California: Extremes in America’s Far West
This is not the best way to start our trip—but what shall we do? Today is one of those many days when the fog from the cold Pacific rules San Francisco’s weather. We had planned to ride across the Golden Gate Bridge and then cut east. But in these conditions, it doesn’t make sense. Instead, we head eastward across the Bay Bridge for a fast escape.
As soon as we get away from the water, the temperature rises dramatically. We’ve gone from 55 to 80 degrees within an hour. We’re now in California’s Central Valley, and it’s not very exciting. It’s flat and hot, but plenty of fruit farms dot the way. After we pass through Modesto, the environment gets quiet and traffic is fading away. The landscape is gaining character. The sun-baked foothills of the Sierra Nevada keep us occupied until we reach Coulterville. The village seems to consist of not much more than the main street, but that’s good enough. The original gold mining appeal is ranks it No. 4 among the most authentic western towns in the United States by True West magazine. Right at the entrance of town, the beautiful Hotel Jeffery receives visitors with California’s oldest operating saloon. Entering the “bat wing doors” is not only a step out of the merciless sun, but it’s also a step back in time. Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and John Muir must have enjoyed this place as we do today.
2012 Harley-Davidson Road King
Helmet: Schuberth J1
Jacket: Rukka Merlin
Pants: Rukka Merlin
Gloves: Rukka GTX X-Trafit
Boots: Daytona Road Star GTX
They probably continued their journey along Highway 120 into one of North America’s most scenic National Parks, Yosemite. Just riding through without stopping would be a waste of the land’s beauty. We try to sample a little of it while hiking one of the most rewarding routes in the park to Vernal Fall. After 1.3 miles we are standing in front of this impressive 317-foot-long curtain of water. But it gets even better. As we walk closer, a rainbow created by the spray enhances the spectacle. Once at the bottom again, we treat ourselves with a dip into one of the pools of the Merced River, which flows all along the Yosemite Valley.
Perfectly refreshed, we hop onto the bikes for some impressions from the saddle—but not for long. The scene forces us (as it has millions before) to stand there and just admire the picture created by two of the most famous granite rocks in the world, El Capitan and Half Dome. We cruise further up to Glacier Point, but it must have been a while ago when there was ice visible from here. The bird’s eye view into Yosemite Valley still is my absolute favorite. Far on the other side we already can trace Tioga Road, our exciting getaway toward the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. From the green mountains into the semi desert of Owens Valley where Mono Lake sits like a dark blue jewel, it’s a route of contrasts. Mark Twain didn’t favor the place much. He once called it “lifeless, treeless, hideous desert ... the loneliest place on earth.”
Mark Twain Didn’t Like the Place
He might not have been on Highway 190 going toward Death Valley. Here you can feel really abandoned. The only things that seem alive are some Joshua trees. But the area appeals to us a lot. Colors in all shades of yellow, black, and gray line the way. The dry air allows almost endless vistas, like into the Panamint Valley. The descent with its wide corners is a blast. Up again on the other side at the 4,956-foot-high Towne Pass, the air is almost cool, but that will soon change. From here it’s all downhill until we reach the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park. To beat the heat we started at six this morning in the town of Lone Pine. It’s now 9:30 a.m., and the heat has beaten us at 115 degrees (a benchmark for this time of the day). But this is all of secondary importance. The massive gorge with its geological wonders seems like a huge wound in the earth and gives us a highly impressive inside look at our planet. We find the most extravagant exposure along Artist’s Drive. At the face of the Black Mountains, mineral resources shimmer in green (mica), purple (manganese), or red and pink (iron).
Dante’s View, one of the highest points in the park reachable on asphalt, is only two miles away—as the crow flies. We motor about 100 miles to get there via the long loop through the basin, south to Shoshone, and over to Death Valley Junction. Every mile is worth the spectacular outlook where we end up. After we make the last couple of tight switchbacks, there is a breathtaking drop from 5,475 feet toward Badwater (282 feet below sea level). But that’s not all. On the other side, Telescope Peak towers 11,049 feet. If we’re lucky, the highest point of the contiguous United States (beside the lowest, Badwater) will be visible at the same time. Unfortunately, we are here at the wrong time of the day. The late afternoon sun is dropping toward the west right behind the big mountains. That’s actually not a bad thing. The lighting is getting prettier by the minute, and as the shadows are getting longer, the contours of the outstanding geography are more visible. We take our time at this magic spot. Our destination for the night is Furnace Creek Ranch.
The next morning, we admire the beauty of Panamint Valley and Death Valley National Park for the last time before the road climbs out toward Ridgecrest. We keep going on to Walker Pass. Although it is only about 5,000-feet high, it marks a definite change in climate and vegetation. On the eastern side, desert-growing Joshua trees line the way in huge numbers. Over the pass, we are suddenly surrounded by pines. Around the north side of Lake Isabella, we arrive in laid-back Kernville, a small town park with a pretty river running through the middle, a bar, some motels, and restaurants at the edge of the southern Sierra Nevada. This is our home for tonight.