Lonely Roads through the Desert, A Bike Tour from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles

Lonely Roads through the Desert, A Bike Tour from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles

There were puppies everywhere, I couldn’t believe how playful they all were. As much as I knew I needed to be somewhere, they wouldn’t let me leave. They wanted to play and I was joyful. Then my eyes started to see the light of day and the puppies quickly faded away. Reality soon hit: I was in an open bivouac on a farm I poached a few miles outside of Delta, UT. It was 6am and just above freezing. I could feel my legs sore in my sleeping bag from my first day of riding my bicycle yesterday from Nephi, UT. “What the hell am I doing out here?”, I thought. Two weeks ago I was working in Jackson, WY, landscaping to make some extra cash before a three week vacation between jobs. While planting bulbs and dumping compost in a garden bed, I was brainstorming ideas for my time off. This ridiculous idea came to mind and began to slowly grow like the bulbs I was planting. Salt Lake City to Los Angeles on a bike? I don’t even like biking to begin with, but I did buy a brand new Surly Troll in anticipation that I would. So I did the research, loaded up my brand new touring torture machine with an “alpine style” load, and drove down to Salt Lake. A friend of mine, Ryan Catalano, drove me down an hour south of Salt Lake to the town of Nephi to begin my ride. As I began to ride I ignored the fact that I was all alone riding away from the comfort of civilization. I knew that I would go days without seeing an establishment to fill up on water and food. I prepared for this and did my best to ignore the fear of riding into the unknown. It wasn’t until day two when I left the farm I had slept in that I really felt all alone. I was on the US 50, “The Loneliest Road in America” so it’s called and it seemed to go on forever towards nothing. I climbed up and over a small pass descending into Utah’s west desert. It was beautiful. Desert mountains rose all around me, Notch peak to my right and and to my left the dreadful mountain range I was about to climb. In that moment of existing in the west desert all alone on my bike pedaling 15mph, I felt complete and satisfied to be in my present state. I learned to love the ups and downs, the cold, and the pain. It all seemed worth it, it all felt right. My bike ended up breaking down a 150 miles from home deep in the Mojave Desert in California. With a broken rear bike rack, a flat tire, and no bike shop in site, I hitched a ride the rest of the way home.

 

Overview

The route I took starts in Nephi, UT about an hour south of Salt Lake City. From Nephi, I pedaled west on the UT-132 to the US-6 to Delta. The US-50W drops you into Utah’s west desert and then to the Nevada border. About 37 miles into Nevada I took the US-93 south towards Las Vegas. This route to Las Vegas was mostly desolate with light traffic. There weren’t many towns or gas stations along the way so I always carried 4 – 8 liters of water with me. From Vegas, I pedaled side roads and dirt roads that paralleled the US-15 and then dropped down into the Mojave National Preserve. At the southern end of the preserve in the town of Kelso, I broke down and ended my ride. If I was able to continue, I would have pedaled down to Route 66 to Barstow and then down Cajon Pass into the LA Basin.

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Weather/Best Season

I did this tour during the first two weeks of November. I would recommend late September to October or late spring. November was borderline too cold. Some mornings I woke up with partially frozen water and rode the first few hours with frozen fingers and toes. One lesson I learned as a newbie to bike touring is that it is extremely uncomfortable to pedal under 32°F. Western Utah, Nevada, and southern California are extremely dry. The good side of this is you will most likely not experience a torrential downpour, the bad side is that there is really no natural flowing water anywhere. Nevada is the driest state in the US, Utah is second, and California is not far behind.

 

Time Needed

It took me 9 days (7 days pedaling and 2 days rest) to get to my furthest point, 150 miles from the finish line. I was riding 75 miles a day on average. I would suggest at least setting aside 13 days if not more for this tour.

 

Trip Costs

Trip costs all depend on your comfort level. I camped out every night, only paying for a cheap motel once. In total the trip cost me under $200. There aren’t very many places to buy things between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas so most of the food I ate was dehydrated food and snacks I packed.

 

Level of Experience

Bike touring on this route seemed relatively non-committing knowing that you could hitch a ride anytime the worst happened. Even though these roads are very quiet, there was enough traffic coming through that made me feel comfortable. Although I was in great shape from climbing and running in the Tetons all summer, I was not in biking shape and some of these mountain passes brought great fatigue to my legs. I suggest getting in shape prior or giving yourself enough time to get in shape on the tour.

 

Accommodation

There are several RV parks and motels in most small towns and junctions that provide accommodation, although there is plenty of public land in Utah, Nevada, and California that you can pitch a tent on. Camping out every night gave me the freedom to ride for as long as I wanted. Setting yourself up to stay in motels and RV parks will structure your trip a bit differently.

 

Gear

Surly Troll Set Up

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Storage:  
 10L Handlebar DryBag Repair Bag
BlackBurn Frame Bag 40L water resistant backpack
Top Tube Bag 10L backrack DryBag

 

 

 

 

 

Camping Gear

0° down sleeping bag Rab SillTarp
Exped Sleeping pad Black Diamond Twilight Bivy

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Clothing

Warm Weather: Cold Weather:
Padded bike underwear 2 long sleeve merino wool shirts
Shorts Thermal pants base layer
2 pairs merino wool underwear Lightweight nylon climbing pants
2 pairs merino wool short socks 800 fill down jacket
Synthetic short sleeve shirt Winter hat
Duckbill running cap Buff
Sunglasses Rain pants and jacket
Finger-less gloves Insulated leather gloves
Sandals Approach Gortex shoes

 

 

 

 

Kitchen

MSR WindBurner 1L Knife
2 small fuel canisters Hydro-chloride water purifier
Collapsible bowl 1L Nalgene
Spork 2 riding bottles
Cutting board BIC lighter

 

 

Electronics and Entertainment

Iphone and headphones Book
Cannon G7X point and shoot with extra battery Journal
Goal Zero small solar panel Garmin GPS

 

Toiletries and Extras

Lip Balm Sunscreen
Toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss Ibuprofen
Soap and Shampoo Wallet

 

Tool Kit

Patch repair kit Chain lube and rag
Tire levers Chain links and tool
Multi-tool Spare tube
Mini bike pump CO2 canisters

 

 

Itinerary

Day 1: Nephi – Delta, UT   50 miles

Ryan Catalano took a picture of me at an Exxon Gas Station and then drove off. I was all on my own from this point. Beginning my journey, I rode west through Nephi and then onto the UT-132. I felt good, keeping a decent pace for 7 miles or so until I began to ride up the first mountain pass. It was a small climb relative to the days to come but it beat me down. The road winded through visually appealing valleys climbing and descending until the junction for the US-6. 15 miles of a relatively flat stretch brought me to the largest town on my trip with the exception of Las Vegas. Delta had everything I needed to prepare for the coming days of desolation: subway and a grocery store. I rode a few miles west on the US-50 out of town in hope of finding public land to pitch my tent on. With no luck I poached a large farm and set up an open bivouac under a green ash tree.

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nephi to delta

 

Day 2: Delta – Snake Valley, UT   80 miles

I woke up with the sun at 6am and packed up quick to avoid being caught trespassing in the farm I slept in. The road to Utah’s West Desert was fairly flat for 40 miles or so. There’s not much to look at besides Notch Peak in the distance and Sevier Lake just south of the road. After brewing a cup of tea and devouring a small cup of mac n cheese at the halfway point, I began to climb up a small pass. The road descended at a 8% grade into the mesmeric valley that allures climbers from afar. Ibex is just south of the road and the largest limestone wall in the lower 48 sits just north composing the north face of Notch peak. It was ironic to return to this valley but with no climbing gear and no partner. The hardest part of the day begins just near the end of this valley. The road climbs a major 6280 ft pass. The gain is more than 2000 feet. The other side of the pass is Snake Valley. Riding down I could see the peaks that make up Great Basin National Park in the distance. So fatigued, I could not make it down to the border where I planned on camping. I pulled off on a dirt road and camped just 8 miles from the Utah-Nevada border.

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delta to snake valley

 

Day 3: Snake Valley –  Spring Valley, NV   64 miles

When beginning a long backpacking or climbing trip, the first two days are felt the most; your body is not quite used to the beating. This is how I felt this morning, everything hurt. Since daylight savings time started yesterday on November 4th, the sun has been rising just after 5:30am and setting around 4:30pm so it has been a stress to ensure I wake up with the sun to get a maximum time riding. Some will say that bike touring is not about stressing the amount of distance you put in everyday, but just enjoying the ride itself. As a climber, especially in the alpine, I stress about time and distance conquered. The more miles covered in a day the better I feel about my progress. My original plan was to pedal the US-50 to the US-395 on the eastern flanks of the Sierra Nevada, but it was getting cold and was only supposed to get colder the deeper I rode into Nevada. My water was partially frozen this morning and my toes cold all night. I was beginning to find the line of where slight discomfort meets extreme discomfort and that line would have been crossed dramatically if I pedaled straight west into the high mountains of central Nevada, so I chose south. At a diner/RV park at the Nevada/Utah border I enjoyed a hot breakfast and peered at my maps looking for the best alternative route. I chose to take the US-93 south down towards Las Vegas where I knew it would be warmer. Across the border was Great Basin National Park. Its peaks were higher than any other mountain range in view. The US-50 gained Sacramento Pass (7154 ft) just north of the park and then down into Spring Valley. As I enjoyed the ride down, I noticed windmills at the base of the valley and then soon learned that windmills were a warning for powerful headwinds. Riding across the valley, though a mellow grade uphill, was more difficult than any mountain pass I had faced on the trip. At the other side of valley, near the junction of the US-93 was Majors Place, a small saloon connected to a RV park. Even though they advertise that they had food in addition to beer, I was only able to get the bartender to make me a frozen pepperoni pizza. That pizza was as good as anything else, it put the life back in me that those headwinds took away. I rode south down the US-93 as it slowly descended down Spring Valley and found a couple of flat spots protected by juniper trees just off the road to camp.

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snake valley to spring valley

 

Day 4: Spring Valley – Panaca, NV   80 miles

Today was the easiest day considering the road was mostly flat, though the last three days of pedaling have worn down my body and I was feeling the effects of fatigue. This morning was colder than the last. I started to sleep and pedal with toe warmers which helped a lot. The US-93 kept to the right of the valley that sat at a 6,000 foot elevation. Like the previous days, traffic was light so I was able to comfortably pedal on the center right side of the road. It was 65 miles or so to Pioche which was the first town since Delta, UT. Pioche is an old mining town that sits on a hill above the US-93. Now that mining is no longer an ongoing industry, the town seems to survive off tourist traffic coming up from Las Vegas. There’s more saloons than convenience stores or restaurants in this town. The one restaurant that was open, The Ghost Town Art and Coffee Company, had delicious burgers and street tacos. This establishment seemed to be the center of attention in the town as it was the only place that was packed with people. From Pioche to Panaca was 11 miles or so and it was downhill the whole way descending 1,500 feet. In Panaca there is a nice grocery store down the NV-319. Camping outside of Panaca was tricky. I rode south on the US-93 looking for public land, but there was none for 3 miles. It got dark and I got desperate. I found a hilly area surrounded by a housing community, it was the best I could find. I pushed my bike to the top of the hill and set up my tarp shelter. Dogs were barking from all directions acknowledging my presence, but their owners weren’t alarmed to the point of confrontation. It was another cold and starry night.

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spring valley to panaca

 

Day 5: Panaca – Alamo, NV   68 miles

That morning I woke up earlier than usual to avoid sight from my unsuspecting neighbors, but inevitably someone was up earlier than I was. As I was packing my gear, I heard a voice behind me, “Hello there!”. It was an older lady walking her dog, probably on her routine route. “He’s friendly” she said speaking of her golden retriever. She quickly and awkwardly turned around spooked of my presence. I responded but she was already gone. Feeling awkward, I left in a hurry before her husband came out with a shotgun. The US-93 winded 10 miles through a canyon to the town of Caliente. I was so cold in that ice box of a canyon that I had to stop in Caliente to warm up. There was an empty warm diner called Side Track. This diner had WiFi which was a treat as I have been out of service for days. Immediately after filling my belly with eggs and bacon, the US-93 climbed up a large 6,237 foot mountain pass and soon my frozen toes began sweating. The road descended west into a mars-like terrain, the southern Nevada desert. There was nothing out here, just rugged desert mountains and vast valleys tilting at off angles. This was one of my favorite parts of the ride. About 45 miles down the road was a highway junction near Crystal Springs. Here on the US-93 the traffic picked up with semi-trucks and 5th wheels coming from and going to Vegas. With no shoulder to ride on, I had to be very attentive to vehicles passing. I stopped in Ash Springs for a burger and to fill up on water. I wanted to stay in a motel desperately but also saw it was a waste of money since I had all of the gear to camp. After passing the last motel in Alamo, I thought my temptations were ridden of until I noticed a motel about a mile south of town. I was sucked right into the lonesome establishment as if it were a giant magnet. The combination of comforts conveniently available and my poor shape quickly altered my stubborn rules of self reliance. I was able to shower, wash my clothes in the sink, and catch up on the news.

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panaca to alamo

 

Day 6: Alamo – Las Vegas, NV   103 miles

Aware of the traffic on this southern leg of the US-93, I woke up extra early to try to get to an alternate road before it got busy. The situation on the US-93 got worse as I rode. Heavy traffic was up early with me and the road worsened. The highway hugged the left side of the valley which put a guard rail hugging the road on the right side. After two hours of riding, getting thrown off the road twice and almost pin-balled between semi-trucks and the guard rail, I decided to hitch a ride for the last 30 miles. I was dropped off at the US-15/93 junction at the Love’s Truck Stop. From here, life was easy. The North Vegas Blvd paralleled the US-15 into Vegas and had no traffic. It was downhill with the wind to my back into Vegas. I planned on staying with a friend of mine, Greg Olsen, in Henderson. Getting there was straight forward but would bring me through some less-desirable parts of town. Once I arrived in town, Greg picked me up in his gray pick up truck and drove me to what would be my recovery center for the next two days.

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alamo to LV

 

Day 7 & 8: Rest days in Las Vegas, NV   0 miles

I notice on all my long “enduro” style trips that my mind subconsciously ignores the signals of pain and fatigue that my body sends when I am pushing myself day after day without taking a long rest. Though, once I do take a rest day, all of those signals are sent through and I really feel like I just finished an ultra-marathon. Rest days are for rest, eating, stretching, and drinking beer, so that’s what I did. Two days was plenty. My legs still felt sore but rebuilt and my bum recovered from the torturous bike saddle.

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Day 9: Las Vegas – Kelso, CA   92 miles

Feeling strong again, I left early from Henderson, covering miles quick. The route from Henderson was easy: I took Amargosa Trail to Santa Rosa Pkwy which intersected Las Vegas South Blvd paralleling the US-15. About 11 miles from the California/Nevada border, the road ended and I was forced to ride on gravel and loose rock alongside the highway. I stopped at Primm a mile from the border for food and water knowing that it was my last stop until Kelso, CA. From Primm, google maps directed me down an interesting route to avoid the US-15: from the southwest corner of the large Casino village, there is a sandy road that follows the border and then cuts into California dumping into the Ivanpah dry lake bed. I pushed my bike down this sandy road and then pedaled across the dry lake bed for 7 miles to its very end, then pushed my bike another mile down a sandy road to Ivanpah Rd which enters the Mojave National Preserve. The Mojave National Preserve is a magical diverse desert landscape. Turning on Morning Star Mine Rd towards Cima, the road climbs 1,500 feet over 16 miles that became crushing on my already pumped legs. The reward for completing the uphill battle was a 20 mile downhill stretch to Kelso. This is where my bike tour ended. After stopping in Kelso for water, my bike tire blew and I noticed my rear bike rack was broken. I had no way of carrying my gear without fixing my bike rack. The closest bike shop was in Barstow, CA. Because of its close proximity to home (90 miles), I decided to just hitch a ride the entire way home. I stood just outside of the Kelso Depot visitor center with my thumb up for about 30 minutes or so until I caught a ride. 39 year old Alex picked me up in his Volkswagen Westfalia. He was driving down to Oceanside the next day, and said he could get me within an hour of home. That evening we explored the preserve climbing around the Kelso sand dunes and camped in the Granite mountain area. I developed a kind of attachment to the Mojave National Preserve. Its diverse desert landscapes and forests of Joshua Trees strike your imagination and your curiosity runs wild around every canyon bend. It’s a wonder that a beautiful park stays so quiet while within the reaches of Los Angeles. That next morning Alex drove me to Beaumont, CA where my favorite Aunt Michelle picked me up.

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LV to Kelso

 

Ending Note

This was my very first bike tour. Even though I didn’t make it all the way on my intended route, I consider it a success. On this journey, I was followed by a wind of emotions assembled in a certain combination that animated the space around me. These new emotionally driven perceptions gave me a unique perspective on my presence in the surrounding country. I was alone in the desert, way out there, vulnerable to its elements. Existing in these places, self supported and with the means to move through only using the energy produced by your body is accomplishing at a whole new level.

Justin Bowen

Justin Bowen

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