Exploring Death Valley

It’s predictably at this point every year that winter brings up the same old feeling: a need to get out and ride. It’s no secret that the last two years haven’t made it easy, or even possible, to escape winter’s wrath.

In a past life, I have been lucky enough to find two-wheeled therapy in Laos, Philippines, South Africa, Jordan, and more. The warm feel of tropical air through my helmet on a February day is as etched into my brain as the swabs now necessary to get out of the country.

Opportunity came knocking in the form of work which required me to fly to California for a film project in Death Valley. It’s a place I’ve longed to see for years, so I figured I had to turn this into a moto-trip.

I arranged a 2021 BMW F850GS Adventure that would prove a worthy companion for the 1600+ km trip over five days. Starting in Los Angeles, I’d be heading north-east to Death Valley and camp my way through lesser-seen parts of the massive National Park.

An unseasonably warm winter day in LA had me perspiring before I even got kitted up in my adventure-touring gear. The acrobatics required to get my vertically challenged leg up and over the GSA had me dripping with sweat.

I would have a bit of a convoy that had me nicely sandwiched (and protected) between two other vehicles doing the same trip for business/pleasure purposes. The downside to this, was facing late-day LA traffic trying to leave the city. Watching all the other motorcycles lane-splitting to happiness while staying with my four-wheeled team had me like a child longingly looking out the window during summer school.

At long last, we finally made our way to the edge of Death Valley to a spot called “Alabama Hills”. This is a stunning location of rounded boulders at the base of the Sierra Nevada peaks. It’s land designated under the BLM (Bureau of Land Management Dept.) similar to Crown Land here in Canada which allows access for recreational activities and even dispersed camping in designated spots. This would be the first of several dispersed campsites we would make over our trip which rewarded us for trekking off the beaten path into 4×4-only territory. Or, 1×2 in my case.

Even after the sunset, this spot kept showing off. The cloudless sky and nearly full moon lit up the valley, reflecting off the snow-capped peaks in the background. Not a sound to be heard anywhere and our nearest neighbours were a mere pixel sized light down in the valley. The spot made such an impact we decided to spend an extra day there before moving on into Death Valley National Park.

When the sun broke on the third day, most of us were already up and out of our tents to witness the sunrise. This also made for a very early camp-break allowing us to hit the road early. We needed it, as the drive was longer and more challenging to access a more remote part of Death Valley called “Racetrack Playa”. The Playa is a dry lakebed named for its large oval shape and a rock island called “The Grandstand”.

We stopped in Lone Pine to buy up more provisions and made our way to Stovepipe Wells where I was able to buy myself a well-needed shower. Dispersed camping means there are zero facilities available unless you bring them, and in the lowest, hottest, and driest spot on the continent, water and showers are not easy to come by.

The roads were in good condition until approximately 50 km from the playa. At this point the road turned into a loose, jagged gravel with occasional sandy swaths to keep you on your toes. This is when my intensity grew. Being impossibly far from cell service while riding a brand-new bike that wasn’t mine certainly kept my attention. I was focused on the road ahead like an astronaut navigating a meteor shower. The endless washboard rattled the bike mercilessly until the road straightened out and I could be confident enough to open up the throttle to reach more respectable speeds.

Of course, physics and the BMW’s suspension being what they were, I continually left my Jeep counterparts behind in my massive cloud of dust. My off-roading experience in recent years has been a feather-light two-stroke trail bike which is far more confidence inspiring. Manhandling a 500+ pound bike across challenging foreign terrain had me dripping with sweat, even more so. I know that with training and time, big(ger) bikes like these (and larger) can be very comfortable, but it can be intimidating at first.

Finally, the Playa came into sight but as the light was dying, so we decided to make camp and explore it when the sun came up the next day. One of the appealing aspects of moto-travel here is that it’s a very dry place regardless of season so you can usually bet on clear skies just about any day of the year.

Due to the higher altitude, the night was a cold one and nearly dipped down to the freezing mark. We huddled around the camp burner in the morning as tea and coffee were made, and eagerly waited for the sun to clear the surrounding mountains and warm the air. We took in the sights of the Playa and the mysterious moving rocks (spoiler: it’s the ice that does it) and then faced down the same 50 km road back out to pavement to access the other frontiers of the Death Valley.

That little bit of experience from the day before left me energized, positive and confident. As a result, the ride out was much more pleasant (and faster), and we now set our sites on getting to the southern tier of the park to enjoy the Ibex Dunes. The size of the park becomes evident when you plug in a point on a GPS and see the estimated travel time. This is the biggest national park outside of Alaska. We’d once again refuel and collect more provisions while passing Furnace Creek. Filling up at over $7.00 US/ gallon stung but luckily the GS is capable of 400 km/tank under normal riding conditions (read: not off-road).

That day’s route would include another 45 km section which was predominantly sand. The big GS and its stock knobbies did quite well in the terrain however and despite a few pucker moments (blame the rider), the bike once again, got me to the destination regardless of what was thrown at it. We made such good time, in fact, that we were all able to make camp and hike out to the Ibex Dunes themselves for a miraculous sunset.

Morning brought with it an unpleasant surprise – one of our team vehicles wouldn’t start. I won’t name names, but needless to say, it ended with “eep”. The battery was so discharged that we had to wait hours to condition it back to a point where it would start. This deeply hampered our plans for the last full day so we set off to make up the miles as soon as we were able.

Running north we eventually crossed into Nevada where we were able to resupply one last time in the small town of Beatty. This lined us up for our grand finale: Titus Canyon. A 49 km path which climbs up through colourful mountains along sharp switchbacks, past petroglyphs and ghost towns until culminating at a breathtaking narrow canyon leaving less than 20 ft. across for vehicles to fit through. A one-way policy ensures no “log jams” of people traversing though we didn’t see another soul on our journey.

The bike and I had done it, I thought. As I reached the main road with the last sliver of daylight and cruised out to make camp one last time, I had no idea that the worst conditions were still to come.

On the last morning we awoke to a breeze coming down off the surrounding mountains and even below sea level, it was chilly. We packed up, had one last look at the scenery and headed out toward Los Angeles. By the time we climbed back up 4,000 feet to leave the park, the temperatures were down to single digits and the wind was picking up. By the time we hit the town of Mojave, it was down to 3 degrees and ice pellets were flying sideways!

The riding gear I had been cursing just days earlier for not having enough zips and vents to keep me from making body-soup was now my best friend. And oh, those fabulous heated grips. I was water-tight and warm as I rode the straight roads at highway speed and a 45-degree lean to battle the ferocious wind. The hours-long ride put us back in LA just as afternoon traffic was building. After just a few days of serenity out in the expansive wilderness it was odd to see and hear so many people.

While it can be beautiful and calming, embarking on such a trip requires planning and respect, as the terrain, temperature, aridity, and emptiness can all lead to it being very aptly named: Death Valley.

Gearing Up:

Alpinestars Mowat Drystar Jacket and Pants – This is a special edition collaboration with El Solitaro to design a 100 percent waterproof adventure combo. The jacket is filled with vents and zips to keep the air flowing when the going gets hot, however I was a little let down by the pants which were rather limited and caused quite a sweaty basement, if you know what I mean. However, when the weather became quite cold and very wet is when I really noticed the effectiveness. After hours of pouring rain, I was bone dry. Luckily I can’t speak to the effectiveness of its abrasion and impact protection, but rode on and off-road with confidence it was there if I needed it.

Alpinestars Corozal Adventure Drystar Boots – What I love about this (and other Alpinestar Adventure boots, like the Toucan) is their ability to inspire confidence and provide 100 percent waterproofing, but to also be a “usable” boot off the bike too. You don’t have to walk around like a storm trooper as you would with a more MX geared boot, yet are not really giving up any protection. You have the shin and ankle support you need without being crippled to walk into a restaurant or pay for gas. Even the tread is conducive to small “walkabouts” to scout a camp spot etc.


  1. Nice. I drove out to Vegas and back from LA in 2017, and while I did rent a bike and do some riding around the Hollywood hills, Malibu, etc, I didn’t take the bike out there. I was there in February and lucked out on really nice weather in LA and all the way to Vegas and back the next day, so it would have been perfect for riding.
    I don’t want to do Death Valley on a motorcycle in the summer. Or even in a car, for that matter.

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