I have been to Death Valley several times now, at least four times over the last 20 years, but never on a motorcycle. My first trip was in 2001, in a rental Nissan Sentra. And the latest trip was with the family in 2018, in our FJ Cruiser.
Death Valley National Park is home to the longest network of off-road trails in California, easily accessible from the main paved roads. I had been mentally planning this trip for many years and it was finally coming to happen.
Many friends got involved and joined in. Many invited friends of their own and it became a big group quickly. A lot of preparation went into the trip. My friend Shobhit from Seattle even bought a motorcycle specifically for this trip (2015 VStrom 650)! Akshay bought his KTM 990 a few weeks before the trip, Gokul bought an XT250. Edit: Actually Gokul bought a KTM 690 early in 2021, but it had engine issues, so in the last minute he bought another XT250 to make the ride!
After buying motorcycles, people bought gear, accessories, fuel containers, gps units and more. We single handedly bumped up the GDP of California for DV2021. I changed the oil, adjusted the valves and flushed the coolant on my 990. I even rode it about 500 miles after the service to make sure everything was working ok – and it was – until it wasn’t.
The final rider count was 11 – Akshay, Ayon, Bobby, Gokul-small, Gokul-big, Mahesh, Sandeep, Shahab, Shobhit, Sujit and Vijay.
Day 1: March 19th, 2021.
Seven of us: Akshay (KTM 990), Bobby (Ducati Scrambler), Shobhit (Suzuki VStrom 650), Sandeep (Honda Africa Twin), Ayon (BMW R1200GS), Mahesh (Honda NC700X) and me (KTM 990) left the Bay Area riding south for Death Valley. The winter of 2020 was one of the driest on record and it had not rained in about 2 months. But as luck would have it, on March 19th 2021, it started raining as we rode down on the first day.
Vijay trailered his Honda Monkey to Death Valley and brought along his brother Vikram, cousin Ravi and neighbor Salmaan. These were the “Sherpas” who carried a whole bunch of gear, a cooking stove and other supplies. They cooked some fabulous meals, including a goat curry. The sherpas, enroute in Salmaan’s Jeep:
Sandeep’s friend Shahab got his KTM 500EXC in his Honda Ridgeline truck. Gokul-big brought his Honda CRF450L in his Ford Ranger while Gokul-small got his Yamaha XT250 in a Jeep Gladiator.
Our first stop for the day was in Hollister, where we gassed up and decided to ride down Highway 25.
As we started down Highway 25, about 10 miles in, Shobhit pulls over in an emergency maneuver. It turns out that he lost his shifter linkage. He had adjusted the linkage the night before, raising up the shifter to accommodate his large MX boots. He probably did not tighten it down enough, so the linkage fell off and the bike could not be ridden easily. At first we tried looking for the linkage on the road, but quickly realized that a small piece of metal, probably 6mm in diameter is going to be very hard to find. Shobhit called all the Suzuki dealers nearby, none of them had one in stock. So we decided to head back into Hollister and “make” a shifter linkage using an M6 bolt. As Shobhit rode his bike back to Hollister, he had to “ride the clutch” as he was not shifting. He was running the bike in 6th gear, from a start.
Anyway, we get to Hollister, it is raining and Bobby is getting impatient and restless because he has work call he needs to get on. He is also wearing mostly mesh gear and has gotten soaking wet. In what appeared to be his frustration, he decides to part ways with us, and head back home. That was the first of many casualties on this trip. Seven Down To Six.
With the rain coming down on us, we worked outside the Ace Hardware in Hollister, trying to fix the bike. They folks at the hardware store cut the bolts to various lengths to make it fit, and we JB welded the other end.
We got some nice hot lunch from Wong’s Chinese Restaurant next to the Ace and with the bike apparently fixed, we decided to press on.
In about a mile from there, Shobhit realized that his clutch was slipping – badly. He could basically put the bike in gear while it was not moving and let the clutch out without the engine cutting out. Revving the bike was getting only about 10% of the power to the wheels, so the clutch was definitely fried. Second casualty of the day – Six Down To Five.
At this point we were discussing what possible next steps would be. One idea was to head back to San Jose and Shobhit would ride Ayon’s CRF250L Rally. Somehow Ayon was not in favor of that – tensions were running high and patience was low. In the end I suggested Shobhit rent a car from Enterprise in Hollister and drive down to Death Valley. The only car they had was a minivan, but at least they had something that Shobhit could use. He drove the rest of the way down to Death Valley.
The remaining 5 of us, started to make our way to DV. It was already pretty late and we’d probably wasted 6 hours on this breakdown. We rode down I-5 to get there as quickly as possible.
Somewhere along the way Mahesh broke off from the rest of us – but coincidentally, he met us back at the Shell gas station in California City. At this point it was late at night and dark. The roads out there in the desert are even darker and rest of the ride was a bit scary. I spoke to Vijay over the phone and he mentioned that the winds were blowing strong there with a lot of sand in the air.
The two Gokuls rode up to Trona Pinnacles on their way in. They took some great pictures.
From California City, we took Redrock Randsburg Road to Hwy 395 and Searles Station Cutoff to Hwy 178. Both roads are completely desolate with no signs of life anywhere nearby. As I was riding Redrock Randsburg Road, my KTM 990 started to act up. The electricals started to fluctuate erratically. The tachometer was bouncing all over the place and the speedometer was going crazy, fluctuating between 0 and 140mph.
The bike itself was running fine. I had turned on my heated grips and was using my much needed fog lights. The fog lights worked well and guided us on this desolate piece of road at night. While the engine was running fine, I was in a desperate mode of panic. I didn’t want to be stranded in the middle of the desert with a non-running bike. I could feel the bike was cutting out at low rpms, so I was giving it a good rev every now and then. I was also keeping it revved up, clutch in, on all turns and sharp corners. The cross-winds were strong and a lot of sand was getting blown around.
Anyway, by a stroke of luck, and the grace of God, we made it to Stovepipe Wells 🙂
We came in right at midnight, having started at about 8am that day. Right as we were turning into the hotel, I didn’t rev the bike very much and it died right there, 50 feet from my hotel room. Yes, some things worked out better than others, now Five Down To Four. The bike never cranked again, it was totally dead electrically. But I was relieved. I had made it over the dark and dangerous roads to our safe hotel – where we had several folks to help us fix the bike.
We had some pizza that night, a little bit of scotch and called it a night. Shobhit had made it to the hotel about 30 minutes ahead of us. It was quite an adventurous day.
Day 2: March 20th, 2021.
I got up relatively early on Day-2 and immediately went to look at the bike. I dropped the skid plate and looked at the battery. I was hoping that one of the terminals had come loose, but the connections were good. I borrowed a voltmeter from a guy on a KLR and the battery read 0V. Strange, how could the battery be completely dead? It should still read a few volts, I thought. Next another guy came out to help me – it turns out this guy is a mechanic and runs an auto-shop in Fremont, what a small world! Anyway, he brings along a battery pack and we try to start the bike, but it only cranks weakly. He calls his brother, gets another battery pack and connects them in parallel. That was sufficient juice to start the bike and it runs! It idles nicely but when we measured the voltage at the battery it was under 12V. We then concluded that the alternator was probably bust and was not charging the battery. I was disappointed at that point – thinking I could drive out of the park and pick up a replacement battery – but that would be of no use if the alternator was not charging the battery. Game over, really.
With Shobhit and I not able to ride, we decided to rent a Jeep at Farabee’s Jeep Rental and Tours. This meant we could at least stay with the larger group as we explored DV off-road. So we drove out to Furnace Creek in the morning and rented this tricked out Jeep Wrangler.
The first (and only) off-road trip of the day was through Titus Canyon. We assembled at the start of the Nevada-side entrance to the canyon and the Jeep was trailing behind the 7 bikes. Vijay had decided to go ahead and meet up with other folks and ride Titus separately.
I had driven Titus Canyon in my FJ Cruiser earlier, so this was not really new. Shobhit and I served as the “sweep” vehicle for the 26 mile trip, picking up bikes as they dropped. First was Mahesh, he had a small tip over in deep gravel, then Sandeep had a spill in the rocky terrain descending Red Pass, and finally Ayon had a fall on the gravel deep inside Titus canyon. Thankfully all the incidents were minor and nobody got hurt. Corralling such a large group turned out to be difficult and we stopped numerous times for pictures and breaks.
Gokul/big took some great pictures.
A lot of funny business.
Anyway, we exited Titus Canyon after about 4 hours there and it was already mid afternoon. Some of decided to go out to Ubehebe crater, where we drove a little off-road. Gokul-small decided to head home, we helped him load his bike into his truck. Gokul-big and Shahab rode out to Teakettle, but they didn’t ride all the way.
Vijay was the only one who actually made it to the Teakettle Junction on his Honda Monkey. After all this, turns out the smallest 125cc bike was the one that made it the furthest.
Shortly thereafter Shobhit and I returned the Jeep and made it back to the hotel. We all gathered for some much needed beer and food. Here is a picture of all us at the dinner that night:
While we were drinking that night, a group or Brazilian riders came by our table. Among them was the same guy who had tried to help me get my bike started in the morning. It turns out that one of the riders in their group had had an accident and they were looking for someone to ride his VStrom 650 from Death Valley back to the Bay Area. This worked out well for them and for me, as I took them up on their offer. The injured rider would drive back with Shobhit in the minivan.
Day 3: March 21st, 2021.
The ride back from DV to the Bay Area was mostly uneventful. I was riding the VStrom 650 which I enjoyed. I was amazed that the bike could easily touch 100mph and sustain that speed for a long time. Ayon and Akshay broke off at Tehachapi. They retraced their route so that they could ride Hwy 178. Having ridden that highway a few times before, I was not interested, and I was generally frustrated with the whole situation. I pressed on, and rode Hwy 33 to 198 to 25 – which made it a little interesting. I got home, solo, in good time, while Vijay was gracious enough to trailer my broken bike back. I picked up the bike from him in a few days.
The Brazilian group and Shobhit stopped by the Enterprise in Hollister and brought his bike back in a truck. Eventually we all got back home in one piece, all 11 of us, so things did work out well. A few broken bikes and some lingering resentment, but that wore off pretty quickly. As Valmik’s teacher says, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset”.
A few days after getting back my bike, I bought a new Yuasa battery, put it in and the bike fired right up. Maybe the battery was old (probably 5+ years) or faulty, but it left me a little nervous about the bike. So that concludes this ride report, my first “failed” ride of the last decade. Not bad a record I guess, but made for good memories.
Maybe I will go back to Death Valley again next year!