ADVENTURER | DAVID LOW
Epic backcountry gravel grinding adventures don’t have to start with a four-hour drive to get to some remote trailhead. Some of them start right in your backyard. For me, that is almost literally true. I work as a park ranger at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park, which is tucked right under the red sandstone escarpment of the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, and this adventure actually began right at work.
You might have been to Red Rock - it gets nearly a million and a half visitors every year. You may not have made it to Spring Mountain Ranch State Park yet. We’re more of a “locals’ park” and we get about 150,000 visitors per year. Spring Mountain Ranch is a historic ranch - one of the oldest in the state, actually – that history is the origin of this bike ride.
I love history. I should - I’m the park historian at Spring Mountain Ranch. But I’m still pretty new in Vegas, and I’m still learning how the little oasis of our historic ranch fits into the bigger picture of Las Vegas’ history as a community. I also love cycling, and above all things I love mashing together my disparate hobbies. Hence my most recent adventure: a 13-mile, 4wd road thrash from my state park to Goodsprings, Nevada.
The history of Spring Mountain Ranch and Goodsprings are closely entwined. The ranch is one of three that comprised the original settlement in the Las Vegas valley in the 1870’s. All three made their living in this remote valley by supplying food or building materials for the gold and silver mines that Swiss-cheese the mountains all around us. The silver mine on Mt Potosi, the gold mines at Eldorado Canyon and Ivanpah, and the lead and zinc operation near Goodsprings all were fed by beef from our herd, fruit from our orchard, and corn from our garden. That food was transported on rough freight-wagon roads, most of which today are forgotten unmarked wide spots between Joshua trees and creosote bushes. Case in point: the route I was going to take on this ride.
The trip from Spring Mountain Ranch to Goodsprings on modern roads is a 42-mile drive that drags you clear over to I-15 to get just 20 miles south as the crow flies. The old wagon track from the ranch to Goodsprings still exists, and is much closer to the 20-mile crow flight-path. The old trail isn’t for everyone though. Really, it’s just for those of us with high clearance jeeps, or strong legs, a good mountain bike, and a sense of adventure. I had the legs. I love adventure. The bike was questionable.
When a friend rolls into town and needs to borrow a bike, I’m not the kind of guy who says “no”. I usually don’t have to, because I’m six-foot-two, and most of my bikes are too big for potential borrowers. But my mountain bike is a little on the small side for me, and I have managed to squeeze myself onto it by adding an adjustable handlebar stem and an extra-long seat post. That makes it possible to fit a smaller person onto the bike by lowering one thing and raising another. A friend needed a bike and I obliged her, which was great because she’s the reason this ride happened at all. When she suggested that we do a trail ride together, I knew exactly where I wanted to go - I’d been thinking about this ride for months, but just hadn’t gotten around to doing it. Unfortunately, the night before the event she had to cancel. My adventure fires were all stoked up, though, and I knew I had to go anyway.
I was excited knowing I would get to see the same landscape—mostly unchanged—the same way the Wilson family had seen it on their routine supply runs to Goodsprings. It made me feel like stepping back in time, and was a chance to connect with their experience first-hand. But, with my mountain bike lent out, what was I going to ride? I had a bike that for a while I’d thought MIGHT be up to the punishment of off-road riding, but until now I’d been too timid to try it out. Now was the time!
A few years ago I bought a touring bike. Touring bikes are usually road-style bikes with “drop” handlebars that curve like ram’s horns. Most road-style bikes are racing bikes, and every year they get more gracile and weigh less. Aircraft-grade aluminum and feather-light carbon fiber frames can get the weight of these bikes well under twenty pounds, which is astonishing when you consider that they’re built to handle 190-pound humans pounding away on hard asphalt with them. Well, that’s racing roadbikes. Touring bikes are another matter altogether. They’re built for strength and stability while carrying not only their rider, but all the gear that rider might need if they were, say, riding from San Francisco to New York. We’re not talking aluminum and carbon fiber frames, we’re talking about steel now.
Touring bikes are also built to accommodate accessories like cargo racks, fenders for keeping road puddles from spraying all over the rider, brakes that can stop a LOT of mass, and big tires to cushion the rider over long distances. There were three questions in my mind when I wondered if my touring bike could serve double duty as an off-road bomber.
1) Could the bike fit the balloon tires required for 4wd road conditions?
2) Could the brakes handle the twitchy adjustments to speed that reacting to uneven terrain would require?
3) Would I destroy my bike’s steel frame by subjecting it to mountain bike stresses? Most mountain bikes today employ hydraulic suspension front-forks to take pressure off of frames (and to keep handlebars from rattling out of their rider’s hands, but I hadn’t even THOUGHT of that one yet.)
I did some internet sleuthing to see what kind of tire clearances my particular model had, and using the magic of 2-day shipping, I had a pair of 47 mm wide tires delivered from an online retailer well before our planned ride. They fit on the bike just fine, and the night before the adventure I could barely sleep I was so excited.
This is Las Vegas, and this is August, so I did myself a favor and set my alarm clock for 5:30 a.m. to ride ahead of the day’s blistering heat. That would give me a half hour to putter around the house and wake up, and a half hour drive to the trailhead for a 6:30 a.m. start. I would have liked to start at Spring Mountain Ranch so I could have gotten the whole experience of the Wilson supply run from beginning to end, but there is no trail connecting the park to the Goodsprings road. Instead, I started at the Cottonwood Canyon trailhead parking lot on State Highway 160. There isn’t much there, just a gravel lot with a vault toilet and an information kiosk without any information displayed in it, but you can’t miss it: it’s the only parking lot on the south side of the highway as you drive toward Pahrump.
I arrived, unloaded my bike, applied sunscreen, and slung my three-liter hydration pack on my back (generously loaded with snacks and electrolyte drink powder). I took a final, loving “before” picture of my reborn touring bike, just in case I thrashed it into scrap on this ride, and I was off!
The 4wd track starts like off-road candy: a smooth quarter mile long descent that lets you immediately thrill to that feeling of limitless freedom only bicycles confer. And then you go up. Way up. It’s not a surprise - you could see from the parking lot that the beginning of the ride was going to be a long climb over an outlying spur of the Spring Mountains, but the reality was brutal. The smooth road turns jagged, with brick-sized stones littering the two-track. This rock pile of a road also sank into soupy fine gravel at regular intervals, and I was thankful for the as-big-as-I-could-get tires I’d added to my bike. The 32mm tires I’d taken off the bike would never have managed. I would either have immediately bogged down in the sand, or destroyed a wheel rim on the large stones. As it was, I occasionally heard a cringe-inducing “bang!” as a stone pushed a tire all the way in to contact a rim. The second time this happened, I dismounted and increased my tire pressure with my hand pump. With slower riding, judicious route choice around and over the smoothest stones, I managed not to end my adventure in the first mile with a destroyed wheel.
The final approach to the pass was steep enough that I had to dismount and push my bike up. This only lasted about one hundred-fifty yards, and you can imagine my joy when I crested the pass to find that all the energy I’d just invested in climbing was about to be rewarded by 11 miles of downhill rollercoaster dirt-bombing. You can see clear to Goodsprings from up there - the road dives under washes, winds around hills and smashes through Joshua tree forests, all while tumbling relentlessly down to the town that is its goal. The view is magnificent. I could imagine how the Wilsons looked forward to this trip. I couldn’t wait to get into it myself - so I pushed off the peak of the hill, and screamed into the landscape.
It would have been nice to have had front suspension. Like, really nice. The road is washboarded, and there were times when I had to loosen my grip on my brakehoods to a light touch to keep from being shaken completely off the handlebars. Braking was a tenuous proposition, as the road surface turned from hard-packed clay to treacherous fine gravel without warning. Be careful. If you have more discipline (and sense) than I do, go slowly. I managed not to plant myself in the cacti, but in retrospect it feels like I owe that to luck as much as skill.
Wider tires would have been nice. Like, really nice. My bike with the biggest tires I could get on it was adequate for this ride, but it would have been more fun, and certainly safer to have had 2.1 inch knobby tires with lots of floatation for this ride. That would have mitigated the hardpack-to-gravel treacherousness of the road, and smoothed out some of the bone-rattling rills that grade the straight stretches. Finally, be aware that the road slants and banks, but not always on curves where a banked track would be convenient. Watch your wheels and be aware of the consistency of the surface beneath them so you don’t slide out on your side.
My equipment and skills were both challenged by this ride, though at a more moderate speed it could have been a relaxing bike stroll. And there were quietly sublime moments too. If you do this ride and you are a speed junky, I hope that you’ll still stop occasionally. Take your eyes off the ground flying beneath you. Smell the creosote bush’s burned-brass perfume. Against all odds this day was overcast, and the low-hanging clouds sprayed a rare mist of rain over me. Not enough to make anything actually wet. Just enough to put a fresh pattern of raindrop craters in the dust on the road, and to coax the creosote to open its stomata to let the smell of rain in the Mojave drift in clouds across my path.
Rabbits, both lanky black-eared hares and cotton-tailed bunnies, shot into motion in front of me. They crouched, noses twitching and black eyes panicking at your passing. They aren’t used to seeing people at all on this road, not since wagons rattled down it with provisions for hungry miners.
At one point the road plunged fifteen feet down into a wash and shot right out again, and when I popped back up onto the world I spooked a herd of five ghost-white mustangs. They scattered to both sides of the road, and when I stopped to dig my camera out of my pack they paused, and I swear I could see in their eyes that they were trying to assess the risk of crossing the road again to regroup - safety in numbers. I shot some pictures of two mares and colt as they braved the passage in front of me, and I was about to pedal on when I heard a threatening whickering sound from the left. A beautiful dun mare was moving confidently toward her group, her eyes locked on me in defiance. She never stopped side-eyeing me, and after crossing the road she broke into a lope and all the rest followed her, disappearing with seemingly impossible abruptness into the Joshua trees.
A fragment of rainbow appeared over the southern-most peak of the Spring Mountain range on my right. Goodsprings loomed before me. The sun broke through the clouds to shine on a lime white mountain in California to the south. About a half mile north of Goodsprings the 4wd road intersects a paved mining road. Watch yourself here - two semis hauling double trailers crowded me to the edge of this road in the brief time it took to get into Goodsprings. They weren’t aggressive or rude - they just weren’t prepared to see a cyclist. Be prepared to see them first - you’re on their turf.
I rolled into town, positively loving the feeling of smooth asphalt under my tires. It’s not a big enough town to get lost in. I tooled around, exploring, and hoping I’d find the saloon on my own. I’d read an adventure blog on the Travel Nevada website about the saloon in Goodsprings, and I was eager to see just how early they opened, and what they had to offer. I feel that a saloon isn’t a saloon unless it opens for a morning rush. If it ain’t open for breakfast then it’s a bar, and if it ain’t open for lunch it’s a tavern. I came to see a saloon, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Well, I was initially disappointed. I rolled up to the Pioneer Saloon at 8:35 a.m. The sign posted said they didn’t open until 9:00. Fair enough. That left me a little time to bike-stroll around the streets of Goodsprings.
It’s an odd little mishmash of a community. There are modest ranch homes, RV’s in semi-permanent moorings, trailers, and multimillion-dollar dream homes intermingled with one another along streets that are a perfect Cartesian grid . . . until they snake and wind around features of the landscape. I was struck by the disparate homes and yard decorations that stood side by side throughout town. Mobile homes beside McMansions. Homemade metal art gardens beside manicured landscaping that any HOA would be proud of. Goodsprings reminded me of one of the things I love the most about Nevada: we’ve learned how to respect one another’s autonomy while still living as a community.
The mining history of Goodsprings is on display everywhere. The center of town has a small park with one hundred year-old mining equipment and a pair of miner’s dwellings with corrugated tin roofs, all of it taking on the red corroded patina that is the very definition of Nevada desert kitsch. Growing beside one of the cabins I found a mesquite tree bearing one of the Mojave Desert’s seasonal treats - mesquite beans and deep cool pool of shade. I parked my bike, plucked a few beans and sat down in the shade to enjoy them. The honey mesquite tree’s fruits are long green beans that look like a green bean whose peas have grown too big for the pod and stretched it out to the point of bursting. When they’re ripe, you can chew on them (but not eat them) and you’ll be rewarded with nature’s own sweet-but-sour candy. They taste a little like sour apple, but with a Sourpatch Kids bite. I always imagine how American Indian kids must have longed for late August to roll round - a magical time of year when candy literally grows on trees.
Nine o’clock had rolled around while musing in the shade, and I roused myself to head over to the Pioneer Saloon. Tom the bartender was just finishing his morning preparations when I cruised in and propped myself up against the bar. I’d been moving for four hours at this point and had done what felt like a bloody-Mary’s worth of work, so despite the early hour I decided to celebrate a little. Besides, I sorely needed some electrolytes, and tomato juice has electrolytes, right?
Tom didn’t bat an eyelash at my order, and mixed me up a more-than-decent drink: spicy, savory, and sweating cold. He relaxed against the bar back and we settled into conversation. With very little prompting he brought me up to speed about the history of the bar (which is fascinating, and worth learning about if you make it to Goodsprings) and explained how he’d made it to this strange little corner of Nevada from the Pacific Northwest. He asked what I did to earn my bread and when I replied “park ranger” his eyes lit up.
“Now that’s just about the only other job I can imagine myself doing” he said. I smiled. As it turns out, I used to tend bar, too, and it is just about one of the only jobs I can imagine myself doing if I hadn’t landed my dream job at Spring Mountain Ranch. I told him I actually used to work at a historic bar in my hometown in Missouri, and that I had a spiel about it very much like the one he’d just given me about the Pioneer Saloon. We agreed that there may be some kind of vocational affinity between barkeeps and park rangers: you’ve got to know how to tell a good story, how to listen when people want to talk, and be good at making people happy while protecting your workplace.
I was getting hungry, and the menu at the Pioneer had some items that were really calling my name, but I knew better than to load myself down with an omelet or burger before finishing the ride. It was past 10:00 now, and I needed to get moving if I was going to avoid the full heat of the day. The clouds had burned away, and sun was beginning to beat down. Instead of a brunch, I availed myself of a pickled egg from the bar, drank a tall glass of water, and shook hands with Tom.
I expected the ride back to my car to take the better part of four hours, considering how fast it felt like I’d been going on the 11-mile downhill since cresting the pass early in the ride. I settled into a slow pace in a low gear, following my own two tire tracks as they slalomed back and forth over the road. They were actually pretty useful, acting as guides to keep me on the smoothest and hardest patches of road. It was nice to just follow my tracks and let my mind wander rather than constantly choose the best route.
The wildlife had all fled the heat, and besides some surveyors staking out what looked like a gas pipeline right of way, I had the valley all to myself. I stopped occasionally to catch my breath, but largely just fell into the rhythm of my pedals and let the miles melt away. I crested the pass long before I felt like I should have, and saw the trailhead in the near distance. After riding the whole 13 miles twice, I can say with confidence that the first two / last two miles are the most technically challenging. I rattled my way down from the pass, giving my brakes a hard workout and wishing again that I had front-suspension on my bike. And then I was back at my car: total return trip time two and a half hours. I was shocked. Surely, it hadn’t taken me just a half hour longer on the return trip than on the way in?! But it had.
I was finished with the ride by 12:30 p.m. It was a perfect half-day adventure. Enough to get my blood pumping, a little adrenaline flowing, and relaxing enough that I’d left my workweek stress in the dust of a not-so-remote Nevada backcountry road.
If you’d like to go on this adventure yourself, here are a few tips about preparation and equipment:
- A sturdy steel framed bike without suspension is up to the task of this ride if you’re willing to take it slow, or if you’re an experienced rider. Cyclocross bikes should be fine so long as you have 42mm or larger tires mounted. I’d suggest you go even bigger than 42 mm if you can. Be prepared for a challenging technical ride on this kind of bike.
- Take water in a hydration pack, not in bottles in your bottle-cages. Your bottles will not stay in the cages over this terrain It should go without saying that you should have lots of water with you, too - at least three liters.
- Be prepared to change a flat. Tire levers, spare tubes, and a frame pump are must-haves for this ride.
- Bring your wallet, and relax a little once you hit Goodsprings. Getting there really is only half the fun!