of Nevada is federal government land, managed either as National Forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, and thus open to the public for camping. Typically, these federal lands are leased to ranchers on an open range basis, so there are few fences, other than fences separating the public land from adjacent private land and from major highways, plus occasional fences dividing the public land into large management tracts. Access to the land is provided by a network of quiet dirt roads. The land varies between valleys covered with sagebrush and mountains covered with juniper or other evergreen trees, with aspens at higher elevations. The final result is a paradise for bicycle touring, at least for those who like wide open spaces and quiet roads.

Though Nevada has harsh winters, ferocious wind in the spring, and unremitting sun in the summer, the early autumn (September and October) is typically mild and delightful, at least during the day, with little wind. Note that nights can dip below freezing any time of year at higher elevations, and snow is also possible, though it typically melts quickly. Salamanders (those with a high tolerance for sun and heat) can extend the biking season back into the summer months, though note that winds will also increase as you approach May, which is typically the windiest month. Icemen (those with a high tolerance for cold) can extend the biking season into November, assuming they are willing to go into hibernation for a few days while waiting for early winter storms to pass and early snowfall to melt. The optimal time for a bike tour in Nevada for most people would be centered around Sept 30. That is, last week of September and first week of October for a two week tour, etc.

Because of the huge amount of federal land and the vast network of dirt roads, it is easy to construct routes across Nevada with varied ratios between time spent in the valleys and time spent in the mountains. The difficulty of mountain travel is compensated for by the presence of trees for shade and beautiful scenery. Valley travel is normally easier, except where sand is encountered, but lack of shade means that rest stops will be in the sun rather than shaded by a tree. A good starter route for beginning Nevada backcountry bike tourists would be the Nevada section of the American Discovery trail (ADT), which runs from the border with Utah, near Ely, to the border with California, near Carson City, crossing numerous mountain ranges and valleys along the way.

Currently (2012), there are very few people bike touring the Nevada backcountry, and I am not sure why. Any rugged touring bike equipped with sturdy wide tires (50-559 or wider) is adequate for bike touring in the Great Basin, and camping gear adequate for the rest of the United States will typically be more than adequate for the Great Basin in early autumn, due to the lack of rain and the availability of sunlight to dry everything out if you do get wet. The main challenge for those familiar with bike touring in the more populated parts of the United States or Europe will be the need to carry substantial amounts of water and food. My maximum water and food capacities are 23 liters and 15 kilos (33 pounds), respectively, and I have used this full capacity several times while exploring areas where I wasn't sure as to the availability of resupply. For someone following the American Discovery Trail in Nevada, it will seldom be necessary to carry more than 12 liters, however I would still advise 23 liters capacity, in the form of four 6 liter MSR Dromedary bladders (which can only be filled to about 5.5 liters each without spilling) carried in panniers, plus dual .6 liter bottles on the bike frame. Using multiple bladders means that if one of the bladders starts to leak, you'll only lose a portion of your water. Whereas if most of the water is in a single huge 10 liter bladder, leakage would mean disaster. Needless to say, if carrying water in panniers, food and electronics in those same panniers needs to be protected from possible bladder leakage. As to navigation, that should not be a problem if you use the maps and mapping GPS I recommend in this guide. Further tips on desert travel are provided here.

Here is my journal and photos from touring Central and Southern Nevada in Mar/Apr 2012. Spring is not the best time for touring central and northern Nevada, due to possibility of heavy snow, bitter cold and strong winds. But I was anxious to test my new Nomad bike, which is why I picked this time for my initial tour. I learned my lesson and will not be touring Nevada again in the spring.

Here is my journal and photos from touring Central Nevada in Sep/Oct 2012, which is the ideal time of year for bicycle touring Nevada. This tour included a west to east traversal of Nevada along the American Discovery Trail.

Here is my journal and photos from touring northwest Nevada, including the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge, in September/October 2014.

Here is my journal and photos from touring northwest Nevada, including the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge, in September/October 2015.

Here is my journal and photos from touring northwest Nevada, including the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge, in September/October 2016.

Recommended maps and other navigational tools

Landscape map pages from the Nevada Road and Recreation Atlas by Benchmark Maps (2011 edition), 1:285,000 scale, with lat/long grid (NAD83 datum), relief indicated by shading and elevation in feet of selected peaks. Selected landscape map pages from the Benchmark atlases for neighboring states (California, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Arizona) might also be useful, since the state boundaries are purely artificial, rather than being determined by mountain ranges and other natural obstacles. 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.

GPS of some sort is essential for finding your position on the road atlas 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. Unlike the road atlas maps, the Garmin maps do not distinguish between major (maintained and typically hardpack gravel) unpaved roads, and minor unpaved 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. For those planning to bike the American Discovery Trail, I see little reason for bicyclists to download the ADT GPX file onto their GPS device and didn't do so myself.

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) and HereWeGo (Navteq 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.

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 12 and 15 degrees east of true north in Nevada as of 2012.

Northwest Nevada, including Sheldon Wildlife Refuge and Blackrock Desert

Benchmark road atlas has all necessary navigational information. Comments:

American Discovery Trail in Nevada

Guide by the Official Trail Organization describes route east to west, probably because someone wanting to cross the entire United States via the ADT, as a continuous hike or bicycle trip, would find it easiest to travel in that direction, so as to cross the Rocky mountains no sooner than mid-summer, after the snow has melted, and the Sierra Nevada mountains no later than October, before winter sets in. I will follow this same orientation convention in the notes below. However, prevailing winds in North America are mostly west to east, so someone who is solely interested in crossing Nevada by bicycle, and who is only interested in a one-way traversal, rather than a round-trip, would be better off going west to east. Then again, as noted above, wind is normally not a problem in early autumn (September/October), which is the best season for biking in Nevada. Information below is current as of 2012, with road and place names from the Benchmark road atlas maps.

Mileage and time required depends on what side-trips you take and how fast you travel. 600-700 miles is typical. Assuming 40 miles/day, or 5 hours/day of pedalling at 8 miles/hour, you should thus budget for 15 to 18 days of travel, plus a few rest days in case of rain. Strong bikers who are willing to push themselves can easily cover the route below in under two weeks.

While it is good to learn from others, it is also important to think for ourselves. Especially for those who aren't retired, travel is not just a way to pass the time agreably, but also a chance to break out of ruts and gain perspective on life. And how exactly does following someone else's itinerary down to the letter help us break out of ruts, especially when that itinerary is arbitrary in many respects rather than being dictated by geography? It doesn't, of course. So change the itinerary below as you see fit.

From near Garrison, Utah, follow the paved route 487 to Baker, where there are two motels and two cafes, both of which also sells snacks and a limited assortment of groceries. Water is available at these cafes or the Great Basin National Park visitor center.

A detour to Baker Archeological site is worthwhile if you are interested in the native Americans who used to live in the area. Othewise, continue north on route 487 and then take old highway 6, a dirt road which runs along Weaver Creek, in order to bypass a segment of new highway 6 (not a busy highway, but why travel on a highway when a quiet dirt road alternative is available?). When old highway 6 terminates at new highway 6, pick up the dirt road on the other side (about 100 yards east) and follow it along weaver creek into the mountains. Then Osceola road to descend from the mountains. Finally, west on highway 6, north at route 893, west at Cooper Canyon road.

The ADT guide describes a diagonal shortcut between highway 6 and Cooper Canyon road. However, there has been some wind farm construction in the area. I came through west to east and didn't see this diagonal shortcut.

Cooper Canyon road up to Cooper Summit and then the descent to Cave Lake is a solid gravel road, though shown as a minor road on the road atlas map.

The official ADT route continues down paved Cave Lake road (route 486) to highway 6, then heads south down Cave Valley Road. If you would like to visit Ely, turn north on a gravel road near Monitor Mill and follow this road through the Steptoe Valley Wildlife Management Area all the way to Ely. It is impossible to see this road on the road atlas maps, due to all the text, but it is very easy to follow, as it is the primary road throught the wildlife area.

The one mile detour to the Ward Charcoal Ovens is well worth the effort.

The official ADT crosses the Egan Range via Water canyon, but this is for hikers only. Bicycles should continus south on Cave Valley road to Jones Spring Wash, then west, then north on Lone Pine Swale road, then west through Sawmill Canyon road to highway 318. About a mile north of this intersection is Lanes Truck stop (gas station, convenience store, motel).

From highway 318, head west to Preston by the paved road, then continue on the gravel White River road, cross highway 6, west on route 10 along Ellison Creek to Ellison Guard station.

The official ADT crosses the White Pine Range through Blackrock canyon. However, this old jeep road is apparently more suitable for hikers than bicycles (based on reading some trail journals, I didn't take this route myself). The route I would recommend is to head north from Ellison Guard Station along the Hamilton-Pioche Stage Route, then west through Cathedral Canyon, south along Green springs road and Poison Patch road (route 5) to join back up with the official ADT. Note that the road atlas map incorrectly shows route 5 running between Green Springs Ranch and Bull Creek Reservoir. In actuality, route 5 runs between Green Springs Ranch and Black Point. If you fork towards Bull Creek Reservoir rather than Black Point, you will have a difficult gate to open/close.

North on highway 379 to the Duckwater Indian Reservation, where there is water available at outdoor faucets near the Tribal center. Then west on route 4135, south on route 4059, west on an unnamed dirt road near Sand Spring to cross Big Sandy Valley. The valley lives up to its name: of the 12 miles or so to get across the valley, I had to push for about 4 due to sand. The road on the western side of the valley is solid gravel, thankfully. Follow this road south, then west through Jumbled Rock Gulch to Moores Station.

The official ADT crosses the Hot Creek range via the Cottonwood Canyon trail, but this is a hiking trail and not suitable for bicycles. So head south along gravel route 804 to Hot Creek ranch. Both road atlas and Garmin 100K maps show route 804 running through the ranch, but in fact it runs east of it. So when you come to the ranch gate, do not go through the gate but rather continue south for about a mile until you come to a T-intersection with another gravel road. Turn right at this T-intersection. About a mile north, you will pass another gate to the Hot Creek Ranch. In order words, you need to circle south around the ranch rather than passing through it.

Hot Creek Canyon road is private and gated (6 gates, in fact), but the gates are unlocked and the owners allow passage during daytime only, subject to the usual rules: close all gates, no hunting, no shooting, no camping. There is water running in the canyon year-round from springs (including in drought years like 2012), but there are also cattle in the canyon so the water will need to be treated.

The official ADT crosses the Monitor Range via Table Mountain, but this is a hiking trail and a wilderness area, and thus not suitable for bikes. So when you emerge from Hot Creek Canyon, go south a mile or so, then pick up the rugged dirt road to Eagle Pass. You may have problems finding this road, since it has been washed out to some extent, but it is there. You will also probably have to push rather than pedal this road, due to the ruggedness, but the road is not steep and is hardpack rather than sand, so the pushing is easy.

Turn north at route 006, pass the old Daugherty Ranch, then west at route 093. This is a solid gravel road, but very steep near Barley Creek Summit, so you will probably have to push a mile before and after the summit.

A detour south to the historic town of Belmont is worthwhile. There are year-round residents and a year-round spring, so you can obtain water there. On weekends, two bars may be open and supposedly there is also a bed-and-breakfast in town.

Follow the gravel road north up Monitor Valley and meet up with the official ADT just north of Pine Creek Campground. If you didn't stop at Belmont and need water, there is water year-round (including in drought years like 2012) from a clear mountain stream at this campground.

Cross the Toquima Range via Moore's creek road, continue west on Toquima range road to highway 376.

If you need supplies, there is a well-stocked convenience store (Shoshone Market) at the south end of Carvers, about 7 miles south of where the Toquima Range road meets highway 376. There are also some motels in Carvers and a hardware store. Another 11 miles south of Carvers is the town of Hadley, which is where most of the residents of the old town of Round Mountain were relocated to allow expansion of the Round Mountain mining operation. Hadley has a full grocery store and a nice public library with internet access, open weekdays and Saturday mornings.

The official ADT crosses the Toiyabe range via the Reese River trail. However, this is a hiking trail and wilderness area and not suitable for bikes. The official bike route is via the Ophir Summit road, which is steep and rugged, especially on the eastern side (30% grades in places, with the "road" covered with rockfall from the mountains above). Pushing a heavily loaded bike up this trail will be extremely difficult. So you have several choices:

The official ADT crosses the Shoshone Range via the Grantsville road, but you could also use the Ione Canyon or Union Canyon roads. All of these roads are solid gravel.

Berlin-Ichthyosaur State park is well worth visiting. I was mostly interested in the Ichthyosaur fossils myself, but others will find the well-preserved ghost town of Berlin more interesting. Water available at faucets.

Ione ("the town that refused to die") also worth visiting. There are some year-round residents here and water is available in the faucet at the town park.

To get between Ione and Buckland station, there is the official route and two alternatives:

From Buckland Station, cross the Carson river via highway Alt 95, then west once Fort Churchill road, which is paved at first and then turns into solid gravel, and follow that to highway 50. The state park at Fort Churchill station is worth a visit. If you want to camp, you can do so either at the state park or at a location about 5 miles east of highway 50. Otherwise, there are fences along most of Fort Churchill road and thus no access to good campsites. That location 5 miles east of highway 50 is frequented by ATVs, people target shooting and probably noisy teenagers drinking beer on weekends. I stealth camped in the sagebrush on a weekday and everything was quiet once the sun went down, other than occasional hoofbeats and neighing of wild horses.

Ascend to Virginia City via paved Six Mile Canyon road. This road has no shoulder and blind curves, but is quiet other than in rush hours. Lots of motels and tourist attractions in historic Virginia City, including tours of mine shafts and a scale model of the entire network of mine shafts at the "As it was" museum. Descend from Virginia City via Ophir Grade.

I-580 was just recently completed and there may be issues following the official route between Washoe Lake and Hobart Road. I simply continued along Ophir Grade then Goni Road to Carson city, then took Combs Canyon Road to get from Carson City to Hobart road.

The official route follows the Tahoe Rim Trail north from Hobart road, but the Tahoe Rim trail over Relay Peak is for hikers only. Bicyclists should descend to highway 28 and follow that to the California state line.