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Old 03-04-2016, 02:20 PM   #1
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Autumn in the Valley

Tad Hetu

Death Valley may look intimidating, but riding in the fall is the way to take it on.

Death Valley was our riding destination. But a sun-baked desert overrun with scorpions, rattle- snakes and European tourists didn’t automatically rise to the top of our list; we had to convince ourselves that the Valley’s stark bounty of towering mountains, colored vistas and barren salt flats, along with the promise of warm weather once we got there, would be worth it. And since we were heading out in mid-autumn, we didn’t relish the idea of riding through nasty weather the entire way without some offsetting climate reward at the other end. And so, Death Valley (or DV) it was.

Tad Hetu

The rusted remains of some cars can be seen scattered about the valley roads.

Remember the Boy Scout Motto

Of course you can go to DV whenever you want. Ride out in the summer and you will be guaranteed a pleasant trip en route, though you’ll probably cringe once you get there; summer temps can often hit 120 degrees. Head out in the winter and DV offers a perfect cold-weather getaway, with 75-degree days in the basin, though you’ll probably want to shoot yourself before you get there, after riding for days through rain, snow and bone-chilling cold. You don’t have to be the sharpest tool in the shed to figure out that you should split the difference and go in the fall. sure, we’d probably run through some nasty weather, but once we were there, the chances were less than 50/50 that we’d succumb to heatstroke. Of course, the impending weather extremes presented their own set of challenges; we’d have to prepare for everything from sub-freezing cold to possible 100+ degree temps.

Tad Hetu

Have the appropriate gear on hand for the various temperatures that you might experience.

The gear that paid off for me was a convertible jacket with zip-off panels that allowed it to become mesh summer apparel (like having two jackets in one), heated gloves and a heated jacket liner. the heated gear functioned just like regular gloves and liner on mild days, but on cold mornings and in higher mountain passes, I could just dial up the heat to my desired level to stay comfortable. You might think that unless you’re heading out in the dead of winter you don’t need the extra warmth, but remember that at 60 mph on a 40-degree morning, the wind chill makes the external temperature equivalent to 25 degrees...cold enough to have you longing for a hot cup of coffee before you make it very far down the road. The heated gear kept me nice and toasty, while my unheated buddies were usually begging for a cafe? stop over our connected CB system the whole way.

Tad Hetu

Altitude can fluctuate very quickly near Death Valley, but it makes for a fun ride.

Tad Hetu

Like the terrain, the weather and temperature can change quickly.

Misty Mountain Hop

No matter what route we chose to go south, we knew we’d face extremes in weather and altitude. We had four mountain ranges to traverse between Portland and DV: the Cascade Mountains, the Siskiyous, the Sierra Nevada and the Panamint Mountain range. We choose to avoid crossing the Cascades on the run down, instead jumping over the Siskiyou mountains further south. We timed it so that we’d be traversing the passes in late afternoon, to minimize the chance of encountering morning frost. After a night in Yreka, we headed over the Sierra Nevada range via California 89 near Mt. Shasta and made a brief stop at Burney Falls State Park to take in the sights. Now we were on the east side of the mountains, on Highway 395, and what a beautiful route it was! The Sierra Nevadas were dusted with the first snow of the season, and as we rode by in the morning, they sparkled in the sunrise. Each morning ride was cold, too—usually around 30-40 degrees—but by afternoon, the temperatures would warm up considerably, and we were lucky at dodging thunderstorms, with only an occasional use of our rain gear.

Tad Hetu

You may need to take multiple trips to DV just to see the variety of diverse scenery that branches off the 395.

Along the way, we were constantly tempted by the many roads leading off 395. Sign after sign indicated alluring side trips: the Alabama Hills and Movie Flat (where many an old western flick had been filmed), Big Pine Canyon and Glacier Lodge, the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest with the oldest living trees in the world, and more. Alas, most of these would have to wait for another adventure, but we did succumb to a few. While pulled over for a short break at Conway Summit, we couldn’t help but notice an enticing, well-paved road headed up into vast stands of aspen turning color for the fall. Already at 8,100 feet of elevation, but encouraged by our luck at missing storms, we took off for a couple of hours on a road that pointed straight up into the Sierra Nevada range. We followed it as far as we could, till we ran into more snow than pavement. By that time we were at Virginia Lakes, elevation 9,600 feet. The aspen were golden, the mountains white, the air chilly, and the snow piled high around us.

Tad Hetu

If you are riding through a National Park be sure to make reservations for hotels ahead of time just in case you run a little late like we did.

Of course, we dallied too long and didn’t hit the outskirts of DV and our motel at Stovepipe Wells until well after dark. Fortunately we had made reservations (always a good idea in a National Park), so all we had to do was check in, get dinner at the only place around, and enjoy a cold one while soaking up the 85-degree desert ambiance—at eleven o’clock at night!

Tad Hetu

Riding on four wheels for a change.

Jeeping it up

DV was hot, but not as hot as we expected. The park was still experiencing a cold snap at the time, and daytime temps only peaked at 97 degrees. Still, like the ubiquitous local lizards, we mostly stayed out of the sun in the afternoons, choosing instead to bask in the cool sunrises and post-sunset parts of the day. We also wanted to explore some of Death Valley’s impressive back country (only reachable via unimproved roads), so for a day we parked our bikes and rented a Jeep. You can rent right in DV by the hour or by the day and believe me, you wouldn’t want to take your loaded touring bike in places we took that jeep. The Jeep guy even let us park our bikes at his rental facility and return the Jeep after hours. For a full day we explored back country roads, deep-walled slot canyons and old ghost towns like Leadfield, a burg that had 300 people arrive in August of 1926 for a mining boom, only to go bust and become empty and dead by February of ’27.

Tad Hetu

Although a fall ride presented many challenges, it also showcased nature's complexity.

For our return trip to the Northwest, we had planned on running up the east side of the park into north-central Nevada, but the beauty of the Sierra Nevada proved too compelling. We exited the park to the west and once again jumped on Highway 395 heading north, but this time we stuck to the east side into Eastern Oregon, crossing that fourth mountain range, the Cascade Mountains, into Portland.

As with many riding groups, most of our rides end up being during the summer. The weather is more consistent, the roads dry, and the environment predictable. This fall ride presented many challenges in its extremes: temperatures ranged from below freezing to over 100 degrees and altitudes went from 9,600 feet to sea level. Nothing was predictable, but we found the unsettled weather also created plenty of interest. The skies were constantly in a state of active drama, the landscape was mottled with patches of sun and shadows, and dodging the thunderstorms created its own sport. The big takeaway from our exhilarating autumn road trip? You need to prepare for anything and everything. But it’s worth it.

Tad Hetu

For even more info check out our Road Notes

Road Notes

Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway

Burney Falls State Park

Death Valley National Park

Leadfield Ghost Town

Farabee's Jeep Rentals

Read the back-story around this trip and the day-by-day blog:

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