Oakland to Chicago – Woodfords, CA to Great Basin National Park
Denis Kertz, ©2001
It was a gusty, windy night and I was glad I had a freestanding tent. Once when I got up to star gaze a gust of wind lifted one side of my tent and the tent pegs off the ground. Only the weight of my panniers inside the tent kept the tent in place. I was worried what the wind was going to be like when riding but the wind calmed down quite a bit by morning.
When I got up a little after 7:00, I hurried to get packed up, hoping I could get a real breakfast in Genoa, 20 miles away. I was off by 8:15. I descended back to Woodfords and caught the Emigrant Trail to get off of 98. This put me up on a hill that gave a great panoramic view of a basin on the right changing to ranch land on the left, all surrounded by hills. The road ended at Foothill Road and I followed it as it skirted the foothills all the way to Genoa. It was great riding in cool temperatures and mostly downhill.
Just outside Genoa I was forced to stop for construction while some old motorcycles pulled in behind me. The flag woman told me this was a group of old time motorcycles, one had a belt-driven pulley, and I had seen them motoring towards Markleeville yesterday. They were on their way to Virginia City today.
In Genoa all I found was a country store where I got a ham, cheese, and egg sandwich that was very good but not quite a real breakfast. Leaving Genoa, the riding was still great until I picked up 395 into Carson City. I was reminded what heavy traffic was like although I had a wide shoulder. Once in town I stopped at a phone booth and looked up the library that was just off my route on the way out of town.
I was now on US 50 for the first time, reputed to be The Loneliest Road in America, but this certainly wasn’t a lonely highway. After I turned right after passing the Nevada capital and several casinos, I stopped at the library and got on the Internet within 5 minutes. I checked my email and hit the road. The traffic leaving town was heavy but again there was a good shoulder but I also caught a lot of diesel fumes.
I continued on to Dayton intending to camp at the Dayton State Park but I was there by 2:00 after only 46 miles. So after refreshments I decided to continue on to Silver Springs, another 28 miles. The highway finally narrowed to two lanes but still with a good shoulder and easy riding. I could tell it was getting hot again based on my cyclometer LCD display.
In Silver Springs I stopped at 4:00 for a pizza. Then I continued another 10 miles to a campground at Lahontan Recreation Area. Along the way the traffic dropped off considerably but the shoulder also disappeared. A little later a 3’ wide shoulder reappeared but someone decided to put inverted rumble strips right in the middle of the shoulder, effectively making the shoulder useless for riding, a waster of real estate as I rode the white line.
When I got to the east end of the Lahontan reservoir, I pulled in to camp. The sign said you had to pay before entering so I paid $10 because I didn’t have the required $8 in change. Then there was no sign for camping and the road across the dam was closed, where it looked like there could be camping on the other side. So I picked a spot on the beach and set up. I was surprised to find hot showers in the rest room so at least I got a good cleaning.
Then the evening’s unexpected entertainment began. The reservoir was a fishing spot as attested by a half dozen or so people fishing. The reservoir was very low, threatening to become the lowest in 7 years. As a result, there was about a 100-yard deep beach that sloped to the water. An access road was on a small cliff above the beach so vehicles had to drive down a road and then come back along the beach. However, the beach area consisted of loose gravel and sand that was no problem for a 4-wheel drive vehicle but not such a sure thing for a car. Two 4-wheel vehicles were well positioned with two cars further down the beach.
Then a third car came zipping along to the far end of the beach that was blocked by a water outlet. The driver tried to turn around in the loose gravel/sand but failed as he kept trying to turn up the beach slope. Apparently it never occurred to him that trying to turn uphill was doomed to failure. All he needed to do was back around downhill to get turned around. After several tries and lots of spewing gravel he gave up. About that time one of the 4-wheel drive fisherman was getting ready to leave in his pickup. He advised the guy to back along the beach contour until he got to a more compacted spot where he managed to turn around.
Meanwhile the fisherman took off in his pickup and then I noticed him towing one of the other cars from a soft area to a hard packed area. Meanwhile, although the original guy managed to turn around he could not advance up the slope to get to a compacted area. So the pickup guy came back to tow this guy but his chain broke and ruined that approach. So the pickup guy advised the guy to back up and try a running start but this failed after a couple of tries. About this time I expected to be seeing the car on the beach when I woke up in the morning when the pickup guy gave up on the car driver. He took over the car driving and after backing up and a couple of running starts managed to get the car to the high ground. Then he fled the scene before anybody else could get in trouble.
Of course the other, real fisherman remained in his 4-wheel drive SUV. He got in his SUV and made what I thought was a weird circle but he just re-positioned his SUV to point it at the water. Then he turned his lights on so he and his compatriots could continue fishing despite the darkness.
So the night turned out to be an entertaining one on a wonderfully cool evening. And it reinforced the importance of a bicycle. If you get stuck, you can always push or carry.
I woke up just before 7:00 after a cool night of restful sleep. There were already two groups of fishermen in business. The morning view of the reservoir was great with the sun casting shadows on the hills surrounding the reservoir.
I packed up and was off around 8:00. It was 16 miles to Fallon and I knew I would get a real breakfast since Fallon was a sizeable town. At the junction of 50 and Alt 95 I turned right and the awful rumble strip that was 3-4” wide in the direction of travel changed to a tolerable narrow rumble strip that was semi-rideable. That allowed me to ride more aggressively next to the white line without fear I might lose control if I hit a rumble.
It was an easy ride into town and I stopped at the first breakfast place. I had the Hungryman’s Traveler’s Special that included all-you-can-eat pancakes. Such a deal. I had a second helping of a stack of pancakes. I lingered quite a while in this luxury until shortly after 11:00.
I had almost 50 miles to the next service place, Middlegate, so I needed to get going. I called ahead to the (only) motel to make sure it existed and didn’t fill up on a weekend. Interestingly, even though the motel was 50 miles away it was still just a 25¢ local call. When the motel was taken care of, I stopped at a grocery store to pick up a few things and was off.
After about 6 miles I stopped at the last place for refreshments and then was committed to make Middlegate, which I didn’t expect to be a problem. The first 25 miles from Fallon were easy riding with light traffic and improving view as I headed to the first climb.
About 15 miles outside of Fallon I approached Salt Wells that my AC map showed as having no services. There wasn’t much there but there were some streamers by a building that caught my attention. Then as I passed some advertising made it clear this establishment did offer certain non-standard services so it looks like I will have to contact AC with a correction to their services list. I was tempted to stop when I saw a sign for cold beer but knew I didn’t have time for “messing” around.
The first climb of the day to Sand Springs Pass at 4,644’ was a modest 700’ climb over 3-4 miles and never slowed me below 6 mph. The reward for the modest effort was a great view of a basin and another mountain range in the distance. Supposedly this is the pattern for most of US 50 – basin, range, basin, range, etc. Easily the best view of the trip so far. This was followed by a nice descent. Then another modest climb to Drumm Summit at 4,600’ and another easy descent and a turnoff to Middlegate.
Middlegate was a 3-horse town with a bar/store and a motel unit. If I had been a week later, I would have been attending the world famous Biker Bar-B-Q with free camping, a pig roast, and a band dance. Instead I had to pay $25 for a motel but first I got a cold refreshment and wandered the premises. There was a full basketball court of 25’ where I was charged by two dogs from different directions. So I flashed my winning smile and made friends with the dogs. There were two horses and a colt out in the field so I whistled and they came running for attention. This place had it all – basketball court, dogs, horses, cold beer, and a warm shower.
I got my motel key and arranged to get my room and food bill on a tab. After cleaning up, I ate at the bar (barbeque beef sandwich) and wrote my notes. It was a great day of travel as I left Fallon and started the real part of the Nevada trip on the Loneliest Road in America, US 50.
It cooled off quite a bit overnight and I needed the heavy blanket on my bed since I hadn’t turned on the heat. I got up just after 7:00 and headed to the bar for breakfast. I had 3 pancakes and ham, a substantial breakfast. The cook said they saw a lot of cyclists. Not too surprising since any cyclist riding US 50 pretty well needed to stop at every service place along the way including this one. During summer she said cyclists get up at 4 or 5 am to get where they want to be by noon, rest up during the heat of the afternoon, and ride some more in the evening. She said most cyclists ordered pancakes as I did. My bill for motel, dinner, and breakfast was $47.
After breakfast I packed up and partially filled one of my 2-liter water bags as a precaution. I normally carried 3 large water bottles and 1 regular size water bottle. I took off just before 9:00 with 64 miles to Austin. I started a gradual climb where I rode at a steadily decreasing speed of 10, 9, 8, and 7 mph. There was an option of shortening my route by 2 miles via 722 but the price was too high – a climb to 7,452’ Carroll Summit. US 50 avoided this climb by heading up Edwards Creek Valley, seeking a better place to cross the Desatoya Mountains.
Along the way I stopped at a roadside historical marker that commemorated the Pony Express that operated for 18 months during 1860-1861 until the transcontinental railroad took over. The route through Nevada roughly paralleled US 50 although there were very few remnants of that episode left over. This spot had a trail that led to some remnants of a Pony Express station but I passed on the mile or so hike it required.
After 15 miles I stopped at Cold Springs, the last services until Austin, another 50 miles. I had a Gatorade and banana and chatted with the bartender. He said a few days earlier I would have had a 40 mph tailwind. Leaving Cold Springs I had a gradual descent followed by a long ascent up the basin until the road found a gap between the mountains aided by some rock blasting. At 6,348’ I reached New Pass Summit.
For most of the morning the temperature was pleasantly cool with some wisps of clouds helping to mitigate the effects of the sun. However, by noon the clouds had dissipated and any wind was blocked in the gap of the mountains. It started to get quite warm and stayed so except for an occasional cooling breeze.
New Pass Summit was followed by a short descent and then a climb to Mt. Airy Summit at 6,679’. This was followed by a long 7-mile descent. Near the bottom of this descent, I stopped to check out a historical marker. There was an RV parked in the pull off and the woman in the RV started querying about my trip. She and her husband were originally from Iowa, now lived in Fallon, and were returning from a trip to Great Basin National Park. Their grandchildren were now back in Iowa where she wanted to be but the husband, standing behind his wife in the doorway of the RV, motioned that he was happy in Fallon without letting on to his wife. It was all I could do to keep from laughing.
After this short conversation, I continued on to finish the day’s ride. The road started climbing to Austin and got quite steep towards the end where I dropped down to my 2nd lowest gear. Austin, at 6,877’ and population 370, once was a thriving mining town with a population of 10,000 in the 1870s when silver was discovered.
I climbed up the road through Austin, noting the three motels and eating establishments. I stopped at a mini-mart for ice cream and refreshments. I inquired about motels, not wanting to camp in the RV park, the only camping option, and got directed to the cheapest one in town. After cleaning up I walked up the street to a cafe for a burrito boat and another ice cream. Then I retired to a bar strategically located right across from the motel where I wrote my notes. There the bartender told me there was no grocery store in town other than the mini-mart and folks drove 90 miles to Fallon for their shopping sprees. At first I thought this was odd until I remembered I grew up near a small town the size of Austin and we drove 60 miles to St. Louis for the big shopping sprees. Of course, there were some other closer shopping options about 10 miles away but the similarities were there.
Up at 6:30 I headed out to breakfast. I noticed the restaurant right across the road was open for breakfast, which I hadn’t expected. Moreover, the motel proprietress was the cook, up early after having handled the cooking until 9:00 the night before. I had pancakes and ham which was OK but not as good as Middlegate.
On my way out of town I stopped at the mini-mart for some food supplies to make it through the day. Then, due to road construction through town, a flag woman stopped me. I wasn’t allowed to ride through the construction area, fearing I would be too slow going up the steep hill. So I was forced to put my bike in the pilot pickup, which was no small feat since we had to lift the loaded bike over the tailgate, which couldn’t be lowered. The pilot driver helped and we struggled to get the bike in. So I got about a mile ride through the toughest part of the remaining climb to Austin Pass at 7,484’. I also learned from the driver that an outfit from Minnesota was laying fiber optic cables across Nevada. This explained the large spools of colored cable I had seen yesterday along the road. I would continue to see evidence of fiber optics the rest of the way through Nevada.
At the pilot turnaround it was much easier to get the bike out of the pickup as I only had to lift it over the tailgate and hand it down to a guy who came over to help. Then I climbed the rest of the way and made my way down a short but winding descent. This was followed by a modest climb to Bob Scott Summit at 7,195’. The ensuing descent was a nice relaxing run followed by another modest climb to Hickison Summit at 6,594’.
At this point after about 20 miles, the road was a long, about 40 miles, run through a wide basin. This was an easy ride as I was often effortlessly doing 17-19 mph. Some of this was probably due to a slight downhill but I noticed there was almost no wind noise that could only mean that I had a fair tailwind.
About half way across the basin I found a sign I never expected to see – Rest Area 1 Mile. So even though I was cruising effortlessly I couldn’t pass this up. However, this was not a typical rest area. It consisted of a picnic table with an awning over it for shade. Despite the limited facility this was a welcome respite from the sun and a chance to rest my legs.
After about 15 minutes another car pulled into the rest area and, for some inexplicable reason, chose to stop at my table even though there was another table nearby. After chatting a bit I made my getaway just as an RV pulled in. Then another car pulled in so it looked like I got out at just the right time.
Speaking of traffic, it was interesting that there was little traffic in the morning until about 11:30 when a stream of about 30 vehicles must have whizzed by within 10 minutes. So much for the lonely road...
The next interesting event occurred at the 45-mile mark when I saw something else I never expected – water. There was a pool of water that I just happened to see near the road and could have easily missed. Since I had plenty of water and this water was on the other side of a fence I didn’t stop. Just a little later I saw another even smaller pool of water on the other side of the road. So much for the desert…
On the subject of water, since today was the longest stretch without water, I filled my 2-liter water bag in addition to my 3 large water bottles and 1 regular water bottle. When I finished my regular water bottle, I grabbed the large one on the down tube and discovered I had forgotten to fill it. So for the first time I used one of the two large water bottles that fit on my rear panniers. For the day I used up almost both large bottles and the regular one – less than I thought I would use on a 70-mile trip.
Of course, cruising at 17-19 mph is too good to be true and it ended as the tailwind switched between a headwind and a side wind. Then it was another construction area that required a 10-15 minute wait. After this construction area, the road snuck between two large hills and the scene opened up on a valley of ranches instead of the usual basin.
Finally, the road began its ascent to Eureka with a fairly strong headwind. So I started creeping up the hill at about 6 mph. I pulled into Eureka and found – road construction. The road through town was a mess as they were chewing up the road in preparation for repaving. I kept an eye out for motels as I rode through town. Like Austin, the camping option was an RV park and not my idea of camping. I stopped at a mini-mart for refreshments. When I asked the guy for the cheapest motel he tried to steer me to the motel next door but I wasn’t fooled. I went back to my first choice and got a room for $28 although I had to pay cash. I ate Chinese at a café that advertised American/Chinese food and it was almost more than I could eat. Almost. Then I stopped at the Owl Club bar and wrote my notes.
I headed to the Owl Club for breakfast when I got up and had cereal and pancakes but the pancakes were a little burnt. This was alarming since breakfast had gotten increasingly worse since Fallon. I was almost afraid to eat breakfast anymore.
Back at the motel I packed up to leave. I wanted to get started a little earlier today since it was almost 80 miles to Ely. That was good because the road construction work started about 7:15, chewing up the rest of the road.
I left about 8:00 and immediately noticed my cyclometer was not working. Usually this means the magnetic pickup was misaligned but that wasn’t the case. Since I had a wireless unit, it was possible the battery in the transmitter died but my other experience with a dying battery was it didn’t die suddenly. So I removed the unit so I could position it closer to the transmitter to check for a weak transmission and managed to drop it. Although it only fell a couple feet, it died when it hit the pavement.
There was no bike shop in Eureka so I was forced to continue on without a cyclometer. Sometimes a cyclometer is essential when you need to measure distance to a turn but that wasn’t a problem for the day’s route to Ely. There were no turns and a couple of big climbs would give me a good idea where I was along the road.
So I took off and completed the climb to Pinto Summit at 7,351’. Then I had a good run out into another basin with a great view. After the run out, I noticed I had a pretty strong side wind. I started riding pretty slow, maybe 6 mph, and attributed this to the side wind. Later I realized the climb to Little Antelope Summit was about 1,000’ and I was gradually climbing even though it didn’t look like it.
When I crested the relatively easy climb to Pancake Summit at 6,521’, like most climbs I could see the highway heading straight out in the distance towards some mountains. Of course the road couldn’t continue straight and it was always a guessing game how the road was going to skirt the mountains. This time the road continued unwaveringly towards the mountains and it corkscrewed its way through gaps in the hills that weren’t obvious from a distance. The summit was reached at 7,438’ but instead of opening up on another basin the road snaked its way down through some hills sparsely covered with small trees. It would have been a great descent but I was facing a headwind that forced me to pedal at times.
I reached the summit just before 1:00 and now the presence of the headwind had me concerned I would not make Ely before 5:00 when I expected the bike shop would close. In the worst case I would have to layover, something I had already been considering. My original plan was to layover and rest in Great Basin National Park. However, I often end up hiking or biking anyway and miss the rest part so a rest day in town might actually result in some rest.
As I completed the descent, the view opened up on another scenic basin with mountains in the distance. This one was a little different as there was a ranch where I entered the basin and a cowboy was herding some cattle.
In this basin the road headed northeast as it searched for a crossing point. The wind appeared to be southeast so I made good time for a while. Then I started another long climb of about 1,000’ to Robinson Pass. This climb seemed a little easier until the last mile or so where it zigzagged to the top.
Unfortunately, at the top the road headed downhill southeast, right into the wind that seemed stronger than ever. I had to do a fair amount of pedaling to keep a reasonable speed. Since I reached the pass at about 3:19 I knew I had time to reach a bike shop in Ely if the wind was merciful. It was not. Occasionally the wind would tease by easing up only to come back more forceful.
The worst section was the last 5 miles that were wedged in between too large hills. This probably had the effect of funneling the wind and I was working just as hard going downhill as if I had been climbing. In the end I made it into Ely with about 15 minutes to spare. I found the bike shop and bough an inexpensive Cateye Velo 2 cyclometer but it wasn’t a wireless one. They did have a Cateye wireless one but it cost quite a bit more and I was reluctant to gamble on an unknown unit.
There were a bunch of inexpensive motels along the main street and I picked one out for $28. I cleaned up and ate Chinese food again. Then I wandered into the Nevada Motel to check out the casino action and saw CNN on a big TV screen and learned for the first time about the World Trade Center attack. It was strange to have had this happen in the morning and be totally unaware of it all day. Then I retired to my motel and installed my new cyclometer, still undecided whether to take a rest day tomorrow.
When I got up I was still undecided about laying over although my legs felt tired even while in bed. I had breakfast right across the street. The waitress warned me the pancakes were big and she wasn’t lying. They were about the largest I’ve ever seen though they were very fluffy. It was all I could do to finish them.
Back at the motel I checked The Weather Channel (TWC) and learned the forecast was for rain and thunderstorms. That made up my mind – a layover day. After paying for another day I did laundry right across the street where I met a firefighter from Seattle doing the same.
After laundry I checked out the local library and was able to check my email and pay a bill. Then I browsed the newspapers and magazines. I spent a fair amount of time in the library. I could get Internet access whenever I wanted and was able to research the upcoming Great Basin National Park. I also got to watch several heavy rains. Out here it apparently either barely sprinkled or rained hard. Tomorrow’s forecast was sunny so today was perfect for a layover day.
I got up before 7:00 and ate breakfast at the same place across the street. I discovered they had oatmeal so I had that and two pancakes. A good breakfast.
It was very cloudy and foggy when I got up so I didn’t rush out. I left about 8:30 and immediately met another cyclist, Nick from Muncie, Indiana, who was traveling from Muncie to San Francisco. He had just come from Majors Junction and had gotten wet yesterday in the rain. He was riding a Trek 2200 composite, a racing bike, using only rear panniers with a guitar strapped on the back! He had narrow tires, something like 700x25, and just a double chainring. I wondered how he made it up big hills.
On my way out of town I stopped at the post office and mailed a book and some maps back home. The road started with an easy climb through the valley that was ranching territory. It was also home to an elk herd but I didn’t see any. The climb to Connors Pass at 7,722’ was uneventful but followed by a nice descent. The view of the Snake Mountains on the other side of the new basin was nice but somewhat marred by haze.
I stopped at Majors Junction, a place my map said had no services, for a soda. I continued at an easy pace on a northeast heading. Then the road turned almost due north and I picked up a good tailwind that made cycling easy. The road headed north to find a way to Sacramento Pass at 7,154’ and then did a V turn to begin the climb to the pass, a fairly long climb with some headwind.
I stopped for a short break at the pass and then I virtually coasted the 15 miles to Baker with some easy pedaling. After 10 miles I took a right on 487 to Baker, leaving US 50 for the first time since picking it up in Carson City. US 50 was a great ride but hardly a lonely one. The US 50 moniker of Loneliest Road in America came from a Life Magazine article in the 1950s so traffic was probably somewhat different then. I would estimate that about 60% of the traffic I saw was RVs and motorcycles and there was a lot of truck traffic too. US 50 was especially a great ride for motorcycles as the wide-open spaces and visibility was ideal.
When I turned on to 487, it was obvious where Baker was. Off in the distance of the basin I could see a clump of green trees, a dead giveaway for the presence of civilization. In Baker, I stopped at a grocery/café. It was not yet 3:00 so I decided to continue to Great Basin National Park. It was an 8-mile climb of 2,600’ to Great Basin so I needed food and had a bean burrito that I hoped would get me there.
I started the Great Basin climb around 3:30, hoping to make the visitor center before 5:00. It was a hard, constant climb at 5 mph to make the 5.5 miles and I pulled in about 4:35, enough time to look around. However, I found the visitor center didn’t close until 5:30 so I had time to spare.
I left for the Upper Lehman campground, another 3 miles. It was a real grind at an 8% grade but I finally made it. I picked out a nice campsite along a stream, a luxury, and paid $20 for two nights. While setting up the guy from the adjacent campsite invited me for dinner but I had just eaten in Baker so I said I would stop by later.
I got set up and had a sponge bath to clean up. Then I wandered next door and had a nice visit with Aaron, Rosemary, and their daughter, Roseanne. They were from Fresno on a two-month trip with plans to visit their children back east although they were having second thoughts after the World Trade Center events.
I got up and had my breakfast of granola and muffin. Then I packed up for a day hike. I hiked the 3.4 mile Lehman Creek Trail to the Wheeler Peak Campground, all uphill gaining 2,100’. Not wanting to over do it, I hiked the easy Alpine Lake Loop to Stella and Teresa Lakes. On my way out, the intersection with the Bristlecone Trail claimed only 0.7 miles so I figured that couldn’t be too hard. In fact, it was a nice hike to the grove where these hardy trees can live over 5,000 years – the older living thing on earth. One particular tree was 3,200 years old. Even after dying a tree can still hang around for thousands of years.
Then it was time to hike back down to my campsite. I saw several deer along the way including a rare buck that I almost walked in to. Approximately 11.2 miles for the day, my idea of an “easy” day.
As I was taking care of things after the hike back at camp, I had an interesting visitor. A deer walked into my campsite and right up to my picnic table where I was sitting and sniffed my gear, apparently looking for food. She wandered off a few feet and took care of some hygienic matters. Minutes later two more deer wandered through my campsite.
Copyright Denis Kertz, 2001. All rights reserved.