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American Road Magazine
Celebrating our two-lane highways of yesteryear…And the joys of driving them today!

CA 190 and the Jedi Transition

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One of the main roads through Death Valley National Park is California Highway 190 running from Olancha and US 395 on the west to Death Valley Junction to the east. Along its 131 mile route it passes the constantly irrigated dry lakebed of Owens Lake, over the southern tip of the Inyo Mountains, descends the Argus Range into and across the Panamint Valley, veers northeast over the Panamint Range and into Death Valley before turning southeast and passing through Furnace Creek and exiting Death Valley. In addition to having the distinction of being the lowest road in North America at 282 feet below sea level as it passes through Badwater in Death Valley it also could be the hottest road in North America.

As CA 190 enters the western side of Death Valley National Park there is a geographic feature identified on the topo maps as "Rainbow Canyon".  The three mile long canyon is a mere 1500 feet wide at the top with 1000 foot tall walls of reds, greys, and pinks that some compare to the Star Wars planet of Tatooine. Pilots that fly through the canyon compare it to the trench that Luke flew on the Death Star in his X-Wing fighter with one difference being that the canyon isn't surrounded by laser cannons but rather Nikons and Canons.

Rainbow Canyon.jpg

The Father Crowley Vista Point (36°21'6.92"N 117°33'2.05"W) sits on the south side of the canyon towards its western end and is a good place to stop, take a comfort break, and get a good view of the canyon. If your lucky you will be standing near someone with a scanner set to a frequency of 315.9 and you will hear the call of a pilot at the Olancha waypoint requesting clearance to the Jedi Transition heading east to Star Wars Canyon. As you look along the canyon to both sides you notice small groups gathered on the hillsides, all excitedly looking west. Soon you notice a small dot pop up over the hillside and quickly descend, growing larger, and heading toward the canyon's western end. As it continues descending into the canyon, its form now readily apparent, the small groups gathered on the hillside raise their telephoto lenses and follow the object, capturing pixels by the gigabyte, as the aircraft passes below them with the sound of afterburners echoing off the canyon's wall.

Military pilots know the route between Olancha and a location east of Panamint Springs as the "Jedi Transition". The area around Rainbow Canyon, and Death Valley in general, is known to be the most dense flight-test complex in the world, with aircraft from Edwards AFB, NAWS China Lake, Plant 42, Mojave airport, Nellis AFB, NAS Lemoore, MCAS Miramar and the Fresno Air National Guard Base all using the restricted air space for training and testing. Aircraft as diverse as F-16 & F-18 fighters to B-1 bombers to C-17 Globemaster transports have all been spotted making runs through the canyon.

As target rich of an environment as it might sound for the aviation enthusiast it can also be frustrating, and possibly dangerous if you venture outside the parking area. Rattlesnakes are not uncommon in the dry rocky terrain and between the months of April and September temperatures well above 100 degrees, and sometimes close to 120, are common. The best time of year, from a temperature perspective, is between October and March. It's also possible that you could find yourself hiking out to a prime location and sitting all day with no aircraft flying by no matter what time of year you go.


A VX-9 Vampire F/A-18F Super Hornet out of China Lake NWS in low level flight through Star Wars Canyon.



Royal Danish Air Force F-16 in low level flight through Star Wars Canyon


Royal Danish Air Force F-16 crew gives a wave as they exit Star Wars Canyon. Air crews from the Denmark Air Force were based at Nellis AFB as they transitioned to the F-35 Lightning II.



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2 hours ago, hutchman said:

Outstanding images!  Death Valley is on my list of "must visit" places!

Hutchman, I hope you get the chance to visit Death Valley sometime soon. I've been there 7 times that I can recall and each is a unique experience. You wouldn't think that a place that appears to be so desolate would have so much to see, much of which is within reach of the asphalt and even more if you're willing to get onto the dirt.

One of my most memorable experiences was a solo camping trip to the Racetrack Valley. During the course of the day I only saw 3 vehicles pass through and at night it was quite possible that I was only living soul, or at least one of only a handful, in a 20 mile radius.


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Well…..that is some road trip report!! I know you like your aircraft but I thought you had become a jet jockey!! Amazing photos and a great to know about location.

This is the kind of reporting that will rekindle the value of the Forum; a unique site you can only reach on our two lane roads.

I may send a note to the folks at AR pointing out the strengths of the Forum. Facebook and the other more popular social media have their place, but it takes uncluttered space, intelligent and informative dialog, value added like a map,  and photos to tell a good road trip story, and your is a great example.



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Dave, a few weeks back I was doing the research for a road trip I was planning across Nevada. As I traced my way westward on I-80 using Google Earth I came to a pin that I had placed a number of years ago on Golcanda Summit and recalled a challenge that had been issued on the ARM Form regarding that spot. Not recalling the details I began searching the ARM Forum and after finding what I was looking for spent the next few hours reading all the various threads and postings. So much road information captured there. 

I was an early adopter of Facebook, back when it had a "the" at the front of its name, but recent revelations have turned me sour to the whole idea and I deleted my account at the end of last year. Facebook is fine if you want to share a photo of what you're eating for dinner or find out if an old girlfriend got fat, but it is not a good repository for information. Basically, it's 1.5 billion narcissists screaming "look at me." I've lost a few real world friends because of Facebook.

What the ARM Forum provides is a record of history. It is a bit sad to see the way that usage dropped off, and yes, I was part of the problem, but I hope that as people begin to realize the downside and limitations of Facebook they will come to the realization that a topical forum, especially one as well organized as ARM is, is a better way of sharing specific information and preserving it in a way that others can benefit from it in the future. 


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