Tag Archives: Titus Canyon

Mohave with KLX250S

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With the KLX set up, I took off for a few days. The plan was to explore the Mohave desert between the Arizona border and the Sierra Nevada. Along with Baja, this has been an unfulfilled biking destinations for as long as I’ve been trail biking.

db70mkbutIn the late 70s I gobbled up the seminal Dirt Bike magazine from cover to cover – and most of their riding was done out here, east of LA. DB founder and editor Rick Sieman wrote up his ‘Dirt Biking Years’ as Monkey Butt, the memoir of an increasingly bitter individual who saw his opportunities to gun across the Mohave scrublands slowly eroded by the rise of the Joshua Tree-hugging environmentalists. In the good years the iconic, non-competitive Barstow-Las Vegas run (‘B2V’, below) had a start line of some 3000 bikes spread out a mile wide. By the late 80s the B2V got outlawed by the BLM, Rick Sieman did time for protesting/trespassing then emigrated to Baja in disgust. But as the fully legal  LAB2V, a form of the event still survives.

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You don’t have to be an old fan of DB to recognise that besides airborne Maicos, countless movies have also been shot out in the Mohave, a short distance from Hollywood. Time Rider (Back to the Future delusiomeets TT500 desert racer) will be known to many riders my age, but be it a zombie western, a road movie, teenage slasher or Mars on the cheap, the arid scrubby, mountain-rimmed playas east of LA have provided the space and landscapes to spin a yarn. In ’91 I well remember watching a B-grade road movie called Delusion with its climactic shoot-out outside a 1930s deco motel at Death Valley Junction (left). Death Valley Junction – what a great name. A few days later I rolled up right outside that very motel (and passed it again – now reopened – on this trip). Your road trip becomes your road movie out here.
lostinIt may even go back even further than that. Childhood telly like The High Chaparral, BonanzaLost in Space, and movies like Planet of the Apes all included locations out here. If you’ve ever watched telly or seen a film, chances are the Mohave backdrops will be in your blood. Painting yourself green and wearing a salad bowl for a hat? Well, that’s just down to personal choice. Hell, we’re in California!


mk3-02I left Phoenix on a hot afternoon, looking to get a couple of hours in. Destination: west. I-10 was obviously out on a 250, there was more fun to be had on 60 up to Wickenburg, then back southwest via Salome and up 72 to Parker on the Colorado river.
Just like last time on the CRF, my ingrained thrift saw me fill up on 87 fuel – they wouldn’t sell it if it was bad, right? Wrong. My new ride was soon running like an MZ on watered-down kerosene and hit reserve at only 88 miles, somewhere east of Salome. Still, getting off to top up the bike was a relief. I refilled at a ‘Gas Haven’ roadhouse – the one pictured above is an old Hills Have Eyes movie set in Morocco. You’ll find the real thing all over the Mohave and the Southwest.

parkRocking up in a small desert town like Parker can be as thrilling as an Iowa farmer marvelling at Piccadilly Circus. The bright neon signs glow against the inky sky, growling V8s and trucks roll through – it’s all Tom Waits needed in his prime.
The downside to all this road trip romance can be underwhelming food if you try to dodge the fattening fast food traps. Or even if you don’t.

roadlegNext day I hopped over the turbid Colorado river which will be sucked down to nothing by adjacent conurbations and irrigation in the next 200 miles. Barely a trickle will reach the Gulf of California.
Hereabouts names on the map can add up to nothing more than a scattering of ramshackle, sun-bleached trailer homes or shacks ringed with dead cars, washing machines and other scrap. Is it a town or just a loose collection of dwellings where a outcasts, loners, rogue chemists or desert lovers pitch up to live on their terms?

Over late brekkie at Chiricao Summit on unavoidable I-10, the penny drops and I fill up with full-fat 93-grade gasoline with added maple syrup. Hey presto, the bike is running like it should. Next turn north leads into Joshua Tree NP, a cool sounding place where like the song doesn’t go, I may find what I’m looking for.

KLXX - 3I’d downloaded a free Desert Southwest map for the Garmin Montana but seem to be missing out on juicy dirt roads – or I’m not reading it right (#2 it was). The NP paper map has more legible detail: Old Dale Road spins off the main drag and heads for the hills. ‘Four-wheel drive only’ it says – it’s even listed on DangerousRoads.Org – but after years of wheeling in western Australia I’ve become blasé to all that. Initially it’s a light sandy track and the KLX rattles over the washboard, front end surfing and wandering on its trail tyre. The backlight makes it hard to read the surface so I stop to air down a bit. It doesn’t make much difference but under 30mph the 140-kilo Kawa doesn’t have the momentum to flip out when it gets out of shape.
KLXX - 5Then the track turned a corner and headed into the mountains and, yes sirree, you’d want a fourbie with clearance and low range up here – or be a GS pilot with steady nerves if on your own. On occasions it gets as gnarly as the gnarliest Moroccan tracks I do, requiring confident launches up or around rock steps and over loose piles of stones.
To my relief the KLX takes it all in its stride with its combination of harmless power, light weight and compliant suspension that all helps control the bike, not require fighting it. What a revelation; that’s what I was looking for.
Up on the heights other numbered but unmapped JT (Jeep Trail?) tracks branch off and my route isn’t always clear. Orientation has to be guessed off the broad-brush NP map with the help the Montana’s compass and a desert rider’s eye for what appears to be the most used trail.

KLXX - 8Out of the hills and back on a broad sandy runway, the bike is handling much better now. It occurs to me the energetic workout has reformatted my reflexes in tune with the bike’s bucking and sliding. Well, that plus lower shadows are now across the track, raising the definition.
Back on the highway near Twentynine Palms, as the sun begins to drop I air up and scoot back into the north side of the park for the 4000-foot high scenic loop where all the J-Trees actually grow. Below, it could be the ‘Poison Forest’ episode straight out of Lost in Space where the green Siren lures in stranded argonauts.

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In Joshua Tree town the cheap-motel manager claims she’s ‘full’ but then relents and apologises for mistaking me for ‘a local’. I get this suspicion at other lodgings too – presumably KLXX - 13highway-roaming reprobates take the piss or cause trouble. Opposite the hotel the neighbouring compound had a colourful row of what we call ‘Ameri-cans’ capping the wall. Inside I try to watch TV for some added cultural immersion, but it’s a lost cause – you can literally channel hop from one commercial to the next.

There are roads leading north up to Amboy and Kelso next day. I kind of hope they’ll be wide gravel dirt with shady borders, but will take what I get. Out of 29 Palms it’s actually deserted crumbling blacktop, like parts of old Route 66. There are a lot of east-west railroads round here, all converging on LA I presume. At Amboy, an old rail depot, we stop at a crossing to watch a mile-long BNSF train pulled and pushed by six locos. It’s a cue for another song and a ‘so-that’s-what-it-means’ explanation of its lyrics:

KLXX - 14And the Burlington Northern’s pullin’ out of the world
With a head full of bourbon and a dream in the straw
And a Gun Street Girl was the cause of it all
A Gun Street girl was the cause of it all

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Amboy has an old roadhouse motel near a former Chloride mine –  another authentic ‘gas haven’ with five-dollar fuel, no coffee and milling tourists. ‘Icy’ warns a sign on the next turn, but not today. Up top I follow a track to a grassy clearing and eat, read and doze, then head down the north slope with dunes on the horizon.
Kelso – another railroad ghost-depot. I’m wanting northeast for some intriguing backroads into Death Valley, but have to choose west for Baker and fuel (‘He was pulling into Baker on a New Year’s Eve – One eye on a pistol and the other on the door). My paper map seems unreliable, my GPS map has no key of course (but if I zoom right in dirt roads are there) and the Garmin World Base Map is – err – basic in outback California.
With a can on the back, to pass the time I decide to run the bike dry: only 125 miles but 88mpg (73US). Not bad I suppose. I snatch a few extra miles by coasting to Baker, enjoying the cycle-speed breeze. I’m not achieving a lot today, but no one’s watching.

KLXX - 19Baker is alongside I-15 and its famous Pole of Temperature (left) is reading 85°F, but by the weekend the weather is set to turn. Storm off the Pacific, wind and rain by Sunday they say.
Baker’s too close to the interstate to invite an early cut, but up the road in Shoshone there’s no room at the village inn. ‘Pahrump is KLXX - 20your nearest bet, honey’. Another 30 miles and it’s nighttime in Nevada. Fill up at the servo – it’s all I ever seem to do. ‘Motels? Right at the lights’. Once installed, I whizz back to casino-lined downtown helmet-less for my bi-annual BK. Is Nevada lid-free? Probably.

Today I know exactly where I’m going. Up to Beatty for the Titus Canyon track which  sneaks into Death Valley from the east. Other all-terrain recreationists are out in force today. I realise later I could’ve cut through Ash Meadows on the way to Beatty for a bit of dirt relief, had I studied the Southwest GPS map more closely last night on Base Camp. But out here there are no bad route finding decisions. Smooth dirt or broken asphalt, spin a bottle; it’s all good.

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KLXX - 25Titus is even better than I recall – a classic one-way route which, after an initial washboard approach, winds up to a high pass from where I’m able to switch off and coast almost right to the canyon mouth (left), peering across the arid pans of Death Valley. Without the engine distracting you, riding the KLX is like being on an oversized mountain bike, you can focus on the lines and body position while slipping silently past lumbering 4x4s.

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It’s Saturday and even though it’s overcast the word is out: rare wildflowers are blooming following winter rains and the park is packed with petal spotters. I don’t suppose I’m the first person to wonder how this basin can be below sea level so far inland and not death_valleyeventually fill up with debris from millennia of run-off. The visitor centre puts me straight: tectonics tilt blocks like fallen dominos, the low points happen to be below sea level. Then three tall ranges of Sierra Nevada create a Triple A rain shadow – no moisture reaches DV. Add the glaring radiation bouncing heat up against heat, and what drops may fall won’t even hit the ground so there’s never enough flash flooding and erosion to fill up the valley. Or not for a long time yet.

KLXX - 27I should have booked a hotel – I forgot Saturday’s get busy near big national parks. Back at Death Valley Junction the colonnaded Amargosa Hotel looks great inside the lobby, but with that sort of historical ambience it’s as full as a visitors’ centre car park.
Jeez, is that the time? Must be overdue for a fill up again in Shoshone at more than double the usual price. There’s a WR250R doing the same. Turns out the guy picked it up only yesterday for $7k, equipped. I’m looking for one of these for an upcoming Sahara trip where anything heavier will be a liability – at least at my age. Nice to see a fresh WR in the flesh – a good omen I tell him. Triple clamps off a JCB, they make 30-odd hp, do 70 to Her Majesty’s gallon but don’t require WR-F-like levels of care. Or so they say. Guy is usually a Victory cruiser (like half US riders it seems), but wants to explore the dirt side. Good on him, I say.

KLXX - 29I try Tecopa Hot Springs, surrounded by a grubby, salt-caked wasteland, but it’s full of orange people swanning around in sarongs, and has no cabins to spare. My paper map shows a track / road heading southeast from here back to I-15. It’s getting late but could be fun. I try to follow it past the date farm but the orientation looks off. Later on, Google and Base Camp showed no link, but with a cig-packet sized screen it’s hard to work all this out on the move with seven-pound specs. Next time I’ll carry big-arsed Delorme/Benchmark road atlases, like I did on the CRF trip. Until they can beam out hologram screens, handy-sized GPS units just can’t give you the full picture. So it’s back to Baker under glowering skies and spots of warm rain.

KLXX - 12I’m resigned to dosing in an abandoned trailer or gas station, but Baker turn out to be less popular than I thought. At the motel he accepts cash and drops a card deposit as I’m ‘not a local’. Baker seems to have every brand of fast food going, apart from the Greek place. Over the road a waitress squeezes me out a Mexican meal from a big tube.

KLXX - 31Next day many people warn me of the strong winds, but apart from a few side sweeps, all it did was slow the KLX down to 49mph in places. I try to plan a route using the backwind and avoiding interstates, but at times there’s no getting away from either. The deserted Nipton Road (old cafe sadly dormant) leads me back past J-trees into NV and a fat brekkie at Terrible’s Roadhouse in Searchlight. Then it’s back over the Colorado and another refill in Golden Shores to follow windy and windy old 66 via kitschy Oatman where the weekend hoards are lapping up the whole gun-slingin’, gold-pannin’, bar-fightin’ sideshow.

KLXX - 30Near Kingman dust storms are hurtling around the valley looking for something to blow over. East along 1-40 I am sailing but turning south onto 93 it’s largely in my face and when it’s one lane I sense the tailback’s trigger fingers getting itchy. It’s the occasional price you pay for riding a 250. It rains a bit but I dry off even quicker and ease into Wickenburg on fumes.
The day turns into a tiring 9-hour, 350-mile haul of wind-surfing with the butt clearly getting acclimatised to the KLX perch. All up not so bad on a weedy 250. Must be high time to tank up.

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CRF Mile 498: Death Valley

cc-longroadYou can tell from the picture on the left that today was going to be a good day. An empty road reaching across the high desert to a vanishing point in a distant mountain range. Winding my way through Titus Canyon to the other side of the hills, the land dropped to below sea level – Death Valley, where I’d turn north over more dirt roads and ranges to Big Pine in California’s Owens Valley.

cc-hotelBefore that and still in Nevada, I popped in to Rhyolite ghost town which in the early 20th century managed to go through its birth–boom–bust cycle in just six years.  Disappointingly, the crumbling gold rush ruins  were all fenced off, making it less of a ghost town and more of a hazardous site.

cc-schoolThere was a ruined school (left) and a nice-looking hotel amid some Joshua trees (top right) with a curvy, Spanish colonial-era facade. It would have been more fun to stay in than last night’s Motel 6, but clearly Rhyolite has had its day.

Titus Canyon to Death Valley
cc-tittuJust down the road was the turn-off for Titus Canyon which Al had recommended as a great way to slip into Death Valley. SUVs followed me in and initially the stony, corrugated track was not in harmony with my jacked-up suspension and road-pressure tyres. Some tracks are like that or just required acclimatising to, but soon the trail began to climb into the Grapevine Mountains where the colourful rubble glowed rich with mineral promise.

cc-leadI came across the remains of Leadville, site of another brief episode of mineral mining madness in the 1920s; now just a couple of shacks and a heavily barred shaft penetrating the hillside. As has proved the case in similar places I’ve visited in Western Australia, the easily mined stuff usually gets cleared up before word gets far, and very often the best money was made providing services to the hopeful miners until they stampeded off to the next rumoured strike. In the UK or even Europe there’s no such tradition of mineral booms or ghost towns. A couple of centuries ago your lot was pretty much set from birth which must have made emigrating to the New World colonies in North America and Australia to chase riches all the more tempting.

It was all downhill from here to near sea level. A good chance then to stick it into neutral or turn off altogether and try to save fuel as I wasn’t sure how far I’d get or how much I’d consume getting to the next point, probably Big Pine at least 100 miles away (the satnav couldn’t calculate it on my dirt road route, despite fiddling with the settings and ‘avoidances’).

cc-narrowTitus Canyon is designated as one-way running west, as once it gets towards the end it’s bending left to right every 50 yards and narrows to about 20 feet wide – not enough for a pair of your typical local 4WD trucks to pass each other. Coasting down the box canyon bends, I took a strolling couple by surprise as they’d walked up from the mouth of the canyon for a look inside.

Out at the mouth, Death Valley (map) stretched across the horizon with the Panamint mountains as a backdrop (below). To the south lay Stovepipe Wells (fuel, though I didn’t know that then) and beyond that the salt-caked playa of the Badwater Basin; the lowest point in the US.

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 I first came here in the mid-90s and recall camping somewhere up the side of the valley; it was October but at 3am it was still about 30°C or 86. The Valley was a lot cooler today and there was now a smooth paved road running up the middle. cc-dvroadHeading north the annoying wind was still in my face but I figured I’d risk a detour to Scotty’s Castle, expecting some naff, faux-medieval folly. In fact it was just the grassy, palm-shaded lunch spot I was looking for. There was a crude, concrete cc-villlacastle possibly housing a power house, but much more interesting was what looked like an Italianate villa built between the wars.

I was still in DVNP and asked the ranger how far Big Pine might be via the northern road. He wasn’t sure but in the end guessed it was less than 100 miles which was probably within my range once I’d used the fuel bag.

cc-dvdirtCoasting where I could, I turned off the paved Ubehebe Crater road (wish I’d gone to the crater now) and onto the rough dirt road leading up to Crankshaft Crossing. A sign said Big Pine something like 87 miles so I knew I’d make it. A dirt rider soon came the other way with a wave, and near the Crossing came another guy braving the gravel and washboard on a V-Strom.

cc-crankCrankshaft was another place I recalled from 1995. Back then I’d scrawled ‘Yeah!’ under a ‘Pavement Ends’ road sign. The photo had been featured on the back cover of AMH3 a year or two later. Could you believe it, but it came to my attention that those rats at Aerostich went right ahead and made a sticker out of my razor-like roadside wit, an entrepreneurial cc-pendssnatch which helps keep Rider Wearhouse afloat to this very day. I’m not bitter and anyway a lawyer advised me that writing messages on highway road signs was not a valid basis to instigate legal action, unless it was being aimed at me by the sheriff of Inyo County. I’m over it now and for old time’s sake shot against an ungraffitied sign just up the road.

I knew there was a range or two to cross to get to Big Pine but I’d again underestimated how high it could get; my maps only show peaks and less often pass heights. It’s much more than I’m used to climbing in the Sahara or even Morocco. The ill-tuned CRF, gagging on too much gasoline croaked uphill, dropping down to 40mph at 7500 feet (~2300m) which seems to be a bhp watershed for the Honda.

cc-sulphurUp ahead the wind blew a flurry if white dust and with it a familiar smell from schoolday chemistry. Rounding a bend revealed an old mine by the road. Rusted machines were subsiding into the fine white powder which I rode across raising another billowing cloud.

Finding a rock to cc-commandsperch the stand on, pale yellow rocks at my feet explained the smell: sulphur, above left). (Or for those that use them, the map also says ‘Sulfur Mine’). I’d never seen natural sulphur s69_31742before; if only old gold mines had debris like this! Over there it looked like a prototype of NASA’s Apollo Command Module had fallen intact into the dirt (right).

cc-eurekaOver the pass I dropped into the Eureka Dunes valley where the wind was whipping up the grains and hurling them south (right). Not a place for a drilled out airbox and anyway, I’ve seen my share of sand dunes. But taking advantage of the lee of a signboard, I tipped the fuel bag into the tank and then set off along that very rare thing – a freshly graded track!

cc-sierraThat lead, by and by, over another range which turned to reveal the snowy Sierra Nevada to the west (left) and Big Pine at its feet. Not far away was the 14,505′ (4421m) summit of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous US and just 80 miles from Badwater Basin. How’s that for a ‘land of contrasts’?

I’m no expert but the people in Big Pine, CA seemed different from Nevada, a bit more prosperous and less out back. Once I worked out how to make the pump work, the news was rather poor: despite all the coasting and gentle dirt roading all I’d managed was 54USmpg (65UK). Clearly coming over the Panamints and Inyo ranges had been an effort for the Honda, but the way I rode I should have managed 65US. Tomorrow I’d have to deploy Plan B.

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