Tag Archives: Great Roads North Central

Riding Wisconsin’s Waumandee Valley River Roads

Where Motorcyclists Roam
Riding Highway 88, aka Black Lightning. Photos by Kathleen Currie

Buffalo County, Wisconsin, is a hidden gem for motorcyclists. Located in the northwest part of the state, its southern border is the Mississippi River, which is the dividing line between Wisconsin and Minnesota. This is rural farm country, and the entire county has only one traffic light.

Buffalo County boasts dozens of fantastic motorcycling roads that twist along river banks, climb steep bluffs, dive into coulees and steep ravines, and cling to the edges of sandstone ridges. Numerous creeks and small rivers flow through the Waumandee Valley on their way to join the Mississippi, and they influence the shape and slope of these roads.

Where Motorcyclists Roam
Buffalo County appears to have the most curvy road signs in Wisconsin.

The best starting point is the town of Mondovi, located in the northeastern corner of Buffalo County. A quick fuel and food stop is recommended, as gasoline stations, restaurants, and other amenities are sparse as you head south. After a bite at McT’s Diner we follow County Roads (CR) H and ZZ south to a hook up with State Highway 88 at the Buffalo River.

Known as “Black Lightning,” Highway 88 has approximately 130 corners and curves in 40 miles as it runs from Gilmanton to the Mississippi River, making it one of Wisconsin’s highest-rated biker roads. It gives riders — and their brakes — a real workout as they ride the ridges and slash through a sandstone cut north of Praag.

Where Motorcyclists Roam
This tour route is available on the REVER app in the Rider Magazine community.

Link to Waumandee Valley River Roads tour on REVER

At CR U, we head east until we reach CR C at a crossroads just north of the village of Montana. CR C dishes up a variety of steep climbs and hairpin curves as we work our way south along Swinns Valley Creek, on our way to State Highway 95 just west of Arcadia. A short jog going west on 95 takes us to CR E, which heads northeast through Pansy Pass and Glencoe to Waumandee. CR E east of Waumandee has such steep hills that many homeowners have large angled mirrors mounted on posts at the foot of their driveways to help provide a view of any hidden oncoming traffic.

The village of Waumandee — Chippewa for “clear and sparkling water” — is worth a stop. It dates back to the 1850s, and Waumandee House, which was built in 1879, is still an active inn and restaurant. Every September the village hosts the Waumandee Hillclimb, a unique event for sports car enthusiasts. A two-mile stretch of Blank Hill Road west of Highway 88 is closed for a day of timed runs up an 18-turn hillclimb road course.

Where Motorcyclists Roam
J & J BBQ in downtown Nelson is a favorite biker stop.

Crossing Highway 88 we take a shot at Blank Hill Road, which is as challenging as advertised. Take care along the section of road that clings to the side of a cliff and has no guardrail. At CR N, we head north along Alma Ridge, which has some white-knuckle descents on its way to the Buffalo River at State Highway 37. A short jog up Highway 37 takes us to Highway KK on the west side of the Buffalo River.

Where Motorcyclists Roam
The lunch crowd heading down Great River Road (Highway 35) to Nelson.

Want a taste of riding the Isle of Man TT? Much like the famed road circuit, the CR KK south of Modena has climbs and descents chiseled into the sides of ridges with few guardrails, testing our binders and our nerves as we plunge down to CR D.

CR D winds west through rolling farm country to its junction with State Highway 35, which is known as the Great River Road and hugs the northern shore of the Mississippi. Overlooking the river, the town of Nelson has several recommended dining stops. On the day of our visit, J & J Barbeque and Nelson Creamery are overwhelmed with two-wheeled customers. We find an empty table at Beth’s Twin Bluff Café, and enjoy the best lemon pie we’ve ever tasted.

Where Motorcyclists Roam
Picturesque farms are everywhere in Buffalo County.

We headed north on State Highway 25 along the eastern edge of the Tiffany Bottoms Natural Area. At the village of Misha Mokwa, we turn east onto CR KK and complete the circle at the junction with CR D. Twists and turns command our full attention on our way to the village of Modena. Visit the general store in Modena to see two large motorcycle sculptures made from scrap metal, and pick up some cheese curds for a snack. We continue east on D until it dead-ends at Highway 37, then we follow the Buffalo River north and return to Mondovi.

The roads on this 110-mile loop are challenging, but most of the pavement is in good condition (be mindful of gravel in some corners). Part of what makes Buffalo County a great riding destination is the traffic — except for Highway 35, there is none! On a full day of weekend riding we encountered two tractors, two pickups, seven motorcycles, and one corn picker, which was blocking a narrow farm road. The only thing missing for a perfect riding weekend is a motorcycle class at the Waumandee Hillclimb so we can clock our time going up Blank Hill Road!

Where Motorcyclists Roam
Snaking roads and incredible scenery in the Waumandee Valley.

The post Riding Wisconsin’s Waumandee Valley River Roads first appeared on Rider Magazine.
Source: RiderMagazine.com

Connecting Small Towns in Northeast Iowa

FB & Company, a bar in Waubeek
Looking back across the river at FB & Company, a bar in Waubeek. Housed in a century-old Stone City building, the place is very rustic but does have food, even a good breakfast. Photos by the author.

Iowa is not known as a motorcycling destination, but rather a through state. Motorcyclists travel mostly on the four-lane roads thinking that’s all there is to see, and that includes many of those who live in Iowa. Even our maps don’t make it look inviting, since the squiggly lines aren’t all that squiggly. So here are some roads I enjoy traveling that will be a treat for any motorcyclists looking for lightly traveled, interesting roads and a highly adaptable route.

Iowa motorcycle ride
Map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

I start at the intersection of State Highway 13 and U.S. Route 151 outside Cedar Rapids only because I live near there. The ride starts on what I call transit roads, or primarily straight roads. At County Road E34 head east toward the small town of Whittier, past a few houses, a Friends meeting house and a small store, then turn north. I should note that terms like village and hamlet are not common in Iowa, so even a few houses grouped together is called a town. At Waubeek you’ll cross the Wapsipinicon River, where an old mill has been turned into a rustic bar. You’re now on Boy Scouts Road, a former gravel road paved in the chip and dip manner. It’s narrow, the pavement is uneven but not rough and it has some tight corners. It’s a short stretch to savor before returning to more traditional Iowa-style main roads.

curvy road sign
Now this is a sign we like to see! The 25 mph suggested speed on Boy Scouts Road is for grain wagons, not motorcycles. Be aware of furry forest creatures though!

When Boy Scouts Road ends, turn east onto County Road E16 and enjoy some smooth pavement with nice open curves. At a four-way stop, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, turn north on County Road X20. This is a nice paved road off the beaten path where you can enjoy the scenery with a few curves thrown in to keep you from getting white line fever (remember that!).

Boy Scouts Road Iowa
Boy Scouts Road. If only this sign was true!

Next take the road toward Hopkinton, where you will most likely encounter horses and buggies, since there is an Amish population that runs several inviting country stores along the route. The road to Hopkinton, County Road D47, starts straight but then gets nice and curvy with a tight “S” curve that can catch out the unaware. At Hopkinton, there’s a college that used to be active — OK, it was in business about 100 years ago and today you can do a ghost hunt/sleepover if that’s your thing. Heading north you’ll find it is mostly smooth and mostly straight with a few open curves. It is, however, somewhat rough between Hopkinton and Delhi, which makes for a nice stop with available fuel and a couple of good restaurants located on the small-town main street.

Iowa landscape
Heading north on County Road C7X: not your stereotypical cornfield view of Iowa.

You’ll run into State Highway 3 at a T intersection where you’ll head left, then in a few short miles you will turn right onto County Road C7X. Turn right before the first big grain storage facility — you can’t miss the bright metal bins.

The road is smooth and has plenty of curves with gentle elevation changes. As you look around you’ll see what I call “vista views” across the hills that make up this corner of Iowa. You’ll pick up County Road X3C at what’s left of Elkport. A flood devastated the community some years ago; they did, however, make the best of the situation and created a green space camping facility.

Elkport Iowa
Looking south at what is left of Elkport. It does have a camping area with facilities — as long as you don’t mind outhouses.

The curves keep coming along with the views and smooth pavement until you intersect with Highway 13, yes, the same highway I started on. Head south toward an Iowa Welcome Center that has information, a small “Iowa Made” shop and displays of Iowa wildlife that make for a relaxing stop. There are plenty of opportunities to get food or gas along the way, but this stop makes for a quiet interlude. Leave the welcome center heading south looking for a right turn, County Road C24, heading west to Volga — any guesses as to what group settled here?

BMW R 1200 RT
Taking a break at the Iowa Welcome Center, a relaxing stop with an opportunity to stretch your legs.

This road twists and turns, rises and falls, with a few blind turns thrown in as well. At Volga there’s a park that offers camping as well as access to the Volga River for kayaking. This area has become a destination for both leisurely kayakers as well as whitewater kayaking. Volga, like most of the other towns on the route, has a convenient city park perfect for a picnic.

Iowa farm road
A view along County Road C24. I had the experience of seeing a bald eagle on the side of the road that lifted off and flew at my eye level for a second or two before taking to the skies.

Follow the signs to Wadena and you’ll be on a trip back through time to what many people think of when they think of rural Iowa. In Wadena you can stop at a locker (think no-frills meat market) and pick up travel food like meat sticks and jerky, or if you have a cooler, steaks to take home. You’ll also see an old hotel turned into a private residence that still has the name Wadena stenciled on the windows, so that when you got off the train a hundred years ago you knew where you were. Been wondering why so many very small towns exist along this route? One word: railroad. These towns owe their existence to having access to a rail line when rail was the only reliable transportation and communication line in Iowa. In Clermont you’ll see an old depot that a local group is trying to save.

Clermont Iowa depot
The author and his bike in front of the depot at Clermont. A local group is raising money to preserve the historic building. When I was there they were doing some tuck pointing to help it get through the coming winter.

When you reach Clermont, also known as “Brick City,” you can’t miss the turn of the century architecture throughout the town. Clermont was the home of the 13th governor of Iowa and has a statue and museum to prove it. Wadena and Clermont are still active and offer hospitality in the form of small-town restaurants and bars. These are not tourist towns, and they do cater to hunters in the fall, yet you’ll not feel out of place.

Grove Creek Cemetery Iowa
Many “wrought iron” cemeteries are along the route; where you see these old wrought iron signs you know a town was once there too. These old cemeteries mark just how much Iowa has changed through the years.

My ride doesn’t end at Clermont. You can reverse it (I like the way the curves string together heading north to south better then south to north), meander back on the other good roads in the area, explore the many graveled roads along the way if you’re so inclined or pick a new destination. The best time to ride the route is any time you can — I’ve ridden it four times already this year and plan on riding it at least one more time, so look for the guy on a BMW RT wearing high-viz gear: that most likely will be me!

Source: RiderMagazine.com

Big Water: Exploring Southern Indiana’s Chunk of the Ohio River Valley

V-Strom Ohio River
The Strom has been a fantastic partner over the years and carried me to some great vantage points. This one at Aurora, Indiana, looking upstream on the Ohio ranks high on the list. Photos by the author.

Despite being a lifelong Hoosier, I hadn’t spent much time riding in the southern part of Indiana. This year would be different — I had a family reunion coming up in Bloomington, only four hours away from home in Valparaiso. I also had some rare extra days off from my mill job, so I thought I’d meander my way there instead of taking the direct route. Using secondary roads exclusively crossed my mind, but I didn’t have that much time.

Indiana motorcycle ride map
A map of the route taken. By Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

I headed east on U.S. Route 30, then south on U.S. Routes 35 and 31. Thankfully, the rains that plagued us for weeks had finally stopped. Indiana is squarely in the Corn Belt, but the crop in our part of the state was pretty much toast due to the wet conditions. This was painfully obvious mile after mile, as stunted seedlings were barely at the ankle. The old saying is “knee high by the Fourth of July,” but with modern hybrids, most years the stalks are at the shoulder or better by late June.

North of Indy I jumped on State Highway 38. I’d noticed a scenic route designation on the map for State Highway 1, starting at Hagerstown, less than 20 miles from the Ohio border. The town is also just above the imaginary line that separates the state into north and south — as good a place to start as any. There was even a motorcycle-friendly eatery, Dave’s Café/Flatlanders Motorcycles. The Harley parked among the pool tables made my burger taste all the better. As poor luck had it, I’d showed up the day before their weekly bike night. Still, this was shaping up to be a good ride.

Dave's Café/Flatlanders Motorcycles
As soon as I pulled into Dave’s Café/Flatlanders Motorcycles, I knew they were serious about being bike-friendly.

The Whitewater Canal Scenic Byway offers a snapshot of 19th-century American travel: river, canal and rail. I’d heard at the Greens Fork Family Diner it was also a fine motorcycle road. The report was accurate, with smooth pavement, abundant curves and frequent elevation changes, features that riders seek out but are rare north of the dividing line — especially the smooth part. Plank roads aren’t represented, but there is a heritage railroad running between Connersville and Metamora that features a restored section of the Whitewater Canal that once stretched 76 miles, from Hagerstown to Harrison, Ohio. Construction was a major engineering feat due to the steepness of the route, requiring 56 locks and seven dams, and the costly project drove the state into bankruptcy for a time.

Whitewater Canal Scenic Byway
This rustic barn likely once overlooked a dirt road that is now the Whitewater Canal Scenic Byway. Evidence the Indiana DOT has made some progress over the years.

I’m a fan of big rivers. I enjoyed riding the Mississippi and Missouri river valleys a couple of years ago in the Show Me State. Since I was close to the Ohio, I figured I would check it out. I was particularly interested in how it compared to those two flooding-wise, as my Missouri route was often dictated by water-related closures. But the first diversion was due to construction, not flooding. Instead of Lawrenceburg, where the river enters Indiana, the detour put me a few miles downstream in Aurora, where I picked up the Ohio River Scenic Byway. The Hoosier State segment covers 302 miles and follows several Indiana State Highways, 56, 156, 62 and 66, which meld together rather seamlessly. The distance suggested a lot of curves and didn’t disappoint.

Among American waterways, the Ohio is second only to the Mississippi in volume of water discharged. It has been described as a series of strung-together reservoirs, built and operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. As such, it serves many of the same functions as other Corps projects, such as drinking water, recreation, flood control and shipping. Barge traffic was abundant. I stopped a couple of times at riverside parks to watch the towboats do their magic. A century ago, the river towns catered primarily to businesses. Now tourism is a big economic activity as well.

Harleys Indiana roads
Harleys heading for the abundant curves on the Whitewater Canal Scenic Byway.

Given the combination of good pavement, hills, curves and friendly locals, unsurprisingly there were lots of motorcycles on the byways. On one construction reroute, where it took 50 miles to go 10, two Harley riders gave chase. They weren’t dressed for a crash but pushed me hard on the straights and sweepers anyway, then I’d walk away from them in the tighter curves. We repeated the pattern several times. Fun!

I’d always wanted to visit our first Indiana state Capitol building, in Corydon. Just off the byway and easy to find, the tidy limestone structure is dwarfed by the current rendition in Indianapolis. But it was doubtless a big undertaking for the fledgling state in 1816. Unfortunately, it was closed for the day, a constant aggravation on my rides when visiting historical sites.

Corydon capitol building
This tidy limestone building was Indiana’s first Capitol in Corydon.

The afternoon was fading when I encountered another reroute. I wondered if this one really was due to flooding, as the stretch ran right along the river. Water or roadwork, I never found out, but I’d neglected to top off the Suzuki V-Strom’s tank in Jeffersonville and the blinking fuel gauge was making me nervous. I’d passed through several small settlements, but none with gas available. Luckily, the Derby General Store was still open. One of the pumps offered ethanol-free 90-octane mid-grade, rare in my corner of the state, and the Strom loved the unadulterated fuel. The attendant clued me into a shortcut that didn’t show as connecting on the map. It allowed me to see the dam at Cannelton, which the sanctioned route bypassed. I don’t use a construction avoidance feature on my GPS; folks that live in an area can generally advise the best route anyway.

Derby also carried a grim reminder of the potentially destructive power of big rivers: flood lines spanning eight decades posted on a utility pole. Like the Mississippi and Missouri, the Ohio sometimes jumps its banks despite man’s best efforts to tame it. But even with the proximity of big water and recent heavy rains, the corn crop in the area was comparatively healthy. One lush field shared space with another common Midwestern fixture, the oil pumpjack.

Ohio River
There’s lots of places to launch small craft on the Ohio River. Driftwood littering this public access site was deposited only a week or so before I arrived.

I stopped for the night in Evansville, an easy enough town to navigate considering its relatively large population. I often wish I’d been born in the southwest rather than the northwest corner of the state. The milder winters, better roads and laid-back lifestyle are big plusses. The next morning, I rode the remaining 25 miles of the Ohio River Scenic Byway to where it crosses the Wabash River into Illinois, then doubled back to Mount Vernon to begin the trek back north on State Highway 69.

I had the whole day to make it to Bloomington, so I stuck to state highways. They passed through endless farmland and the occasional small town. I prefer mom-and-pop diners, and one of the best indicators of quality food is pickup trucks in the parking lot; if the fare is substandard, the locals won’t patronize. JJ’s in Cynthiana looked promising. A man I guessed correctly to be JJ stood behind the register, hands on hips, looking me over, and asked, “What’d ya need, captain?” “How about a menu,” seemed the obvious reply. He shot back, “You sure you can read?” as he handed me one with a smirk. Then he put on a fresh pot of coffee, not so much for me, but for the lunch crowd about to arrive. Like clockwork, trucks of every description soon moved in. I hung out for a while, talking bikes, farm equipment, weather and steel mills.

Metamora Historic District alongside the Whitewater Canal
The quaint Metamora Historic District alongside the Whitewater Canal is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

ABATE of Indiana is a robust motorcycle rights organization. Twenty years ago, it purchased 400 acres in Lawrence County to host its annual fundraising party, the Boogie, which is dubbed the “Midwest’s Best Biker Fest.” The property has since been developed into a full-service off-road riding area with 60 miles of trails, campgrounds, showers and RV hookups. The Lawrence County Recreational Park is off the beaten path, but worth a visit. One day, I’d like to give those trails a try. The Indiana Motorcycle Safety Memorial is at the park’s entrance, dedicated to fallen Hoosier riders. The memorial grounds are impressive and made my detour worthwhile.

Bloomington is smack in the middle of some of the best motorcycling in Indiana. My youngest daughter once rode with me there. She said it felt like “riding through a tunnel,” as we motored under the canopy of trees that covers many of the highways. I’m not complaining, but at times the hills and curves became almost overwhelming. Once, I dropped my guard and almost overshot a tight turn. But I knew in a few hours I’d be back on straight and boring roads, with a large helping of potholes thrown in, so I enjoyed the squiggly lines while I could. Efficiency dictates that major highways cut the hills down to level the run, but rest assured there are still many miles of unmolested pavement in southern Indiana.

New York Central #6894
New York Central #6894 was built by the American Locomotive Company in 1912. Currently non-functioning, the Whitewater Valley Railroad hopes to perform at least a cosmetic restoration.

U.S. Route 231 was my chosen route home, avoiding the interstate. The dry and beautiful Saturday night brought out bikes by the score. In Crawfordsville, a chapter of the Iron Order with dozens of rumbling steeds had gathered for a run. I waved and they waved back. We were all on V-twins, albeit built for different styles of riding, but it didn’t matter. At West Lafayette, I once again overruled the Garmin’s choice of I-65 and picked up State Highway 43, then U.S. Route 421 for the last 70 miles. It’s weird, but after all the curves and hills, the arrow-straight run that I’ve made many times was strangely satisfying.

The Ohio River Valley is now on my list of favorite places. The byway hugs the river for many miles and I’m glad I ran the Indiana section almost beginning to end. I only wish I could have spent more than a day taking it in. Two or three would’ve been better, as there’s much to do and see. I’m always searching for the perfect ride. Turns out one of the best has been in my backyard all along. 

Source: RiderMagazine.com

Iron Range Ramble: Riding Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region

The Emergence of Man Through Steel
The Iron Man statue is actually named “The Emergence of Man Through Steel” and honors miners’ work through the Industrial Age. Photos by the author.

“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” says the motorcycling adage. That’s true! Most highlights of motorcycling are experienced during the ride. I choose journeys with an interesting place to turn around (destination) before heading back home. Riding the Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota provides wide choices of appealing destinations and journeys, riding through forests, hills and curves in Minnesota’s “arrowhead.”

Northern Minnesota motorcycle ride
Map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

Aptly named due to the huge iron ore mining economy formed in the late 19th century, we started our ride from the town of Mountain Iron, at the Holiday Inn Express. Riders will appreciate the covered parking for a few motorcycles. The Iron Range Tourism Bureau publishes ride guides every year. My wife Jean and I picked up one at the inn and selected potential routes to try during our few days “on the Range.” We modified and combined our routes to fit in a few destinations that piqued our interests. After our complimentary breakfast, our journey began.

Downtown Cook’s main drag, River Street, is just beggin’ for a parade.
Downtown Cook’s main drag, River Street, is just beggin’ for a parade.

The Mines and Pines tour was our warm-up ride for Memorial Day weekend. Heading north on U.S. Route 53 to Cook, turning west, we rode through the rural settings on Trunk Highway 1. Logging and farming appeared to be the main economic activities. Heading south on County Road 5 there was a noticeable change from farming to tourism as we rode to McCarthy Beach State Park for a break. Out of the saddle, we rehydrated, and off we went.

Mines and Pines tour
The northern part of the Mines and Pines tour is filled with rural settings.

Finally, we arrived at the “mines” part of the Mines and Pines tour. We ended up at the Iron Man, a tribute to the miners who worked the iron mines. After a quick lunch under the shade tree at The Stand, we were refreshed and ready to explore our destination for the day, the Minnesota Discovery Center. The Center is an exhibition of the mining and cultural artifacts associated with mining in the Range. A rail trolley used for transporting miners to and from the mines is still in operation for tourists. Some of the original buildings, homes and boarding houses still stand and are well maintained, providing a glimpse into the past’s daily life above ground.

Minnesota Discovery Center
The mine trolley is still running. Our conductors shared the history and evolution of mining technologies
with us on the loop around an open pit iron mine.

We finished back at our starting point and went out to dinner. We discovered a nice new restaurant in the neighboring town of Virginia, The Northern Divide, which provided an excellent dinner and outstanding service.

The next day was dark and gloomy in the north woods of Minnesota. Another adage for motorcyclists is, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad wardrobe choices.” We mustered up the right perspective with, “Today is a good day to test our rain gear!” Since it was raining, we decided our journey should take us to an indoor destination. More than indoors, we picked an underground destination. Trunk Highway 135 runs from Gilbert north to Tower. It’s smooth and wide, and the forest is cut back from the roadway, providing good visibility for any deer, moose or other forest creatures that might wander onto the roadway.

open pit mine
All the public mine overlooks were closed due to expansion of the mining operations, but we knew a guy who knew a guy who could give us a private tour of the new overlooks still under construction. Mining technologies allowed more efficient open pit mining of lower grade ore. Although the iron ore in the Soudan Mine is much higher quality, steel can be produced at lower costs with ore from the open pit processes.

After we arrived at Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park, a three-minute elevator ride took us down 2,341 feet below the surface. From there we rode a trolley in total darkness. Arriving at a “stope,” a steplike excavation that is formed as the ore is mined in successive layers, we could see and hear how miners worked one of the richest iron ore mines in the world.

Minnesota Discovery Center
James, our guide, is a geologist and miner with experience in underground mines in North America and South America.

Back on the surface, the rain had stopped but the roads were still wet. Back in our rain suits and off we went to Ely via Trunk Highway 169. The journey on the two-lane road was through heavy forest and light traffic, just the way it should be. We had two destinations in Ely, the International Wolf Center and the North American Bear Center. I can’t say enough about these attractions. The quality and educational value of the displays are superb! We arrived at each just before feeding time, so the wolves and bears were up and active. Both centers have large glass viewing areas great for photographers.

black bear
As the bears meandered back into the woods, it’s time to get back on the motorcycle and head for dinner ourselves.

Backtracking west on Highway 169, then south on Highway 135, our destination for the night was The Lodge at Giants Ridge. It’s open year-round for skiers, travelers and golfers. Tomorrow’s ride would be over to the north shore of Lake Superior.

The North Shore Scenic Drive is a must for any rider. Our destination was Two Harbors, where all the iron ore from the mines comes by rail then ships out to destinations all over the world. County Highway 110 winds through Aurora and Hoyt Lakes, then County Highway 11’s sweepers took us into Silver Bay. I mentioned to Jean, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many shades of green.” The north woods were waking up from the long winter and the brilliant sunshine illuminated the greenery from every angle. Following the designated scenic route, we leaned into the curves going up and over the rolling forest terrain.

Baldwin Yellowstone Mallet #229
Built during World War II, this is one of the “locomotives that defeated Hitler.” Manufacturing the Baldwin Yellowstone Mallet #229 was a higher priority than military tanks and ships. It was so powerful that it pulled ore trains that would require four diesel locomotives today. An average of 10,000,000 tons of ore are shipped every year.

Reaching Silver Bay, we turned southwest on Trunk Highway 61. The road hugs Lake Superior’s north shore. It is smoother and straighter than it used to be, but the scenery is still a beautiful shoreline drive all the way to Two Harbors. Along the way we stopped at The Rustic Inn Café. It has the best pie on the north shore. Although the day was sunny, it was also cool and windy. With a hot cup of coffee, a warm piece of pie and a scoop of ice cream, I agreed with my GPS navigation when it said, “You have reached your destination.”

Source: RiderMagazine.com

Bluestem Pastures: Exploring the Flint Hills of Kansas

Kansas motorcycle ride
Lower Fox Creek School at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Accessible by a decent gravel road and worth checking out. Photos by the author.

A couple of years ago I did an east-to-west and back ride across north central Kansas. One of the highlights was the Flint Hills, a narrow ecoregion famous for flint deposits just below the ground’s surface and rich grasslands above. It bridges eastern farmlands with the drier western plains and stretches from just south of the Nebraska line into Oklahoma. Early pioneers called it “the Great American Desert.” Rural Kansas at its finest, I spent a few days prowling its highways getting to know it better.

Kansas motorcycle ride
Many people believe Kansas is flat as a board and boring. This stretch of K-99 contradicts that perception.

I kicked off the ride at the Evel Knievel Museum in Topeka (read the story here), then pointed my trusty V-Strom west on K-4, the Native Stone Scenic Byway. An 1867 Kansas law closed the open range and offered settlers 40 cents per rod to build stone fences with the abundant material. Some of the work is original, some is undergoing restoration. The byway’s 48 miles includes sections of K-99 as well and ranks among the curviest I’ve ridden in Kansas. I took it to Manhattan, where I visited the Flint Hills Discovery Center, a good resource.

Kansas motorcycle ride
Map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

North of town, I bedded down at Tuttle Creek Cove Park on Tuttle Creek Lake, one of several reservoirs built and managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The projects are multi-faceted, providing flood control, drinking water and recreation. In contrast to my previous ride, the Flint Hills were markedly drier and it showed in the lakes and rivers. Thankfully, the region was spared the wildfire havoc that occurred farther west the previous summer.

Kansas motorcycle ride
Structures like this abound in Kansas. If you look closely, this one has some modern windows. A restoration in progress, perhaps?

K-99 was to be my primary north/south route on the eastern leg, but construction at Tuttle Dam altered the plan. U.S. Route 24 to K-16 put me back on track to U.S. Route 36, which represents the region’s northern boundary. A sign along the highway invited me to “Experience the Flint Hills.” A group of inquisitive cattle were the welcoming committee. I wonder if their collective memory associates riders on motorcycles with cowboys on horses, as they often dutifully line up as if awaiting orders. In addition to status as a former Pony Express stop, Marysville is known as the Black Squirrel City, which explains the statues honoring the little rodents. I was told that hitting one could result in a $500 fine. Not worth dropping the bike over, in my opinion. While in town, I recommend the Wagon Wheel Cafe. Good food and reasonable prices, my kind of place.

Kansas motorcycle ride
A friend who knows cattle opined that their interest in me and my bike likely stemmed from the hope I was delivering something to eat.

U.S. Route 77 is the main north/south route through the western Flint Hills. Miles of the road travel through the 100,000-plus-acre Fort Riley installation. Riding down that lonesome highway it’s easy to see why the sparsely populated region is ideal for military maneuvers. Like most Kansas byways, U.S. 77’s gently rolling pavement is of consistently of good quality–no bike-swallowing potholes like back home in Indiana. But for me, the biggest draw is that the road seems to melt into the horizon, as if you could roll on forever.

Kansas motorcycle ride
I inspect equipment at a steel mill for my day job. This rig along U.S. 77 had a loose drive belt–the squealing immediately caught my attention.

Along with cattle, fire is the main shaper of the Flint Hills ecosystem. Controlled burns each spring pare down weeds and invasive species such as juniper trees transplanted by the settlers. The saplings choke out the native grasses. A ranger at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve told me that signs of a fire I saw were doubtless accidental, as no landowner would burn in August, particularly one this dry.

Kansas motorcycle ride
An apparently abandoned antique shop in Cottonwood Falls. The mini-bike looks a lot like one I used to have. I’d love to see what other treasures are inside.

Nightfall found me at another Corps of Engineers project, the 8,000-acre El Dorado Lake. The earthen dam was typical of their practice and contains many acre-feet of water. I marveled at the elegant efficiency of these unassuming structures. That’s probably an oversimplification, but in any case, the Corps knows what they’re doing and run nice campgrounds.

Kansas motorcycle ride
The Flint Hills Scenic Byway, just north of Cassoday. One of the hidden gems of the Sunflower State and a great motorcycle road.

Like Topeka, Augusta lies near the edge of the Flint Hills. Since my route included a jog onto U.S. Route 400, I couldn’t pass up the Twisted Oz Motorcycle Museum. While riding into town, pay attention to the north side of the road as Sculpture Hill comes into view, an assemblage of more than 50 steel figures depicting rural Kansas life. Unfortunately, metal artist Frank Jensen’s creation is not open to the public.

Kansas motorcycle ride
Frank Jensen’s larger-than-life rendition of the nemesis of the plains: the grasshopper. Hundreds of its smaller siblings bounced off my Aerostich Combat Touring boots.
Kansas motorcycle ride
Jensen’s attention to detail is apparent in this piece. I can only imagine the hours he toiled with torch and stinger creating this beauty.

Back on U.S.77, I stopped for a break at the Solid Rock Cafe in Rock, population 191. As I finished my strawberry pie and coffee, a rider wearing a Ducati jacket and carrying an Arai helmet stepped inside. I knew I had to talk to this guy. I learned he was from Wichita, out for a birthday cruise on his recently-acquired 2008 Ducati 1098R, one of 600 produced and, coincidently, about to turn 600 miles on the odometer.

Kansas motorcycle ride
A chopped coupe with small-block Chevy and three deuces, backed up by a ’55 Chevy sedan. “New old” cars at the Strong City Standard station.

Arkansas City, known locally as Ark City, is the last Flint Hills town in Kansas. There I swung east on U.S. Route 166, bypassed Sedan and picked up K-99 once again. Black clouds inspired me to find a hotel in Eureka, where I also had a fine catfish dinner at Copper Kettle. Aside from keeping dry, the main benefit of hoteling it is hitting the road earlier. Heading west on U.S. Route 54 before dawn, I was treated to a blazing sun breaking open the wide horizon in the Strom’s rearview mirrors. Quite a sight.

Kansas motorcycle ride
Wind power is nothing new in Kansas and has been employed for more than a century. This well-maintained example is on K-177.

My loop’s last leg was K-177, 47 miles of which is designated the Flint Hills Scenic Byway. Though not as curve-filled as Native Stone, it still has enough sweepers and rolling hills to be entertaining. But more importantly, I appreciate the empty feeling it inspires. One stretch could well be the Great American Desert the pioneers spoke of. Aside from the pavement and some fence lines, there’s nothing but grass.

Kansas motorcycle ride
An overlook on the Flint Hills Scenic Byway. I was a bit disappointed as the grass was overgrown compared to the last time I stopped here.

Continuing north, I visited Cottonwood Falls, the Chase County seat which boasts of the oldest courthouse in Kansas. West of town, I explored Chase State Fishing Lake. The gravel access road was well maintained, but as with other side trips I was glad I was running 80/20 dual-sport tires on the Strom. The Shinko 705s noticeably improve the bike’s gravel road manners. On paved corners, the peg feelers grind before they run out of grip. It’s good all-around rubber.

Kansas motorcycle ride
The Chase County Courthouse served as William Least Heat-Moon’s research headquarters while writing “PrairyErth,” a history of the Flint Hills. It is a striking structure.

On my last visit to Strong City I arrived just as the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve was closing, so this time I made a point to get there in time to tour some of the former Spring Hill Ranch, including the limestone mansion and barn that are incorporated in the park’s nearly 11,000 acres. A now-thriving bison herd with 99-percent purity was reintroduced in 2009 and numbers 110, with 23 calves born this spring.

Kansas motorcycle ride
I’d hoped to solve the mystery of the Strong City Standard station cars from my last Kansas article, but no such luck. Next time, I’ll inquire around town about them.

During the westward migration, Council Grove was the last place to buy supplies before embarking on wilder portions of the Santa Fe Trail. An ironic place to conclude my Flint Hills experience, but all rides must come to an end. After lunch at the Hays House, I gassed up and headed the opposite direction of those hardy pioneers, east on U.S. Route 56. I’ll doubtless be back.

Kansas motorcycle ride
My last visit to the Hays House was also during steamy summer weather. But this time the heat hadn’t waylaid me. I was able to enjoy the excellent food.
Kansas motorcycle ride
The Cassoday Country Store offers breakfast and lunch. The lot might be full of bikes, or pickups pulling horse trailers. Or only a lone rider like myself. All are welcome.

Source: RiderMagazine.com