(Alabama Hills / Saline Warm Springs)
Our story starts with a summer party at our neighbor’s house. They are avid Overlanders and so we always have plenty to talk about. One of them happens to mention that they have a trip coming up in November to Death Valley, and that’s when my wife said, “Take him, he’d love to go!“. I’m not sure if I was even invited but there was a lot of beer, wine and maybe vodka involved at the time and I thought I heard someone said yes and so I was locked in, right?
A few months later I was included in what I can best describe as a group email from hell. I joke of course, but it was 15 or 20 people all being introduced to each other with huge embedded pictures, no trimming of posts on reply and so the sheer body of the email became so loaded that not even my super Google account could handle it by the end.
As we got closer to the December date the details became firmer. I looked at this trip as a passenger. Even though I was the only bike going, I was clearly the outsider and didn’t want to effect their trip one way or another. Somebody (I think Adalto) created the planned route in GaiaGPS.
Since there were people coming from all around, the plan was to meet up at Alabama Hills. This is at the base of Mt Whitney and has what is called “Dispersed Camping” – meaning you kind of camp where you want.
By the way – they all shared their pictures, some of which I’m using here. I don’t remember who shared which but if you see that little watermark in the lower right, I do know that was Max S.
From there we would head into Death Valley as a group via trails and camp the second night at Saline Warm Springs. Day three would be up and over to the Eureka Dunes and then out to Big Pine on Day 4 or 5 depending on the mood. Total miles would be around 160 with a climb in elevation of around 21,000 feet. Conditions were described to me as being a combo of technical dual track to wide open desert style roads.
I planned on following my neighbor Jonathan and his girlfriend Linea in his sweet Toyota Land Cruiser up and over Sonora Pass and then down Hwy 395 to Lone Pine and then into Alabama Hills to rendezvous with the rest. As Jonathan said, “Wheels up at 5:30 AM” and we were.
They did a quick stop at Starbucks, then it was 680 Freeway to 580 East to Oakdale, Hwy 108 up and over the Sonora Pass. That was the plan. But somewhere, somehow, Jonathan decided to turn right and head into Yosemite which meant up and over Tioga Pass. Oh well, it’s scenic.
We made great time to Alabama Hills. Jonathan got on the Ham Radio and figured out where Adolto was. The place is just outside Lone Pine up Whitney Portal Road (2.5 miles) and doesn’t need 4WD to get into.
We made camp and pretty soon the rest started arriving. One by one they set up their ‘rigs’. Each Overlander had a slightly different take on equipment and gear. Most everyone was roof top tents but even those differed. There were great drinks and even better stories around the campfire. In the morning we packed up and then top off the tanks in town before heading off-road.
LEAVING THE ROAD
Just a little south of Bishop we were off road. We started out on a pretty smooth road so I zoomed up a head a bit to capture these pictures, you can see the valley floor in the background.
The general wisdom was that I should ride ahead of the group.
Reason #1: Overlander’s tend to raise a bunch more dust than a bike does. They wanted to spare me from eating a steady diet of dirt.
Reason #2: My bike has a good amount of wheelspin resulting in my inadvertently throwing up quite a few rocks. They wanted to spare their paint and windshields.
We climbed up an easy gravel road to an old mine called Cerro Gordo.
The road carved it’s way up through the canyons. There was nothing technical and the best thing was looking back down from where we had come.
Once we got to the top of Cerro Gordo ridge I was told that we would eventually going to go down the other side but for lunch we were going to run north along the ridge line for a bit and have lunch.
The ridge line leads out to a Salt Tram and so there might be people heading back this way from there. Because it was low speed I wasn’t sent out front, and instead I was sandwiched behind Jonathan’s Land Cruiser and Adalto’s 4 Runner. This was fine when it was flat but there were sections where I had to use a little more momentum for the hill climb and would run into the back of the Land Cruiser. It turns out I was feathering the clutch so much I was burning it up. Pretty soon I had no clutch at all.
One time I hit his bumper, stalled and kind of slid/fell over. Adalto was behind, saw it and helped me get back up and running. Overlanders and bikes do not attack obstacles anywhere at all the same way. Thanks for the help Adalto!
We did run into a roadblock of traffic along the ridge. They all use ham radios and so they can converse with others they don’t know and arrange who comes up, who waits, and who goes down hill when.
There’s not a lot of room for 2 at a time on some of these trails.
Here’s some of the fiasco that was that wait on the ridge…
Once we cleared the traffic we continued on a bit and then pulled off for a little lunch. Overlanders like to have everything – so out popped the kitchens and we had wonderful sandwiches and cold drinks!
After lunch it was determined that we spent way too much time with the traffic and we needed to start back towards Cerro Gordo. We negotiated the way back with little incident, then at Cerro Gordo we headed down (east) towards the valley below.
The trail was steeper and had more river rock than sand or gravel. It was easy to ride as long as you had some speed and stayed loose on the bike. I lost my Oakley’s on the way down, I had pulled off for a bathroom break, got started down the steep again with them on my chest mount. I felt them come off and I even think I ran them over with my back tire. Luckily I had a 2nd pair so once the trail flattened out, I switched to those.
Once off the steep ridge we snaked along the flat river beds for a while and then headed more south. We got to a section where it was flat gravel and they told me to fly ahead for a while. I had the video going and caught the speedo hitting 100 once or twice. This poor screen capture only says 82 but shows what the road was like.
You can see there’s an antennae sticking out of the top of my tank bag. They gave me a mini ham to clip to my chest. That might have been great but after my sun glass instance I wasn’t ready to lose someones ham radio and besides I couldn’t hear it unless I was stopped anyways. Here’s the video of that which is admittedly kind of boring but at 3:00 you can hear someone say I missed a turn (which I did).
It was just a cut off cross road and what I could have done was just turned left from where the other motos were. This road took us up and over a few minor ridges and finally showed the valley floor below.
You can see it was getting late in the day with all of these long shadows.
Here’s another great video of me and my filthy lens… I suck sometimes at video. At this point they said it was a straight shot and I almost couldn’t go wrong, so off I went ahead again. 🙂
Long story, short – I went wrong. Of course I did. Not horribly, I just passed the turnoff to Saline Springs. I stopped and caught Adalto once again on the radio telling me to turn around. I did, and he was waiting for me at the missed turn.
We made our way across the valley to Saline Springs and found the place to camp.
Dinner that night was another fabulous experience. We all shared a little food and drink, told some stories, and had a great time. I learned all about the hot springs and how people had built pools here. Clothing is optional and there was a community that took good care of them too. I also learned not to look when the old naked guy was climbing out of the tub across from you. Always divert your eyes. you can’t unsee this stuff! 😉
In the morning they were all heading east towards Eureka Dunes but Jonathan and Linea said that they wanted to spend an extra day at the springs. With my weak clutch I thought it best to stay with them as well. They knew of an easy route out and back to Bishop.
In the morning I made coffee, had some breakfast, we took some pictures, and said good by. After they were gone we did a little work on my bike, hiked up a great trail, took another dip, napped, ate dinner, and dipped again before calling it a night.
The next day we packed up and with everything as good as it was going to get, we headed back out to the road via the northern route. It was nothing technical and pretty easy on my clutch. Once we hit pavement Jonathan pumped his tires back up and we headed down the hill back into Bishop.
In Bishop we gassed up, got something to drink and then headed home.
All in all, it was a fabulous time and these people couldn’t have been more warm, accepting and friendly. I’ll probably not see them again, but you never know. Next time, I’ll make sure to get to Eureka Dunes too, I mean how could you not?