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ADV RidesFinding Hidden Trails and Deep History Riding Death Valley

Finding Hidden Trails and Deep History Riding Death Valley

 Discovering Dual Sport Nirvana riding Countdown's Death Valley Rally.

Published on 04.29.2020

Mile 65.45 of a roll chart dating back to 1984 reads “Lift bike over rock.” When Jerry Counts indicates a ride is for “dual sport” bikes versus “adventure” bikes, take heed. If you’ve ever wondered where the term “dual sport” originated, read on… 

For nearly four decades Jerry “Countdown” Counts has been both creating new trails and linking together existing ones throughout the United States. In the western half of the country, where vast expanses of diverse terrain are readily available, these routes date back to the origins of what came to be known as “dual purpose” and later “dual sport” motorcycling. To the present day, Jerry uses his vast collection of GPS tracks and extensive trail knowledge to create self-guided and semi-supported ride events.

Jerry Count's Death Valley Rally Dual Sporty ride.
Credit Dirt Rider Magazine/1984

Rather than being a fully-supported tour, these events present riders with trails, in many cases ones they very likely have never ridden, and participants can opt to ride whatever they please. Convenience is provided by Jerry transporting everyone’s luggage to the destination hotel each evening. Some of the trails involved are unquestionably best ridden without luggage attached to the motorcycle.

Setting out from a meeting point in Ridgecrest, California for the “Death Valley Rally,” we get a later start than usual the morning after Valentine’s Day date night. We take the fast route through Trona and into Death Valley to catch up with some of our ‘single’ fellow riders. As Stockwell Mine Road leaves the flat valley floor and begins ascending through the mountains over Manly Pass, the massive and dramatic vistas that Death Valley is famous for become apparent almost immediately. While the pass itself is only mildly technical, things become more interesting when the road drops into the valley on the east side. 

Exploring Manly Pass at the Death Valley Rally.
Death Valley Rally Manly Pass

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Little more than a discolored scar through a field of incessant jagged rocks, the road eventually crosses Wingate wash, before heading into an even more technical section through Goler Wash, and over Mengal Pass. As I type this, spellcheck attempts to correct “Mengal” to “mental”. I’ve ridden this same pass going west-to-east on a BMW R 1250 GS Adventure, fully loaded with camping gear. “Mental” might be an appropriate description, depending on what one is riding.

In the case of this ride, ADV Pulse Editor Rob Dabney and myself were aboard a Husqvarna 701 Enduro and KTM 690 Enduro R test bikes. While these machines  are ideally suited for this terrain, we quickly learned that setup is paramount. Scheduling led to a somewhat rushed start, so we simply had to jump on the bikes and go. Both tire pressures and suspension settings needed attention, which we would eventually get dialed in for a much improved ride.

KTM 690 Enduro R and Husqvarna 701 Enduro
Our rides for the Death Valley Rally, the KTM 690 Enduro R and Husqvarna 701 Enduro.

Having ridden several different large adventure bikes through this terrain in the past, bringing along the pair of thumpers in this case was a refreshing change. Ripping up a steep, rocky section of trail headed towards Mengel Pass, not far from Barker Ranch (Charles Manson’s hideout), Rob and I round a bend and find a Honda Africa Twin high centered on some rocks, with two riders endeavoring to extract. While adventure bikes are entirely capable here, these two singles were honestly more fun in this context. The following day, some suggested optional trails would reveal anything larger than these bikes would not have been a good choice.

Death Valley Rally Dual Sport Ride
This Africa Twin rider was putting his skid plate to the test on Mengel Pass.

As Mengal Pass descends into Butte Valley, the iconic and stunning feature of Striped Butte is revealed. This rainbow of rock sits like a painted island in the middle of an otherwise almost featureless valley. It’s worth the time for travelers through this area to make the short detour to Geologist’s Cabin, simply to take in the view from the porch there, and maybe catch a glimpse of a wild burro getting water at Anvil Spring just below.

Riding past Striped Butte at the Death Valley Rally.
Iconic Striped Butte rises out of Butte Valley to a height of 4,744 feet.

Everything from this point to the other side of Death Valley was fast. Butte Valley Road, West Side Road, Badwater Basin, and Saratoga Springs Road are all potentially top-gear routes. No matter how tempting a runway some of these roads present, speed limits do apply in the National Park. Even more than speed limits, running out of gas can slow things down. And we did, at least on the Husky. Note: when traveling in the Western deserts, know your bike, and its fuel consumption personality. Nothing a tow rope can’t solve however, and we continued on, linked up like an Austrian-Sweedish moto train.

Numerous portions of this event represent worthy areas to return to and explore exclusively on their own. At one point we pass by the entrance to Little Dumont Dunes and a short distance away is Dumont Dunes proper. Dakar teams have trained here. Leading away from the challenge and fun presented by these mountains of sand is Sperry Wash, where the Amargosa River flows above ground. Numerous water crossings later, this wash ends near Mesquite Valley Road, where one can turn left to visit the rare oasis of China Ranch, quirky community of Tecopa Hot Springs, or stop into Shoshone for fuel, supplies, and a meal at Crowbar Cafe.

Our route would take us eastward on Mesquite Valley Road and Old Spanish Trail, following graded dirt and unmaintained 2-track all the way to Pahrump, Nevada, where our bags were waiting for us at the hotel. Pahrump, Nevada is a desert enclave of only around 37,000 people. The comparatively small size of this city means the desert is reached very quickly, riding in any direction. 

Epic trails and tracks riding Death Valley

After a big breakfast and early start to day two, Rob and I take off heading west and almost immediately encounter a KTM 790 Adventure rider stuck at the top of a steep, rocky descent, evaluating a path down. After making sure he didn’t need assistance, we continue on taking a sharp right off the highway onto a marked rocky 2-track, the trail can be seen stretching across the valley, and into a canyon leading up the mountains to the west. Following the GPS carefully is crucial here, as just a few miles into the canyon an almost imperceptible trail makes a sudden right up a steep rise, and reveals a single track which falls into the category of “trails you’ve likely never ridden before.” Going from clearly-visible sidehill single track, to sandy wash, to a faint ribbon across a valley floor, this 10-mile trail eventually drops us back onto the highway.

After fueling up in Shoshone, we head west and are again in Death Valley. Furnace Creek road quickly leads to a right turn over Deadman Pass, and on to Death Valley Junction. While it’s a direct shot to the lunch spot in Longstreet, there are fast dirt routes which parallel the pavement less than a mile to the west. A combination of both paved and dirt farm roads leads one around the small communities in this area, and things again become very remote, and remain very remote all the way to Beatty, Nevada. This comparatively shorter day allows for an early arrival in Beatty. Two optional loop rides from the hotel appear on the GPS, and we are told by Jerry these are not to be missed. More intense scenery, interesting spots, and still more hidden single track are packed into these optional 50 miles than perhaps the entire ride from Pahrump.

Beautiful views near the town of Pioneer.
KTM 690 and Husqvarna 701 Enduro at Mayflower Mine in Death Valley.
The ruins of Mayflower Mine. Gold was mined in the area from around 1908 to 1941.

That evening we sat down for a well-deserved steak dinner with Jerry Counts and fellow legendary Dual Sport Ride organizer Terry Nichols. It was a fascinating conversation about the origins of these long-distance on-road/off-road events going back to the mid-80s. “Dual Purpose” rides, as they were originally called, were planned and grew as events like La-Barstow to Vegas were eliminated. Eventually, a Dual Sport division was sanctioned by the AMA. According to Jerry, an assistant of Terry Nichols’ at the time, Jim Pilon, coined the term “Dual Sport” to “add a little more excitement” to the rides. 

Leaving Beatty on the final day of this event, one can follow the old railroad bed straight out of town and reach the ghost town of Rhyolite from the upper side. This boom-to-bust town started because of a gold strike in 1904, grew to over 10,000 people, and by 1919 was a ghost town. Evidence of the town’s significant presence remains today in the Cook Bank Building, railroad depot, bottle house, and several other structures. Standing in bizarre contrast to the historic town, is the Goldwell Open Air Museum. Started by Albert Szukalksi when he created “The Last Supper” and “Ghost Rider” sculptures in 1984, other artists have gradually added to this collection of unexpected art over the years.

Goldwell Open Air Museum in Rhyolite, Nevada.
Cook Bank in Rhyolite, Nevada.
Before closing in 1910, Cook Bank was the largest building in the town of Rhyolite, with two vaults, Italian marble floors, mahogany woodwork, electric lights, running water, telephones, and indoor plumbing.

A straight shot across the valley headed due south on a fast dirt road eventually gives way to a steep, winding trail up to Chloride View. Where Dante’s View provides a paved route to high vistas of Death Valley as seen from the south, Chloride View provides an off-road route to equally stunning views of Death Valley looking from the north. Both the peak itself, and the road descending back to Daylight Pass are quintessential Death Valley terrain – challenging and grand in scope.

Stunning views in Chloride during the Death Valley Rally.
Pictures don’t do the views justice. The ride up to Chloride is well worth the trip.

After a gas stop in Stovepipe Wells, we head into the mountains on Emigrant Pass Road. A left turn on to an eight-mile long dirt road leads to Skidoo Mine. As the only water-powered milling operation in Death Valley, this mine became one of the most profitable operations in the region. The partially-stabilized structure is quite impressive, and well worth the 600-foot walk from the locked gate to see.

Riding to Skiddo Mine in Death Valley.
The partially-restored Skidoo Mine is quite an impressive structure, and well worth the short hike.

Fun, twisty pavement on Wildrose Road eventually gives way to broken asphalt, then dirt road leading all the way back to Ballarat, and rocky, sandy power line roads crossing the valley towards Manly Pass. It’s at this point we’re presented with some optional single track routes. One of which I had previously ridden up on a BMW R 1200 GS, loaded with camping gear, so assumed they would be easily doable on these much smaller bikes. While the trails were indeed fun, the long stretch of single track leading away from the pavement at Trona road proved to be the rockiest, steepest, and most faint of the trails we would ride this event. One of the most challenging climbs even features an open mineshaft just off the side of the trail! Legal for both motorcycle and equestrian use, we later learned the challenging conditions of many of these routes is largely due to their being blazed by the many wild burros of Death Valley.

Dangerous mine shaft waiting at the top of a hill climb in Death Valley.
Off to the left side of this trail, there is an old mine shaft waiting at the top of the hill. We stacked several rocks to help warn other riders of this hidden danger.

Even though Rob and I had ridden Death Valley many times before and we thought we knew it better than most, we both discovered several incredible trails we had no idea existed. Several portions of this three-day event highlighted the “dual sport” versus “adventure bike” nature of the ride as well.  Regardless of the term used, “excitement” doesn’t do Death Valley justice. “Breathtaking” is perhaps a better word. Based on the name, “Death Valley” doesn’t immediately sound like it would be a desirable place to go. Intense landscapes like no other place on earth, deep history, bizarre desert features, and amazing trail riding are all found here. You just need a capable dual sport bike, and someone who knows where it all is.

Photos Jon Beck and Rob Dabney

Author: Jon Beck

Jon Beck is fulfilling a dream of never figuring out what to be when he grows up. Racing mountain bikes, competitive surfing, and touring as a musician are somehow part of what led Jon to travel through over 40 countries so far as an adventure motorcycle photographer, journalist, and guide. From precision riding for cameras in Hollywood, to refilling a fountain pen for travel stories, Jon brings a rare blend of experience to the table. While he seems happiest when lost in a desert someplace, deadlines are met most of the time.

Author: Jon Beck
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5 thoughts on “Finding Hidden Trails and Deep History Riding Death Valley

  1. That’s a wonderful route, almost identical to the one I did just two weeks before your ride on my 701. As many times as I’ve done these trails, it’s different every time. Thank you for the article!

  2. I started riding DS, and now Adventure bikes, because of JC. He is an institution in this industry and has forgoting more trails than most “adventure” company’s will ever know. He can be a crusty SOB….but, so can we all be. Listen to what he tells you about his rides because that info is the Gold Standard. Thank you JC!!

  3. Never disappoints, we always go at the end of March for the Noobs DV Rally. Missed the first in eight years due to C-19 this year, can’t wait for next year. I’m really missing riding out there, the place always has changing conditions, always a challenge!