Shamrock Tour® - Death Valley, California and Nevada

Text: Wynne Benti • Photography: Wynne Benti, Mark Janney, Nick K. Brown

The roads between Nevada's Amargosa Desert and California's Panamint Valley are as much about big sky and land as they are a connection to the area's historic past. It's a place where myth meets reality and the remnants of that union-abandoned mining camps, sagging cabins, collapsed mine shafts, and rusted headworks-are scattered across the landscape. Lack of water, harsh temperatures, and federal claim to hundreds of miles of land bypassed by early pioneers, have kept it looking much like it did a century ago.

Day 1: Of Mining Camps and Opera Houses

It is Monday morning, the last week of March, and a dry 31 degrees. I'm warming up my 650 GS while riding partner, Mark Janney, does the same on his vintage BMW oilhead, 1100 GS. We are standing in Beatty, NV, a desert community set between walls of rugged red volcanic breccia along the edge of the Amargosa River. The winter branches of the cottonwood trees are just beginning to show spring buds. A few miles west of here, over a century ago, prospectors Shorty Harris and Ed Cross discovered gold in the Bullfrog Hills. As word of the discovery spread, Beatty was established as a freight center for the booming Bullfrog Mining District, which was comprised of the mining camps of Rhyolite and Bullfrog. In 1906, three railroads converged here during Beatty's boom, but there is no evidence of that now, in this last surviving town of the Bullfrog Mining District.

We ride west over the southern edge of the Bullfrog Hills, to several miles of pencil-straight, wind-exposed pavement to the steel cattle guard that delineates the California-Nevada state line. Once on the California side, the highway transects a vast plain of low-lying creosote bush where the Bullfrog Hills meet the northern edge of the Amargosa Desert. This is the most direct route from Beatty to Death Valley National Park, our trip for today. There is no protection from the ever-present crosswinds until the sheltered canyon of Daylight Pass, between the Funeral and Grapevine Mountains. Along the way are vestiges of the old Bullfrog Mine, first pecked in 1904, and reincarnated during the Nevada gold boom of the 1980s. Closed over a decade ago, the massive ziggurat-shaped tailings slowly meld back into the landscape during the lengthy reclamation process.

Inside the canyon, the road winds through sandy-hued mineral rich rock - dolomite, feldspar, and quartz - to the summit of Daylight Pass where the temperature has dropped about ten degrees. Plugs of spring grass searching for moisture in the arid climate push up through the desert pavement. At Hell's Gate, we roll out of the canyon into a scene of sheer magnitude, where every detail of the landscape's treeless geography is exposed. Immense umber-colored mountains shed geological debris in fan-shaped alluviums extending thousands of feet into the curved alkaline bowl of Death Valley. An unusual smoky yellow pall hangs over the valley, perhaps kicked up by wind. The air temp climbs a good twenty degrees as we descend the bajada, dipping in and out of deep washes and blind off-camber curves. We meet the gently engineered highway into Furnace Creek, the populated heart of the valley. Traffic is congested, as the promise of spring wildflowers has filled every hotel room.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the July/August 2010 back issue.