Yosemite, Death Valley, Tahoe, and Lassen Volcanic

Early September rides are becoming a tradition. It’s a perfect time of year when it’s still mostly sunny, warm enough for lightweight gear, but there is a little bit of fall in the air as leaves begin to change color. This year, I got in a ride with a couple of buddies that featured some of the best riding that the Sierra Nevada Mountains and surrounding country have to offer.


Planning

On the heels of a great September ride last year, my buddy Greg and I started talking about a similar ride in 2017. Greg was keen on seeing Death Valley, and I had never been to Yosemite before. These two national parks are basically adjacent, and any national park makes for a great ride.

Mapping potential routes before distance and time realities took effect

We met to talk about routes, and found that a Yosemite and Death Valley ride could easily be extended north, into the Sierra Nevada mountains. Everything from desert to mountain riding was an option.

We opted to stay to the west, as the mountains and rivers and lakes provide great variety in roads and scenery. This meant we’d see Lake Tahoe, the Lassen Volcanic National Park (another NP!), Crater Lake (another NP!), and more. It was looking like an amazing ride that could be done comfortably in two weeks. The name of the online route map that we collaborated on was, “Death Valley and Beyond.”

They did a good, but not great, job of transporting our bikes to CA.

The big problem: we only had a week. Work is very busy for me right now, and I couldn’t get away long enough to do this kind of loop. So we made a decision to ship the bikes, something neither of us had done before. Despite my reservations, I shopped and found Federal Motorcycle Transport. They were just okay. Not linking to them because I can’t give them a full recommendation. They were on time with pickup and delivery, but one of my turn signals had been dislodged during unloading, they’re just a shell for regional carriers, and they used the luggage on the bikes to move them around (something a serious bike shipper would never do).

Our flight landed in Sacramento mid-afternoon, and we Lyfted to the shop to collect our bikes.

Both my R1200GS and Greg’s R1200RT were delivered to A & S Motorcycles in Roseville, California. They get an enthusiastic recommendation! They received the bikes, fixed the turn signal, trickle-charged them, checked our tire pressure, and stored them inside! They only charge an hour of service for this. Best of all, the people there really love riding. They aren’t just there to sell bikes and gear — they are excited to support riders on adventures like ours. Their collection of vintage BMWs is cool, too.

We stayed in Roseville that night at the Best Western Plus Orchid Hotel & Suites. Its standard fare for an interstate hotel. There was no charge for the cockroach on my pillow. Nor was there a charge for two drinks at their depressing bar, which is a pair of converted hotel rooms in a dim back courtyard. Dinner at a Belgian-influenced brewery/restaurant called The Monk’s Cellar was great, and gets a recommendation.

Later that evening, our third rider showed up: Walter on his R1200RT! Walter and I have done may rides together, including Europe last year and a Giant Redwoods ride before that. Walter lives in San Francisco now, and rode over after work to join us for a couple of days.


Day 1: Yosemite National Park (353 miles)

Waking up in Roseville marked the official beginning of our ride. Heading south on CA-49 took us directly into wine country. Starting a ride off on twisty roads under California sunny skies was ideal.

With Walter along, it was guaranteed that we’d take some pleasantly unexpected detours. The first one happened early: a detour to Columbia, a preserved, working old-west town. It’s a fantastic place with a working blacksmith, a few restaurants, and an interesting museum.

While we had coffee at a local shop, we decided to have sandwiches wrapped up to go, hoping to find a scenic spot in Yosemite for lunch. We rode into the hills toward the park and encountered a lot of wildfire smoke, which persisted for the rest of the day.

Unfortunately, the smoke occluded many of the spectacular views in Yosemite Valley, but it was still a beautiful place to ride:

Lunch was on the banks of the Merced River on the valley floor. It was not a bad spot at all!

Except for the smoke, this was about as nice a picnic lunch as one could imagine. It seemed like the perfect warm day as we rode out of the valley and began our ascent toward Tioga Pass. As we climbed, things turned quickly: clouds rolled in, on/off drizzle began, and before long we were riding through a full on downpour of cold rain and eventually hail. It broke on our descent, and we got some nice views when we stopped for coffee to warm up.

Our destination that night was Independence, CA at the Mt. Williamson Motel and Base Camp. This was by far the neatest place we stayed. Each guest gets a small cabin, which is furnished like being at home. The folks that run the motel also help hikers with resupply. They’re really into the outdoors, and it shows by how much they love talking to guests and sharing the stories of how they pick up hikers, have their pre-shipped resupplies ready, and get them back on their hikes.

Our first full day of riding ended with bugs on the visor, and bikes parked in front of cabins. We dined at the Still Life Cafe in town, which was superb. Great burgers and salads, and a friendly dog named Carlos who greets every party and continually makes the rounds to tables while dinner is prepared.


Day 2: Death Valley (303 miles)

Breakfast at the Mt. Williamson Motel isn’t like the industrial buffets at a chain. Very nice local folks ask you how you want your eggs, and serve you in their dining room with homemade jam on the toast.

Sadly, duty called Walter back to work, so we only got a few morning miles in before he headed west and Greg and I rode east. The sunrise on the Sierra Nevadas was beautiful as we packed the panniers up.

Walter ducked into the Manzanar Relocation Camp on his way back, and it looks like a very interesting and humbling place to visit. Meanwhile, Greg and I rode east toward legendary Death Valley.

Death Valley is a place to be taken seriously. It’s one of the hottest places on earth. For decades, the park was closed during summer due to people hiking in, unprepared, and perishing. It’s also the lowest point in North America, bottoming out at 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin. The valley has a nasty reputation for overheating engines and stranding tourists. Highway signs implore you to turn off your car’s air conditioning to prevent overheating. There is comparatively little life there, though we did see an unhappy coyote. The ambient temperature and negative elevation reading from the screen on my GPS tells the story of this place:

Riding in was really fun. The road dips and crests across the terrain in stretches called “rollercoasters.” They’re fun on bikes. But the green scrub-land starts to quickly change as you hit the canyons that carry you down to the valley floor. Everything dries up and looks lifeless. It begins to feel otherworldly…

If you look closely at that last photo, you’ll notice a jet fighter showing its belly during a practice strafing run. This happened a few times and I got just a bit of video, along with the changes in rock as you drop elevation.

The valley floor is a strange place. There’s a combination National Park facility to pay entry fees and tourist snack and souvenir stop where we paused to hydrate. Every other group there was international: France, Spain, Australia, Germany, Italy and more. It was fun to talk to people who were excited — and frightened — to see that we were riding motorcycles beyond that point. We had evaporative cooling vests on (credit to Greg) that helped cool a bit, but in 115° heat, it only goes so far. Opening a visor usually helps cool your helmet with airflow; not in Death Valley. It’s a blast of furnace-hot air that forces you to ride visor-down.

There was no stopping here, as it was almost spooky. Very few people pass by on the road, and almost nobody gets out of their car in the afternoon heat. We kept riding until we ascended the far hills, exited the park, and hit Death Valley Junction.

We had another 150 miles of riding to get to Tonopah, NV for our next night’s accommodations. The ride up took us through some towns that had seen better days. The desert country is a largely conservative place. We were far from the Seattle.

It was good to have a pool at our hotel that night. After riding through Death Valley, a cool swim was perfect.


Day 3: Lake Tahoe (359 Miles)

As we were loading up the bikes after breakfast, an enthusiastic local rider approached us to talk about the bikes and where we were riding. He was touring around in a car with his wife, but spent a lot of time on a motorcycle in the area. As we told him about our planned route, he suggested heading further west and riding up through the Mono Lake Tufa area instead of more desert directly to the north, as we had planned. We didn’t take much convincing, and an hour later we were pleasantly off of our planned course.

Those mountains marked our climb back west, heading up toward Lake Tahoe. If you ever ride this route, you’ll be temped to stop in to a local café called Benton Station. It’s a converted gas station that looks like a great place for riders to stop. But… don’t. Do yourself a favor and avoid the angry wait staff and bad food.

The stretch of CA-120 (Mono Lake Basin Rd) around Mono Lake and Paoha Island were spectacular. This video can’t do it justice. As usual, the local recommendations trump any planned routes.

About this time, I was getting frequent texts from home about thunderstorms in the Tahoe area where we were headed. Not just a chance of a passing storm, but “SEVERE LIGHTNING — PENNY SIZED HAIL — TAKE COVER INDOORS” type of alerts. About 30 minutes out of Tahoe, in 80° sunshine, I geared up in full rain slicks. Sure enough, it hammered down on us. We got into South Tahoe in a downpour with near-constant thunder cracking. We took shelter in a pub while it blew over.

What should have been a picturesque ride up the west short of Lake Tahoe was a cold, cloudy, trafficked slog to the next hotel in Quincy, CA.

Any motorcyclist who has endured a stretch of unexpectedly cold, wet, dark riding know what a joy it is to see blue skies and sunshine appear on the horizon. This was that moment of joy, about half an hour out at the end of day three.

We stayed in Quincy, CA at the Ranchito Motel, which was perfectly nice for riders and quite economical. Not knowing that a the very nice town on Quincy was still a mile and a half down the road, we walked to get dinner nearby as places were closing. Bad Chinese to-go was our only option, but we were tired anyway and the cold beer tasted good as we drank it on our cabins’ front porch.


Day 4: Lassen Volcanic National Park (296 miles)

Morning in Quincy brought blue skies, warmer temperatures, and really clean mountain air. We rode into town to find it full of great places to get coffee, food, and fuel. Greg picked a place called Morning Thunder Café, which turned out to be the best breakfast of the trip. Thunder Café was full of other motorcyclists (including a pack from our motel), and they had great coffee and traditional breakfast fare. If you make it to Morning Thunder, have the signature “TC Egg” dish: ham, avacado, egg, and melted swiss over a toasted bagel.

Our next stop was the Lassen Volcanic National Park, an incredible dormant volcano that has left a series of calderas across the landscape. Lakes have formed in some, and the views throughout the park are exceptional. CA-89 winds through it slowly, like a motorcyclist’s dream.

If you visit Lassen, have a few hours blocked to really take it in. Hike if you can, and keep your camera ready for the vistas that appear around every curve in the road.

About an hour north of the park, we stopped for lunch at a place with hitching posts. As we dropped our kickstands, two other patrons asked us to move a bit so that they could hitch their horses to the posts. That’s not something that happens every day back home!

Our goal for the day was to get north back into Oregon, close enough to Crater Lake that we could beat the traffic the following morning. As we rolled into Fort Klamath, OR for the night, I got a call that one of the kids had gotten sick at home and it’d be great if I could get back early to help out. So we had a quick dinner and got to sleep early so that I could head back to Seattle at sun-up.


Day 5: Back to Seattle (441 miles)

Since I needed to get home early, I got up around 04:30 and was on the road at 05:00. Sunrise was at 06:15 and it’s always nice to be on a pleasant stretch of road on a bike when the sun comes up in the mountains.

I wasn’t expecting the freezing temperatures, though. My bike warns at 37°, and I saw the temperature drop as low as 32°. I had to pull over and add layers as the heavy-hauling big rigs roared by. It was a great reminder to always pack gear for the weather that you can’t predict on a long ride.

Because of the heavy smoke from forest fires throughout Oregon (and WA, and MT, and CA, …) there wasn’t a whole lot to see from Crater Lake north, so Greg made the call to just head straight home a few hours after me. It would have been great to have that additional day of riding, but the smoke made it an easy call.


Our final route is below. Blue was our planned route, but that’s always loose. Recommendations from locals, and interesting-looking roads, will always overrule a planned route. Red is what we actually rode: 1,752 miles over five days.

Between Yosemite, Death Valley, and Lassen Volcanos, I got to ride through some entirely new country. Greg had visited some of these places before but they were distant memories. And the blast-furnace of a highway through Death Valley was new to both of us.

We’re fortunate to have some incredible motorcycle routes so close to home. September continues to be one of my favorite seasons in the saddle. And shipping our bikes south to get us closer to these exciting places worked out perfectly when work is encroaching on the plan. As a riding buddy mentioned at the onset of this ride: “Some riding is better than no riding.” Looking back on this trip, yes this was a hell of a lot better than no riding.

We’re already thinking about next September’s route.