Death Valley Ride 2014 – San Francisco to Death Valley and back.

October 29, 2014  •  Leave a Comment


I purchased a 2003 Blackbird this March after months of searching for the rarely available, elusive bike. It’s a bike that I’ve always appreciated for its combination of speed, power, and comfort. In fact, I owned the same model back in 2000 for a blissful six months before a mindless driver plowed into me and the bike, roughing me up and totaling the bike. I walked away from the accident and motorcycles for ten long years. The ‘Black Bird has always had a grip on me, so when I came across a 2003 Blackbird with only 12,000 miles and its original tires I knew it too good to pass up. As soon as I got the bike I carefully planned a full rehabilitation of the 2003 Blackbird to prepare it for a nostalgic ride to Death Valley from San Francisco.

Riding with others is always an enjoyment, however on this trip I decided to go solo. Taking the pace I want, stopping when and where I want, and simply being with my thoughts.

Thursday, November 23, 2014.

The morning of my initial departure riding over the Bay Bridge, the sun is low on the horizon and sunlight pokes through scattered clouds. It’s a good day to be on a motorcycle. The first couple of hours from San Francisco the ride is not very exciting and is simply a straight line that I want to get behind me.

Interstate 205 Eastbound Robert T. Monagan - Tracy Freeway is now transitioning and directly connecting into Interstate 5 West Side Freeway NORTH Stockton - Sacramento left lane approaching 1 1/2 miles to Exit 461 - State Highway Junction Route CA-120

My first stop is Knights Ferry Bridge. The longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi at 330 feet in length. The bridge built in 1863, and I was the only person visiting at the time.

Death Valley ride 2014

From the Knights Ferry Bridge on my way to a lunch spot I took a little shortcut from HWY 120 – Old Priest Grade. This tiny stretch is a one mile long adrenaline rush that runs adjacently to the truck filled HWY 120. I stopped at the Priest Station Café for lunch.



After lunch, I got back to Highway 120 and 30 miles later I entered the Yosemite park entrance.

On Tioga Pass the road is slow going but it is a beautiful ride, and the weather couldn’t be better. The western half of the pass climbs in elevation meandering through pine forests. Once I arrived at Olmstead Point, I see what all the hype is about for this particular route. The view into Tenaya Canyon looks southwest into the valley, giving a view of the northern side of Half Dome.


From Olmsted Point and continuing eastward, riding adjacent to Tenaya Lake I pull over and notice how the light has changed due to a solar eclipse that, fortunately, is taking place on this day.


Lee Vining Canyon is the highlight for me while riding the Tioga Pass. At the top of the pass (el. 9,943 ft.) I pull over and take a moment to take in the view. The air is noticeably thin and find myself catching my breath. This pass has a gradual approach from the west and drops off to the east dramatically, losing more than 3,000 ft. before it reaches U.S. Route 395.


My first day ends at June Lake. I have dinner and a night’s sleep at Double Eagle Resort and Spa at the base of Carson Peak, 1.5 miles from June Mountain.


Friday, November 24, 2014.


Friday morning the day starts with a ride from June Lake to Benton continuing along Highway 120. This 46 mile portion of Highway 120 is nothing like its National Park neighbor to the west. Entirely different terrain, completely different road. The first several miles borders Mono Lake with broad sweeping views of the lake. No people or cars in site and the road is all mine.
In the Adobe Valley there is a sign that reads ‘Dips Next 5 Miles’. It’s a great fun stretch that feels like you are on a roller coaster and you can’t help wanting to turn around and do it again.


A few miles further I arrive to Benton Hot Springs. The town saw its heyday from 1862 to 1889 as a supply center for nearby mines. I stop at a small store with gas pumps to refuel the Bird.


Continuing south just before reaching the town of Bishop, I stop in the city of Laws and visit Laws Railroad Museum and Historic Site.
Laws Railroad Museum and Historic Site has many static displays of life in the period culture. There are several historic buildings moved to the museum site from downtown Bishop. The land for the museum was donated to Inyo Country by Southern Pacific Railroad when it shut down its narrow gauge railroad operations in the Owens Valley in 1960. There is a church, school house, photography studio, dentist office, hair salon, and a station agent’s home built in 1883. I spent over an hour navigating all the historic structures and equipment on display. It was an excellent museum to see.





Past Bishop and on my way to Big Pine I stopped at another historical place. The Manzanar War Relocation Center just off Highway 395. Japanese-Americans were interned here for the duration of WWII. During the early 1940’s, the site spanned 6000 acres and held around 10,000 people. Primarily what you see here is the foundations of the camp buildings and not much else.




Before leaving Hwy 395 for State Route 136 to Sate Route 190 I stopped at the Frosty Chalet in Lone Pine. This little hamburger and ice-cream stand has been around since the 1950s. When growing up and visiting Mammoth Lakes or Lake Tahoe from Southern California this was always a stop my family would make. In fact it was at the Frosty Chalet that I had my very first Banana Split. I ordered a cheeseburger and root-beer float and had my lunch across the street in Lone Pine Park. This was a very nostalgic experience.


On my final stretch to Furnace Creek in Death Valley I stopped at Father Crowley Vista Point. This vista provides your first viewpoint of the Panamint Valley.


At the end of my second day, I arrive at Furnace Creek Ranch, CA. The naturally fed spring pool is the highlight for me. After several days on the iron horse, it feels great to be floating in the warm spring pool for some much-needed R&R.

Furnace Creek Ranch pool


Later that evening I headed out to Bad Water Basin. I would not ride this stretch at night. However it was a new moon, and the stars and Milky Way were on full display. I walked into the salt-covered basin to view and photograph the night sky.

Death Valley Milky Way

Saturday, November 25, 2014.

Saturday morning I woke up to the wind gusting up to 40mph. unfortunately, this day did not turn out to be an ideal motorcycle day. Patiently, I waited for the gusting wind to diminish, and later in the afternoon I visited Artist Palette loop. It’s a one-way scenic drive with various spots to pull over and take in the sites. The road is in superb condition, it’s curvy and a lot of fun. After the Artists Palette, I rode up to Dante’s View for a breath-taking view down 500 feet into the -282 feet below sea level Badwater Basin that I had visited the night before.



On my return from Dante’s View to Furnace Creek Ranch I could see what appeared at first to be rocks on the road. However, those rocks were actually tranchulas. There were so many. I found a patch on the road where I could stop and not be surrounded and then photographed one coming towards me.


Sunday, November 26, 2014

Sunday morning the winds were minimal, and this was going to be a good day for riding out of the valley.


The weather was perfect for motorcycle touring. I traced my previous route from day 2 and once again had fun revisiting the 5 miles of dips. Just before arriving at Lee Vining where I would spend the evening I stopped and visited the Mono Mills Historic Site, a lumber camp, built in 1880. My final stop for the day was Mono Lake. The lakes most outstanding features are the tufa towers that can be seen by its shores.

El Mono Motel

Monday, November 27, 2014.

Monday morning I woke up with an outside temperature of 24 °F. My bike covered in ice, and as prepared as I was, I was not ready for this cold. On my way to Sonora Pass, I end up having to pull over every 10 miles to warm up my hands on the motorcycle exhaust. The Sonora Pass is the second-highest highway pass in the Sierra Nevada. , Tioga Pass to the south is only 321 ft. higher.


By the time, I reached the entrance to Sonora pass the sun was higher as well as temperature, and I could manage without having to pull over anymore due to numb fingers. As I approached the summit, the road became very steep. The 9624 ft. Summit includes a 26% grade and some great switchbacks. This part of my journey I once again have the road all to myself and the route has mountain meadows, wildlife, and trees of every description. I am amazed to see snow still at the end of summer near the mountain peaks.


My last stop on this motorcycle adventure was at a viewing point for Donnells Reservoir. The final breathtaking view of my 1100 mile journey on two wheels. San Francisco a mere three hours away.


I arrived home in the late afternoon and after completing another visit to Death Valley I was already planning when I could do this ride again. The 2003 Honda CBR1100XX “BlackBird” performed flawlessly.

This trip was a fantastic ride, spent alone on the open road, a very successful mid-life oasis.


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