ADVENTURE LITE: Kawasaki KLR650 New Edition

In Death Valley, it’s always good to have a trusty pack mule. Preferably one that’s green.

Kawasaki KLR650 New Edition action shot

Back in 1849, 100 or so pioneers ventured across Death Valley in covered wagons, seeking a shortcut to California gold. Starving, they burned their wagons to make jerky of their slain oxen and then crossed the rugged Panamint Mountains on foot.

Tough souls they were, able to keep going in the face of extreme adversity. Which, come to think of it, also describes the Kawasaki KLR650 New Edition, the bike I recently used to explore Death Valley, the starkly beautiful national park that doesn't look like it has changed much since the 1800s. Now, though, a network of roads and trails crisscrosses the place, which allowed the street-legal KLR to take me everywhere I wanted to go: Ubehebe Crater, Twenty Mule Team Canyon, the Racetrack, up Furnace Creek Wash, down the West Side Road, and eventually out of the park via Harry Wade Road. In total, the KLR and I did a few hundred miles in the park, much of it on dirt with a fair amount of washboard chop and the occasional patch of sand. The scenery, as you'd expect, was exquisite—when was the last time you saw Joshua trees in bloom?

So what did I learn on this adventure? Well, the KLR650 New Edition might be old school with its carburetor, 1980s analog gauges, and lack of electronic ride modes, but that simplicity, that proven reliability, make it ideally suited for Death Valley. Moreover, its liquid-cooled 651cc single keeps the bike from feeling too frantic on the highways that connect the dirt roads, yet there’s enough low-end tractability to navigate tricky (and steep) trails at an explorer’s pace. Sure, at 432 pounds the KLR is big, but it’s actually much lighter than larger ADV bikes, and you won’t find it unbearably heavy in technical sections. Moreover, if it’s dropped, you typically can just pick it up and keep riding.

Kawasaki KLR650 New Edition static shot

That stated, calling this latest KLR a New Edition is a stretch. The only parts that are really new are the firmer suspension and revised seat, which is narrower at the front and wider at the rear for legitimate all-day comfort. And the suspension truly does make the KLR a better dirt machine. Kawasaki still uses 41mm fork tubes, but the springs are 40-percent stiffer, with rebound damping increased by 28 percent. And in back, the new KLR is stiffer by 63 percent, with damping upped by a whopping 80 percent.

The effect, Kawasaki says, is improved off-road capabilities, reduced bottoming, sharper handling, and less brake dive. I concur; the KLR never bottomed out on my ride, and it felt harsh only after I maxed out the preload just prior to a rocky climb and a heavily washboarded road. Don’t feel too sorry for me, though; at my next stop, I quickly dialed back the preload one setting, using a 14mm T-handle wrench.

With its improved suspension, the KLR better fills the niche it occupies, that which lies somewhere between a dual-sport machine and an ADV bike. And, frankly, the KLR has wheels in both worlds. But when you factor its 6.1-gallon steel fuel tank (which translates to a real-world range of more than 250 miles), along with its available tank bag, saddlebags, and tail case (all accessories from Kawasaki), it’s perhaps easiest to view the $6,599 KLR New Edition as a two-wheeled pack mule, taking you and your gear anywhere you want to go.

But never think of the KLR as your ox, mind you, because we all know what happened to them in Death Valley...

Proof that we paid our entry fee to get into Death Valley.

At The Racetrack, rocks like these mysteriously move long distances.

Nice place to stop for lunch.

Tight sections of the trail headed down from Wheeler Pass.

Motoring along on Furnace Creek Wash Road.

Springsteen?s ?Badlands? comes to mind in Death Valley?s Twenty Mule Team Canyon.

Who said Death Valley is all dry and sandy? Not us.

On the road to Panamint, the KLR acquitted itself quite well on the pavement.

Soft top case is loaded; we?re ready to roll.

KLR felt like it was supercharged below sea level?just kidding.

Many Gold Rushers tried to cross Death Valley in 1849. Would have been easier on a KLR.