The 2019 Ford F-150 to Death Valley, the world’s hottest-selling vehicle to the hottest place on Earth. As no-brainer road trip stories go, this is my absolute dimmest yet. One chock-full of fresh adventure for yours truly. I’ve never driven even one example of the astonishing 34 million F-Series trucks sold to date – an incredible one million plus examples registered globally in 2018 alone. And I’ve never experienced 49 degrees Celsius under the sun, either.
Excited? Trepidatious? Indeed, though not as much as my better half, surrogate photographer and North American debutante, to whom I pitch an even un-brainier proposal.
“Wanna see some bears?”
Why take the easy, four-hour route – exit Los Angeles, aim for Las Vegas on Interstate 15, turn left at Baker – that everyone’s done, when we can kick off from the Sierra Nevada ranges in the north-west? Then plot a course less trodden heading east into Death Valley. Sure, it’ll take three days longer, but the Sierras are home to America’s greatest natural wonder and wildlife mecca, Yosemite National Park, high up on my bucket list. And I wouldn’t mind a spot of bear-dodging before rolling fate’s dice with the Pit of Hell, or at least a place where the mercury rises nearly as high.
Whether it was electric folding sidesteps, the Camelback two-toned leather lounge chairs, real wood inserts or, yes, those blingy 22-inch wheels, the Ford F-150 Limited 4x4 Supercrew seduction commenced the moment we climbed into its cavernous cabin.
At $US70,560 (A$103,532) list, the Limited isn’t for shallow of pockets. The flagship of the ‘light duty’ F-Series is triple the price of the base F-150 single cab and over twice the price of range-topping US ‘Lariat’ version of the smaller Ranger. Further, it’s a significant $15k pricier than off-road-focused F-150 Raptor version it shares its ‘high-output’ 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6 with.
At 335kW and 695Nm, this HO Ecoboost six is the heavy lifter of the half-dozen engines offered in F-150, markedly more potent than the 272kW/570Nm MY17 Limited we’d reviewed in the past, now backed by the GM/Ford 10-speed auto rather than the old six-speeder. If I was to pigeonhole the MY19 version, it’d be the high-performance, road-centric, luxury tourer of the range, without losing out (much) in the load-lugging and towing capabilities we covered off with the 2017 version.
It’s clearly not some plus-sized Ranger Wildtrak. Despite some familiar executions in finish, materials and in-cabin electronics, it’s a whole different level of opulence, extravagance and comfort, with fewer of the concessions you find in diesel 4x4 dual-cab utes attempting to cover many bases, yet mastering little. There’s a polish and refinement in top-dollar F-Series that feels like you’ve stepped up to business class travel.
By the time I fully uncorked its powerful six scaling the breathtaking Tioga Pass, at 3031m California’s highest highway pass and the eastern entry to Yosemite Park, I’d convinced myself that finding a want-for-less, long-haul, road-tripping machine might be a challenging task.
It’s a bloody quick truck when need be. Kick it in the slats and there’s seamless, unflustered thrust married to a meaty, almost V8-like thrum. Thing is, it took 24 hours and almost 600 kilometres under the tyres to even notice the engine, such is its quiet, buttery-smooth nature and the effortlessness nigh on 700Nm that propels two-point-five tonnes of Dearborn’s finest.
Drive modes? Don’t need 'em. There’s ample pep under three grand for most needs and maximum thrust at a twitch of the right foot. It’s a dignified powertrain that really suits the Limited’s luxo leanings.
“Want to see some snow?”
The look the boss shoots me suggests my newly improvised plan is the dumbest yet: to start the day standing on ice at the (3371m) summit of Mammoth Mountain, a winter ski resort turned mountain biking mecca in August’s late summer, just up the road from our Sierra Nevada base camp of Mammoth Lakes (2400m). And then we’d grab lunch in Badwater, Death Valley, some 400 kilometres away and 81 metres below sea level, where the mercury is forecast to nudge 120 degrees F (48.9deg C) by mid afternoon.
Bishop, Independence, Lone Pine: it’s a string of quaint old-west-flavoured towns heading south on Highway 395 before heading south-east in the Mojave Desert, the road becoming SR190 shortly before arriving at Death Valley’s welcome sign. The 230km to this point have flown past, not so much from the F-150’s pace but because it’s just so damn quiet and comfortable on the open road. Noise isolation is excellent, the broad 275mm rubber run silent, and from a box-chassis platform running variable-rate rear leaf springs sat on 22-inch wheels, the ride quality is nigh on miraculous.
It’s not faultless – the rear axle will occasionally thud across particularly nasty separation joints at speed – but with 80mph (130km/h) dialled up on the adaptive cruise control, its serene nature and unflustered compliance is more than a match for a good many premium German machines I’ve driven lately. And that’s not just the thin Sierra Nevada air, nor the effects of the gradually rising Mojave Desert heat doing the talking…
A little further beyond the welcome sign, the smooth, single-lane ribbon of hot-mix begins to wind to-and-fro descending the rocky Argus Range, a dramatic and colourful vista that reveals a flat desert valley floor off in the distance, the SR190, aka Death Valley Scenic Byway, a tiny straight 10-kay line across to a mountain range beyond.
It’s beautiful, but it’s not Death Valley (yet). Instead, this is Panamint Valley, far enough west of Death Valley that some visitors mightn’t bother a look and much to their detriment. It’s home to Rainbow Canyon, nicknamed Star Wars Canyon as the colourful geology is reminiscent of the sci-fi movie franchise’s fictional Tatooine. Perhaps ironical, the key filming locations for Star Wars episodes A New Hope and Return of The Jedi are beyond the towering Panamint Range ahead in Death Valley itself. It’s also home to Barker Ranch, made infamous as the last hideout of cult leader Charles Manson, where he was arrested in 1969.
Cruising along across the valley floor, I suddenly haul on the F-150’s brakes to a sudden cacophony thunder of noise. An earthquake? Nope. It’s just an F22 Raptor jet fighter that’s buzzed our truck at an altitude so low I could see its pilot’s breakfast. The warplane suddenly arcs upwards, climbs into a couple of barrel rolls, and disappears across the mountains before I can reach for the phone for a pic.
It turns out this area is a famous fly zone for combat aircraft and has been since World War II. A number of military air bases use Rainbow Canyon, in particular, for low-altitude combat training, skimming across the desert – and pick-up rooftops - as low as 200 feet (61m) at speeds for up to 500km/h. Vantage points up on the canyon rim are some of the few places on Earth you can view airborne fighter jets flying below you from solid ground. Many tourists visiting Death Valley via the popular southeast Baker or Las Vegas entry routes miss out on such excitement.
The F-150 forges east, up the steep Towne Pass incline and across the top of Panamint Range, the road becoming an entertaining rollercoaster ride of dips and crests that, in sections, threaten to separate the truck’s 275mm tyres from the now very hot hot mix. Death Valley slowly reveals itself through the windscreen and we soon arrive at the tiny town of Stovepipe Wells – general store, campground, not much else – at its western fringe.
The truck suggesting its “114” (46deg C) outside and the day’s temperature is yet to peak. We stop and climb out, y’know, to breathe in the environment…
The heat hits you with immediate intensity much like, I imagine, climbing into a preheated convection oven. It’s thick, overpowering and intoxicating. The air is also utterly dry and, for the first few minutes at least, my body refuses to perspire in response to the mild inferno. A few minutes more and my head begins a low, dull ache. Which is all a bit of a worry…
We climb back into our rolling F-150 oasis, the instant hit of climate controlled ‘68deg’ (20deg C) hitting me like an ice box, the truck perfectly cool and composed bar the radiator’s thermo fan whirling away at a million rpm. And it hits me that frolicking about in a place called Death is really not a folly to trifle with…
It also dawns on me the F-150 Limited literally is our rolling oasis, our safe haven and, to be a touch dramatic, our very means of survival in a place this inhospitable. I ponder potential outcomes of overheating breakdowns: how long and far could you make it on foot in search of rescue from a stricken vehicle in this place? Do we keep the truck running or shut it down during today’s landmark skirmishes? Will our iPhones withstand ambient temperature enough to even take photographs? And, most crucially, will the ham and cheese sambos we packed for lunch go off?
Spend time in it and you sense that beneath the massage functional seats, the WiFi hotspotting, Sirius radio streaming and fancy wood inlays is machine of solid integrity. In Death Valley, the F-150 Limited isn’t merely capable, it feels tirelessly dependable. From on-tap performance and powertrain temperatures to climate control regulation, you’re guaranteed to return from slogging around Death Valley’s wild, diverse and challenging landscape to a welcoming mobile sanctuary of predictable and unwavering consistency.
For its 3.3 million acres, Death Valley only has about four roads and all lead to Furnace Creek, where you’ll find a handful of boutique hotels with golf courses. All of the key natural wonders and attractions are quite close to Furnace Creek, including the ever-popular Star Wars filming locations of Golden Canyon (5.2km), Desolation Canyon (8.7km), Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (37km), Artist's Drive (15km) and Dante’s View (40km).
As not huge fans of the movie franchise, the boss and I opt for the last two spots plus Devils Golf Course (15km), Zabrinskie Point (8.2km) and, of course, Badwater Basin salt flats (28.7km), the lowest point in North America and officially hottest place on Earth, having once seen 56.7dec C back in 1913.
Half of the attractions sprout from Badwater Road running alongside the western side of the valley floor and we hit Devils Golf Course first. Its prime vantage point is located at a cul-de-sac down a heavily rutted 2.1km gravel side road, where you’re enveloped by the eerie moonscape of brown crystalised salt. I’ve never seen anything on Earth remotely like it.
A strong gust ups the ‘wind heat factor,’ if there’s such a thing, making the now 115deg (46deg C) ambient seem even warmer than it should. In and out of the access road, the F-150’s big 22s struggle for traction across the deep, high frequency ruts, though not enough to warrant a switch to High-Four drive mode, the only moment all trip the Ford has felt remotely challenged.
The truck displays today’s 119deg (48.3deg C) high the moment we step out at Badwater Basin, which is busy with tourist all clamouring for photos and selfies on its famous salt flat walkway. It’s tough to be patient, not merely from the oppressive, otherworldly ambient heat but in the rush to nab happy snaps before our phones overheat and pack it in.
Here, like almost everywhere where roads end in Death Valley, there are signs suggesting that any attempt to hike it on foot after 10am will likely see you shuffle off the mortal coil. Now, early afternoon in late Summer, it’s hard to see and even think straight, but there’s a giddy joy that comes with the sheer absurdity of this strange place. We revel in the ungodly temperature for about 10 minutes before climbing back aboard the Ford, panting and sweating like crazy.
So close in proximity yet so utterly different is Artist’s Drive, a narrowly asphalted, one-way road loop slicing through a literal rainbow of rock formations centred around a particularly colourful rock formation mid-route aptly called Artist’s Palette. Of course, the wonders witness by the naked eye simply don’t translate quite so dramatically through the smartphone viewfinder and any of Death Valley’s richly varied vistas are best captured in lower light at dawn or dusk.
It’s a short seven kay backtrack north along Badwater Road to the junction, then a right turn as the SR190 sets course up along the top of Amargosa Range. It's here we spot a heavily camouflaged Audi Q-something prototype undoubtedly conducting heat stress testing shortly before passing teams from Benz and Lexus doing likewise with other disguised future product, all within the hour.
Just six kays along SR190 we arrive at Zabriskie Point, on my hit list not because of the 1970 film of the same name, but in curiosity that it surely must be pretty special to be chosen over Death Valley’s other wonders as the anchor point of a motion picture. And we soon discover why.
It’s a short trail up from the carpark to the circular viewing station and you’re rewarded with one of the park’s most photographed sights: a panorama of yellow, orange and golden eroded rock that’s so surreal it looks as if landscape has been rendered in CGI. To the naked eye, it’s a real high point in a region chock full of extraordinary eye candy that’s remarkable and utterly spellbinding.
It’s almost as a surreal as the shade of tomato red most of my better half has turned, not from sunburn (as we first suspect) but from blood rushing to the surface of skin in efforts to cool body temperature. It’s a warning not lightly heeded that our time in this heat is done.
Dante’s View is last on our hit list, 20km along the SR190 south along the increasingly rising Black Mountains then another 20km along a narrow, nondescript back road to, hopefully, cooler temperatures that come with the higher elevation. Up and up the road snakes, almost too narrow for the girth of the F-150, until finally it crests at the viewpoint at 1669m. To our delight, we’ve lucked into the best for last.
Here you get the complete, uninterrupted and utterly breathtaking view of the entire Death Valley from the very edges of the Black Mountain crest, 1.7 kilometres above the vast white salt of Devil’s Golf Course that forms the natural centrepiece of the panorama. It’s as awe-inspiring a view as anything I’ve witness with my own eyes and in the relaxed relief of the cooler low-30-deg C ambient, we just sit and gaze out for some indeterminable time.
Star Wars fans will recognise Dante’s View as the establishing shot of Mos Eisley in the first film A New Hope but, sorry light sabre fans, it’s infinitely more impressive as a real-life natural wonder.
Back on the SR190, it’s another 28km to Death Valley Junction, then a relaxed 150km cruise in the most direct route to our overnight destination of Las Vegas. Friendly and formidable, both the F-150 and Death Valley were both as impressive as I could’ve hoped for in such different, if perfectly complementary, ways.
Once in thick of Sin City, the big Ford is surprisingly easy to negotiate through the crush of the The Strip’s peak-hour traffic and, thanks to its handy 360=degree camera system, a doddle to deposit in the depths of our hotel-casino’s multi-story carpark. From here it’s jumbo-sized margaritas from dodgy street side vendors and very different, more man-made wonders quite unlike anything else we’d witness in our long and varied day trip.
In the morning, we’d load up its massive air-cooled console bin with the day’s supplies, slip our huge suitcases neatly in the row-two flat-floored foot well, brim the 98-litre fuel tank – call it 90 bucks – crank the B&O audio and point the F-150’s bluff, shiny nose-east towards Utah.
We’ve got the spectacular Monument Valley to tick off the bucket list, 640km and couple of days away on our US West Coast road trip. In forging forth aboard what’s increasingly becoming, in my humble opinion, the most ideal, nigh-on-perfect machine for the task, a truck built for long-legged grand touring and so impressively adept at doing so.
“Want to see some red rocks?”
Well, Monument Valley is another story for another time…