Motorcycle Touring in the Mojave Desert
Desert ghost towns tend to occupy one of two dispiriting categories. They have either fallen into complete disrepair and are of interest only as ruins, or they have been Disney-fied in an effort to separate gullible tourists from their vacation dollars.
Against daunting odds, Randsburg, a 19th century mining town in the Mojave Desert with a population of under 100 – down from 2500 during its mining heyday – has managed to maintain its heritage while continuing to exist (if not prosper) in the 21st century. A 145-mile drive northeast from downtown Los Angeles, Randsburg is ensconced a couple of miles from US Highway 395 in the eponymous Rand Mountains.
Surrounding Randsburg is a wide range of geological attractions, dramatic vistas, and historic curiosities. Randsburg is a welcoming base for exploring the region on adventure bikes, as the town’s subsistence income is derived from visiting off-road motorcyclists. The town has a purpose-built off-road parking area, and there is a mutual respect between the townspeople and the dirt enthusiasts.
Given the harsh desert conditions and long distances between destinations, the ideal adventure motorcycle for exploring the area is capable of 65 mph or more on the empty two-lane highways, and is willing to tackle sand and rock-strewn single-track trails.
IMS Products, a California company that has been producing quality off-road accessories for over 35 years, worked in conjunction with Kawasaki KLR650 specialists Happy Trails Motorcycle Products in Idaho to build the consummate desert explorer.
The best-selling dual-sport bike seven years running, according to Kawasaki, the KLR is a proven design rooted in 1987, and remains carbureted by a 40mm Keihin to this day. Not a completely Stone Age motorcycle, the KLR does have a liquid-cooled, single-cylinder DOHC motor that pumps out nearly 37 ft/lbs of torque to propel the chain-driven 432-pound (claimed wet weight in stock trim) bike on its journeys.
Updated for model year 2008 and reviewed in our August/September 2007 issue, the KLR650 is a mainstay of adventure motorcycling. Suspension shortened to just less than eight inches of travel in ‚Äô08 improved the bike both on- and off-road, as the lowered height enhanced handling anywhere you would want to take it.
IMS and Happy Trails have retained the straightforward simplicity of the KLR650, while increasing its durability and capacities.
Even in stock form, the KLR has an impressive steel tank that holds over six gallons of fuel. However, when crisscrossing wide expanses of desert where gasoline is as scarce as water, that may not be enough. IMS’s new plastic fuel tank secures a staggering ten gallons of gasoline, extending the range of the Kawasaki to as far as 500 miles (though unpredictably less in the dirt).
This volume came in handy as I visited the Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark. The Pinnacles is an otherworldly collection of 500 calcium carbonate towers, tombstones, ridges, and cones formed over 10,000 years ago when Searles Dry Lake was underwater. Rising as high as 14 stories above the lake floor, the Pinnacles are at once inconceivable and unforgettable.
The Pinnacles can be approached from a number of routes on an adventure bike, and that is where the IMS tank’s range can be reassuring. Over 20 miles from the Pinnacles, the tank went on reserve. Given that the Pinnacles are another 40 miles from Randsburg, and I would be riding on the dirt and sand, that could have been a concern.
However, the tank uses a vacuum-powered fuel pump to scavenge fuel from the nether regions of the tank- the additional capacity is carried low to preserve the KLR’s off-road handling – and over two gallons are still available once on reserve. This gave me an appreciated flexibility in routes back to gas in neighboring Johannesburg.
My off-road exploring meant that I met with the nasty rocks and vegetation of the desert head-on. The Happy Trails skid plate and K9 fork brace gave me the confidence to ride aggressively through rocky chicanes, plus the front-end feel needed to navigate challenging terrain.
Street-legal Kenda K760 Trakmaster II knobbies granted the KLR650 much-needed traction in the sand, with handling being very dependent on proper set-up. When modifying a motorcycle in a way that increases weight, and then riding in everything from sand washes to rocky trails to highways, the ability to add and subtract air pressure for changing conditions is essential.
A Progressive Suspension TRC-2 tube tire repair kit is indispensable for rides of this kind because cactus and other thorny plants are a constant threat.
In addition to facilitating tire pressure adjustment, you must be able to fix a tire on-site. Happy Trails makes this easier with a centerstand and lift handle. I didn’t puncture a tube thanks to the six-ply Kendas, though I was prepared for that eventuality.
With the Pinnacles at 2000 feet above sea level and Randsburg 1500 feet higher, the Yoshimura RS-2 Stainless Slip-On exhaust system (mid-pipe and muffler) provided the boost needed for a full-speed uphill run on Trona Road. Given that a loud pipe can be fatiguing on long rides, the Yoshimura system has a soothing tonality from its downturned tip, rather than an annoying barking timbre.
The extra power also allows the KLR to get up on top of sand, an essential ability in the desert. There is no tachometer, so throttle decisions are made by the sound and feel of the motor. The KLR650′s powerplant never leaves you wondering what it is going to do next – it is the epitome of flexibility and predictability.
Happy Trails also made for happy road riding with a Rallye Windscreen System that keeps more of the air blast off the rider. Usefully, the system works with the stock screen or with Zero Gravity’s various shields. A combination EG3 engine guard and highway peg unit allowed me to stretch my legs on longer road jaunts – a welcome relief. IMS Star Series PowerMadd Guards do double duty, keeping cold air off the hands in the early AM and providing protection from unfriendly flora.
Filling up at the Texaco in Johannesburg is not inexpensive – it is a long way to the next gasoline pump – it is a matter of grin and bear it. While in Johannesburg, be sure to make a respectful visit to the historic Rand District Cemetery.
Operating since 1896, the city block sized hillside cemetery contains over 600 graves; the variety of the memorials and tombstones are both touching and creative. Membership in a collective guarantees a plot when your time comes, and it is truly a community effort.
Back in Randsburg, you will find a number of antique shops with sometimes surprising stock. Colorful and friendly proprietors add to the experience of discovery, even if you come away empty- handed.
There are few eating establishments that you can enter covered in dust and dressed in full off-road apparel, yet not turn an eye – this the norm in Randsburg. The White House Saloon serves food, though the bar is an attraction for many. Across Butte Avenue sits the Randsburg General Store.
Over 100 years old, the dry Randsburg General Store is a multi-tasking business. Staple items are available for the locals, as well as prospecting supplies and tourist curios. The store also functions as a restaurant and museum, making it an anchor of the town.
When it comes to the food, handmade is the name of the General Store’s game. The burgers are not preformed frozen patties, the soft drinks are hand-mixed syrup and soda, and the delicious malts are made from hand-scooped ice cream and prepared by a suitably cute and friendly waitress. For the best experience, sit at the counter on the impossibly tiny chairs.
For those less interested in food, a stop at The Joint is a natural for those desiring adult beverages. Locals rub shoulders with the cruiser crowd that has staked out The Joint as a watering hole between Ridgecrest and Victorville. Everyone, of course, is welcome at this authentic desert bar. Lucky visitors will encounter Olga, the beloved 100-year-old owner.
Lodging in Randsburg was spotty at one time, though on- and off-road adventurers now have a dedicated place to call home. Randsburg Cottage Hotel may not sound very dirt-worthy, though its nickname will ring a bell or two with veteran off-road enthusiasts – Goat’s Sky Ranch.
About 100 years old, but refurbished with modern amenities such as Wi-Fi and satellite television, the Cottage Hotel is owned by legendary off-road racer and Elsinore Grand Prix revivalist Goat Breker. The hotel‚Äôs nickname, of course, evokes thoughts of Mike‚Äôs Sky Ranch in remote Baja California. It is an apt comparison, as the off-road opportunities for both feel limitless.
No matter how far you live from Randsburg, the IMS/Happy Trails Kawasaki KLR650 makes it possible for you to ride in. The Happy Trails Teton Panniers are rugged, roomy, and give the KLR the requisite adventure profile. Lockable when in town and easily removed for the most challenging rides, the aluminum panniers are an outstanding addition to the bike.
Additional cargo carrying opportunities come from the Happy Trails T-2 Top Plate, which can be used as-is, or as a platform for Happy Trails’ huge Mojave Tail Bag. The company also offers bags that fit on top of the panniers – the ability to add storage is virtually endless.
Even with pounds of accessories, the KLR650 remains a viable off-road adventure bike, and much lighter than its multi-cylinder competitors. Ergonomics are improved by IMS footpegs, which are wider than stock and are a great platform for standing, and Renthal handlebars that soak up vibration and have an appealing bend.
From Randsburg, with the long-range IMS tank, the Kawasaki KLR650 can take you to a wide variety of places of interest without a gas stop. The Trona Pinnacles are an amazing natural phenomenon, and there are man-made sites also worth visiting.
Among the most interesting is the Husky Monument, placed in the desert in 1987 by the Zebras Motorcycle Club to salute fellow rider Jim Erickson. There, his trusty Husqvarna 390 is partially buried where his ashes were scattered. Since then, tributes to other riders have been added to the monument a few miles south of the Grass Valley Wilderness Area, east of Randsburg.
Riding to the west, the legendary Burro Schmidt Tunnel can be found near the border of the spectacular Red Rock Canyon State Park. A 2087-foot mining tunnel dug and dynamited by a single man – William Henry “Burro” Schmidt – over a 32-year period beginning in 1906, it is a monument to both obsession and perseverance. Once completed, he unexpectedly sold the claim and tunnel.
Down the hill from the Burro Schmidt Tunnel is Bickel Camp, a compound started in 1934 that has been preserved just as it was when creator Walt Bickel left due to health reasons in 1987. Bickel mined and prospected the area, leaving behind an incredible legacy, well worth preserving and visiting.
Glen Schulz is one of the rotating on-site caretakers. A friend of the Bickel family, Schulz is approachable and quite knowledgeable about the camp, but has little tolerance for the vandals that plague the area. He continues the tradition of prospecting in the El Paso Mountains when not hosting tours.
As with anything in remote desert locations, discretion is the better part of valor. Be sure to travel with plenty of water, and be aware of the weather. In the Randsburg area, conditions range from 100+ degrees in the shade (if you can find any) during the summer, to snow in the winter. It is a harsh, unforgiving landscape. Do not ride alone or lacking provisions.
The IMS/Happy Trails Kawasaki KLR650 proved its mettle. Long highway drones are handled ably with 651cc of grunt, even when miles-long steep uphills are part of the route. The seat is comfortable, as is the neutral placement of the feet and hands. The Happy Trails Rallye Windscreen System does its job of reducing fatigue on long rides.
Off-road, you won’t be skipping any whoops or flying high over jumps, and it takes some experience to deal with the sand and more challenging trails. Precision Concepts improved the KLR’s dirt-worthiness by revalving the suspension to handle the additional weight, and the result is impressive.
Sometimes it will take patience to conquer an obstacle, yet the KLR650 is a willing accomplice. Consistency and predictability is valued over speed.
On the street or dirt, riding is always an adventure. The area surrounding Randsburg is especially appealing for those who do not require the security of pavement. Whether humans or nature create the wonders, they are worth exploring and burning into your memory.
The Mojave Desert may seem inhospitable due to its remote location, daunting weather, and unforgiving terrain. However, it beckons with experiences that will not be replicated elsewhere. Prepare, and enjoy.
Photography by Don Williams
Story from a recent issue of Ultimate MotorCycling magazine; for a digital version of the latest issue, click here.