Furnace Creek 508 Course Description
This course description was written to give riders a feeling of familiarity as they venture across the deserts of Southern California. As abilities vary, everyone will have their own opinions about the climbs, the scenery, etc. The list of major climbs does not attempt to account for every elevation change. Along the road, you will encounter many ups and downs, so to speak!
Beth Dingo Dawson
1st place, Women's Div, RAAM Open West, 4/90
2nd place, Women's Div, Furnace Creek 508, 10/91
(#) These numbers refer to climbs, see 'Outline of Major Climbs' below. Miles are estimates based on the official route.
Out of San Francisquito Canyon (Miles 1–30)
The course begins on San Francisquito Canyon. In these first miles, there are some small climbs (#1), one longer one, but nothing exceptional. The weather may be cool and foggy. Stay left on Spunky Canyon and continue with rolling hills. There's one short, steep hill just before the left on Elizabeth Lake; the top of this climb is where the crew will wait and be ready for the rider to ditch leg warmers, jackets, etc. and prepare for hot weather ahead.
Windmills to Mojave (Miles 30–110)
After the right on Johnson, the Avenues are flat. With luck there'll be a tailwind, but you may get strong cross winds. There are a few small climbs (#2) and one last longer hill up Backus/Hwy 114 until the right on Oak Creek. This right is right past the top of the climb, and usually has bad gravel in the inside of the turn. Then there's a great downhill into Mojave. Time Station 1, California City, is on the flats past Mojave. The crew should help navigate turns at Ave. A (miles 40 - 44), Oak Creek (mile 60), Mojave (miles 70 - 72), and in Cal City. By this time, the weather is usually dry and hot. Take precautions for hot weather before it becomes a problem. Be prepared with light-colored clothes, ice, sun screen, and lots of water. Try ice on the feet for swelling. Put a small towel under the helmet and down the neck to protect from the sun. Also, pour ice water on the rider's back and neck to keep cool.
Climbs into Panamint Valley (Miles 110–200)
Past California City is a long flat section with a few rollers. The hill into Jo'burg (#3) is steeper than it looks. A good climbing gear is recommended. It's a gradual, straight climb with a couple of turns at the top. The next miles past Randsburg are rolling hills, with awesome downhills at miles 125 and 135. A good aero position gives you an opportunity to hit top speeds and rest the legs.
Trona, Time Station 2, has gas, ice, and food supplies at a small market. Stock up; you may not see an open store again until Baker on Sunday morning. In fact, the race leaders may go through Baker before dawn on Sunday, which means that if the van stops, the rider will have to stop, too. Be prepared to finish the rest of the race without stops.
The miles out of Trona are pretty flat and easy. There's a gradual climb (#4) before the turn on to Panamint Valley Road. The road surface gets pretty bumpy; wide tires with less air pressure and a gel saddle cover ease the pounding.
Townes Pass through Death Valley (Miles 200–330)
Townes Pass (#5) is the real mountain climb of the whole race—10 miles up to 5000'. There are elevations markers at 2000', 3000', and at 4000'. After the right turn at mile 200, the climb is gradual to 2000', steeper from 3000' to 4000', then it does level off for the last mile even though you'll probably be too tired to notice. Be prepared for this climb with a bail-out gear around 40 inches or lower (a front/back of 39/26 or 42/28). Invariably, riders with a triple chain ring win the race to the top of this climb, passing those who are struggling with a 42/24 or worse yet, walking.
The top of Townes Pass is a good place for some hot drink or food and to prepare for the cold downhill into Death Valley. If it's not already dark, go ahead and get ready for night following—check flashing lights, put on slow-moving vehicle triangle, put lights on the bike, change to clear glasses, and maybe wash off the sunscreen.
The descent from Townes Pass into Stovepipe Wells dips down in a series of stair-like steps. If you are riding at night, the rider will go over the edge of a dip and plunge into total darkness, a couple of seconds ahead of the van's lights. The road surface here is usually very good; fresh asphalt is laid down every few years.
After Stovepipe Wells, the course turns south and goes through Death Valley. There may be headwinds from this point to the end of the race. The Valley itself is flat, descending to a low elevation of -282' below sea level. Once past the ranger's houses and the campgrounds at Furnace Creek, time station #3, the valley is mostly featureless. In some years, the headwinds have been so bad that some riders actually walked their bikes. It can make reaching down to grab a water bottle difficult. In any case, sometimes upbeat music on the speakers can help motivate the rider through this section.
Climbing out of Death Valley are two gradual hills (#6), Jubilee Pass, 1000', and Salsberry, a 2000' climb that goes up to 3300'. The climbing starts after Ashford Mills; there are elevation markers only on the second hill, Salsberry.
The downhill off Salsberry Pass goes into Shoshone, Time Station 4. After 8am, the store is open, but it does have 24 hour “pay at the pump.” Most riders will go through this time station at night.
For riders who are considering a sleep stop, Shoshone makes a good place. The motel is comfortable and friendly, with small kitchenettes in each room. Also, although the winds in Death Valley may be frustrating, the temperatures during the day can be downright dangerous. It is a good idea to get through it during the night.
Baker and the Desert Climbs (Miles 330–400)
After one short climb (#7) past Shoshone, the road to Baker is downhill and then flat. After sunrise, the temperatures will rise. Watch for heavy traffic, including RVs and trucks from the motorcycle raceway. Even though the sun may rise during this section, it may be a good idea to continue following to make sure the rider is safe from traffic.
In Baker, Time Station 5, stock up on food, water, ice, and gas. This is the last opportunity to do so until the finish line, and if you finish at night the stores in 29 Palms may not be open. The race leaders may go through Baker before dawn on Sunday, which means that if the van stops, the rider will have to stop, too.
The road out of Baker into the Mojave National Preserve has several cattle guards. The climb (#8) is the first of three left in the race. It isn't too steep but it goes on forever—around 20 miles. There is a section with a couple of turns, but otherwise it's straight. There probably won't be traffic other than race officials. Some of the road surface is fairly rough. Most racers will see sunrise somewhere between Shoshone and Kelso.
Kelso and I-40 (Miles 400–450)
Watch for hazardous railroad crossings in Kelso. Be sure to ride over them at a 90° angle to the rails. The next climb (#9) is also deceptive, but not as long as the last. At the top is where the dirt road drive-through section used to be, but not anymore. The downhill to I-40 is fast; watch for cattle guards and other obstacles.
Amboy to the Finish Line (Miles 450–508)
Don't count on the gas station in Amboy being open. Past Amboy is the last climb up the Sheep Hole Mts. (#10), site of the final Time Station. The road into 29 Palms usually has a strong headwind. Try sprinting for landmarks to break up the monotony in this flat, unending section. In this crucial section of the race, be sure to keep the rider well-fed, well-hydrated, and focused on that finish line!
Outline of Major Climbs
By Beth Dawson
Climb Name - Feet of Climbing - Highest Elevation - Mileage Location
#1 San Fran Canyon - 2500' 3500' - 10-25mi
Rolling hills; the climb before the turn to Elizabeth Lake is short and moderately steep.
#2 To the Windmills - 1000' - 4000' - 44-57mi
There is a gradual climb through a mountain of windmills before the right turn on Oak Creek.
#3 Jo'burg - 1500' - 3500' - 110-117mi
This deceptively steep climb begins after the right to Johannesburg; steeper section at the top.
#4 Panamint Valley ("The Trona Bump") - 1000' - 2600' - 160-175mi
On Trona Road before Panamint Valley Road, gradual uphill, twisty downhill with bad road surface.
#5 Townes Pass 3800' - 4956' - 200-213mi
Hwy 190 to Stove Pipe Wells; elevation signs at 2000', 3000', and 4000'; climb is gradual to about 2000', then steep grades of 10-12% or more to over 4000'; the last mile is gradual; overall, this is a long and challenging climb best ridden with a triple chainring, or at least a 39/27 gear ratio.
#6 Jubilee, Salsberry - 3000'+ - 3000' - 300-317mi
Gradual climbs from below sea level out of Death Valley; short downhill after Jubilee at 1000' then uphill to the top of Salsberry just past 3000'.
#7 Ibex Pass - 750' - 2000' - 333-340mi
Easy, short climb out of Shoshone
#8 Kelso Peak - 2500' - 3500 -' 384-415
Gradual, very long 20-mile climb out of Baker.
#9 Granite Mtns - 2000' - 4000' - 422-434
Gradual uphill out of Kelso.
#10 Sheeps Hole Mt. - 1500' - 2200' - 475-485
Past Amboy, shorter and steeper than the previous two climbs: last climb of the race.