ATV Trails: Big Bear to Las Vegas Off-Road Adventure
An unforgettable two-day desert journey with Kawasaki
Story by Lucas Cooney, Photography by Alfonse Palaima, Nov. 29, 2010
In my three years at ATV.com I’ve had opportunities to ride dozens of ATVs and side-by-sides throughout the United States and Canada. It’s these experiences that make this industry so much fun to be a part of. Just recently I was lucky enough to be invited on what might be the coolest off-road adventure of my life – a two-day ride from Big Bear, Calif. to Las Vegas, Nev.
This epic journey was organized by Kawasaki’s Jon Rall, who was kind enough to take care of all the details – including hooking us up with a brand new 2011 Kawasaki Teryx 750 Sport for what would turn out to be a 330-mile voyage.
After spending the night in Big Bear Lake, everybody got up early, had a bite to eat and made our way to the staging area a short drive down the mountain. It was a fairly chilly November morning so we all through on plenty of gear and got acquainted with our machines, each of which was outfitted with a spare tire and a five-gallon fuel jug.
Leading the trip was Wally from Side x Side Outfitterz. When he’s not competing in off-road endurance races or manufacturing accessories for a variety of side-by-sides, Wally also leads adventure tours throughout the western United States. He’s actually made the same trip we were about to embark on…at night! Needless to say, he knows the terrain and we were all fortunate to have him show us the way.
Following Wally, who was joined by photographer Alfonse Palaima (aka Fonz), were the six of us media types, each in our own Teryx. Jon Rall and fellow Kawasaki employee John Baynes took up the rear and acted as sweepers.
Day 1 was to be the shorter of the two and the goal was to reach Barstow, Calif. We started off up in the mountains of the San Bernardino Forrest, but it didn’t take long to reach the desert below, which is where we would spend the next two days.
I’m always surprised when I ride in the desert at how varied the terrain is. I live in the northeast, the land of forests and lakes, and used to think the desert was fairly one-dimensional. The 90-mile ride to Barstow, however, would quickly dispel that notion. It is true that the majority of our ride was spent tackling loose, rocky trails, but there is so much more to the desert than that. Rock crawling, sand dunes, high-speed flats, and big elevation changes were all on the menu. I even saw my first Joshua trees as we rode through what seemed like a desert forest filled with these unique plants. Very cool!
Also surprising, to me at least, is the wind. I’ve never experienced wind while riding like this before – there’s just nothing to stop it. You can feel it push your vehicle left and right and that takes a little getting used to. Of course with the wind comes dust and I saw more of that on this trip than I have in a lifetime. If we were lucky the wind would be blowing left or right and keep view of the road ahead fairly clear. Often, however, the vehicle ahead would leave a seemingly endless dust trail that would leave me squinting and backing off the throttle. Trying to keep your goggles clear was basically pointless and any exposed skin gets a thorough sandblasting. It stings when you wash up and the end of the day, but some women pay good money for a similar exfoliating treatment at the spa.
Just a couple of hours into our ride we came across a small dune that was completely deserted except for our group. I’m not exactly an experienced duner, but nobody was able to resist playing around in the deep sand. Though surely not your prototypical dune machine, the Teryx handles itself reasonably well. Even with stock tires – not to mention the spare tire and gas jug – it was able to easily climb any of the modest-sized hills we came across.
After having our fun in the deep sand we headed for the rocks. These aren’t your standard rocks, though. This is where the infamous King of the Hammers race is held – home to some of the gnarliest rock crawling you’ll find anywhere. Most of us were pretty eager to do a little rock crawling so Wally guided us over a few of the more tame climbs. I got hung up a little bit when I misjudged the size of a rock, but somebody was kind enough to give me a push back onto level land. A few other audible scrapes could be heard coming from some of the other units, but nothing was damaged and everybody arrived in one piece at the lunch spot – an area known as the Rock Pile – a staging area for races held in this part of the desert.
We were met by a chase vehicle at the Rock Pile where lunch was provided and the vehicles were gassed up. After filling our bellies we kicked it into high gear and headed for Barstow. This leg of the trip was a whoop paradise, though it sure didn’t feel that way by the time we were done. Whoops can be a little tricky to see while riding through a dust cloud, so occasionally my front end would dip down hard when I wasn’t expecting it and put the shocks on my Teryx Sport to the test.
When we weren’t being thrown about by the whoops we were riding fast and having more fun than should be allowed. On one wide-open section we were running three wide with the pedal pushed to the floor and trying to get to the front of the pack. Despite getting sand stuck in my teeth I couldn’t stop smiling all the way to Barstow.
The desert trail took us all the way to the parking lot of our hotel. We handed off our Teryx fleet to some of Kawasaki’s finest and checked into our rooms for a much needed hot shower. Later that night we met for dinner and reminisced about the day’s adventures, including one accidental but nevertheless impressive jump from yours truly (the rider in the Teryx behind me feared for my safety…and so did I!) and several other amusing tales from the trails.
During dinner we were informed that we had a lot more work to do on Day 2 so we got up and ready to ride at the crack of dawn and began our journey to the bright lights of Las Vegas. Unlike the first day where we had plenty of opportunities to stop and play around, Day 2 was all about making miles. The pedal was pressed to the floor for much of the day and cruising speed was right near 50 mph.
It turns out Barstow is not exactly on a direct path from Big Bear to Las Vegas so much of the morning was spent backtracking. This wouldn’t have been a big deal except this had us riding straight into the sun, which seemed to pick up intensity as it danced off the unrelenting dust. I spent a good portion of this leg with one hand on the steering wheel and one hand shielding my eyes from the persistent glare.
Once I was done fighting with the sun I found myself falling in to a rhythm, much like you would driving your car on the highway. It was easy to ride along almost unaware of where I was or how many miles had ticked by. Eventually we came upon some big hills that needed to be crossed, which meant lots of sharp turns as the trail zigzagged up and over the rise. The problem I encountered is that I was so used to going full throttle that it felt odd to suddenly have to slow down and make turns. Fonz was riding with me at the time and I’m pretty sure he would have been happier with just about anybody else as I sloppily negotiated the climb.
We re-fueled in the middle of this mini mountain range and took a few pictures before heading down the other side where more full-throttle riding awaited. More miles of desert passed underneath as we met up with our chase vehicle for lunch where the trail ran alongside the highway.
With full bellies and a little rest we strapped back in and continued our fast-paced ride. As the afternoon wore on I started to wear out. Salvation, however, loomed in the distance…at least I thought it did. A town was emerging from the desert and as we grew closer I started to see casinos. It seemed awfully small, but I was tired and really thought we were on the outskirts of Las Vegas. It turns out it was a mirage as this small desert town was actually just Primm, Nev.
We met the chase vehicle in a hotel parking lot where I was told the bad news – we still had about 40 miles to go. At this point we had already logged nearly 200 miles, which was more than twice as far as I’d ever ridden in a single day before. I kept the complaining, however, to a minimum. Wally and his son once travelled on a pair of KTM dirt bikes from southern California all the way to the northeastern United States – including a quick stop into Canada. As tired as I was I found it difficult to protest about what would be a 240-mile day when he was within earshot.
The final stretch was exhausting, but as night fell I got a second wind. Las Vegas was fast approaching and we started to ascend a hill that would give us a view to remember. I’d like to say I jumped out of my Teryx and started snapping pictures and giving everybody high-fives, but really I just sat back, took in the view and smiled a satisfied smile. A short time later we met up again with our chase vehicle, as well as Kawasaki’s big semi, and finally got to relax.
This journey was at the same time the most exhausting off-road trip I’ve ever made and far and away the most gratifying. I’ll never forget how we all looked as we checked into the mammoth, glitzy Las Vegas hotel. We drew the stares of many confused gamblers as we dustily sauntered in with our filthy gear and giant grins. I was absolutely elated.
The best part of a trip like this, and the reason Kawasaki organized everything, is that anybody can do it. We rode two days on legal trails on machines anybody can buy. Whether you do it on your own with some friends or as part of a tour like Wally puts together this is an attainable goal and one that will leave you smiling many months or years after you complete it as the memories come flooding in.
It should also be pointed out that over two days and nearly 2,000 combined miles, the eight Kawasaki Teryx RUVs we rode suffered exactly zero mechanical issues. Besides two flat tires the entire trip was problem free. That’s pretty remarkable.
Big Bear to Las Vegas: Day 1
Big Bear to Las Vegas: Day 2
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