There are four routes from Las Vegas to Death Valley National Park, and as is almost always the case when traveling by motorcycle, the best way is the slowest. And it also bypasses Pahrump. Nothing against Pahrump; it’s just that Tecopa Road—also known as the Old Spanish Trail Highway because it shadows the mid-19th-century trading route between New Mexico and Los Angeles—is worn into the Nopah Range and surrounding plains, whereas Pahrump is just worn out. Skipping the city does mean one less opportunity to wonder about that broken Home Giant sign featuring a guy in green overalls and an orange hat hawking tract housing, but life is full of compromises.
Tecopa Road heads due west, then dips southwest as it reunites with the Old Spanish Trail proper at Emigrant Pass. A few turns later it dead-ends in Tecopa, Calif., a desert outpost of RVers there to soak in the hot springs. Heading north for a few miles on California 127 takes you to Shoshone and the Crowbar Café & Saloon, one of the best eateries in Death Valley. Bonus: Fuel’s available right across the road, and range is a consideration when motorcycling in these parts.
North of Shoshone, turning left on Route 178 puts you in Death Valley proper. You’ll notice the elevation dropping and the temperature rising. If you picked the wrong season for a ride—spring and fall are optimal, winter can be bone-chilling and summer is out of the question on an un-air-conditioned vehicle—it’s here that your resolve will start to melt. On the late March weekend I rode, the desert flowers were in bloom, winds were calm and the temperature hit a perfect 80 degrees, 20 degrees warmer than Las Vegas. A motorcycle is the best way to experience this vast topography because it immerses you in the experience; driving through it is like watching a National Geographic special on TV.
Route 178 intersects Death Valley itself, turning north to follow the Valley and becoming California 190, which bisects the park. Most of the park’s popular sights spur off the 190: Badwater Basin, the lowest in North America; Natural Bridge; the Devil’s Golf Course; and Artist’s Drive, a short, one-way paved road through pink, purple and orange hills. Stop at the historic Furnace Creek Inn, which first opened for business in 1927 as a way for the Pacific Coast Borax Co. to make money after its mines had closed. The room rates are high, but appreciating the Spanish-mission style architecture and the garden oasis complete with flowing water is free.
No motorcycling trip to Death Valley is complete without a ride to Dante’s View, which at 5,475 feet offers a spectacular panorama, including Badwater Basin and snowcapped Telescope Peak to the west, the highest point in the park. The road to the top twists and turns on itself, and the last quarter-mile is a brake-searing, transmission-torturing 15 percent grade. Cars wheeze and lumber up the slope, but bikes take it in stride—proving once again that the best way to travel is slowly and on two wheels.
The Place: Death Valley National Park.
The Way: Route 160 to Tecopa Road.
The Wheels: 2011 BMW R1200RT, courtesy of BMW Motorcycles of Las Vegas; $20,640 with the Premium Package; 42 mpg if you can restrain your wrist. Overall, the bike is a Bavarian mile muncher at home in the twisties.
The Gas: Distances are vast and not every place that has civilization has gas. Expect to pay $1 more per gallon anywhere in Death Valley than you would outside the park.
The Sound: Wind in your helmet.
The Eats: Try the sizeable and satisfying patty melt at the Crowbar Café & Saloon in Shoshone, but don’t be in a hurry.
The Lodging: Furnace Creek Inn is $300 per night and up, depending on the season. Cheaper rooms are available at the Furnace Creek Ranch, about $130 to $200 a night.
While You’re at It: Play golf at Furnace Creek, the lowest course in the United States, and it’s open all summer. Scotty’s Castle, a tribute to mendacity an hour north of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, is always worth a stop.