Death Valley is a magical albeit desolate destination for adventure motorcyclists. The wonderful part of it is that the million acres of Death Valley National Park is but a short distance from several easily accessible western cities. Riding solo across the heart of the valley was one of my bucket list items since I started riding adventure bikes in 2011.
A good friend of mine, who has travelled extensively in the Death Valley area, helped guide me across what I think is one of the most scenic and adventurous routes through the valley. Unique to planning a trip into Death Valley is that any route will cross in and out of a national park. Reading up on the park and specific regulations is recommended before starting the trip. In addition, you’ll need a park pass and national parks have strict guidelines toward plant and wildlife contact.
Where to begin… Intuitively, I like travelling from south to north. That was the plan for this trip as well. There are two places at which you can enter the southern area of Death Valley from, depending on how far south you want to start your route. I chose to start in Lone Pine, California. There is plenty of fuel and supplies here, and as it is nestled along the Eastern Sierras there are plenty of picturesque backdrops. One bonus is a visitor center for Death Valley, where you can get updates on any road closures, weather updates and grab a park pass. The other option is to start further south in the town of Ridgecrest, which is closer to Los Angeles if you are working your way up from the southern part of California. Another worthwhile benefit to starting in Lone Pine is the ride through the Panamint Valley. It’s a beautiful route, particularly in the morning.
I left Lone Pine in the early dawn. The road took me across Owens Lake towards the town of Darwin. There is a small dirt road that passes through Darwin toward Miller Spring and eventually the town of Panamint Springs. The canyon road starts out narrow and the washes contain deep sand. I think bypassing Darwin and staying high on the main highway through the Darwin plateau into Panamint Springs is much more rewarding in both the twisting tarmac and the views across the Panamint Valley.
There’s nearly a 1,200m drop between the Darwin plateau in Panamint Springs, and the temperature increases dramatically as you descend. The town of Panamint Springs has a small gas station, pay-by-the-minute satellite phone and a restaurant, but not many other amenities to offer. It’s the last fuel option for the day. I drove down through the flat valley floor, where there are numerous areas where the road has been intermittently washed out from flash floods. Occasionally this road is closed, and that is why stopping at the visitor centre in Lone Pine is a good idea.
Near the naval radar there is a turn west (36°02’01.2″N 117°16’53.4″W) toward the old mining town of Ballarat. The town consists of several small buildings including the old jail and numerous rusted-out vehicles. Rumour has it, a gold nugget the size of a melon was recently unearthed there. Sometimes the caretaker is at the general store; stopping for a cola and paying extra for it seems to go a long way. The crossroad in Ballarat is known as Wingate Road and it skirts along the base of Manly Peak. I came back to it 15 miles south later that morning.
Back out to the tarmac towards Valley Wells and south toward the town of Trona, the turn-off going south is hard to find and is not marked well. Most maps don’t show the road exists, which often makes it an attractive route to adventure motorcyclists. There is a rusted-out sign at the road that reads “Valley Sand and Gravel”. The road is a 14-mile trail across the slate mountains to the Manly Peak Wilderness Area. This route is both technical and rewarding. The first turn is marked P68, the Slate Range Trail. The road enters a wash when it reaches the mountains, and then into narrow Goff Canyon.
You’ll eventually climb out of the wash and begin the steep ascent up the mountains. Some sections of the trail are rough with embedded rocks and loose gravel with numerous steep climbs and descents. The road rises up to Manly Pass and offers another view into Panamint Flat Lake. Across the valley the Briggs Mine comes into view. The Briggs mine has been around since the early 1970s and primarily produced silver and gold. The road descends sharply with numerous twists and turns. Nearing the bottom of the last descent on the left side of the road a bright yellow sign marks the Fish Canyon Escape Route.
The sign commemorates Father Fish, a member of a group of California-bound emigrants in 1849 trying to escape the grasp of Death Valley. There is a steep, technical one-mile dead-end trail to see Father Fish’s gravesite. The trail gradually smooths out as it winds around and across the mud flats of Panamint Flat Lake. At this point the drill comes back into contact with Wingate Road. If you took the left fork you’d end up back at that old ghost town of Ballarat. Rising up in front is Manly Peak Wilderness Area and Manly Peak.
After a short distance along the valley floor there is a turn into Goler Wash (35°51’32.6″N 117°10’47.2″W). Numerous mines and cabins are scattered throughout the hills and the road quickly becomes more technical with a growing number of large rocks. Taking some time to scout the area reveals a tramline going up to the Lestro Mountain Mine. There are numerous springs in the canyon that could provide a water source if you had a filter with you, but be wary, the canyon could get dangerous with heavy rains. There are also areas where the water produces some sliding on the rocks and mud. In addition, temperatures can drop below freezing at night making ice a hazard in the early morning shadows.
It was common to see small herds of burros in the canyon, direct descendants from early mining days. Four miles into the canyon, the trail enters Death Valley National Park. The road continues to climb up to Mengel Pass at approximately 1,300m. Mengel Pass is named for Carl Mengel, a prospector who lived in the area from 1912 until his death in 1944. There is a rock cairn at the top of the pass. Carl Mengel was a hard rock miner and it is customary to place a rock on top of the cairn to honour his mining efforts. From the pass you can look out into Butte Valley and see the famous rock formation called Striped Butte.
After cresting the summit of Mengel Pass there is a side trail to the infamous Barker Ranch (35°51’38.0″N 117°05’48.2″W). This is where Charles Manson was arrested in 1969. Several of the structures burned down in the beginning of May 2009. Travelling along the valley, I stopped in to see both the geologist’s cabins in Anvil Springs and Mengel’s cabin at Greater View Springs. Both are a quick, easy stops and it is fun to see some of the restoration that has taken place. You leave the valley floor heading toward Warm Springs Camp (35°58’07.7″N 116°55’52.4″W). Ride on toward the lowest part of Death Valley, the temperatures will rise quickly around you.
When I arrived in Furnace Creek in the early afternoon the temperature was nearly 42C. As I sat in Furnace Creek eating an ice cream, a traveller from France spent some time with me talking about the Dakar. The 2011 KTM 990 I ride has the 30th edition Dakar emblem on the side. He was a three-time racer in the Dakar years ago. What a treat to listen to him tell his race stories.
Furnace Creek has a number of amenities including numerous places to eat and fuel. It was too crowded for me with all the tourists, so I chose not to camp there. There is a free rudimentary campsite several miles east of Furnace Creek where I camped for the night (36°20’17.2″N 116°35’58.5″W). There were only two of us there: myself and an old hermit who I think has been there for two decades. Long days of riding hard terrain can exhaust anyone, but it is worth staying up to see the stars.
Another tip in the desert, which I am sure the folks from Australia know all too well, is to shake out your riding boots in the morning. Scorpions are usually the ones to claim a boot as a new home. The goal for the second morning is to get a view of Death Valley and the rising sun from Donte’s View. It is an easy 12-mile tarmac ride up Donte’s View Road reaching 1,600m from the valley floor. The peak overlooks the entire expanse of Death Valley south to north. Directly below the summit is Badwater Basin, the lowest point in Death Valley at 86m below sea level.
After the morning solace, enjoy two other short rides before striking out on the day. First is the Artist Palate (36°19’47.8″N 116°49’47.6″W), just south of Furnace Creek, and the other is 20 Mule Team Canyon (36°24’34.5″N 116°47’41.0″W) just east of Furnace Creek. Both offer terrific views into the geology and colours of Death Valley. The main visitor’s center for Death Valley is in Furnace Creek. Pick up a park pass if needed. There is also free water there and a good chance to fill up before the long day ahead.
Time to start heading north out of Furnace Creek towards Beatty. Take the right turn on Daylight Pass Road towards Hell’s Gait. Approximately 3.4 miles past the junction is an unmarked road heading towards Chloride City (36°45’01.9″N 116°56’11.8″W). This is a wonderful rolling easy dirt road heading up to the Chloride Cliffs. The cliffs overlook the Keen Wonder Mine from an elevation of 1,500m. The last 100m or so are a little tricky and some may choose to walk. The trip down from Chloride City follows a very long straight dirt path into the town of Beatty, Nevada.
Beatty is a decent size town as far as Nevada goes, with plenty of food and fuel. I grabbed a late breakfast as the only patron in the establishment. Outside of Beatty is the ghost town of Rhyolite. Turning off the main road in Beatty (36°54’26.6″N 116°46’14.2″W) leads to the old railroad tracks and into the backside of the mine and old ghost town. There is not much of the ghost town left, but just a few buildings. It was quite prosperous in the early 1900s with 10,000 people apparently visiting the town. In 1907 there was a financial panic and the mine began to decline along with the city. The nearby mine closed in 1911.
Heading west out of Rhyolite a short distance is the other main attraction for the day, Titus Canyon (36°51’33.3″N 116°50’45.5″W). Titus Canyon Road is a one-way road from east to west. Check in with the visitor centre to ensure that the road is open. It occasionally closes due to road conditions and rain washing out parts of it. It’s a beautiful drive and well worth the trip.
The Canyon Road climbs various steep grades and switchbacks up to a crest that has beautiful views of the canyon. It then begins a long gradual descent to Death Valley. Along the descent are the rusting remains of the old town of Leadfield (36°50’55.1″N 117°03’34.4″W). The town was built after a number of investors were duped into building a road into the area to mine for lead. There was a rapid collapse after the discovery of the scandal and the town disappeared after a single year.
The end of the canyon is my favorite portion, as the canyon walls climb up quickly, narrowing the road to 5m wide. The motor echoes in among the narrow canyon. The canyon comes to an abrupt end and spits you out on to a two-lane highway. Head into Stovepipe Wells and get fuel and then head back towards camp for the night, about a 40-minute ride in total from this point. Stovepipe Wells offers a place to stay if needed, as well as a number of food options. Stay here if you wish, but my intention was to continue camping, as isolated as possible. I headed back up the two-lane highway and settled in at Mesquite Spring (36°59’23.7″N 117°21’47.5″W).
I was one of only two people there. The other guy there had a jeep and plenty of fuel. He was happy to share. It would have been an option had I not ventured to Stovepipe Wells to get some earlier. I like travelling alone, and camping alone even more. However, I highly recommend meeting people along the way.
In an environment like Death Valley, planning ahead is smart and an ongoing process. Meeting people along the way allows a chain of contacts, sharing of resources and potential assistance. You may be offering them help too! There are plenty of people traveling in Death Valley that do not bring water or other amenities to help themselves. I should also mention that the weather changes drastically in the valley. This includes wide temperature fluctuations between day and night. Temperatures in the lower valley may reach as high as 44C. At night it may be 5-10C. Wearing appropriate layers and planning ahead is key.
If you’ve not noticed, I am a sunrise person and it’s best to catch the start of the morning from Ubehebe Crater (37°00’40.3″N 117°27’17.4″W). My experience is that getting up early often means that you get to see sites all to yourself. Ubehebe Crater was formed by a violet volcanic eruption less than 1,000 years ago. It left a crater half a mile wide and 180m deep. There is a half-mile hiking trail that circles the rim and a shorter trail down to the center of the crater. The bottom of the crater offers warm temperatures and a wonderful way to spend the morning drinking a cup of coffee listening to the sounds of the desert.
There’s a long straight road heading out from the crater along the edge of Tin Mountain. The road is riddled with washboard and at times is difficult to ride. You’ve got to strike a fine balance between slow enough to sustain control and fast enough to skip through the wash boards. This road is called Racetrack Road and it comes to a T-junction known as Teakettle Junction (36°45’36.2″N 117°32’32.5″W). There is a sign post littered with countless tea kettles of various shapes and sizes. No one is certain how the name ‘Teakettle Junction’ came to be, just that at some point visitors started leaving inscribed kettles on the sign in a quirky display.
The left-hand turn at the junction takes you into Hidden Valley and over Hunter Mountain. Add another half-day to the trip and explore this route and the Lost Burro Mine (36°43’24.8″N 117°31’17.3″W). The right-hand turn is the quickest way to Racetrack (36°41’34.7″N 117°34’17.0″W), Death Valley National Park’s bizarre playa filled with rocks that mysteriously slide across the dry, flat desert landscape on their own. The playa is the remains of a 10,000-year-old lake.
There is an outcrop of rock at the northern end known as the Grandstand. The area is amazingly flat, and the movement of the rocks was a mystery up until research published in 2014 demonstrated how they move. Moisture beneath the rocks freezes during the evenings and thaws during the day, transporting the rocks slowly across the playa. It is worth the time to walk on the playa before heading back out to the washboard-riddled road.
I try to check my bike after a long spell on the washboard roads as all the jiggling can cause issues. From the southern end of the playa, you’ll come across the remnants of the Lippincott Mine. The mine appears to have started working in 1906 producing lead, silver and zinc. The mine operated during World War One but as the Ubehebe area was used for gunnery exercises during World War Two the mine was temporarily closed. It eventually stopped operations altogether in 1951.
From the mine there is a spectacular eight-mile single-track road (36°38’29.3″N 117°34’28.7″W) known as Lippincott Road that descends into Saline Valley. It is scenic, rugged and moderately challenging depending upon recent weather conditions. The road meets up with Saline Valley Road south of Ubehebe Peak. Saline Valley Road brings back washboard memories that you’ll want to forget. Turning north brings you closer to the backside of the Inyo Mountains and more moisture and ruins of the old Saline Valley Salt Tram (36°41’07.6″N 117°49’06.4″W).
The Saline Valley Salt Company built the aerial electric tramway in 1911. The tram would rise 2,300m over the crest of the Inyo Range from the floor of Saline Valley, and then descend 1,500m to the narrow gauge railroad terminal at Tramway near Keeler. The tramway covered a distance of 13.5 miles. If you look up from the road you can see the tramway towers climbing their way to the ridge.
While exploring the tram, I came across a fellow rider travelling from Scotland. His goal was to ride across the United States and down to the southern tip of South America. His bike was extremely overloaded and he was not enjoying the washboard road. Worse, he appeared to be heading in the wrong direction. We got out the maps and decided that the hot springs were probably a good place to spend part of the afternoon and discuss our travel plans. There is no distinct marker for the turn-off toward the hot springs (36°46’42.5″N 117°52’48.3″W). It is a simple dirt trail looking like a half-dozen other trails along the way.
A sculpture known as the Bat Pole (36°46’59.9″N 117°48’11.6″W) marks the next turn to the Saline Valley Warm Springs. There are three individual springs: upper, middle, and lower springs. Primitive work began on the springs in the 1960s and was improved by volunteer labour, to include concrete tubs, a shower, a sink, and now concrete-lined toilets. The middle and lower springs have concrete soaking tubs and showers with bamboo piping. The upper spring is undeveloped and in its natural state other than the surrounding fence to keep the donkeys out. There were a handful of people at the springs, all enjoying the day as nude as can be. Feel free to explore your inner self.
After soaking up the hot springs, there are two options to get back to Big Pine, the closest town. The first is to head back towards Saline Valley Road and turn north towards Big Pine Death Valley Road. Expect dust, heavy washboard and occasional rough spots, but this is the easiest of the two routes. The other route heads east out of the springs toward Steel Pass. Steel Pass is scenic, narrow, very technical, and not for the faint of heart. It can be done on an adventure bike, but it may not be smart if riding solo. The lower part of the pass feeds through a narrow canyon spilling into Eureka Dunes. Expect a sandy wash and sharp rocks. Past the dunes the road connects Big Pine Death Valley Road and out towards the town of Big Pine.
The final night is spent in the town of Bishop, 18 miles north of Big Pine. There is a terrific barbecue for dinner and a wonderful bakery for the morning. Day four is an easy scenic exploring day into the White Mountains. Head east from Bishop towards Silver Canyon Road (37°23’59.5″N 118°21’07.9″W). It is a steep 10-mile shelf road that climbs up to the heart of the White Mountains. The road begins at 1,200m and climbs out of the canyon to over 3,100m.
If you’re lucky, you will get to see desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope and mule deer along the drive. The objective is to visit some of the oldest trees on planet earth. The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest (37°23’08.0″N 118°10’52.9″W) is home to trees more than 4,000 years of age. At the top of the climb is an intersection. You can visit the Patriarch Grove to the north, or Schulman Grove to the south along White Mountain Road. Traveling early in the season is not possible as there is too much snow. Typically, by mid-June the snow is melted and you can get through. You could head back down to Silver Canyon, but a longer scenic road on tarmac provides a beautiful ride down into Big Pine.
This ride takes four-five days to complete. Days are designed to start early and finish by 5pm, with plenty of time for stops to absorb the scenery and awe of one of the most amazing places in the United States. Travel in the summer isn’t advised due to the extreme heat, but the late spring and early autumn is perfect. Most of the route is dirt with sections of moderate difficulty, and most big bikes will have plenty of fuel range for each day. Water is the most precious commodity and should be on your route planning just as we often map for fuel. Traveling solo is enriching, I think meeting people along the way adds to that enrichment and adds an additional element of safety.
Special thanks to my friend Tom Severin from Badlands Off-Road Adventures for leading me to this route. He also has a keen knowledge of the area making the trip even more enjoyable. Happy travelling!