I ❤ Death Valley on a Yamaha MT-10
The vast, multi-hued expanses of unique geology, the great distances, and the complete emptiness, combined with the clean smell and faraway vistas that never seem to come closer—the whispers of so many voices emanating from the basins and valleys call to me every spring. Death Valley is a sensory overload wrapped in a mystique that evolves from the timeless surroundings devoid of manmade intrusions.
There is unique beauty in this desolation. The ride north on Trona Wildrose Road allows a rider to feel the shackles of civilization loosen. As one passes Slate Range Crossing, the road curves through a small pass. In one instant, the color of the tarmac turns from gray to brown. As though by magic, a vista appears, and the length of Death Valley is exposed to the eye.
It is a sudden revelation for the rider who has yet to experience a glimpse of the majesty that unfolds without warning. You will want to be ready to apply the brakes here and take in this aerial view of about a billion years of nature’s handiwork.
I marvel in the diversity of what I see here in Death Valley. Every upthrust hill seems a different color than its neighbor. Shades of green, blue, red, yellow, and brown bear witness to the myriad elements that these structures contain. The contrast between the valley floor, hills, and the highest point in the Death Valley National Park leave me in awe of this special destination. From Badwater Basin (282 feet below sea level) to Dante’s View (elevation 5476 feet), a scant few miles of each other, it all creates a strong attraction that calls to me to my yearly Spring pilgrimage once we pass New Year’s Day.
To visit is a unique, solemn, and spiritual experience. To visit by motorcycle is better by an order of magnitude. And while there are so many amazing American parks and attractions, Death Valley National Park is unique and must be experienced at least once in a lifetime.
Diehards such as my riding buddies and me make it an annual ritual not to be missed. We always visit in late March and, when there has been sufficient rain, catch the bloom of wildflowers. Fall is a good time, as well. However, summer is excruciatingly hot, and winter can be quite cold, especially at altitude. Generally, spring and fall offer amazing temperate weather, with highs in the 80s and overnight lows in the 50s.
There are wonderful sights to see along the way and miles of twisty roads to feast upon. This is the epitome of sport-touring, and there are many ways that riders go about this type of riding. Some load up their 800-pound rigs with every conceivable item they may need and motor off on mostly straight highways toward the horizon. That’s not the way my friends and I roll. For us, sport-touring means riding two-lane roads quickly, while avoiding unwavering highways as much as possible.
Typically, many riders think of big touring bikes to make this trip. While there were a few larger adventure bikes from BMW, Ducati, and KTM, most of the gang rode pure sportbikes such as a Benelli TnT, Suzuki GSX-R1000, and the like. Many of the 14 bikes that joined us this weekend had soft luggage cobbled on or a small duffel strapped to the top of the seat to take the bare necessities. I rode my Yamaha MT-10 (née FZ-10) and wanted to make things a bit more secure and water-resistant as it had been raining heavily until the morning of the ride.
To this end, I affixed Givi’s 47-liter Monokey top case, tail rack, and smoked windscreen—all designed specifically for my motorcycle. I then added a slew of Rizoma parts and a set of Michelin Road 5 tires to make my MT-10 a perfect bike for a 1000-mile weekend. And it was perfect.
In 2016, we were chased by a storm from LA that exactly followed our route. Every time we stopped for fuel, the rain would catch up and fall on us. Seeing black clouds nearby, we skipped lunch and took U.S. Route 395 north as the most direct path. It is not our usual route, but is the fastest way north. Upon reaching Olancha and California State Route 190, which enters Death Valley from the west, the storm had finally caught up with us. We had no choice but to run east on 190, stretching our throttle cables to the maximum.
The rain was light, but we encountered 60 mph wind gusts that switched directions constantly while blowing sheets of sand across the road. We were forced to slow to a crawl, and some riders later found headlights and bodywork that had been sandblasted to a matte finish.
Once we descended into the Valley over Panamint Pass, we left all traces of that storm in our wake and enjoyed warm, calm weather for the rest of our trip. In retrospect, this was an adventure about which we still talk.
A later run took us from Los Angeles area to Death Valley for a long weekend that clocked in at almost 1000 miles. To be sure, there are many ways to reach Death Valley National Park. We have devised a route that eschews Interstates and takes us up past Lake Elizabeth, through Tehachapi, over Caliente Bodfish Road to Lake Isabella, on through Ridgecrest, and then up Trona Road (California State Route 178).
We enjoyed no wind and sunny skies, but it was cold; heated gear and handgrips were the order of the day. In Tehachapi and over the passes, we encountered temperatures of 40 degrees and chilly nights. In contrast, daytime temperatures at our destination were in the mid-80s.
We arrived at The Oasis at Death Valley (formerly The Ranch at Furnace Creek) Friday late in the afternoon. The weather was pleasantly in the low 80s. Check-in was a breeze, and not too long after arrival, most of us are crowded into one room. That’s because a makeshift bar had opened and the ride brothers descended on the tequila, limes, and snacks that thoughtful members of our tribe brought along.
The resort was undergoing some major remodeling, so some of us ate in the cafeteria—the only dining choice on the property. The smart ones caught a shuttle to The Inn at Death Valley, a sister property on the hill where a white-tablecloth restaurant satisfies their gastronomic needs. My advice is to eat all your meals at The Inn.
Saturday morning finds us gassing up and buying our park permits from the nearby Furnace Creek Visitor Center. We visit Devil’s Golf Course, Artist’s Palette, and Badwater Basin. The remainder of the day is spent strafing DV and avoiding Park Rangers, of which there are few. You do not want to get on the wrong side of these guys and, I’ve heard a moving violation issued by a Ranger is a Federal matter and can be a giant pain. Our favorite, Dante’s View is closed for repaving on this trip, as is the road to Scotty’s Castle. These are our only complaints of the weekend.
Later in the afternoon, the group fractures. Some head to the Inn for lunch while others visit the Opera House and points beyond. The MT-10 is purring through the valley, and the rough chip seal tarmac found throughout Death Valley offers amazing grip on a lot of fast sweepers through pristine vistas.
The day, as well as the weekend, is really about friends riding and hanging out together. This year and last saw rock-punctured radiators. That’s always a crowd-pleaser, as half a dozen riders weigh in on where to find the radiator filler cap, who has the stop leak, and assorted side stories of adversity. We are happy these are the worst occurrences and always add to the adventure.
Sunday morning means breakfast in Death Valley, and then a fast ride west on 190. This segment of Highway 190 is about 100 miles over the Panamint Mountains, through countless twisty roads along sheer drop-offs and, upon nearing Olancha, a stunning view of the Sierras.
We ate a final meal at the nice Ranch House Cafe on the 395. Known to many skiers and travelers heading between Los Angeles and Mammoth Lakes, it is now closed indefinitely—we hear the Olancha Cafe has emerged as an alternative.
We’ll often talk about detouring through some canyon roads on the way home from here. However, more often than not, we’re all a bit fatigued and head straight home on 395 like nags to the barn. There’s plenty to see on the 395, but we keep our eyes peeled for CHP who relentlessly pounce on unlucky speeders.
Upon arriving home, parking in my familiar garage and pulling off my helmet, I think back over the past 72 hours. I smile as I reminisce over the intensity, beauty, and camaraderie I experienced. If you haven’t ridden into and throughout Death Valley, I suggest you escalate a trip there to the top of your bucket list.
Photography by Jonathan Handler