DISCOVER THE HIGH SIERRA: PART 1
BY: OLIVIER DE VALUX
When RideBDR revealed their Southern California Backcountry Discovery Route last year, it was quickly labeled as the ultimate winter route. Indeed, the prospect of riding snow-free during the coldest months seemed like a dream come true for many ADV enthusiasts. Not one to believe easily in fairy tales, we wanted to know what winter route meant, so we went on the CABDR only one week after the last snowstorm hit California. The ride was not for the faint of heart, but proved exceptional.
If Southern California is famous for its year-long warm weather and palm trees, these somewhat true clichés apply more to the beach cities than to the open desert. Checking the forecast on the phone, we could see right away that crossing Death Valley in winter could be freezing cold. Finding the right gear to endure these harsh conditions was crucial, and we chose to try some FLY Racing gear, mixing Patrol pants with Terra Treck jackets, coupled with heated gloves from their snowmobile division. Lastly, their Formula helmet was chosen with the winter pack to close the vents. We decided to use the whole Honda dual-sport line up, from the old school yet bullet-proof XR650L to the most recent and lightweight CRF450L, without forgetting the big but powerful CRF1000 Africa Twin DCT. The three bikes were to be ridden by an equally diverse panel of riders: François, 62 years old, was the perfect fit for the XR, while Julie, 18 years old, felt more confident on the 450. The Africa Twin was unanimously dedicated to me since I needed more luggage room to fit my photography equipment. Did I feel cheated? Not at all, knowing that I would have a fairing, and they would not. All three bikes were equipped with Shinko tires, MT216 for the dual sports, and E804/805 for the ADV bike.
Last but not least, we packed our MoskoMoto and Kriega bags with the strict minimum gear for a one week trip, including enough tools to fix a flat or tighten some loose bolts. Since the first sections in the Mojave desert have already been covered in Upshift issue 29, when we discovered the ride with Mark Samuels, we decided to innovate for 2020.
Realizing that the CABDR and the NVBDR crossed paths at Primm, NV, we chose to use this casino and resort as both the starting and the ending point of our trip, planning to do a loop with the CABDR on the way up and the NVBDR on the way back. Once downloaded, the GPS tracks from RideBDR were uploaded as-is to our Trail Tech Voyager Pro devices, and we were ready to go.
Brutal First Leg
Starting from Primm at 7 am, with the optimism of pioneers from the gold rush, we were surprised to find the first miles quite tricky. Barely awake, we had to endure a long stretch of two-track covered with soft gravel and loose rocks, with a gusty crosswind. By the time we reached the famous and impressive Coliseum Mine, we already had plenty of opportunities to get our dose of adrenaline. The climb to the mine was under a thin layer of snow, but as soon as we went back down, headed toward Death Valley, the white blanket disappeared. Filling the tanks at Tecopa, we resisted the temptation of stopping for lunch at the Steak and Beer restaurant. We knew the place and could almost smell the great food, but the days are short in the winter, and it would put us behind schedule. The life of a motorcyclist traveler is made of tough choices! A few sandy sections near the Ibex dunes let the two dual sport bikes fight against each other. François knew the sand, and Julie discovered it, but the easy 450L allowed the young rider to catch up with the veteran on his XR quickly. It’s honestly hard to keep up with these two in the deep sand when you’re riding the Africa Twin, but the adventure bike took her revenge on the wide fire road heading to Furnace Creek. There, you could really use the power and hit the maximum speed of each bike.
Topping at only 70 mph, the XR couldn’t keep up with the CRF450L, whose top speed of 85mph was nonetheless dwarfed by the 105 mph reached on the CRF1000. Still, these speeds were definitely reckless, and we soon got back to cruising mode, just in time to make a detour toward China Ranch. In this oasis, carbon copied from the ones in Morocco, we expected to relax and enjoy a delicious date milkshake. However, Julie then realized that her side stand didn’t hold, with one bolt missing on one of the CRF450L footpeg platforms. We discovered that we forgot the 17mm drive socket to tighten the second bolt. Luckily, Grace left her precious kitchen for a few minutes and gave us access to the barn next door, where we dug in the farmer’s tools to find a replacement bolt and a 17mm socket. Not only was their food excellent and the place charming, the staff at China Ranch saved our day! Returning to the trails, the adventure continued. After some deeper than expected river crossing covered our bikes and gear with salt, we soon discovered that the West Side Road in Death Valley was partially closed due to flooding. Wasn’t this desert supposed to be dry? No big deal, we stayed on the pavement and still enjoyed seeing the altitude dropping deep under zero, reaching -282ft a few times. How cool is that? Reaching Furnace Creek just before the night, we decided to skip on the warm luxury of a hot shower and to push further in the dark, trying to reach Beatty. It might sound a little masochistic, but the plan was to do fewer miles the next morning. Still, the ride to exit the National Park was brutally cold! A bit sour after this first day on the dirt, we barely ate before falling asleep, all alarms set for 6 am the next morning.
Wide Open Scenery
After cleaning the layer of salt, which covered every inch of our motorcycles, at the car wash next door we headed to the closest gas station to fill the tanks. It shouldn’t have taken long, but the pump itself froze during the night and couldn’t deliver more than the merest trickle of gas. Having exhausted most of our patience already, we finally returned to the road, headed toward Titus Canyon. The winding trails offered incredible views of the deep valley below, the red and purple rocks highlighted by yellow sediments on the cliffs. There were some patches of snow and ice in the shade, and we paid close attention in order to stay on two wheels. The canyon itself narrowed progressively, to form a 20 ft corridor at the end. Even though the dim light made it look almost like night, the riding was spectacular. It was difficult to see the sky above the skyscrapers (high cliffs), and the colors changed every other turn. We enjoyed having the place to ourselves as the tourists would come later. After this epic morning, we faced a difficult choice. Going to the Racetrack and then through the expert-only sections was our first option, but the elevation of 8,000ft in this section lets no doubt about the presence of snow. Besides, any attempt followed by a U-turn would put us at risk of running out of gas. We then resolved to stay on the pavement, exiting the National Park through Stovepipe Wells, going up over Towne Pass, before going down and refueling at Paramount Springs. At first, riding on pavement felt like a failure, but the snow on the side of the road quickly convinced us that we made the right choice; if it’s already snowy at 5,600 ft, how much of this no-traction layer could have been expected above 7,500ft? The scenery was excellent, and we arrived at Lone Pine early, having not done enough dirt but getting a superb compensation through the visit of the Film History Museum. The next morning, waking up before dawn, we had a terrible surprise: the Africa Twin wouldn’t start! The cold was so intense that the battery had died.
Thankfully we had installed an antigravity battery with a built-in jump-start. It worked like a safety net and allowed us to start the big twin after the simple push of a button. So much for a fresh wake up! We reached the Alabama Hills just in time to see the first light of the sunrise paint the higher summits in bright orange. The view was magical, and we cruised speechless through this incredible landscape, trying to take it all in. No wonder so many movies were shot here! Each twist of the throttle made us feel like we were riding a star trooper’s speeder bike in Star Wars. When the big stacks of boulders disappeared and the valley finally opened up, we were now riding in a green environment, and the contrast between the white summits and the crystal clear blue sky made the whole backdrop even more supernatural. If there’s some legal riding spot in heaven, it has to look like this!
Loaded with History
The following hours were almost as good, as we enjoyed a fun double track in the valley, the majestic summits scrolling on our left. The Africa Twin used her power to keep up with the nimble CRF450L and the torquey XR650L on these somewhat technical trails. If the 450L could somehow skim the bumps and hit the berms in the corners, both the XR and the big twin needed to compose with more supple suspension. Using the full travel of the fork, we almost raced like on a track. Following this exhilarating ride, we paused for an emotional moment at the Manzanar Historic Site, where US citizens of Japanese origin were imprisoned during WWII. A dark chapter of recent US history that was well described in the graphic novel, “They Called Us Enemy” from Star Trek actor George Takei. The mood improved with a detour to reach the Reward Mine, after a few miles at full speed on a dusty but perfectly flat gravel road. Being able to ride deep inside the dark mine was unique and fun, even if we couldn’t help but wonder about the lives of the people who dug these tunnels by hand.
These were different times, and we felt lucky to live in the 21st century, especially when the powerful LEDs of the Africa Twin’s Cyclops lights opened the way in the darkness! Exiting the mine and going down the mountain through a rocky trail, we were again forced to skip the expert route, which went too high in altitude and was still covered in snow. Reaching Bishop became just another stretch of easy gravel roads and highways, putting us ahead of schedule. The town itself was lovely and we could have stopped there for the night. Still, we pushed further, once again, passing Benton and then doing the last 80 miles on a cold night to reach Tonopah, Nevada. The temperatures were below 25F, and the last 20 miles felt quite long even if the small dual-sport kept cruising at a good pace. The heated gloves at work prevented us from freezing and losing our fingers, but still, we were happy to reach the lights of civilization! Stopping at the famous Mizpah hotel, we enjoyed an incredibly tasty meal. We were in the middle of nowhere, Nevada, but the Mizpah burger was probably one of the best burgers we ever had! Going back to our rooms following presumably haunted hallways, we discussed this CABDR. Despite some detours due to snow over 6000ft, we could definitely follow the whole track, have fun in a ton of different locations, while enjoying great riding on the dirt. Sure, the temperatures never exceeded 55F degrees, averaging 35F through the super short January days. Still, this backcountry route definitely deserves its title of winter route. Thumbs up to RideBDR for offering the opportunity to have so much fun in the coldest months of the year! Tomorrow, if the ghosts of the haunted building let us sleep, we’ll start our way back toward Primm following the NVBDR, but that’s another story.