So I had to get from Las Vegas to San Francisco over the weekend of May 3-4 to meet up with Winding Road Editorial Director Tom Martin, and the Tesla Roadster in Menlo Park for a comparison drive. As the ICBM flies, the trip is less than 400 miles, and only slightly farther using major state roads and interstates. Being that this was for Winding Road, the Elise SC and I weren't looking for easy. Arguably, I had one of the best cars in the world. We'd go it the hard way—just like we did it at Vegas's craps tables. Good roads must be sought out, and sometimes there's some luck involved.
West out of Vegas Las Vegas for Pahrump on 160 makes you pass the country club racetracks of Spring Mountain. They loaned me their upper skid pad to test the Lotus's limits. I quickly learned that the Lotus could read my mind, responding as quickly as I could think. Furthermore, the steering was better at communicating than Joel Osteen.
As much fun as I was having at Spring Mountain, I had a desert and a major mountain range to cross. If you have the inclination, remember this route: North from Spring Mountain on 160 until 372. Go west out of Nevada to California's Shoshone. When you hit 127, head north to 178, then turn east directly into the center of Death Valley. These roads are largely empty of traffic and anything else resembling life. In other words, perfect.
Be forewarned, stretches of 178 are rough (as in paved, but bumpy asphalt), but viewing the vast Badwater Basin is worth the loosened fillings. At 282 feet below sea level, it's the lowest spot in the U.S.
Looking south on 178 below the Devil's Golf Course.
Taking a break at Golden Canyon (just south of Furnace Creek) helped my body stop buzzing and gave my ears a break from the wind noise—the Elise is as noisy with the windows up as down. At Furnace Creek, turn left on 190 to go mostly west with a bit of north and plenty of south tossed in. The next 71 miles are among the best roads on the planet.
Not too far along 190, you hit the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Just beyond this and Stovepipe Wells Village, numerous mountain passes (some over 4000 feet) offer up all manner of corners in numbers too numerous to count. Getting to this road was worth the deafness. The Lotus is made for such roads, as its tiny size becomes a huge advantage. The blown 1.8-liter never feels breathy and the 153 pound-feet of torque pushes the lightweight sports car around with near abandon. Peak 218 horsepower at 7,800 rpm gives a driver plenty of power bandwidth, making the engine seem bigger than it is.
The Father Crowley Vista overlooks Rainbow Canyon. If you judge a nearby corner badly, your view of the canyon would improve immeasurably. Along one downhill straight nearby, I found that the Elise easily charges to 140 mph, but that top pulls away from the windshield header. Stability feels excellent up into the 120s, but the Elise's chassis is not intended to be a high-speed touring car. Anything over 130 mph demands your complete attention.
At the end of 190 you're leaving the desert. Hit 136 and head North. The landscape changes because you're running the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The roads are much straighter, and if I hadn't had to meet up for a comparison test, I'd have headed back to Vegas. But my trip had purpose.
I spent the night in Lone Pine, California (a nothing town that was built to support the production of B Western movies in the 1920s). In the early morning, not far out of Lone Pine, I rounded a corner to find a strikingly low-hung rainbow. Jumping on the brakes, which work effortlessly and are superbly balanced, I gazed past the rainbow's colors. Those were the mountains I needed to cross to reach Menlo Park. The snow was not a good sign.
If you're ever this way, cross through Yosemite on 120. However, even in late spring, many mountain roads were still closed because of snowdrifts. I was forced to drive farther and farther north, with my route of last resort being the historic Highway 50 out of Carson City (Highway 50, The Lincoln Highway, was the first transcontinental road). My second choice was the serpentine SR89. It, too, was closed because of snow. My third choice was SR108, also closed. So that left SR88, the last two-lane before Highway 50. It was open, but there was snow; I was warned by the guy at the Seven-Eleven.
On the West side of the closed mountain pass (in the previous photo), 88 connects back to the curvier 89. Nirvana. After I traveled the open section of 89 for 30 miles, it ending up being closed in another place that wasn't marked until just before the snow barrier. But closed roads mean empty roads with no opposing traffic. The snow and rain made for beautiful visuals like this impromptu waterfall. On the narrow roads, the Elise and I danced unobserved like giddy high schoolers in love. Several times I turned around to run sections again. The steering? You could feel the rivulets of water as you ran across them. Magic.
Backtracking again to 88 and ascending through the mountains, I learned the Elise's heater works great, as does the single wiper. Importantly, the roof sealed out water better than wind. The photos end here because 88 dumps into a populated section of Northern California that holds no interest for drivers or cars like the Elise. I drove nearly 1,000 miles in the Elise and enjoyed the adventure. Anyone who says you can't road trip in a Lotus is a sissy. Pick up the rest of the story as we drive the Elise SC back to back with the Tesla Roadster in the next issue of Winding Road.