Dec. 26-30, 2021 note: I don’t know why the photos beyond Tonopah are not loading in the post. If you click on the boxes they appear. Winter may not be the most desirable time to do a bike tour in the northern latitudes. But if you work in a bike shop it is the slow time of year, thus the easiest season to get time off. As it worked out the Reno Bike Project was closed December 25-January 2, and my friends and family had plans that didn’t require my presence. Perfect, I had a window of opportunity to hit the road! My winter tour occupied my calendar December 26 – January 1 and I had routes planned north, east, and south of Reno through the basin and range exploring natural and cultural history. November and early December weather had been mild so really the state was wide open for exploring.
My first thought was between Luning and Hawthorne to start, and head south through the Garfield Hills to Mina. Then through the Monte Cristo Range, through the Wee Pah Hills, Paymaster Canyon, on to Bonnie Claire via Goldfield. Eventually a loop through the Bullfrog Hills and through Beatty returns the route north going through Gold Point, Lida, Silver Peak, and Candalaria. But the weather had been so mild and I had just done an overnight north of Winnemucca around Peehee mu’huh, Thacker Pass. So my gears were turning.
An alternative route was a northern tour; Imlay to McDermitt Loop. This would leave Rye Patch Reservoir (Humboldt River), skirt the west side of Desert Valley, cross the Quinn River, traverse the Montana Mountains, then cross the top of the Santa Rosa Range. Then I would complete the loop through Eden and Paradise Valleys. A great little loop connecting portions of rides and expanding my maps to where the dragons lie.
I was also thinking this might be a great window for my Basin and Range route. This loop crosses 6 mountain ranges, the crown of central Nevada. But winter came and all windows were closed and shuttered. Watching weather reports for key towns I was seeing single digit lows and accumulations of snow as low as 5,000′. Very quickly I crossed the Basin and Range Route off my list, then pictures of snow accumulations in the Montana Mtns crossed the northern tour off my list. So I was back to my original route.
Not being able to leave well-enough alone, I moved the start to the East Walker River, less driving, more mountains to travel through. I added some tweaks to the route both south bound and north, stretched the mileage to 490 miles and elevation gain to about 40,000′. It’s not that I suffer delusions of grandeur (much) but I envisioned optimal travel conditions. That is not realistic. I was reminded that optimal conditions for nature did not take bicycle travel in consideration.
I was watching the weather like a man possessed in the days leading up to my departure. I was watching the precipitation radar cartoon on Weather Underground hourly. I figured the snow was not falling east of Fallon, Hawthorne, or Tonopah. My route, north of Tonopah, needed to shift east. It was settled, I would start the route on the morning of December 26 from where NV 839 Nevada Scheelite Mine Road turns to dirt. The Nevada Scheelite Mine is a tungsten mine from the ’30’s within the Rawhide Mining District. I have made several trip to the area, the last being an overnight around the Rawhide mine including their abandoned railroad grade.
The storm was raging as I was leaving Virginia City headed to US 50. But I kept telling myself I just had to make it to Silver Springs… then Fallon… well definitely by Sand Mountain the snow squalls should blow themselves out. Nope, the tour started on snow. But I brought the right tool for the job. My Meriwether Longtail Fatbike was set up for the success of this trip.
The bike is built around a stout steel frame that is extended about 8″ to the rear. The frame has 3X boss attachments, two on each fork leg, one under the down tube and one on each seat stay. Bags are covered by Nuclear Sunrise Stitchworks, custom frame bags, Giant Silo feed bags, Titan tank bag, and Fat Boy seatbag. Cleaveland Mountaineering Everything bags were used on the seat stays and down tube. The Mojave Cages from Velo Orange carried water on the fork legs. The carrying capacity allowed for winter clothing and insulation, 8 days of food, 2 days of water (4.5 L, winter rations), cook kit, and shelter. I was safe and comfortable in temperatures in the low teens, and adverse weather conditions. The bike rolls on 4.5″ wide Vittoria Cannelloni tires. The high volume, wide footprint, aggressive tread, durable sidewalls, and graphene rubber compound made them ideal tires for the wide variety of terrain I encountered.
I descended to the edge of the playa and quickly transitioned from snow to damp sand, gravel, and mud. I was anxious to get to the sand dunes, they are a great alternative to the volcanic gravel-scape I just rode through. The going was slow, all the surfaces were soft, thick, a real push to get through. Looking ahead I could see my goal; the notch between the Monte Cristo Mountains (in this same trip I rode around the Monte Cristo Range just to make things confusing) and Fissure Ridge. Once through the gap I was in new territory, I was seeing Fissure Ridge and the Black Hills from a new angle. My next goals were Upper and Lower Philips Wells. These had water troughs and corrals. Nevada’s backroads serve mining, ranching and bikepacking.
My route lead my south of Lower Philips Well and I should have back tracked to a better defined road. I was following Phillips Wash to the low point in Gabbs Valley. Playas when dry are wonderful to explore but now everything was getting muddy. I stubbornly kept going forward despite the little voice (sounded a lot like Doug Artman) that was telling me to stay out of the mud. It didn’t get too bad, but what a rookie move. I followed a fence line onto Cobble Cuesta, through a gate and made my way cross country to H 2 Bar Road. Just beyond the ranch I was on NV 361, Gabbs Valley Road. The sun had set, and I didn’t think riding along the busy road (shift change traffic from the Gabbs mine) at night was the best choice, so I made camp. Dispersed camping in Nevada is just that easy. Bikepacking with the Leave No Trace ethos outlined by groups like LNT, Bikepacking.com, and Bikepacking Roots means you can do it with minimal impact.
Just as I zipped myself in the tent the wind started up. I checked my tent’s guy-lines and then I was in for the long night. End of Day 1 (link to route on Ride with GPS), 32.5 miles (only 1/2 of my daily goal), 970′ of climbing, and over 50% of this day’s terrain was new to me. So inspiring. There are some amazing jeep roads serving mines in the Monte Cristo Mountains. I see a trip focused on this area in the near future.
The fiery sunrises on this trip were a real treat, served up cold, temperatures in the low teens. The first hour of the day had me riding in my Nano Puff and Dirt Roamer jackets. Their built-in stow-pockets made them easy to stash on my seatbag for easy access. Day 2 started off zig-zagging my way to a power line road that originated in Gabbs and eventually tied into route 89, Gabbs Pole Line Rd. With hind site I could have simplified these first miles of the day, but it was a fun bit of riding tertiary roads and negotiating gates, snow drifts and rougher roads. I was following some coyote tracks in the snow. There were some smaller prints as well, fox? But shortly ahead there was a beautiful coyote crisscrossing the road I was on. We watched each other for a while before it eventually disappeared in the sagebrush. Then I got to listen to its yipping. In my mind it was expressing its disapproval of me in its hunting grounds. I take any wildlife sightings as good omens.
The going was easier on Route 89, snow covered, some ice, but well traveled and comparatively well maintained. I thought, if I needed to return the way I came, this would be a good road. I am always thinking of plans B, C, and D. As a measure of safety I did see a handful of trucks on the road, and a few drivers even stopped to see if I needed anything. Backroads travelers look out for each other. The roads off Route 89 were not easily traveled. I had picked some smaller roads to travel to Pactolus but they snow accumulation was too great. Even with fat tires at low pressures 5-10 inches of soft snow, combined with climbing, and a loaded touring bike reduces your forward progress remarkably. So I stuck to the best roads. The ride took me from Gabbs Valley to the Big Smokey Valley, I passed the southern tips of the Paradise Range, Shoshone Mountains, and Toiyabe Range. I was riding through the Ione Wash and along the Cedar Mountains and Royston Hills. I passed mines, wells, and springs.
Day 2 (link to route in RWGPS) was riding on snow covered dirt roads, without the snow this route would be perfect for any mountain or gravel bike. The weather was good but I was on the edge of the storm that was dumping record amounts of snow in the Sierras that would close major highways for days. I rode through minimal snowfall. I had minimal headwind, reasonable crosswinds, and I enjoyed the tailwinds. Often the skies clouded over with thick dark clouds that could blot out the sun, produced snow squalls in all directions, but ultimately created the most dynamic lighting across the sea of sage. I covered 46.7 miles, climbed 1880′, and it was all new. I found a place to pitch my tarp. I was in view of The Crescent Dunes Solar Power Plant and not far from Tonopah.
Day 3 started with a visit to the solar array. I watched a handful of workers arrive in the time I was there. They had a gazebo/interpretive center to lure me in. I was particularly impressed with the wildlife display for the Crescent Dunes. That could make a fun outing itself. I convinced myself that I was two days into my trip and one day behind. I needed to alter my route and time-table to make this work. Do I turn around at Tonopah? Goldfield? I really wanted to include Paymaster Canyon. What is this storm doing? It was amazing to see Nevada blanketed in snow from floor to ceiling. Usually the snowline is a thousand or so feet off the deck. But this has implications for bike travel, snow and ice covered roads are slow, after the snow melts the mud isn’t any faster. It was about 25 miles to Tonopah and I decided I would start heading north after a quick visit to the Tonopah Brewery and BBQ.
I was looking forward to a pint and a basket of Burnt Ends. I had a pint of .999 IPA but the Burnt Ends were out. I can recommend the Pulled Pork Sliders and I’m sure the rest of the menu wont disappoint. I got a little information about the Snow-mageddon that cause havoc in the Sierras, but I wasn’t too worried this far to the east. Leaving Tonopah I looked to the west to Paymaster Canyon. It was completely hidden in a snow squall. I considered heading that way for an extra night, but I headed north on US 95.
Fifteen miles or so out of Tonopah is a rest stop I knew was closed. But I thought I might stop there anyway for a break. The mountains on either side of 95 kept ghostly appearing and vanishing in the low clouds. In driving this route you wiz passed the mountains in minutes, they capture your attention for some fraction of that, but by bike you really spend significant time riding along them. They get your full attention. They become your riding partners. As I approached the rest stop I recognized a familiar face, Galen Watson was standing next to his truck.
He and his wife were coming home from Las Vegas after visiting family. I didn’t recognize him passing me but he recognized me by my bike. They were concerned about me in light of the weather and the forecast for snow in Hawthorn. I thanked them for the offer, said I probably should accept, but graciously (stubbornly?) declined. We said our goodbyes, and I watched my “lifeboat” sail away, ha! I spent a few more hours on the road then found a relatively snow free site to pitch my tent behind a water diversion berm. Pitching my tent this time taught me how the frozen ground cant torture your tent pegs. All my tent pegs have an S-curve in them now.
The end of Day 3 (route in RWGPS) was a paved day of riding, 51.6 miles, with a climb into Tonopah of 1,300′. The day was coldest, mostly from the lack of sunshine and some wind. It was great popping into the brewery and running into Galen on the highway. I had Google Mapped my return route quickly in the brewery but didn’t memorize the details. Do I have 50 miles to Mina, 10 more to Luning, 70 more to the car? Oh, well. I was plenty prepared for 2-3 more days on the road. Lets see what I can see!
Day 4 rolled out beautifully. I don’t think I would ever seek to tour along US 95. At best you are given a white line, a rumble strip and a foot of blacktop to ride on. Traffic wizzes by at 70-90 mph but I must say everyone was respectful and supportive. One distinct feature of the desert is the abandoned railroad grade of the C&C Railway. The C&C, Carson and Colorado, was a north-south railroad connecting the Carson River at Mound House, NV to Keeler, CA. This 300 mile railroad is mostly an abandoned railroad grade minus a portion that currently links Hawthorne to the Central Pacific line at Hazen, NV. It would be a grand expedition to trace this as closely as possible by bike. I hopped on the grade to check it out as well as get away from traffic. The going was slow, the bed is being reclaimed by the desert, and is partially covered by snow. I was assured this was the old grade and not some random berm by the sections where the railroad ties were left behind. All in all, super cool! The speed was about 1/2 of what I was doing on the highway, and the effort was greater. The beds are broken where water must get through. At this time, riding through these washes also meant mud. Eventually efficiency overrode adventure and I was back on US 95.
I passed some great Nevada Historical Markers to remind me of trips that must happen. First off, Silver Peak was on my route for this trip. Founded in 1864, from gold, silver, and other minerals to modern day lithium, also has an abandoned railroad, and plenty to explore for a multi day outing. Next was Columbus and the Columbus Salt Marsh. I too had a route planned across this alkali flat but will have to wait for drier days. Next was Candalaria and Metal City. I have been around the Candalaria Hills, but not through. These will all become trips in 2022.
Getting through Mina was sketchy. From the white line on the edge of the highway it becomes a steep gravel shoulder. It was passable on the fat bike, but if I were on a gravel/road bike I would probably be hiking or searching for an alternate route. I really wanted to stop at Socorro’s in Mina for a burger. It was awesome! Cold and windy, but awesome! From Mina it was a 10 mile cruise to Luning then a climb up NV 361 to Rabbit Springs Road, Isabella Pearl Mine, and my campsite for the night. The last two nights I tried ending my day at least an hour before sunset. It was so much better than setting up in the dark.
Day 4 (route RWGPS) ended with 57 miles, 1,800′ of climbing, a whole lot of US 95, a little abandoned RR grade, and signs to future rides. One mistake I had been repeating on this trip was not unpacking my quilt during the day to give it a chance to dry. It was losing loft over the torso area. I knew if I wanted another warm nights sleep I would need to dry it out the next day. I was kicking myself for not taking the time mid-day to tend to it.
Packing up with a sunrise on Soda Spring Valley I was surprised by my feeling of affinity to the area. I have done one tour from here to Sand Mountain and back, and have driven through more than a handful of times, but I really feel at home. Luning is now home to the Luning Solar Center in addition to all the mining interests. I know I will be back to further explore the Gabbs Valley Range, Pilot Mountains, and the Garfield Hills. I started out climbing NV 361 in and out of the shadows of what might be my last day of this tour. It was a glorious climb to Calvada Summit. Three hundred and sixty degrees of windswept snow covered landscape accentuating roads leading somewhere interesting. Another day of possibilities.
From Petrified Summit I had a 25 mile descent. It took me a while I was dropping into Gabbs Valley, headed to Gabbs, and my turn-off should be insight. To the east and south east I was looking over Stewart Valley, roads and washes for days. I turned off from NV 361 onto Rawhide Rd. It was so fast! I had a tailwind, slight downhill, sunshine and I was motivated! I was thinking I could camp along Fissure Ridge and finish the trip with a short day. That thought was quickly derailed as I turned off Rawhide Rd and encountered a progressively muddy but traveled road. Ahead I could see big machinery collecting fill material that was being used to build a road near the geothermal power plant. I couldn’t risk it. The tendency is to go a little further, that mud wasn’t bad, get a little stuck, then decide to turn back, now you are twice as deep in it, spending all that time scraping mud from your bike and potentially damaging your drivetrain. So I turned back to the main roads that ring the alkali flat.
I was missing out on Fissure Ridge. My original route crossed the playa to Mud Windmill, but unless that road was significantly raised and durable I was going to be retracing my route around the east shore of the playa. I could have revisited Rawhide Hot Springs and the boundary dunes. Fissure Ridge and Mud Windmill will have to wait. I did revisit Car Frame Windmill. My friend Doug Artman had met the rancher who shoed him how to get water from the storage tank. I need that beta.
I came to a couple of familiar crossroads. The first was with Rawhide, I’dano, Rabbit Springs, and a criss-crossing of SR 31 and 839. I see a gravel grind in my future on SR 31 and 839. Turning onto I’dano (is this a play on “I don’t know”? It is now!) the next familiar spot was our campsite from last year’s Rawhide Overnight. It was a January trip, it was cold, but the friends were the best. Now I was psyching myself up for the final climb to the car. At the same time I was psyching myself up for this trip being over. Not an easy thing. In being honest with myself I was looking forward to not putting in the work of setting up/tearing down camp. At the same time, looking around, the desert floor was muddy. It would take a little more work finding a suitable campsite.
I was playing the game of, “How far do you think it is to that…” How long do you think it will take? Garmin says it is …. This is also a time to pull out the Ipod, listen to some favorite podcasts, or whatever is in que. When people ask if I listen to music or anything while riding, my answer is no. Most of the time I don’t have my Ipod with me. When I do listen a bit I am always impressed by the sounds of nature I hear when I’m not. The birds, coyotes and silence were my favorite sounds on the trip. With the wonders of technology I can see my final climb was 9 miles, 1,300′, getting gradually steeper to a max grade of 10%. In my mind it was just a little further with a wall of climbing. I was earning some great views looking back over my shoulder.
Back at the car it was a quick unload. A slight rearrange of things to get the bike on the rack. I set up my camera for some timer-assisted selfies, had a beer, and was thinking of the burrito I would have in Fallon. A white work truck pulled up, they were Rawhide mine workers. They wanted to know if I needed anything, water, soda. I accepted the Pepsi they handed me. This was just another great example of how friendly people are to travelers. Day 5 (route RWGPS) was over except for the drive home. The paved NV 361 and great dirt roads through Gabbs Valley made short time of the 49 miles, 2,500′ of climbing, and handful of days of future rides off this route.
The trip was just shy of 240 miles with 8,600′ of climbing. I would highly recommend this route with an alternative to the portion on US 95. Everything from what I wore, to what I carried, worked flawlessly. Here is the breakdown.
The bike is a custom built steel frame and fork by Meriwether Cycles. It is a longtailed fat bike taking inspiration from the Salsa Blackborrow. The Salsa is labeled an expedition bike, and the ability to carry more (gear, water, food) over a greater variety of terrain was my intention. I had two fat bikes prior, the Surly Ice Cream Truck and the KHS 4-Seasons 5000. The Surly had too many frame geometry concessions in the S and XS to satisfy my needs and was very heavy, the KHS was a carbon race bike and had too many cargo limitations to rectify. Being small, having a specific bike in mind, and wanting the craft of a hand-built custom frame lead me to Meriwether. The result is not only functional but the bike is a conversation starter.
- Is that an e-bike? No, it is a me-bike. I am the only motor. It is surprising how easy it is to pedal.
- Are those motorcycle tires? No, these are Vittoria Cannoli bicycle tires, they are about 4.5″ wide
- I bet you can ride up anything! Thanks for the confidence, it keeps me riding far past where I might start pushing my conventional bikes. But fat bikes and their riders still have their limitations.
- How much does it weigh? I honestly don’t know. It can get real heavy real fast. It has carried 11L 0f water in addition to everything else. I am most weight conscious with this bike. It was built with parts from my KHS. As I replace things I am looking for lighter replacements. But once it is rolling it rides like a bike much lighter than it appears.
- What goes in the space between the seat tube and the rear tire? That has been dubbed the Squirrel Cage. It has typically carried my kitchen and food.
For this trip I took planning my pack list a little further than I would for an overnight. But ultimately there was little difference in the end result. Since I took the time to write it all down I can share it here. The frame and fork have particular bosses to attach custom bags and holders. Starting on the seat stays, standard triple boss mounts hold two Cleveland Mountaineering Everything Bags. These holstered two bags, one carried my sleep kit; down booties, wool socks, base layer top and bottom, hat, gloves, the other carried emergency supplies; pump, tire and tube repair, space blanket, first-aide kit, bike tool kit, rear light, helmet light. The second bag was never touched. The Squirrel Cage carried a silicone bowl, two fuel canisters, stove, kitchen kit. The frame bag had 8+ days of food. Tank bag; sunscreen, multi tool, voile straps, 2 snack bars, car key, bandana. Feed bag; left- trail mix, right- backup battery, Ipod, SPOT, headlamp. Handlebar harness; tent, inflatable sleeping pad, space blanket. Accessory pouch; camera, tripod, spare socks (the afterthought pouch). Fork bags; left- weather proof jacket and gloves (did not touch), right- oatmeal, pot/fuel, towel, knife. Seat bag, Patagonia hybrid sleeping bag, Sierra Designs quilt, OR Helium down jacket. My fork and down tube carried three 1.4L Nalgene bottles. For winter travel this represented 2 days water. The custom bags are from Nuclear Sunrise Stitchworks.
What I wore; I am partial to the Kuhl brand, the perfect mix of tech and casual for touring. I got a pair of the Klash pants just for this trip. They are the perfect pants for winter adventure, great fabric, fit and design features. My favorite: the built in gaiter. The Airspeed LS shirt is my 4-seasons choice in shirts. My base layer; a merino wool neck gaiter, DeFeet ss undershirt, Craft windstopper front boxers, DeFeet Wollie Bollie socks, liner socks, liner gloves.
This fat bike stops for all interpretive signs