Late spring is a great time to do some pass bagging in the Nevada and California gold country. The passes are usually open by mid-May, and there is a beautiful mix of greenery, wildflowers and snowcaps in the high elevations. Today’s ride also contains a bit of adventure, as my honey and I are boldly moving into the 21st century with a pair of new helmets that have integrated headsets for bike-to-bike communication. I soon learn that it can be refreshing having voices in my head other than my own.
“I’m rolling,” I say into the microphone as we simultaneously turn northeast out of Virginia City onto Nevada State Route 341. We experience our first pass of the day within minutes as we reach 6,789-foot Geiger Summit and follow its winding path down into south Reno. Crossing U.S. Route 395, we stay on the same road, but it magically changes numbers to 431 and takes us to our second pass, Mount Rose.
State Route 431 begins with a straight climb through the foothills, but soon changes into 20 mph curves, which are a bit tighter than the sweeping 45 mph curves on 341. We begin to see some patches of snow before reaching the 8,911-foot summit, and upon crossing it are rewarded with our first peeks at Lake Tahoe. The lake will dominate our view for many miles and we are able to take brief looks at it because the tight curves have widened out to 50 mph top-gear corners, which we follow down to State Route 28.
As we follow the roundabout left on 28, an emphatic, “I’m hungry,” booms from my headset speakers.
“Good timing,” I reply. “We’re almost to Incline Village and can stop at T’s Mesquite Rotisserie for a burrito.”
T’s is a little hole-in-the-wall place on Route 28 crammed between the Incline Village Cinema and 7-Eleven, but its lunchtime crowd shows it is a locals’ favorite. We are thoroughly satisfied sharing a tri-tip burrito and leaving their rotisserie specialties for the next time we’re in town.
Heading south on Route 28 again, we continue to steal glimpses of Lake Tahoe on the right as we ride along its shoreline. When 28 dead-ends, we turn right onto U.S. Route 50 and savor our last miles of Tahoe views as we head toward South Lake Tahoe.
Entering South Lake Tahoe, we avoid the worst of its traffic by taking Pioneer Trail as we cross into California. We turn left to rejoin U.S. 50 but only stay on it for a few miles because our next left onto California State Route 89 takes us to 7,740-foot Luther Pass.
Luther Pass is really only a connector road, but it is a beautiful one with granite cliffs rising on both sides and valley views to the east. Continuing on 89, we go through Markleeville and follow it alongside winding creeks as its name changes to State Route 4.
Route 4 continues following creeks upstream into the Sierra and soon the centerline disappears, making it a one-and-a-half-lane road. That’s where the fun really begins. The next several miles up to the Ebbetts Pass summit of 8,730 feet are full of first-gear switchbacks with extreme road cambers. Give any vehicles in front of you lots of space. If they choose to stop for any reason and leave you stranded in the middle of a highly cambered curve, it will lead to some truly exciting moments. There are also incredible views in all directions if you can ever spare a second to take your eyes off the road.
Soon after the summit, I hear in my headset, “Some doofus just passed me on the one-lane road and now he’s heading up your tailpipe.” I check my mirror and find said doofus right behind me. As I hug the right side of the lane to let him by, I think about how much I like our new intercom helmets.
The ride down Route 4 is much like the ride up, but it soon becomes two lanes again and mellows out. We then begin looking for our next left turn onto Parrotts Ferry Road, past the town of Murphys. This road has more enjoyable curves and takes us to our night’s destination of Columbia, California.
Columbia is a state park set up as an Old West mining town complete with museums, people demonstrating skills of the period and stagecoaches running through town. Contrastingly, Columbia’s airport was hosting a canard aircraft show during our stay, so we also had to check that out.
After our tourist day, we continued on Parrotts Ferry Road and merged briefly onto State Route 49 south through the town of Sonora. We then turned left onto State Route 108 east, Sonora Pass Road, which was another highlight of our trip.
At 9,624 feet, Sonora Pass is slightly more civilized than Ebbettts Pass, with two lanes for its entire length. It has its share of first-gear switchbacks and my favorite views of the trip. The descent back into the valley is steep, and it quickly drops us off at an intersection with U.S. 395.
We blast north on 395 with our pass bagging nearly complete. A right turn onto U.S. 50 in Carson City and then a left onto Nevada State Route 341 several miles later takes us to our last pass of the trip. Approaching Silver City, we turn right and follow the Truck Route signs to Virginia City. This takes us up Occidental Grade with its 20 mph curves, offering a fine completion to our ride.
“The wheat field has…poetry,” Vincent Van Gogh once said. The muse the master painter found in wheat inspired dozens of his works. By the end of my recent tour through thousands of acres of the waving grain, I could see the wisdom of the one-eared post-impressionist.
I was the outsider, so I happily left the route planning to the native Washingtonians. My wife’s brother-in-law, Scott, and his brother-in-law, Dennis, discussed the riding merits of different roads leading to, and within, the Palouse region of eastern Washington. You’d think that any activity that begins with two mentions of “in-laws” could be destined for disaster. Not so in this case.
We enjoyed a great meal at Cow Creek Mercantile in the historic farming center of Ritzville. For what it’s worth, I enthusiastically recommend the delectable Kraut Runza. It’s a dish certainly inspired by the area’s heavy Volga German influence. We mounted up and headed northeast on our mixed bag of bikes. Dennis was piloting his red Victory, Scott was on his vintage Honda Gold Wing and I was riding a Shadow that was way out of my adventure bike comfort zone.
I settled into the low, feet-forward riding position as we rolled past the vibrant patchwork of wheat fields that are ubiquitous in the rolling hills of eastern Washington. There is a clear visual distinction between the vibrant, dense greens of the irrigated fields and the muted hues of the “dry” farms. Much of the region looks like a huge, non-geometrical, undulating checkerboard.
Our first stop on this Pacific Northwest adventure was the quaint farming town of Sprague. I flagged the others down when I spotted a cluster of vintage trucks and farm vehicles on the leading edge of town. With the kickstands down, we discussed the history of the place, and Scott informed me that there was an even more intriguing display of classic trucks on the other side of town. After a ride down Sprague’s brick building-lined 1st Street, his assessment proved true. I spent an inordinate amount of time amidst the patina-rich trucks strolling in a fascinating time warp.
Back on the road, we headed southeast on State Route 23 deeper into the Palouse. The predominate theory of the region’s name is that it is derived from the name of a Native American tribe, the Palus, which was morphed by French traders with their word “pelouse,” meaning an expanse of land covered in thick grass. When riding the region, the French word certainly fits. We motored through gentle rolling hills and sweeping corners. The vivid blue sky cut a sharp demarcation above the green hues of the wheat fields and grasslands.
At the small farming town of Ewan, we again headed northeast. We stopped at Rock Lake, which to me simply looked like a prime fishing hotspot. However, my local riding companions said there was much more to this deep-blue body of water. It seems that Rock Lake is as mysterious as it is beautiful. There are legends of a sea monster in the cold depths of the lake that some local farmers swear is true. Then there is the story of a train wreck that dumped a load of brand new Model T Fords in Rock Lake a century ago. One thing is verified: the deep, cold lake seems to have a voracious appetite for careless anglers, as many have submerged never to return to the surface.
After several more miles of great riding through rolling wheat fields, we next stopped at a very cool farm equipment shop that had two huge tractors on sky-high poles. As we were discussing the next leg of the route, the owner (and engineer of the elevated sculptures) came out to the road to see if we needed help, and gave us directions on how to get to the centerpiece of our ride, Steptoe Butte. As he wiped the axle grease from his hands, he suggested a “winding” northern route that would add time, but also a new and different ecosystem including forests of evergreens. He had me at winding.
We climbed out of the farm and grasslands into the pines south of Spokane. The air was cooler, and the curves more serpentine. This forested stretch was not long, but it added another layer to a great ride. We took a turn to the southeast onto the Palouse Scenic Byway. Historic barns dotted the vibrant green grasslands that comingled with the muted hues of the wheat fields. On a couple of occasions, we had to pull over to make way for massive farm machinery navigating the narrow country roads, but other than that, the route was virtually devoid of four-wheeled traffic.
Later, from the saddle of his Gold Wing, Scott pointed out a swell in the rolling land that was larger than the rest. I concluded that it must be Steptoe Butte in the distance. As we rolled closer, the butte grew subtly in size, but it was not, I thought in the moment, as impressive as I anticipated. That would change as we started the ascent up its narrow road. The majesty of Steptoe Butte State Park comes on slowly and then grows exponentially with altitude.
Once on top of Steptoe, the views were staggering. That patchwork of greens and browns that we had ridden through were on expansive display in a full 360 degrees. Short walks across the summit parking lot afforded long perspectives in every direction. I was told that the view from the butte’s elevated position is about 200 miles. We were lucky enough to be there on a day with blue skies and bulbous clouds, which only added to the natural ambiance.
Steptoe Butte has a fascinating history. At the 3,612-foot summit, the State Park Service has erected some informative interpretative panels with some of the notable ecological and human influences on the area. The first primitive road up Steptoe was cut in 1888. That same year, James “Cashup” Davis completed a two-story, 50-room hotel at the top. Davis died in his hotel in 1896 at the age of 81. The hotel, which suffered a decline in visitors over the years, closed its doors forever in 1902 and burned in an accidental fire in 1911.
After taking in the views from Steptoe, we descended the narrow road back to the floor of the park, and then back onto the scenic byway. The entertaining curviness and undulation of the tarmac continued until we reached our next stop. We rolled into Colfax, which serves as the seat of Whitman County. Again historic brick buildings lined the long Main Street of the town.
We stopped at Eddy’s Chinese and American for some sustenance and to recount the ride to that point. My body was starting to feel the effects of the strange-to-me cruiser seating position, and the constant blast of wind on the unfaired Honda. The sweet and sour pork was tasty, and the conversation was lively as we shared the restaurant with farmers and locals.
With bellies full, we headed west toward our staging point of Ritzville. There were several more tiny farming communities dotting the return ride. We rolled through Endicott, Benge and Ralston. It is interesting to note that no matter how compact the communities in this region, each one has a massive grain silo as a centerpiece. Most also seem to have at least some display of historic farming machinery to pay tribute the region’s lifeblood. Wheat dominates the landscape, the lifestyle and the economy of most of eastern Washington.
My amiable and knowledgeable local guides had certainly traced a wonderful circuit through a fascinating part of the country. The region is unique in its expanse, its importance to the world food supply and its beauty. The natural contours of the Palouse are dressed in a coat of many colors, and the ribbons of tarmac that traverse those contours are a motorcycling playground. I will remember fondly the wide-open beauty of the Palouse. The wheat field certainly does have poetry.
I stand over the open side case of my BMW R 1200 GS outside the Black’s Smuggler Winery in Bosque, New Mexico. I carefully wrap the bottle of local cabernet in a t-shirt and pack it in the middle of my left side box. It has become a tradition to bring my wife a bottle of the regional wine from any state I visit without her. If that means packing a little lighter for the ride, so be it. This is early in my trek through west-central New Mexico, so the bottle of red will be my traveling companion for several hundred beautiful miles.
I head south through the arid Southwestern landscape, cutting through a portion of the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. This terrain lives up to the common perception of New Mexico. However, I know that my ride will encompass much more than desert — on a map my 400 miles will trace a big letter C through the diversity that is central New Mexico.
The first real town on my route is Socorro. The historic city sits in the Rio Grande Valley and is the seat of Socorro County. There is copious history in this region, much of it tied to the strong Mexican influence. The name translates “to give aid or to give succor,” which is a reflection of the town’s early history of importance to the earliest of Mexican immigrants, including the 1598 expedition led by Don Juan de Oñate y Salazar.
The sun is low in the sky as I roll west out of Socorro on U.S. Route 60. The road is just a bit curvier, the grass is greener and mountains emerge in the horizon. Just after I ride through tiny Magdalena, juniper trees and other low evergreens dot the landscape. The Tres Montosas peaks rise out of the high chaparral landscape to my right.
Just as I am getting used to the treed horizon, the evergreens subside and something otherworldly replaces them. Huge, white bowls stand like strange, metallic mushrooms on the expansive Plains of San Agustin. I am rolling into the Very Large Array, a world-renowned astronomical radio observatory. Each movable antenna is 25 meters in diameter. The observatory, which dates back to the early 1970s, has made key observations of black holes, pulsars and other intergalactic intrigues. The white bowls are so spread out as to be on the horizon for several miles of my ride.
Once clear of the VLA, I ride up in elevation and vegetation to my stop for the night. Datil is a tiny town sitting at an elevation of 7,400 feet. I walk into the small general store that also serves as the check-in desk for the Eagle Guest Ranch. I am told by the amiable man handing me the room key that the guest ranch serves as the annual encampment for a big Moto Guzzi rally. I shed my gear in my room before heading to the guest ranch’s restaurant, which has the reputation as one of the best steak houses in New Mexico. Not having enough appetite for one of their large, fresh-cut slabs of meat, I opt for what turns out to be a delectable steak sandwich and a cold dark lager.
The morning air is cool as I roll out of Datil to the west. This stretch of U.S. 60 is lined with a mix of juniper and pine trees and the elevation brings a nice green hue that sits in subtle contrast to the desert and chaparral terrains of the prior day’s ride. Long, sweeping turns are a great warm-up to what will prove to be a supremely entertaining riding day.
Signs indicate I am approaching the aptly named Pie Town. I ride into what is basically a two pie-shop town that has garnered national attention for its quirkiness and mouth-watering baked treats. It has even been featured on CBS’s “Sunday Morning.” It is too early for pie, and I am not much of a sweets guy anyway, but I have to stop and visit the famous bakeries. Fun stuff.
With the aroma of crust and filling still clinging to my riding gear, I head farther west on U.S. 60. Again, the trees subside into high grasslands as I make my way to Quemado. Another tiny, inhabited dot on the map, Quemado features a small hotel, a few restaurants, a school and the Sacred Heart Catholic Church with its twin bells and historic cemetery. The quaint hamlet spells the end of my jaunt on U.S. 60.
I have been looking forward to the ride on State Route 32 since the employee at the Eagle Guest Ranch told me that it was the favorite stretch for the riders attending the Guzzi rally each year. Heading south out of Quemado, the road begins with sweeping turns and expansive views of the New Mexican grasslands. However, in just a few short miles, I climb into a beautiful pine forest. The trees grow larger with the climb in elevation that also brings the most winding and entertaining tarmac of the ride so far.
The beautiful road tops out at Jewett Gap, which sits at an elevation of more than 8,200 feet. After that crest, I start my curvy descent through rock canyons and then beside Apache Creek as I head farther south on my C-shaped New Mexican tour. I think back to the muted browns of the start of the ride as I take in the vibrant greens of this mountain region.
I ride into the small, bustling logging and ranching town of Reserve. I gas up and have a chat with the counter worker who is intrigued by the big GS at the pump. After telling him that I am heading south to Silver City, he tells me that I should take the short ride west past Luna where there is a great view of the entire valley. Of course I’m up for that, and I head west. The ride to Luna is fun, and the end game, that overlook, is all that the gas station attendant said it would be.
After retracing my ride to the east, I turn south on U.S. Route 180, which will be my route through the Gila National Forest all the way to Silver City. After dropping out of the forest, I come upon the Aldo Leopold Vista Picnic Area. Leopold has long been one of my favorite nature writers and his book, “A Sand County Almanac,” holds a special place in my heart and in my bookcase back home. The views from the vista are massive and their unspoiled nature would make Leopold proud. After a quiet visit to the vista, I am back on the road. As I roll though a beautiful mix of environments, I can’t help but think of some of my favorite Leopold quotes. The most fitting for this ride may be, “Wilderness is the one kind of playground which mankind cannot build to order.” Well said, Aldo.
The remaining 40 miles to Silver City winds through grasslands, rocky outcroppings and ranches as I trace the bottom curve of the big letter C. I roll into Silver City under the arching welcoming sign to the city’s downtown. In comparison to the tiny towns I have ridden through on this trip, Silver City seems like a metropolis. OK, that’s an overstatement, but the town of more than 10,000 residents is active and vibrant. Silver City is home to Western New Mexico University and, like most college towns, there is an added youthful vigor. That energy permeates the town’s historic ambiance and Southwestern flair to create a delightful cultural mix. There are even stately Victorian homes in the historic district.
I realize that it has been a huge faux pas that I have not had a Mexican meal on my tour of New Mexico. I pull in front of the Jalisco Café to remedy that oversight. I take in the colorful Mexican-themed décor as I wait in ever heightening anticipation for my chili relleno. It did not disappoint.
It is with a full stomach that I head out on the final stage to complete the bottom, eastward arc of my big letter C tour of New Mexico. I roll onto State Route 152, and soon realize that I have saved some of the best riding of the trip for last. I carve my way on the narrow and winding road through rocky passes, and juniper and oak thickets before dropping down back into grasslands and big views.
As I end my tour where the winding road meets Interstate 25, I think about the nature of motorcycling. If I had ridden from my start in Bosque to where I am sitting at the Caballo Reservoir on the interstate, it would have been a short, direct, boring two-hour ride. But, in making that speedy letter I into an indirect letter C, I have done what motorcyclists have relished since the dawn of the sport — explore off the beaten path. What could be done on a superslab in two hours took me two days, and that’s just the way I like it. I’ll tell my wife about it when I deliver the well-traveled bottle of New Mexico cabernet.
The mission was simple: See some scenery, carve some curves and soak up some cool temperatures before the summer heat arrived.
Three of us left our homes in different corners of Los Angeles, California; I was on a KTM 1090 Adventure R, my brother was riding my BMW R 1200 GS and our friend was on a Honda ST1300, and we met at the Halfway House café, a popular stop for weekend riders. After a hearty breakfast — of the kind none of us ever eats on a non-riding day — we headed northeast through a string of sweet winding roads. Traversing Vasquez Canyon, Bouquet Canyon, Spunky Canyon and San Francisquito Canyon, we made our way through Lake Elizabeth and headed down into the wide Antelope Valley.
The cool morning air rose to warming levels by the time we’d run the long straight roads that climb past Willow Springs, through a forest of wind turbines to the town of Tehachapi, where we gassed up and hydrated. Then, it was down wiggling Woodford-Tehachapi Road — pausing to admire the famed Tehachapi Loop, a railroad engineering wonder that curly-cues a length of track around itself, and the César E. Chávez National Monument, a library, museum and memorial of the California farm unionizer.
I’d been impressed by the roadworthiness of the 1090 Adventure R. My impressions improved as we began the tight twists of Caliente Bodfish Road, a narrow two-lane series of sharp curves that brought out the beast in it. Mindful of the livestock roaming along the unfenced sides of the road, and not wanting to dust my riding partners, I modulated the throttle as we rose up and over the crest and proceeded north toward Lake Isabella.
Wildflowers carpeted the flat fields of Walker Basin, where we paused to take beauty shots of the bikes and complain about the rising heat. Knowing we had a lot of miles left to cover, and certain it was going to get warmer before it got cooler, we dashed down the mountain, past Lake Isabella, to air conditioning, cold drinks and lunch in Kernville at Cheryl’s Diner.
Revived, we scooted out of Kernville, running north along the banks of the Kern River up Mountain Highway 99, watching the trees change from willow and sycamore to oak and finally pine. This higher-speed road carves up an increasingly narrow ravine, the rock walls closing in as the corners tighten. Riding past the turnoff for Sherman Pass, we skirted Johnsondale, left 99 for the seasonally closed M-90, and summitted at 7,300 feet near Ponderosa.
The 25 miles of State Route 190 downhill to the town of Springville may be the most dramatic motorcycle road in California. Countless tight corners, including some tricky decreasing-radius turns, drop almost 6,000 feet in elevation through pine forests and past trickling waterfalls.
We gassed up again and guzzled cool drinks under a broiling sun in Springville before running the last leg of our first ride day — the splendid, high-speed M-296/Yokohl Valley Drive, a poorly paved length of pavement with some extremely tight hairpin turns that crosses oak-dotted ranchland. When that deposited us on State Route 198, we hooked right, slid past the edge of glistening Lake Kaweah, and landed in Three Rivers, where we’d booked rooms for the night.
We’d done a little more than 250 miles from the Halfway House. An ample meal at Sequoia Cider Mill prepared us for a good long sleep.
Again mindful of the heat, we saddled up early and rode north to the turnoff for Mineral King. Once a prosperous silver mining area — hence its name — Mineral King got national attention in the 1960s when the Walt Disney Company selected it to build a massive mountain ski resort. Environmentalists intervened; Disney departed.
What remains are the granite cliffs, groves of giant sequoias, rustic cabins dating from the 1870s and a narrow, patchy length of pavement that climbs 7,000 feet in a short 28 miles. It’s a slow, uneven road snaking through dense forests, past cabins hidden in the trees, hugging the side of a canyon wall that features sheer drops to the east fork of the Kaweah River far below.
At the road’s end, in an alpine valley dotted with wildflowers and interlaced with gentle streams, we paused to fill our lungs with crisp mountain air and take the obligatory photographs. Hikers setting out for the peaks were headed for 11,000 feet and higher. We mounted up and picked our way slowly back down the hill.
Soon we were on Generals Highway, entering the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks area — I was getting to use my lifetime “senior” pass for the first time — and biting into a delightful lunch at the recently redesigned Wuksachi Lodge. An hour later, we had the keys to our cabins at John Muir Lodge. While my companions headed for the showers, I did an hour-long hike among the giant sequoias at Grant Grove, communing with the silence as the sun went down and the temperature dropped.
Morning broke cold and damp, and it was 45 degrees as we walked to breakfast. It was colder and foggier when we saddled up and headed down East Kings Canyon Road toward the turn for State Route 245. Ordinarily a deliciously twisty downhill run through the towns of Pinehurst and Badger, this well-maintained mountain road loses elevation quickly through a 35-mile series of sweeping curves, each with its own impressive view of the great San Joaquin Valley.
This cold morning, though, the air temperature was just above freezing, the mist had turned to fog and the fog was turning to rain. We proceeded slowly, some of us maybe just a little smug that we had brought proper rain gear.
The unfriendly weather left us briefly as we paralleled State Route 99, but returned as we picked up Old Stage Road and climbed through Glennville and onto State Route 155 into Alta Sierra. Through a pleasant period of weak sunshine, I was able again to make the most of the KTM, carving corners as the two-lane rural roads took us up from farmland to grazing land to pine groves.
Soon the freezing rain had reduced visibility to a few bike lengths. We crawled over the summit and were still chattering in our helmets when we stopped again at Cheryl’s Diner in Kernville, this time to warm up with hot drinks.
We still had the southbound Caliente Bodfish Road to enjoy, and our reverse route through Tehachapi and Lake Elizabeth. But we’d already gotten more than we came for. Good scenery? Curves to carve? Cool temperatures? Check, check, check. Mission accomplished!
Cheyenne’s population of 60,000 more than doubles during its 10-day Frontier Days rodeo, which took place a week after I arrived. As it happened, I rode into town a day after the city’s celebration of 150 years of Wyoming statehood in conjunction with the four-year restoration of its gilded domed statehouse. The crowds were gone, so I dodged a bullet. I was here to follow the stage out of town, but first, to take a looksee.
Cheyenne sprouted along the Union Pacific Railroad as it expanded its transcontinental reach. The Romanesque circa-1887 depot is a testament to that history, and a resulting National Historic Landmark. Striding around the Depot Plaza are eight-foot-high concrete cowboy boots painted by local artists to depict regional and state history. An objective, I understand, is to embark on a scavenger hunt to locate all 17 or so oversized boots stepping around the city. My visit to the Old West Museum provided me with an appreciation of the rugged rodeo riders who consider being battered and bruised a badge of honor. It’s sort of my feeling after another cross-country ride, especially as I age.
My iron horse would have to do in lieu of the cowpoke transportation around here. My purpose was to follow one of the more storied stage routes, the Cheyenne to Black Hills Stage Line. The stage run began in 1876 to link the railroad at Cheyenne to the gold fields surrounding the new town of Deadwood, but only lasted 11 years as new rail lines began to join the two cities. The 300-mile trip was made in 50 hours. Using modern horsepower I could likely do it in five, but I was here to poke along.
Rocky outcroppings define the landscape north of Cheyenne, especially at Register Cliff where Oregon Trail pioneers inscribed their signatures into the bleached limestone. Approaching Fort Laramie I encountered a bowstring-style iron truss bridge spanning the North Platte River built in 1875. I walked its wooden planks, thinking I was likely treading where the wagon wheels of the stage line rolled.
The Oregon, Mormon and Bozeman Trails, the Overland Stage, the Cheyenne to Black Hills Line and the Pony Express made Fort Laramie a busy outpost on the frontier. Fort Laramie began as a fur trading post established by William Sublette’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1834. It became a military garrison between 1849 and 1885, and a major staging area for conflicts and treaties with the Plains Indians.
Actors in period costumes strolled the grounds. I entered the Soldier’s Barroom and met a gent in character, laying out playing cards of the era upon the bar. I sidled up for a sarsaparilla, and we got to talking about the West’s adventurous opportunists, Jim Bridger, Chief Red Cloud and John “Portuguese” Phillips, the last of whom burst into the officers’ quarters on Christmas Eve in 1866 after riding four days through a blizzard to tell of the Fetterman Massacre at Fort Phil Kearney, where 83 men were slaughtered by the Sioux and Cheyenne. History comes alive here.
Rawhide Buttes Station north of Fort Laramie was the next stage stop. Although I was content to stop between gas fill-ups on a long haul, the stage paused every 10 miles or so to change horses and feed the passengers. Then, with a crack of the whip, they were off once again. Dime novelist Edward L. Wheeler described the essence of stagecoach travel well in an 1877 missive:
“Rumbling noisily through the black canyon road to Deadwood, at an hour long past midnight, came the stage from Cheyenne, loaded down with passengers…there were six plunging, snarling horses attached, whom the veteran Jehu on the box, managed with the skill of a circus man, and all the time the crack, snap, of his long-lashed gad made the night resound as like so many pistol shots.”
I crossed into Niobrara County on U.S. Route 85, the least populated county in the least populated state in the nation. I approached Lusk, population 1,567. Where did all these folks come from? Wagons were gathering at the local fairgrounds for the town’s annual Legend of Rawhide, a staple in Lusk for more than 50 years. Corn hole tournaments and a team-driving contest amused the locals during the pageant. Their Pioneer Museum has on display one of the two existing original Concord coaches of the 30 used on the Cheyenne to Black Hills Line. The other resides in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, an affiliation of the Smithsonian. William Cody used it in his Wild West Show.
Not far out of Lusk I encountered historical signage for the stage line’s Hat Creek Station, where it’s said Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill bedded down. Also among those of note who traveled along the stage road was Martha “Calamity” Jane Cannary, once a bullwhacker disguised as a male, although she was mostly a drifter known for her tall tales and delusional relationship with Wild Bill Hickok.
Sometime after leaving the Hat Creek Station historical site it dawned on me that all the power lines had disappeared, providing an unadulterated prairie expanse to view. The only ranches were miles down dusty side roads. No vehicles were in sight for miles ahead or behind, just me and the breezes rippling the prairie grassland and softly patting my cheeks behind the windscreen, bringing fragrant aromas of sage and lupine. The air was so pristine not even bugs splatted the windshield. One archivist of the stage journey described the scene this way: “There is something on the Plains that cannot be found elsewhere, something which can be felt better than described, something you must go there to find.” These are reasons why I wear an open-face helmet while on tour.
Some 60 miles later Newcastle intruded on my highway reverie. Another stage station is preserved here, the Jenney Stockade Cabin, dating from 1875. Motorcycle traffic picked up as I closed in on the Black Hills. Riders I talked to were coming from Devils Tower and Custer. Eighteen miles from Newcastle is Four Corners, site of at least one stage robbery in 1878. Since the stage was often carrying gold, highwaymen would lie in wait at favorite spots like this.
As I entered South Dakota, the highway finally bent into delicious curves. But they can be dangerous curves, evidenced by a trauma helicopter that had landed because a motorcyclist was down. Roadside memorials of white crosses are prevalent throughout the Black Hills. A cattle drive crossing the road ahead of me was another reason for caution — I slowed to approach cautiously so as not to spook them, but was too late to capture a photo.
Lead (pronounced Leed) was named for the heavy ore deposits in the area. One of the largest gold mining pits in the Western Hemisphere is on view here. Noted author and humorist Ambrose Bierce managed one of the placer mining companies. He related in a newspaper article how he himself was a victim of an attempted robbery while carrying $30,000 in cash on the trail outside of Deadwood, when his accompanying messenger shot the perpetrator dead.
Numerous notorious characters got themselves shot dead just up the road in Deadwood, and I trudged the hills of Mt. Moriah Cemetery, where lie the remains of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. The rest of Deadwood is a tourist scene I just as well avoided. You can’t even park on historic Main Street. The whole town has been described as illegal anyway since it lies within the territory granted to Native Americans in the 1868 Treaty of Laramie. One can blame Custer, who led an expedition that discovered gold here in 1874. Disputes over these Black Hills are ever ongoing, and have reached the Supreme Court on several occasions. Regardless, Deadwood became the end of the line for the stage. Mail from Cheyenne was delivered and gold from the mines transferred to strong boxes and the cycle repeated itself for the return trip.
On the northern fringe of Deadwood I encountered a scene from the movie “Dances With Wolves” at an interpretive center called Tatanka, where giant bronze sculptures of bison pursued by Indians are gathered on a hillside overlooking an expansive view of the valley below. Indeed, it was Kevin Costner who commissioned this artwork and financed the center. It’s a fitting tribute to Native American culture, and a fitting end to my ride along the stage route to Deadwood.
Gassing up in the already-toasty Palm Desert morning sun, it is hard to imagine that I will be riding in the cool, tall pines in less than an hour, and visions of serpentine hairpins dance inside my steaming Shoei. The rapid elevation change on the famous (some would say infamous) California State Route 74 is a major part of its appeal to motorcyclists.
Route 74 is the stuff of motorcycling lore. This is not the Tail of the Dragon; it’s the whole mythological creature. The dragon’s head breathes fire into the Coachella Valley. Its claws cling resolutely to the rugged cliffs above the desert. Its wings spread into the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains, and its coiled tail cascades down the Santa Ana Mountains to dip in the cool waters of the Pacific. OK, enough metaphor, let’s get this ride started.
Palms to Pines
Yes, summer is hot in the Coachella Valley desert. The upside to spending time in the upscale town of Palm Desert in the dog days is that as the mercury rises, the resort prices plummet. I am fresh off a great night’s sleep in an air-conditioned suite that cost me a fraction of what it would have in the winter. I’ve chosen Palm Desert as my staging point since it is the true gateway to the mountains through which Route 74 carves.
I ride on palm-lined streets skirted by sprawling golf resorts on my way to the base of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains. Just as the road starts to coil, I pass a sign that warns of “Sharp Curves and Steep Grades.” While motorcyclists consider that kind of verbiage an advertisement, not warning, it is a prologue that should be read earnestly by those of us on two wheels. There will be several subtle and not-so-subtle reminders along this westward trek that the 74 is a route that demands respect.
Route 74 starts with a bang. The hairpins that grace the mountains climbing out of the desert are remarkably tight. I carve through gray rocks and increasing foliage as I use only the lower gears on the big BMW GS. There are numerous pullouts for slow vehicles, but I encounter few of those as I got an early morning start on this mid-week day. The road is well-paved and narrow. The sheer number of curves as well as the variety of turn types requires me to stay vigilant.
After about a dozen miles of these supremely entertaining curves, I roll upon the Coachella Valley Vista Point. It is not often that a rider gets to relive a great stretch of road so immediately. Looking down from the vista point, the road I just traveled resembles that ribbon candy that so many of us found in our Christmas stockings as children. When I can finally stop staring at the serpentine asphalt, I raise my gaze to a truly impressive and panoramic view of the vast desert valley from which I have just ascended. As I walk away from the rock wall of the overlook, I notice a bronze placard on a granite stone. The sign is an eloquent plea for motorists to respect the road and ride or drive safely. A second powerful reminder.
After the viewpoint, the winding road continues for several miles before the route relaxes a bit on the mountaintop. The road is now lined not by palms, but rather by towering pines. This part of Route 74 carries the name “Palms to Pines Scenic Highway” for good reason. At one point, I intersect the Pacific Crest Trail, which has enticed distance hikers and soul-searchers for decades. The PCT is the setting for the intriguing movie “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon. The film is based on a memoir of self-discovery and healing by Cheryl Strayed.
More mountain riding leads me past the blue waters of Lake Hemet. The morning shadows shiver on the lake’s glassy surface as I stop for a look. I chat with a maintenance worker who tells me the lake is a favorite for some “Hollywood folks” like Halle Berry and the Kardashians.
There are some small clusters of mountain cabins as I continue. Crisp, cool air blows through my mesh riding jacket and I notice that the bike’s display indicates an air temperature of 66 degrees. I can’t help thinking back to how that same instrument was reading 92 as I pulled out of Palm Desert earlier in the morning.
I reach a crossroads at the tiny community of Mountain Center. A left turn at the Y spells the continuation of Route 74. A right turn leads to another leg of the Palms to Pines Scenic Highway. While my ultimate goal in this tour is to find my way to the Pacific on Route 74, I can’t resist the temptation of sampling the curves on an out-and-back jaunt on Route 243. As I trace my way to and through the mountain community of Idyllwild, I am supremely glad I took this side adventure. I ride about 25 miles toward Banning before retracing my curvaceous path back to Route 74. Fifty miles well spent.
Back on my intended path, I embark on a spirited descent off the mountain range. After riding more miles through the conifer-rich environment, I roll into a wide valley. The San Jacinto Valley rests as the midpoint of this ride. To extend that early metaphor, this is the saddle on the back of the dragon. The valley city of Hemet serves as my stop for a spot of lunch and a bit of map study before the next leg of my westward ride to the sea.
Ortega Highway to the Sea
For a while after Hemet, Route 74 becomes flat and sedate as it cuts through the communities, farms and ranches in the San Jacinto Valley. It even blends with Interstate 215 for a brief stretch. However, after ducking under Interstate 15, the fun begins again as I embark on the segment of the road that carries the Ortega Highway designation.
This portion of the ride begins with a little reflection and reminiscing for me. I pull into The Lookout Roadhouse, which is a popular stop for motorcyclists either before or after riding the Ortega Highway. I take a seat on the rocks outside the tiny diner and gaze down at the expansive Lake Elsinore. Yes, Lake Elsinore was the setting for much of the action in the ultra-classic, maybe quintessential, motorcycle movie “On Any Sunday.” As a preteen, the 1971, Bruce Brown-directed movie stoked my burning, lifelong passion for motorcycling. The place also served as the inspiration for the naming of the sport-changing Honda Elsinore motocross bike. That screaming machine became one of the unattainable objects of my adolescent desire (the one that didn’t wear cutoff jeans and halter tops).
When I finally pull myself away from visions of Steve McQueen, Malcolm Smith and silver Honda 2-strokes, I am ready to tackle the Ortega Highway. I am fully aware that the Ortega has a reputation – not just for great curves, but also for a healthy dose of danger. It has even been purported to be haunted. I stop at a sign beside the road placed there by the family of a fallen rider. It is yet another reminder that discretion, attention and moderation are needed on this road. This stretch of Route 74 has had more than its share of motorcycle tragedies over the years. It is something that I will keep in the forefront of my mind as I ride to the Pacific.
The Ortega is every bit as fun and challenging as the eastern Palms to Pines segment. I find the road surface a bit more variable than in the mountains east of Hemet. Some of the turns are deceptively tight. A road feature that I find reassuring is the inclusion of a heavy rumble strip between the yellow lines in the center of the road. It is a noisy reminder for cars and trucks to stay on their side.
The ride in the Cleveland National Forest is beautiful. A mix of pines, massive oaks and thick underbrush line the wandering tarmac as it passes through the Santa Ana Mountains. This heavily wooded but dry forest is particularly susceptible to massive wildfires and I ride by several “extreme fire danger” signs. I also ride intermittently beside creeks, rivers and small lakes. There are lots of reasons to stop, look and refocus before continuing the descent toward the Pacific on this western incarnation of the dragon’s tail.
My mountain ride becomes decidedly more urban as I approach the ocean. I ride though San Juan Capistrano before making my final roll into the beautiful Dana Point Harbor. I let the BMW rest in the shade of the palm trees of Doheny State Beach as I watch the surfers pulling their boards from car tops. “On Any Sunday” meets “The Endless Summer.” Documentarian Bruce Brown would be proud.
Riding California Route 74 is a motorcyclist’s dream. The diversity, the views, the curves and the thrills are magnetic. It is a ride that demands your respect, attention and discretion, but the payoff is one of the best motorcycle adventures in the West.
If I could only make one ride in British Columbia, the Duffey Lake loop would be it. No other route boasts such diversity: a fjord walled by granite mountains, temperate rainforests and flowing glaciers, merging into a dry, semi-arid landscape of sagebrush and ponderosa pine, all on the doorstep of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Vancouver. I am not getting paid nearly enough to tell you about this gem, but journalists are their own worst enemies when it comes to holding back on a good thing.
Duffey Lake refers to the landmark close to midpoint on a loop tour that can be completed in about 10 hours at a steady pace, but is best done over two to three days, stopping to enjoy the scenery and locals, visit a winery and perhaps camp under a clear canopy of stars. The journey begins just northwest of Vancouver on Highway 99 – the Sea to Sky Highway – at postcard-perfect Horseshoe Bay, and continues northward alongside the sparkling fjord of Howe Sound lined by the Coast Mountains.
The highway was significantly upgraded for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and allows motorcyclists to zip along at a comfortable clip, watchful for police radar at the village of Lions Bay. Along the way, consider stopping to gawk at Shannon Falls, hopping on the Sea To Sky Gondola with its spectacular views or watching mountain climbers on the sheer granite walls of the famous Stawamus Chief.
Just ahead is the former logging town of Squamish, now a mecca for outdoor recreation, including kiteboarding at Squamish Spit. Café racers tend to gather at Starbucks, and cruisers at Howe Sound Brewing or Backcountry Brewing, the latter known for its amazing thin-crust pizza.
Road signs warn of black bears as you continue northward to North America’s top-rated ski resort, Whistler. This perfect little village makes for a great first night’s stay, with strolls through shops in the shadow of towering snow-topped peaks, but don’t expect heavy discounts in summer.
From Whistler, Highway 99 heads to the potato-growing Pemberton Valley, and your last chance for gas for about 60 miles as you proceed eastward through the aboriginal community of Lil’wat at Mount Currie. If you arrive in May you can even catch the community’s annual rodeo.
As you pass Lillooet Lake, the two-lane highway begins a steep, switchback ascent into high-elevation wilderness without a hint of commercialism. The road plateaus shortly after Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, a great spot for hikes to a series of lakes, backdropped by Matier Glacier. Don’t let the alpine vistas distract you from the job ahead: lots of twists and turns, with little in the way of shoulders and the potential for patches of loose gravel.
Duffey Lake is a jewel, and makes for a good photo stop at an elevation of about 4,000 feet. It can get cold here even on summer days so be prepared for changing conditions. Continuing eastward, alongside fast-flowing Cayoosh Creek you’ll find several rustic campgrounds, the best of which is Cottonwood, which offers well-tended outhouses, chopped firewood and an on-site caretaker.
You’ll notice some big changes continuing eastward: evergreen forests replaced by ponderosa pines, sagebrush and craggy rock bluffs, the weather becoming warmer and drier. Expect a stunning view of turquoise Seton Lake – and perhaps some mountain goats on the high cliffs – as you wind steeply downhill to Lillooet, an historic gold-rush town on the banks of British Columbia’s greatest river, the Fraser.
If you’re staying overnight, pick the newer rooms at the affordable 4 Pines Motel, just a block off Main Street. Try some wine tasting at Fort Berens Estate Winery across the river via the Bridge of the 23 Camels, a reference to some bizarre pack animals imported from Asia during the Cariboo Gold Rush of 1858. The Rugged Bean Café is your best bet in town for a soup-and-sandwich lunch.
You’ve now accomplished half of the Duffey Lake loop, and have three choices for the ride back to Vancouver. Street riders take Highway 12 along the east side of the Fraser Canyon to the Canadian hot spot of Lytton, watching carefully for hairpin turns and a landslide area where the highway is reduced to one lane.
One false move here and it’s a one-way trip down a steep embankment. At Lytton, take Highway 1 south to Vancouver, or divert to Highway 7 at Hope for a quieter alternative to the bustling freeway. Street riders might also consider doing the loop counterclockwise to avoid having the setting sun in their eyes for the last few hours.
Dual-sport bikes have a couple of gravel options at Lillooet. One is Texas Creek Road, on the west side of the Fraser Canyon, which passes through remote First Nation reserves perched on elevated benches of farmland that once formed the river bottom. Access Lytton via a fascinating, free “reaction ferry” that employs the power of the river to cross from one side to the other. Note that the service can be suspended during high waters of the spring freshet.
The second option for dual-sports is to head north from Lillooet via Bridge River Road, stopping in summer to watch the ancient scene of aboriginals catching migrating salmon to be hung from wooden drying racks. The gravel road boasts rugged scenery as it continues to Carpenter Lake, Bralorne and Gold Bridge before dropping down into the Pemberton Valley for the ride home on the Sea to Sky Highway.
Whichever route you choose, you won’t be disappointed. The diversity and isolation so close to a North American metropolis makes the Duffey Lake loop an unbeatable riding experience.
Mountain passes are the ultimate expression of motorcycling, where winding roads and magnificent vistas merge to create the supreme riding experience. For me, the legendary passes of Colorado are the crown jewels of my life on two wheels.
Over the years I’ve dreamed about riding all of Colorado’s passes in a single trip. With summer approaching and a new motorcycle in the garage, I casually suggested the idea to a friend over lunch one day. The next morning I received an email from Bruce listing almost every paved pass in Colorado, including elevation, location and road surface. A day later there was a route stitching them all together. Now we had a plan – in nine days we would ride every paved pass, saddle, divide and high point in Colorado, a total of 59 as listed by DeLorme, and we would add one more on the fly.
We met at daybreak on Day One, our rides a contrast of style, substance and technology. I rode my brand-new pearl white 2018 Honda Gold Wing Tour with DCT. Bruce piloted his sensibly accessorized and beautifully maintained 2000 Harley-Davidson Deuce. He took the lead and I followed the rumble of his Twin Cam 88 engine.
We made our grand entrance to Colorado atop Raton Pass and stopped for quick photos to document the event; a process we would repeat 59 more times. This wasn’t the lush green Colorado of previous years. Meadows were yellow, forests were dry, streams and lakes were nearly empty and the usual deep snowpack was missing. Looping west and north through the San Isabel Mountains, we bagged four more passes before stopping for the night in the tiny town of Westcliffe.
What’s the difference between a pass, a high point, a saddle and a divide? I don’t know, but Bruce insisted they all be covered lest we be accused of being slackers. So Day Two we found ourselves battling urban traffic around Colorado Springs to reach the completely unremarkable Palmer Divide and Monument Hill. That afternoon we were bogged down in the foothills of Denver heading for Floyd Hill. But in between were five high passes that brought the day’s total to eight by the time we found our motel in Idaho Springs.
Bruce wisely insisted we make motel reservations for each night of our trip. Tourists fill Colorado every summer and many of our motels were full. The only fault in our planning was the daily mileage. Three hundred and fifty miles or so sounds quite doable, but the slow pace of mountain pass roads and tourist traffic expanded our saddle time to as much as 11 hours or more.
The highest passes are narrow threads of twisting asphalt that take you above the tree line to alpine tundra and mid-summer snow banks, with breathtaking views in every direction. Lower passes are sometimes traveled by school buses and lined with homes and businesses. Major passes are celebrated with familiar brown-and-tan Forest Service signs or green-and-white DOT signs, but lesser passes, saddles and divides are seldom marked and sometimes hard to identify.
Colorado’s passes exist all over the state’s western half, requiring a long, circuitous and sometimes repetitive route of almost 3,500 miles to cross them all. Usually they could be linked but sometimes the most efficient route was up and back, bagging a pass then retracing the road down. This is how we covered the Front Range passes of Golden Gate Canyon and Wondervu Hill as we worked our way north toward Estes Park on Day Three.
From Trail Ridge Road (U.S. Route 34) in Rocky Mountain National Park (the highest road of our trip: 12,183 feet), Cameron Pass is only about 10 miles to the north as the crow flies. But the Never Summer Wilderness Area and some of the highest peaks in the Rockies stand in the way. So it was south to Granby, north to Walden, then south again to the pass, backtracking to Walden and west to Steamboat Springs. A long day to be sure but 11 passes in our pockets to show for it.
Day Four took us to Granby for the second time, south to Winter Park, across Berthoud Pass and back into the smoke-filled I-70 corridor. At least four wildfires were burning in Colorado and smoke was choking valleys across the state. The largest of them, known as the 416 Fire, was burning near Durango, had closed U.S. 550, the famed Million Dollar Highway, and threatened access to at least three passes on our list. We paid close attention to news reports each night and hoped the road would be open by week’s end.
At Georgetown we did an up-and-back to reach lovely Guanella Pass, then looped above the Eisenhower Tunnel to cross spectacular Loveland Pass. As we descended into Dillon we entered a plume of smoke and could see fire burning right above the town. Helicopters flew low over our heads, dropping water from Dillon Reservoir onto the mountainside right in front of us. Later we bagged our only dirt-road pass, Squaw Pass, when we accidently overshot Juniper Pass. South to Buena Vista and back up to Leadville gave us nine passes that day.
Leadville sits more than 10,000 feet above sea level and it was just 38 degrees when we left to gather the first three passes of Day Five. We were riding the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway and the Gold Wing’s heated grips and seat sure felt good. Being from higher country, Bruce and I aren’t bothered by the elevation but, apparently, many others are. Convenience stores and hotel lobbies sell cans of oxygen to combat altitude sickness.
At 12,095 feet, iconic Independence Pass was the highest on our list and a pure joy to ride. In Hotchkiss we enjoyed the best burgers of the trip at a pleasant little place along State Route 133 called 133 BRGR. We crossed cool, green Grand Mesa and then plunged into the 103-degree heat of Grand Junction for a 65-degree contrast and seven more passes scratched off the list.
Often the little-known passes offered delightful surprises. Douglas Pass was more than two hours out of our way, but it was a gorgeous early morning ride to a beautiful red rock pass. Similarly, unpretentious Unaweep Divide was hidden in a wonderfully rugged sandstone canyon. We rode the breaks above the Black Canyon of the Gunnison to get Blue Mesa Summit then skirted Blue Mesa Reservoir and dodged a thunderstorm on our way to Gunnison, the last two passes of the day before our hotel in Salida. Another seven passes, check.
We did another up-and-back to Monarch Pass then rode south toward the rugged San Juan Mountains. As we approached Durango, we could see smoke pouring off the mountains to the north. Evidence of the firefighting effort was all around, smoke hung in the air and hundreds of “Thank You Firefighters” signs covered buildings and fences. Our desk clerk was a wealth of fire information including news that U.S. 550 was now open and could be traversed in police-escorted caravans.
Day Eight dawned with steady rain – an answered prayer for everyone in the area. Now it was the rain, not fire, that concerned us. We headed west to cross the imperceptible Gypsum Gap into Disappointment Valley. Flat and barren, this is not the Colorado pictured in tourist brochures. The rain increased as we rode back toward the mountains, so at Telluride we hunkered down in a convenience store to reevaluate our plan. Ouray, Silverton and the high passes of the Million Dollar Highway would most certainly mean more rain, and the day was more than half gone. For a moment, we actually considered skipping the passes in favor of drier riding. I suggested we cover nearby Lizard Head Pass then talk about it some more.
The weather to the pass was atrocious and an hour later we were back at the same convenience store. As we gassed up, a ray of sunlight lifted our spirits and we boldly headed for Ouray and the Million Dollar Highway. Light rain was falling as we snagged Red Mountain Pass and dropped into Silverton. With the national forest closed, the highway closed and the famed steam railroad closed, the normally bustling tourist town was virtually deserted. The headline in the local newspaper proclaimed, “Silverton Under Siege!”
We pressed on and checked off Molas Pass and Coal Bank Pass. About 30 miles north of Durango a state trooper led us through the burn area – about 15 miles of blackened forest reaching right to the highway’s edge. The 416 Fire had consumed some 40 square miles of forest and disrupted the entire economy of the area. Hopefully the rains would give firefighters the upper hand.
Our last night on the road was in Chama, New Mexico, with the last two passes on our list just a quick dash back into Colorado the next morning. But Colorado didn’t give them up easily. The 45-mile ride up and over the passes went from low clouds to dense fog to cold, hard rain that just wouldn’t stop.
At Cumbres Pass we took our usual quick photos but, at La Manga, we hauled out the selfie stick to get a double thumbs-up to celebrate our final pass. We’d done it! Sixty passes and a nine-day motorcycle buddy trip. We still had some 300 miles to get back home, which brought our total mileage to 3,476. A maiden voyage for the new Gold Wing, another notch on the Harley’s belt and an unforgettable adventure for two seasoned motorcycle riders.
April in the Southwest means perfect temperatures and sunny days, riding in a mesh jacket and Kevlar-lined jeans. With a new (to me) Honda Shadow outfitted with new bags to carry my camping gear, I hit the road in early April. My intent was to make a giant circle around Phoenix and Tucson, avoiding the big cities. In bloom, in high spring, the desert and mountains of Arizona’s highways beckoned.
From Lordsburg, New Mexico, I first veered south on State Route 80. Among the yucca-studded Chihuahuan Desert landscape there’s a historical marker near Skeleton Canyon, commemorating the surrender in September 1886 of Geronimo, the last Apache chief. The road eventually led to the dusty border town of Douglas, good for an ice cream sandwich and a fuel stop, before climbing to 5,000 feet of elevation and the town of Bisbee.
A thriving copper, gold and silver mining town founded in the 1880s, Bisbee fell into decline by 1950. Then enterprising citizens, with the help of a huge economic development grant, turned the ghost town into a tourist attraction. Big draws are tours of the Copper Queen mine, narrow streets connected by steep staircases and shopping for antiques downtown.
I camped at Kartchner Caverns State Park, next to an underground beauty of a limestone cave, before venturing farther west. A delightful road follows the contours of prime rolling hills through the snowbird havens of Sonoita and Sahuarita. Ducking under Interstate 19, I turned north on Mission Road. Lots of bicycles and motorcycles enjoyed the sparsely trafficked road, which led in a roundabout way to Mission San Xavier del Bac.
Long before any outsiders settled in southern Arizona, Father Kino founded the whitewashed mission in 1692 to benefit the local American Indian population. San Xavier Mission School, next door, has served Tohono O’odham students from kindergarten through eighth grade for more than 150 years.
Skirting around the southwest edge of Tucson, I picked up the Ajo Highway (State Route 86) just before it entered the Tohono O’odham reservation. The scenery was of the quintessential “Arizona Highways” variety, with saguaro, cholla, organ pipe, barrel, prickly pear, ocotillo and many other species of cactus in bloom along an undulating two-lane road. On the far side of the reservation I stopped to camp in Why, literally located at the Y where State Route 86 meets State Route 85. South of the Y, I soon rode into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This park preserves fine examples of all the varieties of cactus common in the Sonoran Desert, along with coyotes, javelina, Gila monsters, desert tortoise, jackrabbits, rattlesnakes, hawks, roadrunners and other creatures native to the borderlands.
In early April the desert was already heating up. I turned around at the Mexican border and headed north to seek higher elevations. After passing through Gila Bend and crossing Interstate 10, I discovered the Sun Valley Parkway. Known locally as “the road to nowhere,” this four-lane deserted highway offers a nearly irresistible temptation to speed. It was built in the mid-1980s in anticipation of a huge real estate development that fell through. Since then bicyclists and drag racers have enjoyed its 30-plus miles of pristine blacktop.
By the time I reached the palm tree-lined streets of Surprise, it was 92 degrees. What is the surprise? I wondered aloud as I ordered lunch in an air-conditioned Denny’s restaurant. According to the waitress, a woman who pioneered the settlement there was quoted as saying she would be surprised if the town ever amounted to anything. After lunch, I rode northwest through Wickenburg, then turned east up the winding curves of State Route 89 toward Prescott. Along the way I stopped to look over some steep, brush-choked country near Yarnell. A marker there honors the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who perished in a wildfire nearby in 2013.
The route I chose passed through tiny towns that I had never heard of, such as Peeples Valley and Skull Valley, before arriving at the bustling city of Prescott. Its mile-high altitude, granite boulders, hidden lakes and campgrounds in the cool pines have drawn many new residents. Fortunately, the city of 40,000 supported a Honda dealer. I treated myself to a stay in a hotel, and a minor repair to my motorcycle was quickly taken care of the next morning at Star Island Motorsports. In a hurry to get back to riding the Arizona highways, I skipped touristy Whiskey Row in downtown Prescott and instead headed for a curving road leading out to the north.
State Route 89A follows a serpentine route over Mingus Mountain to the old mining town of Jerome. More motorcycles than cars were coasting around its hairpin curves and flying over the mountain pass. Built on the side of the mountain, Jerome consists of a couple of narrow streets lined with restaurants, gift shops and bars. Off to one side there’s Jerome State Historic Park, containing the remains of an active mining community of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
I felt drawn to ride up to Sedona, some 28 miles northeast of Jerome, to snap some pictures of the famous red rock. A loop road winds off the main track to Red Rock Crossing; another curving road leads to Slide Rock State Park, a popular swimming hole. Prices were sky high in the New Age capital of Arizona; eventually I turned around and went back to the more down-to-earth Cottonwood for lunch. Unpretentious Crema Craft Kitchen on Main Street in Cottonwood had fresh and healthy breakfast and lunch options, with no wait and attentive service.
After camping overnight at Dead Horse Ranch State Park, I followed the Verde River upstream a few miles to visit Tuzigoot National Monument. At the site, an easy walk leads to hilltop ruins left by the Sinagua Indians. Populated between 900 and 1300 A.D., Tuzigoot’s residents created pottery as tall as they were and wove yucca fiber to make footwear.
Park rangers directed me to another national monument some miles downstream from Tuzigoot near Camp Verde. Situated high up on the side of a cliff above Beaver Creek, a tributary of the Verde River, Montezuma Castle was home to another band of Sinagua Indians. Early visitors to this ruin assumed it was Aztec in origin, but in reality the emperor Montezuma never ventured anywhere near here.
Saturday crowds were growing at Montezuma Castle as the temperature approached 80 degrees, so I headed for the high road over the Mogollon Rim. State Route 260 turned into State Route 87, wandering through some great sweeping curves lined with tall ponderosa pines before plunging down through tiny Strawberry and Pine, to Payson. A quiet town of 20,000 people at 4,800 feet elevation, Payson boasts the reconstructed Zane Grey Cabin and a museum to commemorate the author of 64 western novels that helped popularize the Mogollon Rim country in the early 20th century.
When State Route 260 turned back northeast toward Show Low, I chose to head into some warmer weather. Early April was still a little chilly up at higher altitudes, so I dropped down to State Route 188 and made a beeline for Roosevelt Lake. The Forest Service-run Cholla Bay Campground presented a stunning desert environment with plenty of vacant sites, even on a weekend. The main draw is the lake, a reservoir 33 square miles in size, created by a dam on the Salt River built in 1911.
A side road off State Route 188 headed to another set of ancient Indian ruins at Tonto National Monument. There, a steep half-mile hike leads to a stunning cliff dwelling overlooking the lake far below. The population in the area approached its peak between 1100 and 1300 A.D. They created Rio Salado polychrome pottery and farmed along the Salt River in the Tonto Basin. Drought, flash flooding and social conflict led most of the people to depart in the late 14th century for more favorable living situations elsewhere.
South of Tonto National Monument, the road ran into a T. A west turn would have taken me to Phoenix, but instead I turned east and joined a procession of Sunday riders enjoying the curves and rugged desert scenery of U.S. Route 60. A few miles beyond Globe, I stopped at the Apache Gold Casino, operated by the San Carlos Apache tribe. After lunch, I tried my luck on the video poker machines, enjoying an air-conditioned break from the road even as I contributed a few bucks toward the San Carlos education fund.
Then it was another hour on U.S. Route 70, known as the “Old West Highway,” to reach Roper Lake State Park just outside of Safford. Like most other Arizona parks, the main attraction is water. Roper Lake offers swimming, boating, bird watching and fishing, plus a bonus: a natural hot spring which is available free of charge to campers in the park. At 97 degrees, the water in the cement pool was soothing, with a great view of Mount Graham to the west.
Departing Safford, I followed the Old West Highway past the turnoff to the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area and the cute little town of Duncan, to the New Mexico state line. Lordsburg soon came into view. With that I was back where I had started, completing a circle around desert, mountains, winding roads, lakes, rivers and history–a thousand miles of scenic Arizona highways.
It was the scent in the air that did it, plucking me out of the Suzuki’s seat and transporting me back to the distant past. Not physically, of course. But my brain kept reporting I’d been swept away to relive a fond childhood moment buried deep in my subconscious. Riding along the Sierra Nevada foothills through California’s Gold Rush country, the particular combination of local trees, bushes, flowers and grasses surrounding us made my brain fold back on itself and suddenly I was 11 years old once again, trudging along a dusty wooded path at Boy Scout camp–a surreal moment to be sure. But also a pleasant reminder about the many small, unexpected joys we discover with motorcycle travel.
My wife Katie and I are native Californians but strangely enough we’ve never visited the Gold Country together, nor have we toured Yosemite National Park as a couple. So we started by spending a few nights along State Route 49 in the vicinity of Jamestown, Sonora, Columbia and Twain Harte, an area chockfull of historic sites and a wealth of varied activities–not to mention world-class riding roads. The open road always beckons to motorcyclists, so we riders enjoy striking our own balance between seat time and tourist/vacation activities. For this trip, Katie and I agreed on keeping a distinctly leisurely schedule since there’s so much to do and see in the area, but also because we both wanted to try and find some old haunts from our childhood years.
A hot highway drone north from our Southern California abode brought us to Merced, which served as our jumping-off spot for the good stuff as we traced two-lane roads eastward. We took flat, straight State Route 140 to connect with Route 49 at Mount Bullion on our way to Jamestown. Here, 49 is simply spectacular: fresh pavement, rising and falling twists and turns, and virtually no traffic. In short, riding bliss.
Jamestown gave us a warm welcome, in part due to the hot weather, but this little town offers an engaging, quiet, old-time feel to the place with plenty of stops for refreshments and window-shopping. But here’s the big find: Railtown 1897 State Historic Park with its tribute to steam-powered locomotives. Railtown gives a whole new meaning to the notion of big-displacement iron as the 26-acre park includes historic locomotives, a working roundhouse, belt-driven machine shops and a horde of train-related parts, signs and memorabilia scattered throughout. Steam train rides are available on weekends April through September, and if you’re a film buff you might recognize Sierra No. 3, a steam engine circa 1891 that appeared in many movies, such as “High Noon” and “Back to the Future Part III.”
Nowadays, nearby Columbia State Historic Park is a working town filled with historic re-creations including a blacksmith shop, an historic saloon, stagecoach rides, a gold-panning stop where you can try your luck and the Fallon Theatre, which still stages performances. We stayed in the Fallon Hotel, one of the two historic hotels still operating in Columbia, but my favorite stop had to be the ice cream shop located right between the hotel and theater. Our biggest disappointment is that we couldn’t stay longer to just soak in the atmosphere. Also close by, the town of Sonora is bigger and busier than Jamestown and Columbia, and offers much more to see and do (and buy!). Twain Harte, in turn, feels small, sleepy and relaxed, so pick the one that best suits your mood.
All of these stops proved delightful, but we also scheduled time to just roam around local roads on the V-Strom 1000 too. We both spent our childhood years growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and this portion of the Sierra could be easily reached for day trips throughout the year. And so I had to ride up State Route 108 to revisit the place where I first strapped on snow skis, Dodge Ridge. At nearby Pinecrest Lake, Katie and her family spent summer days trout fishing. And up the mountain we stumbled upon the Strawberry Inn, the lodge where Katie’s parents made their first stop on their honeymoon in 1947, on their way to Idaho for more fishing. For no reason at all we decided to go poke around on Old Strawberry Road, which meanders around on the north side of Route 108, crisscrossing the South Fork of the Stanislaus River. Understand that while 108 is a great road for motorcycling, the entire area is laced with miles and miles of back roads that don’t even show up on large-scale maps. It’s fun and easy to set up looping day rides along deserted byways, and again we only wished we had more time to just go see what’s on the other side of the mountain.
Eventually, it came time to literally head over the mountain as we rode Route 108 up and over to Bridgeport in the Eastern Sierra along U.S. Route 395. Although you’re smack dab in the middle of Big Country–Sonora Pass sits 9,624 feet high–it’s only 97 miles between Sonora and Bridgeport with an approximate driving time of 2 hours–no sweat at all on a bike. A portion of this gorgeous expanse of high-mountain goodness suffered greatly at the hands of the huge Donnell Fire in the summer of 2018 and although the scars will last for a long while it’s still spectacular country. A short hop south on U.S. 395 led us to State Route 270 and another California State Historic Park, the gold-mining ghost town of Bodie. The final three miles to Bodie turns from paved road to dirt, which the V-Strom handled easily, even with our two-up load. Once a thriving town of 10,000 people, Bodie is now preserved in a state of “arrested decay,” and no food or gasoline is available so come prepared.
Our overnight stop at the Double Eagle Resort in June Lake had us wishing for a longer stay, but early in the morning we rode to the shores of Mono Lake to meet with Nora Livingston, a naturalist and guide with the Mono Lake Committee (monolake.org). Nora shared some of the history and ecology of the area that includes unique tufa tower limestone formations, and an ancient saline lake that covers more than 70 square miles, holding trillions of brine shrimp and alkali flies that nourish millions of migratory birds every year.
From U.S. 395, Route 120 traverses 9,941-foot Tioga Pass as you enter Yosemite National Park, which is indeed one of the greatest natural wonders in the world. Low speed limits and tons of vehicular traffic slow your speeds–so just go slow! You’ll want to take in the awe-inspiring views anyhow, and plan on making lots of stops to enjoy the vistas fully. In fact, it’s best to bring a lunch along so you can just hang out at one of the many scenic pullouts along the way and take in the views.
Canny readers will note an ongoing theme lurking in the background of this story: our continuing wish to spend more time enjoying the area. If we could do it all over again each overnight stay would last two nights to allow more time for exploring and whimsical stops. Especially when considering the many incredible secondary roads in the area, we barely scratched the surface. Nonstop twisty, turning mountain back roads, gorgeous mountain scenery and virtually zero traffic outside the main roads in Yosemite. What’s not to like about that?
In fact, maybe next time I can go looking for that old Boy Scout camp I remember so fondly….
Thanks to some help from the good folks at the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau (VisitTuolumne.com) and the Mono County Tourism bureau (MonoCounty.org), we tapped into some excellent options for overnight stays, all with plenty of history, atmosphere and memorable surroundings.
Fallon House in Columbia State Historic Park: Situated right in this California State Historic Park, a night here feels like you’re immersed within a Wild West movie. parks.ca.gov
The Inn on Knowles Hill in Sonora: Sited on a picturesque hilltop overlooking Sonora, this bed and breakfast features lush appointments creating a turn-of-the-century experience, plus a sumptuous breakfast. knowleshill.com
McCaffrey House Bed and Breakfast Inn in Twain Harte: Spacious and well-appointed rooms in a secluded wooded setting, located just off Route 108. mccaffreyhouse.com
Double Eagle Resort and Spa in June Lake: Spacious cabins, spa services and a fly fishing pond for guests up in the high Sierra combines mountain living with full-on resort facilities. doubleeagle.com
Groveland Hotel in Groveland: Modern renovations make this historic hotel a delight, one that’s within easy reach of Yosemite National Park. groveland.com