Nathan May

Royal Enfield Himalayan Review

The Reward Mine warns, "Enter at your own risk"—and we do

T

he Bureau of Land Management has a straightforward policy on riding a motorcycle into the Reward Mine, an abandoned silver and gold digs a short ride from Manzanar in eastern California: “Enter at your own risk.” That should be the adventure-motorcycling motto, as applicable to riders as the manufacturers who build the bikes they love. Royal Enfield is no stranger to the gamble that comes with making and selling motorcycles, and the company’s newest wager, the Himalayan, is an inexpensive dual-sport aimed at those of us with an itch to go where wise riders don’t dare. Places like the gaping mouth of the Reward. The Royal Enfield Himalayan traveled an unexpected path to the U.S. It took the company’s American arm two years to convince headquarters to bring the bike stateside. Originally developed for the Indian market, the Himalayan gets an all-new 411cc single that produces 24 horsepower, about the same as a Honda CRF250L Rally. Dainty, but a counterbalancer means the engine can sit at redline for hours on end without shaking apart.

Royal Enfield Himalayan off-road
The sun provides a natural spotlight for the Himalayan.Nathan May

Riding north on Route 395 with the snow-capped Sierras rolling endlessly along, I'm glad of the engineering. The Himalayan has been near its top speed of 85 mph for hours, happy to spin up the highway. Despite an MSRP of just $4,499, this bike comes standard with features you won't see on ADV bikes twice the price: a centerstand, front and rear luggage racks, and an aluminum skid plate. It's also incredibly comfortable. My right wrist is unhappy keeping the throttle wide open, but the ergonomics are well-suited for my 6-foot-2-inch frame, and the seat is agreeable all day long. It's a pleasant surprise from a small displacement bike.

“The climb starts with trepidation, but the Himalayan mocks my caution, handling everything the trail presents without trouble.”

But the Himalayan isn’t built for glassy asphalt, and shortly after turning onto the Manzanar-Reward Road, the flat, graded surface gives way to a double track thick with sharp rocks. The climb starts with trepidation, but the Himalayan mocks my caution, handling everything the trail presents without trouble. My pace increases with the elevation until loose rocks start banging up against the skid plate, providing a staccato metallic soundtrack to the ascent. The Himalayan is so well-suited for this trail that once I get to the top, I turn around and do it all over again. And again. And again.

Royal Enfield Himalayan on Reward Road
Dangers abound even when you're not on the move.Nathan May

Getting to the top of the trail affords a moment to relax and enjoy one last view of the Sierras before dropping into the Reward Mine. The operation was named after the town of Reward, which was established in 1900, a year before Royal Enfield began making motorcycles. But while RE has been in business in one form or another all that time, the town did not enjoy similar success. The local post office lasted just six years.

None of that does much to quell my nerves. This is what I’ve been waiting for, but the rational side of me isn’t in a rush to ride into a pitch-black tunnel that hasn’t been maintained in decades. Rock-slide protection covers the top of the entrance, reminding explorers that this is a stupid idea, a risk.

The mouth of the mine is a doorway to a different world. Outside, it’s nearly 100 degrees, and the high desert sun finds a way to reflect off every natural surface in an attempt to blind you. Inside, the temperature is 30 degrees cooler and so dark that you lose one of your five senses. Ten feet inside the cave is the perfect balance. A slow draft of cool air moderates the desert heat while the last vestiges of light illuminate the jagged surface of the interior wall.

Reward Road with a Royal Enfield Himalayan
The abandoned runway gets one day of glory a year as it turns into a road course for the Lone Pine Time Trials.Nathan May

Every movement is slow and deliberate. The tunnel isn’t straight, so the headlight only buys 50 feet of visibility at a time. For the first time, the Himalayan feels like it has plenty of power for the task at hand. The mine branches out occasionally, tempting you to explore dead ends. There’s no right answer, just excuses to explore more of the mine. Some detours reveal old wooden ladders that extend several floors up, teasing the fact that the mine stretches eight stories and over 500 feet.

It feels like I’m alone, but there are signs of other visitors. Graffiti seems to be the most common. Another calling sign is an occasional empty can of cheap American lager. I didn’t come for a reminder that people can be slobs.

Royal Enfield Himalayan in cave
Every step displaces a fine layer of dust. This is useful for visualizing the headlight beam but not ideal for human lungs.Nathan May

The best way to ignore the mess is to go dark, to isolate myself, so I turn the bike off and instantly plunge into the void. It’s surreal, so dark that I can’t tell if my eyelids are open or closed. The silence would be calming in any other environment, but in the absence of light, it’s ominous. I fire the long-stroke thumper back up to life. In here, the timid exhaust thunders like a 411cc chain saw. Maybe I’m the villain in this story.

“The Himalayan has conquered the bowels of the earth. It looks purposeful there.”

It’s less than a quarter-mile to a large room. The headlight and taillight provide the only illumination, a wash of red and a ray of white that reflect off all surfaces. It’s the way out. The Himalayan has conquered the bowels of the earth. It looks purposeful there. A little proud. Waiting for the next challenge and without a concern of what it might be.

royal enfield Himalayan headlight in dark cave
Normally you're supposed to head toward the light at the end of the tunnel.Nathan May

We find the exit, and as my pupils adjust to the sun, I realize that I’m seeing the Himalayan in a new light. Sure, it’s slow. It’s also capable, comfortable, efficient, cheap, and fun. It’s the best motorcycle Royal Enfield has made in 50 years. And it’s finally on our shores.