Death Valley, Re-Visited
I was about to lose my “unemployed” status and wanted to celebrate by taking a last fling on the motorcycle before I got tied down with 9-5 days. But where to go for just 2 or 3 days? I knew that I had to be back in Mountain View by Friday night so I couldn’t go too far. Therefore I opted to head east and check out Death Valley. I had been there once before, in 2005, but it had been in July with 114 degrees and for the most part, I had just ridden straight through. This time I planned to stop and smell the sagebrush, so to speak.
October 22-23, 2008
Total Miles: 1,133 miles
Mountain View, CA to Death Valley, CA
I left the apartment a little later than I wanted to, but was still on the road a little after 9am. I had checked out the maps and riding times and figured that I could make it to a campground in Death Valley before sunset. So off I went, east through the three-digit highways and bay area congestion. Traffic wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be and I was glad that I didn’t need to be anywhere near the semi truck that had flipped over and it’s 8,600 gallons of fuel it was transporting exploded across all three lanes of traffic. No, my ride was much calmer than that. I was flying along on the BMW, passing cars and generally enjoying the cool morning air. I stopped just east of Livermore to take pictures of the some of the numerous windmills planted on the hillsides. As usual, they were all spinning lazily, generating power with the invisible currents of wind.
Busy windmills east of Livermore
Typcial scenery east of Tracy, CA on 120
Not your usual farmhouse vegetation
As I approached the junction for 108/120, I saw the sign that said Tiago Pass (120) was open but there was a fee. A fee? Just to pass through Yosemite? Bah, who needed that? Besides, I’d already been over Tiago but hadn’t seen Sonora Pass (108); I’d go a little bit out of my way and check out the scenery there. A gas station attendant in Jamestown confirmed my decision, stating that the views from Sonora were astounding. He wasn’t wrong.
The pass started out gently, rolling through golden hillsides that become ever more green with tress until I found myself engulfed in a green shade. A few small settlements were tucked along the roadway, making their living from some unknown source. The road’s surface was smooth and clean, leading me to enjoy the scenery as I rolled up and up, on my way to cresting the second highest pass in the Sierra Nevada range. I didn’t stop much along here, as the views were scarce because of the dense forests on both sides. But eventually I rounded a bend and was greeted by a vista that had been promised to me miles ago. I looked for a good place to pull over and found a nice pine-covered shoulder that allowed for easy parking. I grabbed some snacks and water from the tank bag, my camera and headed up a smooth slab of rock to get a better view. The sun was warm and the hike, while giving me the start of a blister on my heel, felt good. I enjoyed the solace, watching a couple of cars go by while I sunned myself (if you can sun yourself in full riding gear). A plume of smoke on a distance mountain side gave evidence of a fire, but a vista point just up the road let me know that it was a proscribed fire and not to call it in. Not that I would have called it in anyway.
Near Kennedy Meadow on 108
Sonora Pass (108)
More Sonora Pass road
Proscribed fire in the distance
A determined tree
Frequent elevation changes made for a fun road
I always manage to stop just before a vista point and true to form, this was one of those times. I stopped at the vista point anyway but was much happier with my choice. Once on the road again I found myself following a lively river, often losing it as it went deep into narrow stone canyons. Intrigued, I stopped again and stood carefully at the edge of the gorge, listening to the rush and swirl of the cold water dozens of feet below me.
Getting back on the bike, the road continued to snake around the rocks and trees, offering glimpses of distant peaks and white fields of snow. I stopped a couple of more times in a vain effort to capture the “fall colors”, but I fear that I was too late. The leaves were faded and dull, despite the brilliant sunshine and blue skies. Snow lay in deep shadows, either remnants from last winter or, more likely, leftovers from a recent storm that had closed the pass a couple of weeks ago. A kind old man let me pass him a couple of times, as I had stopped for photos long enough for him to catch up again. Then the elevation started to fall away quickly. Signs warned of 5, 7, 15 and 26% grades and I enjoyed the change in terrain as I was lowered into the east side of the Sierras.
A deep river canyon running along the road
Remember the determined tree from earlier? It can happen!
More views along 108
Excellent roads and weather
Tired of looking at nice roads yet?
Coming down the east side of the Pass
Stopping for fall foliage shots
Apparently I was too late for the prime fall foliage
More attempts to capture fall colors
Coming down from the 9,624′ pass
Always beautiful views
The road gets steeper and twistier
Heading down, down, down
Almost to the bottom, I made another stop as I spied a wide river valley meandering it’s way through a forest of green and golden trees. It was my favorite type of scene and I was happy to stop and look at it. While stopped, I noticed a huge complex of white buildings further down the valley. I was to learn that this was the main campus of the USMC Mountain Warfare Training Center. As the road finally gave up the last bit of decline, I noticed bunkers, huts and stone shelters lining the road among the trees. I was reminded of a National Guard training day that some friends and I ran into near Custer, SD. It was quite a surprise to round a bed and find a bank of machine guns and tanks pointed at you. But not here, and not today; the forest was quiet and deserted. Signs forbidding me to stop lined the road past the center and only after I had left it behind me did I stop – for road construction. The wait was not long and soon I was on my way towards 395 and points beyond.
USMC training center in the distance
The last of the curves
Looking back (USMC is out of sight and to the right)
There wasn’t much to hold me back now. Hwy 395 is a major, although beautiful, thoroughfare along the eastern edge of the Sierras. I traveled through sparse towns and through seemingly wild landscapes. Gas prices rose to reflect the reduced supplies, some stations charging almost $1.00 more per gallon than I had seen on the west side of the mountains. I passed the turn off for Bodie, a historic ghost town that I had visited in 2005. Then I came to Mono Lake, an ancient and natural saline lake nestled in the high Sierras. It has an interesting shoreline, full of rock forms called “tufa”. I would like to someday hike along the shoreline and check these out more closely.
South of Mono Lake there was more evidence of civilization. Flocks of sheep, guarded by sheep dogs and their herders, were the only real signs of agriculture. But the towns were now based on tourism, as I was nearing the eastern portal into Yosemite National Park. Now I could find restaurants, motels, shops and gas stations galore. It was after 1:30 pm and time to stop to eat. I visited “Nicely’s”, a small cafe that I had eaten at before in the town of Lee Vining. The food was still good and the break gave me a chance to figure out were I was and how far I figured I could get before sunset.
Heading south on 395 towards Bridgeport
More views along 395
Hazy skies south of Mono Lake on 395
Two shepherds on their 4-wheeler
If I hurried, the GPS told me that I could reach Furnace Creek, CA or Beatty, NV at roughly the same time: 7:21 pm. Thinking that the sunset was 7:00 pm, I figured that either was close enough to shoot for. Furnace Creek required me to stay on 395 – a road that I had already been on, whereas heading to Beatty would take me on new roads. The point of this ride was to explore new roads, so I chose Beatty. I had no idea how big or small Beatty was, or what amenities were offered there, but worse case scenario I could pitch the tent at the side of the road for the night. Which brought up another concern of mine: elevation. The higher the elevation, the lower the temperature. I could expect anything from 60 and below – with the 60 degrees localized to the hot desert floor of Death Valley. Where I stopped would dictate how well I’d sleep.
I had trailed a motorcycle into Bishop and on a whim, I stopped behind him at the Starbucks he was visiting. It turned out he was from Alaska and was riding with a friend of his to Las Vegas before continuing on to Vermont, where he’d visit with family and possibly sell his bike. I thought that it would be a shame to sell it though, as the BMW 650 Dakar looked very nice. Jay, as he introduced himself, was planning on camping somewhere near Death Valley that night and I considered tailing along, a good campsite made more enjoyable with a good conversation with a stranger. But I chose to stick to my plan and we bid each other a safe ride as we each continued on our way.
The new road I would take branched off of 395 just south of Bishop, Route 168. I knew nothing of this road other than it would take me to Nevada. It started out easy, with wide sweeping turns through empty golden hills. Then it got technical, twisting tighter as it rose higher over the valley I was leaving behind. Periodically dropping down to one lane while navigating narrow canyons, I was glad for the lack of traffic. Of course, lack of traffic also meant that if I had any trouble then it would be a long time before help might happen by. So I took it easy, all the while noticing with growing concern the sagging altitude of the sun behind me. It was only 5:30 and already dusk was starting to fall. I blamed it on the mountains and kept on going. As I crested an unnamed pass, I studied the map in front of me. My GPS informed me that there was a campground in Oasis, CA. I would stop there and see what they had available. I wasn’t looking forward to camping, as the temperature was going down with the sun and I was quite chilly.
Coming down the east side of this pass the surrounding landscape was still bathed in a faint light and I reached Oasis still able to see features along the roadside. A campground was not one of those features. Disappointed, I decided to continue along 168 to 95, hoping that something might randomly appear along the way. At this point I was making up my mind that camping was out of the question. I would get a motel, a shack, a couch… anything that held heat would suit me just fine.
I was now on a stretch of road called the Star Route, appropriately named, as that’s what I saw in the sky above me. The sun had gone from the horizon and the last rays receded behind the mountains. I saw in the distance ahead of me the red taillights of another vehicle and hurried to catch up to them. At a distance, I was able to use these lights as a vague guide to indicate which direction the road was headed and to give me a warning of any sharp corners. Fortunately by now the highway had dropped down out of the mountains and (I found out later) was following a fairly sedate river. I was very glad for this, as tight mountain roads in the pitch black is not a lot of fun, no matter how good your lights are. I followed this unwitting guide to the junction of 95, where he went north and I went south. According to Googlemaps, the far side of this junction shows quite an impressive mountain peak, something I could not enjoy at this time.
Now here I was, barreling south on a well-traveled highway in Nevada. I had no hope of finding refuge until I got to Beatty. The dots on the map I had seen before the sun went out were just place names. So for fifty miles I rolled on the throttle, traveling at an insane speed in the dark, passing trucks, cars and campers alike. I was a missile on a mission. And I was cold.
Beatty was surprisingly large and well-populated with a whopping 1,100 residents as of 2000. I had forgotten the propensity for casinos in Nevada was but was quickly reminded as I approached the city limits. I passed by the glittering invitations to “roll the dice for a chance of a free room!”, light bulbs leading the way to fun and extravagance. Instead, I chose a generic motel at the “other end” of town. It appeared to be clean and quiet and most importantly, it was warm. I pulled out my book and was reading in the blissful silence when I heard the TV. Not my TV, but the TV on the other side of the wall. Argh! I beat on the wall and the sound went down a notch, but was still plainly audible. I found the channel that I was hearing, turned up my volume just enough to overpower my neighbor’s and then told myself that it was my TV I was hearing. Oddly, that made it ok and I was able to resume reading. Fortunately my neighbor went to bed fairly early. Unfortunately, he also got up early. I heard the morning newscast at the ungodly hour of 5:30 am. At least I knew that he would be on the road shortly, which he was, and I managed to sleep for a couple more hours.
Coming south towards Bishop
Heading east from Big Pine
Narrow canyon east of Big Pine
More canyon – I’m glad there wasn’t more traffic
The last photo of the day
Thursday morning was again clear and cool. The night had been chilly and I was glad for my warm bed. The first thing on the agenda was to visit the ghost town of Rhyolite. This was a mining town that was built and abandoned in a span of 15 years, from 1904 to 1919. A BLM volunteer named Jay was eager and happy to tell me about the site; his excitement, owing in part I’m sure, to the lonely outpost that he manned. I mentioned that I was on a tight timetable, something that didn’t phase him at all as he continued to tell me about his past jobs and his desire to get another motorcycle. I eventually begged off and rode the bike around the various ruins, What sparked my interest the most, however, was the private art display near the entrance to the town. It is the Goldwell Open Air Museum and while the displays are few, they are intriguing.
Kelly Bottle House
Jay, BLM volunteer
LV & T Depot
View of multiple ruins
The Last Supper
Closeup of the Last Supper
Sorry it’s blurry (I guess there’s not that much detail anyway)
Leaving the town of Rhyolite, I backtracked into Beatty and then re-traced my steps north on 95 to Scotty’s Junction. I normally don’t like to backtrack, but considering that I had essentially missed this section in the dark of the previous evening, I didn’t feel too guilty about it. I hadn’t missed much, however. Most the land was arid scrub brush, dotted with tight communities of mobile homes and run-down looking sheds. It wasn’t far to the junction and I headed west on 267 and into Death Valley. The land was open and like most of the desert I had seen thus far, it was scarred with ambiguous tracks of vehicles on unknown errands. I studied the vegetation and landscape along the road, considering (as I often do out west) what it must have been like for the pioneers in their ungainly wagons and tired oxen. On a whim, I pulled in the clutch and let the bike coast slower and slower. I estimated a generous 5 mph wagon speed and attempted to hold the bike to that. Nearly impossible, I settled on an unreasonable 10 mph. It was slow. Too slow. I watched the horizon in front of me. I looked at the bushes next to me. Neither moved. I looked at the ground further away from the road and saw the eroded trenches and gullies. I imagined six months of traveling like this, working hard to get the wagons over various obstacles and wondering where the next water source would be. Happily, I rolled on the throttle and resumed my previous speed.
And that’s when the road started to drop down. Slowly at first, but then curling quickly around a lush canyon. A spring had risen to the surface and gave forth the means for a vast array of vegetation and color. Or at least the vegetation was varied. I noticed that most things in the desert were a shade of tan. So therefore when I rounded a bend and saw a three tan shapes actualy move in front of me, I was a little surprised. Up until now, the tan things had stayed in their places. But these were coyotes, and they moved quickly. One of them darted out of sight into the brush on my right. Another scrambled up the rocky wall to my left and the third one trotted unconcerned down the road in front of me. I realized that this one wasn’t going to run away and took the time to dig out my camera. I took a couple of shots, including one of the well-camouflaged canine up in the rocks, before continuing on my way.
This is what I missed Wednesday night
A (slight) detail of the vegetation
Apparently emptiness – but what’s that white spot out there?
Still not sure what it is, but someone’s working out there!
Heading west on 267 from Scotty’s Junction
The vegetation gets sparse
It was nice enough to pose
I was now at Scotty’s Castle. I had seen this location called out on maps and wondered what it was. I assumed that it was probably just a rock formation that looked like some sort of castle, so imagine my surprise when I pulled up into a parking lot and came face-to-face with a massive Spanish manor house. This was more than a rock formation! I parked the bike in the shade and began wandering around the grounds. I opted to skip the guided tour which would have told me more of the history and allowed me to see the interior of the buildings. Instead I poked around and admired the work that had gone into such a creation. It was truly an oasis in the desert. I visited the gift shop and bought a post card and a cookie. I had eaten half of the cookie, but it wasn’t that good and I stuffed the remainder in my tank bag for later consumption. There was one other motorcycle in the lot when I left but it didn’t park in the motorcycle section. Perhaps because it was a Harley?
Parking at Scotty’s Castle
My first view of the castle
Good detail work with the wood trim
Nice wooden shutters inside
I love the ironwork!
Very ornate gate
Detail of information plaque
Stairs up one of the towers
Looking back across the castle from a tower
My blistering heel warned me that I had seen all I could of the Castle and it was time to head to the bottom of Death Valley. The road followed the canyon for a short bit before spitting me out onto a desolate plain. Rocks were piled up along the roadside where park crews had plowed them after previous rains. Less than 2″ of rain fall each year in this valley, but with little to no vegetation to hold the earth together, it tumbles down the nearby mountains with ease, creating fields of loose rocks and debris. However, the rangers had done a great job and the road was clean and bare. Little engineering had been done for the straight sections though, causing a roller coaster-type feeling as the bike rose and fell with each undulation of the ground beneath me. It was a lot of fun and I looked forward to the dips and swells as I raced along the desert floor towards Furnace Creek. I welcomed the spring-fed greenery of the area, situated well below sea level and surrounded by barren mountains.
The road through Death Valley
Lots of evidence of erosion (for the less than 2″ of rain it gets)
Road crews plow away flood debris
Variety in the landscape
And the road keeps on going
Furnace Creek Post Office
The Borax Museum
It was getting hot. The thermometer at the Borax Museum read 82 in the shade, which isn’t bad but still too hot to be standing around in the sun in full gear. I mailed my post card, ate the other half of the cookie and wandered through the Borax Museum before heading further south. Since I’d already been there, I wasn’t going to go as far as Badwater, the lowest point in the United States, but I did intend to see Artist Drive this time through the park. It wasn’t far to the entrance to the one-way loop that would lead me past colorful rocks and hillsides. The road was narrow and while initially busy near the entrance, I found it to be less populated as soon as I departed the first vista point. I was left to enjoy the palette on my own. Unfortunately it was getting warmer with each passing minute which, combined with the growing blister on my heel from walking around in my motorcycle boots, led me to do quick “stop-n-shoot” pictures from the back of my bike. It was time to head west.
It keeps going, and going, and going…
Artist Drive – a nice diversion
Looking back into the valley from Artist Drive
Bike included for a sense of scale
A one-way road, for good reason
Closeup of a more intense colorful section
Narrow road winds its way through
Heading back out of the loop
Furnace Creek is the patch of green in the distance
Road Runner tracks
Back up through Furnace Creek, then west through Stovepipe Wells before climbing up the Panamint Mountains. I toyed with the idea of riding something new by going south through the Panamint Valley but I realized that it would merely be more of the hot, desolate landscape I was currently riding through. Instead I kept going west on 190, up and over the Panamint Mountains, down through the Panamint Valley and then up again over Argus Range. It was a very interesting ride, despite an almost complete lack of vegetation. I was amazed that so much land could be covered by nothing more than rocks and dirt.
Climbing out of Panamint Valley on 190
Getting higher up!
Looking back at Panamint Valley
Almost lifeless hills
Eventually I reached a junction that demanded careful thought from me. Should I pop up north to Big Pine and refuel, but go 40 miles out of my way, or should I take the shortcut to the south – where I intended to go – and hope that my fuel would hold out? I consulted the mighty GPS, which promised me fuel in Big Pine in 16 miles, but over 50 miles if I went south. Hmmm. I decided to play it safe and head north, but as I started the BMW up I saw that the fuel gauge had reset itself and I had more than I thought I had after climbing all of those mountains. I should be able to make it! So I turned the bike southwest and headed for 395. Not more than 6 miles into this stretch the low fuel light came on. I was racking my brain, trying to remember how many miles I had previously covered with the light staring at me in the face. Twenty? Forty? Forty plus an unknown amount left over? But now I felt that I was committed to this direction. Worse case scenario, I pull out my cell phone and call my BMW tow number and have someone bring me fuel. That’s when I remembered that I didn’t have that information with me: I had accidentally left it in Mountain View. Hmmm. Well then I could find someone along the way who might sell me a gallon. At 44 mpg, I didn’t need much to get me far. An uneasy truce was made with my mind and I tried to convince my throttle hand that despite the wide open and rather uninspiring stretch of road I was on, I needed to keep the speed down.
Imagine my surprise and pleasure when I saw a gas station that was not overwhelmed with tumbleweeds 15 miles later. With a weight lifted from my shoulders I pulled in, filled up the tank and hit the highway again. Now I could enjoy the view, although the tempting sight of abandoned and tumble down buildings had long passed behind me. Now I was left with dry grass, barren mountains and a tinge of hunger.
There was a pleasant surprise when I finally turned off 395 to climb up over Walker Pass and head for Lake Isabella: a tree. Not just any tree, but a Joshua tree. I had seen a couple of them when leaving Death Valley and they reminded me of stick people placed in a field. They still reminded me of people, but now I was surrounded by an army of them. I stopped to inspect them more closely, conscious of the danger of rattle snakes, and took some closer shots of this unusual plant. A brilliant yellow plant was in bloom and covering the land, giving me the first glimpse of real color after hundreds of miles. It was a nice change from the monotone deserts that I had been in.
After cresting Walker Pass I was greeted with more trees, but this time they were of a variety I was familiar with: coniferous trees covered the mountains around me. I was so pleased I stopped to take some pictures. The road was a good one and started to drop me down gradually. I passed cabins and farms but very few people. The sun was getting slightly lower in the west and I wondered how I would finish today’s ride. I could extend for another day if I wanted, but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to. I am lazy about camping and didn’t want to spend the money on another motel room. I’d more than likely just push it to get home. But first I had some more beautiful miles to cover.
I finally return to the Sierras
A tree! Sort of…it’s a Joshua Tree
Heading west on 178 over Walker Pass
An interesting variety of vegetation
A carpet of gold
Back to civilization
Looking down the valley towards Lake Isabella
A structure from a bygone era
I eventually reached Lake Isabella, a man-made lake that was obviously enjoyed by fishermen as well as those further downstream who enjoyed the water stored behind the dam. I circled around the southern edge of the lake, hoping to find a nice spot for dinner, as it was about that time. Unfortunately I didn’t see anything I liked and continued to ride on, much to my disappointment.
After reaching the community of Wofford Heights, the road, now Rt 155, took a determined turn to the west and immediately went “up”. The elevation gain was impressive and would have been much more enjoyable if the sun wasn’t in my eyes and the corner speeds had been marked. I took it easy, trying hard to ignore the headache that was forming behind my eyes and the languid gurgling in my empty stomach. Eventually I reached a pass of some sort, as now the road dropped fast and furious beneath me. Unfortunately the corner speeds were still unmarked, leaving me unsure if the next curve could be taken at 40 mph or 15 mph. I kept it slow just to be safe, knowing that I’d get somewhere eventually. And then I found another reason to ride slowly: sand. Lots of sand, liberally distributed across both lanes of travel on almost every outside corner. This was getting to be ridiculous! I was all too ready to be down with the “twisty mountain roads”.
Then I found something interesting. I had rounded a corner (slowly, of course) and saw something small in the middle of the road. A spider! But what sort of spider would be big enough to be visible as I beared down upon it from the top of my GS? A tarantula, of course! So I stopped in mid-corner, parked the bike poorly on the shoulder and went to annoy the spider. It didn’t like my boots and showed me that it meant business. But I wasn’t worried about it hurting me and took my time watching it move around. Finally satisfied with what I had seen, I wandered back to the bike. It wasn’t leaning much on the side stand and I was concerned about getting back on the bike. If I bumped it with my leg as I swung it over, I could very easily push the entire bike over. But mounting it from the other side is more difficult. I went back and forth a couple of times, trying to tell myself that I was just being cranky and that it really wasn’t that bad and I should just get on the bike and get off this damn mountain. Which I eventually did.
French Gulch Marina at Lake Isabella
Hillsides around the lake
Looking back down towards the lake
Riding into the sun
Faded hillsides in the evening sun
Hazy mountains west of Lake Isabella
Sandy corners finally gave way to clean pavement
I think I made it mad
Just a shot to give a reference for size
I had made it out of the mountains and was oddly happy about the road I saw before me: eleven miles with barely a jog to one side to bridge a canal. The fields around me were brown with recent farming activities and the power lines gave me a perfect indication of where I was headed. I passed through the seedy city of Delano, initially pleased at the thought of finding dinner, but reconsidering when I saw the locals. I could wait. I found Highway 99 and turned north. I really didn’t know the most direct route home at this point and just knew that this would work for now. Eventually I saw billboards for “Apple Annie’s” family-owned diner. Mmmm- sounded good. I kept pressing on until I reached the exit somewhere south of Vasilia. It was around 7:30 by now and I was more than ready to take a break and get a bite to eat. I ordered a burrito and calculated my time left on the road. Surprisingly, the GPS indicated that I only had three or so more hours to go. Easy! I quickly ate my dinner, called Dan to let him know where I was and then I was back on the bike.
Cultivation on a massive scale
Eleven miles of this
It was now dark out, meaning that I could only smell but not see the feed lots that lined both sides of the road. The highway signs were clear and pretty soon I was heading west, over I-5 and into Gilroy, garlic capitol of the world. Mmmm – garlic. It smelled great and I inhaled deeply as I rode through the dark farmlands. The last few miles, as always, droned on. I had been on the bike for 14 hours that day and was ready to get home and have a soak in the hot tub. Eventually I reached my exit, parked the bike next to Dan’s and trudged up the stairs. Home at last!