story and photography by Mark Travis
[California Motorcycle Touring: Reno to Laughlin was originally published as a Favorite Ride in the March 2008 issue of Rider magazine]
Westbound Interstate 80 carried us along the Truckee River from Reno to the Donner Summit, where we looked down on the lake and the Pioneer Monument. After backtracking a few miles to U.S. 89, we turned south toward Lake Tahoe–the highest lake of its size and second deepest in the United States. As we meandered along the western shore, the pines and fir filled the air with their spring scents.
We stopped in Meyers to top our tanks and our tummies, then continued south on Luther Pass Road. Residences along a few climbing miles gave way to dense forest and gray granite outcroppings. After passing through the 7,740-foot pass, we dropped into the high meadows of Hope Valley. Turning left at Picketts Junction, we enjoyed the twisties along the Carson River. A right at Woodfords and seven miles later we slowed for Markleeville. On other trips we’ve camped at the state campground and soaked in the hot pool at Grover Hot Springs a few miles west of the small town.
U.S. 89 switched us over 8,314-foot Monitor Pass where, with snow-covered peaks at our backs, we gazed easterly across the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah. Below Monitor we rounded a hairpin and grabbed the binders for seven deer enjoying the spring grass on the south side of the pavement. Three of them dropped away from the highway, two froze and the other two decided to play “dodge the motorcycles” as they crossed the road.
U.S. 89 died at U.S. 395, where we turned south through the Antelope Valley with steer, curious llamas and a new set of not unpleasant odors. After wide-spot Walker, we breezed through the Walker River Canyon and climbed to 7,519-foot Devil’s Gate Summit.
The Devil’s Gate slipped into a wide, flat valley containing the small town of Bridgeport and a lake of the same name. Soon we were climbing the north side of 8,138-foot Conway Summit. We stopped at the vista parking area near the top and gazed down at 750,000-year-old Mono Lake. Salt and other minerals are so concentrated that only brine shrimp and knobs and spires of calcium carbonate survive in the water.
Off Conway we motored along the west side of the lake, slowed to near walking speed for Lee Vining, and turned on Highway 120 toward Yosemite. A quarter mile after the turn, we stopped at the Tioga Gas Mart and Whoa Nelli Deli for lunch. In addition to deli sandwiches and pizza, one may find a smoked trout omelet and an encrusted tenderloin glazed with apricot brandy on the menu.
U.S. 395 is divided into two lanes in each direction for most of the next 150 miles. The smooth, wide highway and thin traffic permit long glances at the snowcapped Sierra Nevadas on the right and cinder cones and the White Mountains on the left.
We traded six miles of 395 for the 17 miles of twisty two-lane labeled the June Lake Loop (and State Route 158), then climbed to 8,041-foot Deadman Summit. We dropped into the Long Valley Caldera and squeezed between bare mountain rock and Crowley Lake as we approached 7,000-foot Sherwin Summit.
The Paiute Palace Casino at the north end of Bishop has the least expensive fuel between Los Angeles and Carson City if one avoids the video bandits and gaming tables inside. A room, a meal and a dark chocolate pecan turtle ended our day.
High desert sage filled the 60 miles to Lone Pine the next morning. After breakfast we stopped at the Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film History. The museum celebrates the fact that the Alabama Hills between 395 and the Sierras have been used in films and commercials since there were films and commercials. A mile south of town we turned left onto State Route 136 and blinked our way along the north side of dry and dusty Owens Lake. A quarter of an hour later we joined State Route 190 aimed at the heart of Death Valley National Park. We climbed 4,956-foot Towne Pass and dropped carefully toward the valley floor. The odors of hot brake pads overpowered the sage.
In 80 miles and a bit more than an hour, the temperature climbed from Lone Pine’s 50 degrees to Death Valley’s 92, so we removed a layer of leather and enjoyed a soft drink at the Stovepipe Wells general store. Half an hour later we stopped at the Visitor Center at the Furnace Creek Ranch to stretch our legs with a quick walk through the museum. Sixteen miles south of the Ranch on State Route 178, we pulled onto the shoulder and looked up at the SEA LEVEL sign 279.8 feet above us. To our right was the Devil’s Golf Course, a 3- to 5-foot-thick layer of rough salt over a muddy lake bed, which covered many acres of the lowest part of the valley.
Climbing 1,293-foot Jubilee Pass, we dipped into a shallow valley, then topped 3,315-foot Salsberry Pass before stopping at Shoshone’s lone fuel station. We learned that Furnace Creek Road over Tecopa Pass had been washed out, so we climbed 2,090- foot Ibex Pass instead. After a stop in Baker for a late lunch, we found eastbound Interstate 15 filled with vehicles heading for Las Vegas. Our final pass, 4,125-foot Halloran Summit, came 12 miles before we slowed for Nipton Road, which we took when I-15 veered northeast.
After passing through a forest of Joshua Trees, we joined hundreds of law-abiding motorcyclists and three visible black-and-whites in Searchlight, Nevada. Turning south on U.S. 95 we enjoyed the speed limit during the 19-mile ride to Nevada State Route 163 for a left turn and a descent to Laughlin and the annual River Run party, a fitting end to our 12 passes ride.