Bakersfield to Death Valley and Return–500-mile Round Trip in a Chevy Bolt

By Paul Gipe

We recently completed a round trip from Bakersfield to Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park in our Chevy Bolt. We’ve done this trip many times in a gasoline-powered car, but this was the first time in a battery-electric vehicle (EV).

The trip was a success. That is, we made it on electricity and not on the back of an AAA tow truck.

We’ve driven several 500-mile round trips in the Bolt, but this trip requires a long stretch across what some would consider desolate country. There are no human settlements and there isn’t cell phone coverage for a good portion of the route from Ridgecrest to Death Valley.

Previously, we leased a 2015 Nissan Leaf. This trip was simply not possible in the Leaf. Only 22 kWh was available in the Leaf’s small traction battery. The Leaf could reach Ridgecrest with an intermediary stop at an RV Park. However, the leg from Ridgecrest to Furnace Creek covers a distance of 123 miles and crosses two mountain passes. The EV trip planners we use suggested that this leg would require from 27 to 35 kWh. There are no charging stops and no RV Parks on this route. The Leaf simply couldn’t do it.

We drive electric. The Chevy Bolt is our only car and we want to drive it whenever possible. We’ll rent a gasoline-powered car when the Bolt’s not suitable. After more than one year of operation, we haven’t had to rent a car. However, the drive to Death Valley put this policy to the test.

Two events made this trip possible. First was leasing the Bolt. The Bolt’s 60 kWh battery makes this trip possible. Second, Death Valley’s concessionaire has installed four Level 2 charge ports at the Furnace Creek Ranch and two charge ports at the Furnace Creek Inn. Before this it was necessary to rent a space at the RV Park and use one of the NEMA 14-50 outlets with your mobile charge cable. Having the Level 2 stations makes Furnace Creek simply more accessible for more EVs, including Teslas.

Of the four estimators we used, A Better Routeplanner (ABRP) suggested we could drive the entire distance to Furnace Creek without charging. This seemed optimistic so we planned a charging stop in Ridgecrest at Alan and Marlies Kirk’s home. The Kirks have posted their location to PlugShare and have always been welcoming. We’ve stopped to charge with them before and enjoy our visits.

Outbound to Death Valley

The weather on the trip to Ridgecrest through the Kern River canyon was cool and wet. We used the wipers and seat heaters. We arrived at the Kirk’s having consumed slightly more than in the past, 29 kWh, with 1% of that devoted to cabin conditioning.

Of the four estimators we used (EV Trip Planner, Green Race, Chevy’s Energy Assist app, and ABRP) Green Race’s tally for the Bolt came closest. The other estimators were off by as much as 15%.

We had a good idea of the consumption to Ridgecrest from this and previous trips. The next leg to Death Valley was critical. If ABRP was right, we could drive the entire distance from Bakersfield without charging. If ABRP was wrong on this leg, we would need to continue to plan a charging stop in Ridgecrest for future trips to Death Valley.

We picked up a good charge at the Kirk’s and left Ridgecrest driving normally. There was no need to hypermile. The rain had cleared and there was no wind. To our surprise the leg to Furnace Creek used only 25 kWh, even less than ABRP had projected and nearly 10 kWh less than that estimated by Chevy’s Energy Assist app.

Theoretically, we could have driven the entire distance from Bakersfield to Furnace Creek and arrived with almost 6 kWh remaining or the equivalent of 10% State-of-Charge. It was certainly more than enough for bold drivers like Eric “1%” Way to make the drive in the Bolt.

Inbound to Bakersfield

The return trip was a different story, and it illustrates why you always need a plan B when driving electric. The return trip used more kWh than that estimated by ABRP–and took more than two days. Yes, two days.

We had heavy rain in Death Valley, closing several of the main roads during our visit. The day we left Furnace Creek, the day dawned bright and clear and the road out to Ridgecrest over Towne Pass was open.

The leg to Ridgecrest consumed 35 kWh, almost a match with the estimate by ABRP. This includes the 2.75 kWh we gained dropping 3,000 feet down into the Panamint Valley from Towne Pass.

We picked up a good charge at the Kirk’s and then proceeded to the Kern River Valley. Unfortunately, I didn’t pay attention to Android Auto’s continuous attempt to redirect me to the longer and more importantly, unplanned, route through Tehachapi. I just figured Ms Google didn’t know what she was doing. Wrong! As we approached Kernville Google flashed the route ahead with an X through it. I’d never seen that before. Gradually it began to dawn on me that maybe the route ahead was closed. Duh. We were well and truly committed by then so we just continued driving in the faint hope that Ms Google hadn’t updated her information. Wrong again. The road was closed–and had already been closed for a full day as CalTrans cleared a huge rock fall. Time for plan B.

We knew of a place to stay in Kernville and we knew that the USFS had installed a Level 2 station last summer at their new district office. We could park the car walk to the motel, and charge overnight. That would give us a full charge if we had to drive back out the way we had come and go around through Mojave and Tehachapi. It turned out that wasn’t necessary. CalTrans opened the road to Bakersfield that night. The ride home down the canyon was uneventful if not as cold and wet as when we started.

The bottom line is ABRP was right and we could drive to Furnace Creek from Bakersfield on one charge. But we would still need to charge in Ridgecrest for the return trip.

After years of the California Energy Commission’s program to install EV charge stations in the Golden State, and after several rounds of public tenders, there are still no public charge stations–of any kind–in Ridgecrest, unless, of course, you’re driving a Tesla. There are Tesla supercharger stations in both Mojave and Inyokern (Ridgecrest). It’s as if this portion of the state has been forgotten.