Reader Ride: Death Valley, California

Text: David Gunther • Photography: David Gunther

I wasn’t expecting it to be this cold. As I make the right turn off U.S. Highway 50 just south of Lake Tahoe, the outside air-temperature gauge on my BMW 1200 GSA reads 28 degrees. When I left my home in Sacramento, CA, about an hour and a half prior it was still dark and the temperature was about 55 degrees. Now the early morning sun is playing hide and seek behind the granite peaks of the Sierra-Nevada, and the smells of pine and burning firewood fill the crisp mountain air as I follow the cold blacktop that is California State Route 89. I ride lines that allow me to dodge patches of frost that linger in the shadows, and I remind myself that in a few hours I will be riding across an arid desert in the hottest place in United States: Death Valley. But for now I put my heated grips on high and squeeze.

I have never been to Death Valley, only read about its mythical lore in magazines and on the Internet. It’s a very out-of-the-way place, and you have to deliberately go there to see it; there’s no just passing through. One consistent piece of advice I kept hearing was, “Don’t go in summer. It’s way too hot.” I took that advice, and as the crisp, early November, High-Sierra air is chilling my bones, I’m wondering why no one warned me about the low temperatures I’d encounter going this late in the year.  I should have known better, but it will only get warmer from here.

My ride on 89 supplies an ample amount of twisties and sweepers along mountain streams and past aspen groves to take my mind off the cold. After riding through Monitor Pass, elevation 8,314 feet, 89 comes to a T near Topaz Lake and the Nevada border. I turn south on U.S. 395, and the twisties give way to long, rolling, scenic straights, and the views of the Sierra Nevada a few miles to the west are spectacular. Just south of Willow Springs is the turnoff to Bode, a ghost town and popular motorcyclist destination. My belly is running on empty, however, and I can’t spare the time to stop if I want to reach Furnace Creek Campground by nightfall, so I ride on. I stop for lunch in Lone Pine, elevation 3,733 feet, where not 15 miles west as the crow flies looms Mount Whitney, the highest mountain peak in the lower 48 at 14,494 feet. It’s ironic that only 85 miles from here is the lowest point in the U.S, Badwater Basin, in the heart of Death Valley at -282 feet.

The sun is now burning off the cold, and after snapping a few pictures of Mount Whitney, while getting attacked by a swarm of flying ants, I manage to bug out of Lone Pine and turn onto S.R. 136. It approaches Owens Lake, which is mostly dry, from the north, a bypass that connects to Highway 190 and will take me to Death Valley National Park campground at Furnace Creek.

About 440-odd miles after leaving my home in Sacramento, and almost shivering to death in the High-Sierra, I arrive at Furnace Creek, elevation -190, sweating like a stuck pig. The temperature now reads 91 degrees in the late afternoon. After pitching my tent I meet Kent, a fellow camper and motorcyclist. He is on a trip from Coos Bay, OR, to Phoenix on a BMW 1150 GS. He arrived yesterday from San Diego, deciding to take the long way to Phoenix through Death Valley, a 500-mile detour. That’s how it’s done, I suppose. I have to be back in Sacramento in two days, however, which basically gives me tomorrow to explore the park’s more than 3.4 million acres. That really doesn’t leave me a lot of time, but this was my opportunity to finally see Death Valley for myself, and to see if all the talk about this place walked the walk. I have one day, and I plan on making the most of it.

Over cold beers and a warm campfire Kent and I discuss our options for the next day’s ride. With my dual-sport tires (read: non-knobby) and limited off-road riding experience (I did a little as a kid), I am a little apprehensive of exploring the hundreds of miles of gravel roads that snake their way around the interior of Death Valley. Earlier in the day, Kent rode Chloride City Road to Chloride Cliff, a 7.4-mile gravel road that he describes as “kinda hairy.” From what I can see from S.R. 190, which brought me into Death Valley and to Furnace Creek, these roads could have any and all conditions the desert offers: wash-outs, rock slides, loose sand, loose gravel, ruts, washboards, the list goes on. But I’m up for it, knobbies or not.

We decide to ride Titus Canyon Road, a popular 26.8-mile, one-way gravel road that actually starts outside the park in neighboring Nevada, and then ride north to check out Scotty’s Castle. If we have time we’ll then attempt to ride to Tea Kettle Junction, figuring that The Racetrack is too far. I’ll have to save that for next time. With a plan in place I sit back in my chair as the crackling campfire spits sparks into the clear desert sky. As not-too-distant coyotes howl at the new moon, I spy a seldom seen but welcome view of the heavens that only a remote and desolate place like Death Valley can provide. The ride is worth it for this view alone. I also notice that the temperature is perfect right now: 77 degrees. Perfect indeed.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the September/October 2011 back issue.