The Inferno
Nov 7-8, 2003

The Warm-up (Friday)

"The wagon train arrives at 1 p.m. down at Furnace Creek Ranch", I announce as Charlie Massieon drives up for the Third Annual Death Valley Inferno.  "Let's get down there."


Waiting for the wagon train

We unload luggage into the hotel at Stovepipe Wells, load the bicycles into my station wagon, and drive to Furnace Creek Ranch, where the campgrounds are brimming with RV's.  The Inferno was scheduled months in advance to take advantage of the full moon in November, but this weekend happened to coincide with the '49ers Annual Death Valley Encampment, a week-long event that features fiddling contests, tall-tale tellings, four-wheel touring, country dancing, and other activities in the flavor of the Wild West.

Riding bicycles for a couple hundred miles isn't on their agenda, but it is in the spirit of their statement of purpose: "to promote understanding and appreciation of Death Valley and its history."  So we pay the nominal membership dues, pin our '49ers buttons on the bike bags, and deem ourselves fully qualified to participate in the festivities.

Down at the Ranch, people are streaming from the RV campsite to the Ranch headquarters, toting folding chairs and small ice chests.  Setting Up the Folding Chairs seems to be a major strategy of the Encampment, securing the prime viewing spots well in advance, even if the chairs are left unoccupied.  We get the bikes out and pedal down the chair-lined road, wanting desperately to wave and nod like in a parade.

Move 'em out

To get stoked for an Inferno one must do a proper warm-up, so our ride this afternoon is a short 42-mile loop out to Badwater, returning via Artist's Drive.  We don't have the patience to wait around for the Arrival of the Wagon Train, so decide to ride out to meet it.  The wagons are circled up at Furnace Creek Inn, just out of sight.  Mules and horses are pawing the ground with impatience, while pioneers are sedating them with apples.

The wagons have been on the road for a week, celebrating the Old West Days in Shoshone and then trekking north to the Encampment for their grand entrance. Although the people are self-sufficient and camp like pioneers while on the road, the mules get sag support.  Trucks towing hay and water barrels the size of septic tanks are parked nearby.

"Five minutes to go", the wagon master hollers. The CHP arrives to block traffic, little that there is.  Finally the wagons start moving out, rolling around the sign for "Elevation Sea Level - Park Off Pavement."

"We'll do the horses when they get here," the CHP was saying.

"What horses?"

Trail riders on Badwater Road

"Oh that's the Trail Riders", a man next to us explains.  "There are over a hundred of them and they ride 125 miles in five days over the old pioneer route through Death Valley.  Should be arriving any time now."

He points towards Badwater.  That's the direction we're headed, so we mount our steeds and gallop off to meet them.  A cloud of dust arises in the distance and approaches - fast!  It soon resolves into horses and riders coming at a good clip.  We dismount to not spook the horses, and the cavalcade pounds by with snorting and creaking of leather.

Badwater Pool


The dust settles and we continue to Badwater.  When we rode here last February, the road was torn up and a reluctant pilot driver had to escort us through the construction zone.  Now the repaving is complete and the Badwater viewing area renovated, though I'm not convinced it's an improvement.  But it is accessible.  Ramps lead down to a deck that overlooks the Badwater Pool and informative signs tell about the rare Badwater Snail and the salt deposits.  We taste the fluffy salt, expecting a vile flavor, but it tastes remarkably like...table salt.

We continue out around the alluvial fan to get a view of Dante's View, over a mile above us.  Charlie had used his 3-D mapping program to draw a projection of where we should be able to see Dante's View from the road, and we convince ourselves that the flat area to the right of the peak must be the parking lot.  Tomorrow evening we will be looking down on the place where we now stand.

On the way back through Badwater, we look for the Sea Level elevation marker that used to be painted on the wall 282 ft above the parking lot. Looks like it was taken out as part of the renovation.  But the sign pointing to Telescope Peak, elevation 11,049 ft, is still there, impressing us with the immense relief displayed on this edge of the Basin-and-Range province.  Telescope Peak is dusted with snow from the first of the season's storms that closed most of the Sierra passes just a week ago.

Temperatures here in the valley are pleasant, in the low 70's, though the weather forecast calls for a 20% chance of rain.  When questioned about it, the ranger at the entrance station glanced out the window and shrugged, "Oh there's a few floaters", but didn't seem too concerned about impending storms.  However, I've learned to never out-guess the winter weather in the desert and have come prepared for anything, including rain and snow.  The severity of the elements is what makes riding in Death Valley a challenge...and a reward.

Roller coaster on Artist's Drive

We turn off to Artist's Drive and begin the nine-mile one-way loop on the bumpy narrow road.  It doesn't waste any time and heads straight up the steep fan.  At the top of the fan, the grade eases and we can break the concentration of climbing to glimpse the saltpans out in the valley glimmering in the sun.  The road roller coasters along the mountain front, and the many sharp curves and gravel washing over the road remind me to avoid this route in the dark.

The afternoon light streaming over the Panamint Range to the west is ideal for illuminating the lakebed sediments of Artist's Drive.  Their rainbow colors and smooth to chunky textures evoke ice cream flavors: black cherry, pistachio, banana cream, maple nut, rocky road.... A short side-trip to Artist's Palette reveals a cocoa-rimmed bowl with dabs of pink, yellow, and green.  A sign explains the origin of the pigments in the iron, mica, and manganese of the volcanic sediments.  

The road makes a swift curvy descent through a canyon, and just when it looks like you're headed back to the valley floor, there's an unexpected hard right and another steep climb up the fan.  After another tour of the Artist's Drive formation, it's a fast descent through banks of old alluvial fans down to the junction with the main road.

Moonrise over Furnace Creek

The sun is setting as we roll into Furnace Creek, and through the palms the full moon is rising over the RV park.   We drive back to Stovepipe Wells, where Joe Doctor's Tall Tales Contest is underway.  The winner is Officer John of the DVMDP (Death Valley Metropolitan Police Department), who garners audience rapport by weaving well-known officers of the '49ers into his tale of a late night out at the saloon.

With the warm-up complete, we get ready for the full Inferno.   The only real time constraint is to get down from Dante's View before complete darkness, as the road to the summit is bumpy and poorly marked and often has gravel or even ice in the upper reaches.  We count backwards from End of Civil Twilight at Dante's View through Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Towne Pass, Daylight Pass, and come up with a departure time of 4:30 a.m. from Furnace Creek.  That's mighty early...oh, make it 4:45.


The Inferno (Saturday)

We're up at 3:05 a.m., eat a quick breakfast, load bikes into the car, and drive to the Furnace Creek visitor center, where we park next to the ghostly booths of the Western Art Show.   A life-size bronze elk is frozen in trumpeting position on a trailer next to us.  Bikes are on the road by 4:45 a.m.  We're off!

High clouds obscure the usually spectacular star show, and the full moon isn't given a chance to illuminate the road.  We switch on the Cateyes and head towards dawn on Daylight Pass.   The stretch from Furnace Creek to Beatty Cutoff is better to do in the dark anyway, as watching scrub roll by under the headlights is far more entertaining than fixating on the top of the next rise for what seems like hours.  At the turn-off, we leave the good pavement and begin the bumpy ascent of the 4% fan surface towards the pass.  Climbing alluvial fans is deceptive because the steep fault-bounded mountain fronts make the fans look flat by comparison. But I'm creeping along in gears usually reserved for "real" climbs.

Dawn on Daylight Pass

Even in the early twinges of dawn, we recognize The Beach, an ancient sandy strandline of the lake that once occupied Death Valley.  It has the low-angle crossbeds of a sand bar, just as one would see in a modern-day swash zone.  No tanning on the beach this morning, however.

Dawn arrives with a splash of red over the Funeral Range, but is remarkably calm and warm compared to the usual shifting of air masses that begin with the sun's first rays.

Hell's Gate at 2262 ft has outhouses, but no water.  With mild temperatures and pre-hydration, we're O.K. with two water bottles over the 48 miles from Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells, but would certainly plan to carry more if doing this ride in warmer conditions.

Descending from Hell's Gate

From Hell's Gate the climb gets a bit more interesting.  Black canyon walls rise on either side, and vegetation changes from gray scrub to verdant creosote, rabbitbrush, jumping cholla, and even a hardy late-blooming yellow sunflower with a bright orange center, a relative of brittlebush.

Daylight Pass doesn't have a summit marker, even though the elevation of 4316 ft would warrant one.  But you're there when you begin coasting down the other side into Nevada.  That's not on the schedule today, so we turn around to greet the sun now rising above the peaks.  The descent from Daylight Pass gives a hang-gliding view of the valley, with dunes shimmering white in the distance, and of the route up Towne Pass, which is our next goal.  The road through Mud Canyon was washed out several years ago and repaved with good asphalt, so the descent is quick and smooth.

Dunes at Stovepipe Wells

We join the main highway and ride to Stovepipe Wells, passing the sign pointing out the rather obvious "Sand Dunes."   Everyone dutifully parks by the sign to get their photos of the dunes.

When we arrive in Stovepipe Wells, the Chuckwagon Breakfast is still simmering, but fried eggs and biscuits don't look appealing for the 5000 ft climb ahead.  So we gulp down some yogurt and date bread while listening to a cowboy yodeler serenading the mostly empty picnic tables.  It's too early for yodeling, and that's enough to send us up the next hill.

Chuckwagon breakfast

Climbing starts at a mere 5 ft above sea level and after a few perfunctory dips, settles into a steady grade up the fan.  Soon the 1000 ft elevation sign appears, signaling the first intermediate sprint.  To animate the ponderous climbs in Death Valley, primes are awarded for 1000-ft elevation markers, "Radiator Water 1 Mile" signs, and Sea Level elevation signs, if anyone feels up to it.  I can only win through distraction, deception, or apathy on the part of riding companions, but it's worth a try anyway.

Soon after I loose the 2000 ft elevation sprint, we arrive at Emigrant Junction, where the road to Wildrose Canyon via Emigrant Pass takes off to the left.  It's a great ride over to Panamint Valley, but not today.  There are water and restrooms at the junction, making Towne Pass an easy climb to do self-supported.  From the junction, the grade gets a bit steeper for the next 2000 ft, letting up only for a couple of dips, which are much more fun to take flying on the way down.

Tarantula on Towne Pass Encelia actoni

"Hey look, tarantula!"  A velvet button on pipe cleaner legs trundles across the road, and fortunately no RV comes barreling down the road to ruin the trek.  At the 4000 ft elevation sign, a radiator water tank marks the break into the saddle of the pass.  From here it's a few more steps, dips, and turns to the summit, and with the relief that comes with a change in slope, it doesn't seem that hard.

The first real headwind of the day kicks up, but we can't complain, as there's been mostly a tailwind up this climb, as is usual.  Just when we think it must be too high and cold for anything to bloom this time of year, a few hardy heads of yellow brittlebush appear.

Towne Pass summit

Two bicycles and their sag vehicle are parked at the summit and a campstove is roaring.  The cyclists rein in their dog while Charlie and I sprint for the 4956 ft summit marker.  They are on a bicycle trek from Badwater to Mt Whitney Portal, a destination we can't envy them for, as it's probably snowed in.  They don't sound positive about doing the Portal.

I check the odometer -- 64 miles so far.  Only a bit less than 100 miles to go.  It's nearly noon, time for lunch in Stovepipe Wells.  We turn around and bike-sail down past the sign announcing 8% grade for 6 miles.  The valley opens 5000 ft below us in a panorama of browns, blacks, reds, and whites.  Emigrant Junction flies by in no time, and then Stovepipe Wells appears at the foot of the ramp.  As we roll into the hotel parking lot, Cowboy and Southwestern Poetry is going on by the pool.

Low point between Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek

After a quick lunch, Charlie does most of the lead work in getting us through the rolling 27 miles to Furnace Creek, but even with that we're too late for the Mule Packing Demonstration.  We were hoping to clear Furnace Creek by 2:00 p.m., but with my stopping for photos and the distractions of the Encampment, we don't get out of Furnace Creek until a half-hour later.  This makes it tight for getting off of Dante's View before dark.  We strap on the Cateyes, pack an extra change of batteries, and head off for the final climb of 5600 ft.

Ghost-sitters at the Encampment

In passing the Ranch, we note that the folding chairs have now arranged themselves in a semi-circle around center stage next to Old Dinah, the steam traction engine that proved less reliable than the 20-mule teams that succeeded it.  Now there's extra incentive to get back quickly -- we don't want to miss the Desert Night Music "by the campfire under the desert stars."

Zabriskie Point and Telescope Peak

The road up Furnace Creek Wash has benefited from a recent repaving job and is smooth and well marked.  This is important for the descent in the dark.  We wind up through the canyon of old alluvial fan deposits, now tilted at impossibly steep angles above the current fan surface. Zabriskie Point gleams butterscotch in the dimming daylight, and people are hiking to the overlook for a late afternoon view of the colorful lakebed sediments.  A trickle of water gurgles down the wash through thickets of vegetation dotted with palms.  Freshly sawed stumps are evidence of a riparian restoration project to rid the wash of tamarisk and non-native palms.  A washboard road takes off to 20 Mule Team Canyon, which may or may not have actually seen mules going through it.

The turnoff to Dante's View comes just before the 2000 ft elevation marker, and with the gentle grade up the wash, it hardly seems like we've climbed that much.  There are now only thirteen miles to the summit, but daylight won't remain for long.  This side of the mountain is even darker than the valley, once the sun disappears behind the ridge.  Near the turnoff, the whitish dumps of the Boraxo mine spill out of a canyon.  The open pit is hidden from view and is mined out, but borax mining is still active nearby.  We can hear the humming of the Billie borate mine as the headframe comes into view.  It lies just outside the park boundary and has been producing for over twenty years, continuing the mining tradition that first brought economic interest and a flood of miners and settlers to Death Valley in the late 1880's.

Ryan Borax Mine

A bit further up the road, the inactive Ryan mine comes into view.  The silver buildings gleam against a talus of fudge-colored volcanic rock spilling down from Ryan Plateau and flanked by multi-colored lakebed sediments of the Artist's Drive formation.

"I don't know what they're doing with that site, but the caretaker is still there", comments Charlie, who works for the owner, U.S. Borax.  Last year there was some talk of making it into an educational camp.  The miner's cabins were long ago moved to Furnace Creek Ranch for visitor accommodations.

We can make out the trace of the old railroad bed across the face of the mountain.  The narrow-gauge Death Valley Railroad from Death Valley Junction and the "Baby Gage" extension to Ryan were a major tourist attraction in 1927-1929.  Before that the railroad hauled ore out of Borax Smith's Ryan mine and served other mines in the area, connecting with the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad that ran south to Ludlow in the Mojave Desert.  The railroad replaced the famous 20-mule teams that made a more arduous 165-mile trek from Death Valley to Mojave.

A cold headwind sweeps down from Greenwater Valley.   We welcome the turn out of the valley and out of the wind, even if it means a stiff climb up to the head of the canyon leading to Dante's View.  It's getting dark now, and we switch on the headlights for the few cars charging down the mountain from their evening view of the valley.   We're hoping for some moonlight, but the clouds are closing in.  This is the night of a lunar eclipse, visible only as a yellowish glow in the western U.S, but even that would be good to see.

The sign for "Radiator Water 1 Mile" appears under the headlights at a point where it looks like you'd ride over the edge before going that far.  There's more steep climbing through the dark canyon and then the water tank finally appears.  A bit further and there's the restroom (but no water) before the final pitch to the summit.  Here's where the 1/4 mile 15% warning sign applies.  I peer up the road disappearing into oblivion and wonder if I'll be able to keep my balance in the dark.  But dreams of a funicular bicycle don't materialize, so I launch into the climb and soon find my bicycle cruising into the summit parking lot behind Charlie's blinking red taillight.

The edge of the abyss

Dante's View after sundown isn't all that it is in daylight.  In fact, it's pitch black in the parking lot, with only a faint glimmer of white playa far below, hardly the scintillating desert that inspired the name.  The sign at the summit marks the abyss and glares in our headlights.  We convince ourselves that the road we were on yesterday at Badwater is directly below us and turn around for the descent.  It's remarkably calm and not all that cold on top, even balmy compared to rides of winters past.  Still we put on jackets and gloves for the descent.

Hugging the centerline works best for navigating the poorly marked road in the dark.  The moon we were hoping for peeks through with a faint yellow glow that we imagine is the eclipse, but might only be clouds.   Even in the dark, we make quick work of undoing the climb through the canyon and soon turn the corner into upper Furnace Creek Wash.  The lights of the Billie mine gleam below us and a few vehicle lights move along the road.

We soon join the main highway, now appreciating our tax dollars at work, and glide down the road like on a runway, yellow reflectors on the centerline and a bright white line on the right.  There's a bit more ambient light here, as well, so it's a fast haul down the wash.  The Furnace Creek Inn looms like a Christmas decoration around the last corner, and a short swoop takes us back to Furnace Creek Ranch.

The country band Chaparral is singing, appropriately, "Ride cowboys ride...."  The folding chairs are now fully occupied.  We cruise on down to the visitor center, where the Old Time Fiddle Contest Finals are underway.  They've just announced the Senior-Senior division.  By the time we've loaded the bikes into the car, they're on to the Senior division.  By the time we've changed clothes, they're doing a "First Time Ever" division, and after enduring a scratchy medley of Old Joe Clark and Redwing, we head back to the Ranch.

The restaurant is nearly deserted, quite in contrast to the usual waiting line of an hour or more, so we order garden burgers and french fries to-go and take them outside for the Desert Night Music.  The band is playing their own compositions "from our latest album", and I'm wishing out loud for the good old favorites like Tumbling Tumbleweed and Ghost Riders.  As if they'd heard me, they launch into a medley of Sons of the Pioneers favorites, including my special the order requested.

We drive back to Stovepipe Wells, rolling down the windows and listening to what must be one of the more advanced categories in the fiddle contest.  The hoedowns are faster and the waltzes fancier.  A few splatters hit the dust of the windshield.  Either that's a cloud of really juicy bugs, or it's rain in Death Valley.  It smells like rain.  That's about all the clouds can squeeze out for their 20% chance.

The Afterburner (Sunday)

Dunes at Stovepipe Wells

The next morning we're up before the Country Gospel sing starts.  As I stiffly wheel my bike out to the car, a man with weathered face carrying a tray of coffee cups walks by and drawls with mock surprise,

"Finished with bike riding already this morning?"

"Well, I rode over 150 miles yesterday, so that's enough!"

He doesn't even blink. "So where'd you go?"

"Daylight Pass, Towne Pass, and Dante's View," I reply, hoping he'd be impressed.

He hesitates only a moment: "Well, don't try that in summer, O.K.?"



My bicycle made me do it...
Jeanie Barnett


Stage Distance Climbing
The Warm-up 42 miles 2000 ft
The Inferno 157 15,400
Total 199 miles 17,400 ft