The Valley of Near Death

Guy Pickrell and his mates ditch their usual road bikes for adventure motorcycles and tackle the Mojave Desert.

In my mirrors, I watched our little convoy fall in behind me as we pulled away from EagleRider, Murrieta. It was late May and the California sun was high in a pale blue sky. Annually, I organise a four-day tour for an eclectic group of mates who share my passion for dual-sport adventure. This year, I planned a 1,200-mile route through Southern California that would initially take us east to Joshua Tree National Park, then north, through the Mojave Desert and Death Valley, where we would turn west, into the Sierra Nevada mountains and finally south, back to Murrieta. 

EagleRider, Murrieta is 80 miles south-east of central Los Angeles, and there are more convenient rental shops to the city, but bigger parties will appreciate the company’s fleet which includes six BMW GSs and a couple of big KTMs. For the first time, I took the opportunity to ride the KTM 1190 Adventure R. I remembered reading a review on this RC8-based machine when it came out in 2014, ‘a sports bike on stilts’ apparently. Making up our party of six was another KTM (an 1190 Adventure), three R1200GSs, and a massive R1200GS Adventure.

Temperatures can exceed 50c

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED 

As soon as we got on the highway, Malek flew past me, the GSA’s front wheel about an inch above the blacktop. I reeled him back in. He had no clue where he was going, and in a few short miles we would exit for Route 79, a sweeping, single-track road which cut through chalky grey canyons, dotted with juniper and bright green yucca. It was all but deserted, and we got to grips with our unfamiliar machines. This was a ‘light’ tour; hotels, three nights, minimal gear. Todd had taken this to the extreme and appeared to have nothing more than a toothbrush and a pair of underpants. 

Our first stop was Paradise Valley Café, situated on a junction with the aptly named ‘Pines to Palms Highway’, gateway to the sprawling Mojave Desert and a renowned meet-up for car and bike enthusiasts. Judging by the banter over lunch, it seemed the jury was already in on the bikes. I was enjoying the revvy KTM, but if the R1200GS is a confidence inspiring thoroughbred, then the 1190 Adventure R is a wild bronco. One of the few shod in knobblies, I was still a bit shy of testing the giant, skinny front wheel in the corners. Todd was the only one grumbling. He got stuck with the only air-cooled GS and spent most of lunch decrying its performance, giving him another opportunity to tell us all about his new Multistrada GT, back home. 

INTO THE BARREN DESERT 

A fast, twisty road swept us up a giant rift on the southern side of the Santa Rosa Mountains. At the summit, the stunted pines gave way to a magnificent panorama of Coachella Valley and the desert, far below. A series of second gear S-bends provided an exhilarating descent to the town of Palm Desert, on the valley floor. Thirty miles later, we exited north through the southern entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. The species of yucca that give the park its name dominate the flatland lying between strange, bare rock formations made up of giant stacks of rounded boulders, which rise up from the plateau in precarious piles. Late afternoon is the best time to see this otherworldly place, when the Joshua Trees cast long, eerie shadows and the setting sun paints the rocks deep orange. With the light fading, and the photos taken, we headed out of the north exit and rode the last few miles to the town of Twentynine Palms and our hotel. 

Chasing trails in the mountains

A DAY OF EXTREMES 

Day two had us heading for Beatty, Nevada, a dusty old railroad town, about 300 miles to the north-east. We picked up a vacant, single-track highway that took us over a mountain pass and descended into a giant desert bowl that trailed off into the hazy mountains of the Mojave National Preserve, 50 miles distant. On a short section of Historic Route 66, we found Roy’s Diner, a dusty relic of the ’30s. Miles of empty tarmac ran us through the desolate, red rubble landscape of Mojave. Occasional Joshua trees, juniper and gnarly cotton-wood were scattered among the rocky bluffs. 

We stopped for lunch at the Crowbar in the town of Shoshone (pop. 31), the last services before entering Death Valley National Park. Our panniers loaded with water bottles, we set off on a fantastic set of fast corners and long straights that steadily climbed up Salsbury Pass. As we rolled over the crest, the road dropped away revealing Death Valley, a mile below us. As we swept down the mountain, the temperature climbed to 46C, quite noticeable when we stopped in our Kevlar jeans and touring boots. 

At nearly 100m below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in Death Valley. Soaring, jagged ridges and sheer cliffs tumbled down each side to the salt flat below, and we joined some of the tourists, sweating our nuts off, as we crunched out into the thick salt and blazing sun. 

THE VALLEY OF NEAR DEATH 

Talk of beer had us thinking about the hotel, still some 80 miles away, but first, I insisted we take the Artist’s Drive loop. A crazy, one-way, smooth tarmac road, which wound its way up an alluvial fan on the eastern ridge to reveal spectacular, variously coloured rock formations and awesome views of the valley. We regrouped at its end, bantering about the exhilarating ride and the hairpin bends. We were waiting for Malek, not usually the guy to hold us up, when a car stopped and reported seeing one of our party take a nasty fall. There was talk of a broken leg and so I immediately called an ambulance. Two of the guys went back around the loop to locate him, while Roberto, Marco and I remained. 

Malek’s battered BMW

 

More cars descended the road with new information. Apparently, Malek was walking around, bruised but OK. Eventually, he and the others rode down the hill toward us. Sheepishly, he confessed he hadn’t been wearing his armoured jacket and was lucky to have only sustained superficial injuries to his body. Nonetheless, he clearly had a problem with his wrist. Not only that, the front of his bike was in a right mess. Even so, Malek was adamant that he could ride on safely, and I reluctantly cancelled the ambulance. 

We regrouped at the tiny town of Furnace Creek, a few miles north, where we had agreed to reassess the situation. Here we were joined by Officer Andrews, a Park Ranger, and once he was satisfied that Malek was indeed well enough to ride to Beatty and the bike road-worthy, he bid us farewell. We crested the last pass into Nevada just as the setting sun was starting to turn the rocks pink. Quite a few beers were sunk at the Happy Burro Pub in Beatty that night. 

Malek’s wrist was in the back of my mind, especially since I had a lot of off-road planned for day three. Heading back into Death Valley, we took Titus Canyon Road, a narrow, 27-mile, rubble track which drops into a cavernous gorge, barely wider than a car, before it winds up and over Red Pass at 1,600m. It was mostly hard packed, but there were some difficult sandy sections. Apart from Malek, who had 50/50s, mine was the only bike on knobblies. Everyone else had whatever tyres came standard, and some of the guys struggled. None more so than Malek who, despite his resolve, was falling off way too often. As we crested Red Pass, we got an incredible view of Death Valley below, and it was here we discovered Kit had picked up a slow puncture in his rear tyre. 

Titus Canyon

We quickly agreed to scrap the planned route and divert to the shorter, tarmac road. We headed west, stopping at Stovepipe Wells, the only other petrol station in the park, whereby Malek reluctantly made the call to EagleRider and arranged to be recovered to Las Vegas, the closest city. He would soon discover he had fractured his wrist. 

INTO THE SIERRA NEVADA 

Our reduced party rode west, over a pass in the stunning Inyo Mountains, and out of Death Valley, across the vast Mono Basin, on a dead-straight, windswept road. It was slow going. Kit had used a can of fix-a-flat on his tyre with limited effect and it required the use of his puny, battery-powered pump at regular intervals. Running across the entire horizon, we could see the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which surge up from the plateau in a giant, granite rift. We turned south on famous US 395, riding in the afternoon shadow of the soaring Sierras, eventually joining the only route west between here and Yosemite – the glorious nine-mile Canyon Road, which climbs over 1,000m in a series of heart-pounding S-bends. Todd decided to stretch the Beemer’s legs and so I tagged along, confidently throwing the KTM into the corners. I was starting to break-in my bronco. We stopped to wait for the others in the wake of a passing squall, the damp tarmac steamed and the air was heavy with the smell of pine sap as we took in the splendid views of Sequoia National Forrest; grey canyons, rolling green fern and redwoods, clinging impossibly to the shear bluffs. 

A PASS TOO FAR 

Sherman Pass, at 2,980m, was the last obstacle between us and our hotel in the village of Corral Creek. It was late afternoon when we stopped at a remote shop in Kennedy Meadows and were told it was still snowed in. Incredible, when you consider hours earlier it had been 48C in Stovepipe Wells! The only option was to double back down the mountain and pick up Chimney Peak Road, a 14-mile dirt-track that dropped us onto US 178 and another 50 miles to the hotel. The only positive news was that the store had a plug-kit, and we fixed Kit’s tyre. The recommended dirt-track was initially a great ride. A steep, winding descent of hard packed dirt cut into a ravine but, as the light faded, so the track disintegrated into soft sand. 

A welcome sight after the heat of death valley

Expletives echoed across the pitch-black canyon as the bikes went down, one after the other (not my trusty KTM). With no harm done beyond a bruised ego or two, we eventually made our hotel. 

THE FINAL DASH TO MURRIETA 

There were 330 miles between us and EagleRider, which included a mountain range and the dense traffic of LA County. The final day began with a fantastic run south, past Lake Isabella and through the Sierra foothills on empty, winding roads. For our last adventure, I led us through the San Gabriel Mountains on the Angeles Crest Highway, my local canyon – a hair-raising mix of mad S-bends and unreliable cambers. It was a great way to end the tour and the final proving ground for my KTM. The last 80 miles were a hideous fight through rush hour traffic, and not worth mentioning. We regrouped at the rental shop, handed back the bikes, hoping the staff wouldn’t make too much fuss about the nicks and scratches (they didn’t). 

It’s disappointing that most of the big adventure bikes available to rent in the USA are fitted with the standard tyres (the notable exception is at Colorado Motorcycle Adventures). OK, so the 1190 R comes fitted with knobblies, and once I got used to them I was surprised how confidently I could flick the bike around on the tarmac, but it was in the off-road sections where the massive clearance and light body came into their own. Relative to the GS, comfort is the only downside. After a big ride on the KTM, your arse feels like two pounded steaks, and as you sip your first beer after a long dusty day, the vibrations will continue to ring through your hands and feet. Nonetheless, you will also have a huge smile on your face and a great story to tell.

Vintage vehicles

 

Want to ride in the Death Valley?

GUY’S ROUTE 

Most trips from the UK to the USA will be over one-two weeks, but for this specific route you will need at least four days, although five will give you more time to explore some of the destinations at a more leisurely pace. 

APPROXIMATE BUDGET:  

Motorcycle – £100 – 135 per day (assuming 800 – 1200 CC adventure bike) 

Hotels: £70 – 90 per day (twin room) 

Meals: £35 – 50 per day 

Fuel: £15 per/day 

Flights: There are numerous direct flights to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) from various UK Airports. Expect to pay between £350 – 550 per person. 

Approximate total budget per rider: £1,500 (four days) 

WHERE TO RENT: 

EagleRider www.eaglerider.com Moto Quest www.motoquest.com

RIDE YOU OWN BIKE: 

If you want to ride your own bike, then it’s worth getting it transported across the pond. At current prices airfreight from London to Los Angeles costs from £1,360 for a KTM 1190 and BMW R1200GS size motorcycle or similar. For more information head to www.motofreight.com.

ACCOMMODATION:

Book ahead of time for the best options. The limited hotels in and around Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley can fill up quickly during peak season (Spring and Autumn).

The Bike

First released in the UK in 2014, the 1190 Adventure R is equipped with the same V-twin found in the RC8. There is no shortage of power and Brembo brakes and WP suspension help to control all that grunt. On the road the KTM, with its 21” front wheel, feels as tall as it looks and, initially, it took a bit of courage to throw it into corners. Also, under heavy braking, the nosedive is a bit startling. Nonetheless, the 1190 has great road manners for what is essentially a giant dirt bike. Off-road, the big KTM is a monster; well-balanced and easy to handle at low speeds. As a long-distance tourer, the KTM is too dirt focused and lacks comfort and range, but for shorter tours, especially dirt biased tours, the KTM 1190 Adventure R is a capable and thrilling machine.