Exploring Death Valley
Death Valley has been on my bucket list for many years, but somehow I've never got around to making it down there despite its close proximity. Linda was going to be out of town for a couple of weeks in early May exploring Washington, D.C. with her friend, Kathy and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to check Death Valley off my list.
In the past couple of years, I've been doing a fair amount of "adventure" motorcycling, but since my solo trip to Prudhoe Bay in 2007, all of my trips have been with a group of other riders. This time, I decided to go solo. Although, it can be a little riskier, especially when traveling some of the unpaved, isolated backroads, the solitude and freedom of riding alone is something I really enjoy. Nowadays, with my SPOT satellite messenger, I feel that help is nearby should I get into trouble. I also spend a lot of time planning these trips to minimize the risks as much as possible. What the hell .............. I'm too old to die young, anyway.
Originally, I planned to leave on May 1, but a spring storm roared through the area a few days earlier and dumped a bunch of snow on the Sierra passes. I decided to wait a few days and let most of this snow melt before taking off. CLICK HERE to see my route on GOOGLE EARTH.
May 4, 2010 - Ride to Beatty, NV
On May 4, I took off fairly early in the morning and headed for Beatty, NV about 400 miles away. Beatty lies on the east side of Death Valley and I planned to make it my base of operations for the first day. The amenities of civilization are spread pretty thin in Death Valley and I didn't want to get too far away from fuel or water. I wasn't too sure what kind of roads I was going to run into or what kind of temperatures to expect. I was fairly confident that it was early enough to avoid the 120° temperatures Death Valley is famous for, but the 10 day forecast had temperatures around 100° the entire time.
This wasn't my first ride to Beatty and I was looking forward it. The skies were clear and sunny with temperatures in the 50s, when I departed - I couldn't have designed a better day. As I headed over the Sierra, traffic was light and things were looking good. The view of Lake Tahoe as Hwy 50 descends from Echo Summit is one of those places that I stop for a photograph every time I pass by - the scene is breathtaking.
At the Hwy 89 junction I turned south to go over one of my favorite roads - through Markleeville and over Monitor Pass, another place I always stop for a photo.
I was a little surprised that there wasn't more snow at the higher elevations. The most I encountered was at the very top of Monitor Pass where maybe a foot or so remained. Of course, the shady areas still had some deep snow, but all in all, there wasn't as much as I expected after hearing all winter about the heavy snow pack.
I rode at a very leisurely pace today. I'm not sure why, but it seems that I'm always riding the twisty roads at the edge of my ability. Is it only me? Something seems to always be pushing me to go faster. Today, I ignored the feeling and just cruised along, taking in the sights and enjoying the quiet and solitude of the mountains. It was so pleasant that I think I'll be forcing myself to take it easy more often. Maybe riding with Linda on our new (to us) ST1300 has showed me something I can use on my solo rides - I'm always a little more careful when she's on the back which translates to a more sedate pace.
When I reached Lee Vining, I turned east on Hwy 120 and rode around the south side of Mono Lake. Eventually, I came down out of the mountain environment and into the high desert. I stopped in Benton, NV for fuel, and also decided to get a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. There were a few locals in the restaurant and nobody seemed real friendly so I just wolfed down my pie and took off. You never know what to expect in these small towns. Sometimes everyone seems friendly and talkative and other times it feels like you're in a bad movie - Deliverance comes to mind. This wasn't exactly Deliverance country, but I didn't get very good vibes.
I headed north on Hwy 6 then took Hwy 264 through a little town called Dyer. Since I didn't get a proper break in Benton, I decided to stop for a Pepsi in Dyer. This was a lot better. A local who was putting gas into his car, nodded to me as I walked into the store. The clerk greeted me with a smile and a couple of customers also smiled in greeting. I bought a Pepsi, a couple of bags of peanuts and a local newspaper. I went back outside and sat down at a little picnic table in the shade. While I was relaxing, a fellow walked up, nodded towards my BMW, and asked me if that was my motorcycle. This guy rode a KTM 990 and shared my passion for dual-sport riding. We talked for about 15 minutes before he went on his way. Now that's more like it!
I left Dyer feeling pretty good and the feeling held all the way to Beatty. I continued at my leisurely pace and stopped a couple of times to check out some old building ruins and other things of interest. I couldn't pass up this Joshua tree which seemed to be calling out to me.
When I entered Beatty, I headed for the Atomic Inn, a motel that came highly recommended in an 'advrider' post by some riders who had ridden in Death Valley earlier in the year. I wouldn't give it a four star rating, but it was clean, comfortable and economical at $53 a night, including an $8 motorcycle discount.
After I unpacked my gear and cleaned up a little, it was time to eat so I headed for the Ensenada Grill which was also recommended in the 'advrider' post. The desk clerk told me it was about a mile away, and my lazy nature forced me to ride. It turned out to be less than 4 short blocks and I was feeling a little foolish for riding that very short distance. As I pulled up to the restaurant, I noticed a warning light on my instrument panel telling me that my headlight was burned out. My reflection in the restaurant window confirmed it. I'm getting to think that I really don't need an odometer on my motorcycle - my headlight burns out every 10,000 miles like clockwork. This would make the 5th headlight to burn out which meant I must be approaching 50,000 miles - I cycled through my trip meter until the odometer showed - 49,768 miles RIGHT ON QUEUE. Because I go through so many headlight bulbs, I pack a spare and after dinner I would have to put it in.
The Ensenada Grill didn't inspire a lot of confidence at first glance, but I decided to give it a go, anyway. The menu looked pretty good, so I ordered up a taco dinner and waited for it to arrive. There was a couple sitting at the next table and the woman looked over at me and struck up a conversation about my motorcycle. They were from Ridgecrest, CA and had ridden their motorcycles across Death Valley that day. These folks weren't exactly spring chickens (maybe even older than me) and I was surprised to hear that she rode here own motorcycle. It was parked on the other side of the building from mine and I could see it from where I was sitting - I couldn't see exactly what it was, but it was a large, Japanese, Harley look-alike. Anyway, these folks weren't strangers to Death Valley and gave me a lot of ideas of things to see and places to explore.
After a good meal (I can also recommend the Ensenada Grill), I headed back for the motel and proceeded to replace the burnt out headlight bulb. As I said, I'm no amateur at this and I expected no problems with this "simple" operation. All one needs do is release a wire clip, unplug the old bulb, plug in the new bulb, replace it in the hole, and snap in the wire clip. SURPRISE!!! When I released the clip, it sprang out of it's permanent(?) mount and disappeared off the face of the earth. By now it was getting dark and although I searched and searched with the flashlight, it was nowhere to be seen. After a few choice words, I decided that I'd just have to drive around with no headlight until I got home in a few days.
Just before I crawled into bed, I decided that I'd put on my disc lock to make it a little more difficult for some low life to run off with my motorcycle. As I turned the flashlight towards the front disc, I noticed an strange, shiny spot on one of the spokes of the front wheel. Somehow, that gosh darned little clip had bounced around and managed to wrap itself around a spoke - unbelievable! Actually, though, I was quite happy to find it and went to bed in a pretty good mood.
CLICK HERE to see the photos I took on my ride to Beatty.
May 5, 2010 - Furnace Creek and vicinity
The first thing on the agenda this morning was to get that new headlight bulb in. With good light, it didn't take long to reattach the spring clip and stick in the new bulb. I was off to a good start. It was then off to the Ensenada Grill for breakfast and I filled up on bacon and eggs, my standard breakfast when I'm on the road. The food was good, plentiful, and the price was right.
Today I planned to stick pretty much to paved roads and see some of the standard, touristy sights that everyone sees in Death Valley. About 4 miles out of Beatty you run into the ghost town of Rhyolite, one of the many mining towns that sprang up in the early 1900s. The action in Rhyolite began around 1905, peaked at 3,000 - 5,000 people and was abandoned in less than a decade. All that remains now are a few building ruins, including a largely restored house made with 30,000 beer bottles.
Just a few hundred yards south of Rhyolite is an open air museum that features a ghostly, modern, sculptural interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci's painting of the Last Supper.
I spent about 15 or 20 minutes checking out the old buildings then went down to the museum and spend another 30 minutes or so looking things over and chatting with the curator, a retired volunteer who keeps things running. He had some very interesting stories of the area. I pretty much had the place to myself other than the single car that drove up as I was leaving.
My original plan was to drive all the way to Badwater, the lowest point in the northern hemisphere, then turn around and head back to Furnace Creek visiting the "Natural Bridge", and "Artists Palette" before fueling up in Furnace Springs. From Furnace Creek I would then head east on Hwy 190 stop at "Dante's View", then continue east on Hwy 190 and loop back to Beatty.
The temperature was pretty moderate so far. Beatty is at an elevation of over 3,000 feet and the road into Death Valley stayed pretty high for quite awhile. Soon, however, the road began to drop into the valley and temperatures began to pick up. I eventually shed my heavy jacket and put on my mesh jacket which helped considerably. I was also glad to have my Camelbak and I was sure to keep sipping enough water to keep up with my perspiration.
A couple of miles north of Furnace Creek, I spotted some old buildings off to the right and decided to check it out. It was a place called Harmony, the site of an old borax works that closed down in 1888 after 5 years of operation.
It turns out that I had to stop in Furnace Creek first to pay the entry fee into Death Valley National Park. My Golden Age Passport saved me another $18. The Golden Age Passport is the best investment I ever made - I paid about $10 for a lifetime pass to all the National Parks and I'll bet I've saved $1,000 in entry fees in the last 6 or 7 years. While I was talking to the ranger, I asked him about all the dirt roads I planned to ride tomorrow. As we looked over the map, he commented on the condition of the roads and made some recommendations on things to check out. He thought I shouldn't have any problems with my plans except for the ride to Barker Ranch. He said there were a couple of really technical spots that could give me problems and I shouldn't attempt it on my own. He also informed me that the loop to "Artists Palette" was closed for construction this week.
Six or seven miles south of Furnace Creek a dirt road on the right headed off into the west. This was the "West Side Road" I remembered from my planning stages. It crosses to the west side of the valley and roughly parallels the highway for about 40 miles. I wasn't able to find out too much about this road, so I didn't include it in my route. I sat there for a few minutes pondering whether to take it, but decided not too because I was unsure of the distance and my fuel supply.
My next stop was at "The Devil's Golf Course" about five miles further down the road. This would be my first dirt road - about a mile of washboard gravel. From a distance, "The Devil's Golf Course" looks like a field that was randomly ploughed up. On closer inspection, the surface is made up of very large crystals that look and feel a lot like the material of a coral reef - very sharp stuff. They say that a 30 feet deep lake once covered the area and the salt crystals that we see are made up of the minerals that were dissolved in the lake water and left behind as the lake evaporated. Wikipedia say that studies suggest the salt and gravel beds of "The Devil's Golf Course" could be 9,000 feet deep in places.
After a brief look around, I headed back to the main road and continued south a couple of miles to the "Natural Bridge". As I headed up the dirt road to the "Natural Bridge", I encountered a couple of the very few cars I'd seen today. The road was gravel and extremely washboarded - the cars were limping along about 5 mph. My larger wheels enabled me to travel about 30 mph and ride on the tops of the ridges. I was already hiking up the trail before these folks made it to the parking lot. The "Natural Bridge" is about 1/2 mile hike from the parking lot and some higher in elevation - I was glad I brought a bottle of water with me. The "Natural Bridge", although interesting, looks pretty much like every other natural bridge and I stayed only long enough for a couple of photos.
I was actually much more impressed with the view of the floor of Death Valley from the trail back to the parking lot. On the hike up, I knew I was gaining elevation, but I had no idea how much and the view was quite surprising.
Badwater, the lowest spot in North America at 282 feet below sea level, was less than 5 miles down the road. It is obvious that this is a main attraction - there is a paved parking lot, a walkway leading down onto the valley floor, and a couple of exhibits. There were also about 10 cars and 25 or 30 people milling around. There's really not much to see - the sign says the actual low point is a couple of miles to the west and it looked like some of the folks were hiking out to it. Not me! I took a couple of photos and headed back to my motorcycle. By now it was getting quite warm and I was ready for something cold to drink - I was tired of sipping water out of my Camelbak that was warmer than my coffee had been this morning.
As I climbed back up to the parking lot, I saw a fellow who had just dismounted from a well ridden BMW650 checking out my bike. He was exploring Death Valley in reverse of what I was doing. Yesterday he had done some riding on the west side of Death Valley and today he was exploring the east side. Tomorrow I would be heading for some of the area he had already ridden. He had ridden the "West Side Road" south to its intersection with the paved road and now he was heading north back to Furnace Creek and then west to meet up with some other riders. He said the "West Side Road" wasn't too bad and could be driven at 35 mph or so for most of the way. There were some soft spots, but they didn't cause him any problems. After exchanging a few war stories we went our separate ways - he went check out Badwater and I made a beeline for Furnace Creek and something cold to drink - maybe even a little lunch.
By now it was feeling quite warm - I was guessing it was in the mid 90s. When I arrived in Furnace Creek, I first fueled up then made my way to the restaurant. The first thing that struck me was how cold and humid it felt inside. A friendly hostess guided me to a table and as I waited for the waitress to show up I noticed that I was drenched in sweat and it was actually dripping off my arms and running off my bald head. I guess it was hotter outside than I thought - when the waitress arrived she informed me that it was 103° outside. While I was waiting for my bowl of soup to arrive, I gulped down 3 huge glasses of ice water and it was really a treat. After about 15 minutes or so, I stopped sweating and started to feel pretty peppy again. By the way, If you like potato soup, this is the place.
When I stepped back outside and headed for my motorcycle, the heat seemed much higher than before. I probably would have never noticed had I not spent the 45 minutes in the air conditioned environment. By now it was about 2:30 PM and I had only one more item on my list - Dante's View. My GPS was telling me that it was about 110 miles back to Beatty which gave me plenty of time to get back before dinner - I decided to take my time and enjoy the sights.
Before I'd traveled 5 miles I saw a parking lot full of cars and people so I whipped in to see what the attraction was. It is a viewpoint called Zabriskie Point. From the parking lot it was hard to tell there was anything worth seeing, but after a brief, steep climb up a paved trail, my mind was dramatically changed. As I pondered the best view I'd seen so far, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to hike around down there. Then I came back to me senses, snapped a couple of photographs and headed back down the hill. This Panoramic View was shot with my camera's video recorder. Choose 720p HD and full screen for best viewing.
By now, I was again acclimated to the heat and ready to ride. I hopped on my motorcycle and headed for Dante's view. Almost immediately, maybe a mile down the road, I saw a little dirt road heading off into some interesting country to my right. It was signed "20 Mule Team Canyon Loop". Since I had plenty of time, I decided to check it out and get some dust on my tires. It was a pleasant little 4 mile change of pace. The road was nicely graveled most of the way and the few soft, sandy spots weren't too bad to negotiate. The road gained in elevation as I went and after a couple of miles I had to negotiate a series of sharp, steep, switchbacks to highest point. I was kind of surprised how high I had climbed when I reached the top and could see the highway down below. On the descent, a few of the switchbacks were made more interesting by soft, sandy sections in the most inconvenient places. When traveling uphill, gravity is your friend - going down, gravity is NOT your friend.
After that fun little diversion, I was again off for Dante's View. Less than 5 miles from exiting 20 Mule Team Borax Canyon I turned off on Dante View Rd which leads about 15 miles and climbs to nearly 6,000 feet above the floor of Death Valley. The last mile or so of this road is kind of interesting as it gets very steep and leads through some pretty sharp switchbacks. The view from up here is unbelievable. CLICK HERE to see a larger version of the photo to the right. I had a feeling similar to when I was standing on the edge of Grand Canyon. Our human senses just can't seem to grasp scenes of this magnitude. Badwater is only 2 miles west of the viewpoint, as the crow files, and I could see the highway down below and a few cars, which seemed very, very small. The wind was blowing pretty hard and it was actually a little cool up there. Quite a contrast to the 103° so nearby.
I didn't have anything else planned after after Dante's view - just an 85 mile ride across the desert back to Beatty. I continued east on Hwy 190, turned north on Hwy 373 to Hwy 95 and back to Beatty. I hear a lot of people complain about boring drives across the desert. I can't say that it was the most exciting ride of my life, but I always find plenty of interesting things to see and I'm never bored while riding in the desert. Where else, for example, are you going to see a giant cow like this?
I had a routine evening in Beatty - shower, cheeseburger, some TV, and some web surfing. I spent some time going over my maps and notes on tomorrow's riding. Things should be a little more exciting; I planned to get off the beaten track and drive about 60 miles or so of the dirt backroads of Death Valley. I've tried to do my research, but I'm really not sure what to expect.
CLICK HERE to see the photos I took today.
May 6, 2010
Titus Canyon, Mosaic Canyon, Skidoo, Eureka Mine, Aguereberry Point, Wildrose Kilns, Ballarat
I woke up about 5:00 AM and couldn't get back to sleep. I'm a real worry wart and before embarking on an adventure I can't get the ideas out of my head about all the bad things that could go wrong. What if I crash out there and break a leg? What if I tip over and my back goes out and I can't pick up the bike? What if? What if? I recall the Park Service descriptions of the roads: "High -clearance vehicle required due to steep grades, deep gravel and ruts. Often closed due to flood damage, mud or snow." and "High-clearance vehicle required due to rock outcrop in road at 3.5 miles and steep, rocky final 0.5 mile to viewpoint." In my rational mind I know they're just trying to discourage people with passenger cars and these conditions really won't be a problem to me and my R1200GS, but still ............. the negative thoughts play with my head. I also know that as soon as I crank up my bike and hit the road, all these negative thoughts will vanish. Still ............... I lay in bed worrying in that twilight between sleep and wakefulness. My alarm finally went off at 7:00 AM and put me out of my misery.
When I poked my head out of the motel room, it was quite cool and very windy - nothing like I expected. I filled up with coffee, bacon, and eggs and headed towards death valley in my cold weather gear.
My route took my past Rhyolite again and about 3 miles later I spotted the turnoff to Titus Canyon Road. It is about 26 miles of dirt road that roughly parallels the Hwy 374 into Death Valley. It is a narrow, one-way road that climbs a mountain range and descends into Death Valley through a narrow canyon.
The first 8 or 10 miles crosses the valley floor, and although it is gaining in elevation as it approaches the mountain range, the road is fairly straight, gravel road that isn't too bad in spite of some pretty severe washboarding in places. About 5 miles in, I spotted a car and I was gaining on it so fast that I thought it was coming at me. I thought that was strange since this is supposed to be a one-way road. Actually, it turned out to be a family in an SUV traveling in the same direction I was, but going very, very slow. The washboard was apparently very rough for them. I was able to travel along at about 30 mph without too much trouble. As I came up behind them, I slowed way up, not wanting to spray them with rocks and dust. The driver was very courteous and pulled way over to let me by and everyone waved as I putted past. This was actually good news to me ............. there would be someone coming along if I got into trouble.
Soon the road starts to climb and after a bit, the climb gets more serious and the road gets narrower and more twisty. There are some pretty tight, narrow, rugged switchbacks but nothing too difficult - just interesting. At the top of the pass, there are some fantastic views towards the east and I stopped a couple of places on the way up just to savor the view.
After cresting Red Pass, the road stays relatively flat for a few miles before beginning its descent into Titus Canyon. Some distance before entering the canyon, I came across the ghost down of Leadfield - the reason the road through Titus Canyon was built.
As its name suggest, Leadfield was the site of a marginal lead discovery in 1905 that was abandoned as not profitable within 6 month. The mining claims were then acquired by a fellow who must have been related to Bernie Madoff. In 1926 a newspaper headline heralded large lead deposits in the area and the road was built, 300 people moved in and a post office was built. Sadly the ore had been salted and after 6 months of not finding anything, the post office closed, everyone moved out and the promotors headed for Singapore. That's the short version of the story - for the full story, CLICK HERE. Today there are still a couple of buildings remaining. I didn't do much exploring, however, since the first thing I saw on the trail was a 3 foot long rattlesnake. I got a couple of good photos of him that I included in the day's photos.
After leaving Leadville, the road begins its descent into Titus Canyon. Near the top, the grade is steep the switchbacks are many. As I've said before, going down is more tricky than going up and you wouldn't want to run off the edge in this area. As I continued down into the canyon, the rock walls began to tower overhead and the sensation was very interesting. I had the thought, however, that the descriptions really overplayed the reality. The accounts I read talked about the walls being only 20 feet apart in places, but I didn't see anything narrower than a couple of hundred feet.
At some point I came across a sign that spoke of petroglyphs, however, I could see nothing anywhere. I took a short break here and ditched my cold weather gear in favor of my mesh jacket. I probably should have done it sooner - t-shirt and sweatshirt were more than a little damp. Not too worry, however, in about 15 minutes everything had dried out nicely.
As I continued down the canyon, I ran into a little water on the road apparently issuing from a spring on the north side. I was kind of surprised to see this much water in the extremely arid looking country. I guess my first clue should have been some of the grasses and plants in the immediate area. Anyway ................... as I continued down the canyon, I was forced to take my thoughts back about the narrowness of the canyon being overstated. Things got very interesting and there WERE places where the rocks rose up hundreds of vertical feet high on both sides of the narrow road - two vehicles couldn't have squeezed through the narrow opening. In many places I felt a little claustrophobic. My GPS was also complaining of "lost satellite signal" and I was sure my SPOT wouldn't be able to transmit an SOS from within the narrow confines.
Eventually, I could see the valley ahead and soon I popped out of the canyon and onto the flat lands. A mile or so later, I stopped to check my gear and looked back towards the mountains from which I'd just emerged. For the life of me, I couldn't see a thing to indicate the canyon was there. It's hard to believe that something so big could disappear so completely into the landscape. I notice that my GPS was indicating an elevation of around 200 feet and it occurred to me that Titus Canyon Rd had descended nearly 5,000 feet in about 12 miles. That's a pretty good grade.
Titus Canyon Rd intersects with the North Highway which is paved. I got lucky here. They were paving the section just south of where I came out and I ran into a flagman only a couple of hundred yards down the road. I had no more than lifted my visor to talk to the flagman when the pilot car from the other direction came into view. The flagman said that I was really lucky to hit it just right - it usually took about 30 to 40 minutes for the pilot car to make a round trip.
My next stop was Stovepipe Wells where I stopped for fuel, water, and a short break. As I approached Stovepipe Wells I took note of some fairly large sand dunes and it looked like a lot of people were crawling around them. There is really nothing there to interest me, so I didn't stay long. I took notice of a thermometer that read 90°. A much more reasonable temperature than yesterday.
Almost immediately after leaving Stovepipe Wells, I saw a dirt road heading up the hill to the left that was signed Mosaic Canyon. I had heard the name, so I thought I'd check it out. I was making pretty good time and it wasn't even noon yet. It was about 2-1/2 miles to a parking area with three SUVs but only one person. This was apparently another hiking opportunity - I don't do hiking so I snapped a photo or two and headed back to the highway. I was more concerned with my next destination, Skidoo, another ghost town.
Hwy 190 climbs quickly out of Death Valley, by the time it reaches the turnoff to Wildrose Rd (Emigrant Canyon Rd on some maps) less than 10 miles out of Stovepipe Wells, the elevation is over 2,000 feet and the temperature already felt cooler. During my planning for the trip, it didn't look like Wildrose Rd was paved all the way. The couple I met at dinner the night before, however, had ridden through on street bikes and told me that except for several miles of poor pavement a few short patches of gravel it was paved and in good shape. Anyway ........ the road continued to climb and when I turned off on the dirt road to Skidoo, the elevation was almost 5,000 feet.
The temperature was now quite pleasant - I would guess about 70°. I was quite pleased about the temperature because one of my worries about getting off the beaten track by myself was Death Valley's killer heat. Riding these roads sometimes can turn into a lot of work and it requires a lot of water to keep hydrated. Although I was carrying over a gallon of water, I wasn't sure it would be enough, especially if I broke down and had to wait for help. Skidoo road is wide and graveled and heads off across a flat area for a mile or so before starting to climb into the hills. Even after the climb began, the road stayed in good shape. There weren't many switchbacks and the grades were moderate even though the road kept climbing. There were a few rocky sections, but nothing very serious.
Soon I was standing at the site of Skidoo, another old mining town that flourished in the early 1900s. Skidoo had a peak of 500 residents in 1907 but by about 1917 the vein of gold had played out by 1922 only a few building were left standing. There are NO building standing today and all I saw was a sign with a picture of Skidoo in its heyday, a sign warning of 1000 mines to stay away from, and a little pile of metallic garbage. One thing I'll remember is that the residents named this town "23 Skidoo" which was slang in the roaring 20s for "Let's get the hell out of here". The postal authorities, however, refused to to accept the "23" as part of the name and officially called it Skidoo. It looks like the government has been making completely asinine, arbitrary decisions for a long time.
I was feeling pretty good as I returned to Wildrose Rd. I was able to see some views of Death Valley that had been behind me on the way up and they were spectacular from this 5700 foot vantage point. Also, I had completed my first sojourn into the wild and run into no problems. Since this was the road I knew least about from my research, I was feeling pretty good about the rest of my trip.
Aguereberry Point was my next destination and the turnoff was only a couple of miles further down Wildrose Rd. Again, the road was a wide, graveled road that headed off across a flat area for a mile or two before beginning to climb. Again, there were no surprises until about 1/2 mile before the summit when the road got a lot steeper and a little rocky. By then, the view was all encompassing and the most challenging task was to keep my eyes on the road. If you rode over the edge on this road, nobody would find you until judgement day.
This is one of the most spectacular views of anything that I've ever seen - maybe even better than Grand Canyon. A look at Death Valley from a vantage point nearly 7,000 foot above the valley floor. I took a few photos, but they can't even begin to capture the scene. Unfortunately, I must have been too much in awe to adequately photograph the scene. I was really disappointed when I started going through my photos to see how few I had taken from this magnificent spot. I hung around there for quite a while absorbing the vibes. This was the highlight of my trip.
I was still thinking about this view as I rode back down to Wildrose Rd. As I came out of the hills and onto the flat, I noticed a structure that I hadn't seen on the way up - it was on the back side of a small hill. It turned out to be Eureka Mine - the ranger at Furnace Creek had told me about it, but it had slipped my mind. As I approached I saw a road bending off in that direction so off I went. This was another very interesting place and I spent a lot of time walking around, checking things out. This mine was a one-man operation. A fellow named Pete Aguereberry single handedly worked the mine from 1907 until the 1930s.
This was basically the end of my "adventure" riding for this trip. Except for a few miles of gravel roads to the Wildrose Kilns and another few miles of gravel to Ballarat, I would be riding on pavement. This was both disappointing and a relief.
A dead-end road to the Wildrose Kilns splits off Wildrose Rd - I don't know what it's called. At the junction there is a ranger station and a campground, although I didn't see anyone there.
I had one little adventure on the way to the Wildrose Kilns. The road has a lot of dips in the pavement, more like whoop-de-doos. As you hit the crest of the dip, what's on the other side is not visible. If you going fast enough, it gives you a funny feeling in your gut as you crest the hill. Luckily for me, I was in "take it easy" mode and just poking along as I approached one of these hills. It was fairly obvious that the road was going to curve on the other side which led to a little extra caution. Good thing. Even with all that going for me, I was lucky to be in exactly the right track as I spotted the gravel that had been somehow deposited in the middle of the road. If I'd been going faster and positioned in the wrong place, it might have gotten very interesting.
The Wildrose Charcoal Kilns built were by George Hearst, father of newspaperman William Randolph Hearst, in 1877 to produce charcoal for two silver-lead smelters he had built in the Argus Range about 25 miles away. By mid 1878 the Argus Mines had played out, the smelters closed up and the furnaces shut down. It's hard to believe these kilns are over 130 years old. They look almost brand new.
On the way to the kilns, I passed an SUV coming the other way. There were no passengers, only a young guy driving. This guy was the only human being I'd seen since leaving Stovepipe Wells. On the way back to Wildrose Rd, I met another SUV full of people and I felt like I was back in civilization, although I wouldn't see another person until Ballarat.
Once back on Wildrose Rd, now called Trona-Wildrose Rd, I ran into the unpaved sections the couple in the restaurant had encountered. Although it wasn't too bad on my motorcycle, there were a couple of small streams crossing the road and some other sections that had been damaged and were awaiting repair. I met an old RV that was making its way across one of the worst sections and he came out the other side OK. After a few miles the goat trail became a real highway again.
At the turnoff to Ballarat, you can see the entire 3-1/2 miles of gravel heading off across the flatland - it looks like it crosses what was once an old lake bed. I headed off across the washboarded gravel and soon spotted some buildings up against the foothills on the other side. As I got closer, I could see that some of the building looked like ruins, but others just looked like poorly maintained, fairly modern buildings with an old trailer thrown in for good measure.
Ballarat had its heyday from around 1897 to 1905 and served mainly as a place for the miners and other desert rats to relax and blow off steam. At one point it had 7 saloons, 3 hotels, a Wells Fargo Station, a post office, a jail and a morgue. Population around 500.
I rode up to a building that looked occupied and took off my gear. There were two old guys that looked like they would have been at home there when the town was active. I asked about something cold to drink and was led over to a small refrigerator that was full of beer and cokes. For the very reasonable price of $2, I was soon downing a very tasty can of Coke Classic. I chatted with the old fellow for a while about some problems he was having with piping water down from a spring. I then asked him about the road to Barker Ranch - Charlie Manson's old hangout. He basically repeated what the ranger in Furnace Creek said about the tough parts and he didn't think I would be able to make it on my big bike. He said that a week or so earlier, a bunch of motorcycles went up Goler Canyon and one of them had fallen over and smashed his radiator. I put the notion of visiting Barker Ranch out of my head once and for all - at least until I'm with a group of riders.
As we were winding up our conversation, a young couple drove up and the old guy turned his attention to them. I wandered around the buildings for a while and snapped up a few photos. My adventure was now complete. All that was left was to head for Ridgecrest for the night, and tomorrow I would head home.
The trip to Ridgecrest was pretty routine and I checked into the local Days Inn about 5:00 PM, looking forward to a shower and some food - I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast at 8:00 AM. As I was unpacking my motorcycle, my eye caught some oil seeping out of the seal on the right side of my rear wheel. BMW motorcycles of my type have an issue know as the dreaded "final drive failure". It always starts as the failure of a final drive seal and leakage of final drive lubricant. If you keep up with these kinds of things on the Internet, you'll find hundreds of posts describing these failures, and how BMW denies that they are happening. They do, however, replace the final drives for free under warranty. The only problem is that it costs $2500 if your bike is not under warranty. I was sure that it was my turn to experience "final drive failure". This of course, meant that I couldn't couldn't get home without being in danger of the rear wheel coming off.
Since it wasn't yet closing time at my BMW dealer in Sacramento, I called them to see what my options were. I had purchased an extended warranty from them, but didn't have any paperwork to even know who had issued the insurance. They had told me to I didn't need anything - it was all on the computer - just call us if you have any problems and we'll take care of you - trust me. Well that all sounded good then ............ but this was real life.
To make a long story short - too late, I know - I talked to Tim, the service manager, and described my problem. He assured me that I wasn't having a "final drive failure" and that I could ride it home with no problem. He said that when I got home, we could make an appointment and take care of it. Oh sure, I thought. But that's what I did. Note - May 19, 2010: I just got a call from Tim and he says my bike is fixed and the repair WAS covered by my extended warranty.
I took my shower, walked to a nearby hamburger stand and filled up on their special hamburger dinner. You get a hamburger with french fries, onion rings, and a salad. I figured the salad makes it a healthy meal and wolfed it down with a clear conscience. By the way ......... it was an excellent hamburger. After reading the local newspaper, catching some TV and checking my email, I crashed for the night.
CLICK HERE to see the photos I took today.
May 7, 2010 - The Ride Home
There's really not much to say about my ride home. I rode straight home up Hwy 395, cut across the Sierra at Monitor Pass, then Luther Pass, over Echo Summit and back home. It was a very nice ride, with all the great scenery I'm used to seeing in Northern California. God! I love the roads of California!
I barely scratched the surface of Death Valley's back country and next year I think I'll mount an expedition of several people to expand the explorations. I was a little leery about getting too far off the beaten track and a little timid in staying on the "not too hard" roads. With some backup I'm sure we could see things that very few people get to see.
CLICK HERE to see the photos I took on my ride home.