Vacation Within a Vacation: Death Valley Bike Overnight

Bike overnights are usually a way to escape the routine of home and work for a couple of days, squeezing a fun mini-vacation into an otherwise normal week. While my family has taken many such mini-vacations, we’ve found yet another good time for bike overnights -- when we’re already on vacation.

You, too, can make that weeklong vacation more interesting, by throwing in a bike overnight.

In my family (me, my wife Kathy, and our two young children), most vacations fall into one of two categories. The first is car camping, when we visit a national park or other scenic place for a week and go on hikes, drives, or bike rides each day. The second is traditional bike touring, when we travel by bicycle for one to four weeks, mostly camping. Both categories are fun, but while car camping I sometimes miss the challenge, spontaneity, and serendipity that come with bike touring. Our visit to Death Valley National Park a couple of years ago was the first time that we combined car camping with bike touring, by going on a bike overnight at the end of the week.

Exploring Badwater Basin prior to our Bike Overnight

Death Valley has plenty of room for both types of vacation. With more than 5,500 square miles, it’s the largest national park outside of Alaska, and about the same size as Connecticut. It has 785 miles of roads, though only about 200 miles are paved. During our one-week visit we car camped for five nights in the south and central parts of the park, spending those days hiking through canyons and badlands, and visiting both a below-sea-level salt flat and some high mountain overlooks. That left us two nights for a short bike tour in the northern end of the park.

On a Thursday morning we left our car at the Stovepipe Wells Campground and biked north to the Mesquite Springs Campground, 43 miles away and 1,600 feet higher, to spend two nights exploring the cooler, higher altitudes of the park. We started our trip by eating breakfast and then packing our gear onto the bicycle as fast as we could. Unfortunately, we weren’t fast at all, and didn’t begin riding until 11 a.m. An earlier start would have been helpful, but our four-person bike setup is so large and complicated that we can’t load it quickly. Kathy and I ride a tandem bicycle, Daniel rides a trailerbike connected to the tandem, and Maggie rides a child trailer connected to the trailerbike. We stuff most of our clothes and camping gear into compression sacks, and then attach the sacks to our bike with bungee cords. Sometimes Maggie takes turns on the trailerbike, and sometimes both kids ride in the child trailer together. It’s heavy, but it works.

Starting our bike trip near Stovepipe Wells

We started our ride under a beautifully clear sky, which is the norm for Death Valley. As we gained altitude the landscape changed from barren, moon-like hills to a thriving desert with cactus, yucca, and Joshua trees. During our first snack break a Canadian couple stopped their RV to talk with us for awhile. Our bike attracts attention when it’s loaded with camping gear, and strangers want to know what we’re doing. Later on, we enjoyed a late lunch on the ground in an arbitrary spot in the desert, with no man-made structures in sight and virtually no traffic on the road.

Desert life

When we rode on after lunch the road was steeper but still manageable. After awhile I looked across the valley and saw that the mountains looked hazy -- not perfectly clear as they had been at midday. What was going on? About five minutes later the answer hit us as a howling headwind. A huge windstorm was blowing through, sweeping clouds of dust with it. We were high enough on the hillside that the dust clouds didn’t choke us, but the wind nearly stopped us in place. We had to walk our bicycle for miles, riding only on stretches of road that were less steep. A few drivers stopped their vehicles to ask if they could help us, including the couple from Canada.

“We were at camp when the windstorm hit, and we worried about you,” one of them said.

“Thank you, but we’ll be fine,” we answered.

They looked at us in disbelief. “Really?”

I assured them that we would be, but in my mind I suspected we would not be fine. The sun was setting and we still had 12 miles of climbing into a headwind before we would be at camp. It was getting cold, and we were tired. Still, it wasn’t worth asking for help. Our bike is so huge that it’s impractical to load it into a vehicle. We knew that we would survive, and that was good enough.

Long after dark we turned off the main road and rolled down to the Mesquite Springs Campground, nearly shaking from cold and exhaustion. In the campground a man stepped out to greet us. “Hey, you guys are bike touring -- and with children, too! I’m Fletcher. I saw your headlight up on the hill and wanted to meet you.” He motioned toward his family’s campsite. “Why don’t you share this campsite with us? Our kids have wanted children to play with all day.”

Fletcher’s two kids ran up to our child trailer, where Daniel and Maggie were huddled together. Within a few minutes the four kids were all playing together, and Fletcher was helping me set up our tent. When I walked back to the picnic table, Fletcher’s wife Laura handed me a mug of hot cocoa, and Kathy was already cooking our dinner with water that Laura had boiled for her. Our cold, tired bodies recovered quickly.

“It’s great to see your family bike touring,” Fletcher said. “I biked across the United States once, years ago.”

Kathy and I smiled. “Really? So did we!” We had a great conversation that evening.

In the morning, we left our camping gear behind as we biked uphill to Scotty’s Castle, a mansion built by a wealthy insurance executive in the 1920s. He and his wife loved the Wild West, and this mansion was their dream vacation home. Its design is so unique, and the story behind it so interesting, that touring the mansion was my children’s favorite part of our visit to Death Valley.

Scotty's Castle

After our tour of the mansion we biked across the desert and up another big hill, this time to see the Ubehebe crater, one of several volcanic craters in the park. The volcanos are no longer active -- the Ubehebe crater exploded some 2,000 years ago -- but it was still awesome to think of the massive amount of rock that exploded out of this crater in a matter of seconds.

Ubehebe volcanic crater

When we left the crater, it was nearly sunset, but we quickly rolled downhill back to camp, where Fletcher had a pile of firewood ready for us to burn during dinner. Campfires are a rare treat for my family, so we all enjoyed roasting marshmallows under the full moon. The kids tried to catch the kangaroo rats scampering around our feet that evening, but could never quite corner one.

Starting the campfire

The next morning we had breakfast with our campsite friends again before breaking camp and traveling our separate ways. We had another headwind on our way back to Stovepipe Wells, but at least we were going downhill this time. I stopped the bike a couple of miles prior to reaching our car and dropped off Kathy and the kids at Mesquite Dunes, a large sand dune field. While I repacked the car, Daniel and Maggie played in what is essentially a miles-wide sandbox. When I had the car ready to go I drove back and we all hiked around the dunes for awhile, before beginning our long drive back to Colorado.

We spent seven days exploring Death Valley, and every day was unique. But which days do you think were the most memorable? Our bike overnight stands out from the rest of the vacation. I can think of several places where this type of trip would work, and there are bound to be countless others I haven't thought of. Large national parks like Yellowstone and Big Bend would be good options, and so would the combination of Arches and Canyonlands national parks near Moab, Utah. These places hold so many possibilities -- hiking, backpacking, river trips -- that you may want your car nearby for most of your visit, but not all of it. A bike overnight can round out your experience, and give you a unique, memorable vacation.

Get more information about bike overnights.

Tips for this adventure: Death Valley National Park is the hottest, driest spot in North America, so don’t bike there in the summer. Winter and spring have pleasant weather, and sometimes desert wildflowers bloom in the spring. My family visited in March, and saw the early part of a wildflower bloom. If you want to use the popular Furnace Creek Campground in the weeks close to Christmas or spring break, then you should reserve a campsite. If you want to bike beyond the paved roads, bring a mountain bike. Death Valley has hundreds of miles of gravel and dirt roads.

Favorite local bike shop: Furance Creek Cyclery, part of the Furnace Creek Resort, is located inside Death Valley National Park close to the campground and visitor center.

4 responses so far ↓

Kathleen - Mar 25, 2013 at 11:13 AM

Thanks for writing this. What a great experience for your children, and for their parents. Sounds like you're doing it right.

And, 43 miles in that rig, uphill, with a headwind, is HARD. I know that road, and I salute you and your family.

Many more!

T-Race - Mar 26, 2013 at 11:20 AM

inspiring!

Brendan - Apr 6, 2013 at 11:53 AM

I spent a summer working for the NPS in Death Valley. It was too hot to cycle while I was there but it is a beautiful and unique place. What a great way to see the park!

KW - Jun 20, 2013 at 4:00 PM

What a great family adventure! Thanks for sharing. There are a lot of great roads and great people out there. I've been to Death Valley quite a few times as a hiker, a runner and a cyclist. It's a uniquely beautiful place but be aware, it's called Death Valley for a reason.
Weather conditions can change rapidly from one extreme to the next. Sudden thunderstorms and flash floods can occur washing out sections unpaved roads. The heat is a dry heat which can be very draining. There is no cell phone service there. There are very few Rangers or Police patrols. Often, there is very little traffic in the park. You might not see another person for a half a day or more. I've ridden on the dirt roads and there are sections where my mountain bike stopped and sank into the soft sand. Sections like this can go on for more than a mile. I recommend you limit your biking to the paved roads except for some short in and out bike trails near campgrounds and popular areas. There are sections on the main highway where you can bike thirty miles or more and not have anywhere to get water or any drinks or any shade.
Death Valley is great and there's nowhere else in the U.S. like it. I don't want to discourage anyone but if you go there, visit the park's website, be in shape, have a good bike and have plenty to drink.

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