Cycling Canyon Country (USA)
This cycle trip was just a small part of my walk, cycle and kayak across and all over the USA. I had already paddled over 4000kms, backpacked 800kms and cycled several thousand kilometres before arriving at Flagstaff.
Wednesday 9th September
I was now in Flagstaff and on my way to the Grand Canyon which was about 60 miles from Flagstaff, so it would take me most of the day to get there. I started my climb on the outskirts of the town and very soon I was passing Humphreys Peak which was 12,663 feet high. Another mountain on my right was apparently used in a Jack Daniels TV ad, but I can’t say I had seen it. There was also a solitary mountain range that rose up from what seemed a fairly flat but high plain and it looked lonely. The road climbed to 8500 feet and cut a corridor through a beautiful white aspen forest. Up at this altitude the air was thinner and exercise harder to cope with, but for the last two weeks I had climbed and descended many 8000 foot hills, so I was feeling quite good. My ride was an excellent way to get fitter and it would help me to cope with the higher altitudes that were still ahead of me on my walk, where I would be climbing to 12,000 feet.
The forest started to thin out allowing me to see deer roam the plains. Very soon the trees showed signs of shedding their leaves and the countryside became open, barren and desert like, and what a transformation it was. Before Tusayan, a small town 6 miles from the canyon rim the rain came down in bucket loads and cars sped by leaving me to deal with all the spray that they created. Vehicle lights were switched on, which is compulsory in some states as soon as it rains.
The vertical rain and horizontal spray dampened my entry into the Grand Canyon National Park. I was cold and being at 7000 feet high didn’t help matters, but just as I arrived at the first canyon lookout the rain stopped and the sun, which was setting, created a magnificent sharp view of the canyon. I wheeled my bike over to the wall and looked across the great ravine. A few clouds hovered above the canyon and twin rainbows displayed the most awesome view ever imaginable. Further along, where showers had developed, rainbows were now scattered throughout the huge canyon. The storm had left the air with a definite crispness and the fresh fragrance from the vegetation had me inhaling beautiful fresh, clean air. Inhaling deeply felt as if I was servicing my lungs. Oh what a feeling. Having spent the last 5 thousand miles cycling virtually through wilderness, my lungs in theory should be at their best ever.
At the Grand Canyon.
The view was exceptional, in fact extremely stunning. Seeing it lifted my spirits so high, I felt like jumping from the cliff top and gliding down into the big ravine.
The Grand Canyon gorge, which was carved by the Colorado River is 227 miles (446 km) long, and 4 to 18 miles wide (6 to 29km) and attains a depth of over a mile (1.83 km). The Grand Canyon has not only been eroded by water, but also by the wind, rain and snow. The canyon rock, cliffs and slopes changed colours at different times of the day and in different weather conditions, so how I saw it two weeks ago was very different from today, which was much more spectacular.
By looking down it was hard to imagine how wide and deep the canyon was. I had to focus, not on the whole incredible scene, but parts of it. I looked at the first mile, studied it, looked at the next, studied that and then when my mind could actually grasp the enormity of the canyon, I took in the whole view. The canyon was full of red and browns with tinges of white layers interspersed throughout. Shadows were formed as the sun dipped in the sky. The sun’s dying rays lit up parts of the gorge like a fire, leaving islands of deep red, and steep-walled rock castles. The immense size and grandeur created a realisation that was very hard to sink in. In a way the canyon was baron, hostile and forbidding, yet on the other hand it was so majestic and beautiful.
The realisation of walking amongst the shaly cliffs and deep ravines in a hot torturing sun was almost frightening, but to get lost or break a limb in a remote location of the canyon would be simply terrifying. Tomorrow I was going to walk to the bottom of the gorge and have one night in a bunk house at the bottom and another night camped.
The deep canyon represented over 2000 million years of geological activity, of eruptions and erosions which resulted in the scene before me. There were 12 successive layers of Grand Canyon rock, which made up a geological timetable. The colours and formation of the slope gave me a visual splendour, but with the trained eye what looked pretty and different to me, was a geological wonder to those who studied geology.
I eventually reached the park camp ground in the Grand Canyon village. A campsite was $12.00 with showers being 75 cents for 5 minutes. The street lighting around the village was almost non-existent, so if you walked there without a torch the chance of wandering off the footpath was very possible.
The shower block, which was a hive of activity, was surrounded by a big laundry area where you could wash and dry your clothes. As the rain and cold set in, I retreated to my tent to have tinned potatoes, cereal and a small carton of rice pudding for dinner.
Thursday 10th September
Another day of making dreams a reality had arrived but first I needed a permit to camp inside the Grand Canyon which I intended to walk down. There was a first there, first served policy and eleven people were already waiting at the office when I arrived, but I managed to get a permit for the Indian Garden campsite for the second night of my journey in the canyon. I had already booked a bunk at the Phantom Ranch for my first night, which was at the bottom of the gorge next to the Colorado River. The permit was $20.00 plus a $4.00 camping fee.
Once I had my permit I shopped for food at the village and then returned to camp to pack my rucksack for the two day walk. Unfortunately I needed nearly as much gear to camp for two days as I would for a week. Once packed, I rode my bike to the Bright Angel Hotel, where I waited for the bell man who was in charge of storage. For $5.00 they stored my bicycle and panniers in a cupboard and then I waited outside for a bus that was going to the South Kaibab Trail Head, where my walk would start.
At the trail head, mules were locked in a nearby yard. The mules were used to take tourists, who physically couldn’t manage the walk or were too lazy to walk, down the canyon to the Phantom Ranch and back.
Hikers were coming and going. As I started my descent I met several day walkers attempting short walks to different lookouts on the way down. The trail zigzagged down the canyon walls and I took it easy to take in the magnificent views. Two men and two women were working on the trail to make it more stable. It looked a tedious job, but very necessary. At the first lookout section there was a toilet and steel rails to tie up the mules. I caught up with a couple who started off just before me. They were already having knee problems. They were both divorced, but were getting remarried to one another. We stepped aside as a mule ascended with a couple on board and a pack mule, which was pretty loaded down was in tow. The uneven trail was surrounded by steep drops and if the mule tripped or slipped, the mule’s occupant could find themselves falling over an edge.
I then met two brothers who had just walked to the bottom and were now on their way back up. They looked shattered and they said they felt shattered. Close behind were two guys who had started at the top of the north rim. They had jogged down to the river and were now going to the top of the south rim. Once there, they had to run back down, and return to the north rim before dark. That was going to be a solid day’s jog. Only an extreme athlete would take on such a task.
The River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Views continued to be excellent. Rafters, a little like dots on the river were getting out of the water. The two runners had been to the top of the south rim and passed me again on their way back down to the river, but rested 500m below me on a cliff edge. I caught them up. Their faces said it all. They now knew that they wouldn’t get back up to the north rim before dark. I left them to rest. A tunnel through a cliff led to a suspension bridge, which allowed walkers to cross the river. Here the gorge was steep, the water was muddy and two rafts were paddling upstream along the canyon walls to get into an eddy where they could rest.
Cactus grew next to the path that led alongside some old buildings, and to some mule holding pens. It was a different world down here. The plants were ones that you would expect to find in a desert. As the track turned, it followed Bright Angel Creek where small campsites were dotted along the west side of it. There were several people outside the Phantom Ranch lodge when I arrived. Inside I was given a bunk in the number 12 dorm. The demountable dorm was air conditioned with a toilet and shower inside. Just about everybody in my dorm were limping. These were tourists, not real hikers, and they didn’t usually attempt such long and difficult walks.
Most of the walkers paid for the evening meal at the cost of over $20.00. I, like a few others, chose to cook my own, which with hindsight was a bit silly. A change from noodles would have been good. There were benches outside overlooking the creek which were ideally placed for me to enjoy my noodles and take in the peace of the late afternoon, whilst talking to other walkers.
Friday 11th September
My roommates had gone by 6.30am. For me it was 8.05am by the time I moved out. It was raining lightly. Rafters, mainly from Kentucky, floated down the river as I reached it. I looked on. At that point, the water was swift, but there were no major rapids of any difficulty that I could see. The trail continued across a footbridge and over to the south side of the river. As I weaved along the cliff edge other day walkers, who had spent the night at the ranch and only carried light day packs, started passing me. As the trail left the river it climbed steeply and the rain set in.
The suspension bridge over the river.
I caught up with four walkers who had rafted from Lees Ferry, probably over 100 miles upstream, and were dropped off at the river to be replaced by four other people who walked down from the village. They told me they had a vacancy, so if I walked back down to the river with my credit card ready, the rafting company would certainly take me on a rafting journey down the rapids through the Grand Canyon. It was a nice thought, and it would have been great, but it cost several thousand dollars and I didn’t like the thought of walking back down again to find out that they had already left. I decided to keep walking upwards.
I was one of the first campers to arrive at the Indian Gardens camp ground, so I had first choice of camp sites. I chose a site on a hill that overlooked the rest of the camp and had great views up and down the gorge. The sites had shelters which were very useful on a wet day like this. I was able to keep dry whilst writing postcards and my diary. There were stables located nearby that housed the mules when people using them camped.
When the weather cleared and before walking out to Plateau Point, I talked to an Australian couple who worked in Texas. The views at Plateau Point were stunning, the rain had gone and only a little cloud was left suspended around the peaks. It was exceptionally quiet, the air was fresh after the rain and it was one of those views, one of those experiences that captured the stunning wilderness at its very best. I sat on a rock ledge, and just looked out at the wonderful vista and reflected. It was so peaceful and perfect that I’m sure it touched my soul, I could have cried as I felt such a sense of completeness. It was a place where I could have sat forever.
Back at the camp I met two Aussie girls who had worked on a summer camp and were now driving and transferring someone’s car across the country to L.A. In the U.S. transferring cars from one side of the country to the other is a business. People are given a time limit to transfer it, but they have to pay for the fuel. Other than that, the ride is free.
At dark the lights of buildings on the north and south rims twinkled. Just a reminder that civilisation was above the canyon rim and not that far away. As a spectacular electrical storm worked its way across the canyon, I decided to camp under the shelter and up on the table, instead of putting my tent up. It was breezy, but I was cosy in my sleeping bag.
Saturday 12th September
I woke up in the night to see the moon rise above the canyon rim and bring light to the camp ground. I watched it rise for a few minutes. It was stunning, but I soon fell back to sleep. At daybreak I was up and gone before most hikers and I met no one for at least an hour, then day walkers started descending as I came closer to the top. Most hikers carried little, and some were without water bottles. Mules, carrying tourists soon cleared the trail as they descended. No hiker wanted to get run over by a mule. Mules were incredibly reliable and sure-footed, which is why they were used. The mules weren’t fazed by the narrow uneven trail and long vertical drops beside them. This however didn’t apply to some of the tourists that rode them. Apparently there had been no fatal accidents involving mules. Phantom Ranch relied on the mules to deliver food and any other stores that they needed. If mules couldn’t be used to deliver stores, prices would most likely rise considerably.
There was a sign on the trail telling tourists not to pee near the track because of the health risk, which was quite laughable as the mules created so much mess and pissed and pooed everywhere, especially near the top of the trail where they started to descend. Breakfast has to go somewhere! The trail was sloppy and smelly and the mule dung and pee was hard to avoid. I could just imagine tourists getting it on their shoes and then walking into the hotel. The hotel probably didn’t care because most of its clientele would more than likely be using and paying for mules to take them into the canyon.
It took me 2 ½ hours to weave myself back to the canyon rim where I retrieved my bike from the hotel, threw my pack on my back and cycled off towards the Laundromat. I unpacked all my walking and cycling gear and sorted it outside the laundry block, placing it in different piles. All of my clothes needed washing, especially the ones that I was going to send to Yosemite National Park. While my laundry was drying, I had a shower, sorted out which gear needed to be posted, and did a little shopping.
After sending my walking gear to Yosemite National Park, I was back on the road cycling east along the south rim. Although I had spent about 6 days altogether around the Grand Canyon I still couldn’t stop myself from looking at the canyon at every overlook on my route. Each afternoon, right on cue, severe thunderstorms struck. After passing one overlook I came across a couple on a Harley Davidson motorbike sheltering under a tree. They shouted, “There’s plenty of room under here.” I cycled over to them, got talking and made friends. The tree was doing little to stop the rain though, as it dripped between the leaves, but being under the canopy felt like shelter. Debbie and Ritchie had been following route 66, one of the most important highways in America. They were very friendly, and both smoked large cigars.
We eventually moved along in lighter rain. It was still hilly and I checked out every lookout, finding different rainbows and stunning views at every one. The rain haze also created interesting shadows along the canyon.
I soon arrived at Desert View camping ground and found a site. After claiming my piece of turf I walked over to the canyon rim. The sun was just setting, creating such an incredible scene. It was a fitting and spectacular scene to bid me farewell, as it would be the last time I would be seeing the canyon. I like many others stood there, mouth wide open and awe-struck.
Below me there was a railing along the cliff in a shape of a ‘V’, which protected tourists from falling off the cliff to their death. Out of the blue a guy ran up to it, jumped onto the rail where it formed a V, stretched his arms high in the air and pretended to be the guy in the film Titanic, where he leapt up onto the bow of the ship. His partner was on a higher lookout watching him make a fool of himself. I actually thought it was quite funny.
Sunday 13th September
It was here at Desert View that the Colorado River turned and headed north towards Marble Canyon. With the road running east this meant I wouldn’t be able to follow it any more. I felt quite sad, it had made such an impression on me and now I had to leave one of the great wonders of the world and head east towards the small desert town of Cameron.
After 15 miles the cliffs of the Little Colorado River came into view. From a distance it was another stunning sight, not of the magnitude of the Grand Canyon, but a smaller marvel in its own right. The sheer size of the Grand Canyon was mind blowing, this canyon was believable. It compared with many other great gorges around the world.
There was no better way of approaching the Little Colorado Canyon for the first time, other than by cycle. A high point on the road gave me sweeping views of the canyon area. I could stop and look. I could freewheel a little further and stop again. I could go slowly, or fast, whatever I did I could feel the breeze and the heat. My body was trembling with excitement as I descended. It is hard to describe the feeling, but I was so happy and impressed with the wonderful spectacle before me.
I reached the gravel road that led to the gorge and dismounted. It was a short walk so I pushed my bike to the top of the canyon walls to view the gorge. The canyon at this point was impressive. Yet it became more impressive as it carved deeper and deeper into the Colorado plateau downstream. It would get wider and deeper and by the time it merges with the Colorado River, the Little Colorado River Gorge is a massive spectacle itself. After 315 miles (507kms) from its beginning the Little Colorado River merges deep inside the Grand Canyon, miles from any major settlement.
The Little Colorado River Gorge.
Leaving the canyon behind, I entered the Navajo Indian Reservation. There were stalls along the road selling jewellery and other knick-knacks. There were large signs beside them saying “Visit Chief Little. He likes you.” He might do, but I passed him by.
At Cameron I visited the supermarket, had lunch and talked to three English guys who had rented Harley Davidson motor bikes. They were from London. They said that one American woman who they had talked to, didn’t know where London was and most Americans thought they were Australians.
Since leaving the Little Colorado River the landscape had become a little barren, but as I approached the Echo Cliffs, beauty returned. I had already had one dose of beauty today and although it wasn’t quite as stunning, the sun shining onto Echo Cliffs enhanced their grandeur. A car drove by and blew its horn, then turned around and passed me again. A couple stopped. A guy stepped out of the car and met me with a ‘V’ sign hand signal. The women, dressed in hippy clothes greeted me. “Hey man, how are things?” They were from the era of flower power and they still hadn’t escaped from that era. Their language was weird man! Surely people don’t still talk like that. Two mangy dogs jumped out of the car. They were suited to their owners very well and looked as rough. The couple took a large water melon and smashed it on the ground. It cracked into several pieces and they handed some over to me. They said they had been rafting guides at Erwin on the Nolichucky River and were going home to Salt Lake City. They planned to sell the car as they reckoned they don’t require one; they’d learnt to live without it. When most of the melon had been eaten it was left on the verge to disintegrate. What a weird couple, I thought. Nevertheless, they were one of only three cars that had ever stopped to see how I was going since starting my journey. We said our goodbyes.
The road ran close to the mountain. Many cars were returning from Lake Powell towing speed-boats. Every few miles a white cross would appear indicating a site of a road tragedy. It was sad and there were so many. At times there were as many as eight in a group lining the highway. It was a reminder of all the fatal accidents that had happened along this section. Some people called it ‘Death Highway’. The majority of the victims were Navajo Indians. The highway itself was pretty straight and there was no obvious reason why accidents would occur, apart from drink or falling asleep at the wheel. On the new sections of the road they had made deep indentations on the shoulder, a rumble strip to wake people up. They might help the sleepy, but they were annoying to cycle on.
At the small Navajo community called, The Gap, I was going to ring Elaine from the telephone, but it had been ripped out of the phone box. Many of the Navajo people now lived in portable homes that were scattered throughout this country. However, there were still some Navajo Indians living in traditional conical houses called hogans and they were more interesting to look at, although their houses weren’t very big.
Just after the cliffs had turned red with the setting sun, the passing cars had their lights on. I found a lay-by with a deserted Navajo gift stall on it. I waited till dark and made camp in a field 20 metres behind it. The country was sparse, there was little vegetation over a metre high so I had nothing to hide behind. Being exposed to the traffic was always a concern. There were too many yahoos around to ever feel completely safe. My saviour was darkness and a straight road. So as long as the car light didn’t shine on me, I was hidden from prying eyes.
The ground was full of prickles that pierced through my ground sheet. I was concerned about getting my self-inflating mattress punctured so I decided to use my clothes underneath it to prevent it being holed. In the night I awoke to the noise of a beetle that burrowed under the tent making one hell of a racket. I thought it was a mouse, but after doing an exhaustive search, I found the culprit and sent it packing.
I was camped in the heart of Navajo Country which extends into the states of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, covering over 27,000 square miles of unparalleled beauty. Unknown to many, the Navajo language was used to create a secret code to battle the Japanese in the Second World War. Navajo men were selected to create codes and serve on the front line to overcome and deceive the enemy. Today, these men are recognized as the famous Navajo Code Talkers, who demonstrated the unequalled bravery and patriotism of the Navajo people. It was in May 1942, when the first 29 Navajo recruits attended camp. At Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, California, this first group created the Navajo code. They developed a dictionary and numerous words for military terms. The dictionary and all code words had to be memorized during training. Navajos could encode, transmit, and decode a three-line English message in 20 seconds. Machines of the time required 30 minutes to perform the same job. Approximately 400 Navajos were trained as code talkers.
Monday 14th September
I skipped breakfast to have an earlier start. It was a clear cool morning and parents at Bitter Springs were waiting on the roadside with their children to put them on the school bus. The road at this point started to climb and cut through Echo Cliffs. I soon sweated in the cool morning as I tackled the hill. I was bursting to go to the toilet but the road was steep, there was nothing around to lean my bike against and no place to hide from the cars. With all the panniers on the bike it was never a good idea to drop the bike on its side, so I always had to find a post, a wall or tree to lean it against. The views were picturesque, but I was now desperate for a toilet stop so I really couldn’t enjoy them. Relief came when a lay-by appeared and it had a portable toilet for some reason. It wasn’t as hygienic as doing it in the bush, but at that time I just didn’t care, I just needed to go. I felt so much better after my sit. I celebrated my relief by eating a honey bun.
Navajo women were setting up a jewellery stall at one overlook. I kept cycling but stopped soon after and looked west where there were great views of the Vermilion Cliffs and Marble Canyon on the Colorado River. The road continued to climb to a point where the road had been blasted through the mountain, leaving vertical sides and rock falls. Once through the gap the road climbed to a height of 6000 feet and beyond. It was a different world once through the gap in the mountain, there was so much more plant and tree life on the east side of it. Looking back at the range and the gap from where I had come was so picturesque.
There were a few Indian camps along the way set back a few hundred metres from the road. A few kilometres from Page, the town and a power station with smoke stacks came into view. I stopped as I rounded a bend on a downhill run. To the west there were interesting hills, rock formations and brilliant views of the Colorado River canyon winding itself across the barren landscape. I climbed a cliff nearby and captured wider panoramic views which included the town of Page and Lake Powell. The place was so pretty apart from the power station east of Page, which somewhat ruined the visual aspect of this unique landscape. The country was so open, so vast, so incredibly weathered and so stunning, then to see tall smoke stacks, spewing smoke into the atmosphere was so at odds with the otherwise delightful scene. Small lizards darted between the rocks as I descended back down the cliff to my bike.
It was all downhill to Page, but unfortunately when I got to the bottom of the hill, the Page township was actually on a hill, so sweat rolled down my face and neck as I climbed back up to the town centre. I rounded a bend and about eight churches lined the outside of it. A little further there was a very green oval and the lake in the background. I was taking a liking to the town already. The town was compact, clean and inviting. It was a government town used long ago as a base for workers building the dam. The land that the town was built on is leased from the Navajo people.
At a wilderness outdoor store I booked a river trip to go through the Glen Canyon Gorge, on the Colorado River on a large raft. It was going to be my only chance of seeing the Canyon and be on the Colorado River at a reasonable price. At 1.20pm, after visiting the shire information centre, and Taco Bell for a feed, I left my bike at the outdoor store and boarded a big bus with many other tourists. Pat, our driver drove us down to the base of the dam through a 2 mile tunnel that ran through the mountain. There were huge holes in the side of the tunnel at times, so any rock falls in the tunnel could be tipped through the holes and down the mountain side.
We stopped directly under the bridge spanning the river. Helmets were issued for the walk down to the raft. I was first to reach the gangplank and get into the rubber and steel rafts. Paul, our pilot, who was on his last trip after working there as a guide for 4 years, motored us out into the middle of the river. From there the dam wall and the bridge towered over us. The Glen Canyon Dam held back water from the Colorado River and tributaries for up to 200 miles (320 kilometres) upstream thus forming Lake Powell. The lake, the second largest man-made lake in the US, is 1 million acres (405,000 hectares) and is surrounded by some of the most remarkable desert and canyon country in the world, although much of it has now been inundated by the water. It is still one of the most controversial engineering projects in the US. It was completed in 1963 and it took until 1980 for it to fill completely with water.
The water in the river was crystal clear with a temperature of 42°f. Three large rafts were on the water, all just over half full. The gorge walls towered over us. There were man made anchors in the steep rock to stop the rock from peeling away, which it had in places despite the bolts. There were a couple of Snowy egrets on the rocks beside the river and Paul said it was the first he had seen this season. He also said that there are usually some introduced vultures around, but he hadn’t seen them since the bad weather. Apparently they were quite tame. A little further downstream there was a small fishing boat and three fishermen stood in the water.
We motored a little and then Paul cut the engines and glided. I was used to paddling but nevertheless I was happy be to be on the raft and glide or motor, it was the only opportunity I would get to see this section of the river. About 1 kilometre downstream, water was pouring from a crack in the rock, which was supposed to be seeping from the dam. No one was brave enough to have a shower under it, despite the hot weather.
The rafts stopped at a famous rock carving site. We all disembarked and followed the raft guide along the base of the cliff. Other raft guides were cleaning out the toilets. River guides don’t quite have the perfect job, as they have to do dirty ones as well. The heat was unbearable beside the wall. There was no breeze. Most of the carvings on the wall were of antelope or goats and many were very low to the ground indicating that the sand must have built up over the years.
It was much cooler in the boat. We came to a horseshoe bend which gets photographed by thousands of tourists from the top of the cliff near Page. The cliff walls rise vertically 1000 feet and it was an amazing view. We continued around the U turn and moved along the cliffs which peaked at 1600 feet. There were several picnic and camp spots along the way, although we didn’t stop. The guide told us that John Travolta had made one of his films in the canyon, but I don’t know which one. We passed a rock arch that was supposed to be 35 foot wide and 100 foot long, but it didn’t look quite as big as that from our position on the river.
Paul filled us in with snippets of information as we drifted. The Navajo Indians rejected the chance of building casinos on their land in these parts and have missed out on thousands, if not millions of dollars in income. They were herdsman and they wanted to stay that way. The Navajo still have tribal wars and apparently most tribes dislike or distrust each other. The Navajo Indian Reservation is a country of its own. They pay no taxes, and a large percentage of the population still don’t want electricity. Although the young want all the mod-cons, the elders want to keep the traditional ways so there is a little conflict between family members. He also said that the jewellery that is sold on the side of the road, which I have been seeing, is not as good a quality as in the shops. He also said that 70% of the children that go to school in Page are Navajo.
The water was that clear we could see trout. Apparently all the native species of fish have died after the dam was built because of the cold water that comes from the bottom of the dam, but the trout flourish. The ride down the river had been spectacular and I would have loved to have done it in a canoe, but I was more than satisfied with the ride I had. I now had some inkling of what a small part of the Grand Canyon without the rapids would look like from a raft, although the Grand Canyon would be on a much bigger scale.
As we approached Lee’s Ferry the gorge opened up and the cliffs reduced dramatically in height, allowing a sand dune to form on the side of a hill. It was one of the very few places where it was possible to get down to the river and in the old days it was a ferry crossing. However over the years many people have drowned attempting to cross. Now, there is a high bridge that crosses the river a little downstream.
The village of Lee’s Ferry is named after John D. Lee, a Mormon settler who established a ferry there in 1871. Lee was eventually forced to leave the ferry site to evade the law enforcement for his part in the massacre of 120 emigrants near St. George, Utah, at a place called Mountain Meadows (for which he was later executed). The ferry provided the only crossing of the river for nearly 60 years until a bridge was built a few miles downstream, where the present day route 89 crosses now. A wider replacement bridge was completed in 1995 and together with the highway past Glen Canyon Dam this is one of only two bridges across the Colorado for many hundreds of miles.
It was also at Lee’s Ferry that rafters, who are given permission to tackle the Grand Canyon, start their journey. When leaving this point they would first paddle by the impressive vertical cliffs of Marble Canyon, which were only a few miles downstream. Marble Canyon is so named because of the very colourful rocks.
There were several rafts already positioned on the bitumen boat ramp being filled with stores and lots of beer when we arrived. My heart yearned to have a go, but a long waiting list and over $200 a day, prevented me from doing a trip of a lifetime. We returned to Page by coach getting another commentary on the way back. I peered through the window trying to capture every little bit of scenery. It was just after 6.30pm, and nearly dark when we arrived back in Page. I bought a card and wrote a good luck message on it and addressed it to Paul, our guide.
Going over the Colorado River.
I cycled to International Hostel and was greeted by an Englishman. There was a Japanese guy and an Australian from Adelaide who had just finished a summer camp and loved it. At dinner I talked to a Swiss, Dutch and German, who were having vegetables and fish fingers whilst I ate pasta and rice pudding. I drank two beers with three Englishmen from Birmingham.
Tuesday 15th Sept
I slept well and dreamt well and woke up to what was going to be a relaxing day. I had a leisurely breakfast at a table with chairs at the hostel and then cycled off to do some sightseeing, just out of town. My first stop was at Horseshoe Bend, a hot 3-mile ride to get there. I locked my bike and walked about half a mile to the gorge. Only the day before, I was at the bottom of the gorge in a raft. The scene was incredibly stunning. I stood aloft the cliffs chasing different vantage points to take in the superior views. The U shape gorge was a little too wide for me to get it all into my camera frame as I needed to be in the air to do that.
Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River.
I had seen a large amount of beautiful photos of Antelope Canyon, so I couldn’t leave the area without seeing it. I cycled several kilometres further and stopped at a car park not far from the canyon. The canyon was on traditional Indian land and for $15.00 people were shuttled into the canyon on the back of small trucks. The drive was along a dry river bed, which halted at the end, where the gorge cut through sandstone rock. There was a narrow slot in the high cliffs that widened and narrowed, and spiralled vertically allowing light to seep through at times. The colour of the sandstone changed as the light penetrated at different angles. The weather and water had created the spiralling sandstone funnels and it was fascinating. Sixteen people had been killed here in flash floods and the power of water was so strong at times that it had moved large boulders. Although impressive I didn’t find it to be as spectacular as all the stunning photographs I had looked at.
I sat in the shade writing postcards and waited for the next truck to take me out. Once out of the park I cycled back to the hostel, had a shower and started packing. I moved away about 1.50pm and returned to the outdoor store and bought three more hats and sent them back to Australia as presents. I did my shopping at Safeway and left town on a downhill run towards the bridge, the dam and information centre and a very impressive scene. As I moved around, finally finishing at the marina, every view was beautiful.
I found the campsite and booked in. It cost $13.00, but it had no showers. Soon after I cycled along the lake trying to stop and take in every viewpoint. The scenery was so special, the sun was illuminating the rock cliffs on the other side of the lake and they were just calling out to be photographed. Some people were swimming.
Lake Powell, is a reservoir on the Colorado River, straddling the border between Utah and Arizona, but apart from a section around Page, the rest of the lake is in Utah. Lake Powell was created by the flooding of Glen Canyon by the controversial Glen Canyon Dam, which also led to the creation of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a popular summer destination. The reservoir is named after explorer John Wesley Powell, a one-armed American Civil War veteran who explored the river in three wooden boats in 1869. In 1972, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area was established.
I had dinner at 5.30pm and sat at a table overlooking the hire boats in the marina and ate bagels with cream cheese. The cream cheese was a different brand to the one I usually bought and didn’t taste as good. I visited beaches on the side of the lake feeling extremely happy that I had come this way. Just before sunset I returned to the camp and erected my tent. I wrote for some time in candlelight under clear skies.
Wednesday, 16th September
There was a thunderstorm in the night and very strong winds and my tent vibrated at times. At one point I had to get out and peg down my vestibule before it took off. Other people were re-pegging as well and some of the more flimsy tents had collapsed. I’m sure the wind would have also played havoc for the people in boats on the lake.
I can’t remember the storm lasting too long, but I couldn’t get back to sleep. I was up at 6.45am and rang Jenny about 7.15am. She was a lot more cheerful and feeling a lot better this week. Her back wasn’t as bad either. A heavy black cloud was moving away leaving an opening for the sun to beat down. I packed everything away dry despite the rain. With the campsites being so far apart and specially made for RVs it was difficult to mingle with other campers, although most of the people seemed to be German and didn’t make any attempt to talk anyway. One German was running around in his underpants and showing off his private parts.
I left about 9.15am climbing a steep hill out of the park. I turned right onto the highway heading toward Big Water, my first small town in Utah, the Beehive State. Salt Lake City is the biggest city in Utah and the Capital. Big Water had cliffs on one side and odd shaped cliffs on the other. The first store had closed down, but I found another and bought an ice cream and a cake. As I climbed further uphill it wasn’t quite as scenic.
I reached Paria cliffs and cycled down towards the river inside a gorge. As I climbed out there were hills and cliffs with several layers of different coloured rock. After climbing another set of hills and through a cutting the country opened up but there was still a long climb. On my right the Vermilion Cliffs were prominent. I heard the sound of a plane and as I turned to my right I could see a huge air force plane, which seemed to be flying along a path lower than the hills and barely off the ground. By the time I got my camera out it was a long way off. I was quite amazed at the sight and it made me assume that there was a secret air force base around the area.
I followed the Vermilion Cliffs, an amazingly colourful escarpment for nearly 30 miles getting excellent views before turning away from them and climbing steeply up to the forested Kaibab Plateau. On a downhill section into Kanab there were several motels. I stopped at a food store, bought more food and then ate lunch on a bench outside. I carried on through a canyon which was quite beautiful and up a long climb with wonderful scenery. I eventually reached the summit and found a good camp spot on the other side of the hill looking towards Rock Mountain. The sun was setting just as I was putting my tent fly on. There were clear skies with millions of stars and I just sat there insect free and taking it all in.
I had a great sleep although there was a slight chill, so I didn’t get out of bed until 7.30am and then I had a relaxed packing, shaded from the sun by a tree. I took photos. Once on the road on a downhill run I spotted two cyclists ahead so I pedalled faster to catch them up. They were two German guys heading to Bryce Canyon. When I arrived at Mount Carmel Junction a squad of several touring cyclists were having breakfast. There were few cars, but there were cycles everywhere.
After collecting iced water and cards at a service station I started climbing a hill out of town following a particularly lovely uphill route virtually all the way to Zion National Park. I passed a tourist area which had a lonely Buffalo in a corral looking very sad.
I arrived at a shop before Zion and rang Mike from Mountain Hardwear and asked if he would send me a four season tent for my walk on the John Muir Trail. He had said earlier that I could have whatever gear I needed. I also rang Yosemite National Parks office to find out about permits, but they told me that I wouldn’t have any problems getting a permit for the walk as it was a slack part of the season.
As I cycled into the Zion National Park the hills and mountains that were layered with different colours, were striking to see. Then before me, was a vastly different looking mountain with the appearance of the texture of an elephant’s skin and criss-crossed with deep lines. It too was stunning.
On the way to Zion National Park.
The day was perfect and I kept stopping to admire the beauty under a very sunny blue sky. Eventually I came to a tunnel where I had to wait for 30 minutes for a lift from the ranger as cycles were not allowed in the 2 mile tunnel. At the other end of the tunnel, after a Ranger Station I was able to freewheel down a winding hill looking at scenery that was too amazing and stunning to describe. I stopped, leaned my bike on a roadside rock wall that prevented cars from going over the edge of the cliffs and falling into the valley below. I looked on in amazement and took photographs. The scene was just magical. It was certainly one of the most impressive scenes that I have ever seen. Below the towering vertical jagged mountains, 6000 – 7000 feet high, that had a mixture of smooth shiny rock faces, crevices, buttresses and massive tumbling boulders, grew sparse vegetation and trees amongst the shaly slopes.
An overlook in the Zion National Park.
An overlook in Zion National Park. So much amazing scenery.
Huge arches were formed in the mountain sides where the weaker rock over thousands of years had given way. I could see the tops of bigger mountains behind, with white summits that looked more like the nipples of a woman’s breasts, rather than mountains. This was truly a remarkable scene.
I couldn’t feel anything but extremely happy as I freewheeled down into the valley with massive cliffs towering over me. The Virgin River which was sandwiched between two high mountain ranges was running peacefully along the valley floor. All around me were massive cliffs which shaded the valley and made it a lot cooler. I passed the lodge and cycled to the end of the road where I had lunch and then went on a short walk. There were lots of German tourists around. As I backtracked along the valley, I could see climbers scaling the vertical walls, some of which were so high the climbers looked like ants.
Zion National Park.
When the mountains spread a little I was out in the sunshine and soon at the information centre in Springdale where there were heaps of motor bikes. At the local bar I ordered a meal and talked to Trish who gave me a huge salad to go with my beer. I returned to the national park camp but it was full, so I went to a private camp which turned out to be a little more expensive at $16.50. Although it wasn’t as close to the mountains, at least it had showers. In the camp I was surrounded by Swiss and Germans tourists.
Friday, 18 September
It was a windy morning. This Swiss crowd was making noise at 7.00am. I had another shower to make sure I was clean and used up my token. There was a guy coughing and spitting in the toilet which was a bit off-putting just before breakfast. He was probably a smoker. The sun was shining on the north cliff face, which made it look even more stunning than it had before.
I posted postcards and bought ice from the service station and left Springdale. I had one last look at the mountains lining the valley and moved out passing a ranch with white fences and a mountain in the background. The scenery changed, and the further I moved from Zion National Park the less interesting the surrounding area became. Moving through Virgin, a storm had washed sand onto the road which made cycling a bit more difficult. As I crossed a river gorge between La Verkin and Hurrican, a bus with all the Swiss tourists on board passed me and shouted words of encouragement. Before the interstate to Washington, I turned off to find shops, fast-food places, service stations and was delighted to find a Burger King where I bought a burger and received one free! I talked to an English guy in the tourist office and he said he didn’t like Germans, as he thought they were arrogant.
I cycled out of town following the back roads, as I couldn’t cycle on the freeway. It was pretty hot, 36°C when I turned off to Santa Clara where the road deteriorated and looked as if all the Shire budget money had run out. While there I bought two 25¢ ice creams, bananas, apples and milk powder at a supermarket.
It was a slow headwind climb to the turn at Shivwits, but the climb was even steeper and wind stronger as I climbed the Beaver Dam Mountains. I thought I was on top, but it went on and on. When I finally got to the top the wind was so strong that it tried to push me back up the hill that I was riding down.
I found a long straight downhill section that was great for a few minutes as I could relax, but by the time I reached Littlefield, where the mountains to the south reached 8000 feet I was dying of thirst. I thought I was going to be rescued by a service station, but it was dirty and had no ice, so I had to go out into the hot sun with warm water. I followed the hilly Highway 91, often seeing that the interstate was much flatter and straighter. I saw a farmer ploughing and fields being irrigated and a golf course that was extremely green, a contrast to the sun-parched hills that surrounded me. I stopped at a T-junction in Mesquite and a man with a dog started talking to me. He said his mother was a witch, the English have stuffed up every country and the US government was covering up free energy. He struck me as a bit odd!! I had arrived in Nevada, the silver state or should it be called the gambling state or the state of weird people. Although Las Vegas is the biggest city, little old Carson City is the capital.
When I found a normal person I asked about a campsite in town, but apparently there were none. I started cycling out of town, but then decided to turn around and head back to the Virgin River hotel that was part of a casino, which had rooms for $18.95. I couldn’t beat that price, so I took it. Having cheap rooms encouraged people to stop longer and gamble longer in the casinos, but not me.
Saturday, 19th September
I had a good sleep in the hotel room, had a shower and for some silly reason I decided not to have a five dollar buffet breakfast which would have kept me going all day. On the news it said that the Clinton tapes will be shown on Monday.
Before leaving I talked to a few cyclists from a bike tour, a group from Oregon doing an end of season trip. I had to follow the back roads again which took me up and down, over ridges and hills that weren’t too steep. Just when I thought the going was getting better the road cut back and then went straight up a big hill. It was hot.
My road joined up with the freeway and I had no alternative but to use it. It started steep but when I cycled downhill the wind was behind me. At a truck bay I saw a frontage road that ran parallel with the freeway so feeling guilty for riding on a freeway I took it. After 2 miles it came to a dead end, so I had to retrace my steps to the freeway. What a waste of time and energy that was in this heat.
At the freeway exit 93 I took the road to Logandale. I had been really pushing my physical limits on the freeway as I didn’t want to get caught by the police, so I was tired and hot when I reached the minor road. I was pleased when I saw a service station so I could buy ice and a Coke to cool down. I really felt quite lethargic. There were lots of mobile homes, but further on new homes were being built. In Overton I stopped at McDonald’s for French fries, big Mac, a big drink and an ice cream and I felt quite queasy when I left. No wonder!
I wasn’t taking the hills very well, as I was hot and bloated and it was hard to push myself. My jug was full of Coke and the more I drank the worse I felt. I had a reprieve as I headed down hill to Overton Beach turn-off, but after that it was up and up, down and up again. The heat started draining every bit of moisture out of my body and my legs started to feel the strain. There was no breeze and I seemed to be continually climbing.
My ice was all gone by 5.15pm and the sun was still burning. It was hard pushing on without iced water to drink. I came across two women whose car had broken down, just when a tow truck arrived. That was lucky. I didn’t have to show them my mechanical skills!!
By now, I had started to look for a place to camp and found a clearing about 50 metres from the road. I walked my bike across to it just as a ranger flew by and fortunately he didn’t see me, so I soon set up camp. My first priority was to make a beautiful tasting hot chocolate drink to pick me up and give me enough energy to cook pasta. I nearly went to sleep sitting in my camp chair, but my meal returned life to my strained body. I was soon back to normal again.
Although I could see several planes crossing high in the sky there wasn’t a sound to be heard in the calm of the night, apart from the occasional passing car towing a boat. The stars were absolutely stunning and I could see every one of them in the clear dark sky. Although I was tired I still had to write the day’s events in my diary.
It was very hot in the tent for the first few hours and a mouse or something kept nibbling, but I couldn’t find where it was, I just had to try to sleep through it and when I thought it had stopped it would start nibbling again. The wind picked up during the night and the temperature cooled down, so I crept back into my sleeping bag. I do wish I had a comfy pillow, but I was too stubborn to carry one.
Sunday 20th of September
I decided not to have a cereal breakfast, just a banana, a honey bun and later a brownie. I had about 3 ½ litres of water left, but no ice. I continued climbing the hill and passed a scenic picnic spot. The road continued up and down and my parched throat was longing for a cold liquid but instead it only got warm water. Crossing a small mountain range my legs were feeling a little tired so early in the morning. I finally made it to Callville Bay turn-off and cycled to Gypson Wash where I diverted to a boat ramp 1 mile away. It was really windy and choppy on Lake Mead and many of the boats were coming in, whilst others were going out. There were lots of jet skis on the water.
Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States. It is located on the Colorado River about 30 miles (48 km) southeast of Las Vegas, Nevada. The lake is formed by water that is held back by the Hoover Dam, and extends 112 miles (180 km) behind the dam.
I saw two guys emptying their esky in the big rubbish bin. I asked them if they had ice and they said that they had left two bags on the ramp and four beers near the bin. I picked up the beers, collected the bag of ice and filled my drink containers with beer and ice. What a find! My mouth and throat were being watered at last. I drank two beers and ate a bag of potato chips. I took a photo and then cycled back up the hill to the main road. The beer and the sun had me feeling a little different, a little light headed, but I managed to climb another hill before turning off toward Las Vegas.
Within a short distance I was climbing my last mountain range before the city. It was quite a tiring climb, and I was passed by two cyclists on racing bikes. I kept drinking as my thirst and dry throat was making breathing difficult, and it was a relief when I reached the top of the range. It was very windy on my descent, but the wind prevented me from travelling more than 15 mph. I should have been doing 30 mph at least.
When I reached the city limits I was a little tired, so I stopped at Wendy’s for a potato and salad. The place was quite full and the staff managed to get several of the orders wrong and they were continually taking them back. It took a while to get something to eat.
I cycled along Las Vegas Boulevard and followed it to a hostel. There were some weird looking people on the streets. I arrived at the hostel at 2.30pm and immediately did my washing. After meeting Andrew from Brisbane I took my photos to get developed and then we walked down to the Stratosphere Hotel complex where a buffet meal was $12.00, but a man with handicapped people gave us a half price voucher, so a huge meal cost us $6.00. That’s what I call a bargain. I later walked around the Casinos with Andrew and he had a bet and lost $20 in five minutes.
Andrew is a 25 year old accountant who likes to flutter a few dollars, play games at Time Zone and plays the guitar fairly well. He had just finished working on a summer camp in Pennsylvania. He loves travelling and doesn’t want to settle, not yet that is.
Monday 21st September
I had a good night’s sleep, but I woke up with a sore throat. Andrew and I took a bus to the Luxor Hotel Pyramid Casino which was very elaborate. This 110 metre high, all-glass pyramid is located at the south end of the Strip about 2 miles from the airport. It has 4,400 luxurious rooms, six restaurants, an Olympic-size swimming pool, a health spa, an Imax theatre, a virtual reality game room, a variety show, and a shopping gallery. It has an ancient Egyptian motif with a huge Sphinx at the entry, an enormous atrium in the centre of the pyramid and a replica of King Tut’s burial chamber beneath it.
From the Pyramid we worked our way through most of the big casinos along the strip. The Caesar’s Palace Hotel Casino is one of the older grand hotel casinos in the heart of the strip, and it remains one of the most spectacular. It is decorated in an Imperial Roman motif with 2440 rooms, a magnificent forum of shops plus nine restaurants. The 1,000 seat Circus Maximus theatre presents major entertainment events, and the Omnimax theatre features film spectaculars and different shows.
Then there was the Mirage Hotel Casino which was set amidst lush foliage, towering waterfalls and sparkling lagoons. The tropical-themed hotel and casino boasts an indoor rainforest, a dolphin habitat, and one of the most famous spectacles in Las Vegas–the Mirage’s erupting volcano.
I don’t like gambling, but the casinos that we were visiting and their various themes proved to be more than amazing inside. You didn’t really need to bet as it was a mind-blowing experience just to be there and look around at all the wonderful and astonishing themes. We had lunch at McDonald’s and parted company in the afternoon and I checked out more of the casinos before ringing Jenny who seemed very cheerful.
At 8.15pm Andrew and I walked to the Stratosphere. The Stratosphere tower opened on April 30, 1996. In the original plans the Stratosphere was going to be about 1,815 ft (553 m) high, making it the world’s tallest freestanding structure at that time. However, due to safety concerns because of its close proximity to the McCarran International Airport, the Tower’s proposed height was reduced to its current height of 1,149 ft (350 m).
We were at the Stratosphere to have a cheap buffet meal and have a ride on the Big Shot, the highest ride in the world as it was on top of the building. The buffet meal was $6.00, but when we arrived there was a long queue, so we bought tickets for the tower and the Big Shot ride for $10.00 and went straight up to the ride instead. With the Big Shot already being on top of the tower at 921 feet, it also shot up a further 160 feet in the air at 45 miles per hour. It wasn’t just the ride that was scary, it was the fact that the ride was so high up in the first place. It was advertised as ‘The Thrill Ride that Touches the Sky!’
The lights of the city from the tower were spectacular, but looking over the edge of the building showed it to be a long, long way down. We watched others take on the ride before us and the air was full of screams. When the ride came down, we took our seat, got strapped in and within minutes we were suddenly catapulted 160 feet into the sky travelling at 45 miles an hour. Just as we were getting used to going up, it unexpectedly raced back down again as our bodies were still going up. We were out of our seat on the way down and people were screaming and the guy next to Andrew kept saying, “Let me off,” like a big baby. I was surprised that I didn’t feel nervous. It was a long way down from the top of the ride to the city lights below which looked amazing. Apparently we experienced a gut-wrenching four ‘G’s of force on the way up, and negative ‘G’s on the way down. It was just brilliant and lots of fun.
Back down on firm ground we withstood the temptation of taking a ride on the High Roller Coaster that was suspended on the outside of the tower and went up and down and around the tower. That ride did look scarier. Still on a high from our ride we walked to the Sahara Hotel and tried again for the buffet meal and this time we were more successful. We certainly got our money’s worth as we ate our fill. Having such full stomachs we were in need of a walk and so we headed to the Treasure Island Casino to see the pirate show. The pirate battles are one of the most popular attractions on the strip and it is “a clash between a group of beautiful, tempting sirens and ‘a band of renegade pirates.’ The show had countless thrills, from daring swordplay to high-diving acrobatics and amazing pyrotechnics. This was all blended in with music and dance and it was certainly a wonderful extravaganza.
When that show was over we walked to the Mirage Casino where an erupting volcano created a fiery display. Every fifteen minutes from dusk to midnight, flames shoot into the night sky, spewing smoke and fire 100 feet above the waters below and transforming a tranquil waterfall into streams of molten lava. The volcano at the Mirage has been Las Vegas’ signature attraction ever since the resort opened in 1989.
Then it was onto Caesars Palace to see another show. It was here that Andrew bet $50.00. He lost it all in just 20 minutes and although Andrew lost his money he did get free drinks while he was gambling. There were many smokers in the casino, so for non-smokers it’s not the ideal place to be!
It was then onto the Bellagio’s Casino Hotel which is famous for the amazing fountains that are said to be the most ambitious water feature ever conceived in terms of choreography, complexity and scale. More than a thousand fountains dance in front of the Hotel, creating a breathtaking union of water, music and light. The display spans more than a fifth of a mile, with water soaring as high as 240 feet in the air. The fountains are choreographed to music ranging from classical and operatic pieces to songs from Broadway shows. They were beyond doubt, an amazing display!
By now it was quite late and we had seen some mind-blowing, spectacular shows. However, as we were still pretty excited, we left the casino and walked downtown to where the margaritas were 99¢. I’m not a real drinker, but Andrew convinced me that I had to try a frozen margarita whilst I was in Las Vegas. After one, I didn’t need to try another one as I didn’t particularly like it! By this time it was gone 1.30am and time to get the bus home.
Tuesday 22nd September
I was up at 8.30am as Andrew was just leaving. Although I didn’t feel too good after our big night out, I needed to get going, as I couldn’t stand spending more time with the two noisy Germans in my room. I had a shower and packed and after having a talk with an Australian girl who had just arrived, I started cycling along the Las Vegas Boulevard, turned off onto a road running parallel to the Boulevard and found a bike shop where I got a tyre changed for $20.00.
I moved back to the strip, found a service station and bought ice before heading out of the city passing all the casino’s, the Stratosphere Tower (thrill rides on top), Treasure Island (pirate battles), The Venetian (Venice; gondola rides;), Mirage (volcano, tropical rainforest), Caeser’s Palace (Roman theme), Bellagio (water fountains), Paris (1/3-scale Eiffel Tower), New York-New York (Façade is NYC skyscrapers, and Statue of Liberty), MGM Grand (Hollywood), Excalibur (Medieval), finally arriving at the Luxor Egyptian Pyramid Hotel Casino. I parked my bike on the entrance wall and took a photo of the big pyramid in the background.
I soon got under way, passed the airport and did a right turn onto Highway 160. It was windy and I was hoping that there was going to be a cheap hotel near where I turned, but there was nothing but a service station half way up the hill. I bought ice and sat on the seat outside in a trance. I was quite buggered and I hadn’t cycled far, and guess it was probably the effect of the recent late nights.
I moved up the hill as wild horses galloped in the fields alongside. I stopped and walked into a field and then along a dusty track for about half a mile to where I made camp in a big washaway and well out of sight of the traffic. I was in bed by 8.30pm, the earliest I have been in bed for ages. I must be sick!
Wednesday 23rd September
I had 12 hours sleep, but I needed it and I was still feeling a bit under the weather when I moved away. I cycled up the hill and I was so exhausted I had two breaks and finally got to the top of a ridge at 5,400 feet. I rolled down the other side to Spring Mountain pub and went in and asked for water and ice. The lady was very kind and interested in what I was doing. A man nearby was smoking so my nasal passages were soon blocked. I had a coke and stayed chatting for a while before I finally needed some fresh air. I left to freewheel down the hill and just kept going until eventually I had to pedal.
I met two cyclists along the road, so I stopped for a long chat. Bill and Tiffany were from Florida and had started riding in Portland, Washington and were heading home. When we parted, I took the road to Tacopa and they headed to Las Vegas. The hills were steep and only six cars had passed me in 35 miles. At the deserted community of Tacopa, I bought two drinks and an ice cream. I moved on and passed the small community of Hot Springs where there was a four way stop sign seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t imagine why they would need a four way stop sign way out here in the desert.
I later found a very pleasant campsite in some barren white hills which hid me from the road. The camp was so different from all my other camps. It was spacious, clean, and open with next to no vegetation and was hidden behind some bare hills. I took the opportunity to strip off in the heat of the evening and walk around butt naked. Although I was still feeling a little under the weather, just allowing my dangly bits to run free for a while, was so refreshing for both body and soul.
The stars were amazing again. I was so far away from any big town that there wasn’t a skerrick of reflective light in the sky.
Thursday 24th September
Amazingly I had slept for another 12 hours, so I really must have been under the weather and tired out. I’m usually in bed around midnight and awake by 6.30am. The morning sun was warm and it soon heated up the tent because it was out in the open and there was no shade. I loved my desert campsite, but I had to move on. It became too hot, too soon and I wanted to get to Death Valley, the lowest point in the US.
It wasn’t far to the little town of Shoshone where there was a motel, café and shop. I bought an ice cream, filled my bottle with ice and turned left after a mile or so after leaving town. The ride was all uphill from 1500ft to 3400ft so I struggled. I stopped at a big Death Valley National Park sign. It had been a slow haul and a difficult climb, but eventually I cracked it. At the top of the ridge I paused and now all I had to do was to coast down the hill into Death Valley. It was a great ride and the closer I got to the valley floor the more magical it became. I felt that there was something mysterious down there waiting for me.
I took some pictures and began to descend some more. It was craggy, dry and riddled with hundreds of parched gullies and folds and folds of mountains that seemingly hadn’t seen rain for a long, long time. I was so enjoying my descent, it was like being a kid at a fair ground as I whizzed down the mountain. Then suddenly my free ride came to a halt and I had to attempt another climb over a lower pass, before it was all downhill again, this time right to the valley floor. Once through the pass, on the last part of the hill, and with every hundred metres that I descended, I could feel the air temperature getting hotter and hotter.
As the road entered Death Valley the smaller Confidence Hills and the lofty Owlshead Mountains, which were as high as 10,000 feet (1250 metres) lay in front of me. The valley floor at that point was roughly 3 miles (5 kms) wide and Death Valley to the north was edged on both sides by 10,000 foot high mountains. I was expecting a flat, wide desert-like area, but it was so different to what I expected. For years I had this image in my mind and it was nothing like what I imagined. There was much more vegetation and it wasn’t a flat wide desolate plain.
Between me and the Owlshead Mountains on the other side of the valley there lay the baked dry Amargosa River bed looking very sorry for itself. The road turned north and kept to the east side of the valley, I descended a bit further and stopped to top up my ice. I tipped cold water over myself and the cold water sent a shockwave through my body, a stark contrast to the hot, arid air. A Swiss family in a passing car stopped to talk.
The cliffs started to get close to the road on the right a few miles before Mormon Point, but later the road meandered away and then back towards the cliffs again. Dry stream beds and rocky gullies intersected the mountains every few hundred yards. It was getting hotter and the salt lake was getting bigger and a few more cars were passing by. I was still surprised that Death Valley was a narrow stretch of semi-arid vegetation, bordering a salt lake that was sandwiched between two high mountain ranges. Where was that big expanse of flattish desert that I was expecting? Being hemmed in by mountains, little wind penetrated the barren valley and the cloudless sky allowed the sun to scorch the earth, the valley and everything in it, including me.
I eventually arrived at Badwater, the lowest point in the US – 252 feet below sea level. The car park was full of cars and people were walking out onto the salt lake looking down intently as if they were trying to find fossils buried in the salt. Behind me, less than a hundred metres away the high vertical cliff had the words ‘sea level’ and a white line that was painted a long way up from ground level. I guess the white line was about 252 feet up. The white line showed tourists the true sea level and it was an impressive mark. Beyond the white line the mountain range reached heights of over 5500 feet.
The intense heat wilted everything including the tourists who had flocked there in air conditioned vehicles. Two English travellers who stepped out of their cool car were roasting and grumbled at the stifling heat, and it was only 38 degrees, quite cool for this part of the world. They told me that their thermostat in the car had cracked at 37 degrees. They went on to ask, “How could you cycle in such heat?” They were certainly in awe at what I was doing. It’s amazing how many people have a low tolerance level to physical challenges. Many saw me as a hero, but it is only because the majority of people never commit themselves to anything physically demanding and don’t realise it is pretty easy to do if you exercise regularly and have the right frame of mind.
It was hot in Death Valley.
I left the lowest point in America with a dying thirst and cycled along the valley surrounded by the dramatic scenery. Every kilometre a gully carved its way down the Amargosa Range. The range was rugged, dry and cruel. To be in the mountains without water in these high temperatures would be suicidal, but I had no intentions in trying to find out. Behind the Amargosa Range were the Funeral Mountains, a fitting reminder for me or others not to get lost in the fiery, hot wilderness.
I moved on as the temperature was still rising, and I even passed a sign saying “Devil’s Golf Course” which got me all excited, but apparently it was a dried up lake bed crusted over with a variety of lumpy salt pinnacles. There was a green golf course however at the Furnace Creek Resort a little further on, for those people wanting to play golf at the world’s lowest elevation golf course. I passed places like Mushroom Rock, Golden Canyon, Breakfast Canyon and then joined the Highway 190 and it was downhill to Death Valley (Furnace Creek) where the local store had inflated prices. I bought a cola, a beer, an ice cream, three bananas and three apples.
I booked in at the camp ground and pitched my tent on solid hard ground, being surrounded by dozens of German tourists. I felt completely shattered, due to the physical exertion and the hot, unrelenting sun beating down on my head. But I was still feeling medically unwell, so I think it was more to do with that, rather than the physical exertion. I walked to the shop and bought some cold tablets, a lemon and some orange juice to try to get my health under control. Within the hour I was feeling a lot better.
Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in North America. On July 10, 1913, a record 134 °F (56.7 °C) was measured at the Weather Bureau’s observation station at Greenland Ranch (now the site for the Furnace Creek Inn), and that was the highest temperature ever recorded in the US. Daily summer temperatures of 120 °F (49 °C) or greater are common in Death Valley, it also has below freezing nightly temperatures in the winter. July is the hottest month, with an average high of 115 °F (46 °C) and an average low of 88 °F (31 °C).
The depth and shape of Death Valley has a big influence on its hot summer temperatures. The valley is a long, narrow basin 282 feet below sea level, yet is walled by high, steep mountain ranges. The clear, dry air and sparse plant cover allow sunlight to heat the desert surface. Heat radiates back from the rocks and soil, and then becomes trapped in the valley’s depths. Summer nights provide little relief as overnight lows may only dip into the 90° to 100° F range.
It is so dry in Death Valley, because, as winter storms move inland from the Pacific Ocean they must pass over several mountain ranges. As the clouds rise up they cool and the moisture condenses to fall as rain or snow on the western side of the ranges. By the time the clouds reach the mountain’s east side they no longer have as much available moisture, creating a dry “rain-shadow”. Four major mountain ranges lie between Death Valley and the ocean, each one adding to an increasingly drier rain-shadow effect, so by the time the rain tries to get to Death Valley there is nothing left.
Death Valley was given its forbidding name by a group of pioneers lost there in the winter of 1849-1850. The highest Peak in Death Valley is Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet high.
Friday 25th September
It was windy in the night and although I woke up a few times I felt as if I slept well. It was a hazy day. It was also a little hilly when I started cycling, but with the wind behind me I was happy. At a three way junction I continued following the 190 and towards Stovepipe Wells. The road dropped onto a plain over Salt Creek and back below sea level, before starting a steady climb to Stovepipe Wells. Just beyond Salt Creek at Devil’s Corn I was surrounded by some impressive and picturesque sand dunes.
Sand dunes and mountains in Death Valley.
I stopped at Stovepipe Wells settlement and bought two oranges to give me some vitamin C and I also changed my water as it tasted a little salty. At noon I was ready to tackle the hill. This wasn’t an ordinary hill. I had to cycle from sea level to 5000 feet (1500m) in one go. I had no idea when I started climbing, it was going to be the longest climb that I was going to undertake on my 6525 miles (10,500km) cycle journey.
The mountains were barren.
The ascent started steadily enough, but then steepened and steepened some more and seemingly just kept going up. With each breath, the hot arid air seemed to scorch my throat and my legs began to feel like over-ripe bananas. A few kilometres up the hill there were two overheated cars stopped on the roadside. I had a conversation with the occupants as I pushed by them at a gruellingly slow pace.
Since entering New Mexico, I had been hill climbing on and off for a few weeks now, so I was fit enough to tackle anything, but the hills were now becoming a chore and I was losing interest in them. I would now give anything for some flat cycling, where I could relax and pedal without feeling strained.
I couldn’t seem to get out of first gear as the grade was just too steep but after the 2000 foot mark I stopped at a picnic table to have lunch and a rest. Water was available for cars which had overheated, a toilet and a small free campsite, though it was without any shade.
The road became even steeper and at the 3000 feet mark there was a broken-down van with three occupants waiting to be rescued. Now the pressure was on, I was moving below 4mph and at that speed the bike was a little harder to control. I stopped several times for a drink. The top of the hill started to appear closer, but the steep 6% grade kept on going. I eventually hit the 4000 foot mark and the gradient looked less steep, but sadly it was an optical illusion, it wasn’t any less steep at all and so my torturous ascent continued.
At 5000 feet, at Towne Pass I eventually reached the top of the range and stopped at a sign where a few minutes later a couple stopped to see if I was okay. They said it was a bit dangerous to be in this hot wilderness alone. I started to push effortlessly on the flat summit and then when the downhill section came I freewheeled at great speeds into the next desert valley. Although there was still a strong wind I reached 35 mph, but when the wind eased I hit the 45 mph mark and remember I was carrying a heavy load in my panniers. I was flying and following the road that cut through several mountains. The rock texture, colour and formations were quite intriguing. What a ride! It was just amazing! As I moved through the passes I could see the road crossing a flat plain below. Before long I was there. My downhill ride was over in a matter of minutes.
I started crossing the plain, near Panamint Springs as an air force jet flew low across the valley. The middle part of the plain was bare, just sandy with a few rocks, with a mountain mosaic in the background. The road soon started to climb again and not far away was the camp-ground of Mountain Pass. I found a campsite with good shade and a table and soon after had a well-deserved refreshing shower.
Saturday 26th September
I woke with a silly cough, but a cough drop did the job. People were moving around early. I visited the toilet for a number two, but there wasn’t a door or any privacy, but fortunately for me, I wasn’t shy and when nature calls, it calls!
I went across to the café and I was treated to an ice cream. I had met several tourists in the camp and before I left I talked to two English couples who couldn’t believe what I had done. “We could talk to you all day,” the women said. The guy serving thought I was looking for work, so he asked if I wanted a job.
I took off at 9.20am and cycled straight into a hill climb. The community was soon out of sight as I slowly crawled around bend after bend cutting through the hills but being careful not to run off the edge of the road and plunge into a deep valley.
I pushed up a hill, only occasionally dropping under the 4 mph mark. Although the hill wasn’t as steep as the one the previous day, it still made me work hard. The road soon dog-legged uphill to 4000ft again. The vegetation became sparse and the hills were more like a desert. As a cool wind blew at the 5000ft mark I stopped, ate a Pop Tart and put on my jacket to keep warm. I finally sighted the Sierra Nevada Range where I was going to hike the John Muir trail and it was a welcoming sight. From a distance it looked ordinary, but the closer I came, the more extraordinary it looked. At last the road started to go down, and what a wonderful relief!
Once on the flats the desert dragged me in. A sandstorm was brewing ahead and for once the wind was in my favour. It soon became dusty, and then just as I was expecting a little grit in my eyes a fully-fledged dust storm smothered the valley. I was soon inside the sand storm and for several minutes I could hardly see the road. It was hard to believe that the highest US mountain range, which still had snow on it, was only a few miles away, and yet, here I was cycling through a desert sand storm.
When the storm passed and I had crossed Owens Lake, a mostly dry lake, I finally sighted Lone Pine and a little later at a lookout, I got great views of Mt Whitney, which at 14,500 feet was the highest mountain in the lower American states. Reaching the summit of Mt Whitney was now my next big goal. Although at this point it was only a few kilometres away, I still had to cycle along the range for over two days, then cycle and climb to 10,000ft, cross over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and into the Yosemite National Park on the other side. I then planned to walk 220 miles along the John Muir Trail, one of the most beautiful trails in the world, to Mt Whitney. It was going to be a great ending to my already fantastic trip.
At last, after shopping at Lone Pine I was cycling on a flat road with the wind behind me and a spectacular mountain range beside me. I had clear views of Mount Whitney and other mountains on my easy 14 mile cycle to the town of Independence. A few miles after Independence, I stopped at a campground, near a historic fish hatchery. It was here I was told by a German tourist that it was snowing on Tioga Pass, which I was planning to cycle over in two days’ time.
Sunday 27th September
It was chilly, but a glorious day when I started cycling. As I was descending a small hill I heard a crunch when I cycled over glass on the road. I felt lucky, the tyres held firm, but a little further along my wheel started to vibrate and my tyre suddenly deflated. Damn, just when I was making good time. By the time I unloaded and repaired the tyre it had taken 45 minutes out of my day.
Arriving at the town of Bishop the country club had beautifully manicured green lawns and little lakes with golfers walking and motoring around. The course was surrounded by big shady trees and had the High Sierra Mountains, with a scattering of snow as a backdrop. It was simply stunning.
Several shops lined the main street, I stopped to go into an outdoor shop but a man called Vince couldn’t stop talking about the places I should go to in the mountains. Eventually I managed to get away from him, checked out the shop and found a Burger King, which had two burgers for the price of one, but I didn’t enjoy them! I suddenly felt that I needed something more nutritious in my diet, so I found the local supermarket and bought some good old nuts and raisins, fruit, veges and my daily essentials.
After a couple of hours in town it was time to move on, but unfortunately the flatter cycling, which lasted for about 46 miles had come to the end as the road suddenly headed steeply up a mountain range. The agony of climbing had its benefits, the spectacular scenery started to close in around me. The higher altitude also brought a crisp coolness to the day and severe cold in the evening. I climbed from 4000 feet to 6000, then to 7000 feet. It was a long hill, the mountain peaks were in the sunlight but I was in the shadow of the hills and the pine trees and getting colder the higher I climbed. There were some lovely, huge granite boulders and perfect places to make a camp. When I stopped to take a photo, my bike fell over, but luckily my mirror didn’t break, and there was no other damage. Near Tom’s Place, where the road levelled a little I found a shop and a campground, so I checked in. Unfortunately there was no shower or wash basin for me to freshen up.
The moon was out, and I could see clusters of stars and a little cloud on the mountain peaks. It was a perfect night, but decidedly chilly. I camped under the pine trees in the hope that it would be warmer. There was a creek running through the camp, which was something I hadn’t heard for such a long time. It was such a soothing sound and it reminded me that the desert was truly behind me.
I had only cycled 67 miles, which was one of my lowest mileage days that I had done since starting my journey.
Monday 28th September
I woke in the early morning, chilled. I was in my summer sleeping bag wearing a thermal, a lightweight fleece, my long-johns and I had my fleece coat over me. At the beginning of the night I was getting hot aches in my hands, but in the early hours of the morning I had to lay on my back because my head was numb when I laid on my side. Little wonder I had these aches and pains, I was using my pack as my pillow and it wasn’t at all comfortable.
Clear skies gave me good views of the fresh snow on the mountains, the sun was trying to peek through the trees but having little success. It was so cold. I even woke with rime on my tent and my water bottle had iced up too. No wonder my hands were freezing, and I couldn’t do much more than rub them together to warm them up.
The cold, although welcome after all the hot weather, was a concern. Over the summer months I had relied on a lightweight, compact Mountain Hardware summer sleeping bag. Now the frost was here, my sleeping bag wasn’t adequate, so here I was chilled to the bone and my warm gear was waiting over on the other side of the mountain range at Yosemite.
A beautiful clear stream cascaded only 50 feet away along a rocky cliff edge. I dried my tent fly and hesitantly stripped off my warm clothes and into my cycling clothes. I instantly felt cold, so I got away as soon as possible, freewheeling down the first hill, but the downhill ride didn’t last long, it soon went up again. The scenery around me had me jumping off my bike several times to take photos. What an amazing place this is!
The road was new with a rumble strip along the shoulder, which made it difficult to ride on, when cars came by. It wasn’t long before I reached my first lake and although its surroundings to my right was open and sparse, looking the other way towards a small village with the snow covered mountains in the background reminded me of Europe.
Other mountains appeared. I wanted to take a picture of the whole scene, but it just wouldn’t fit in the frame. The morning was still cold and whilst I sweated cycling uphill, I nearly froze going downhill so I had to put on another layer of clothing to warm up. The sky was mostly cloudy with a few blue patches breaking through for brief periods. Only two days after experiencing 100 degree temperatures it was so cold that unbelievably, I was wishing for the hot temperatures again.
Mammoth Lakes was supposed to be a very attractive mountain town to visit, but at the turn off I decided against making a detour. I expected to visit it on my walk as I would be resupplying my food there. It was a favourite area for mountain bikers in summer and skiers in winter. A little further at Bear Flat two large parking areas indicated it being a winter sports area where skiers and snow boarders would park their cars before heading up the mountain. As I started another steep climb I stopped at a phone box near a local works department and rang Mike at Mountain Hardware. I wanted to know whether he had any down jackets, and a four-season tent that I could borrow for the mountains. Fortunately he did, and even more fortunate, he was happy to lend them to me.
At some road works I talked to two workmen who asked me where I was going. I told them I was going to LA. “You don’t want to go there they’ll kill you.” They went on to say the same about San Francisco. They also asked “If I have had any American Pussy yet?”
At the top of a hill a sign said 8050ft, but soon after I descended a little to the June Lake turn-off where there was a service station. Here I bought a coffee, cheese and salami, a bagel with cheese spread and a Snickers bar. The man in the service station convinced me it would be worth cycling the loop road, which added about 5 miles onto my journey, but I would see a beautiful area. Within minutes of leaving and after the first hill, the view of June Lake was stunning. I cruised into town, but didn’t stop. The road out of town climbed right under the mountain range and by a high narrow waterfall. It was particularly beautiful. It was a shame that the overhead power lines nearby ruined the vista. Another lake came in view with people fishing, and as the lake turned into a river it became lined with trees and bushes and meandered towards a gorge with massive cliffs.
Once through the gorge the river fed into another lake and here, the scenery lacked vegetation. On the other hand, the big mountain range behind me was spectacular and covered with snow. Once over the hill I lost sight of the nearby lake, but I got a view of Mono Lake and craters in the far distance. Mono Lake is a large shallow saline soda lake formed at least 760,000 years ago. The lack of an outlet causes high levels of salts to accumulate in the lake. What a contrast; a mountain range on one side and a desert lake on the other.
The clouds above the mountains to my left looked to be shedding snow and the rest of the sky was black and threatening. At the main road junction to Lee Vining I sped up in an effort to leave the rain behind. I cycled passed the turnoff to Taiga Pass and rode into Lee Vining where I visited the grocery store and was served by a very tall man. He had to bend right over to use the weighing scales. I suggested digging a hole. Seemingly he didn’t catch my joke, but just as I was leaving, he said, “I like that, no one had suggested that before.”
Back on the road I returned to the Tioga Pass Road and stopped at the service station after the turnoff. I bought four slide films, at $9.50 each and a space blanket as I needed to keep warmer at night. It started to rain so I waited around, but I eventually took off and it rained harder. I stopped at a primitive camping ground 2 ½ miles up the hill. I camped under the pine trees where I could see snow-covered mountains through a cluster of trees and hear a running stream that was 60 odd feet away. It continued to rain as I erected the tent and I wasted no time in jumping in and hiding away, even forgoing the cooking of an evening meal. At least the cloud helped to keep the night a little warmer, though it eventually did get cold.
Tuesday 29th September
It had been a chillier night than I expected as during the very early hours of the morning the rain and clouds had cleared. I untied the rope holding my food bags and lowered them from the branches of the tall tree. I was in bear country again so I had to be more careful about my food. The sun took a while in rising above the mountains and through the trees, and when it did, it warmed the morning.
I chatted to an Aussie guy from Byron Bay who was camped nearby with his brother, sister and his wife. He said there was an election in Australia this weekend and that the Liberal Government headed by John Howard wanted to introduce a Goods and Services Tax (GST) which is not popular with voters. The man from Byron Bay was a Labor voter and so he thought Labor should win.
I moved out from under the trees into a crisp morning to find snow freshly covering the mountains. I left the campsite to start my steep climb to and through Tioga Pass. The Tioga Road, which was originally built as a mining road in 1882-83, was realigned and modernized in 1961. The road passes through an area of sparkling lakes, meadows, rock domes, and lofty peaks that only 10,000 years ago lay under glacial ice. At Tioga Pass the road crosses the Sierra’s crest at 9,945 feet, the highest vehicle pass in California.
I could see the road meander its way up the mountain. It looked steep, but when I started cycling I was able to keep my bike running above 4 mph. I started to sweat despite the chill. I was told by the locals it was going to be a tough climb, one of the toughest in the US they said, but it wasn’t half as tough as the climb out of Death Valley. In Death Valley it was hot, near 100 degrees, far different from the chill that blew down the valley here, and the Death Valley hill was also a longer climb.
Just before the road turned a sharp left, a snow storm dumped huge snow flakes that soon turned to hail. There was no suitable place to lean my bike against, to stop and search for my Gore-tex jacket in my panniers, so I had to keep going. It got colder and colder and the hairs on my bare legs started to stand on end. The road was now white and when I eventually found a post on a corner to lean my bike against, I scurried to cover up and put on warmer gear.
Around the next bend I could see right down the valley. The winding road that I had climbed followed the river path. I made a rush for the top as the snow storm eased a little. I stopped, next to a small lake, and a sign saying 9500 ft. Two young, good looking women tourists stopped, jumped out of their car, asked me to take their photo, had a quick word and dashed back inside their car, warmed up and drove off. It was so cold I would have loved to have sheltered with them. No, not because they were good looking!!
I climbed further, and then as the sleet started falling I freewheeled downhill to find a local cafe. What a find! The cafe served coffee outside, but the weather was freezing and even though you had to pay more for the privilege of going inside, to warm up next to a log fire I was more than happy to do so. After my lovely warm cuppa, with my insides glowing, I decided it was time to move. I took off towards the famous Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite is regarded as one of the most incredible and beautiful national parks in the world. I had only seen pictures on the telly so now I was here to see this famous park for myself and to form my own opinion. On the way I passed several small lakes. The sleet had now stopped and the haze that it had created vanished, the day brightened and the sun suddenly came out. Before me was a circle of snow clad mountains. It was a scene so incredibly stunning that it literally took my breath away. I stopped my bike and just gazed. Wow, this was some start to Yosemite!
At the park entrance I joined a queue of cars, flashed my national park pass, crossed the 9945 ft mark and entered the inner sanctuary of the park. I immediately felt the excitement build inside me and as I stopped beside a lake I gazed at the beautiful reflections on the water. The mountains that were covered with fresh snow and spread across the valley looked wild. A small stream followed my progress further into the park and eventually led me to Lambert Dome. The dome was a huge granite rock in the shape of a half dome. A little further Tuolumne Meadows, a flattish grass meadow came into view. People were walking and scattered around the meadow. I stopped at the information centre. It was only small, so it didn’t take long to look around.
Tuolumne Meadows (at 8,600 feet) is the largest sub-alpine meadow in the Sierra. It is 55 miles from Yosemite Valley via the Tioga Road on which I was travelling. In the summer Tuolumne Meadows is a favourite starting point for backpacking trips and day hikes. The meadows are spectacular in early summer, abounding with wildflowers and wildlife.
Cars were parked further down the road where a walking track led towards the picturesque Cathedral Peak. Before long I had passed a granite slab, left the meadows and cycled into a valley of huge, striking granite domes. I stopped, they were just too spectacular to ride by. There were no posts to lean my bike against, so I took a gamble, I wheeled it into a gutter and used the pedal to keep it upright and it balanced precariously there. The rock around me was quite phenomenal.
Further down the road the sun lit up the mountains surrounding Tenaya Lake. I stopped at the far end and had a short rest, took some photos and admired the truly beautiful scene. I didn’t think the day could get any better.
Suddenly the clouds started to move in. With them came the mist, then the mist turned into fog. Visibility was cut to 20 – 30 yards. There was no shoulder at the side of the road so the cars passed close, in fact too close for comfort. They could hardly see me, but I couldn’t move off the road or stop cycling as the weather was rapidly deteriorating. I cycled on, lightning struck right in front of me, which was quickly followed by a clap of thunder so loud it reverberated throughout the valley. It was that loud it was frightening! I stopped to put on my Gore-tex waterproofs, jumped back on my bike and pushed along a road that had now turned into a river. It started to hail and the hail stung my face as if someone was using it as a pincushion. I was happy when the hail eased and the rain returned. As the cars passed I could only see their red rear lights through the foggy mist. One driver stopped ahead and scraped all the hail stones off his windscreen before moving off again.
I put my hood over my helmet to stop the cold rain running down my neck and back. I followed the winding road, with the thunder and lightning shadowing me as I struggled up hills and sailed down the slopes. I was high in the mountains and authorities had closed the road twice in the last three days because of snow. I didn’t want to become stranded up here without a warm sleeping bag so I just kept going. My feet were wet and cold, but fortunately I was wearing my Gore-tex jacket so at least my body was warm and dry.
A wet, steep downhill run tested my brakes and gave me hope that it was the last hill before Yosemite Valley. With no chance of reading my map due to the rain destroying my visibility, I was longing to get to my destination and I just hoped the Yosemite Valley was close by. However as I crossed Yosemite Creek my super fast freewheeling ride ceased and my hopes were sorely dashed as I started climbing again.
There was now no traffic on the road to present any hazards to me, but there were still the dangerous descents and those agonising ascents to contend with. On top of that my feet were soaked and like two ice blocks that were absolutely freezing. At last I descended a long hill that had a closed steel gate at the bottom of it and beside it a female ranger who stopped me. She told me that it was snowing up in the mountains where I had just come from and that the road was now closed. I was more than pleased to have made it down the mountain as it was just too cold to be camping up there without my warm sleeping bag.
I stopped at a service station at the next junction, asked about the local camp ground, which was $15.00, but the lady suggested going on to Yosemite Valley to the Sunnyside campsite as it was only $3.00. It sounded feasible, so I decided to head there, but it was 6.00pm and I still had 16 miles to go, although she did say it was all downhill all the way. I’d heard that one before!
I bought a tin of beans, put it in my pannier, zipped my Gore-tex jacket and hood and descended. I was cold and became colder as I gathered speed. I was now longing to climb a steep hill to get warm again, but I just kept accelerating downwards. I sped through two tunnels and suddenly right in front of me there it was – one of the most incredible sights in the world, the Yosemite Valley.
It was like something out of a fairy tale book. If there was a fairy tale world out there, then this view was it. It was more than amazing and my heart pounded with absolute joy. I stopped next to a Japanese couple looking over the valley, took my camera out to find it was all fogged up and unsuitable to take photos. I couldn’t believe my luck! I had the world’s most breathtaking sight in front of me and I couldn’t capture those memories. How disappointing that was.
A river flowed below in the valley, winding through the pine trees and between huge cliffs and mountains. One huge, vertical cliff was called El Capitan, a very famous climber’s cliff. It was right there dominating the scene. I could see a lush valley that narrowed, until the mountains totally engulfed it. A waterfall cascaded from near the summit of one mountain top. I was in complete awe of the sight before me. I shivered with total elation.
The sun dipped beyond the mountain behind me leaving an illuminated trail that slowly grew fainter until finally the bright light that was shining into the valley had virtually vanished. The whole scene was overwhelming, breathtaking and I just wanted to camp right there to wake up to it in the morning. Unfortunately, the steep sided mountain pass offered no place to camp as it was just too steep.
A low wall ran beside the twisty road and guarded traffic from running off it and dropping thousands of feet to the valley floor. I followed it down zipping by it at great speeds until I crossed the Merced River and where the hill ceased. Shivering, I now followed a one-way road shielded by towering trees. I was seemingly in another world and trying to grasp the stark contrast in scenery.
As the last of the sun’s rays faded from above the mountains on either side of me, I felt a rush of excitement that pulsed through my whole body. I kept getting glimpses of the huge rock walls between the trees and occasionally I would see a tiny ray of sunshine through the clouds that would illuminate a small part of the high vertical cliffs. It looked mysterious, surreal, but brilliant. I paused to take a photo but my camera was still fogged up. Further, a huge rock tower (Sentinel Rock) to my right stood like a giant pillar at the entrance of a hidden world. The shallow Merced River flowed to my left with tiny meadows beside it which were layered with mist. The canyon narrowed further leaving me with a sense of being locked in. I knew then why this place was turned into a National Park.
I was entering a very special area, but suddenly those last remnants of light had gone and the darkness now robbed me of seeing one of the most stunning valleys in the world. The canopy of trees and the cliffs blocked the light from even the brightest star from filtering through, leaving my trail towards Yosemite Village black, wet and cold.
I had no map of the village, so I followed my nose towards the lights and the camping registration building. There was a sign on the wall saying, ‘No Vacancies’. I crossed the potholed car park and asked a couple, whose bright clothes and hair colour indicated that they were climbers, where the best place to camp was. They suggested that I should sneak into a vacant staff tent, but I just didn’t have the courage to do that. The only thing now was to go in search of Sunnyside, the climber’s campsite.
It was absolutely black, the road was wet and dazzling lights from the passing cars made it difficult to cycle safely but I arrived at camp without falling off or being hit. Disappointingly though I was out of luck again, there was a sign saying ‘full’, so a man suggested I go to the backpacker’s campsite, back up the valley. This campsite is only for backpackers heading out on a walk, but I was past caring, I needed to camp somewhere. As I struggled to find a place to rest my head, my evening had now turned into a nightmare and my morale had taken a dive. I should have camped back up near the service station, I thought.
I was cold and could see little on the darkened cycleway. Every few moments I would accidentally deviate from the cycleway on to the dirt, despite my dim torch shining on the path. I was told to look for a sign, but found nothing and ended up lost. I returned the way I came wondering if the night could get any worse. I then spotted campers in the distance through the trees around a blazing fire. I went over to them and asked them if they knew where the backpacker’s campsite was. “You’re here,” they said. I don’t think you could begin to imagine how happy I felt.
I was so relieved to find a place to camp. The group welcomed me and I was content to get warm around their fire and have a good talk about my walk ahead. Steel lockers were scattered around the camp, which gave campers a place to store their food away from the bears. It is illegal to camp with your food in your tent, but my new friends said that there was little threat of a bear entering your tent if you are in it. They said they always camp with their food.
Although they had a lot of camping experience, they couldn’t convince me to sleep with my food. Read any book about bears and it’s always strongly recommended to put your food in a food bag, find the highest tree and hoist your food high in the air. Of course there are smart bears around, so you have to make sure they can’t climb the tree and grab it. The other alternative is to carry a bear drum. This is a small drum made of light strong plastic, with a lid that a bear can’t open. The idea is to put all your food, toothpaste or anything sweet in it, place it 50-100 yards away from your tent so the bear is attracted to it and not you. Although I have been using the ‘up the tree’ method, I will be taking a bear drum with me on my walk.
It was late when we stopped talking and all the others hit the sack. It gave me a chance to change clothes, erect my tent and have some food. After such a big day (13 hours cycling steep hills) and the last hour cycling in circles, it was great to be warm, settled and camped.
Read my next leg of my journey: The John Muir Trail. This was a backpacking trip to Mt Whitney, which at 14,500 feet is the highest mountain in the USA outside Alaska. The walk was 220 miles (355kms)