Death Valley Panamint Springs multi-day dual sport ride (day 1)

Salt Creek on Westside road
Bike parked at Salt Creek on Westside Road on return path through Furnace Creek

Death Valley is a great location for dual sport riding.  I visited the area again with another rider Randy Campbell, both having Suzuki DRZ-400S bikes, and both with higher performance carb jets installed and the 3x3 air box modifications.  To get enough range, we also both carried a 1.75 gallon Rotopax gas tank mounted on the rear rack, giving us a reach of about 180 miles.  What follows is a trip report of the rides we took out of Panamint Springs, along with route descriptions and GPS tracks that you can download for each of the 3 days of riding, each on a separate page.

Panamint Springs camp siteWe stayed at a private campground at Panamint Springs, using it as our base for 3 days of riding, being convenient with a small store, restaurant, and gas station nearby.  The campground is fairly clean with flush toilets and showers, which can be nice after a dusty day of riding.  Temperatures here during the shoulder season and winter are also relatively pleasant in comparison to that in Owens Valley or other higher mountainous terrain.  Getting in to the campground the night before, trailering them from Sacramento, we started the first ride the next morning by 9AM after a camp breakfast.  You can see a photo of the trailered bikes at the campsite here to the right.

It was also interesting to note that some other adventure riders were staying at a couple of other campsites nearby.  One group on a F800GS and 1200GS were from central Oregon, but were not too talkative when I stopped by to chat. Another group on a KTM 950 and older BMW 650GS were from Victoria, Canada. The Canadians ended up going over Hunter Pass to the Racetrack the previous day, but avoided Lippencott Pass out of concern of its reported difficulty.  They mentioned V-Strom1000 rider that crashed out there recently, ending up with some signficant damage to his bike.  They planned on avoiding the cold of the mountains when heading back to Victoria, by first taking a southwesterly route and across California at Bakersfield to the coast around Pismo Beach, and then heading north on the PCH all the way north, and potentially heading back inland by Oregon depending on rain.

Day 1 ride (180 miles):
Panamint Springs - Ballarat - Barker Ranch - Mengel Pass - Westside road - Furnace Creek  loop

Charles MansonThis is a loop ride from Panamint Springs with the southern reach at Barker Ranch, and abandoned ranch and hideout of infamous psycho killer Charles Manson and his nutball family of followers. In 1969 they went on a killing spree in the Malibu area of LA, in an effort to start a race war.  They were apprehended a few months later by a larger multi-agency contingent of law enforcement after a local sheriff investigating the vandalism of some national park service grading equipment nearby, discovered their hideout.  Charles Manson apparently was found hiding in a cabinet of the bathroom at the Barker Ranch house when captured.  He also convinced his followers that a secret city existed underground in Death Valley near Barker Ranch called the "Bottomless Pit" where they could seek sanctuary during his predicted conflict between the races, as triggered by their killing spree.

With this infamous story in mind, we hit the pavement out of the campground, heading east on Highway 190, taking a right at Panamint Valley road to the south after about 3 miles.  From there we headed south for another 20 miles or so, becoming dirt about half way down, taking a side road to the left to the small ghost town of Ballarat.  After taking a few snapshots, chatting with the care-taker and his old lady, I asked about the route up to Surprise Canyon to the north.  But they indicated it is not passable via motorcycle, and limited to just a hiking trail for the last 5 miles.  The grounds of the area are fairly dilapidated with no facilities to speak off, but they welcome folks that want to camp here, charging you $5/night, including free use of your guns as long you don't point em in their direction.

We then headed off to the south on the (graded dirt) Wingate Road for another 16 miles passing a large active mining operation in the Panamints to our left.  Up to this point, any reasonable vehicle is sufficient.  We then headed up Goler Canyon to the east via Coyote Canyon Road.   The road gets rougher from here, and starts ascending over the Panamint Mountain range.  We started at about 1500 feet and ascend to about 4400 feet by the time we get over Mengel Pass to the east side that drops into Death Valley proper. If you have a bigger adventure bike, you should still be okay up to Barker Ranch, but the going gets rougher further up (more on this later).  Goler Canyon is quite pleasant, with a spring fed creek running through some of it, and a few abandoned mines along the way that can be worth a stop and checking out.  It was also interesting to see a number of wild burros in this canyon and on the other side.  By the end of this ride I must of counted about 20, and it seems like their numbers are multiplying.  Finding Barker Ranch was a bit of hit and miss, exploring a few side roads off to the right, but we finally found it after taking a short spur road signed by the NPS close to the park boundary.

We explored Barker Ranch on foot, checking out a few remaining buildings.  Sadly the main ranch house burned down about 10 years ago, so Barker Ranchwhat remains is not so interesting.  Not to disappoint anyone, but you won't find any Helter-Skelter graffiti in blood on the walls here if that is what you are looking for (see some of the photos).  But, exploring the area was a worthy goal for the dual sports, and a curious legacy location of Californica to see in person.

After lunch, we then saddled up and continued up Goler Canyon to the east, reaching Mengel Pass in about another 4 miles.  As mentioned earlier, the road starts to become trickier, steeper, with deeper ruts, some patches of sand, and a few boulder fields.  Bigger adventure bikes may have difficulty reaching the top or the immediate descent on the other side.  Once at the top, the trail immediately to the east down into Death Valley has a steep and severe boulder field for about 100 feet that probably is the most difficult segment of the ride.  After this spot, it runs out more, but still has some tricky sections.  If you are on a dual sport such as the DRZ-400s and have some reasonable experience, you should be okay.  If you want to do this in a 4wd vehicle, it should be lifted, or may need to spend some time stacking boulders and having a spotter to get thru some of the route. Also, it had rained here about 4 days earlier, so sandier segments of the trail were fairly firm and not too demanding. 

Descending down into a large valley, we stopped at a few additional cabins along the way.  Some of these are used by 4wd campers passing through the area, using them for basic shelter if you don't mind the rodent turds.  The "Geologist Cabin" that has a view of Stripped Butte was in the best condition, being constructed from granite boulders.  We met a couple that were staying at the place that night, already having their bedding and other camp gear spread out inside.  After chatting a bit, we then continued on further to the east for another 25 miles to Westside Road down in Death Valley.  The road at this point is in reasonable condition, with some sandy and rocky sections, with our speed averaging between 15 and 35 mph.

A few miles after reaching the junction with Westside road, the fuel level of our bikes went into reserve (at about 87 miles), triggering a stop and a transfer of fuel from the Rotopax to the main tank.  It is also interesting to note that since we both have the same bikes with similar modifications for carb jetting and the air box, our fuel consumption is quite close, typically with Randy running out of gas about a mile before I do.  The nearest gas at this point was at Furnace Creek, another 45 miles to the north.  The remainder of the way up Westside road was fairly smooth, consisting of graded dirt/rock with some sections of loose gravel and sand.  We were able to pick up the speed for the straighter sections to above 50 mph, but needed to watch the corners due to the looseness of the rock and a few areas that were more wash-boardy.  If you are confident with your power-sliding skills, then this is a good place for that.

Topping off the gas again at Furnace Creek, it was also an opportunity for a much needed break from a long day of riding, having an ice cream at the general store. At this point it was about 5 pm (since leaving camp at 9 am). We then continued back to our camp site at Panamint Springs via the pavement the rest of the way for the next 55 miles, reaching our base after nightfall at about 6:30 pm.  Going over Towne Pass (about 5000 feet) on the way back got quite chilly, forcing a stop to put on the jacket liners and thicker gloves.  Having an open faced helmet was also a bit painful over the pass, but once back down in the Panamint Valley it warmed up again.

In summary I would rate this as one of the better rides of Death Valley, and one that I would recommend to other dual sport riders.  As mentioned earlier, the route overall is more suited for a medium sized dual sport, due to some more technical sections over Mengel Pass, but with some reasonable range and speed for the asphalt sections.  Just be sure to have enough fuel, as it is about 125~130 miles from the gas at Panamint Springs to the next nearest at Furnace Creek via this route.

The KML file of the route for those that want to download it to their GPS can be found here.

Next page (day 2 ride)

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