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Death Valley biking.

Death Valley biking As the day's first light breaks over the Funeral Mountains, you glide into the silence of one of the world's great wildernesses. The morning chill comes as a surprise in Death Valley, the nation's lowest, hottest, driest spot; but in winter, the searing heat eases its grip, and the valley becomes a place to cherish and explore.

With major attractions concentrated in a few area near relatively flat paved roads, Death Valley is well-situated for cycling. Sightseeing by bike takes more time and preparation than going by car, but it also gives you a closer look at the place, and a clearer sense of its immensity. To best appreciate the valley by bicycle, spend two full days here (note that holiday weekends get extremely crowded). We outline rides to some main attractions--and list two-bike tour operators.

This month, the territory you'll travel through is inspiring much debate, as the House of Representatives considers two competing bills on the California desert. The California Desert Protection Act (H.R. 780) would change Death Valley from national monument to national park, expand it by 1.3 million acres, and give wilderness status to 90 percent of the area. H.R. 3460 would take a more conservative approach, leaving Death Valley a monument and not expanding its borders. Hearings on H.R. 780 are scheduled to be held in Los Angeles February 10; for time and location, call the Sierra Club at (213) 387-6528.

Hello Death Valley

Death Valley is actually a graben--an area that has sunk between mountain walls (true valleys are carved by rivers). According to one account, the name was coined by a member of a beleaguered 1850 gold-seeking party who, rescued after a month in the desert, looked back at the wasteland and said, "Good-by, Death Valley." The view hasn't changed much, although a stranded party today could while away the wait with golf, swimming, and fine dining.

The valley's populated area offers nine campgrounds (call 619/786-2331 for current information) and several hotels. Furnace Creek Inn (786-2361), built in 1927, is Death Valley's luxury hotel. Dining is elegant, grounds are lovely, prices about $ 225 a day. Furnace Creek Ranch (786-2345) has cabins and hotel ($57 to $88), a coffee shop, a steak house, stables, a golf course, the Borax Museum. Stovepipe Wells Village (786-2387) has a motel ($32 to $59), restaurant, gas station, and convenience store.

Yea, though I ride through

the valley of death ...

Fear no evil perhaps, but respect the elements (see box, above).

Weather. In 1894, the New York Post called Death Valley "the most deadly and dangerous spot in the United States. It is a pit of horrors--the haunt of all that is grim and ghoulish ... surely the nearest to a little hell upon Earth that the whole wicked world can produce." Not in winter, it's not. Late February's average high is around 73[degrees', and temperatures drop 3[degrees] to 5[degrees' for every 1,000 feet you climb.

Most of the time, winds won't hinder you--but they can. Rain is rare, but storm runoff can rush through narrow passages, bringing boulders and debris.

Traffic. In summer, car manufacturers test their vehicles out here--a practice initiated in 1906 by "Shanghai Larry" Sullivan. In winter, they leave but tourists arrive--and traffic increases.

East tours, and tests of pedaling mettle

Touring bikes, with their narrow tires and sleek aerodynamics, are good on long rides on paved roads. Mountain bikes let you try sandy and rocky routes, but the fat tires create more resistance on long hauls. And even mountain bikers have to stay on established roads or jeep trials. Unfortunately, there are no longer bike rentals int eh monument.

He we outline the nine rides that shown on the map below. Unless noted, distances for the first six are round trip from Furnace Creek. We suggest best time of day to go. The last two need car shuttles.

1. Out to Badwater (36 miles, paved): rolling terrain; some long, gradual climbs. Moderately strenous. Morning.

As recently as 2,000 years ago, 30 feet of water covered Death Valley. Salt deposits from this and earlier eras have been carved into the sharp, crackling pinnacles at Devils Golf Course, 5-1/2 miles north of Badwater on the highway's west side; a dirt road leads 1-1/4 miles to a parking area from which you can walk out among the formations. Mountain bikers can ride a short way down the rugged West Side Road for more good views.

Opposite Badwater's salty, spring-fed pool, a sign on the cliffs marks sea level.

2. Artists Palette (13 miles, paved): 2-1/2-mile climb, then rolling. Moderately strenuous. Late afternoon.

Distance is measured from the junction with Badwater Road, 10 miles from Furnace Creek. Ride will show you some of the area's prettiest country.

3. Golden Canyon (6-1/4 miles, and 2- to 3-mile hike; paved): level. Easy. Afternoon.

You'll travel into a canyon with brilliantly glowing walls. Lock bikes to signposts, and hike up to Zabriskie Point (take the right fork) or Red Cathedral (left fork).

4. Zabriskie Point (9 miles, paved): 888-foot climb. Moderate. Morning.

Don't make this ride in the dark, but go at first light to watch the illumination of Golden Canyon and Manly Beacon peak.

5. Twenty Mule Team Canyon (16 miles, 2-3/4 unpaved): steady climb from Furnace Creek. Moderate. Late afternoon.

Part of Star Wars was filmed here, about 1-1/4 miles south of Zabriskie Point. The one-way, mostly level dirt road through golden mud hills makes a nice ride for mountain bikers.

6. Mustard Canyon (4-1/2 miles, 1-1/3 unpaved): flat. Easy. Morning or afternoon.

From State 190, turn left at the Harmony Borax Works. Listen closely and you may hear the canyon walls creak.

7. Sand dunes 7-mile loop, 3-1/2 miles unpaved): mostly flat. Easy. Morning or late afternoon.

From Stovepipe Wells, drive your mountain bikes to the gravel road on the north side of State 190 just past Devil's Cornfield. The road offers striking views of 14 square miles of dunes. Touring cyclists can bike east from Stovepipe Wells, view dunes from the highway, then turn back.

To see Salt Creek, follow 190 as it heads southeast. About 4-1/2 miles past the junction with Daylight Pass Road, a road to the right leads 3/4 mile to the interpretive trail. The rocky road is inhospitable to walkers, impassable on touring bikes.

8. Titus Canyon (26 miles, unpaved): steep downhill. Difficult. All day.

One-way road gives great views of surrounding mountains steep-walled mosaic canyons, perhaps desert bighorn sheep.

9. Scotty's Castle to Ubehebe Crater (16 miles, paved): some long climbs. Strenuous (winds possible); not for novices. Midday.

You go from a Moorish castle at 3,000 feet in the middle of nowhere to a huge volcanic crater that could be on Mars.

Organized tours

Backroads Bicycle Touring, (415) 895-1783 in California, (800) 533-2573 elsewhere. Trips go to Ubehebe Crater, Scotty's Castle, Dante's View, and Badwater; three nights camping, one in a hotel. Spring trips start March 26 and April 2 (other trips run in fall). Price of $ 529 also includes food.

Earth Trek Expeditions, (800) 229-8735. Two-day trips costs $215 (including meals and hotel lodging; round-trip transportation from Orange County or the San Fernando Valley is $40 extra). Trips run February 2 and 23 (another trip in November).
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Title Annotation:includes related article on tips when you bike in Death Valley
Date:Feb 1, 1990
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