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.
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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.
Turning east into Furnace Creek Wash, the road snakes through badlands of yellow and brown mud hills. At Dante's View Road, the well-preserved mining camp of Ryan clings to the steep rampart of the Greenwater Mountains. Coiling in and out of narrow washes, the road climbs the short steep, hairpinny grade to Dante's panoramic view. Between Telescope Peak, highpoint of the Panamint Mountains across the valley, and Badwater below, the difference in elevation is 11,331-feet, apparently the largest topographic relief in the contiguous U.S.
At Death Valley Junction, we stop for a sandwich and coffee at the Amargosa Café, next to the Amargosa Hotel and Opera House, with its 1920s vintage Mexican Colonial architecture. After lunch, we follow the Amargosa River and remnants of the abandoned Tonopah & Tidewater train grade to the town of Shoshone. A power outage has downed the computers so we pay cash for gas. The ride back into the southern end of Death Valley is dramatic, over Jubilee Pass. Around sweeping curves, the landscape is moving, changing. The horizon line shifts from below eye-level to above my head. I can feel the pressure and temperature change with the 3,400-feet of elevation loss. At Ashford Mill ruins, sea level, the road hugs the broken, cracking crust of Badwater's salt flats. Artists Drive, a one-way squiggly detour across the multi-colored playa and volcanic deposits on the western face of the Black Mountains, is a colorful deviation from saline flatlands.
At Furnace Creek Inn, in Death Valley central, we sip drinks on the veranda, facing the Panamint Mountains, now backlit by the setting sun. It's 84 degrees. It doesn't get much better than the ride back to Beatty over Daylight Pass with the sun on our backs.
Day 2: Charles Manson, Yellow Aster Mine, and Randsburg General Store
The next morning, it's a balmy 31 degrees as we amble over the top of Daylight Pass into Stovepipe Wells, where it's 75 degrees. From Stovepipe, the road straight-lines 2,100-feet up the alluvium, crisscrossed by desert washes, jumbled rock, and creosote. At the turn to Emigrant Pass/Wildrose Canyon, a sign warns of flash floods, but the road is open. Century-old concrete cyanide ponds and other vintage mining debris, are sprinkled along the road for a few miles. Side roads to the mining camps of Skidoo leave the pavement, disappearing into the brown folds of the Panamint Mountains. A huge brown valley of low-lying desert scrub puts us eye-level with the snowy peaks of the Panamints. At Emigrant Pass, the descent begins, twisting and turning past guardrails, around blind curves. A hairpin turn through a gate on to seep-soaked gravel brings us into Wildrose Canyon and its springs. Out of the canyon, it's broken pavement, loose gravel and scattered piles of burro dung across the alluvium to the Panamint Valley, a long stretch of dry lake between Death Valley and China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station. Two jets from the base buzz close enough for us to see the pilots and jet flame.