Destinations: Death Valley, California

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Its name notwithstanding, Death Valley is a wonderful destination and a great motorcycle road trip.
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Wildrose Canyon's charcoal kilns.

Death Valley, California
Death Valley National Park, a neat motorcycle road trip with great roads and scenery.
How to Get There: From Los Angeles, take I-10 to I-15. Exit at Kelbaker Road in Baker and go north. From Las Vegas, head northwest on U.S. 95 to state Route 373 south, then turn west on state Route 190.
Best Kept Secrets: Take two days to explore Death Valley. On the way in, take I-40 east out of Barstow 30 miles to old Route 66, paralleling the freeway east, then north on Kelbaker Road through the Mojave National Preserve. Spend the night in Baker, and enjoy dinner and breakfast at The Mad Greek restaurant (their Mediterranean food is outstanding!). If you plan to stay at any of the resorts in Death Valley, make your reservations months in advance!
Avoid: The warmer months, May through September.

Lying at the eastern edge of California — 290 miles east of Los Angeles and 140 miles west of Las Vegas — Death Valley is a land of extremes. It is the hottest and driest place in the country, yet it is full of beautiful scenery with deserts, mountains, unique wildlife and 50 forms of vegetation that exist nowhere else on the planet. And it has a fascinating history, to boot.

Death Valley picked up its ominous name during the California Gold Rush when one of the groups rushing to the California gold fields, knowing the winter mountain passes would be impassible but not wanting to wait until the snow melted, took a southerly route into what we now know as Death Valley. Only one person died on that journey, but the name stuck.

Its name notwithstanding, Death Valley is a wonderful destination and a great motorcycle road trip — if you time it right. Death Valley gets hot starting in May, and summer temperatures are routinely above 120 F, making motorcycle tours in the summer months a bad idea: It once held the record as the hottest place on Earth when the temperature hit 134 F on July 10, 1913. Through fall, winter and spring, though, Death Valley is quite pleasant. March is a great time to visit, with comfortable temperatures and crisp, haze-free air.

The area is defined by a 156-mile-long valley running roughly north to south, bordered on the east and west by the Amargosa and Panamint Mountains, respectively. Death Valley is the lowest point in the United States, at 282 feet below sea level. A short 15 miles to the west, Telescope Peak rises to 11,049 feet, and the difference in elevation between these two points is greater than the depth of the Grand Canyon! The ride up to Telescope Peak is as great as the view.

Walter Scott (aka Death Valley Scotty) helped to make Death Valley famous. Scott, who traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show for more than a decade, convinced (some would say conned) wealthy investors into supporting his gold-mining venture in Death Valley. The gold didn’t materialize, and all but one investor, Albert Johnson, pulled out. Johnson fell in love with Death Valley and fronted yet more money to build Scotty’s Castle, now a major tourist attraction.

Although Scotty didn’t pull any gold out of Death Valley, others sure did. Death Valley attracted miners for gold, silver, lead, copper and borax. In the old days, 20-mule teams pulled 36-ton wagons across 165 miles of desert to the railhead at Mojave. All of the other mining towns were but a blip on the Death Valley scene (they became the eight ghost towns in Death Valley), but borax is still mined in the region. Today, the borax goes out by rail.

You can do Death Valley in a day, but it would be one long, tough day. A better idea is to spend the night in Baker, Calif., and then ride into Death Valley from the south on Kelbaker Road. “Must see” points include Artist’s Palette (a vivid collection of colors in the mountains formed by hardened volcanic deposits), Telescope Peak, Furnace Creek, and Wildrose Canyon’s charcoal kilns and 3,000-year old bristlecone pines.

The roads through the main park are paved and in good shape, and Death Valley also has great dirt roads for dual-sport and dirt bikes. To make the ride through the main park and Wildrose Canyon Road (and even up to see the Wildrose Canyon charcoal kilns), a street bike will work just fine. Small portions of the Wildrose Canyon road are graded dirt, but these are in good enough shape for a street bike.

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