USA: Arizona to California

Posted by James Anderton on March 29th, 2019


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Say what you like about America but it is an incredible place to cycle. Especially in the west of the country where the variety of scenery on offer is truly spectacular. Beautiful mountains, stunning coastline, deep canyons, wide open prairies, great lakes, pine forests and much more besides. Famous places come thick and fast. In one glorious week I cycled from the Grand Canyon to Route 66, onto Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, cycled through Las Vegas and finished up in Death Valley. There's no chance of getting bored cycling up through America.

my bike and the grand canyon arizona

My bike enjoying the view at the Grand Canyon.

I entered into Arizona from Mexico at Nogales. It felt strange being in America after all these years. It's 25 years since I was here last yet it's a place I feel I know so well. Like most people I've seen hundreds of American films, read a ton of American books and listened to a million American songs. Every town triggers a memory from some book, film or song. I've cycled in 50 countries but this is the first one, outside Britain, where English is the first language. It's great when asking for directions. I actually understand what they are saying to me. Normally when I ask for directions I struggle to understand a word. I nod my head generically, say yes and OK a lot, then thank the person profusely and quite possibly head off in the complete wrong direction. The language is as familiar as the metrics are confusing. Miles, Feet, Fahrenheit I have no idea what is what. That said my first impression of America was an excellent one. I pedalled into Arizona with a blanket of snow in all directions. What would have been desert country was turned into a winter wonderland and it was all the better for it. Arizona has a lot of excellent cycling. The state has been shaped by rivers, volcanoes and meteors. The result is some incredible scenery with high elevation deserts, funky rock formations and volcanic mountain ranges.

There is also the Grand Canyon. One of the seven wonders of the world, it is so important to Arizona that the state is nicknamed “The Grand Canyon State.” The canyon, formed over millions of years by the turbulent waters of the Colorado River, is one mile deep. It doesn't disappoint. You can cycle along the South Rim and take it all in from the many viewpoints. You can even camp right by the canyon. I'm not sure how 'allowed' this is but there are plenty of forests that run right up to the canyon that you can easy hide away in. This way you can get right up to the canyon at daybreak before all the crowds arrive. The North Rim is only 30km as the crow flies but 350km away for a bike. I couldn't be bothered. There is a lot more to Arizona than the Grand Canyon. The Mt Lemmon Highway out of Tucson is one of the great road climbs in America. A 2,000m climb on a paved road with a bike lane. You begin in the desert surrounded by cactus trees and end up high up in the cool air of a pine forest. The climb was one of Lance Armstrong's winter training spots where he perfected the art of cycling off his face. There's also a great dirt road north east out of Phoenix that takes through classic wild west scenery and finishes at the enormous Roosevelt Lake. As much as I enjoyed Arizona I found a lot of the towns you pass through a bit depressing. A lot of people looked like they were on Crystal Meth. Maybe they were. I certainly saw a lot of random RV's parked in the desert. I wonder what they were up to.

cycling up mount lemmon in Arizona

The climb up to Mt Lemmon out of Tucson, Arizona.

I headed out of Arizona along Route 66. One of the most famous roads in America. US 66 served as a primary route for those who migrated west, especially during the Dust Bowl of the 1930's. In Steinbeck's novel the Grapes of Wrath the road was turned into a powerful symbol of escape and loss. You will cycle a thousand better roads in America than the section of Route 66 I rode but for its place in American history and popular culture it is interesting. It's a pleasant cycle though especially as there is an interstate not far away that takes all the traffic. The road is empty. It was here I got hit by a storm. A local guy had warned me it was on the way the day before. 'It's going to rip' he said, 'and you will be cycling right into it'. Not really what I wanted to hear but glad I heard it. I made the most of the calm before the storm to make some yards before it hit. I also thought carefully about where I'd camp. Normally in such benign conditions I would camp out in the open without a care in the world. Knowing what was on the way I looked for shelter. I ended up pitching in a culvert. A little tunnel beneath the road. They are often full of animal shit but this one wasn't so it was the perfect place to hide if indeed a storm was coming. The quiet road meant overhead traffic was not a problem. Sure enough the storm hit mid morning the next day. The rain held off but the wind howled. Oo-oo-oo-oo. At first it was going across me and I had to grip the handlebars tight to avoid being blown into a ditch. For a few brief exhilarating minutes it was right behind me. I felt like I was on a motorbike then the road turned, as I knew it would, and I felt the full force of the storm. Oo-oo-oo-oo. I can only describe the next few hours as miserable. Forget water boarding if you want to torture someone. Get them to cycle full pelt into the eye of a storm all day everyday. I was in a wide open valley. There was nowhere to hide. Oo-oo-oo-oo. It was head down, get as low as possible on the bike and think happy thoughts. 30km and 4 hours later I crawled into a town. I tend to stay in hotels once a fortnight. Now was a good time.

the iconic route 66 in Arizona

Route 66

From Route 66 it's day to Nevada and Hoover Dam. I camped by the beautiful Lake Mead and the next day cycled into Las Vegas. I always imagined the cycle into Vegas would be rubbish but there was an excellent cycle path that started at Lake Mead. It took me all the way to the city limits without once setting wheel on a road. I don't think my visit to Vegas was a typical one. I spent $8. I didn't stay the night. I didn't have a drink. I didn't set foot in a casino. I arrived in the afternoon. Cycled up and down the strip. I then went for an $8 'all you can eat' Chinese buffet as the sun was going down. Ate about $60 worth of food until I was a wafer-thin mint away from exploding. Waddled out and then cycled up and down the strip after dark with all the neon lights flashing which was extremely cool. I filled my water bottles up at the famous Bellagio water show and bombed it out of Vegas and back into the desert to find somewhere to camp. Glad I went. Interesting place. Box ticked but not really my cup of tea.

Vegas Baby!

Las Vegas

In a day you can ride away from Vegas, out of Nevada and into California and Death Valley. The hottest, driest and lowest of all the national parks in the United States. Approximately 91% of the park is a designated wilderness area and a great place to cycle. I went to the lowest point in America. Badwater Basin at 80m below sea level. There are lots of good roads that take you away from the tourist traffic. I took a back road closed to cars up over Emigrant pass at 1,600m and camped looking down on Death Valley. Fiercely hot during the summer but nice and cold when I was there. Be warned the winds can really get up here and there are long distances between shops and water sources. You might want to stock up in case you get hit by headwinds. You want to stock up with food before entering the park anyway as the few shops in the park are ridiculously priced. Cycling out of Death Valley I met an American cyclist named Charles. In his Seventies. Wears a nose protector because of the sun. Has been cycling for four years but only in Arizona, Nevada and California. Reckons he has done every road in these 3 states. He just goes round and round. If he finds a road he enjoys when he gets to the end he turns round and cycles it again. His teeth kept falling out as he spoke to me. Interesting guy. I wonder if this will be me in 30 years time. In a way i wish it would be but for some reason I don't like to cycle the same road twice. I don't like to know what's around the bend. I will keep searching out the new until there is no more new and then I'll become an astronaut.

cycling through Death Valley in America

The descent into Death Valley

Leaving Death Valley it is a short ride to the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The Sierra Nevada is part of the American Cordillera. A chain of mountain ranges that consists of an almost continuous sequence of such ranges that form the western "backbone" of North, Central and South America . It is an incredibly picturesque mountain range. Sadly I was here at the wrong time of year. All the high passes were covered in snow. There were a couple of roads that they plough every day during the ski season so I was able to climb up above the snow line and sample a little of the Sierra Nevada. My brief glimpse was amazing as after a steep climb the road stayed high. Slaloming through pine forests, beneath a couple of snowy peaks, alongside crystal clear rivers before finally descending into wine country. From there I simply headed for the coast. Even this threw up some great cycling. Through rolling hills and orange orchards before finally hitting the Pacific Coast at Cambria.

cycling in the Sierra Nevade mountian range California

Sierra Nevada, California

Roads:

Generally very good. This is America there is a lot of lovely tarmac. You often see signs on the back roads warning of rough roads ahead simply because there is the occasional pothole. You can find good dirt roads though. Especially in Arizona where are the some excellent mountain bike trails. They are mostly fine for touring bikes although expect slow progress. You are allowed to ride the hard shoulder on the Interstate roads which isn't a lot of fun but handy if you are trying to get somewhere quick.

Time to Go:

I was there in February and March. The days were perfect for cycling. Lots of sunshine and ideal temperatures. Some very cold nights though. Especially at altitude. At this time of year you need to keep an eye on the weather because temperatures can go well below freezing at night and you might want to get yourself indoors if possible. I sat out a snowstorm in Flagstaff in Arizona. Summer is a great time to cycle but can get extremely hot. Especially in Death Valley.

Wild camping:

Easy in Arizona and Nevada. Plenty of space, scrub and forests to hide yourself away in. There are loads of national parks everywhere in America where you are allowed to camp. More difficult in California. Fences everywhere and lots of 'No Trespassing. No Excuses. $1,000 fine' signs which can be a little disconcerting. Here it becomes stealth camping. I always managed it but by exercising the utmost discretion. You can always ask but expect a mixed response. Easy to find camping gas. Walmart sells camping gas and they are in every big town.

Wind

America can be extremely windy. Pacific winds often rip through the West of America. Worth keeping an eye on as it could really hinder your progress and make distances between water seem very long. It was always windy when I was there but there was no prevailing wind. It can come from any direction. I had it in in my favour as much as it was against me.

Visa's:

Most countries require an ESTA. This can be arranged online for $15 prior to travel. It is an automated process that just checks you have no criminal record. It is valid for 3 years. If you fail the ESTA check you will need to arrange a visa proper via an embassy. It has been known for people to fail the check for no apparent reason. You can enter for 3 months. There is no fixed rule on re-entry. You basically need to convince US immigration that you aren't trying to live in America or simply trying to re-set your Visa. If there's a good time between exiting and re-entering you should be fine. Rule of thumb seems to be if you leave after 90 days in America then you will not be allowed to re-enter for 91 days. It's only a rule of thumb though. Any proof of onward travel would always help.

Bicycle Shops:

Bicycle shops are easy to find. Walmart even has a bicycle section where you can pick up inner tubes, tyres, puncture repair kits and other accessories. They sell 26" and 28" inner tubes.

Costs:

America is expensive but not as bad as I'd feared. Food is reasonably priced in the supermarkets. Noodles are only 25 cents! I was surviving easy on $15 a day. You need to love your tent though. Hotels will set you back. The cheapest hotels you are looking at are $50 although they are good quality. I pretty much camped all the time except when bad weather hit. AirBnb is a little cheaper but only if you take a private room in someone's house. Warmshowers is a great option as it is extremely active in America. There are plenty of friendly American cyclists who will happily put you up for a night or two for free. Look out for the 'All you can eat' buffet's. There are quite a few around and great value for the hungry cyclist. Also the 99 cent stores offer up some real bargains. I assume everything here is stolen because it's all half the price of the supermarkets. Apparently you can drink tap water in America but some of it tasted funny to me. There are water vending machines at most gas stations where you can get a gallon (3.6l) of drinking water for 30 cents. Bring your own bottle. There is also something called 'Promo Water' in Walmart which is free. Problem is Walmart is so big it can take you an hour to find it. Be warned that in the national parks, such as Death Valley and Grand Canyon, the prices in the shops can triple. Stock up before you enter the parks.

Electricity:

Side of the road:

Right.