Going to Death Valley. How do you decide where to go, what to do, which trail to take? I don't know. Still trying to figure that one out. A few years ago I heard neighbors talk about camping in Death Valley; I've read many reports about riding in Death Valley, the riders praising it as a unique place to ride. Somehow it materialized in me as something I wanted to see and experience. It's a desert, right? Probably best to go in the winter before it gets hot, so found a block of time in late March, checked some temperature records, seemed a good choice. A couple nights before we were to leave I stayed up until 1 am, reading the mesmerizing report of larryboy. I don't use the word mesmerizing lightly. His report is a work of art. I wondered if a place could really cast that kind of a spell. There is always a sense of unease heading out someplace I've never been before. What if it's a waste of time? Only way to find out is to just go. Got packed up, bikes ready, warm weather clothes, and our new dog along with dog stuff. Hope this works. Well, first of all Marleau the dog turned out to be a great adventurer. He loves riding in the truck, calm, sleeps most of the time, and can hold it better than his human travelers. He loves being in his crate, and when nothing exciting is going on he's perfectly happy to just hang inside. It's a long day's drive from the Bay Area to Death Valley and we took our time getting there, driving through Red Rock canyon and up Highway 395, places that resonated with me from long ago. My father took me to Red Rock canyon to ride and camp once, and we'd spent several summer weeks backpacking in the eastern Sierra, traversing 395 each trip and filling me with strong memories. I had decided to head for Panamint Springs as it seemed like a good place to use as a base camp, with lots of interesting places radiating from it. I knew there was gas available there as well. We got there after sundown and as I pulled off the road and opened the truck door I could hear disembodied voices from campers across the highway, smell hot trailer brakes mixed with campfire smoke, feel the warmth still in the air. It was about 75°F, warmer than it had been for weeks in the Bay Area. Already, Death Valley was casting its spell. I paid for one night; I normally don't much care for private campgrounds and thought we'd give it test and decide tomorrow if we were going to stay here or move on down the valley. We pulled into our spot in darkness, headlights lighting up our camp neighbor asleep in a lounge chair at 8:30 pm. We tried to be quiet... The morning was a nice blue sky day, a little haze in the air, warm and pleasant. The campground was situated in the foothills between the Darwin Plateau and the Argus Range, with a broad panoramic view of the Panamint Valley below and the Panamint Range beyond. Death Valley itself was beyond that range. The campground seemed nice enough, and I couldn't find a reason that would make me want to hitch up and move so we decided to stay and paid for the rest of our nights in advance. Turned out to be a good decision. That day a couple moved into the site above us. Turns out we had strangely parallel lives. He rides (had his F650GS there), is an inmate at advrider.com (Hiya lostinnevada), we both have yellow labs with hockey names, and we have spent summers at the same state park at the beach near San Diego for years. Probably have been there at the same time...weird, huh. Their son is an F18 pilot, training at China Lake and they were hoping to see him fly. The weather didn't cooperate for them, but we did get to see some amazing flying skills right before they arrived. A very gracious couple, and hopefully I'll take the opportunity to ride with lostinnevada in the future. I'd picked up a few intriguing places from larryboy's report, and one of them was called China Garden. It was fairly close by and from what I could read would make a good first day ride. We geared up and headed back up Highway 190, looking for a dirt road off to the left. I turned on the first left I saw...a deadend driveway, leading up to some abandoned buildings. Great start already. Check the map and gps, hmmm must be a little farther up 190. Yeah, like another half-mile up 190. Found it, and away we rode. Nice washboardy dirt road, winding through beautiful desert rocks and washes and ridges. Got to the trail head for Darwin Falls and, not wanting to hike 2 miles in off-road boots, we kept riding up the road. Saved for another time. The road got steeper, rockier, a bit more fun. Julie lost momentum and her bike stopped against the side of a rutted rocky upslope. I had to ride it up a few yards, and then she took over. Good progress, because she didn't get discourage or frustrated. We figured out a solution and just kept going. Dropped down into a valley, and there was the unmarked side trail to China Garden. An amazing oasis in the middle of a desert. Time for lunch. The magic of China Garden lies in its gold. Goldfish, that is. Crazy fish, living in this harsh environment...we were absolutely taken in by the spell of Death Valley at this point. I don't know anything about the history of China Garden, there were ruins of buildings and what looked like some kind of mine machinery nearby, but the contrast of small beauty in a largely hostile environment is partly to explain why Death Valley seems like a place to be savored. On to Darwin. More great dirt road riding, and we arrived at the settlement of Darwin. An odd mix of abandoned and in-use buildings, the only clue to which was which was by looking at the tires of the vehicles in front of the building. I figured if they were aired up, someone was living there. Yes, a post office seems to be the hub of activity. The real estate boom was still going strong at least. It was getting late, so we heading on to Highway 190 in order to make a loop back to camp. Highway 190 drops down through Rainbow Canyon in a tight twisty series of paved turns. We rode carefully, most of the time, and made it back to the trailer. Marleau was holding the fort down securely. Next up, Titus Canyon. We first made the obligatory stop in Rhyolite. A bit...touristy...for my taste. The outdoor art museum was worth the stop at least. The weather was slowly turning cooler, grayer, windier. Not quite the warm desert weather we were expecting but not a problem. Back on the bikes, and on to the one-way road through Titus Canyon. Spot the XT? The earth forms are magnificent. I feel very lucky to have been able to experience this. The next day we planned to go up Saline Valley Road a ways, cross Hunter Mountain and then try to make Teakettle Junction. We got a late start, and trucked the bikes back up 190 through Rainbow Canyon to the start of Saline Valley Road. Can you guess why it's called Rainbow Canyon? We started climbing from rocky and sandy desert, to joshua tree forest, to scrub pine forest. The views back down into the Panamint Valley were spectacular. We climbed to over 7000 feet, there was still snow in places, some mud holes too. Nothing too bad, but we were slowed down and made a few wrong turns. One road I turned into led us to a couple firsts--my first gate, and my first cabin! Ride reports of far away exotic locales always seem to involve gates, and the dirt road etiquette involved. I guess I can say I've ridden somewhere exotic now. At least I knew gate etiquetteleave the gate as you found it. We did. The road only went another mile or so beyond the gate, and ended at a pretty simple cabin. Don't know the name, but inside there was a log book, a single cot (no mattress), some canned tuna, and a warning from the park service about hanta virus. The two windows were boarded up. No stove, but it was much warmer inside than out. By that time the wind had picked up, and the temperature was dropping. We kept moving. We stopped for lunch after we'd dropped down the other side of Hunter Mountain. We realized we'd never make Teakettle Junction because of the late start so we turned around and headed back. As we neared the summit, it started snowing. We'd brought plenty of layers but my hands and feet and face were getting cold. It was a long cold slog back to the truck and by the time I got the bikes loaded the engine had warmed up and I had the heater going full blast. Of course as the sun dropped down near the horizon it finally found an opening below the storm clouds. Despite the sunshine, it was COLD out there! That night it rained and stormed, I think the winds were probably close to 50 mph gusts. A tent full of gear blew across the campground like a tumbleweed. I felt honored to be in Death Valley during a rain storm. Got up in the middle of the night and just watched and listened to the storm for awhile. Unfortunately that was the end of our riding. The next day was not a good day to ride. Cold, wind, rain and snow. We drove into the main valley, bikes in the truck just in case, but never got them unloaded. Here is Towne Pass- Yeah, it's snowing. Scotty's Castle was pretty damp, but still would've been cool to have been a guest there in its heyday. The wind was howling at Ubehebe Crater. You could lean into the crater at a 30° angle and the wind would hold you up. As we drove back to camp, I felt like I was going back in time. That road stretches out a long way into the past. We woke to a beautiful morning. The snow level had dropped to about 3000 feet I'd guess. Here is the view across 190 past the Panamint Springs restaurant. Usually at the end of a trip I'm ready to go home. Not this time. I was leaving, but I kept thinking this is only the beginning. I have more to experience here. Can a place really cast that kind of spell?