There’s no better place to ride a motorcycle in my eyes than Death Valley. For any style of travel you prefer, whether it be camping, hauling your toys in a trailer or relaxing in a hotel environment, it’s there for you. Your vision goes for as far as the eye can see, no multi-lane highways and the ride is filled with curves and spectacular sights. That you can stand in a location with the lowest altitude in the US and look upon Mt. Whitney which boasts the highest altitude in the lower 48 states is an experience all by itself.
However, getting there from the Bay Area can be an annoying ride at the wrong time of the year or without the proper route planning. The best route in my opinion involves taking Tioga Pass (rte 120) through Yosemite with a one night stay in Lee Vining, but there probably only a few weeks out of each year where Tioga Pass is open (it can be closed all the way into July after a harsh winter) and Death Valley isn’t brutally hot with temperatures frequently topping 110 degrees F any time between May and October and even regularly crossing 120 degrees F. Death Valley holds the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth at 134 degrees F set in July of 1913. So, caution must be considered when planning a motorcycle trip to Death Valley.
In this post I’ll summarize the three main routes and I’ll detail what I consider the Ideal Route. In later posts I’ll share more information on the other ways to get from the Bay Area to Death Valley on motorcycle when Yosemite isn’t an option due to weather.
The Ideal Route – The best month to make this trip is October. Tioga Pass is almost always passable in October with only one closing due to snow in the last 60 years in that month. The average high temperature in Death Valley in October is in the mid 90’s which is hot, but manageable. A cooling vest can do wonders in hot weather and it’s helped me get through a long stretch where temperatures were near 120 degrees.
When Yosemite Isn’t an Option, Pacific Coast Highway – Most of the time when the weather is perfect in Death Valley crossing through Yosemite just isn’t an option. In this case a cruise down the Pacific Coast Highway is always delightful. Certainly I would expect anyone who owns a motorcycle living in this area has ridden this amazing stretch of road. Sure, sightseeing car people can take some of the adrenaline fun away, but if you go in with the attitude of taking it easy and watching out for all the cars coming in and out of all the parks along the road, you’ll be much safer.
The One Day Route – Additionally you can do the fast straight shot down I5, Rte 101 or Rte 99 and find yourself in Death Valley on a longish day in the saddle traveling around 400 miles with 6+ hours of riding. With so many other more thrilling options, I always try to avoid this way. The crosswinds in the California valley that often pummels these highways makes for an unpleasant ride in my experience.
The Ideal Route
Day 1, San Jose to Lee Vining
Day 1, Leg 1 to Los Banos – If you’re in Santa Cruz, it would make sense to head to Rte 1 and hook up with rte 152 in Watsonville and start your journey East. If you’re not in Santa Cruz you’ll want to connect to Rte 101 in San Jose and head south to connect with Rte 152 in Gilroy.
Day 1, Leg 2, Los Banos to Tioga Pass (Rte 120) – There are an infinite number of ways to connect these points. I’d love to hear from those who ride this route and learn what their favorite is. My default is to make a left on to Rte 165 in Los Banos and head North into Turlock where you’ll make a left on N. Golden State Blvd. and then a slight right on to Geer Rd. (turns into Albers Rd./J14, then Yosemite Ave.) which you can take all the way to Rte. 120.
Day 1, Leg 3, through Yosemite into Lee Vining – Now you’re on Rte 120 and you’re in for the most spectacular scenery of the day. Not much to say here. Just enjoy the views, keep an eye on the road and be patient as there can be several cars all with drivers in awe driving slow not paying much attention to the road or other vehicles. You’ll reach I395 on the other side and you can make a left and stay in one of the quaint hotel/motels in Lee Vining.
Alternate Day 1, Leg 3 Rte 88/Carson Pass – When Tioga Pass is closed you can head about 55 miles North to connect with Rte 88. Rte 88 sits a little lower in elevation than Tioga pass so is usually open for more days each year than Tioga Pass. There are many ways to find Rte 88 from Oakdale and I’m curious to hear everyone’s favorite way. In Oakdale, instead of making a right on to Rte 120 you can stay straight and them make a right on 26 Mile Rd. which changes names a few times before become Rte 26. Then in Mokelumme Hill you can make a left on Rte 49/Golden Chain Highway which will connect you to Rte 88 in Jackson.
There are a few options in connecting Rte. 88 to I395 which will dependent on the weather and road closings. Ideally you’ll make a right on Rte 89 in Alpine Village, but this is often closed so you’ll need to travel further before connecting with I395 which you’ll take south for around 90 miles to reach Lee Vining.
Day 1 Destination, Lee Vining – After a fun first day of riding there are a number of hotels in Lee Vining that you can rest your head and your bike.
Day 2, Lee Vining to Death Valley
Day 2, Leg 1, Rte 120 and Rte 6 to Bishop – If you’re lucky, Rte 120 heading East is open and you can take this amazing stretch of road with curves and elevation changes galore. When you reach Benton you’ll make a right on Rte 6 and head south to Bishop where you’ll connect with Rte 395. Alternate, If Rte 120 is closed, you’ll take Rte 395 to Bishop instead. Sometimes Rte 120 is listed as closed but is actually open so see if you can chat with a local who might know the status of the road. On one of my stays the wonderful people at El Mono Hotel alerted me that it was in fact open even though it was listed as closed and I was really happy to get to include this pavement.
Heading South along Rte 6 in the spring takes a lot of guts. If safety isn’t a good enough reason to where a full face helmet, perhaps a mouthful of butterflies is.
Day 2, Leg 2, Bishop to Lone Pine, Alabama Hills Cafe & Bakery – This is my only strong food recommendation to stop along your day of riding. The food is delicious with a freshness and execution I would expect from an upscale NYC underground brunch spot. Stop here and fill up on food and coffee before the fun of heading into Death Valley begins.
Day 2, Leg 3, Lone Pine to Shoshone through Death Valley – Just as you head south through Lone Pine you’ll take a left on Rte. 136 which connects with Rte 190 taking you into Death Valley through Panamint Springs. There are some challenging corners without guard rails as you head through Panamint Springs so be alert and take it easy. After you pass through Stovepipe Wells Rte 190 makes through Beatty Junction to Furnace Creek and onto Death Valley Junction where you’ll make a right on to Rte 127 which you’ll take to Shoshone.
In case of an “emergencey” here’s the phone number.
Shoshone boasts a population of 40 people I believe so if you stay at the Inn and have a bite at the Crowbar Cafe & Saloon and gas up at the Chevron you’ll have met 10% of the residents! The Crowbar Cafe & Saloon offers a great bite to eat and will serve you well for dinner and breakfast.
Huge bonus points to Shoshone Inn for being able to park your ride just outside your room window.
Day 3 and Beyond – From here you’re on your own to explore all that Death Valley has to offer. You’ll want to ride Badwater Rd. which you can do by leaving Shoshone North toward Death Valley and making a left on Rte 178. There are several scenic stops to make with some historical information if you’re into that kind of thing.
To get home, just go back the way you came. Look forward to my other blog entries on alternate routes to get to Death Valley from the Bay Area in California.
Thanks for reading and feel free to leave a question or comment in the comments section below.