Death Valley by Motorcycle

Get down and dusty by motorcycling America's lowest National Park. From the April 2001 issue of _Motorcycle Cruiser _ magazine. By Jamie Elvidge

My obsession with Death Valley began during a 28-day Outward Bound Excursion in 1980, which was intended more as a punishment than a venture that would yield personal profit. Ah, but even a disgruntled teenager can't help but be awed by the scope of historical treasure and natural phenomena that prosper in this magical desert space. In the ensuing years I have traveled through The Valley countless times, and every time I leave I am busy laying plans for a return. I delight in taking friends here, and invariably they recognize the intrigue. The weight of its emptiness is invaluable in these harried times, and once you see the corners of its rich history sticking up through the sands, you are forever bound to return.

Of course it doesn't feel quite that romantic when you're riding in the 120-degree temperatures Death Valley is famous for. Or when you're sharing hotel space with a gazillion European tourists and their pet odors. The best time for a two-wheel sojourn is between the months of November and April, with the exception of the winter holidays, which have become an astonishingly popular time to visit. It is simply too hot in the summer for an open cockpit. (Imagine ground temperatures that commonly top 200 degrees.)

There are two main outposts from which to explore. The village of Stovepipe Wells is the most affordable site, offering 88 rooms, a restaurant, bar, gas station and tiny store. Furnace Creek Ranch, one-half hour southeast on U.S. Highway 190 is a far more diverse and comfortable lair. Here you will find 224 ordinary, but comfortable, rooms and two restaurants in a sprawling compound, which also encompasses the Borax Museum, a naturally warm spring-fed pool, tennis courts, riding stables (winter only) and an 18-hole golf course (the lowest in the world).

Only one-half mile up the road is the Furnace Creek Inn (at left), a AAA four-diamond property built in 1927, which offers 66 more splendid rooms, another spring-fed pool, gardens and a swanky dining room. Beware of some pretentiousness, however. We were turned away from the Inn's dining room for lack of slacks. Jeans and pullover-type shirts were simply not good enough. (The truth is, the steakhouse down at The Ranch serves better grub anyway.) Rooms at the beautiful, historic Inn go for $235 to $335 in the cool winter months, making the accommodations back down the road ($97 to $149) seem much more practical. Stovepipe Wells generally charges about $48 to $88 for their rooms. Motorcycle groups often converge on Stovepipe for the intimacy, affordability and the place's offer to provide poolside cookouts for groups of 25 or more.

There are many spectacles to witness in Death Valley. Some are well-documented tourist pullouts, such as the Devil's Golf Course and Badwater, both curiosities created by The Valley's salt plain. Artist's Drive is just a jump from Furnace Creek, and there you'll find rock formations in an array of colors, from pink to emerald. Scotty's Castle (pictured at left) is an interesting stop. This mansion in the middle of nowhere was the plot of a cunning desert prospector and a wealthy entrepreneur, who longed for a desert retreat to soothe his respiratory ailments. You can tour this oasis, and its museum which documents its unlikely conception.

The tales of triumph and tragedy that occurred in this area are fascinating to learn about. Pioneers and prospectors alike have made history here, and you can see the evidence like fingerprints on a canvas. In several areas of the park you're still able to distinguish wagon tracks left by the 49ers on their perilous crossing, and the littering of mining scars and ghost towns tell of blind hope and grit. A few of the ghost towns can be visited via paved roads, but dozens more require riding some dusty cuts. The most rewarding of these grated roads lead to Titus Canyon, Aguereberry Point and the Skidoo mining digs.

For information about Death Valley National Park visit its official Web site at www.nps.gov/deva, or call (760) 786-2331. You can reach Stovepipe Wells at (760) 786-2387 or www.stovepipewells.com. For reservations at Furnace Creek Ranch or Inn use (800) 236-7916 or www.xanterra.com. And if you get stuck for answers, or even inspiration, you can always e-mail me at Jamie.Elvidge@primedia.com.

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If you'd like to share your favorite ride that is 100 to 500 miles long and includes at least one interesting stop, send details of the route and your contact information to _Motorcycle Cruiser, 6420 Wilshire Blvd. Floor 17, Los Angeles, CA 90048-5515; or e-mail_ Jamie.Elvidge@primedia.com.

For more descriptions of our favorite motorcycle rides and destinations, visit the Rides and Destinations section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.