USA 2016 – Day 7 – Ridgecrest to Death Valley to Mammoth Lakes

Facing our biggest challenge yet, we made our way through the wonderful Panamint Valley to Death Valley, one of the hottest places on earth.

We were up at 6am, fed, packed, fuelled and on the road by 7am – this was going to be our longest day so far. As the sun had just risen, it was a relatively mild start, not that we minded, we knew the day was going to get significantly hotter.

We were heading east and straight into the rising sun; we rode along a road which bordered China Lake Naval Base which took us to our first major valley of the day.  Searles Valley is the home to a mineral mining company and, Trona, a settlement for its workers. Google maps implied that this settlement was situated next to a Searles Lake but, considering we couldn’t see any water, I’m guessing it’s a former or occasional lake. The western end of the town appeared deserted with dilapidated buildings and long closed down stores. Towards the eastern end of town, things seem to get better, there was a tidy looking school and some reasonably tidy looking homes – I guess there’s so much space out here that there’s no need to knock down and rebuild, just build somewhere else!

Update: a few facts, Trona takes its name from a mineral, abundant in the nearby lake bed, it is resident to 1,900 people and there is no grass for the football field as the high saline soil kills grass, nearby are the Trona Pinnacles, I’m pretty sure I spotted them but, since they were down a dirt road, we skipped visiting them. The town is also known for its desolation and isolation, we can vouch for that!

Trona, with Searles Lake on the right


More Trona

As we traversed the Slate Range Crossing, we were greeted by the spectacular site of Panamint Valley, a vast desert valley bordered by mountains with a single road running up the centre of the valley. The road was also exciting, smooth bitumen, a motorbike’s dream; a brief stop for roadworks and we were on our way.

Elvis and Panamint Valley

And then there was a sign, bump in the road, and the sight of a long stretch of gravel road lay before us. Damn. Gravel and motorbikes are not always great friends, especially for this lady, I’ve dealt with unexpected gravel road before but there was no indication as to how long the stretch was and no one coming the other way to help us. We couldn’t go back as I didn’t have enough fuel so all we could do was proceed.

Carefully, I rode along the gravel road, making sure I didn’t make any sudden movements like braking or accelerating, keeping my arms soft, sticking to the tyre tracks of other cars, which tended to be packed down. And then, lo, after about 2 miles, it was over – phew, even though I survived the ride, it wasn’t very comfortable, the bike shakes even more than it usually did and we had to go slowly in ever increasing temperatures, not ideal but not so bad, in the end.

Half way along the valley, we came to the sign for the Death Valley National Park, we’d made it, almost.

The Death Valley National Park sign in Panamint Valley

We drove about for about 30 miles before our next fuel stop at the tiny settlement of Panamint Springs. After checking some info with the girl in the petrol station, we decided to head to the top of the mountains which formed the western wall of Death Valley to have a look at Death Valley itself. On the way up we saw two Wile-e-coyotes hanging out on the road. A roadrunner may also have been fleetingly spotted…

The remote Panamint Springs gas station


We drove up the mountains and then descended into the valley. We stopped at a view point and then down to sea level at Stovepipe Wells. This was clearly a popular place to come as there were many cars, unlike Panamint Valley. We stopped briefly, it was very hot though less hot than we had experienced the previous day in Mojave or Palmdale but as it was only about 10am, we expected temperatures to increase during the day. The valley was a desolate place, I guess that’s what you would expect from a place which has recorded the hottest temperature on Earth at 56.7 degrees Celsius. We could see sand dunes off in the distance, something we have seldom seen in our recent desert experiences.

Stonepipe Wells General Store – thankfully, the cars cleared for a moment for me to get this picture

Sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells
Looking down in Death Valley

We turned around and headed east, climbing out of Death Valley from sea level to over 4,000 feet. Then back down into Panamint Valley (more fuel at Panamint Springs – curse you Elvis and your tiny tank) and up the other side. Out of the two valleys, I think that Panamint was my favourite, although both were desolate and beautiful in their own ways, the high mountains around Panamint brought a pleasing aesthetic to the place – it also feels like the forgotten sister of Death Valley and I do like to cheer for the underdog.

Panamint Valley, again

As we climbed the mountains, up winding bends, with the occasional stop to take a picture of this beautiful place, we found a viewpoint called Padre Cowley Point, this looked back towards Panamint Valley and was very pretty. As Gary was taking a photo an F18 appeared, zooming through the canyon, providing quite the sight for everyone. I suspect this might be a regular thing as, further on, there were a number of cars parked overlooking the canyon and then, later, we saw two more F18s flying towards the canyon. The aircraft nerd in our group was quite excited.

Padre Cowley Point and Rainbow Canyon

The next valley was Owens Valley, bordered by the Sierra Nevada mountains, another desolate valley towards the southern end, including the remains of a lake which was once 300 feet deep, and as recently as 100 years ago, around 25-59 feet deep. We could see evidence of the attempts to restore the lake from the dryness, caused by man’s intervention which had dried up the lake to provide water for Los Angeles in the early 20th century.

Highway 136, near Lone Pine, looking towards the Sierra Nevada Mountains

Lunch was at a diner in Lone Pine where we had views of Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.

The sun was high and it was hot so we did not hang around too long – we’ve worked out that dressing ourselves in our motorbike gear ie earplugs in, helmet on, jackets done up and gloves on, is much more comfortable in an air conditioned diner than our in the blazing sun. Funny that.

Another fuel stop at a town called Independence and then we continued up the valley. The road was pretty much dead straight, no lovely curves for us at this point and it was gusty which always makes life on a motorbike interesting; I found myself having to lean the bike into the wind a little to counteract the effect.

We took a few more photo stops as we left the valley (curse you also GoPro batteries) and climbed the mountains towards Mammoth Lakes. We had some amazing views behind us of the Sierra Nevada and also to view another lake – this time Crowley Lake.

Crowley Lake

As we climbed, I noticed a significant change in temperature, from super hot to quite cool, the altitude has reached several thousand feet by now and the wind proof layer of my jacket was required.

We arrived at our hotel in Mammoth Lakes around 4pm, by this time the wind had really picked up and it was cold. A trip to the jacuzzi in the hotel was very welcome and helped manage the aches of a very long day. It has been a hard long day of riding but so very rewarding.

Tomorrow we explore Yosemite National Park, I am hoping to see a bear, from afar. Apparently, it’s going to snow tonight, near where we are… waking up tomorrow would be bringing a considerable cooler day than today!

3 thoughts on “USA 2016 – Day 7 – Ridgecrest to Death Valley to Mammoth Lakes

  1. Peter Andrew 13/09/2016 / 8:20 am

    Look out for Yosemite Sam


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