We’ve come to a mine site onlooking Death Valley by a narrow wind of double-track that traces the mountain’s edge. From 5000ft, we look down to the lowest point in North America. We aren’t the only ones, this spring, thanks to a rainy season, Death Valley became the driest destination in California. Within a month on either side of our trip there’s riders from Hell for Leather, Motorcycle Escape, Motorcyclist (most as part of AltRider.com‘s Taste of Dakar) and others – many of whom are touting Death Valley as the upper end of intrepid Adventure. Looking at Mic Cumming (a long time street rider whose number of dirt outings are countable on an amputee’s hand) taking on the region, I can’t help but think the hardcore context given by these outlets to Death Valley might be a bit overdone.
Mic is riding Scar, my ever faithful spare KTM 640 Adventure. Spawned from rally heritage the KTM is a damn fine, if slightly aggressive, start point for adventure riding. As far as a gentle introduction, we’ve not been overly kind to Mic, save starting off with Titus Canyon.
Titus is a route that epitomizes Death Valley, with vertiginous climbs of snow patched passes, slippery descents through red mud, and a final wind through the canyon proper – with quick stops to gawk at the views and blooming cacti. Through it all Mic moves from steadfastly churning along on the 640 to occasionally spinning up the rear tire in the turns. At the stops he periodical jokes about how the ride is pure terror, but on the bike his composure betrays his innate ability.
The second day we get into the meat of trip, riding hot across the Nevada desert, rough up washes and river beds, scrambling up passes, descending the other side and slewing through the loose gravel and crawling the technical sections of Echo Canyon. Death Valley has plenty of hard adventure to offer, but on the approved 4×4 routes even an novice on a mid-sized bike can push through and still have fun.
The day’s highlight is the descent down a step of rock gapped in the canyon. After dumping my bike, I walk it down. Kevin launches down with the usual abandon on his 640, then rides Scar down for Mic. We’re working as a team, tougher and more competent together than apart. Our ride experience becomes commingled, a communal resource for the group.
The next day is a challenge, 490kms, including Lippincott Mine Road, a bit of a rocky scramble that is our connector between the Racetrack and Saline Valleys. For the second time, we run into a retired couple jeeping through Death Valley, last year they hiked to Everest Base Camp. I take Scar up the chewiest section for Mic, but beyond that the new adventurist is on his own. Even then, I’ve every confidence Mic could get the ornery 640 through on his own with just a little more throttle.
Reading about this section in other outlets, the water crossings, climbs and descents building up to the rocky scramble are posited in the hairy-chested testosterionics of hard adventure. The point being is that most of Death Valley isn’t the hard core adventure riding being portrayed in Motorcycle Escape or Hell for Leather, it’s core adventure riding.
With 1000 miles of paved and dirt road (complete with PDF route guide), Death Valley offers new adventure riders essential experiences. Here you find a tremendous variety of scenery and terrain, all accessible by big and small adventure bikes. Like any adventure it comes with the caveat of a few simple precautions:
- Riding shoulders of the hot season (late fall, winter and early spring)
- Bring plenty of water
- Travel with a partner or a group
- Bring a first aid kit and basic tools, including tire pries and tubes.
- Consider the terrain when route planning, difficult sections are usually easier down hill
- Make sure the size of your bike fits your experience (smaller is better in adventure terms)
- Tell friends where you’re going
- Know your routes (a handful of GPX files are available via the map bellow), there is also a route guide here
Beyond that, Death Valley offers you plenty of opportunities to hone your dualsport and adventure skills.
Death Valley, like so many other rides, provides media outlets the chance to build themselves up by depicting adventures as living up to a fearsome name. When media outlets do this, forgetting the breadth of experience the park offers, they do the destination and their adventure readers a disservice by moving the adventure from aspirational to inspirational. So often, the routes portrayed are much more approachable than the story told.
For new adventure riders Death Valley offers the essential experiences of gravel travel packaged within the convenient confines of the park; there’s remoteness, awe inspiring views and a wide variety of riding challenges. True, not all of Death Valley is a walk through the tulips, but even for a new adventure rider tulips smell better spat out by a knobbie rear tire. That sentiment doesn’t apply to cacti however, so out of consideration to the park stick to the designated trails. For all levels of rider, there are routes that are core, not hardcore, to be found here.
A Fist Full of Routes: