Back to SoCal through the Death Valley, and the end of my North American bike adventures

Mar drove me and my bike from St George to Mesquite, and I then hitched a lift back to Las Vegas. I wanted to get a head start on the weather, and I wasn’t keen on cycling again the I-15, the most direct route. I was looking forward to get to the Death Valley and its pleasant temperatures.

I was expecting to stand on the side of the road at a truck stop for ages, and was thinking I’d try to hitchhike maybe for a couple hours and then start cycling to a camp as it would have made it difficult for me otherwise to make it to a place to sleep before dark -that section of highway being long, bare, and exposed to the wind-.

Turned out, I got very lucky and managed to get a lift within 20 minutes. A very kind man in his fifties, Ted, with a golf cap and a golf cart in the back of his truck, stopped. The first thing he said was “I never take hitchhikers, but your bicycle intrigued me”. After explaining I just wanted to get to Las Vegas, we found a place for my bicycle by his golf cart.

It included removing a pedal, and turning the handlebars! Ted didn’t really like St George, where he was from, and much preferred living in Vegas. I already missed St George and was bracing myself for Vegas. He was really curious about my trip but also couldn’t fathom anything else that the comfort and proximity to convenience he now had, living in a suburb of Las Vegas. It was interesting to hear about the experience and perspective of someone who had likes and dislikes as well as political opinions completely at the opposite from mines.

I must admit it was quite a view, entering in Vegas which those huge buildings and resorts you could see from miles away. After helping Ted lowering his golf cart in front of his home and reassuring him that I would be perfectly fine for the last 2 weeks of my travels through California, I rolled into central Vegas, which is one of the worst place you could possibly be on a bicycle, or if you hate loud sounds, crowded touristy cities, resorts, and people trying to sell you stuff or services. I was on my bike, and I also strongly disliked all of the aforementioned.

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The part of the Vegas area I actually preferred: way out of the city, along Red Rocks Canyon.

I did find respite once I checked in a motel -a Day’s Inn- for which I found a good deal online, a motel at street level meaning I could sneak the bike in without anybody bothering me. Very nice for the price but next to a gambling hall, and I had to cope with noisy neighbours yelling at 3-4am.

In the morning this time I knew my way around and better managed to avoid the big arteries of the city. I cycled out to Red Rocks and camped there. (I made the mistake to follow Google Maps and had to drag my bike on a terrain not really made for bicycles. The best way to avoid a hike-a-bike is to follow the 159 out of the city).

The walk-to part of Red Rock Campground was nice though primitive, and Red Rocks is also a climbing area. I don’t think it would have been difficult to find partners at the campground or through an online group if I had wanted to climb. The weather was damp and cold however at that time.

Leaving the campground I was on the 159, a really scenic road on a bike, and there was not too much traffic either.

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After Blue Diamond however there were roadworks on the 160, and it was only after cycling 10 miles past the last intersection with any kind of road that I encountered a sign making it aware I was not allowed to keep going on a bike. However, technically I wasn’t even legally entitled to turn back safely at that point and the only thing I could have done would have been to turn around cycling on the shoulder facing the traffic, knowing it would have then taken me 4 days instead of 1 to get to Pahrump, where I was staying with a Warmshowers host (and of course there would have been no other way to resupply than going back all the way to Vegas).

I kept thinking I’d be past the tricky section soon, and a roadworker even waved me past. After some very tricky bits with almost no shoulder, but less traffic as the circulation was alterned, I made it to the entrance of Pahrump several hours later, as it was starting to rain heavily.

Bill and his sister, hardy cross-country cyclists themselves, had toured all over the US, up and through and down…They gave me heaps of information about cyclotouring on pavement in the Death Valley, especially regarding resupply points.

Inspired by the video a previous Warmshowers host had shared with me (see Across Arizona and beyond) I had initially contacted ForestyForest, who made the video and thought I could probably incorporate parts of his route through Death Valley, off-road, off the tourist trail cycling calling out to me once again.

Unfortunately he said there were loads of sections with loose gravel and sand, -which made a fat bike much more suited to that type of conditions and terrains- and I couldn’t manage to find enough information about specific roads and sections in the short time I had before I was meant to head out.

As it poured for one day straight during my stay in Pahrump, not knowing much on what condition the dirt roads would be in, and not wanting to get myself in a potentially sticky, muddy, hike-a-bike speed situation with less than 10 days to make it to LA to prepare for and catch my flight back to Paris, I finally decided to forgo about that idea of mine to head for a few dirt roads detours along the way.

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Maybe it was a good idea to follow the tourist trail for once after all, as it had worked out well for Yellowstone before, and as I had never been through Death Valley which is a massive National Park.

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Out of Pahrump I fought some strong headwinds but still managed to put in a fairly long day to a campground at Furnace Creek. I admired beautiful landscapes, and it was especially fun having a long downhill into Furnace Creek after a long gradual uphill.

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I spent some time at Zabriskie point just before sunset.

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Before dark, and after checking in with the attendant at the resort I finally managed to make it to the campground Bill had recommended to me in Furnace Creek. It really was the best campground for the price around, with showers, and even swimming pool access.

As I rolled in, I couldn’t help but noticing that literally, the campground itself was like a huge gravel parking which had been visibly mainly set up for caravans and rigs, and I ended up sharing a small picnic table with the next spot as there weren’t many. There were also no other tents campers that night, and I didn’t see any other long distance cyclists in Death Valley while I was there.

It became evident fairly soon that while it was certainly low season in Death Valley (mid/end-January), there were still a bit too many tourists for me. Well, what really was a tad annoying was that all the people I encountered in Death Valley while I was cycling through seemed for most like they usually weren’t used to spend time much in the outdoors… and as a solo female cyclotourist I was attracting a bit too much attention for my liking, especially after a long day in the saddle.

I had thought initially I could have spent 2 nights at the campground and just cycle around Furnace Creek and nearby to see some landmarks, but after being bombarded with questions and feeling like everyone was staring at me while I was there I decided to push on further the following day, despite the strong headwinds.

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View from the side of the road

Very strong headwinds, it turned out. As my body was still slightly sore from the previous day, 5 miles out I was struggling to coast a small hill with my loaded bike and decided to just push the bike, which hadn’t actually happened in ages.

I was feeling a bit frustrated, and even more so as a recreational cyclist pulled along, asking insistently if I was fine. The guy had little difficulty coasting that hill since he didn’t have any load for the wind to catch on, was fresh as he had just started cycling from a nearby car park and was just in for an hour long ride. Well-intentioned but ill-informed he repeatedly inquired why I wasn’t on my bike charging the hill in “beautiful Death Valley” and why I looked slightly pissed off.

I tried to let him know I was fine without being too brisk but must say I failed. He ended up talking about me with a park ranger further ahead, and I waved them off both slightly clenching my jaws.

I struggled against the wind all day, thinking it was a bit useless to cycle in those conditions but determined by that point to make it out of touristy Death Valley as soon as I could. Some cars stopped, a couple of tourists particularly was really worried about me since they had apparently seen a wolf earlier. While possible I thought it really was more likely to be a coyote, and there wasn’t much I could do except pushing on.

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Sure it was scenic, but I missed the relative remoteness of Lake Mead which was at least as beautiful, and was not too much in a mood to stop too much at landmarks, though I did explore around at Badwater. At the lowest point in North America, the salt deposits made for an impressive contrast in the desert.

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At the end of the day, well past dark I finally found a suitable spot to camp, sufficiently out of the way not to be bothered and slightly sheltered from the wind. I had managed about 20 miles (30 kilometers) after putting in about 6-7 hours of cycling.

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I must say that I was also in a fairly strange state of mind as I was approaching the end of my trip, and wished I could have been in a quieter place to process the different things I was feeling at that time.

On one hand I felt I could have kept going for a while and the list of all the places I could have still been to and cycled to in that continent was never ending. While I had such a great adventure I hadn’t been to South America as I had originally planned, and as the final months of my trip had approached I had also considered finishing more south in mainland Mexico, or flying off to Cuba, Hawaii or even Colombia.

On the other, my budget was becoming tight, I was more than grateful for what I had done, and I must admit I was also craving for more comfort, something different, and at times found it hard to keep my long-term yearning -for more stability and a sense of community- at bay. I was looking forward to regroup and I was now planning for my next adventure, which was going to Australia on a work holiday visa ! Still with my bicycle but it would definitely be different as I was expecting to be much less nomadic, spending some time trying to build up different skills.

While I definitely regretted not going off-road that time -but would have I made it?- and ended up putting in long days to just get out of touristy Death Valley National Park, rushing up through it while I had no need for it since this time I was on pavementyou could still have a great time cycling there.

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Whatever you are doing, check the forecast especially temperatures before going. End of January is actually an ideal time to be there. It was around 22°C (71.6F) during the day, 10°C at night (50F) most of the time when I was there, except one day when it was incredibly windy at night. Outside of wintertime, touring in Death Valley is not really recommended. Frying temperatures and having to take on loads of water just to get through the day are to be expected then. There are long stretches where there is nothing, though cars will most likely stop to ask you if you are O.K. and offer you water.

Have a look at the bottom of this wikivoyage link for resupply points but except to bring in most of or all of your food from Pahrump or Independence as there is only one general store at Stovepipe Wells in D.V. National Park and some small and expensive stores around (Shoshone, Tecopa…). Drinking water can usually be found at Stovepipe Wells, Shoshone, Panamint Springs (the wikivoyage link has more info again, but make sure you always have plenty of water with you).

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Cycling on roads in the area around Stovepipe Wells, where I haven’t been could be interesting too, though you’d want good cycling legs as on the 190 from just outside of Stovepipe Wells to exiting the park you’ll gain 9000ft+ (slightly less than 3000m) elevation with 2 passes. Freecamps in the Park are sparse but you can definitely find some if you plan with I-Overlander or an another similar app.

If you are tempted to go off-road as well, research well before going, and be aware you might take more time to get to a resupply point due to road conditions and headwinds. It’s probably also a good idea to frequently check in with park or campground staff (the park website also seems to frequently update information on the conditions of some dirt roads) for more information along the way, or else just rough it if you are used to ! There are meant to be some great cabins in the backcountry…

As for me I made it out of the Park, to Shoshone at the end of my third day in the saddle in D.V., as dark was falling in, exhausted after a long, good day as the wind had receded enough, and the landscapes along the way had lifted up my spirits again.

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After a long downhill into town the surrounding brightly coloured shrubs made for a big difference with what I had seen up to then in D.V. Shoshone appealed to me and felt like a nice, pretty, peaceful and quirky small town. I rolled into the RV Park and while the tent sites were pricey it was a nice campground with loads of amenities, including a thermal source fed swimming pool.

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Shrubbery along the roadside around Shoshone

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There was also a small, volunteer-led historical museum with loads of old farming artefacts and a cafe quite popular with touring motorcyclists.

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Out of town I had a peek at the Dublin Gulch, former miners cave dwellings and unusual ghost town.

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It was also surprising for a European to sight a church in these settings…

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The road got busier as I cycled on to Tecopa but the scenery was still fascinating.

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I kept going on some back dirt roads to go visit a local date farm, which was slightly disappointing as their baked goods made from dates didn’t cater for vegans (sure, it’s a tad remote, but after all, it’s on the tourist trail in SoCal, and dates in themselves are a popular vegan delicacy). They had many dates varieties though and I left with a kilo after trying different ones. The ride there and back was impressive.

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Steep windy downhill on dirt. Watch out for cars !

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I was in for a treat as I made it back to Tecopa.

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I found the local Natural Hot Springs (just look out for the parked cars on the road!)

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Beautiful sunset view by the hot springs

I was set to pitch my tent at a freecamp spot nearby but I met a local cyclist- training for a tour loaded with gear- by the hot springs and accepted his offer to contact one of the local campground’s staff for me, as its owner was a touring cyclist himself as well, and extended hospitality to fellow cyclists. It was nice to have access to private hot pools inside the camping and relax my muscles once again that day !

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The following day the road to Baker was seemingly endless, busy with loads of traffic. The scenery went to nice and entertaining to desolate and boring.

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Passing Baker the city didn’t inspire me much and I carried on the windy I-15, looking for a spot to camp along the bare and noisy interstate and finally making it to a hidden spot near a gaz station -not far from where a freecamp spot was pinpointed- after a long day.

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One of the funny sights along the I-15 -there weren’t many !-.

As I set up camp the wind really picked up, and kept on doing so during the night, waking me up countless times. In the early morning I rose up and went to pee only to come back to a levitating Thermarest inside my tent. I skipped trying to cook breakfast and managed to pack without loosing anything in the wind which was quite a strong feat that day.

I hopefully waited out for the wind to recede as I ate an expensive snack at the petrol station. To no avail. Google Maps sent me on a trail alongside the I-15 and I obliged- it would be nicer I thought not to have to deal with the noise and the stress of the cars on top of trying to dodge the wind. Perhaps lack of sleep factored in my decision, too.

Well, what’s worse than a paved, busy Interstate while you fight hellish headwinds ?

A sandy trail.

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Pushing my bike against the wind, as sand makes it way to my eyes. Don’t ask me how I got there -it got worse gradually-.

Long story short after managing the rejoin the I-15 I fought all morning against really strong headwinds, managing maybe 2 miles per hour. I got pulled off by a copper who had been called by a passing motorist, concerned I wasn’t making any ground. The friendly copper told me that the next gas station I was hoping to stop and rest at had been closed down for years -not something you want to hear- !

But eventually I made it to a rest area, and after hanging around quite a long time after lunch, I finally found someone willing to give me and my bike a lift into Barstow, skipping the last 50 kilometers (30 miles) of slamming wind, emptiness and speeding cars.

I stayed a couple of nights in Barstow, which wasn’t the most inspiring city but at least kept me out of the wind while it passed. I then made it to Adelanto and found a suitable -my last- wild camp around.

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The following day was meant to be a relatively short and easy one to the outskirts of San Bernadino, where I was staying with Warmshowers hosts Simon and Karen.

Well in between getting lost to find exits suitable for bicycles on the highway I really tested my tubeless setup that day.

I was in the middle of a great 8 miles (12 kilometers) downhill section on the I-15 at last, when I heard TCHA-KA-TCHAK, TCHA-KA-TCHAK on my rear wheel. I first thought some of my gear was getting caught in between the pannier and the wheel but didn’t see anything. Nothing but… a large nail had gotten almost straight into my tyre. It wasn’t sitting flush though so the bit of the nail’s head sticking out as well as some sealant spewing out each turn of the wheel was what was making the noise.

By that point I was still fairly new to tubeless but had had success with the tyre sealing well after pulling out metal wires entangled in the tyre before. So I pulled out the nail and kept on going downhill… Bad, bad idea !

Obviously it didn’t seal and I was completely flat in less than a minute. The sealant had leaked EVERYWHERE.

I was thinking I had to stick on a tube to have any chance of carrying on, but somehow staring at the uninterrupted traffic whizzing past just one meter away from me I decided to try something else first. I put on a tubeless plug in the hole, pumped up… and IT WORKED !

While it showed me that the hermetic seal doesn’t break as easily as I thought on tubeless tyres, next time I’ll certainly be ready to shove in a plug straight after getting a nail out if I need to do so again.

In the meantime it made for a few slightly disturbing/graphic (if you are a cyclist) pictures.

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After finally making it to my hosts I had a great time meeting them and their rescue animals.

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I guess this is like quality control. Before a machine wash, smelly and dirty cyclist clothes. After, better.

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The following day I cycled about 20 kilometers (12 miles) before making it to a train station on the outskirts of sprawling Los Angeles.

After a complete twist in plans and changes of routes on my nearly 15 months bike journey I ended up staying at the very same Warmshowers host who had hosted me at the beginning of my trip… at the end of it.

It was nice catching up with them and hearing what they’d be up to, too -it’s always surprising to see what happened in your life after a 15 months period-.

Thanks Owen and Rachel !

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Just before putting my bike (left) in the box to take the plane

Again, it’s difficult to describe events and feelings mixing up as I closed the chapter of my long journey and prepared for other adventures.

I was happy with what I had done and it was less about the number of kilometers that I had done but more about the journey in itself.

I have so many memories of beautiful places, great people I have met, funny and awe-inspiring wildlife I have seen, harsh and great weather conditions, great camps, rides, rock-climbing and everything else in between that it would be hard to pick just a few to sum up my trip.

Soon enough I was landing in Paris.

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