About two months ago, one of my riding buddies suggested a ride through Death Valley.
Was he serious?
Death Valley: where the rocks seem to come alive as the shadows from the ever present sun play tricks on your eyes. Death Valley: where men have lost their fortunes, their sanity, and their very lives. Death Valley: where the temperatures can get up to 120 degrees in the shade. Death Valley: where the ground temperature is forty percent higher than the air temperature (a ground temperature of 201 degrees Fahrenheit was once measured in this valley)!
And now, ‘Stitch’ Carmain, my riding buddy, wants to ride through the heart of it on a motorcycle?! I had to think about this one.
For some reason, I remembered that rubber tires begin to melt around 220 degrees Fahrenheit and that a human’s brain can actually begin to boil inside his skull under extreme heat!
“Sure thing,” I said, “Count me in!”
Plans were made for a three day weekend in April (trust me; you don’t want to tackle Death Valley in July on your first ride). As it turned out, there was more than a passing interest from several friends and relatives. By the time we pulled out of Palm Desert, California that Friday morning, there were six bikes and ten riders. The sky was cloudy and the outside temperature was in the low 60s; comfortable riding weather.
Our route took us up CA Highway 62 towards Yucca Valley and Joshua Tree. After about an hour in the saddle, we made the requisite stop at Hutchins Harley-Davidson in Yucca Valley. Hutchins has a lot of motorcycle history on the walls of the showroom, as well as out on the floor, so it’s worth a look. Also, the Route 62 Diner is a fun place to grab a cup of coffee or enjoy a meal before heading out again. Rested and full of coffee, we rode out past Joshua Tree and onward toward the tiny town of Baker, California. The roads along this leg of our journey were some of the worst of the trip, particularly along Amboy Road. Be advised, there are a lot of ruts, grooves, potholes, and loose asphalt (come on California DOT, we are paying our taxes, take care of our roads)!
Baker is a small town out in the middle of the Mojave Desert well known to the Las Vegas crowd as a good place to stop, stretch tired muscles, and gas up before continuing on to Sin City. We stopped just long enough to hit the restrooms, grab something to drink, and fuel-up before heading out across the Mojave. By the way, it’s a good idea to top off your fuel there because there are no other gas stations between Baker and Furnace Creek, which is inside Death Valley Park. It was still chilly, but the roads outside of Baker made a significant change for the better; they were smooth, well-groomed black asphalt. This leg of the journey was, by far, the most enjoyable riding of the day. I highly recommend that you take a few minutes every hour or so along this route to stop, stretch, and just take a look around. The vistas are incredible!
As we rode along, the scenery actually seemed to move around us. The sun played tricks on our eyes with the morphing of the shadows into the rock formations, thus giving them the illusion of life. I began to understand how one can see beauty in these barren deserts.
The sun was setting over the western rim of Death Valley as we rode into the Furnace Creek Resort that evening. As I shut down Rogue, my ’06 Harley-Davidson Street Glide, the only thought that kept running through my head was, 'WOW…just…WOW!'
That evening was one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever experienced. I wish there were a way to record memories so we could play them back for friends and family to experience. Suffice to say, that sunset is firmly locked away, to be played back whenever I am in need of a little rejuvenation from life’s daily grind.
Not surprisingly, ‘Stitch’ and his lovely wife Debbie picked a perfect place for us to stay inside the Park. Furnace Creek Resort used to be Furnace Creek Ranch, built in the 1880s as a working ranch, and later a home for the now famous twenty-mule teams. It is centrally located to some of the best sites in Death Valley. After we checked into our rooms (pricey and in need of some refurbishing, but clean and comfortable), washed the road from our faces, and rested up a bit, we met for dinner at the Wrangler Steak House. The steaks there were very good, the bread was hot and fresh, and there was plenty of iced tea. Considering this is only one of two or three restaurants for miles in any direction, it was a pleasant surprise indeed.
Being a ‘morning’ person, I was up before dawn the following day. Not everyone in our group shared my exuberance for an early start, so I took the time to explore the resort grounds. I found a fine place to get some great shots of the morning sun hitting the weathered wood of old buckboards, broken-down wagons, and rusty old mining equipment. It was in the back yard of the Borax Museum located right there on the resort grounds. Afterwards, I wandered over to the Furnace Creek Stables. As I am a bit of a cowboy myself, I always enjoy being around horses and horse people. Once there, I watched as the ranch hands saddled up several horses and mules for an early ride with some of the resort guests. While there, I had a friendly chat with one of the local wranglers who offered some good advice on where to ride and what to see while in the valley.
Finally, there were signs of life from the other members of my posse, so we met for breakfast and a pre-ride briefing at the Forty-Niner Café. The food was good basic fare, but certainly not as enjoyable as the steakhouse the night before. The route was agreed upon, and my posse and our bikes were fueled up and ready to explore. Before we hit the road, we stopped at the Furnace Creek Visitors Center and Museum, just outside the Furnace Creek Resort grounds. Here we obtained our Park passes and took one more look at the map.
The morning ride was perfect. The temperature was in the low 80s, the roads were smooth and in good repair, and again, the scenery was truly amazing. The changes in the geological formations from one mile to the next, the vast array of textures and colors in the rock walls, and the feeling of freedom and space out there on the bikes all combined to make the ride one of the best I have had in a long time. Too soon, we made it to our first destination; Scotty’s Castle. A peculiar place indeed, tucked into a side canyon in the middle of one of the harshest deserts on earth; it is a castle that includes a huge main house, a bunkhouse, a swimming pool, a tower, a mine, stables, a guest house, and several other odd out-buildings. It has a fascinating history filled with characters and stories right out of the Old West. It’s a place where Walter Scott, better known as ‘Death Valley Scotty,’ and his wealthy benefactors, Albert and Mrs. Johnson, lived and entertained guests for many years. Here you can stop and take your time looking around the ‘castle’ grounds. There is a guided tour of the inside of Scotty’s Castle offered for a nominal fee. After a walking tour of the grounds and a lot of pictures, we had a snack at the local café. This is a good place to sit, relax, and re-hydrate. I suggest bringing along some extra water bottles in your saddle bags as well, they didn’t name it Death Valley for nothing, ya know?
Our next stop was Ubehebe Crater (pronounced You Be He Be), only 8 miles away. This is a great place for fun pictures of your friends standing perilously close to the 770 foot crater. It was created 3000 years ago when water from underground suddenly flashed to steam, shattering the rock above and hurling debris for miles. What remains is one BIG hole in the desert floor. After some great shots of the bikes with the mountains as the backdrop, we retraced our route back on the side road and headed down Highway 190 toward Badwater Basin.
Once again, the drive was incredible. The rocks were mesmerizing, and I found myself constantly slowing so I could better take in the surrounding scenery. Badwater is the lowest ground point in the western hemisphere, a full 282 feet below sea level! At the center is a dry lake bed, the water in the lake has long since evaporated, another victim of Death Valley. The only thing remaining is a thick layer of pure salt. It almost looks like snow. There is a walkway allowing you to hike out onto the dry lake bed, which stretches out for miles.
It was getting late in the afternoon, so we pointed our tires back toward Furnace Creek. However, on the way back we made a detour onto a small road loop called Artist’s Drive. The high point of this fun road is a stop at Artist’s Palette, where the rocks are covered with various minerals, each providing a different muted shade of pastel against the stark rock cliffs; mother Nature at her finest! As the sun was setting, half of the group headed back to the resort. However, half of the crew had to see one more site before heading back to the resort. So, ‘Wild’ Bill; Christiaan, his wife and trip photographer; ‘Spider’ Johnston; his wife Mindy; and yours truly agreed we had to see the sun setting over one of the Parks most popular lookouts, Zabriskie Point. It was a short 15 minute ride from the resort, and as promised, the views were breathtaking! Some of the rock formations resembled butterscotch ripple, peanut-butter fudge, and chocolate marshmallow swirl (ok, so it was way past dinner time and my stomach was growling).
We ate at the Forty-Niner café that evening and discussed the days’ ride. It was evident that everyone had had a wonderful time. The days had flown by, and we had to leave much too soon. There was so much more left to explore; The Devils Golf Course, The Race Track (where huge boulders seem to crawl across the desert floor unaided, leaving only their own trail as witness), Mesquite Flat Dunes, Natural Bridge, Harmony Borax Works, and a hike through Golden Canyon Trail. It was obvious that three days was not nearly enough for this trip.
I admit I had been skeptical about this Death Valley ride. I had envisioned what most people envision when they hear the name Death Valley: heat, sun, heat, desert, heat, rocks, heat-stroke, and more heat. However, I came away awestruck by the valley’s incredible beauty and diversity. I would definitely return, maybe next time during the scorching heat of July. I wanna see just how tough Death Valley really can be.
'Hey, Stitch, let’s come back in July and make it a real “Danger Man” trip.'
'Ol' Buddy?…maybe not.
Other Vital Info:Furnace Creek Visitors Center – main visitor information source for Death Valley. (760) 786-3200
Scotty’s Castle – guided tours and historical artifacts. (760) 786-2392
Artist’s Drive – striking ravines and rock formations.
Artist’s Palette – mineral deposits form striking colors on the rock.
Badwater Basin – lowest point in the Western Hemisphere.
Devil’s Golf Course – salt spires that dot the landscape.
Harmony Borax Works – remains of a 120-year-old mining operation.
Mesquite Flat Dunes – 150-foot dunes surrounded by mountains.
Racetrack Playa – giant boulders slowly slide across a flat lake bed.
Ubehebe Crater – 770-foot crater.
Zabriskie Point – fantastic sunsets.
By “Danger Man” Todd Mehrer
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