Death Valley Motorcycle Trip - November 2019
“The desert wears... a veil of mystery. Motionless and silent it evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed. Since the desert does not act it seems to be waiting…” Edward Abbey - Desert Solitaire
I have been drawn to the desert since my first trip to Moab UT back in college. I can’t exactly say why but the pull is there and it is strong. Most people I know who have spent time in the desert have the same reaction, it grabs you deep inside and never lets go. Having grown up and lived most of my life in the midwest, I didn’t get many chances to visit the desert. Now, as a resident of California, it is right outside my door.
After an amazing trip through Joshua Tree National Park earlier this month I knew I needed to get back and see more of the California desert soon. My buddy John and I have been talking about doing a 4 day motorcycle trip so I suggested a ride to Joshua Tree then maybe up to Death Valley. John agreed and we set out on a Sunday from his home in Carlsbad, no fixed route and no hotels booked.
I wanted to show John some of the cool places and great roads I found on my Joshua Tree trip so we headed out through some amazing curvy, tree-canopied rural roads up to Temecula. A friend of John's joined us for this leg. John and I ride at about the same pace, fast enough without taking too many risks. John’s friend knew the road well and had another gear entirely, he was flying on a beautiful Buell motorcycle. From there we headed up the coastal mountains following hwy 79 then left on 371 to hwy 74 over to Palm Dale. The road set the stage for the rest of the trip, up through Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument on terrific roads then down to the desert with amazing vistas. Next we turned south toward Mecca to pick up Box Canyon road, a fantastic, newly paved windy road through a long box canyon to the south end of Joshua Tree. On the way I realized my route planning failed to account for the fall time change that had just occurred: we now had an hour less sun light! We picked up the pace and we were rewarded with stunning sunset views and glowing mountains as we drove through the park. We decided to stop in Yucca Valley that night as I wanted to get up to Pappy and Harriets again. It was a Sunday night so I was a little worried they may be closed or it would be dead… Not so much! We Uber’ed 5 miles up to Pioneertown and arrived around 7 to a 2 hour wait for a table! A surprisingly popular place given how remote it is! After a few beers we managed to grab some bar seats and ate there. Great food and fun people watching and a fun place to be. But be aware, there is no cell service! So getting transport back to the hotel was a challenge! Thank goodness for a good old fashioned land line and taxi service. Day one complete!
Up early and a pretty sketchy breakfast at the motel to start the day. We had not gotten as far as we hoped the first day so we talked about heading to Big Bear and then Angeles Crest rather than heading all the way up to Death Valley. The desert was cool, bright and beautiful as we took off. The colors of the desert come alive in the early morning and late in the day. It is by far my favorite time to see it. After about an hour of riding we approached the turn into the mountains. I had done the ride through Big Bear and Angeles Crest on my last trip and it is special but cruising along the desert felt so good and right that we decided to reroute on the fly and head to Death Valley.
The ride was fantastic, after a little bit of crowded roads it emptied out into the nothingness and expanse of open desert. After every turn and over every ridge I experienced something new about the vast expanse that extended almost indefinitely to the horizon. There is something about the magnitude and desolation of the desert that encourages introspection. Maybe it is the vastness and how small we are in the space, maybe it’s the raw harsh beauty. Whatever the reason, it is breathtaking.
As we entered the park the vistas and contrast of soaring mountains against the desert floor became more and more dramatic. We stopped in Stovepipe Wells for a late lunch then bombed deep into the park and up to Dantes view which is a terrific place to see much of the park. The last few miles up to the peak are fantastic tight switchbacks and lovely tarmac. The sun was starting to drop so we couldn’t stay too long. We turned around and headed out of the park along hwy 190. I had heard there was a great stretch of road on the way to Lone Pine so we picked up the pace to get through it before dark. The road was indeed fantastic. Beautiful turns, some tight, some sweeping, and many with views through the turn. This was my kind of road and I (and my bike) felt great. I may have ground the foot pegs down a little bit as I leaned the bike hard through the corners, it couldn’t be helped. As we came down into the valley to Lone Pine the temperatures dropped dramatically, upper 40s when we arrived. Very chilly.
We were able to find a couple of rooms at a nice little motel, grabbed a few beers at the only bar in town, Jake’s Saloon (cool local vibe), then dinner at a little divey restaurant. Day 2 - amazing and complete!
The next morning we were up early again and had a good breakfast at a little local spot across from the motel. In the parking lot of our motel we ran into what looked like a pretty rough group of biker gang types who were checking out our motorcycles. Never judge a book by its cover though! The “gang” was a group of guys who rode into town for a christian conference, many of whom were pastors! A really nice bunch of guys who gave us some good suggestions for routes to try. As we were leaving one of the guys, Junior, asked to pray with us. I am a firm believer in God but also wary of overly religious types. Junior was awesome, he said an amazing prayer and blessed us and our bikes for safety, saying that nothing could happen to our bikes now. Turns out we would put the prayer to the test a couple times and we were lucky to have been blessed!
After the prayer we packed our bikes and headed up to the Whitney Peak portal which is a short but very cool ride up the mountain. The views up the mountain were great and definitely worth doing. We reached the top then came back down and took 395 south toward the Mohave.
Our next destination was Paso Robles but we wanted to see some of Sequoia National Forest along the way. John found a rural back road that looked like it went over the Mountains and over Sherman Pass in Sequoia. We turned off 395 in Linnie on to 9 mile Canyon road hoping the road was paved all the way through. It turned out to be a fantastic route, beautiful scenery and an empty curvy road. As we got deeper into the mountains there was some gravel and sand on the road in some of the turns and John’s bike was feeling a little squirrelly so he took the lead to set a comfortable pace. As I rode behind him I noticed a wide silver streak in his rear tire. We pulled over at Sherman Peak to have a look and it wasn’t good! The tire was worn down to the steel cords. Very bad and dangerous considering we still had 2.5 hours of steep downhill riding to get to civilization and no cellular service! We both thought we were doomed but we had no choice but to push on slowly. The first hour and a half was tight switch backs and steep road, beautiful but we were on pins and needles, a blow out here could be disastrous. We made it to Kernville and stopped to search for a shop that had a replacement tire. After calls to 4 different shops we found one in Bakersfield, more that hour away. We crossed our fingers and headed down the mountain on hwy 178. The road was absolutely beautiful, running along the Kern river, but we had to go slow. Miraculously we made it! Junior’s morning prayer was the reason, we were sure of it! Thanks Junior!!
Valley Cycle had us fixed and out the door in an hour at a very fair price. Great place and great guys. Unfortunately the delay meant we couldn’t get to our destination, Paso Robles so we ended up in Taft. Taft is not a destination town, I have to be honest, sketchy motels and even more sketchy restaurants. But we found a clean place to stay and some good Mexican food so everything was OK.
The next morning, our last day, I was up early and excited about the day. We were tackling the famed hwy 58 from McKittrick to Santa Margarita, a beautifully paved empty windy road that run 70 miles uninterrupted. We had a ball, stopping in Santa Margarita for coffee at the end. We then circled back on Hwy 101 to Santa Maria to catch hwy 166, also a very pretty road to Cuyama. John had to get back to Carlsbad so we said goodbye there so he could catch Interstate 5 home. I turned south on hwy 33 to ride over coastal mountains to Ojai. Another epic and largely deserted stretch of road! By the time I reached Ojai, my arms and shoulders were exhausted from hours of tight turns (a motorcyclist’s nirvana). The route from McKittrick to Ojai that we did is a must do if you ride in this area. From Ojai, I headed home with a huge smile on my face, what an amazing 4 days it had been.
Traveling through Joshua Tree, the Mojave, and Death Valley is like traveling back in time to when wilderness was still wild, and the raw and intense beauty of our country was abundant. Often when we talk about environmental and social consciousness we focus on the bad things and what needs to change. But we cannot forget all the good that has occurred as well. When I travel through such beautiful places I want those places to stay unspoiled for future generations. I want to think of my grandchildren and their children seeing the stunning vistas of Death Valley and Joshua tree the same way I see it today and fortunately the government has taken actions in the past to make sure that happens. In 1933 and 1936 Death Valley and Joshua Tree respectively were designated national monuments, protecting them for future generations. In 1994 the US Government took significant further steps with the California Desert Protection Act that dramatically expanded these areas as well as protected the Mojave desert and converted them into national parks. I feel very fortunate that these areas have been protected but risks are still there. Continued pressure to open up mining in these areas and increasing air pollution can affect the desert significantly in the future. We also need to think about what unprotected areas exist today that we may want to protect for future generations. If you have not seen these amazing places, you need to and please take any opportunities to support the protection of these areas through political actions, financial support, and making environmentally conscious decisions.