August 16, 2014
For 36 years, the Dick Allen Sierra Safari has been a staple event in the Southern California off-road scene. Although the Sierra Safari was originally a motorcycle only OHV ride that pioneered many of the current dirt bike, mountain bike and hiking trails between Mammoth lakes and the Sierra Mountains that surround it, they have opened it up to ATVs and UTVs this year in response to the growing popularity of the 4-wheel OHVs. Since the ride began nearly four decades ago, the trails have been subjected to more use by sight-seers as outdoor enthusiasts have flocked to the region because of its epic scenery, hospitable weather and easy access for the millions of folks Cali who live to ride and ride to live.
Now, organized rides are not for everyone, but when you are riding in unfamiliar territory they can be a great way to learn some basic routes, experience the terrain and since you are committed financially, there’s no good way to chicken out once you sign up. I never was aware of this particular ride until I was invited to join my friends Gary & Amanda Carlson, who run Carlson Motorsports here in Medford Oregon, on a three day 300-mile ride through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Of course, I accepted.
And we were off on the 470-mile drive to Mammoth with a trio of Yamaha’s in tow. The Carlson clan prefer 4-wheelers and ride a pair of 2009 YZF450R ATVs while my bike of choice is a 2012 WR450F. All three machines were equipped with aftermarket exhausts with spark arrestors, tough tires, skid plates and quality air filters.
A total of 56 riders were on hand for the 36th Annual Sierra Safari from Mammoth to Hawthorne. Of them, all but a dozen were on motorcycles. There was a great mix of riders ranging in age from 12 to 80. The youngsters were part of a group of Father-son duos who made the pilgrimage from Nor Cal, there were a few husband and wife teams but other than that, there were mostly a bunch of dudes with the means to get away from it all for a few days and just ride. The majority of the bikes were KTM followed by Hondas in a distant second and the rest of the brands lumped into a distant third from there. Polaris UTVs were represented well with full-blown BITD-spec XP1K desert racing rigs to bone-stock XP1000 4-Seaters. Add into the mix another dozen guides on bikes and we had a decent size group.
The conditions were dry, warm and dusty as we made our way north along Highway 395 through the designated OHV roads and off towards the Mono Basin and the Nevada State Line beyond it. The majority of the terrain was pretty easy but one poor soul managed to bust his collar bone 10-miles into the trip. He was not real happy about spending all that time and money to ride for 15-minutes but remained with the group all weekend. The terrain at the start was loads of roads with neat turn outs, connected by two-track trails that kept us busy but didn’t harm anyone else. The Aspens were turning yellow, the sky was cerulean blue and the grass was still green all over the rolling hills. These mountains surrounding Mammoth are beautiful in autumn and I was content to chill-out and soak in the scenery at an overlook I stumbled across while looking for a good photo op.
From there we were in foothills. Rough, rocky and plenty of dust made it mandatory to keep a couple hundred yards between the bikes. Sticking with that plan made it a whole lot more enjoyable and was easier on the machines. We crested Corey Peak as Hawthorne came into sight on the horizon. This unassuming desert town is home to the often overlooked El Capitan Casino and the Hawthorne Army Depot (HWAD). El Cap would be our base for the next two nights, providing breakfast, lunch, dinner, booze, second-hand smoke and a bunch of good times while playing their generous slots. If you didn’t know it already, HWAD is the largest ammo depot…on the planet with 3,300 bunkers storing the majority of the US Army ammo stock piles so make sure not to tell any unsavory characters about it. By the time we showered, ate and performed routine bike maintenance it was late and we were getting up at 7am again for the next leg.
The morning air was brisk and the skies were blue on day two. My back muscles were sore but I was excited to get going and I wasn’t the only one. The parking lot was full of riders shuffling around, high-fives and hollering as they prepped for the days ride. Our destination was Bodie, the most well preserved ghost town in California. Another 100+ miles of dirt roads and dusty desert lie between here and there but the ride to Bodie was fairly easy with the exception of some sweet power line roads and challenging Jeep trails. Of particular interest was the long road into town which included a box canyon which we all agreed had to have been a favorite stalking spot for the villainous bad-guys of the good-old-days. You could see the great vantage points to attack the stage and rob it of its precious gold as the unsuspecting miners made their way out of Bodie.
Although it’s now a ghost down, the past is alive and well in this land where time has stood still for the last hundred years. Apparently, this place was quite the hot spot back in 1880s. It looks a little worse for wear these days but in its heyday it was home to over 10,000 folks that played a part in shaping the Wild West history of the region. Everything from gold to lumber originated here. With nary a tree to be seen you have to imagine they didn’t practice reforestation practices like they do now and while over 100-million dollars, worth of gold was mined between 1859 and 1932, you have to imagine there’s even more in these hard-edged hills.
This was the old west at its best with everything from a mercantile, hotel, a gym, couple of saloons and of course a couple of the 65-original gambling houses and other houses of ill repute strategically located at the cross road of Green and Main Street at the heart of down town. The decaying remnants of that bygone era remain: A nicely restored Dodge Graham truck, rusting machinery, burnt down cars, wooden wagons and a handful of buildings remain. Many of which are preserved with actual artifacts, products and belongings of the previous inhabitants. As a history buff, it is always cool to visit these old buildings and imagine the history they played a part in.
The road heading north out of town towards our lunch stop in Bridgeport started out mellow and got rocky and rugged once again. Challenging hill climbs, steep descents with ruts and rocks combined with scenic views made it difficult to navigate because I wanted to look at the scenery even though it put me at risk of a spill so I did my best to ride with one eye on the trail and one on the horizon. Fortunately I like rocks because there was a ton of them. Rocky roads, rocky trails, rocky mountains: Lots of rocks. The fact that we didn’t bend a wheel or pop a tire was a testament to our scintillating riding skill, or we just got lucky. Either way, we’ll take the win. One rock-strewn road near the end of the day led us to a look out that allowed us to see hundreds of miles all around us. Spectacular doesn’t quite sum it up, but it was just that. We took a few minutes to chill out, grab a drink and soak in the sights before heading back down for the stretch run to Hawthorne.
This was the day and terrain that took a toll on the bigger rigs. Four side-by-sides experienced mechanical failures of some type, most of which seemed related to the really rough terrain. Grinding noises from the front wheel drive, stuck transmissions and engines that gave up the ghost. There were more XP900 and XP1K that finished than not, so who knows what happened, really. Day two came to a close with a banquet at the El Cap ballroom where the Sierra Safari staff regaled us with tales from past adventures and subjected the folks who struggled or failed miserably on the first two days of the ride, to a mild roast. They also gave away a bunch of free promo items to their victims. Then we gambled until the smoke asphyxiation drove us out of the El cap and back to the hotel for a good night sleep.
Out on those trails, once again the Mammoth ribbon-robber was out, removing the trail markers in an effort to make the final day a pain for all of us; but it didn’t work. The Safari crew was on the task, re-lining the route as quick as they tore it down. That slowed the pace down a wee bit for the last 40-miles and caused some of us to stack up in a few areas. One memorable spot was a wicked-long hill climb that was so steep we dared not lose momentum, even though visibility was near zero because we were riding through silt-dust while facing into the already blinding sun. We were all riding by braille. Everyone managed to make it home safe and before too long we were loaded up and headed back to Oregon.
When the dust settled and we were reminiscing on the weekend the overwhelming theme was the epic scenery. Riding on roads can be boring to some folks but as far as I’m concerned, if it is a means to a end then I can deal with it. Around every mountain was a vista or viewpoint of some type. The historic stop in Bodie and discovering that the courthouse in Bridegport had a claim to fame that “Many a Bad Man from Bodie” was put on trial there. Plus, there is so much more undiscovered routes, roads, trails and destinations that we are already planning to return and ride here on our own someday soon.
As far as we can tell the 36th Annual Sierra Safari was a success and if we have anything to do about it, there will be a few more riders from Oregon on the ride in 2015. If you like good rides, good people and rocks, then come join us for a Wild West adventure next October.
1. OHV Sticker: All bikes need an OHV sticker.
2. Insurance: You have to have liability insurance.
3. Camera: The scenery is epic so snap some pics!
4. Spark Arrestor: Your exhaust must have an S/A.
5. 96db: Your exhaust must meet CA OHV requirements.
6. Tires: Good desert tires are a must in these conditions.
7. Spares: Bring spare levers, spare tube & tools.
8. Gear: Helmet, goggles, boots, jacket, gloves, chest protector, knee/elbow guards, knee braces.
9. Hydration Pack: You must bring water & a good pack always has some food too (Just in case you are stuck).
10. Relaxed Mood: This is not a race. There is dust & casual riders. if someone passes you, no big deal. If the dust is too crazy, slow down and remember to relax and enjoy the ride.