When I first learned to ride a motorcycle over a year ago, there were two places I wanted to go: Alaska and Saline Valley, a long, remote desert basin on the west side of Death Valley. Within the first year of learning how to ride, I did both.
The California sun is just cracking over the edge of White Mountain Peak when riding partner Chris Keith and I leave the ranching town of Bishop and head south to Death Valley Road. I look up at the snow-packed mountains, 14,000 feet high on both sides of US 395. The wind whipping us at 65 mph and the 5,000-foot snow level make it feel a lot colder than the 38 degrees the bank thermometer blinked in town. I have on everything I could fit under a riding jacket: a long-sleeved Capilene t-shirt, cashmere sweater, electric vest, and soft-shell and down jackets. This is my first dirt ride longer than 30 miles, and I am slightly apprehensive, mostly about staying upright on Saline Valley Road.
Day 1: Following the Gold Miners' Trail
From the Owens Valley, Death Valley Road follows an old trail to sulfur and gold mines in the Last Chance Range at the edge of Nevada's basin and range country. Surrounded by varying shades of low-lying brown hills and reddish cliffs, the first 14 miles to our turn-off is paved. Most roads here are long and straight, so this is a rarity to be enjoyed, with sweeping curves and tight off-camber turns across a desert wash etched into the earth by sudden but infrequent flash floods.
At the intersection of Death Valley and Waucoba-Saline Roads, a tattered yellow road sign on the latter warns, "No snow removal." It is big, beautiful country: an endless topography of brown basins and indigo ranges extending toward a cloudless cerulean sky.
There's no dependable water in Saline Valley, where summer temps consistently top 100 degrees, so we each have three liters. Cell phones are useless, and during the winter, snow and ice on both passes, at either end of the valley, make for unpredictable motorcycle access. The only connection to the outer world is a satellite phone at Lizard Lee's, the sole fulltime resident and designated caretaker of Saline Warm Springs. Lee lives in an assemblage of old trailers powered by solar panels and propane.
Motorcycles & Gear
The Waucoba-Saline Road leaves the shadowy, snow-dusted edge of the Inyo Mountains, quickly descending steep grades of loose gravel above sandy yellow-grass basins and sun-baked hills. It passes timbered headworks and the rusted out buildings of an old mine, then wanders along the steep gullies and ridges of Waucoba Mountain (11,213ft.), the northernmost highpoint of the Inyo Range. The road drops into narrow Whippoorwill Canyon, a dry, high-walled limestone and shale wash topped by pinyons and desert scrub. Beyond the wash and its cross-canyons is Saline Valley, defined by an enormous, flat, white alkali lakebed at its southernmost end. Glassy water mirrors the sky and Hunter Mountain where arroyos sequester ancient petroglyphs.
Wearing Only a Smile
Named for its sodium chloride deposits, Saline Valley was discovered by prospectors in 1874. Between 1910 and 1913, miners built a tram of heavy-timbered towers and steel cable to carry salt scraped off the lakebed 7,500 feet over the Inyo Mountains to Swansea on Owens Lake. The salt was processed, carried by wagon to the train depot in Keeler six miles south, and then shipped north via the Carson & Colorado narrow gauge railroad, 300 miles, to Carson City.
In places, moist algae-covered seeps percolate in the uneven pockets of the road, followed by miles of washboard straightaway hammered into loose gravel. At Steele Pass Road, just above Saline Dunes, we ride east, crossing Waucoba Wash's white hard-packed alkali and dried rivulets caked with sand-smoothed stones and creosote to the green, date-palm springs on the alluvial fan. Across the valley, a red cinder of a hill displays a peace sign on its slope.