For motorcyclists, Arkansas Highway 16 is one of the top highways in the Ozarks that has the added virtue of being one of the least used highways in the state. It’s mostly known to local riders and some savvy visitors but is overlooked by most travelers because it doesn’t lead anywhere in particular.
Another reason it’s mostly unknown is that it doesn’t have a cool moniker like the “Pig Trail” section of Arkansas Highway 23. So I propose that the 160-mile stretch from Fayetteville to Clinton henceforth be known as the “Ozarks Scenic Highlands Skyway.”
Arkansas Highway 16: ‘Your last route of choice’…by car at least
Highway 16 begins in the northeastern part of Arkansas at the Oklahoma border and runs southeasterly across about two-thirds of the width of the state. From Fayetteville to Greers Ferry, it winds from one little town to another through small communities with unique names like Swain, Nail, Deer, Lurton, Witts Springs, and my personal favorite, Ben Hur.
If you were traveling by car from Fayetteville to Greers Ferry, Highway 16 would be your last route of choice. That’s exactly what makes it fantastic for riders. From Fayetteville, the ride east on Highway 16 out of town is fairly pedestrian, but once you get past Elkins, the road parallels the upper portion of the 710-mile White River.
The highway becomes more serpentine as it climbs into the highlands of the Ozarks. At Brashears, Highway 16 intersects the Pig Trail Scenic Byway section of Highway 23 for about 4 miles until Hawkins Hollow and becomes very twisty.
A look at the Arkansas State Highway map reveals that the highway has more than enough squiggly lines to delight the sport rider. And it has more than enough drop-dead gorgeous scenery to delight the cruising rider.
Just shy of 10 miles later at Boston, Highway 16 breaks out on the ridge tops and stays up there. The highway then defines what I call the “Ozarks Divide.” Creeks and rivers on the south side of the highway flow into the Arkansas River while those on the north side flow into the White River. The result of being up on the ridges on Highway 16 is that you often have spectacular vistas and views on both sides of the road at the same time – thus my suggestion to call it the Ozarks Scenic Highlands Skyway.
Arkansas Highway 16: Watch for Deer…and Ben Hur?
The 161-mile ride from Fayetteville to Clinton takes up to four hours, depending on how many stops you make. But if you don’t stop along the way, you’ll miss out on interesting experiences with the locals in those unique places with unique names.
For example, there’s a tiny spot on Highway 16 called Fallsville. At the least, I like the town for the irony of its name as a stop on a top-tier motorcycling road, considering it contains a four-letter word for riders if there ever was one. Fallsville is located at the western junction of Highway 16 and Arkansas Highway 21, and despite the odd name, it’s a great spot for a break. Besides the wonderful roads, it’s places like Fallsville that make the Ozarks marvelous for riders who want to experience the local culture.
If you’re inclined to take a hike (not a good idea in July or August) you can go to Glory Hole Falls, 5.7 miles northeast of Fallsville on Highway 16/21. It’s beautiful, especially when the water is flowing fast. The hike is a mile each way, downhill to the falls and uphill on the way back.
Twenty miles east of Fallsville (and about 11 miles past where Highway 16 splits off Highway 21) is a veritable metropolis compared to Fallsville. The town of Deer has one convenience store and a public school whose mascot is cleverly named the Antlers. Only in the Ozarks!
A couple of miles past Deer, Highway 16 joins Arkansas Highway 7 heading south, where the roads occupy the same right-of-way and eventually join Arkansas Highway 123. This trifecta of outstanding Arkansas highways – 7, 16, and 123 – are all dynamite roads. Highway 7 is revered as “Scenic 7.” Highway 123, like 16, is a lesser-known road that should be on every rider’s bucket list.
The roads go their separate ways at Sand Gap – formerly Grand Gap and Pelsor – where you’ll find the old-time Hankins Country Store. During peak riding season, hang around a while and you’re bound to meet riders from all over the country.
As much as I like Deer, my favorite place name along the way has got to be the dot on the map called Ben Hur, which has no store or businesses. It’s just a tiny community with a great name. According to an article in the Arkansas Times, the town was named in honor of actor Charlton Heston, presumably a nod to his 1959 movie of the same name. In Heston’s twilight years, he reportedly asked the town fathers to consider renaming it “Cold Dead Hand” but to no avail.
There are dirt roads winding off across the area on either side of Highway 16. One of my favorite routes is the Hurricane Wilderness Ramble, which begins in Deer. These are wonderful roads for ADV riders. But regardless of what you ride, you will enjoy traipsing across this twisty Ozarks Scenic Highlands Skyway.
With international travel in 2020 looking less certain by the week (and possibly risky, not just health-wise but also with the possibility of becoming stranded or quarantined outside the U.S.), this might be a great time to explore this beautiful country.
While you could certainly peruse back issues of Rider (or do some research here on our website) in search of ride ideas throughout the country, you’ll still be on the hook for logistical planning, hotel reservations and knowing whether or not the gas station in that tiny desert town is still open…not to mention handling the “what-ifs” of mechanical issues or a crash. Or you could let a tour company handle all of it, leaving you free to enjoy the ride.
All the companies on this list run scheduled, guided motorcycle tours in the United States using rental motorcycles — either their own fleet or rented from a local source — but you should obviously check with them right off the bat to make sure they’re still running tours this year.
Most have a chase vehicle to carry your luggage and gear and to deal with mechanical issues that may occur en route. Some companies will allow you to ride your own bike, but check for any restrictions. The information here is provided by the companies, and not guaranteed by Rider.
Tours Include: Alaska/Yukon Adventure, Prudhoe Bay Excursion Accommodations: Upscale hotels Length of Tours: 9-13 days Rental Options: BMW GS models Equipment: Support vehicle Dates: July-August Typical Cost: 9-day Prudhoe Bay Excursion starting at $5,950 including bike rental Age/Experience Requirements: Motorcycle license and touring experience required; for off-road adventures, off-road experience or training required Tel: (877) 275-8238 or (972) 635-5210 Website:ayresadventures.com
Ayres Adventures prides itself in providing a premium tour experience, so if you want to ride Alaska this is a great way to do it. You’ll ride late-model BMWs equipped with chunky Continental TKC80 tires for the ultimate Alaska experience.
Bike Week Motorcycle Tours
Tours Include: All the major Bike Weeks, including Daytona, Laughlin, Myrtle Beach, Laconia, Hollister, Sturgis and Bikes, Blues & BBQ Accommodations: RVs, private homes and carefully selected hotels/motels Length of Tours: 12-14 days Rental Options: Late model Harley-Davidson and Indian models Equipment: Support vehicle with spare motorcycle Dates: March-October Typical Cost: $7,950, includes single room and motorcycle rental Age/Experience Requirements: Min. age 21, min. one-year experience on heavyweight motorcycles Tel: (619) 746-1066 Website: bikeweekmotorcycletours.com
Get the ultimate Bike Week experience, as you travel some of America’s most scenic roads on your way to one of nine legendary Bike Weeks. Let the party begin!
Tours Include: Blue Ridge Parkway, California Dreaming, Route 66, Sturgis, DreamCatcher, The Mighty 6, Yellowstone Accommodations: Selected 3- and 4-star hotels Length of Tours: 11-13 days Rental Options: Harley-Davidson, select other makes/models Equipment: Support vehicle with spare motorcycle Dates: May-October Typical Cost: 13-day Route 66 tour starting at $8,972, single occupancy, includes rental motorcycle Age/Experience Requirements: Min. age 21 Tel: (310) 359-2353 Website: california-sunriders.com
California Sunriders wants to show you the best of the west — plus some fun roads back east too. You’ll explore California, the Rockies, the famous Blue Ridge Parkway and, of course, the legendary Route 66.
Tours Include: Wild West I, II and III, Route 66, Triple B, Coast to Coast, Sturgis Bike Week, Florida Keys, Southwest Canyon Country Accommodations: Hotels & motels Length of Tours: 6-17 days Rental Options: Varies by tour; fleet includes BMW, Harley-Davidson and Indian cruisers, tourers and trikes Equipment: Support van with spare motorcycle Dates: Year-round Typical Cost: 15-day Route 66 tour starting at $7,179, single occupancy, includes rental motorcycle Age/Experience Requirements: Min. age 21, experience riding a touring motorcycle at highway speeds Tel: (877) 557-3541 Website:eaglerider.com
Eaglerider is the largest and arguably most well-known motorcycle rental and tour company in the U.S. With 45 different domestic tours to choose from, you’re sure to find something to suit your tastes!
Edelweiss Bike Travel
Tours Include: Alaska-Yukon Adventure, American Dream, California Extreme Accommodations: Comfortable hotels and motels Length of Tours: 8-13 days Rental Options: Select BMW, Harley-Davidson and Suzuki models Equipment: Support vehicle Dates: May-October Typical Cost: 7-day American Dream tour starting at $5,660 for a solo rider, including rental bike Age/Experience Requirements: Age limits vary by tour; 5,000 miles riding experience required Tel: 011 43 5264 5690 Website:edelweissbike.com
Tour the warm and beautiful Southwest or the wilds of Alaska with Edelweiss Bike Travel. Edelweiss has been operating guided motorcycle tours since 1980, and now offers 2,350 tours in 180 destinations worldwide.
Tour: North America Accommodations: 3- to 4-star hotels Length of Tour: 34 days Rental Option: Triumph Tiger 800 Equipment: Support vehicle Dates: July 23-August 27, 2020 Cost: $20,531 for a solo rider, double occupancy, including Tiger 800 rental bike Age/Experience Requirements:No age requirement, recommended for experienced riders only, comfortable riding on unpaved/gravel roads Tel: 011 44 (0)3452 30 40 15 Website:globebusters.com
This is an ultimate motorcycle tour of North America, showing you some of the very best riding from Anchorage, Alaska, north to Prudhoe Bay and then south all the way to the Mexican border.
Great American Touring
Tours Include: Pacific Coast North and South, Sturgis Bike Week, Canadian Rockies, Best of the West Accommodations: Hotels Length of Tours: 7-14 riding days Rental Options: Harley-Davidson, select other makes/models Equipment: Support vehicle Dates: July-Sept Typical Cost: 14-day Best of the West starting at $8,995, solo occupancy, includes rental bike Age/Experience Requirements: Min. age 21 to rent motorcycle, no limit for own bike Tel: (800) 727-3390 Website: greatamericantouring.com
How does Great American stand out? When it says “eight day tour,” that’s eight riding days. Other companies’ eight-day tours may be only six, or even just five riding days. It makes a difference.
Tours Include: Best of California, California, Miami & Deep South and Route 66 Accommodations: Minimum 4-star hotels Length of Tours: 9-16 days Rental Options: BMW models Equipment: Support vehicle Dates: July-Sept Typical Cost: 14-day Best of California starting at $6,995, single occupancy, includes rental bike Age/Experience Requirements: Min. age 25, at least three years’ riding experience Tel: 011 351 210 413 334 Website: hertzride.com
Car rental giant Hertz has entered the motorcycle tour market, and it offers four guided tours in the U.S. Hop onto one of its late-model BMWs and take a ride in California, along Route 66 or through the Southeast.
Leod Motorcycle Escapes
Tours Include: High Sierra Escape, California Curves to Laguna Seca, California Curvin’ Accommodations: 3- to 4-star hotels with a local flavor Length of Tours: 3-9 days Rental Options: Selected BMW and Ducati models Equipment: Support vehicle Dates: June-Oct Typical Cost: 9-day California Curves to Laguna Seca starting at $6,900, includes rental bike and two days’ track instruction at Laguna Seca with California Superbike School Age/Experience Requirements: Intermediate riding level for track time tours Tel: (866) 562-6126 Website: leodescapes.com
Although Leod Escapes offers guided and self-guided sport-touring rides out of its San Francisco headquarters, it specializes in combining a tour with track time on some of the most famous tracks worldwide — including legendary Laguna Seca in California.
Tours Include: Heart of Colorado ADV, Moab Adventure Training, Heart of Idaho ADV Accommodations: Quality accommodations Length of Tours: 7-9 days Rental Options: Select BMW, KTM and Suzuki ADV and dual-sport bikes Equipment: Support vehicle Dates: June-September Typical Cost: 8-day Heart of Colorado ADV tour starting at $4,895 including rental bike Age/Experience Requirements: Off-road riding experience required; training is available and included in some tours Tel: (800) 233-0564 Website:motodiscovery.com
If you’re looking for adventure, this is the place. MotoDiscovery will lead you on bucket list rides to some beautiful and remote locations that can only be accessed via unpaved roads and trails. Off-road rider training is included in some tours.
Tours Include: Wonders of the West, American Southwest, Pacific Coast Highway, North to Alaska, Trail of Lewis and Clark, Alaska Women’s Tour Accommodations: Lodges, hotels Length of Tours: 4-13 days Rental Options: BMW, Suzuki V-Strom 650, Harley-Davidson, Honda Africa Twin Equipment: Support vehicle Dates: Year-round Typical Cost: 12-day Trail of Lewis and Clark tour starting at $6,450, includes Suzuki V-Strom 650 Age/Experience Requirements: Min. age 21 Tel: (800) 756-1990 or (907) 272-2777 or (562) 997-7368 Website:motoquest.com
MotoQuest offers a number of tours of the last frontier, Alaska, during its short riding season. At other times of the year, tours are offered in the American West and Southwest, including Baja, out of its San Francisco, Portland and Long Beach locations.
Northeastern Motorcycle Tours
Tours: New England Fall Foliage, Gaspe Maritime Extended Accommodations: Inns, hotels and resorts Length of Tours: 6-12 days Rental Options: Various models available from local rental agencies Equipment: None Dates: August-October Typical Cost: 6-day New England Fall Foliage tour starting at $2,395, excluding bike rental Age/Experience Requirements: Min. age 18, touring experience recommended Tel: (802) 463-9853 Website:motorcycletours.com
Northeastern Motorcycle Tours is a small company that specializes in an extraordinarily beautiful and varied region of North America. The routes, hotels and dining used on the tours are regularly researched to always meet very high standards.
Pashnit Motorcycle Tours
Tours: El Dorado, Delta Bodega, Parkfield, Mosquito Ridge, Coast Range, North Pass, Mile High Xtravaganza, Santa Barbara Accommodations: Hotels, motels Length of Tours: 3-4 days Rental Options: Various models available from local rental agencies Equipment: None Dates: March-October Typical Cost: Most 3-day tours cost $425, excludes motorcycle rental, food, gas, accommodations and incidentals Age/Experience Requirements: Min. age 21, at least 5 years of riding experience is recommended Tel: (530) 391-1356 Website: pashnittours.com
Pashnit Motorcycle Tours (“pashnit” = passionate, get it?) started out as a “best roads” list and now offers a full menu of California-based tours, many of which are held on long weekends.
Tours Include: Continental Divide, Rocky Mountain Adventure Ride, Mid-Winter Adventure, California Adventure, Best of the West Accommodations: Hotels and camping Length of Tours: 5-10 days Rental Options: BMW GS models Equipment: Support vehicle, chuck wagon on camping tours Dates: Year-round Typical Cost: 5-day Mid-Winter Adventure tour starts at $3,495 including rental bike Age/Experience Requirements: Min. age 21, off-road riding experience required for ADV tours (training is available) Tel: (661) 993-9942 Website:rawhyde-offroad.com
RawHyde Adventures is an official BMW off-road training center, and its tours offer you the chance to hit the dirt and see some of the most remote and beautiful parts of America. On-road tours, such as California Adventure, are also available.
Ride Free Motorcycle Tours
Tours Include: Route 66, Sturgis-Chicago to Las Vegas, Northern California, Wild West, American History Washington DC Battlefields, California Wine, Blue Ridge Parkway, American Music Accommodations: Hotels and motels with local flair Length of Tours: 4-14 days Rental Options: Harley-Davidson models Equipment: Support vehicle Dates: Year-round Typical Cost: Extremely flexible pricing and tour duration; example: 13-day American Music tour $6,789 including bike rental Age/Experience Requirements: Min. age 21, competent rider Tel: (310) 978-9558 Website: ridefree.com
Classic routes with classy motorcycles (and classic cars) is what Ride Free specializes in. Based in Los Angeles, the company offers tours throughout the country.
Tours Include: Route 66 Dream, Florida Sunshine, Wild West, Highway 1, Bluegrass Wonders and Pony Express Accommodations: Midrange and top-class hotels Length of Tours: 6-15 days Rental Options: BMW, Harley-Davidson Equipment: Support vehicle Dates: Year-round Typical Cost: 11-day Bluegrass Wonders tour starts at $4,795, double occupancy, including bike rental Age/Experience Requirements: Min. age 21 Tel: (414) 455-4384 Website: reuthers.com
Reuthers is a worldwide entertainment, travel and leisure company with headquarters in Germany and a U.S. office in Milwaukee. With its touring expertise you’re guaranteed to be well cared for.
Twisted Trailz Motorcycle Tours
Tours Include: Cowboy Country, Grand Canyon & Red Rocks, Unique Utah, Canyons & National Parks, Awesome Arizona, Monuments & Million $ Highways Accommodations: Unique or historical hotels and lodges Length of Tours: 3-7 days Rental Options: Harley-Davidson Equipment: Support vehicle on tours 5 days and more Dates: February-November Typical Cost: 7-day Monuments & Million $ Highways tour starts at $4,395 including bike rental Age/Experience Requirements: Min. age 25, experience riding heavyweight motorcycles Tel: (602) 795-8888 Website:twistedtrailz.com
All of Twisted Trailz’s motorcycle tours are planned and structured with the rider in mind. It encourages participants to enjoy the spectacular scenery of the Southwest on one of its once-in-a-lifetime tours.
I love the Ozarks. I really should have been born in them. Instead, after riding in the Ozarks 15 years ago, I fell so much in love that I moved here. To this day I ride through northwest Arkansas on roads carved rudely through the landscape. Table rocks, great sheets of stone laying one atop the other for hundreds of miles, circulate ground water in subterranean rivers and rivulets cascade over and out of the dynamite-exposed roadside cliffs to become known as “Roche a Cri” — Rocks that Cry. In winter’s depth the fluid turns to ice, making faerie castles out of ordinary highway construction just for our enjoyment.
If Walt Disney had made a theme park for motorcyclists he’d have called it Arkansas. The state is six separate chunks of paradise: the Northwest, North Central, Upper Delta, Southwest, Central and Lower Delta. Each has its own magic. We chose to make our home near the Northwest, with the most fabled motorcycle roads and, now, an array of attractions that bring international visitors to what remains otherwise a largely uncluttered, rural thrill ride for us brothers and sisters of the wind.
As fall began coloring the woods and the air turned crisp as apple cider, my good wife Max and I decided to fly our new Can-Am Spyder F3 Limited on a circle tour of just the northwest quarter.
The big thrill to riding the Ozarks is that roads here are rollercoasters. The lines go ’round and ’round across mountain ridges and valleys called “hollers.” On two wheels you lean and lean. On three, you hear shouts and squeals of laughter from the back seat.
We started from home on Missouri Route 13 south, running in loop-dee-loops around Table Rock Lake through green hills spotted with small towns, and across the lake on Route 86 into Arkansas, down Arkansas Highway 221 and the fairytale village of Berryville. Charged up on sunshine, cerulean skies and twists and turns we rumbled into the town square, the kind you remember from old movies and stories told at Thanksgiving, if you listened.
We never eat at franchise burger joints. On the square in the Norman Rockwell painting called Berryville, we found a café on the corner right out of idyllic Main Street. Lunch was more than tasty, it was fun. “Arkies” are the friendliest folks around, and always helpful and interested in motorcyclists. Summer Newberry, owner of the Hometown Scoop, made us welcome with a panini, hot berry cobbler and coffee. And she straightened us out on the best way to our destination for the night, over the mountain pass on twisty two-lane U.S. Route 62 to the first of our international hotspots, the enchanted village of Eureka Springs. On the ride over, while grinning at sweepers and a twisty or two, we waved at bison herds and riders coming the other way.
Eureka Springs drops you back in time, as the Victorian houses, hotels, restaurants and dozens of quaint shops appear just as they did in the 1890s, when the healing waters of the 60 springs drew the wealthy in for relief from the debauchery of their rich diets and drinking. Streets go up, down and around the rocky hillsides into which they are chiseled. Half the fun is just trying to figure out in which direction the sun will set, along with finding a place to park your ride.
Stay in one of the old world hotels here, rich in flavor as a steaming mug of early morning coffee…with a slug of brandy. We chose the New Orleans Hotel with a Creole-feeling suite on the ground floor that dropped off in the back three stories from the rear terrace to the parking lot. Be careful where you walk! The Crescent Hotel, way up on the top tier of the village, dates from 1886. Known as “America’s Most Haunted Hotel,” it’s worth your time to take the nightly Ghost Tour.
Morning light incarnadines the forest spanning both sides of U.S. 62, curling with delight along the ridge, swooping with more laughs from the backseat down and around happy twisties across our old friend Table Rock Lake, up to Pea Ridge National Military Park, the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, through Little Flock (not to be confused with Rock) and into the next international draw, Bentonville.
You’re in Walmart land! On the perfect town square you might see Jimmy Stewart dashing home in Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Here is the original five-and-dime store started by Sam Walton in May 1950. Twelve years later Walmart opened in nearby Rogers, and the revolution in commerce was on. The biggest retailer in the world began right here. A million or so visitors each year find out more at the Walmart Museum next door, and Walton’s daughter Alice left for us an amazing gift in Bentonville, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It is a magnet for art lovers, and it’s free.
Heading south we passed neighboring Fayetteville, famed for its annual weekend fall festival, Bikes, Blues & BBQ. If you’re into crowds this is the South’s Sturgis. Last year more than 315,000 revelers rode into this self-described “family friendly” rally.
Four-lane Interstate 49 runs down to our next destination for the night, Fort Smith. Take that if you must, but we chose the rural two lanes. Highway 265 winds past Hogeye and Strickler (don’t blink) through pristine trees with so little traffic it feels like they paved it just for us. Join Highway 170 into a unique, unfettered virgin forest and Devil’s Den State Park. Arbor tunnels of green and gold have those yellow diamond shaped signs with curved arrows reading 15 mph. If you’re on a café racer or have done the Isle of Man — be wary. Anything else…go slow! “Arkie” highway engineers follow old Indian paths and hard rock ridges. One switchback warned, “10 mph.” A downhill giant paperclip twist, it made me stop dead in the middle and laugh!
Devil’s Den, like all state parks, is a refuge from the grind of city life. Deep in the forest, campgrounds and rental cabins are clean and close to the park store where rangers are friendly and eager to help. A river runs through and there is swimming and fishing. We plan to return here for a week in the spring.
Take Highway 220 out of the park and enjoy the dipsy-doodle ride in the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest past hamlets called Lee Creek, Cedarville and Figure Five, and then merge onto Highway 59 through Van Buren across the Arkansas River to rest for the night in Fort Smith. You’ll need a good night’s sleep.
Our last “international interest” spot for the northwest, Fort Smith is history buff candy. The National Park Service maintains the site of the fort where the Poteau River joins the Arkansas. It traces three episodes of our expansion, the details of which are all on display at no cost in the barracks visitor center, the commissary, gallows, Trail of Tears overlook and more. Check out #fortsmitharkansas and prepare to spend a day where the “New South meets the Old West.”
Eastward on Highway 22, the bottom line of our circle traces the course of the Arkansas River across flatter land for farms and livestock ranches. From Highway 22 we took Highway 109 at Midway straight north across the big river again to Clarksville and the start of the best ride of our lives. Scenic Highway 7 gets a lot of press for thrill-seeking riders.
This time we chose Highway 21 through the national forest. This is a heart-starter through Johnson and Newton counties, rivaling curve for curve its Carolina cousin, the Tail of the Dragon. I mentioned rollercoasters — this is the longest one I’ve seen!
Cross the headwaters of the Buffalo River and stop at Boxley. The 16-mile-long grassy valley is home to the protected herd of elk found lolling about in tall grass and a river so clean you want to drink it. The Elk Education Center up the road in Ponca will surprise you with animal tales and directions to viewing areas. There’s a café for needed refreshments, too.
We picked a new place to spend our last night on the road, following the buffalo along Highway 74 to Jasper. “Wowser” is the word for the first couple of miles of heavy forest and sidewinder switchbacks and twisties. Sport riders will drag knees here and make scraping noises and sparks. Max and I enjoyed the view on three wheels at a slower, yet fun clip. In Jasper we found scenic Highway 7 again and turned briefly five miles south and uphill all the way, sensing something wonderful off to the left.
Our stopover is a grandiose but cozy B&B called the Overlook. The “over” which it looks, is the stunning Arkansas Grand Canyon. Somebody said, “The Ozark Mountains are not so high but the valleys are so deep.” Here you can experience the full impact of that. Magnificent vistas from the deck of our room warm hearts and soften souls. On our way to dinner that evening we met two couples on Harleys — they too were “overlooking” the canyon. They’d ridden in snow from home in Minnesota and came down to ride just a little longer this year.
Next morning our odyssey ride took us back up Highway 7 with a final jolt of adrenaline and joy into Harrison and up U.S. Route 65 through Branson and Springfield to our own Ozark home. These hills and hollers with well-paved inspiring blacktop roads can only be dreamt about in the big city. The Ozarks are a wondrous mystery to be lived.
Forty-seven national parks, 17,335 miles, 67 days, three flat tires, two forest fires, three boat rides, temps ranging from 31degrees and sleet to 106-degree blinding heat–and no speeding tickets–equals one extraordinary and unforgettable motorcycle trip of a lifetime!
When I told my friends and family of my planned motorcycle trip, a visit to each of the 47 national parks last summer, there were plenty of questions from everyone. “Are you crazy?” “How many other riders are joining you?” “Is your life insurance paid up?” “What type of gun are you taking?” And finally, “Why?” But I had heard it all before on my previous trips to the four corners of the U.S. in 2013 and to all of the lower 48 states in 2014.
It all began last winter when my wife surprised me by sending me a link to a website that mapped out an efficient way to visit each of the 47 national parks in the lower 48 states, riding the least amount of miles. When I began to plan the trip, I realized that picking a date to leave Chicago in order to avoid all the tricky weather conditions in the various parts of the country was harder than I expected. The Midwest has the tornado season in the late spring, Florida has hurricanes beginning in June, Death Valley has 120-degree heat in the summer, and the cold and snow could still be around in the mountains out west in early summer. I made the decision to leave on May 1 and hoped that I would be able to avoid most of the weather issues.
Planning the route for the trip was easy. I used the map that my wife had shown me and, although I didn’t have any time constraints, I still plotted the estimated distances and traveling times between the parks to help me plan for places to stay while on the road. I found that Google Maps, set to “avoid highways,” gave me the best routes with the most interesting scenery.
Traveling through 17,000 miles of back roads, I was able to discover roads that many motorcyclists can only dream of riding. Imagine riding the seven-mile bridge in the Florida Keys, just you, your bike and miles of ocean all around you until you reach the next island Key. Then there are the desolate, lonely roads, like U.S. Route 62 heading out of Carlsbad, New Mexico, where “Next Gas 145 Miles” signs warn you of the barren and isolated landscape. Utah State Route 12 through the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument area delivers magnificent vistas as far as the eye can see and is a motorcyclists’ dream, with hundreds of sweepers and a few free range cattle to make things interesting.
Some of the best conversations on motorcycle trips begin with a simple question: “So, where are you headed?” Bonds develop quickly between riders, and this trip held no exceptions. There were the two riders I met in Alpine, Wyoming, from Portugal and Gibraltar. They invited me to plan a trip with them to ride in Morocco.
And then, while touring Sequoia National Park, I met another pair of riders from Los Angeles. We became fast friends and now we regularly keep in touch and I plan to connect with them on my next ride out west.
I am frequently asked, “What is your favorite national park?” I don’t have a single favorite, but rather a Top Three. Dry Tortugas National Park covers an entire island and is located 70 miles west of Key West in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. The fort there was historically significant during the building of our country (Google it).
Zion National Park, one of our nation’s most majestic parks, is accessed via Utah State Route 9 and covers 146,596 acres of multi-colored canyons that take your breath away.
Lastly, Kings Canyon National Park is set between Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park in central California. Although this park isn’t as well known as some of the others, it reminds me of riding in the Alps in Europe, withroads that are carved on top of mountains with unforgiving 1,000 foot drops. Riding the winding road alongside a raging, overflowing river trying to accommodate last winter’s massive snows was exhilarating.
The beauty of this canyon ride is that you get a bonus at the end: you get to turn around and do it all over again.
Every national park has its own personality, beauty and history. From Acadia National Park in Maine with its rocky shores, high winds on Cadillac Mountain and seafaring history, to Big Bend National Park in Texas, running along the Rio Grande river, each park is special in its own way. At one vista point, I was able to walk across the Rio Grande into Mexico and then back again. For perspective, Big Bend is larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. Approaching Big Bend from Alpine, Texas, on State Route 118 presents a desolate intimidating roadway, especially as temps hit 106 degrees.
Entering Death Valley National Park, I was uneasy with the extreme desolation, especially knowing that I was only one flat tire away from a crisis. At 3.4 million acres and 1,000 miles of roads, this is the largest National Park in the lower 48 states.
Food is always an important component of any trip, from lobster reuben sandwiches at Keys Fisheries in Marathon, Florida, to BBQ at Lockhart’s in Dallas, Texas, which is always served on butcher paper. I prefer to search for the mom & pop places to eat and try the local delicacies.
This trip of a lifetime gave me valuable insights regarding the beauty of our national parks and how precious they are to us. My advice is to visit as many of these national treasures as possible, I guarantee you will not be disappointed!
Improving slow-speed stability can be fun. No, really.
More than any other skill, riders tell me they wish they had better low-speed control. And no wonder; a bike is unstable and heavy at low speeds. It’s a skill riders want to improve, yet most avoid practice. Why? Probably because we tend to avoid things we hate. Unfortunately, we can’t avoid slow-speed riding altogether.
For me, the trick to developing skills has always been to make practice fun. So, let’s play a game or two. But first, let’s consider the basic techniques of slow-speed riding. Sit straight up with eyes looking to a distant target. Place the bike in first gear, raise the engine rpm slightly over idle and ease the clutch into the friction zone. Once rolling, place your feet on the pegs and apply a little rear brake. Modulate your speed by applying more or less rear brake (no front brake!). Those are the basics of slow riding. Now, let’s have some fun.
When riding with friends, try an impromptu “slow race” at one of your breaks. Line everyone up side-by-side at one end of an open parking lot, all facing the same direction and with sufficient space between bikes. This will be your start line. Pick a finish line a few yards away or so (not too far). On the “go” signal, each rider starts toward the finish, riding as slowly, but as stably, as possible. The last one to get to the finish line wins. The first one there buys lunch.
Once comfortable with straight line slow-speed control, try introducing a game with turns. A favorite of mine is to pick another willing rider and begin riding in a circle together at slow speed. Let the bike lean beneath you as you stay upright. Keep eyes up and looking at your buddy across the circle. As you get more comfortable, the two of you can tighten the circle to challenge each other. End the game by steering out of the circle, away from your buddy.
Then there’s the two-wheeled version of follow-the-leader. With riders in single file, one rider leads the group around the lot, making random combinations of right and left turns and even large circles, while keeping speeds slow enough to require the clutch to remain in the friction zone.
With such games, you’ll spend more time enjoying yourself than being intimidated by the bike’s slow-speed behavior. And before you know it, you’ll be riding like Heinz ketchup: smooth and slow.
Everyone knows the potential benefits and joys of camping out. Spectacular unfiltered views of the sky, sunsets and stars, communing with nature and friends by the campfire and sharing simple, tasty meals surrounded by trees, wildlife, mountains or the open desert…it’s all out there. Camping avoids costly hotels, too, so you can ride longer for less, and it lets you plan riding routes into backcountry you might not otherwise be able to reach. The shared effort and cooperation of roughing it with friends also enhances your group’s camaraderie, creating stronger bonds and great memories.
Of course, camping is a bit more complicated than whipping out a credit card at the Dew Drop Inn. Everything we need and take for granted in our homes or in hotels has to come with you on the bike, right down to the roof over your head. Car campers have it easy–there’s generally plenty of room, so less thought has to go into what to bring. But despite a limited amount of space on a motorcycle, with a little forethought and ingenuity you can enjoy both a great ride and a memorable camping trip.
Assuming you’re a total newbie to motorcycle camping, consider picking a spot for your first overnight that has water, toilets, trash cans, picnic tables, fire rings and/or grills, like an established campground. Dry, primitive camping can be awesome and the only kind available in some really wonderful places, but in addition to carrying your own water for washing and drinking, you’d be surprised how inconvenient the lack of a simple raised table can be for some people, not to mention doing your business in the bushes and packing out your trash. Of course, a dark pit toilet in a campground is still an adventure at 3 a.m., but at least you’ve got a door and somewhere to sit (just remember that if something falls in there, it’s probably staying!).
It also helps if there’s a camp store or host nearby who can provide bulky things like charcoal and firewood, which you can strap to the bike after it’s unloaded at the campsite. Depending on the motorcycle’s capacity and if you’re riding solo or two-up, you may also want to skip the pre-organized meals and simply buy something for dinner and breakfast at the closest store to the campground and bungee it on in some way. You’d be amazed how much space you can find when you’re hungry and thirsty! Bring or buy soft-sided insulated bags that fold flat for transporting cold beverages or hot food, and try to leave some space in your bike’s luggage for your purchases when you pack the bike at home.
How much and what type of camping gear to bring really boils down to personal preference and how much you can fit on the bike without overloading it and upsetting its handling. You can’t go wrong by buying the lightest, most compact gear that will work for the conditions–backpacking equipment, for example, often works well, particularly when space is at a premium. It can be expensive, though, and there’s no point in shelling out big bucks for an ultra-lightweight tent when you’re riding solo on a big touring bike with a full set of luggage. Don’t compromise on quality, though–cheap tents leak and can be hard to set up, and bulky, inexpensive sleeping bags and pads are never as warm or comfortable as promised. Here’s a basic list to get you started:
Ground cover or tent footprint
Sleeping pad, air mattress or cot
Small stove/coffee pot or JetBoil
Kindling or campfire starter
First aid kit
Bug repellant, sunscreen, hat
Choose wisely, and most of this stuff should fit in a waterproof duffel you can strap on the back of the bike (we recommend Rok straps, but bungees work too) or in a large saddlebag or top trunk. I use a liner bag in the top trunk and one saddlebag for gear and clothing so that I can easily lift them out and strap them on the passenger seat at the supermarket. Some examples: Choose a tent (with rain fly) that is just big enough to fit you and your gear inside and that packs small, and set it up on a tarp or ground cover to protect the floor. Down sleeping bags pack down quite small in a compression stuff sack, and choose an inflatable sleeping pad rather than bulkier self-inflating or foam sleeping pads. Instant coffee saves some hassle, and you can heat the water with a small backpacking stove or Jetboil cooking system. Campfire starter is safer than newspaper or gasoline to get your campfire going.
How much you add or subtract to the list above is where the ingenuity comes in–if your bike has removable aluminum panniers or saddlebags with flat tops and bottoms, for example, with your compressible pillow on top they can substitute for camp chairs. Sleeping bag liners pack small and can lower your existing bag’s temperature rating by as much as 20 degrees. Carry water in a Camelbak reservoir on your back and you’ll have up to 3 liters while riding and in camp.
You get the idea–with a little creativity you can enjoy most of the comforts of home in the middle of nowhere. There aren’t a lot of hard-and-fast rules, except pack it in, pack it out, tend your fire…and don’t forget the TP!
A couple of years ago I did an east-to-west and back ride across north central Kansas. One of the highlights was the Flint Hills, a narrow ecoregion famous for flint deposits just below the ground’s surface and rich grasslands above. It bridges eastern farmlands with the drier western plains and stretches from just south of the Nebraska line into Oklahoma. Early pioneers called it “the Great American Desert.” Rural Kansas at its finest, I spent a few days prowling its highways getting to know it better.
I kicked off the ride at the Evel Knievel Museum in Topeka (read the story here), then pointed my trusty V-Strom west on K-4, the Native Stone Scenic Byway. An 1867 Kansas law closed the open range and offered settlers 40 cents per rod to build stone fences with the abundant material. Some of the work is original, some is undergoing restoration. The byway’s 48 miles includes sections of K-99 as well and ranks among the curviest I’ve ridden in Kansas. I took it to Manhattan, where I visited the Flint Hills Discovery Center, a good resource.
North of town, I bedded down at Tuttle Creek Cove Park on Tuttle Creek Lake, one of several reservoirs built and managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The projects are multi-faceted, providing flood control, drinking water and recreation. In contrast to my previous ride, the Flint Hills were markedly drier and it showed in the lakes and rivers. Thankfully, the region was spared the wildfire havoc that occurred farther west the previous summer.
K-99 was to be my primary north/south route on the eastern leg, but construction at Tuttle Dam altered the plan. U.S. Route 24 to K-16 put me back on track to U.S. Route 36, which represents the region’s northern boundary. A sign along the highway invited me to “Experience the Flint Hills.” A group of inquisitive cattle were the welcoming committee. I wonder if their collective memory associates riders on motorcycles with cowboys on horses, as they often dutifully line up as if awaiting orders. In addition to status as a former Pony Express stop, Marysville is known as the Black Squirrel City, which explains the statues honoring the little rodents. I was told that hitting one could result in a $500 fine. Not worth dropping the bike over, in my opinion. While in town, I recommend the Wagon Wheel Cafe. Good food and reasonable prices, my kind of place.
U.S. Route 77 is the main north/south route through the western Flint Hills. Miles of the road travel through the 100,000-plus-acre Fort Riley installation. Riding down that lonesome highway it’s easy to see why the sparsely populated region is ideal for military maneuvers. Like most Kansas byways, U.S. 77’s gently rolling pavement is of consistently of good quality–no bike-swallowing potholes like back home in Indiana. But for me, the biggest draw is that the road seems to melt into the horizon, as if you could roll on forever.
Along with cattle, fire is the main shaper of the Flint Hills ecosystem. Controlled burns each spring pare down weeds and invasive species such as juniper trees transplanted by the settlers. The saplings choke out the native grasses. A ranger at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve told me that signs of a fire I saw were doubtless accidental, as no landowner would burn in August, particularly one this dry.
Nightfall found me at another Corps of Engineers project, the 8,000-acre El Dorado Lake. The earthen dam was typical of their practice and contains many acre-feet of water. I marveled at the elegant efficiency of these unassuming structures. That’s probably an oversimplification, but in any case, the Corps knows what they’re doing and run nice campgrounds.
Like Topeka, Augusta lies near the edge of the Flint Hills. Since my route included a jog onto U.S. Route 400, I couldn’t pass up the Twisted Oz Motorcycle Museum. While riding into town, pay attention to the north side of the road as Sculpture Hill comes into view, an assemblage of more than 50 steel figures depicting rural Kansas life. Unfortunately, metal artist Frank Jensen’s creation is not open to the public.
Back on U.S.77, I stopped for a break at the Solid Rock Cafe in Rock, population 191. As I finished my strawberry pie and coffee, a rider wearing a Ducati jacket and carrying an Arai helmet stepped inside. I knew I had to talk to this guy. I learned he was from Wichita, out for a birthday cruise on his recently-acquired 2008 Ducati 1098R, one of 600 produced and, coincidently, about to turn 600 miles on the odometer.
Arkansas City, known locally as Ark City, is the last Flint Hills town in Kansas. There I swung east on U.S. Route 166, bypassed Sedan and picked up K-99 once again. Black clouds inspired me to find a hotel in Eureka, where I also had a fine catfish dinner at Copper Kettle. Aside from keeping dry, the main benefit of hoteling it is hitting the road earlier. Heading west on U.S. Route 54 before dawn, I was treated to a blazing sun breaking open the wide horizon in the Strom’s rearview mirrors. Quite a sight.
My loop’s last leg was K-177, 47 miles of which is designated the Flint Hills Scenic Byway. Though not as curve-filled as Native Stone, it still has enough sweepers and rolling hills to be entertaining. But more importantly, I appreciate the empty feeling it inspires. One stretch could well be the Great American Desert the pioneers spoke of. Aside from the pavement and some fence lines, there’s nothing but grass.
Continuing north, I visited Cottonwood Falls, the Chase County seat which boasts of the oldest courthouse in Kansas. West of town, I explored Chase State Fishing Lake. The gravel access road was well maintained, but as with other side trips I was glad I was running 80/20 dual-sport tires on the Strom. The Shinko 705s noticeably improve the bike’s gravel road manners. On paved corners, the peg feelers grind before they run out of grip. It’s good all-around rubber.
On my last visit to Strong City I arrived just as the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve was closing, so this time I made a point to get there in time to tour some of the former Spring Hill Ranch, including the limestone mansion and barn that are incorporated in the park’s nearly 11,000 acres. A now-thriving bison herd with 99-percent purity was reintroduced in 2009 and numbers 110, with 23 calves born this spring.
During the westward migration, Council Grove was the last place to buy supplies before embarking on wilder portions of the Santa Fe Trail. An ironic place to conclude my Flint Hills experience, but all rides must come to an end. After lunch at the Hays House, I gassed up and headed the opposite direction of those hardy pioneers, east on U.S. Route 56. I’ll doubtless be back.