Chris Roams

Travel, Adventures, and Photography

Southern California Loop

I’m back on the west coast, picking up where I left off after fleeing back to the east coast to move my sailboat out of the way of Hurricane Sandy. I had left my bike in a storage unit in San Jose without actually making it to the Pacific Ocean and now it was time to rectify that. A friend of mine joined the Navy a few months back and is training in San Diego with no friends or family nearby, I decided to pay him a visit for Thanksgiving and, as he had never been west of the Mississippi before, give him a tour of the Mojave and Sierras. I set out from San Jose to finally arrive on the coast at Santa Cruz and pick up Highway 1, twisting along the cliffs and beaches of California’s Pacific Coast never more than a mile or two from the surf. I started this motorcycle journey just over a year ago in Salt Lake City and have spent nearly all of my time on the bike since then camped out in the desert where a tent was rarely necessary. For the first time in a year, camped out near Hearst Castle in San Simeon, I awoke to a tent absolutely soaked with condensation. No matter, I had miles to cover and it was back onto the Pacific Coast Highway all the way through Los Angeles and on to San Diego.

After miles upon miles of wind and waves I arrived at the naval base just as the sun was setting and we swung over to the airport to pick up a rental car. An attempt at getting a military discount on the little economy car I had reserved somehow ended up with us leaving in a bright red Mustang and while the rest of the country was sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner we roared past Los Angeles, over the San Bernardino Mountains, and out into the Mojave watching the tortured outlines of the Joshua Trees flash past on the roadside, alone except for the lights of remote settlements that spring up to extract minerals from the dry lake beds, their processing plants exuding an alkali stench. Our destination for the night was the ghost town of Ballarat at the southern end of Panamint Valley, a nearly-abandoned outpost from the heyday of silver mining in the Panamint Range just outside what is now Death Valley National Park. Today it is home to a few desert rats depending on the time of year and is mostly known as a meeting point for 4-wheel-drive clubs heading up to test themselves in the canyons above. We pulled over and turned off the car as we crossed the mountain pass from the Slate Range to survey the scene by moonlight: the empty valley and its dry lakebed 1,500 feet below, the vast penetrating silence only possible in the desert, the only sign of activity an isolated red light on the radar station spinning away and watching for the military jets that practice in the area. After driving the Mustang down to the valley floor and across the lakebed we settled in for the night in amongst the scattered RVs and Jeeps gathered around the crumbling remains of the town to wait for the sunrise.

And rise the sun did, illuminating the Slate Range to the west while hiding behind the Panamint range close at our backs to the east before starting its crawl toward us across the valley floor. We set off, back across the dry lakebed and up WIldrose Road through the broad gentle valley hidden in the center of the Panamints. This was the original route used by the lost wagon train that named Death Valley to escape to the west, nowadays the road through Towne Pass gets more traffic and the section of this road that crosses into the park seems abandoned, the neglected asphalt potholed and in some places completely missing, likely the result of flash floods tearing through the narrow canyon it shares with a dry creek bed. Once in the park we made the grand tour, up to the charcoal kilns that provided fuel for ore processing down in the treeless valleys, Harrisburg ghost town and the Eureka Mine that produced the ore, to Aguereberry point where a lonely miner would show visitors the spectacular view of what would one day become a national park, down to the lowest spot on the continent at Badwater Basin, on the scenic drive through the colorful rocks of Artists Palette, the old borax works with its 20 Mule Team wagons that made Death Valley famous, Mesquite Dunes, and then finally back out of Death Valley to the west over Towne Pass, through Panamint Springs, and over the Inyos to the Owens Valley.

Upon arriving in Owens Valley we stopped off at the town Keeler, if it can be called a town, on the shores of Owens Lake, if it can be called a lake. Keeler was established to load ore from the mines in the Inyos onto the steamship that would take it to the other side of the lake after a single cataclysmic earthquake left the previous town established for this purpose too high above the waterline for the steamer to reach. The mines were still producing so everyone simply picked up and moved a bit to establish a new town on the new waterline. Now the mines are all closed and the lake is dry, its water diverted to Los Angeles far to the south. Only the mineral extraction operation on the dry lakebed keeps Keeler alive and the wreckage of its glory days lie strewn about. Moving on, a quick check at the Interagency Visitor Center on the way into Lone Pine revealed that the roads up into the Sierras weren’t snowed in yet so we settled down to camp out in the Alabama Hills in the shadow of Mt Whitney to plan for the day ahead.

There are no road crossings of the southern Sierra Nevada although that does not mean that there are no roads: they snake their way up the valleys from the west and switchback up the escarpment to the east, reaching towards each other from both directions but never quite meeting as some unclimbable ridge or uncrossable canyon always gets in the way. Nearly every town on the eastern side of the Sierras, not that there are many, has its own road up into the range. After being treated to both a spectacular sunset over Mt Whitney and a sunrise on it we drove from Lone Pine up to Whitney Portal, as close as we were getting to it on this trip. The portal is at a measly (by Sierra standards) 8,600 feet, well below treeline, and despite its location the views up into the mountains aren’t all that great without some significant walking. We set off for Independence, the next town north, stopping at Manzanar on the way, and to the end of its road into the Sierras at Onion Valley, elevation 9,100 feet, for some hiking. Plodding up switchbacks though the snow we made it to Little Pothole Lake at 10,000 feet before heading back to the car and back down to the valley, noting some rockfall on the road that wasn’t there on our way up and quite a bit that was. We set off to the south, theoretically back towards San Diego but in reality we ended up just north of Joshua Tree National Park where all of the campgrounds were full.

Stuck in the populated corridor between Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms our wilderness camping opportunities were looking bleak but a quick check on the Internet revealed some very sketchy directions to a parcel of BLM land just outside town. We set out into the dark desert again, stair stepping our way up a street grid of empty roads, empty not only of traffic but also of any conceivable purpose for their existence: there were no buildings, just block after block of empty dirt between streets bulldozed across the desert floor. Eventually the road we were on disappeared entirely into a mess of tire tracks running off in every direction while the telephone poles carried on in a straight line to their unknown destination. Across the landscape dozens of headlights of all shapes and sizes could be seen twisting about in the darkness, some blasting across at high speed while others turned in circles until obscured by their own dust. RVs were circled up, visible by the light of the bonfires in the center of the circle. We parked next to a telephone pole, not quite sure of where we ended up, with our tent between the car and the pole to hopefully prevent getting run over in the night.

We woke up in the morning to find ourselves parked in a dry lakebed, the circles of RVs surrounded by Jeeps, dune buggies, and dirt bikes, the telephone poles marching off to a destination that still could not be discerned by daylight. We made our way down into Joshua Tree National Park, a favorite of rock climbers, and bouldered around a bit before hiking out to Barker Dam, an abandoned relic from past ranching operations, taking in some indian rock art on the way back to the car. Joshua Tree lies at the intersection of 2 different deserts, driving through the park from north to south one descends out of the high Mojave Desert into the lower and hotter Sonora Desert. A sparse forest of contorted joshua trees gives way to densely packed cholla cactus, dropping little spiky segments all over the ground. Scattered across in the desert are tiny oases where water burbles to the surface on the back of fault lines nourishing small clusters of cottonwoods and palm trees. Our weekend nearly over we turned southwest, over the coastal ranges and back to San Diego.
Sunset Beach - galleryCrew at Aguereberry Point - galleryBadwater Tourists - galleryBadwater - galleryBorax Wagon - galleryKeeler Beach - galleryMt Williamson - galleryJoshua Trees - galleryQuail Springs - galleryBouldering - galleryCholla - galleryCholla Forest - galleryBuds - galleryOasis - gallery