The valley of death. El valle de la muerte. Das Tal des Todes. Sounding ominous in any language, Death Valley has nonetheless beckoned for many years, despite conjuring images of desiccated steer skulls and shimmering heat waves that would make a Phoenix (or possibly even a Dubai) summer seem comfortable by comparison. Perhaps the psychological need to master a challenge played a role in this desire, but there was also quite simply the curiosity of wanting to see a place famous for having both the highest recorded temperature in the United States as well as the lowest point in the western hemisphere; extremes that are not coincidentally linked.
Taking just half a vacation day, my friend Derek and I left Phoenix early Friday afternoon on March 26th. Heading northwest, we enjoyed plentiful views of desert wildflowers nurtured by the abnormally abundant recent rains and stopped at the Mecca Cantina in Wickenburg for lunch.
If there was any religious aspect to this place, it was that their deep-fried calzones were brimming with absolutely heavenly molten mozzarella. We continued about 70 miles to Wikieup, where we stopped for fuel (the first gas station on this route after Wickenburg; MapQuest’s gas station locator is pretty accurate here), and then roughly 50 miles to Kingman, Arizona where we stopped at a Wal-Mart to pick up a few items. It was dusk by the time we departed Kingman, so for the next 90 or so miles we enjoyed views of mountain silhouettes against rapidly darkening skies.
Riding 300 miles on the back of a motorcycle can feel like a lot longer when it’s mostly all straight. Luckily we found some twisty stuff to offset the monotony in the miles ahead.
At the Hoover Dam, traffic slowed but not nearly as bad as expected (I’ve experienced hour-plus delays in the past). At the security checkpoint, most vehicles were stopped momentarily, but on our bikes we were waved right through; I suppose one couldn’t hide enough explosives on a bike to do much damage (and despite my appearance I have no interest in finding out). We stopped at an overlook to view the dam and were stunned by the low water level in Lake Mead; from previous visits we both recalled the water level being – without exaggerating – at least 100 feet higher. Granted, the last time either of us had viewed the water level was 10-11 years ago. On a more positive note, construction of the bypass bridge was well underway. On my last trip across the dam in 2006 (in a car, and I didn’t stop to look at the water), only the approaches to the then-not-yet-built ramps were visible. Now the ramps and most of the span seemed to be complete (no good photos due to it being dark). The bridge is expected to open to traffic in Q4 of this year.
After crossing the dam, we made our way to the Fiesta Henderson hotel/casino where I had made a reservation. My two friends from high school who live in Henderson who I hadn’t seen in two years, Jenny and Kim, were already impatiently waiting for us to arrive. Originally I had planned to meet them much earlier for dinner, but I had forgotten that travelling 300 miles by bike can take a lot longer than by car (if you’re not a speeder) due to extra stops for gas, stretching, taking in the scenery, etc. During our stop in Kingman earlier, I had called them to recommend they go ahead and eat without us. By the time we finally met, they had not only already eaten but had a head start on libations too. Unfortunately, we couldn’t socialize for too long since both of them had plans with their families early the next morning. We nonetheless were able to catch up on each other’s lives a little bit and it was great to see them.
The next morning Derek and I each enjoyed a $3.99 Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s before escaping the Las Vegas area’s concrete jungle.
Dust devils are a pretty common site in the desert but can cause a bit of havoc to motorcyclists when they start crossing highways
People who live in Vegas probably have no problem navigating the city’s numerous freeways, but I found them extremely confusing for the route we needed to take. To get to highway 160 east to Death Valley via the town of Pahrump, we inferred from our maps that we’d need to take several different freeways heading five to ten miles south, then quite a bit north, which seemed like a lot of unnecessary travel. My GPS, which had frustrated me earlier by inexplicably not having “Death Valley” nor “Death Valley National Park” listed as a point of interest, came to the rescue when I punched in the city of “Pahrump” and ‘fastest route,’ taking us on a much more direct route mostly along Interstate 215 to Highway 160.
Nevada’s Route 160 itself is scenic, especially approaching the Spring Mountains just west of Vegas, but the morning temperatures, around 50°F when we left Henderson, dipped into the 40s as we climbed to the pass through said mountains.
Of course, neither of us had brought winter gear along (“Death Valley will be hot in April” we had been told by our car-driving friends…), so the wind-chill was especially noticeable. We soldiered on to Pahrump where we made an extended gas stop to have a coffee and thaw out and where the temperatures had risen into the 60s. While waiting, we were amused to see a billboard for an adult establishment directly facing one for a pre-school. Underway again, we turned left onto Bell Vista Road north of
Pahrump and enjoyed a very scenic drive along this not-too-heavily travelled back road. Just past the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, we stopped to take pictures of the very whitish desert floor, and were rewarded with an up-close view of a dust storm crossing the road.
Finally entering Death Valley, we turned left to get to our first stop at the end of a terrifically winding narrow mountain road: Dante’s View – the highest point in the park accessible by vehicle and more than a mile above the desert floor. We lingered here for a while, taking in the amazing views of the Panamint Range across from us and the salt deposits of Badwater Basin beneath us.
The latter was our next destination, though after making our way back to the main road (CA 190) and enjoying some of its sweepers, we decided to first stop at the Furnace Creek Inn for lunch. Service was a little slow due to the large number of diners, but the food was good, though not
Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the United States. Oddly the highest point in the contiguous 48 states is only 76 miles to the west.
nearly as inexpensive as our breakfasts. Back on the road, we enjoyed more broad sweepers before arriving at Badwater Basin, at minus 282-feet, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and completely overrun with tourists. Determined to get a few pictures showing a bit more isolation, we walked out beyond the rest of the crowds to snap a few.
By the time we got back to the parking lot, the thermometers on our bikes indicated over 100° – vindicating our cage-driving friends – so we were eager to get moving again. Heading back towards Furnace Creek, we allowed ourselves the detour of Artist’s Drive, which turned out to be the unexpected highlight of the trip. This nine-mile one-way loop rises up into the Amargosa Range and offers incredible views along with fantastic second-gear twisties, dips, and switchbacks. The only reasons why I didn’t take photos of the twisty bits are because I didn’t want to stop and I didn’t dare remove a hand from the handlebars!
We continued past Furnace Creek to the nearest gas station; one of allegedly only three in the whole park. We were told it was the only one that sold premium, and that too at a premium: $4.29/gallon, compared to $2.79 in Phoenix, or even $3.19 in Nevada. Since beggars can’t be choosers, we filled up, then made our way to Stovepipe Wells to see whatever we could there before it got dark. Along the way, we crossed sea level and saw sand dunes.
At Stovepipe Wells Village, we stopped at the gift store to buy souvenirs, then crossed the street to enter the Badwater Saloon for a well-deserved ice-cold beer.
Just one beer since we still had to get to our hotel in Beatty, Nevada, outside the park, but it was nice to relax and unwind a bit while recounting everything we had experienced that day. After enjoying the beer and several glasses of water (and making use of the facilities, naturally), we strolled back out to the bikes at dusk.
A young man nearby paused from driving remote controlled cars with his son to strike up a conversation with us. It turns out he’s a motorcyclist from Canada (Mud Lightspeed on Advrider) who had in the past ridden his Triumph Scrambler up the Dempster Highway to the Arctic. We ended up talking about bikes and motorcycle touring for quite a while as the light faded – if you ride, you’ll understand. Regretfully saying our farewells, Derek and I began the last leg of the day on still more beautifully curving and ascending mountain roads.
As night falls, temperatures begin to drop as well and we make our way to our lodging for the night.
As night fell, so did the temperatures, especially as the elevation increased (Beatty is over 3300 feet above sea level). By the time we got to our hotel it was back in the 40s. Luckily we had a reservation for what turned out to be not only the last room in the hotel, but the last room in town; while we were checking in, several other travelers were turned away while the clerk phoned other properties to no avail. While I’m grateful we had a room, it was unfortunately a smoking room that really played havoc on our non-smokers’ lungs. Derek suspects that as the hotel filled up, they merely had to honor a room reservation but not a smoking/non-smoking request, and thus gave our non-smoking room to another guest who checked in earlier. Next time I’ll call the property the day of arrival to confirm a non-smoking room.
After unloading the bikes, we ambled to the nearby casino to… no, not gamble, but get dinner. However, their restaurant was woefully unprepared for the onslaught of travelers seeking to dine that night. While the service was pleasant, it took a long time to get seated, and even longer to get our merely adequate food after we ordered (recommendation: have dinner in the park before it gets too late). On the plus side, we had time for a few more beers before our food arrived – hey, we were done riding for the day! Walking back to the hotel, we were amazed at the number of bikes in the parking lot. All day, we had seen tons of bikes in the park, which was not surprising, considering how absolutely perfect for motorcycling Death Valley is. What did surprise us were the masses of dual-sport/dirt bikes, which outnumbered even
cruisers, the next-most popular category. Speaking to one of their riders, I found out that most of them had travelled here for a multi-day off-road rally (some from as far away as the San Francisco Bay Area). According to him, the route seemed to favor lighter bikes; he had gotten stuck and fallen over several times that day on his 1200cc BMW in the loose sand-like gravel in this area.
The next morning we awoke to clear, sunny skies and temperatures in the 40s, which didn’t feel so bad in the bright sunshine. Derek made the wise suggestion to get breakfast somewhere along the way rather than deal with the long wait at the casino restaurant, given the hordes of travelers in town. We grabbed a coffee at the Death Valley Nut & Candy Company between the hotel and the casino while warming up the bikes (the overnight low had been 34° and my bike had only barely started, so I didn’t want to risk stalling it before it had fully warmed up).
We set off on US 95 heading south towards Amargosa Valley, about 30 miles away. Along the way we enjoyed great views of the mountain ranges and ridges on either side of us as the sun rose to the east.
A common site in Death Valley. Not much can survive some of the hottest temperatures recorded in the United States.
Approaching Amargosa Valley, we were disappointed to see it was little more than just a pair of gas stations at a junction with another road, and the few western-style storefronts behind them were closed. Not sure why this “town” was even on the map, though MapQuest may have been wrong; the map Derek got at the park showed Amargosa Valley being a few miles south of the junction on NV 373. Since that was not along our route, we continued on US 95 until we finally got to a proper town: Indian Springs, on the southern edge of Nellis Air Force Base and home to the apparently dormant Cheech AFB – no sign of smoke or any other activity anywhere. We pulled into the Indian Springs Casino parking lot, and after traveling over 70 miles on empty stomachs we were very receptive to their $5.99 steak and eggs offer.
After fueling ourselves and our bikes, we continued through Las Vegas to Boulder City, planning to take the Hoover Dam again, but found the “Dam” midday weekend traffic already backing up with 10 miles still to go. Not wanting to deal with that length of stop-and-go traffic in what was now 90° heat, we decided to take US 95 south, then NV 163 east to
Laughlin and Bullhead City, from where we could take AZ 68 to Kingman. This turned out to be an enjoyable route, with little-to-moderate traffic, nice scenery, and a few 55 mph (posted…) mountain sweepers. From Kingman, we retraced our route back to Phoenix – with a quick break at a different Wickenburg café – and called it a weekend.
In two and a half days, we covered over 1000 miles (1600 km), over 60 degrees of Fahrenheit temperature changes (a 33°C span), and over 5700 feet (1700 m) of elevation changes – a highly memorable ride. However, we really only scratched the surface of what Death Valley has to offer motorcyclists – or anyone who enjoys curvy, scenic roads. To quote a resident of the state that’s home to Death Valley, “I’ll be back!”