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Into the desert

Updated: Aug 24, 2019

The Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park: a desert that's full of life

From the edge of Los Angeles, I should have been heading south – down through the heart of the city, making a break for the border. That had been the plan: into Mexico and onwards, south to adventure... But the plan had been to do that about 10 days ago, if not two weeks ago. The plan is not going well.

So I'm ignoring the plan. I head to Glendale on the northern edge of LA to pick up a road that several people have told me is the best road in California - including Weeble, the photographer who rode all over Europe with me when we were compiling the RiDE Guides and really knows the kind of riding I enjoy. It's California Highway 2: Angeles Crest Highway.

Highway 2: fantastic riding from the very start

It certainly starts well - long, sweeping corners climbing up between high rock walls or overlooking deep gorges. The surface is bumpy and polished enough to tickle my caution gland, so I'm not really pushing – and anyway, there are a few cars and cyclists to edge past politely. When a badly ridden Honda CBR600 fumbles his way past me and the car I'm following, I let him go. I don't want to be there when he crashes...

I already know that I can't ride all of Highway 2: a section has been closed because a landslide damaged or destroyed a bit of the road. But I can get to Mount Wilson, with its observatory - one of the key points at the LA end of the road. As I'm on the road early, it's pretty much deserted. The climb is good, if a bit bumpy and narrow in places, and the view from the top is wonderful: Mount Wilson is only 1740m high, but that's lofty enough to offer a fantastic overview of the sprawling city below, even with low cloud/mist obscuring chunks of it.

The views from Mount Wilson are great. On the right

My early start might have given me quiet roads, but it does mean the observatory is shut (boo!) and so is the cafe at the top of Mount Wilson (double boo!) so I make my way back down the twisty road. Angeles Crest Highway is closed at the Mount Wilson turnoff, so I backtrack a few miles to the detour, on the Angeles Forest Highway.

I know don't know precisely what I was expecting from detour – bumpy back road; gravel; sheep; horror... that sort of thing – but in fact I find a road that's far better than the initial stretch of Angeles Crest Highway. The surface is perfectly smooth, highly grippy and the corners are fast and flowing... It's such a good ride that I miss the turning for Upper Big Tujunga Canyon Road – which completes the detour to Highway 2 – and carry on for a good five or six miles, grinning like an apex-hunting idiot (they all get away, of course...)

When I turn round and take the detour, I find a headlight slowly growing in my mirror for the final few miles of UBTCR. Turning onto Angeles Crest, I give it a few turns then roll off, let the bike catch up and wave it past: sexy-looking MV Agusta with a rider in a one-piece leather suit trying very hard to look as fast as the bike.

Newcomb's Ranch: great meeting spot

I'm surprised not to see the MV parked up when I get to Newcomb's Ranch a few miles later. This is a local institution, a cafe that draws bikers like... something pleasant... draws flies. I stop, have a good chat with Trevor (originally from Worcester but been here for years) and four or five local riders. At one point there's a fanfare of exhaust and airbox howl and the MV comes screaming round the road, carrying past with the rider trying even harder to look as fast as the bike (and still failing). I wonder if the rider's related to the CBR600 rider?

When I finish my Coke, I head north – pretty much on my own, apparently. One bike comes past while I'm taking pictures, but I don't see much traffic at all. Instead I just see brilliant corner after brilliant corner. This really is a great road, like a "Now That's What I Call Mountains" compilation of some of my favourite bits of the Alps – with stretches reminding me of Col d'Izoard, Col du Galibier and Col d'Allos. It really is a fantastic ride.

I fill up at the tiny petrol station in Wrightwood, talking briefly with Norton expert Jerry Kaplan and his rather lovely daughter - who ask if I'm here for the bike event. What bike event? Jerry explains: Cycle World is running an event at the nearby Mountain High Resort. I backtrack furiously, hoping to find an editorial person and sell them a story... but of course nobody can be found. I mooch around for a bit, but the clock is ticking, so after half an hour I give up and press on.

The next stretch of riding is intended to be mile-munching transit... which it is, pretty much. Though the steady increase in heat is sapping my ability to keep my eyes open. Outside the town of Ramona, we're brought to another set of heroic roadworks – which means hanging around in the baking sun for 15 minutes until the convoy vehicle is ready to mother-duck the waiting traffic through.

If you want curvy tarmac, look no further than Highway 74

Once we're clear of the road works, though, I really enjoy myself on Highway 74. Especially when it emerges to look down over Palm Springs... and the most preposterous set of bends I've yet seen in the US. The road tumbles down the arid hillside in a cocktail of corners that would bring a tear of envy to the eye of any Spanish road builder. It's like the great mountain roads of Andalusia: broad, perfectly surfaced, with short straights and increasingly tight corners building up to the hairpins that unleash the road on the next leg of its downhill journey. It's so good I actually turn round at the bottom to see how it is as a climb (awesome) and to enjoy the descent a second time.

I stop not in Palm Springs but in the more-honestly named "Palm Desert", with an old family friend - a former next-door-neighbour my mother still counts as one of her best friends, for all the physical distance between them. I actually have a rest day - a whole day without riding, the first of the trip - when I do laundry, write a bit, help with a few odd jobs, and generally try to stay out of the suffocating heat.

Have I found what I'm looking for? Good question...

This morning I set off – not to turn south towards the Mexican border, but to head back inland. A short stretch of I-10, then I was turning north and heading to the Joshua Tree National Park. It's truly magical - a scrub-desert of sagebrush emerging from sand, with mountains frowning down from the horizon. Gradually the sagebrush gives way to a vast expanse of cacti... and then gradually to the bizarrely tall, spiky Joshua Trees themselves. It's a madly contradictory landscape: on the one-hand the sand and rock and sunlight of the desert; on the other, the tough green vibrancy of the trees.

With one of the amazing Joshua Trees

From the town of Joshua Tree and then Twentynine Palms, I head east. The wind rises, throwing hot sand at me like Satan's imps showering me with burning embers. Eventually I reach my overnight stop and heave a sigh of relief: I'm back in Arizona, so petrol prices are more normal and, more importantly, I can get out of the heat for a little while... But tomorrow I'll be back in it.

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Jay Vanderford
Jay Vanderford
Aug 22, 2019

It was good to meet you at the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, our Jeep broke in Phoenix so we spent a few days there hope your journey continues without issue, cheers.


Yeah, after Joshua Tree you meant "...head east..." You can't get from CA to AZ by going west, unless you travel via Beijing.

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