The Sandbox - Two Owens Valley RidesRiding a bicycle in the dirt anywhere in Inyo County is an arduous task. I am so taken by the landscape of the Eastern Sierra that when I was cruelly sandbagged into exploring the Coyote Flat Road, my sense of aesthetics and pension for self-torture ganged up on my logic and worked him over good...
A warm-up ride on familiar ground would help me to acclimatize, so on my way north on US-395, I made a detour and drove up the Taboose Creek Road, midway between the towns of Independence and Big Pine. A few miles later, I reached the junction where a spur road leads southwest to the Goodale Creek trailhead. I made a left and followed this road to the first creek crossing, where I found a nice campsite. There were willows and alders choking the creekbed, some changing color in a subtle display of yellow and gold. Away from this riparian serpent rolling down the plain was the desert, muted but nonetheless colorful.
I unloaded the bike, stretched, and took off...only to have to cross the creek a few seconds later. Back in the saddle, I cruised up through the desert toward the Sierra crest, visible some 9,000 feet above me. As I rode upward through small hollows and gulleys, the landscape slowly changed from white granite sand and gravel to red and black volcanic sand and gravel. Immediately south of me was a group of cinder cones which, geologically speaking, are brand-spankin' new. Many of the cinder cones and volcanic vents in the Owens Valley are as young as 800 years...something to think about if you're a Mammoth regular.
The road followed the edge of a lava flow, then cut above the flow to the west. Then, detouring further west around yet another cone, I at last came to my destination for the day, Goodale Creek. As I passed the final cinder cone, I noticed that the red and black pummice had covered the white granite sand as neatly as if I had poured a pile of bacon bits on a white tablecloth. It looked like the pummice could have been dumped there yesterday.
After a short break by Goodale Creek watching the sunset and the growing shadows, I turned around and began a much-anticipated downhill. The double-track of the jeep road was fairly packed, but had its sandy stretches. For the most part, the going was rather quick, and the glowing backdrop of the Inyo Mountains lit by fading sunlight was inspirational.
After a wonderful dinner of ravioli soup, sourdough bread and swiss cheese, followed by half a pound of fresh oatmeal rasin cookies for desert, I was ready to sleep like a rock in preparation for tomorrow's adventure.
I awoke early, but couldn't resist the urge to soak up the sun and have my morning coffee. With a later-than-hoped-for start, I drove to Bishop, where the real thrash began.
The Coyote Flat Road starts just southwest of town on a broad desert plain composed of several alluvial fans below several deep canyons. I had hoped to chop about 800 vertical feet and a few miles of this desert riding by taking a short-cut I 'found' on a topo map. Before I left home, I imprinted the route on my mind, and conveniently left the map behind. The map was inaccurate enough, but what I remembered of it was even worse.
I parked along Highway CA-168 at 4800 feet elevation, at a historical marker on the location of the Battle of Bishop, in which white settlers and army fought the Piute and Shoshone indians. Again, the first obstacle of the ride was crossing a creek. I looped northward along the edge of the creek for some distance, but couldn't find a crossing. I backtracked to an Edison power plant and found a way across just below the dam for the small reservoir.
I found the powerline road on the other side, and, after taking a wrong turn, began my trek across the plain. About 0.75 mile later, I crossed a well-travelled but sandy road headed roughly in the right direction, but from what I remember of the map I shouldn't be there yet...
I continued along the powerline road, riding southeast. Suddenly I saw a paved road ahead, leading up into a large canyon. Surely this must be it! And, miracle of miracles, it's paved!
The ride up this paved road was steep but easy. I reached the mouth of the canyon, and there, posted on fenceposts, were some "No Trespassing" signs. This was clearly the wrong way. Then I saw the street sign (an incongruous sight in the middle of the desert) which read "Chipmonk Canyon." But relief was in sight. A local resident was driving down the road, and I asked him for directions. He confirmed my error...UGH!! I had gone too far.
Returning to the powerline road, I made a quick detour up a sandy gulch and rested in the shade of a large boulder. The short stretch back to the Coyote Flat Road went quickly. I made a left and began climbing up a long alluvial fan, in times riding through deep sand. The surface below the sand was firm enough that I was convinced the road would improve. I climbed up the entire canyon before the surface finally improved.
The road bent back to the north and began a set of switchbacks. The surface had improved, but the grade had increased harshly. Here, I was passed by a group of fishermen descending in a large truck. We exchanged 'howdy's and the driver said "Boy, it gets pretty steep up there!!" As I climbed the switchbacks, the grade got worse and worse. Toward the end, the road crossed a gulley between the granite sand of the mountainside and a large cinder cone sticking out into the valley. The riding became rough and even steeper. To my surprise, the last 100 feet of this climb was paved!
I had gained the top of the huge cinder cone, at an elevation of 6500 feet. The whole town lay before me, lush and forested, with canals and creeks snaking their way through the loose network of small streets. Around the town was the highest open plain of the Owens Valley. Above that, the Volcanic Table Lands rose abruptly in one long rampart above the Owens River. The river cut a deep gorge right through the Table Lands, dropping from the forested highlands below Rock Creek. To the northeast, a vast, empty valley opened up between the White Mountains and an intermediate range due north of Bishop. And, ever-present to the north and west, was the splendor of the Sierra crest.
The road beckoned, so I cut short my rest and resumed the ride. The grade was not so bad here as the road headed southwest again. Passing into a pinyon pine forest, the road roughly followed the border between volcanic and granitic rock.
The grade once again took a savage turn upward. There were no more switchbacks. The road seemed to leap upward from shoulder to shoulder on the ridges of the mountain. I would climb very steeply for 100 or 200 feet, then make a sharp turn, climb steeply for 50 more feet, then level off for a few seconds, only to repeat the climb-and-turn sequence again and again...
The altitude was taking a toll on my stamina. I could no longer ride continuously. I had to stop and dismount after every steep stretch. I began to tick off the distance in 100-foot 'steps' - climb 100 feet, rest, climb 100 feet, rest. At this point I adopted a mantra, both a derogatory and imperative statement: "Suck wind, flatlander!!"
At about 7600 feet, I passed a nice little campsite on a prominent shoulder of the mountain. Then I descended steeply, loosing about 200 feet of hard-won elevation. This frustrated me. I doggedly kept at my task, though, and regained that 200 feet. I passed another notch in a ridge, only to descend again. I was tempted at this point to just give up and have lunch. This spot, after all, had a magnificent view and was nice and warm in the afternoon sun. But my subconscious mind had set a goal...keep riding til 5:00 PM!!!
Just past the 7800 foot level, I entered a pretty little valley beneath impressive rock formations. A descending fisherman and his grandson passed and as we talked, he mentioned that he had met a guy in Alaska who was beginning a long bike tour - THE long bike tour - from Alaska to Patagonia. YIKES!! As we said goodbye, he said that "Oh...by the way, the steepest part is just ahead..."
Well, I was so thrashed that I walked most of that stretch and finally reached a fine viewpoint atop a rocky ridge. It was 4:53 PM. Time to stop.
I ditched my bike in the manzanita and climbed up an outcrop of rock, at an elevation of 8600 feet. The view was even broader and more magnificent than before, with afternoon shadows giving more definition and detail to the desert far, far below. To the southwest, I could see Ford Flat, through which the road passes on its continuing climb toward Coyote Flat. The slopes above this point became heavily forested with lodgepole pines.
I was frustrated at being out of time, but my frustration was tempered by fatigue. Even if I had had the time, I certainly didn't have enough energy left. I just sat there, watching the shadows race across the valley floor, eating my lunch, listening to subtle sounds like wind and birds and critters in an otherwise silent landscape.
All too soon I was compelled to pack up and descend. The shadow of the Sierra crest had reached the Owens River Gorge. It was 5:30 PM, and I had almost 4000 feet of extremely rough descent ahead.
The descent was a matter of survival. My instincts took control, and the things that mattered most were keeping the bike upright and rolling. I have great faith in my bike's ability to handle abuse within a certain envelope. That envelope was being stretched to the tearing point. My biggest fear was that the rims would heat up so much that I would blow a tire. If that happened, the brakes would not work and I would become a BASE jumper without a 'chute.
I stopped frequently on the way down to shake out my arms. They had become so pumped from hanging on to the brakes they were nearly cramping. Each time I stopped I noticed that the shadows on the desert floor were MUCH closer to the White Mountains. I was running out of time. Even when I had finished the descent, I still had to putt around the desert to get back to the highway.
I reached the desert plain below the canyon, and the last rays of daylight were painting the White Mountains red. I hustled across the desert, following the powerline road I had used earlier. By the time I reached the Edison power plant, it was still somewhat light, so I detoured downhill toward town on a road following the creek. This final descent was a nice unwind. I crossed the creek and regained the highway by dark. A few minutes of riding brought me back to my truck, where I collapsed and began to eat and drink like nobody's business...