Joshua Tree Motorcycle Trip
The temperature is slowly dropping as I climb the windy road up into the San Gabriel mountains. The weather is perfect and with each tight bend of Angela’s Crest highway my smile gets bigger and bigger. Some of us like to be home, we are comfortable there and enjoy the feeling we have of familiarity and comfort. Others are movers, jumpers, anxious to go, and fidgety when we are not. I am the latter. I like to be on the move. I like change. So I travel.
For the last year I have been fortunate to live in Southern California and experience all the travel possibilities it affords. The topography and weather is amazing, from the beautiful L.A. beaches you can see the 8000 ft peaks of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. From those mountains you can gaze to the east down thousands of feet to the desert floor. All within a few hours drive. And fall is when it all comes together. It’s October and my motorcycle and the desert are calling me. The temperatures in L.A. and the desert cool to the upper 70s and lows in the upper 50s and the mountains are still warm and dry enough to ride (upper 50s and lower 60s). For the next 3 days I’m going to ride some iconic L.A. mountain roads then drop into the desert and explore Joshua Tree national park. I plan on wrapping up traveling by the Salton Sea. Along the way, in addition to describing the cool things to do and see I want to explore some of the environmental issues faced by the SoCal desert. So often we travel through and marvel at the natural beauty of this world without understanding how much of it is at risk and what we can do to help protect it for future generations. As a father of 3 daughters and an aspiring grandparent, I think of this more and more these days.
My climb into the mountains was awesome. I began in Hollywood and started at the beginning of the Angeles Crest highway (hwy 2). For those who don’t know it, Angeles is motorcycling nirvana, roughly 60 miles of amazing winding road, running along the spine of the San Gabriels, largely devoid of traffic, particularly during the week. Be aware, if you want to travel fast, you had better bring your A game, the turns come often and fast (and are tight!). I am riding my Triumph Explorer 1200. It is a large/heavy adventure bike loaded with gear. Even so, it is surprisingly nimble and quick through the turns. While I gave up dragging footpegs through turns years ago, the road was virtually empty so I had no choice but to push the pace a little....
The views were amazing, there aren’t a lot of places where you can see 8000 vertical feet right in front of you. Unfortunately there was the inevitable L.A. smog hovering below me that obscured the ocean and more distant views. One glimpse of the brown blanket created by one city drives home the reality of green house gases and the prospect of global warming. I stopped at Newcombe Ranch, a popular meeting point for motorcycle riders. The restaurant was closed (it was Monday) but still had a few riders there. After a little coffee (I had brought from home) I continued on. The road gets a little more “rustic” as you go, with more rocks and debris in the road so the pace slowed a little until the end in Wrightwood.
The next part of the journey was the San Bernardino mountains and Big Bear Lake. From Wrightwood I continued on through Cajon Junction then up 138 and Old Mill through Crestline, a really quaint alpine town, to Highway 18 (the Rim of the World highway, appropriately named) to the tiny town of Sky Forest for a delicious burrito at Rosalvas.
I found Rosalvas on my first motorcycle ride to Big Bear and it is a great Mexican restaurant on an amazing stretch of curvy mountain top road. After an enormous veggie burrito (I am trying to reduce my consumption of meat for health and environmental reasons), I continued on a gorgeous ride up to and through Big Bear lake and came down from there into the desert on a beautiful winding road (Hwy 18 to Hwy 247).
I had heard that there was a cool bar in Pioneertown and I arrived at Pappy and Harriets just in time for it to open (after all, beer and wine are vegetarian!). It was a Monday so I thought it would be kind of empty - there isn’t much in Pioneertown - but it was open mic night and it was jumping! The bar had a great vibe so I decided to stay in the town at the only motel available. I was pretty skeptical of what I was getting myself into but it was a block from the bar and a terrific place to stay, great charm, clean and friendly.
That night I saw my first full moon rise over the desert mountains, it was awesome. The only negative was that I pulled a complete rookie move by dropping my bike in the motel parking lot. A slow speed turn in some deep sand created a slow motion fall over of the bike, and at 700 lbs, there was no stopping it once it started. Worse, it was a down hill fall so lifting it by myself was impossible. Very embarrassing. I walked back to the bar and asked two young hipster looking guys for help. Apparent they declined out of fear that I was going to axe murder them.... really? That is typically how that goes down, a 55 year old guy walks into a crowded bar and asks two guys half his age for help..... Afraid, and unhelpful is no way to go through life guys... Luckily I found a couple of older guys that had no such fears.
The next morning I was up early for the sunrise and on my way to Joshua Tree. First stop was Natural Sisters Cafe for a delicious veggie omelet and great coffee. After fueling up and grabbing a few supplies I headed into the park to see if I could find a campsite for the night.
The ride up and into the park was easy, I had my annual national parks pass, so entrance was free (normally $25 for motorcycles). There are not many paved roads in the park and only one main road running through it. I had planned on doing some hiking so wanted to find a campsite near the hike. I was surprised about how full the sites were for a Tuesday in October! I eventually found a good spot at the Jumbo Rocks campground ($15 for both reservable and first come sites). It was a cool area with large rock formations that break up the sites. Be aware though that some sites are nicely secluded while others are ridiculously close to one another (a few feet apart!). Sites 14 and 18 (the one I took) are a couple good ones I found.
After setting up a very spartan camp (I didn’t bring my full camping set up) I took off on the bike to Keys View, an observation point in the park. It provided amazing views of the Coachella valley and northern edge of the Salton Sea, my destination tomorrow. The views and the information sign told the story: smog, haze, and pollution funneled in from LA obscured the views and created health hazards. It was sad to see.
I headed back to my camp and then hiked the rocks near by and met some of the people camping near me. They ranged from Californians to someone who was on an impressive cross country journey all the way from Georgia. Very nice people. That night I rode into the town of Twentynine Palms for dinner. The town didn’t have much but I landed at Kitchen in the Desert which was BYO alcohol but fantastic food (jerk chicken was delicious). The night back at the camp was amazing. Big campfire, a sky filled with stars, and a little whiskey, of course. A beautiful night....
The next morning I was up early with the sunrise again. I packed up and bombed out the east side of the park towards the Salton Sea. It was a beautiful deserted ride, starting with unending Joshua Trees and then transforming into low desert scrub. I saw almost no one, it was great. As I descended into the valley the temperature rose. I left the park and continued past I-10 on Box Canyon Road which was also beautiful and empty to Mecca. After a quick Starbucks stop I then headed along empty Hwy 111 which runs along the Salton Sea to Bombay beach (200 feet below sea level) which was supposed to be a hippie commune. It was a little crazy, miles and miles of deserted beach and an eerie looking, enormous calm lake with no one on it. It seemed almost post apocalyptic. Bombay Beach seemed the same unfortunately. It felt almost abandoned, just a large, sad rundown trailer park.
I can’t blame people for leaving, the smell of the Salton Sea was terrible. It is an environmental catastrophe that we don’t have to wait for, it’s here already. The sea was created accidentally by a man-made disaster at the turn of the century when a Colorado river diversion and irrigation project went badly awry. A levy failed and for two years, dumped most of the Colorado river into the Coachella valley. The environmental impact of this event alone is bad enough, but unfortunately only the beginning of the problem. What followed was 100+ years of farming irrigation that was allowed to runoff into the sea. While the farming fed countless people for that period of time, the irresponsible farming techniques and use of pesticides and other chemicals dumped massive amounts of pollution into the sea, turning it into a toxic, smelly dead zone. With recent water use agreements and other changes, there is less and less runoff (a good thing from a pollution stand point) and the sea is shrinking. What is left though is a dry lake bed filled with toxic chemicals. When the wind picks up, the toxic cloud of dust is spread across the valley which has created a serious increase in respiratory diseases among those living in the area. This problem with only continue to worsen. This is why I didn’t bother stopping, instead I hightailed it back home mostly on freeways, not so much fun but I was exhausted and needed to get home.
The trip was a testament to the beauty, variety, and ride-ability of Southern California. I had amazing deserted curvy roads that spanned high alpine to desert to sub-sea level towns. But the ride was also a front row seat to environmental impact. It is estimated that the namesake trees of Joshua Tree National park will be gone by the year 2070, a victim of global warming. That to me is astounding, given how large the park is and how filled it is with trees. I have a difficult time imagining my children’s future children visiting the park devoid of the beauty and weirdness of the those trees and all of the wildlife that they support.
One of the best things about motorcycling for me is being immersed in and surrounded by natural beauty. Protecting that environment is of paramount importance. The problems I have highlighted are big and difficult to solve but we as individuals can help.
The Salton Sea issue has been known for a while and there is in fact a number of plans being considered by the State of California to start to address it. If you are a California resident, then consider writing or contacting state officials to highlight the problem and need for it to be addressed.
Consider joining/contributing to organizations such as the Sierra Club, World Wildlife fund, and the Nature Conservancy that advocate for better protecting the natural environment. These organizations do a great job identifying environmental and organizing campaigns for change.
Global warming and pollution are driven by over consumption and excessive and less responsible management of environmental resources. And it doesn’t take much to have an impact. If a large number of people make even a small change, the impact can be huge. Some things to consider: consume less and buy from companies that are environmentally focused - the pursuit of material goods drives consumption way beyond our need. Buy organic - less pesticides in the environment. Eat less meat (particularly beef) - meat production has a significant negative impact on the environment. Be more aware and careful about waste and carbon emissions.
Lastly don’t be afraid to be an advocate: raise awareness with those around you. If everyone convinced just one or two others to take steps to reduce pollution, the world will be come a far better and cleaner place.
I will be the first to admit, my past environmental record and pursuit of “new stuff” was not great and I definitely miss steak, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try now. There is huge power in small changes made by large numbers of people.