I underestimated the effects of our spring thunderstorms on the route I had planned for Adventure Cycling Association’s Bike Travel Weekend. The weather triggered some on the fly changes in our route and unfortunately a mechanical sent two riders home in the first five miles. Our merry band of four became a band of two. But the weather and mud should not eclipse the success of the ride. Jake Francis and I got to travel in the swirling migration Painted Lady Butterflies!
As the ride was planned we took off from the north end of Rye Patch Reservoir State Recreation Area. This was the beginning of a finger extension of the Black Rock Desert High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trail National Conservation Area (NCA) that followed the historic Applegate Emigrant trail. Michael Morris, Matthew Solieu, Jake Francis and I pedaled away from the dirt road pullout on our remarkably heavy bikes. Since we were touring in the desert each rider had between 5-8 L of water and we all packed extra creature comforts without considering the weight.
Spirits were high, conditions were fast, conversations were flowing. This was my first time riding with Matthew though we had been planning rides for over a year. Then there was a little mud, then some more, and finally our bikes were clogged with sticky clay. Matthew had a moment, shifted in his lowest gear and pedaled past. A few bike lengths later he was looking at his derailleur wrapped around his axle. Tolerances are are so low between the derailleur and the spokes a bit of mud, a twig, or the slightest limit screw maladjustment could send the derailleur into the spokes.
After some time setting up the bike single speed it was decided Michael and Matthew would head back and Jake and I would carry on. Bummer, the dynamic of the group was awesome but there will be more opportunities with less mud. Jake and I continued up the valley between the Majuba Mountains and the Antelope Range. Jake had done some research on the mining in the Majuba Mountains that showed some impressive chunks of gold. Jake was having a field day photographing the wildflowers. By Antelope Summit the lion’s share of the day’s climbing was over and there had been no more appreciable mud.
We took a lunch break at Rabbithole Springs, shared some snacks, and watched the insect life around the oasis in the dessert. From there we descended the apron of the Kama Mountains toward the Black Rock Desert. Here we encountered a different type of mud. The silty, alkali mud is very slippery and sticky. We came to a fork in the trail, Noble’s went left, the Applegate went right. I had ridden the Applegate and I knew where the Noble’s joined Jungo road. I wanted to get us out of the mud. I flipped a mental coin and chose the Noble’s route. It was still muddy, but at least I got to ride, and hike, a new route.
At Jungo Rd I had my doubts about crossing the saltbrush for five miles then crossing the playa for another five plus. Considering the mud we had encountered there was no telling what was in store. There was uncertainty in the weather as well, we could see thunderstorms dropping rain in the distance. I was really hoping to see lightning across the playa. So I decided we would ride to the ghost town Sulphur, camp, and return the next day via Jungo Rd. I was a little disappointed not to be returning via the roads through the Kama Mountains but the thought of climbing steep muddy roads was a strong deterrent. These changes weigh heavier when including others on the trip. Even though Jake is the easiest guy to travel by bike with I was so concerned with our group of two.
The Painted Lady migration captured our attention as we cruised east. These little butterflies were headed due north. There was a stiff breeze out of the northeast. They flew tirelessly across the wind. They overwintered in the south, maybe a little further south this year, then work their way north to Canada. I am sure I have witnessed this migration before without understanding what I was seeing but at times they were swirling all around me. As we rode across their path they would occasionally get caught between us, fly alongside, then pop out and continue north. It is impossible to imagine the mountains and deserts they had crossed and still had ahead in there journey. Seated in camp we counted dozens flying by in a matter on minutes. I feel immensely lucky to witness this natural odyssey.
We setup camp outside the lone standing building of Sulphur. For rockhounds the sulphur crystal must be fascinating. We watched two guys pull up in a pickup, hop out, attack a pile of rocks, hop back in their truck and they were gone. It was about a 10 minute assault on rocks and they disappeared. So we went over to see what was so fascinating. Hmmmm… to the uninitiated there was some freshly broken white rock and yellow sulphur crystals. Maybe they found some sort of holy grail of delicate sulphur crystals. I must get out on a ride with a rockhound to get some insight.
We watched the storms 360 degrees around us in awe of the light on the clouds, the shadows on the mountains and playa, and wondered where the rain might be hitting the ground. We pitched my tarp tent just in case rain made it our way. My return route had us crossing the Kama Mountains and the Antelope Range on higher roads than our outbound route. I was worried if we added sticky clay mud to an already ambitious return then our day could be spent in silence instead of animated banter.
I decided we would return via Jungo Rd headed east then turn off on a road that made a southerly bee line to Rye Patch reservoir. Simple! While the length of Jungo Rd from Gerlach to Winnemucca is on my list, I am chopping away at it section by section. Maybe next will be a Imlay-Winnemucca loop.
We woke to a beautiful morning. We broke camp midst shared coffee and other breakfast items. We consulted the kiosk map then headed east on Jungo Rd. We rode the length of Hycroft Mine with more curiosity than answers to what we were seeing. We rode past and around Pulpit Rock and thought it might make a good camp spot. I was feeling pretty good about this route. Like many places I explore via “satellite view” on my computer screen this route was far richer than I expected.
Then everything changed. The road was flooded. Deep mud. Cones were placed out in the middle of nowhere to warn vehicles of the road conditions. Jake and I left the road bed to hike the saturated ground that had a little vegetation making it a little less sticky. Luckily we only had a couple of miles of hiking before the road was passable. With the help of a little dark chocolate we made it through.
Pedaling on we were back to the awe of our surroundings. We made it to our turn-off at an impressive lesser playa. As I cannot resist to ride on playas I found a gated entrance to the playa and Jake and I were riding on a surreal plane. I look forward to getting back to Jungo Flat and Desert Valley. I could easily plan a fat bike tour of this area that includes the dunes north of Winnemucca. Back on the road after our silliness on the playa we made good time back to our vehicle.
By the numbers our outbound route along the Applegate Trail was 45 miles with 2,000′ of climbing. The return route was 40 miles with 1,000′ of climbing. The numbers of Painted Lady butterflies crossing our route rivaled the numbers of stars we saw at night. Weather happens on tour so be prepared to adjust accordingly.