The organisation Backcountry Discovery Routes (BDR) helps adventure bikers find the best routes in the USA with elaborated GPS tracks. California was chosen for the ninth route. But the Sunshine State is so huge that it will be developed in two phases. We present the southern route, which is already available. Text: Paul Guillien Photos: Ely Woody, Paul Guillien
For many years, travel endurists have dreamed of a backcountry discovery route through California. This vast state is so rich in beautiful and wild landscapes that it is very difficult to put together the optimal route.
Help in the decision-making process is now provided by the new Southern California Backcountry Discovery Route. This south-to-north route starts in Yuma, which lies on the border of California, Arizona and Mexico. During the California Gold Rush, the ferry in Yuma was considered the gateway to California, as it was one of the few ways to cross the mighty Colorado River.
In the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge we drive north on dirt roads along the Colorado River, where we find an excellent place to spend the night in the Picacho campground. Howling coyotes and braying burros quite close to our tents make for a surreal goodnight song.
Morning comes and our ride on the Gavilan Wash proves more difficult in the current summer heat than when we first travelled in the cool and wet spring. It takes good sand driving skills and a sensitive gas hand to make progress on the soft surface. It takes us almost two hours and countless pushes to cover the 3.6 miles of sandy riverbed.
Our team faces another challenge on the long, steep climb to the Excelsior Strip Mine. Here we get to deal with a mixture of large smooth rocks and loose material. Reaching the top ridge, the view drops into a huge hole in the ground that the locals call Colosseum Gorge. We descend to the bottom, but take the precaution of not swimming in the murky green water.
We escape the desert heat and drink date milkshakes at China Ranch. This farm is a lush green oasis in the otherwise inhospitable Mojave Desert near Death Valley. The group enjoys the treats on offer while we relax in the shade.
Our early arrival in the quirky town of Tecopa gives us a day that never seems to end. We take a dip in the hot springs, play table tennis in a bar, get cocktails to go, cycle down the highway wearing only flip-flops and swimwear. We take a nap, then enjoy a barbecue and craft beer.
After dinner, the sunset conjures up an explosion of colours in the sky. As darkness falls, the live music begins. Talents from Tecopa and the surrounding area delight us, as do the fire jugglers. We end up sleeping in curious caravans rented at Delight's Hot Spring Resort, known for the healing power of its water.
Our route touches numerous Death Valley highlights, including Badwater Basin (the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level) and Furnace Creek, which holds the record for the highest shade temperature ever recorded at 56.7 degrees Celsius. We work our way up from the valley floor and feel the temperature drop 15 degrees until we reach the old mining and brothel town of Beatty, Nevada. Here we treat ourselves to a meal and refuel the bikes.
Our next destination is nearby Titus Canyon, one of the famous slot canyons whose formation has long puzzled geologists. The dirt track winds along the bottom of the narrow canyon with its towering rock walls,
that seem to touch the sky. Recently, a storm has washed out the trail, making it wild and unpredictable - just the way we like it. This is the perfect trail for adventure bikers, and the grins we wear on our faces are correspondingly wide.
Race Track Playa is a place you have to visit once in your life. But the price is 20 miles of terrible corrugated iron track. Our hands go numb and we feel like all the screws are being shaken out of the bike.
The mystery of the "Wandering Rocks" was solved only a few years ago when researchers braved the harsh winter and identified a unique interplay of water, ice flakes and strong winds as the cause of the "walks" where the rocks leave their bizarre tracks on the playa, up to 500 metres long.
Steep, rough and very entertaining is the hilly section of the Jeep Trail, also known as Lippencott Mine Road. Located in the heart of Death Valley, this rugged trail features loose rocks, deep washouts and precipices that are not for the faint-hearted. The route is also notorious for its intense heat and frequent severe storms. But in today's conditions, it is a real pleasure to ride here.
Our group splits up so that some can ride the main road, while the other part tackles the difficult trail to Buena Vista Peak to see the famous ghost town on the hill. We sweat on this trail, which is more like a riverbed, winding between car-sized rocks.
Near the summit, the road improves and we are rewarded with an almost alpine route that winds up the mountain in serpentines. We conquer the 2591 metre high pass and finally reach the old mining town of Cerro Gordo.
The warden of the historic site passionately talks about the history of the mine and has the most outrageous stories from the Wild West in store. But even today it is still rough out here. One of the last winters he was snowed in up here, so his food had to be dropped from the plane.
As we roll through the Alabama Hills, the play of colours almost steals our minds. It's late afternoon and the flat sunlight paints a contrasting picture of the rounded rock formations against the backdrop of the jagged peaks of 4421-metre Mount Whitney. We set up camp in a rock sheltered spot and enjoy the sweeping views of this majestic landscape.
The next morning we explore the relics at the Reward Mine and even ride our motorbikes directly into a narrow adit where gold and silver were mined from 1860 until the 1980s. Claustrophobic feelings grip us as we roll through the darkness. When we reach the end, we turn off the machines and enjoy the creepiness of being surrounded by solid rock, more than a quarter of a mile from the entrance.
Two optional sections at the end of the route offer great challenges for heavy adventure bikes. The winding route is characterised by steep gradients, exceptionally tight switchbacks and huge boulders interspersing the road surface. This route requires intensive clutch work and a secure balance. Technically and scenically, this section of the Southern California BDR is incredibly attractive, but it pushed me to my limits in terms of riding and fitness in several places.
We park our bikes and walk up to the reddish-brown rock formations that were created 750,000 years ago during a violent eruption of the Long Valley Caldera. We see a multitude of petroglyphs, rock drawings made by Indians who lived in this area around 8000 years ago. Some researchers speculate that these are records of celestial phenomena or ceremonial representations, because the engravings differ from the usual petroglyphs, which mostly depict animals, hunters and daily life.
We spend the last evening of our California adventure in a historic motel near Benton. We bathe in the hot springs, gaze at the clear starry sky and reflect on the experiences of the last nine days on the incredible Southern California Backcountry Discovery Route.