Death Valley 2017 Edition – Getting to California

Traveling with a trailer was a new adventure for me, and I learned many things about RV’ing on this five-day trip. However, in preparing for it there was only one question that kept coming back and again, which really worried me, which was whether my old truck would make the 1,700 miles round trip to California with the loaded trailer, going over the several mountain passes, winter storms, and strong winds along the way.

The old truck in the Death Valley.

I had tested the truck’s towing capacity with the empty trailer. At slow, city speeds there was barely a change in pulling or stopping power.  At highway speeds I could tell there was something dragging behind it but overall the truck felt good and solid.


Going up Willamette Pass, March 2017

However, there were two conditions where I did not test the truck ahead of this trip due to lack of time and which worried me:  how the ruck would pull the fully loaded the trailer (two motorcycles and the riding gear, tools, and what I need for the five days effectively doubled its weight, I estimate the loaded trailer was at about 3,000lbs); and on top of that, how would it manage going up and down the steep passes that I need to go through on this trip?  While 3,000 lbs is within the truck’s towing capacity (3,500lbs for the 1996 five speed, 4×4, 302 V8, Ford F150), that towing limit was rated for a new truck in factory condition, I would say. 21 years later several horses have certainly escaped the barn.

I knew I would only test the truck’s capacity in the real application, like many projects I do.  Therefore I had a plan B, should I have any problem with the truck, which would be to rent a truck.  And if this would be an issue, the long term plan would be to buy a newer truck, with an automatic transmission (better towing capacity with a torque converter).


Trailer almost fully loaded.

Meanwhile one thing I learned is that the trailer made loading everything for this trip a breeze. That ramp was perfect for loading the bikes, the riding gear, and everything else I needed to “live” in this trailer on this five-day trip. At first I thought the two bikes would not fit side by side, requiring some strategic thinking to load the bikes, instead, they fit well and it was very easy to load and secure them (no wheel chock, by the way).

A second lesson I learned about having a trailer is that I took with me a lot more than what I really needed for this trip. The old saying “if you build it, they will come” may have a version that says “if you have the space, you will use it”. I made some mental notes about this issue so that on the next trip I can make sure I only bring with me what I really need and may downsize on other items.

Survived the first pass (Willamette Pass @ Hwy 58)!

I good portion of my worries about the truck’s capacity to do this job were dismissed as I started my drive south.  I took highway 58 towards Willamette Pass, which was my first test of the truck’s towing capacity.  It went up the pass with the appropriate downshifting, sometimes down to third gear. On those circumstances I was traveling at about 45-50 mph, a similar pace as to the tractor-trailers, which was important.  But other than climbing or going down hills and mountains, the truck behaved as if I was not towing anything.

For the most part I had to look back and make sure the trailer was still there

The real challenge, however, still remained for when I got to the Death Valley itself. On the way there, though, all was good and I was glad there was no snow on the road and especially at the passes along the way. However it rained and rained a lot all the way to California and then some.

Rain all the way in Oregon and in Northern California

Just north of Susanville the weather cleared and from there it was smooth sailing all the way to Bishop, CA, where I spent the night.

Just about getting past the last rain shower on the way south

The Death Valley 2017 Edition involved five groups of people, four of them from California.  We were a total of eight people, six riders for this adventure.  Three of these groups met in Bishop, CA, before going down to Death Valley, repeating last year’s stop at the Paiute Casino RV parking area.

Just getting there is already part of the adventure. Nice views on Hwy 139.

Eugene to Bishop is a 630 mile journey, about 1,000 km, which took me about 12-13 hours with the loaded truck. I left Eugene past 11am and arrived in Bishop past midnight.  The other two groups were there already, on the Paiute RV parking area just north of town.  I spread my pad and sleeping bag between the bikes and slept in the trailer for the first time, surrounded by the bikes and all my gear.  It was really cold, my 32 degrees sleeping bag with an extra liner did not do a good job in keeping me warm.  I had extra blankets in one of my gear containers, but I was too cold and too lazy to go look for them in the middle of the night.  I just slept in the cold as much as I could. Another lesson learned is to be better prepared for sleeping with the trailer loaded, keeping all the “on the trip” sleeping stuff together and with easy access.

Bishop is a nice location to spend the night for this long trip simply because it is close enough to the Death Valley.  If you leave Bishop by mid-morning you arrive in the Death Valley in time to check in and go for a ride before night fall.  As it has become a tradition on these pit stops, in the morning we stopped at the Schat’s Bakery for a cup of coffee and get some bread and pastries supplies.

Erick Schat’s Bakery, Bishop, CA

I highly recommend this bakery if you are driving through Bishop. Since then, however, I’ve heard of another good bakery south of town, the Great Basin Bakery, which is supposed to be really good as well. I will give it a try next time.  After coffee we got back on the road.

Beautiful area of this country!

We stopped for fuel (fuel is very expensive in the Death Valley) and continued south and east, and in no time we arrived at the Death Valley park under clear and sunny skies.

The convoy of three arriving at the Death Valley National Park

The truck did well so far, but it still would need to go up the steepest climb of this trip, the real challenge, which would be climbing up and down the mountains that are part of the Panamint Range inside the park.  The truck did it, however I had to take it down to second gear.  At a speed of 25 mph, with the air conditioning turned off, it was a long and slow climb.

On the way back, on these same climbs, the engine light came on.  I stopped, checked everything, all fluids looked good, I did not see anything out of place. Eventually, after a few stops, with the ignition key being turned on and off several times, the engine light turned itself off.  Who knows what triggered it, except that some key engine information went beyond its expected parameters.  And I guess it was a temporary situation.

Climbing these steep mountains inside the part, second gear at 25 mph

Back to the trip, all teams arrived at about the same time, we got settled on our camping area (Stovepipe Wells), we unloaded the bikes, and without much ado we were out for a ride towards Skidoo mines and then Aguareberry Point for the sunset.  It was really warm in the valley, which leads me to another lesson:  windows are not enough to manage hot days in the trailer, I will need to install a roof vent.  I already looked into this, and when I complete this task I will prepare a complete post about the cargo trailer turned into a toy hauler travel trailer.

Bikes unloaded, ready for the first ride!

What I can say is that my worries about this trip were dissipated, the old truck made it.  Besides the engine light, the only other problem I noticed was that the truck pulled to the right when braking hard with the weight of the trailer.  I need to investigate that.  And gas consumption varied from 9 to 11 mpg, down from its usual 12-15 mpg.  I assume this is normal for a V8.

I plan to keep this truck for as long as it can make these trips.  The day it doesn’t make one of these trips or something else major happens to it, that will be the time to get something newer and more capable.  For now, it does all right and in my mind it would be a waste of resources to spend money on another truck.

A very good truck.

On the next post I will document our first ride of this trip, when we visited the Skidoo mining area and the Aguereberry Point.

First ride of the trip: Coming down from the Skidoo mining area in the magic hour.

Stay tuned and thank you for reading.







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