Tag Archives: Great Roads West

British Columbia’s Beautiful Duffey Lake Loop

2009 BMW F 650 GS Duffey Lake
The author’s 2009 BMW F 650 GS parked alongside the Bridge River Road – a gravel alternative to the paved Duffey Lake Road – near the historic gold-rush town of Lillooet. Photos by the author.

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.

Vancouver British Columbia motorcycle ride map
A map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

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.

Howe Sound BMW F 700 GS
The fjord of Howe Sound offers amazing scenery north of Vancouver on the Sea to Sky Highway.

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.

Lillooet, British Columbia
The historic gold-rush town of Lillooet is located midway along the Duffey Lake loop tour.

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.

Duffey Lake
Duffey Lake is located at an elevation of more than 4,000 feet and can remain frozen well into spring.

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.

Fort Berens Estate Winery
Drop by for tastings at Fort Berens Estate Winery, just across the Fraser River from Lillooet.

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.

“reaction ferry” on the Fraser River near Lytton
A free “reaction ferry” on the Fraser River near Lytton uses the power of the current to move from one bank to the other.

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.

Source: RiderMagazine.com

Riding 60 Paved Colorado Passes in Nine Days

Guanella Pass Colorado
Our goal was to cross every paved pass in the state in a single ride—a nine-day, 3,500-mile adventure taking us over many of our favorite roads but introducing others we’d previously missed, like tall and lovely Guanella Pass above Georgetown (left). Twenty-seven of Colorado’s paved mountain passes are 10,000 feet or higher. Photos by the author.

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.

Riding Colorado Passes
A map of the route, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

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.

Colorful Colorado sign
Welcome to Colorado!

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.

Colorado wildfire
At least four wildfires burned as we crisscrossed the state, creating distant plumes, smoky valleys and up-close firefighting.

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.

Slumgullion Pass Colorado
Mountain pine beetles have decimated the once thick forest atop spectacular Slumgullion Pass. Four million acres of trees have been destroyed by the insect epidemic.
Colorado passes
Some passes are marked with simple green-and-white signs…
Tennessee Pass Colorado
…others with large, proud USFS signs.

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.

Rio Grande headwaters Colorado
The Rio Grande River begins its long journey to the Gulf of Mexico in these head-waters above South Fork.

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.

Loveland Pass
Colorado’s highest passes cross alpine tundra well above the tree line, where heated clothing is welcome even in summer.
Squaw Pass Colorado
Bruce’s 2000 Harley-Davidson Deuce and my 2018 Honda Gold Wing Tour peacefully coexist atop Squaw Pass, the only dirt-road pass in our adventure.
Juniper Pass Colorado
From Juniper Pass, the road snakes down toward the smoke-filled I-70 corridor.

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.

Independence Pass Colorado
Every pass we crossed became a photo op documenting the ride as well as the elevation and appearance of Colorado’s high spots. Independence Pass was the highest of them all.

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!”

Lizard Head Pass
The ride up Lizard Head Pass was cold and wet…
Wolf Creek Pass Colorado
…while storied Wolf Creek Pass was covered with dead trees.

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.

La Manga Pass Colorado
With well over 3,000 miles behind us, we celebrate our final pass with a thumbs-up selfie.

Source: RiderMagazine.com

Riding a Thousand Miles of Arizona Highways

Arizona motorcycle ride
Red rocks provide the backdrop for Sedona, the New Age capital of Arizona. Photos by the author.

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.

Arizona motorcycle ride
The Chihuahuan Desert’s hallmark is the yucca, a standout in the rolling hills near Rodeo, at the Arizona state line.

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.

Arizona motorcycle ride
Bisbee’s Copper Queen Hotel, more than 100 years old, retains much of its former glory.

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.

Arizona motorcycle ride
Mission San Xavier de Bac, a National Historic Landmark, was erected in 1797, on present day land of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

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.

Arizona motorcycle ride
Coyote Howls Campground attracts snowbirds who like a cheap place to park their RVs in the community of Why for the winter.

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.

Arizona motorcycle ride
Red Rock Crossing is an iconic landmark of Sedona.

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.

Arizona motorcycle ride
The Verde River is a green stripe of lush vegetation in the otherwise dry country near Tuzigoot National Monument.

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.

Arizona motorcycle ride
The five stories and 45 rooms of Montezuma Castle provided shelter to a people who farmed and hunted there for 200 years.
Arizona motorcycle ride
Visitors can walk through the dwelling at Tonto National Monument to get a close-up look at life on the side of a cliff.

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.

Arizona motorcycle ride
Beyond the road leading up to Tonto National Monument, Roosevelt Lake gleams invitingly.

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.

Arizona motorcycle ride
Zane Grey’s real cabin burned down in the Dude Fire in 1990, but a replica was reconstructed in Green Valley Park at the center of Payson.

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.

Arizona motorcycle ride
A map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

Source: RiderMagazine.com

Voyage of Re-Discovery in Gold Country and the Sierra Nevada

motorcycle ride Sierra Nevada gold country
We riders enjoy not only the twisty roads and breathtaking vistas in settings such as California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, but also the crystal-clear air and full range of scents nature pours out. The aromas from this particular combination of flowers, shrubs, grasses and conifers magically swept me back in time to relive some long-forgotten memories. Photos by the author and Katie Lee.

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.

motorcycle ride Sierra Nevada gold country
The author’s wife Katie poses with the 2018 Suzuki V-Strom 1000 XT they took on the ride.

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.

motorcycle ride Sierra Nevada gold country
A map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

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.”

motorcycle ride Sierra Nevada gold country
Railtown 1897 in Jamestown is a must-see stop for everyone visiting the area.
motorcycle ride Sierra Nevada gold country
Gear heads, history buffs, cinema fans and kids young or old will enjoy riding behind the still-operational steam locomotive from 1891.

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.

motorcycle ride Sierra Nevada gold country
In Columbia, we walked out of our lodgings at the Fallon Hotel and just a few steps took us to the stagecoach stop—talk about stepping back in time!

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.

motorcycle ride Sierra Nevada gold country
For this trip, we kept a more leisurely schedule and were rewarded handsomely. Taking time to wander down tiny spurs such as Old Strawberry Road led us to isolated little gems such as this spot beside the rushing Stanislaus River. We shoulda brought a picnic lunch along…

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.

motorcycle ride Sierra Nevada gold country
An entertaining three miles of graded dirt road brought us to the gold-mining ghost town of Bodie.
motorcycle ride Sierra Nevada gold country
The entire site is preserved in a state of “arrested decay” and many, but not all, buildings are open to visitors.
motorcycle ride Sierra Nevada gold country
At its peak, 65 saloons lined the mile-long Main Street in Bodie to serve nearly 10,000 residents.
motorcycle ride Sierra Nevada gold country
Be sure to set aside enough time to cover the area and view the many artifacts and buildings.

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.

motorcycle ride Sierra Nevada gold country
The Mono Lake Committee offers field seminars during summer and autumn; we enjoyed a private mini-tour of this fantastic setting.

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. 

motorcycle ride Sierra Nevada gold country
Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley was the favorite spot for naturalist John Muir, but in 1913 San Francisco was allowed to clear-cut, dam and flood the valley to create a source of drinking water.
motorcycle ride Sierra Nevada gold country
Many gorgeous scenic stops remain throughout Yosemite; this one offered 360-degree views, each magnificent in its own right.

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….

Sierra Stopovers

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.

motorcycle ride Sierra Nevada gold country
motorcycle ride Sierra Nevada gold country

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

Source: RiderMagazine.com

Northern Utah Loops

Northern Utah motorcycle ride
Northern Utah is an enticing mix of high country views, rugged mountains, intriguing history and fantastic roads. Photos by the author.

I unfold a Utah map on my outdoor table at the Main Street Deli in Park City’s bustling downtown. After placing my gyro sandwich plate over the state’s southern half, I study the upper portion of the map. With my yellow highlighter, I carefully trace out my two enticingly twisty, yet distinctly different loop rides. One emanates southeast of Park City and the other extends to the northeast.

This picturesque hamlet will be my home base for an exploration of Utah’s high country. Nestled in the mountains due east of Salt Lake City, Park City was the site of much of the competitive activity of the 2002 Winter Olympics. The town rests at the base of the ski run-lined mountains that are its winter lifeblood.

Northern Utah motorcycle ride
Downtown Park City is full of restaurants and shops housed in historic brick buildings.
Northern Utah motorcycle ride
Northern Utah motorcycle ride

Park City buzzes with activity in all seasons. In winter, ski boots and fur-lined parkas are the attire de rigueur. However, mid-summer is the perfect time to pull on the riding boots and armored jacket and hit the road. The upscale village offers (slightly) discounted lodging for summer activities, like my planned double-loop foray into some of the most varied and striking motorcycle riding the Southwest has to offer.

After wiping the Greek tzatziki sauce from my whiskers, I am ready to throw a leg over my BMW R 1200 GS for an afternoon ride.

Northern Utah motorcycle ride
The historic Miners Hospital in Park City is now a community center hosting a variety of meetings and activities.

The Southern Loop – Wide Open Spaces

Following a short ride east through the historic buildings, ski chalets and bustling activities of Park City, I start my ride on U.S. Route 40. The long, sweeping corners are lined with grasslands and a wide variety of summer wildflowers. In no time, I am riding with the blue waters of the Jordanelle Reservoir to my left. The substantial body of water is virtually treeless, offering up miles of views.

Just a few miles after the reservoir, I roll through clean and tidy Heber City. Like most of the Mormon-founded towns in Utah, Heber City features a mix of modern homes and buildings as well as historic pioneer-era structures.

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

After Heber City, the human element fades, and the grasslands and low trees again define the landscape. Traffic is refreshingly light, and the undulating pavement is smooth and fun. The farther southeast I ride on U.S. 40, the curvier the tarmac becomes. This is a relaxing ride that requires little on the technical riding front, but offers much in terms of long-perspective visuals.

Strawberry Reservoir is the next notable water feature on the ride and it is substantially more expansive then the Jordanelle. I make the turn into the Strawberry Reservoir recreation area, and stop by the U.S. Forest Service depot that rests at the entrance to the area. The tidy Forest Service facility is a treasure-trove of information on the Dominguez–Escalante Expedition of 1776. The Spanish expedition was conducted to find and map a route from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the Spanish missions in California.

Northern Utah motorcycle ride
The 1776 Dominguez–Escalante Expedition sites highlight the ride.

The paved roads that flank the reservoir are too much to resist, and I spend a fair amount of time exploring the lake’s shoreline. Having heard of the great views and interesting endgame offered after a ride south of Strawberry Reservoir on Forest Road 42, I decide to give the big BMW a little light dirt duty. The well-groomed 10-mile gravel and dirt road ultimately leads to the entertaining and paved Sheep Creek Road. The road turns out to be a wonderfully winding stretch that is virtually devoid of traffic, and yes, the views are spectacular.

Northern Utah motorcycle ride
Sheep Creek Road is a serpentine ribbon through the undulating high chaparral landscape.

So what about that interesting endgame? I visit the strange, semi-submerged ghost town of Thistle, which was completely flooded when a massive landslide dammed the Spanish Fork River in the 1980s. After exploring the wet ruins and imbibing the eerie ambiance, I retrace my ride back to Strawberry Reservoir. This out-and-back is something you can omit from the ride if you are not comfortable with a short foray off of the tarmac.

Northern Utah motorcycle ride
The partially submerged town of Thistle is a fascinating and surreal stop.

I rejoin U.S. 40 for several more miles of sweeping turns accented with outcroppings of rock formations and low cliffs before heading north on State Route 208. After that stretch, I head back toward Park City on State Route 35. This northwestern ride is a delightful climb back into the mountains. The terrain morphs from grasslands to chaparral to forestland in a span of about 40 often-curvy miles. That forested segment would be a foreshadowing of the next day’s ride.

Northern Utah motorcycle ride
Northern Utah’s roads offer up panoramic views punctuated with snow-laced mountains.

I roll back into Park City after 230 miles of moto entertainment. I settle into my room at the Shadow Ridge Resort Hotel and then shower up for a walk to the downtown district for dinner and to catch the Mark Cohn concert at the historic Egyptian Theater. The revived theater is an intimate 300-seat venue, which, in addition to concerts, serves as a site for the annual Sundance Film Festival. Both Cohn and the Egyptian prove to be completely enjoyable.

My day ends with a local microbrew and then a slow and satisfying walk, not “in Memphis” like Cohn had just crooned, but rather through the cool night air of Park City. The stroll back to my hotel is a fine culmination to a fantastic day.

Northern Utah motorcycle ride
The historic Egyptian Theater is an entertainment staple in Park City.

The Northern Loop – Mountain Lakes and Waterfalls

I intentionally leave a full day for the second of my loop rides. Map study and Internet searches have revealed a full slate of reasons to throw down a kickstand along the route. Mountain lakes, rivers, waterfalls and forest vistas are on tap.

I leave Park City in the same direction as the day before, but just a few miles free of the town, I start my northwestern sojourn into the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Just miles into my ride on State Route 150, also known as the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway, it becomes crystal clear just how different this ride will be than that of the prior day.

Northern Utah motorcycle ride
The Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest covers nearly 2.5 million acres.

The long, lazy sweepers of the lower loop have been replaced with tighter, more technical corners on this northern ride. The evergreens that line the roadway increase in height with the rise in the elevation. Vibrant forest greens color my ride into the Uinta Mountains.

The blue-green waters of Beaver Creek skirt the early miles of the climb up  Route 150. When the route turns northward, it is the Provo River that flows along the ride. At about the 40-mile point in the loop the rushing and tumbling Provo River Falls are a great first stop.

Northern Utah motorcycle ride
The cold waters of the Provo River Falls cascade below towering evergreens.

After the falls, the road becomes increasingly twisty and entertaining. There are even a fair number of hairpins to keep things lively. The traffic is a bit heavier than I had experienced on the southern loop, but it is far from frustratingly congested. Much of the traffic that I encounter is made up of other happy motorcyclists.

Deep blue mountain lakes begin to dot the alpine landscape, and each one offers its own unique visual appeal. My first shoreline stop is Teapot Lake, which sits cold and still with a great view of snow-laced Mount Watson over its far shore. Even in late June, the white stuff is in abundant supply on the mountains at this elevation.

Northern Utah motorcycle ride
The author looks over Teapot Lake to rugged Mount Watson.

After Teapot, I don’t even get out of second gear before I come upon the more expansive Lost Lake. For the next several miles, bodies of water with names like Moosehorn, Mirror and Butterfly sit just off of the pavement on both sides of the winding road. For me this high-mountain lake region is the highlight of my riding in northern Utah.

The next miles of Route 150 follow more rivers as the road carves through the national forest. The northern ride takes me by a smattering of cabins and lodges. It should be noted that most of this scenic byway is devoid of any services so plan your gas and sustenance needs accordingly.

Northern Utah motorcycle ride
The impressive Slate Gorge was cut by the Provo River.

Shortly after a cluster of cabins called the Bear River Lodge, the forest of pine and aspen trees transforms into a high-elevation grassland environment. The road is straighter and the riding landscape is rolling and wide-open. The snowcapped mountains diminish in my rearview mirrors.

At about the 75-mile mark of the ride, I pass into Wyoming. I am riding in what would still be Utah if the state were a true rectangle. It’s as if Wyoming, which became a state six years before Utah, laid claim to that geometric distinction by biting off the ear of Utah. The small handful of miles that I will spend in Wyoming is punctuated with a stop in the town of Evanston. After a quick fuel stop, I look for a place for some lunch. Jody’s Diner, a quaint retro eatery, fills the bill.

Northern Utah motorcycle ride
There are trout in those riffles, but the author didn’t pack his rod.

There is more entertaining riding to be had, so I head out of Evanston to the northwest on Wyoming Route 89, which becomes Utah Route 16 as I reenter the Beehive State. It’s when I turn onto State Route 39 (the Ogden River Scenic Byway) that the real entertainment begins. This 50-mile stretch of my ride serves up the longest sustained lineup of curves on the entire loop. The pavement conditions are variable, so I exercise caution on the new-to-me route. At Huntsville, I head south on State Route 167 and finish my return to Park City via Interstates 84 and 80.

In the end, this tour is really a tale of two distinctly different rides. The southern loop is defined by sparse traffic and wide-open spaces that equal a relaxing and view-infused experience. The northern route is an alpine route that ramps up the riding entertainment with winding mountain roads. Needless to say I will be back, map and highlighter in hand, to trace more of what this region has to offer.

Northern Utah motorcycle ride

Mirror Lake Scenic Corridor Recreation Area

If you are going to get off your bike and explore the lakes, streams and hiking opportunities in the Mirror Lake Scenic Corridor Recreation Area along Utah Route 150, you will need to stop at one of the self-serve recreation fee stations. A three-day pass carries a $6 fee and it is $12 for a seven-day pass. For more information contact the Heber-Kamas Ranger District at (435) 783-4338.

Source: RiderMagazine.com

Big Deserts, Small Bike: Riding Death Valley, Mojave and Joshua Tree on a Yamaha XT250

California deserts motorcycle ride
Straddling the Colorado and Mojave deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is full of its namesake trees, various species of cacti, rock formations and unpaved roads that take you off the beaten path. Photos by the author.

Rolling through Death Valley National Park, I have an eerie feeling that I am being watched. Passing a road sign indicating that I am below sea level, a glance at the GPS confirms it–150 feet below sea level, in fact! But who is spying on me? Pulling over to contemplate the situation and grab a few pictures of the amazing landscape, I have goosebumps, but it isn’t from the brisk February morning air since I’m wearing heated gear.

I am traveling alone and the uneasy feelings will haunt me throughout my three-week journey. As a birthday present to myself, I’ve hauled my 2018 Yamaha XT250 from Missouri to escape the crummy winter weather and research three desert parks–Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve.

California deserts motorcycle ride
A map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

It’s not my first time here. In the 1960s, my father was stationed at Travis AFB here in California. He always had a scooter or a motorcycle and I was the kid who always darted outside at the sound of the engine. Dad and I loved exploring on two wheels, and now a mental image of him riding a Cushman and wearing an Air Force flight suit is coming into focus. 

In his senior years he enjoyed sitting on the pillion of my Honda Gold Wings, reminiscing about our adventures. Now it’s me in my senior years, the Gold Wings are gone, and I’m finding that motorcycle adventures can be just as much fun on a 250 as they are on an 1800!

California deserts motorcycle ride
Aguereberry Point, perched at 6,433 feet in Death Valley’s Panamint Range, provides an exceptional view of Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America.

Downshifting now for the upcoming turn onto Emigrant Canyon Road, I negotiate potholes, rocks, sand and dirt as the road ascends past Eureka Mine toward my destination today: the 6,433-foot overlook at Aguereberry Point. Below is Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous 48 United States, resides 85 miles to the northwest.

To get here I’ve skirted decrepit mines and settlements scattered throughout the park. Encompassing 3.4 million acres, Death Valley is the largest U.S. national park outside Alaska, with nearly 1,000 miles of roads providing access to spectacular remote locations–provided you are on a street-licensed machine. A dual-sport is perfect, and an adventure bike can handle most of the unpaved byways.

This park features rugged mountains rising as much as 11,000 feet, deep and winding canyons, rolling sand dunes and spring-fed oases, some of which are accessible on street bikes. But to see today’s sights you’ll need long-travel suspension, good ground clearance, prior off-road experience and the ability to pick up your bike by yourself if you choose to travel alone. There were days exploring these parks that I didn’t see another human being until I returned to pavement.

California deserts motorcycle ride
Due to harsh conditions, with extreme temperatures and months of no rainfall followed by flash floods, only the hardiest plants and animals can survive in the desert.

I chose February for this trip because summer daytime temperatures often exceed 120 degrees and nights remain hot, with lows in the 90s. This winter morning is typical–bright sun, a light breeze and afternoon highs in the 70s in the basin and in the 40s and 50s in the mountains.

One morning I take the fun-to-ride paved and winding Badwater Road south from my campground at Furnace Creek to Shoshone, where I plan to refuel and have lunch. I’ve clocked my fuel-injected XT250 at 70 mph on a GPS, but today I’m limited by the hills and blind curves. It’s 150 miles round trip to Shoshone–doable with the XT’s 2.6-gallon fuel tank and estimated 76 mpg fuel economy, but fuel outside the park is nearly $2 a gallon cheaper! I fill up in Shoshone, which allows exploring several of the attractions along the way, such as the newly paved and unforgettable Artists Drive. The curvy, one-way drive through mountains and canyons displays a colorful palate of ancient claystone. There are several parking areas for water breaks and photography.

California deserts motorcycle ride
Although unpaved backcountry roads provide more adventure and solitude, the well-maintained paved roads through the desert parks offer easy access and beautiful scenery.

My day on Badwater Road and Artists Drive was a highlight of my Death Valley adventure, but the best was yet to come! Having an off-road vehicle allows access to Titus Canyon, a rough, rocky road that is steep and narrow and often closed due to snow, mud or washouts. The one-way entrance is in Nevada and the exit is in California. Twenty-seven miles long, the canyon is infrequently patrolled and summer travel is not advised. Fuel, food and water are available in Beatty, Nevada, six miles from the canyon entrance. The trip to Beatty from my campsite at Furnace Creek was 40 miles. Careful fuel planning is essential, but you’ll be treated to an adventure of steep climbs and descents, colorful rock deposits and fossil beds 30 to 35 million years old. The fossilized skull of a huge, rhino-like Titanothere was found here in 1933.

The highest point on the road, Red Pass (5,250 feet), affords a grand view and a great place for a break. Next up is the ghost town of Leadfield, which “boomed” for less than a year in 1926-27 because the lead deposits bottomed out quickly. All that is left today are a few shacks and a number of mines.

California deserts motorcycle ride
Accessible via Titus Canyon Road, a winding one-way dirt road that climbs over 5,250-foot Red Pass in Death Valley National Park, Leadfield was a mining town that boomed and busted in 1926-27.

California deserts motorcycle rideThe final 1.5 miles of the canyon are narrow; the walls squeeze down to less than 20 feet apart in some places. As the road enters the narrows it descends into the roughest part of the ride, but it’s no big deal for the XT with its remarkable 11 inches of ground clearance and 9/7 inches of front/rear suspension travel. With a 21-inch spoked front wheel, 51 degrees of maximum turning angle and a seat roughly 31 inches above the ground, the canyon is a walk in the park. From there I enter an area of shadow and echoes that make my 250 sound like a 650! Moments later I emerge from the canyon into dazzling sunlight and the conclusion of part one of my adventure.

California deserts motorcycle ride
The final 1.5 miles of Titus Canyon is narrow, squeezing down to as little as 20 feet across, making it vulnerable to flash floods.
California deserts motorcycle ride
Navigating loose gravel in the wash is easy on a light dual-sport like the XT250.

The historic town of Kelso, plopped down in the center of Mojave National Preserve, is some 100 miles south of Death Valley, and connected to the larger park not just by geography, but also captivating railroad history. The fabled Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley desperately needed a rail line to replace the slow and treacherous twenty-mule team route. But one steam locomotive was not capable of hauling heavy loads over the steep two-percent grade at Cima Summit, which meant “helper engines” would need to be stationed nearby to assist locomotives up the 2,078-foot ascent. And, steam locomotives needed water.

There was a reliable water source from a spring in the Providence Mountains, so Siding #16, later renamed Kelso, became the site of the helper engine station that made the route to Los Angeles a reality. In 1924 Siding #16 was refurbished into the handsome Spanish Mission Revival-style depot that stands today as the preserve’s visitor center. If you are a train history buff, plan on spending a couple of hours absorbing the enchanting museum/historic monument.

California deserts motorcycle ride
In the late 1800s, twenty-mule teams transported borax from Death Valley mines to the nearest railroad spur, 165 miles away.

There’s other history as well, including Route 66, which was officially established in 1926 and ran parallel to what is now Interstate 40, which forms the southern boundary of the Mojave Preserve. The Mojave Desert spreads through portions of California and Nevada and very small areas in Arizona and Utah. It encompasses nearly 50,000 square miles and contains most of Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks.

California deserts motorcycle ride
A member of the agave family, Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) thrive within a narrow range of elevation in certain desert regions of the Southwest.

There are also two famous ghost towns: Calico, with several shops and attractions, and Nipton, on the northern entrance to the Preserve, a restored ghost town founded in 1885. Both are reachable on street bikes. Other ghost towns, mining camps, petroglyphs and similar attractions require gravel road travel, including the lovely and quiet Mid Hills Campground. The main campground, Hole-in-the-Wall, is on a paved road. Neither campground has water when I arrive, but I have plenty to last four nights while enjoying the stunning sunsets, sunrises and astonishing starry nights.

California deserts motorcycle ride
Camping is a great way to experience to beauty of the desert parks, where you can enjoy the color and serenity of dawn and dusk.

Eighty miles to the south brings me to Joshua Tree, which is decidedly more developed and touristy than Mojave and more crowded than Death Valley. But then it’s closer to Los Angeles and has fewer roads for visitors to spread out on. It also has magnificent scenery, interesting geology and the famous Joshua trees, which aren’t trees at all but rather yucca plants. On my first day in the park the XT and I tour from the north entrance at Twentynine Palms around to the west entrance at the busy town of Joshua Tree, then follow State Route 62 back to our starting point, a trip of 50 miles, more if you explore the many gravel side roads.

California deserts motorcycle ride
Covering 1,235 square miles, Joshua Tree National Park is slightly larger than Rhode Island.

The next day we explore lovely, curvy, paved Pinto Basin Road down to Cottonwood Visitor Center, near Interstate 10. The dramatic, ever-changing geology is not to be missed. On the way back to my campsite I muse how far XTs have come since I bought my first one in the 1980s–a kickstart, carbureted 350. In that same decade I also discovered Edward Abbey, lover of wilderness, park ranger and author of “Desert Solitaire,” who once sarcastically called his beloved desert a “red wasteland.” Could it be his watchful eyes that I’ve been sensing these past few weeks?

Source: RiderMagazine.com

Gila County Loop: A Nice Place to Ride in Winter

Roosevelt Bridge and Sierra Ancha range
Looking east at the Roosevelt Bridge and Sierra Ancha range. Over the mountain is Young, Arizona, site of the famous Pleasant Valley range wars, after which Zane Grey patterned many of his books. Before this was built in the mid-1990s you had to cross the top of the dam on a one-lane road. Photos by the author.

I’ve been thinking about writing this story for a few months, but the inspiration for it goes back every winter for 20 years. About the time Jack Frost arrives across much of the nation, I’m able to just keep riding most days. You can too if you can just get to Arizona. Why here, other than the hospitable winter weather?

In addition to the usual visitor attractions, January in Scottsdale brings the Barrett-Jackson auto auction, for more than a week of gearhead eye candy. February brings Arizona Bike Week. And then there is the riding, and not just the loop I’m going to describe. We do get winter storms in the state, but most of the time the sun and temperatures are motorcycle friendly, reasons enough to trailer, rent or borrow a bike and get out here.

Arizona motorcycle ride
A map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

This ride I’m going to describe is all country roads, has very little traffic and fantastic views, and stop signs are scarce. I live in central Arizona, so my loop starts in Payson, but it is the same if you start from what we refer to as “the valley,” which is everything around metro Phoenix. Get your kickstands up and head to the East Valley–Mesa and Apache Junction to be exact, taking old U.S. Route 60. Go north at Ellsworth Road and get the heck “out of Dodge,” riding over Usury Pass. This will start you clockwise on the loop. It’s not a high pass, but after the summit you ride downhill with a spectacular panoramic vista of the Salt River Canyon. Whether or not you’ve been out west much, you’ll be amazed at how green the Sonoran Desert remains in winter.

After six or eight miles, take a right at the four-way stop and head east on the Bush Highway. You’ll be headed for State Route 87, but before you get there, you’ll see Saguaro Lake and the marina on the right. If it’s lunchtime stop and get a bite, sitting outside on the patio overlooking the lake. There’s a nice view (yes we do have some water in Arizona).

Tonto National Monumento BMW R 1200 RS
Scenic views forever and this one is not far from the Tonto National Monument, with a visitor center and hiking paths to Anasazi cliff dwellings.

When the Bush Highway ends after a dozen miles, take a right and go north toward Payson. This is a four-lane, undulating mountain road, with a forest of Saguaro cacti and 4WD roads in every direction. Look around for the iconic landmarks of Four Peaks, Weaver’s Needle and countless mountains and washes absent any towns, houses and other signs of civilization. If you’re riding an adventure bike, you’ll find an off-road turnoff shortly after you see Four Peaks to the east (Four Peaks looks like what it sounds like–the four peaks are the highest in the string of mountains).

The dirt road is Forest Road 401/143 just a few miles along State Route 87 (a.k.a. the Beeline Highway). It is actually the shortcut to State Route 188, where we are headed, and it saves at least 20 miles, but of course it’s slower. I would really not recommend it for a road bike. Road-going folks should continue up State Route 87 and turn right on State Route 188 headed south.

Roosevelt Dam
The Roosevelt Dam was built in 1911 and was the tallest masonry dam at 286 feet at the time Teddy visited and celebrated its completion. It was raised to 357 feet in the 1990s right over the old dam.

In less than 15 miles you will approach the north end of Theodore Roosevelt Lake, the largest lake in Arizona. Those long, grand, rugged azure mountains to the east are part of the Sierra Ancha range. On the other side of it lies Young, Arizona, site of the Pleasant Valley wars written about by Zane Grey. The lake is full of trout and bass but that’s another (fish) story altogether. Continue south and there are places to pull over at the impressive dam and arch bridge. Now, if you’re on that adventure bike and addicted to dirt, you can cut the loop short and head back to Apache Junction on State Route 88. Arizona has the audacity to call this a state route, but none of it is paved and parts make you want to really slow down and say “whoa horsey.”

State Route 88 to Tortilla Flats
That arrow above the bike takes you on State Route 88 to Tortilla Flats in what we call the East Valley (of Phoenix). It is unpaved and the state has the audacity to call it a state highway – but great for an adventure bike.

For the road riders, a few miles past the dam is the Tonto National Monument. If you have a pass for the National Park system, you can use it here or pay to see the cliff dwellings and visitor center. Farther south of the lake a few miles is Boston’s Lake House Grill. It’s good for a sandwich and there’s a country store and gas there as well. This whole loop is less than 180 miles, but if it is all new, you just might find yourself stopping so often that it takes a lot longer than usual.

The old steel bridge crosses the Salt River where it fills Lake Roosevelt
The old steel bridge crosses the Salt River where it fills Lake Roosevelt, the linchpin of the five-lake watershed. Cross that bridge and you can travel to Young, Arizona. I just love the 100-year-old steel bridges but they keep tearing them down as fast as they can.

Continue another 30 miles or so to the Globe/Miami junction, meeting U.S. 60. If it’s time to put on the feedbag, there’s an old-time Mexican restaurant, Guayo’s On The Trail, on the left before you get there, or Judy’s Cookhouse is at the intersection where you turn right on U.S. 60. The good ol’ boys and locals go to both, but gourmet dining is unknown in Gila County.

The last westbound segment of the loop runs about 55 miles back to the East Valley. You’ll pass the entrance to the Renaissance Festival, which takes place in March. It’s a great venue to watch guys wearing armor get knocked off their horses with a lance–if watching medieval violence and munching on deep fried turkey legs is your entertainment preference.

Steel bridge over the Salt River
A close-up look of the old bridge over the Salt River. Most of the road to Young is also unpaved, but an easy ride for an adventure bike. The vistas are unparalleled.

U.S. 60 was one of the few roads to Phoenix before freeways and goes through rugged, spectacular, boulder-strewn mountains and canyons. Most of the road hasn’t changed much in 70 years, until you get closer to the valley. This is copper mining country. Putting a four-lane road through here would cost a mighty sum and rural Arizona is poor, so the road just winds its way as best it can. There are some passing lanes if you get stuck behind slow traffic.

If you had a good ride on this loop, there’s more to enjoy in Arizona in winter. I don’t get tired of it and am thanking my lucky stars to have such a pretty place to ride any time of year.

Source: RiderMagazine.com

Favorite Ride: Washington’s Glacier-Fed Jewel

Washington state motorcycle ride
Weaving ridiculously close to Lake Chelan’s western shore at times, State Route 971 serves travelers up a scenic platter of lakefront views. Photos by the author.

When the need arises for a quick, fun jaunt that includes great food, I point my front wheel north through a landscape that at times appears to be from another world, or at least another time on this planet some tens of thousands of years ago. My mid-ride target is to meet my niece Karen and her fiancé Buddy, then proceed to his restaurant in Manson, Washington. Karen owns a salon in neighboring Chelan, so for both of them the busy summer is their bread and butter but they still make time to join old U.B. (Uncle Ben) for a portion of the ride.

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

Starting my loop out of Ephrata, the main north tributary out of town that becomes Sagebrush Flats Road should be cautiously approached…it goes right by the county jail! Just a mile later one can exercise the throttle through rolling fields and abundant sagebrush amid very solitary conditions. This is a pleasant respite from the crowds and traffic that must be endured later through the beautiful areas around Lake Chelan.

With nothing too technical, the “Flats” roll and buck like some of the horses you will pass in their corrals, then crossing a county line it changes name and personality to Coulee Meadows/Moses Coulee Road. More fun; a bit bumpy with a few giddy elevation changes and blind corners making for mildly challenging entertainment. Along this stretch one really begins to experience the terrain, channeled scablands of volcanic basalt and massive cliffs and mesas formed eons ago by continent-wide ice age floods and shifting glaciers.

Washington state motorcycle ride
Near the top of McNeil Canyon Road, riders can catch a glimpse of the alpine calmness of Lake Chelan waiting in the valley below.

Soon you’re on U.S. Route 2, where a short romp through this desolate landscape is still impressive if you like wide-open spaces. Fittingly named Farmer on the map, it consists of only a grain elevator and old grange hall, but provides the only shade for miles around if you need a break from summer heat. More importantly it signals the turn north onto State Route 172, where if you enjoy the sensation of trying to escape earth’s gravitational pull there are a couple of hills that will not disappoint.

Soon you come upon the sign for Lake Chelan, an alpine jewel that in this flat, scabby plateau must make first timers think it is some sort of joke. This initial portion of McNeil Canyon Road teases riders, as it jitters and jigs with a few sharp nineties and chicanes that bring you to a precipice over the gorge. From this vantage one gets a glimpse of the lake below and of the glacial peaks that feed it.

Washington state motorcycle ride
With Lake Chelan as a crazy beautiful backdrop, the welcome to the eastside town of Manson frames our machines nicely.

After plunging like last year’s necklines, the terrestrial cleavage of McNeil deposits travelers onto U.S. Route 97 for a quick crossing of the Columbia via a very old steel trellis bridge, before throwing another fun twist at you as it augers up the Chelan Falls hill into town. This is part of State Route 150, and by following the signs you will end up riding casually (read: slowly) amidst summer fun-seekers through this tourist haven up Lake Chelan’s eastern shore to Manson.

Chelan is touted as the third-deepest lake in the United States–geological surveys record a depth of 1,486 feet, however some locals maintain the lake has no bottom in spots. At 55 miles long and 1 to 2 miles wide it is also considered one of the most pristine bodies of water in North America, with a high degree of clarity.

Washington state motorcycle ride
The best place to eat in Manson, with the proprietor Buddy and his fiancée, my niece Karen.

After a warm welcome at Buddy’s Place and a great lunch, it is time to backtrack to Chelan and work around the southern end to explore the western shore. The up-lake vista invigorates with smooth two-lane that follows the rocky shoreline on State Route 971. The roadside is full of expensive vacation properties and an increasing number of vineyards that ply their wares at tasting rooms and tapaterias. Once broken free of these clinging tendrils of urbanization, the road begins to rock and roll with a shoreline lined with deep green pines decorating steep hillsides and the occasional glimpse of brilliant white glaciers.

After 16 delightful miles we reach pavement’s end at Twenty-Five Mile Creek Campground, situated on a picturesque point that serves as a lovely rest stop. While carefully careening through the woods on the return leg of 10 miles, watch for the Lake Chelan State Park entrance and the rustic Watson’s Alpenhorn Café, where State Route 971 now beckons riders south. Also tagged Navarre Coulee, this fragrant, tree-lined “tunnel” contains sharp hairpins on each end of its nine miles, as if needed to hold its place in the earth’s coiffure. It almost too abruptly bursts out of the shade into a few tight switchbacks before dropping down to meet again with U.S. Route 97A. Once southbound for Entiat, for the next 30 miles you will begin to appreciate the amount of work it must have taken to blast this rugged path from the brown stone mountainsides.

Washington state motorcycle ride
Nearing the end of pavement at Lake Chelan’s halfway point, the views from Twenty-Five Mile Creek Park show alpine lake beauty even in summer.

The Columbia River, harnessed here both for power and irrigation, is your companion as you bend lazily past orchards neatly covering either side’s steep slopes. Segueing directly into the apple-growing outskirts of Wenatchee you follow the signs back to U.S. 2 via the concrete bridge spanning the Columbia. Flowing faster than the river you pass through East Wenatchee along Sunset Highway/U.S. 2/State Route 28 all rolled into one, and eventually rejoin Route 28 heading out of town and back into time.

At least that is what it seems like to me after making the turn north onto Palisades Road. Entering a green, well-irrigated valley surrounded by more of this region’s steep volcanic basalt cliffs, it feels like I am in 1969’s blockbuster film, “Valley of Gwangi.” In the creepy stillness of this gorge I would not be surprised to see a Claymation dinosaur pop its head out of a cave.

Washington state motorcycle ride
The scenery surrounding you on Palisades Road will make you wonder if you should be riding a horse and carrying a six-shooter instead of a motorcycle and cell phone.

Ambling deeper and deeper between emerald colored fields and dusty ranchettes, my mental channel changes and I can just see “The Duke” John Wayne riding up on his horse yelling at me to take cover from the bandits in the cliffs! Oh imagination…fun until the pavement ends, and then that requires most of one’s attention. Though the twisting Devil’s Gulch portion that reconnects us to Sagebrush Flats back to Ephrata has about eight miles of dirt, it is quite navigable and hopes are that soon it will be covered in asphalt.

Whether out for a half day ride to see your “Buddy,” or dinosaurs or The Duke…our favorite rides hold familiarity and yet with each new one, a realm of new experiences and possibilities.

Source: RiderMagazine.com

Favorite Ride: Melodic Montana

Montana motorcycle ride
Riding in Montana is big: big skies, big trees, big rivers and big fun. Photos by the author.

It’s with a nod to the late, great music show host Lawrence Welk that I start this ride spanning a couple of Montana’s scenic blue highways. The bandleader’s famously accented musical lead-in is doubly relevant for this trek. First, this ride will begin and end with music. Second, it will encompass rolling on Montana’s historic Highways 1 and 2. So, without further ado, “Ah one, an’ ah two….”

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

Rockin’ the Rivers and Rollin’ on Highway 2

While it is most certainly true that it’s “about the ride not the destination,” having something entertaining to do before and after a ride adds spice to the adventure. With that in mind, my trek starts at the Rockin’ the Rivers Music Festival near Three Forks, Montana. It is not an accident that I found this event in my ride planning as it sits directly on the first of the routes that attracted me to the area. So as I sit listening to the classic rock of the Grass Roots and then Tommy James and the Shondells, my mind wanders to Montana State Highway 2.

Montana motorcycle ride
The Grass Roots echo in the grasslands at the Rockin’ the Rivers Music Festival.

As I leave the festival, my ride on Highway 2 leads me almost immediately to the entrance of the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. While I decide not to do any spelunking, I stop long enough to read about the caverns and the fact that the Lewis and Clark expedition camped very close to the cave.

Rolling out of the park, the riding fun begins. The 20-mile stretch of Highway 2 that leads to my night’s lodging in Whitehall, Montana, is a great series of curves that follows the Little Pipestone Creek through an impressive river canyon. It is a nice precursor to what I will experience the rest of this ride.

Montana motorcycle ride
This ride is dotted with historical sites, many of which document the Lewis and Clark expedition.

After a night’s sleep, I gas up in Whitehall and head northwest on the remainder of Highway 2. I roll past farms and ranches through big, sweeping curves. As I continue north, the grasslands morph into high chaparral. The road tightens into some entertaining hairpins as I gain elevation into a pine forested stretch. This is clearly great three-season motorcycle country.

Montana motorcycle ride
The motorcycles in Montana are as diverse as the music.

Ultimately, this pine forest gives way to rich grasslands as I approach the historic mining town of Butte. Before grabbing lunch in a local diner, I ride through Butte’s well-preserved historic district. Amazingly, there are more than 10,000 miles of abandoned mine shafts and tunnels beneath the city. The wealth attained in those mines earned Butte the moniker “The Richest Hill on Earth.”

Montana motorcycle ride
Rivers like the Little Blackfoot make the area around Missoula a fly fishing paradise.

Carving Highway 1 to a Jam in Missoula

A short stretch on Interstate 90 after Butte leads me to the exit for Montana State Highway 1. Signs tell me that Highway 1 is also known as the Pintler Veterans Memorial Scenic Highway and it certainly lives up to that “scenic” designation.

The first thing that catches my eye as I head west on the highway is a huge smokestack in the distance. It turns out that smelter stack is the most notable landmark in the town of Anaconda. It also turns out that the town’s name is prophetic. After leaving Anaconda, the road begins to coil into a serpentine motorcycle playground.

Montana motorcycle ride
The road west of Anaconda clings resolutely to spectacular crimson canyon walls.

As I climb into the Anaconda-Pintler Mountain Range on Highway 1, I stop at several interesting historic sites. Montana does a great job of providing well-written and informative signage for its historic markers. Just as Lewis and Clark’s exploration is well-documented on the route, significant mining windfalls are also highlighted.

Montana motorcycle ride
The author does a bit of map study beside yet another interesting historical marker.

I stop beside the deep blue waters of Silver and Georgetown lakes, which spell the approximate midpoint of this ride on the scenic route. After the lakes, the road coils again as it passes through pines, grasslands and crimson canyons. It’s a very entertaining ride indeed, and the number of motorcycles I meet on the road indicates it is not a secret to riders.

Montana motorcycle ride
Blue waters and blue sky converge at Montana’s high-mountain Silver Lake.

The Pintler Veterans Memorial Scenic Highway ends at Interstate 90. However, I have found that it can pay off in spades to travel frontage roads rather than the nearby interstate. The long frontage road on this stretch of I-90 to Missoula is just such a find. The beautiful tree-lined Clark Fork River separates the interstate from the frontage road, making it seem worlds away. Like so many of the rivers in the area, the Clark Fork makes me think of Norman Maclean’s Montana-set literary masterpiece, “A River Runs Through It.”

Montana motorcycle ride
This frontage road is a nice alternative to riding on the interstate south of Missoula.

When the fun of the I-90 frontage roads ends, there is just a short stretch of the interstate that leads to Missoula. Like Butte, Missoula is a town worth an extended visit. The historic city has a bustling charm that is enhanced by the vibrancy infused by the University of Montana.

Montana motorcycle ride
Pearl Jam rocks the beautiful University of Montana football stadium in Missoula.

As I sit in the beautiful Montana Grizzly Stadium listening to Pearl Jam and watching the sun set on the rolling hills just past the stage, I can’t help but reflect on a great ride. To steal a few song titles from the band, the “Even Flow” of the ride certainly made me feel “Alive.” Or, as Mr. Welk might say, this Montana tour was “wunnerful, wunnerful.”

Source: RiderMagazine.com

The Old Way: Historic U.S. 80 and the Wood Plank Road

Plank Road
Travel from Yuma to San Diego via historic U.S. Route 80 and the wood Plank Road, and you’ll see how unforgiving the desert can be. Photos by the author.

Picture a scene in which hearty travelers traverse barren and windswept sand dunes on roads of rough-hewn timbers. I am not talking about some prehistoric time nor am I forecasting a dystopian future. No, my friends, many still-living Americans could tell you of this strange and fascinating tale set in the American Southwest.

I recently happened upon a magazine article that mentioned a wood plank road that spanned the sand dunes linking the southernmost portions of California and Arizona. With my interest piqued, I dug deeper and discovered that the Old Plank Road was operational for more than a decade and was ultimately displaced by a paved portion of U.S. Route 80 in 1926.

Almost four decades later, U.S. 80 succumbed to Interstate 8. Now, the Plank Road is a fascinating, crumbling relic of the early 20th century; however, long portions of Historic U.S. 80 are still passable as an interesting alternative to I-8 from Yuma, Arizona, to San Diego, California.

That was enough for me. I dug deeper into the history of the Plank Road, researched Historic U.S. 80, charted my course and packed the bags on my BMW R 1200 GS. I was off to discover the Plank Road and ride as much of Historic U.S. Route 80 as possible from Yuma to San Diego.

Plank Road
The Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Bridge is the impressive opening act to the Yuma to San Diego trek. The bridge spans the Colorado River, and its 1915 completion date coincides with the Plank Road. Its name indicates its importance in the nationwide, transcontinental Ocean-to-Ocean Highway.

Yuma to El Centro – in Search of the Plank Road

The sun-drenched starting point of my ride was the history-rich city of Yuma, Arizona. Now snowbirds in massive RVs converge on the city in winter like their winged migratory counterparts. However, Yuma was once a centerpiece of the Old West, and has been a transportation hub of the Southwest for more than one hundred years.

I began my trek west at the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Bridge, which spans the Colorado River in north Yuma. Now on the National Historical Register, the bridge was completed in 1915, which coincides with the early years of the Plank Road. The area directly surrounding the bridge is home to a cluster of historical sites. The Yuma Territorial Prison, which sits directly adjacent to the bridge, was an intriguing walk back into the rough-and-tumble Old West. The close-by Colorado River State Historic Park dates back to the late 19th century and preserves a small number of the Plank Road timbers in a display.

After riding over the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway Bridge, a quick left turn placed me immediately on Historic U.S. 80. The road took me by crumpling adobe structures, over the All-American Canal and through the sandy desert. Whereas nearby I-8 is smooth, wide and boring, Historic U.S. 80 is narrow, cracked, undulating and entertaining. It requires attention and a bit of slaloming to avoid jarring reminders that it is a historic route. The long suspension on the BMW was tailor-made for the unpredictable road conditions.

Plank Road
A ride on Historic U.S. 80 requires vigilance. Sand drifts, potholes and crumbling margins speak to its relegation to secondary status.

After this opening act of my Historic U.S. 80 tour, I rejoined I-8 for a bit. Portions of Historic U.S. 80 are relegated to spur status–they “spur” off of the interstate but terminate without rejoining the new route. One such spur is Grays Well Road.

The Grays Well section of the original route is now a well-paved ingress into the Imperial Sand Dunes portion of the larger geological feature known as the Algodones Dunes. These dunes are what made the Plank Road necessary in the early 1900s. After enjoying a short, beautiful ride through shining sand hills, I came to the site that contains the longest and best-preserved portion of the Old Plank Road.

What I found was a stretch of the Old Plank Road that spans the equivalent of about five football fields in length. The road is protected from potential damage by off-road vehicles with metal, sand-worthy barriers, but visitors can touch and walk the Plank Road section. The road is intriguing. It has weathered and rusted into a heaving work of art.

Plank Road
One can almost hear the rhythmic thumping of Model T tires when visiting the protected section of the wood Plank Road. The vast majority of nearby interstate travelers have no idea that this historic relic even exists.

So why was the timber road ever built? Quite simply, it was commercially important to have a direct route here from the growing and thriving San Diego coastal area to the west. While asphalt and concrete road building techniques of the time worked reasonably well on the harder surfaces of the area directly east of the coast, the shifting sands of the Algodones Dunes posed a huge quandary for road builders.

San Diego businessman Ed Fletcher was the driving force that ultimately led to the construction of the Plank Road. That bumpy, ever-changing, maintenance-intensive endeavor continued as the transportation solution for crossing more than six miles of the dunes from 1915 through 1926.

Plank RoadI walked, touched and studied the Plank Road in solitude. Not a single soul even drove by in the substantial time I spent in the surreal dunes. When I finally pulled myself away, I took another short ride on the interstate before jumping back on Historic U.S. 80 toward the California towns of Holtville and El Centro. The long, straight stretch of the historic road gave me time to ruminate on the Plank Road and the challenges of early travelers.

Much of Historic U.S. 80 runs parallel with and in close proximity to the interstate, but it is worlds apart in terms of traffic and fun. There are remnants and ruins of structures that were left to languish in the desert heat when traffic was rerouted to the newer and faster interstate.

Historic U.S. 80 runs through the hearts of both Holtville and El Centro, as both were supremely important to the commerce and trade of the time. Either of these cities can serve as a gas and food stop on this route; I found a hotel in El Centro just off the Historic U.S. 80 route.

Plank Road
The Cleveland National Forest spans 460,000 acres of desert and chaparral.

Ocotillo to Laguna Junction – on the Winding Road

While fascinating and historically rich, the prior day’s ride was, for the most part, straight. Motorcyclists, by nature, love curves and that is what this next leg of my ride on Historic U.S. 80 had to offer.

After a breakfast of huevos rancheros in El Centro, I made my way to Ocotillo. After rolling through the town, named after a type of cactus, I rode a nicely curvy stretch of I-8 until I came to the exit for the Desert View Tower. The tall, eclectic stone structure, which dates back to the time of the Plank Road, sits on another Historic U.S. 80 spur west of the interstate.

After a short visit to the tower, I crossed the interstate to the south onto a long, intact loop of Historic U.S. 80. The road is instantly winding and remains coiled for miles of highly entertaining riding. The little desert oasis town of Jacumba Hot Springs is home to its namesake spring, a few colorful buildings and a clothing-optional resort. I am sure to everyone’s delight I opted to stay clothed and keep riding.

Plank Road
The GS is right at home with several brethren outside the Jacumba Spa Restaurant.

At a few points along the route, the tall international border “wall” could be seen to the south and there were sporadic signs warning that the region is subject to illegal drug trafficking. However, from the rolling perspective of a motorcycle saddle, there is a slow-paced calm to the area.

I rode through several small clusters of humanity and miles of unspoiled nature toward the Campo Indian Reservation and the Cleveland National Forest. The road conditions are variable and there are sections of concrete as well as reasonably maintained asphalt. However, from a pure riding perspective, I found this to be the most entertaining stretch of the route.

Plank Road
The Jacumba section just north of the U.S./Mexico border is the most curvy and entertaining of the ride.

Laguna Junction to the Beautiful Balboa Park

At Laguna Junction, Historic U.S. 80 runs north of the interstate for a while as it winds to the west. I passed through the small towns of Guatay and Descanso Junction, and the increased elevation of 4,000 feet brought with it a nice mix of oak and pine trees. Where Historic U.S. 80 melds back into I-8, I could see several now impassable portions of the old road in the mountains to my right.

From this point on through Alpine, El Cajon and La Mesa, Historic U.S. 80 flirts with and becomes the interstate and other roads intermittently. The ride in this stretch was much more frenetic and filled with traffic than the rest of the route, and rolled through historic commercial districts and residential communities as the ride became increasingly urban.

Plank Road
The entrance of the stunning Balboa Park is an impressive foreshadowing of the treasures within.

After several miles of this suburban jockeying, I rolled to the end of my tour as I entered the stunningly beautiful Balboa Park. The “Jewel of San Diego” spells the approximate end of the Historic U.S. 80, and a perfect end to the ride. The lush natural environment combined with fantastic museums and entertainment venues like the Old Globe Theater make Balboa one of the most delightful parks in the Southwest.

My final stop was the San Diego Automotive Museum in Balboa Park, which houses a nice collection of historic motorcycles alongside vintage and unique cars and trucks. Fittingly, the museum features a creative display dedicated to the Old Plank Road, which brings it to life and provides a fine overview of this significant part of transportation history.

Plank Road
The San Diego Automotive Museum in Balboa Park features a current exhibition that brings the Plank Road to life.
Plank Road
Historic photos and staged exhibits in the museum show the wonders and challenges of crossing the Imperial Dunes.

Riding Considerations

Being a desert region, this ride is best made from fall to spring. The summer months are sweltering. Road conditions are extremely variable as there are sections of both asphalt and concrete. Potholes, sand and some broken tarmac should be expected. For a detailed series of route maps, visit americanroads.us/ushighways/ushighway80.html.

Source: RiderMagazine.com