I’ll admit I was skeptical. A land of mountains, twisty asphalt, endless dirt tracks, cheap lodging, good food and friendly locals just a few hours south of the Texas border?
But I’ve seen this dual-sport promised land and I’m here to report it’s all true. The Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range, which begins just south of Monterrey, creates an international motorcycle wonderland that’s easily accessible for anyone living in the Midwest or Eastern United States.
You’ll need a temporary vehicle importation permit (TVIP) to bring your bike this far south into Mexico. Getting one requires a valid registration in your name, your Mexican visa (free if you are staying seven days or less) and a passport. Some riders report also needing a vehicle title, but no one asked to see mine. You also pay a refundable deposit that varies depending the age of your bike; it was $300 for my 2006 Suzuki DR650. Make sure you get insurance, too. Again, nobody asked to see proof of insurance at the border, but if you get in an accident in Mexico you can land in jail if you aren’t covered.
We made quick work of the McAllen/Reynosa border tangle and headed southwest on Federal Highway 40, the equivalent of a state highway in the U.S. South of the border, the posted speed limits are low, typically 60 mph or less, but few pay attention to them. The thing to remember is to stay to the right. People will pass and you are expected to pull as far to the right as you can to let them by. Even on a narrow, two-lane road, pull to the right as far as you safely can. Other drivers will do the same for you.
The fun began with a section of tight, twisty blacktop that turned south from Federal Highway 85 between Ciudad de Allende and Montemorelos. The temperature dropped and the clouds closed in as we wound over the Sierra Madre for the first of many times this trip and down into the pecan-farming town of Rayones. We were taking the “fast” way to Galeana, our base for the next few days, and that meant a 10-mile dirt road south from Rayones that might be a challenge for inexperienced riders on bigger bikes.
Galeana is small city at the base of Cerro El Potosí, which at 12,208 feet is the tallest mountain in the Sierra Madre Oriental range. The town has plenty of restaurants, stores, banks and supplies, and makes a great base for exploring the area. We stayed at the moto-friendly Hotel Magdalena, where a double room was $36 a night with secure parking for the bikes in the back. There are probably cheaper places to stay, but the Magdalena is right on the spotless square, the heartbeat of this vibrant town.
One of our best routes took us back north to Rayones, then on a combination of sinuous asphalt and well-kept dirt roads, loosely following the Río Pilón through mountain towns too small to even have restaurants. Eventually the dirt road turned to steep, rocky, loose two-track that tested the big bikes in our group — a BMW R 1100 GS, Suzuki V-Strom 1000 and Triumph Tiger — to the limit. It all felt about right on my DR650, though.
The real apex of the trip was spending two nights in Real de Catorce, an old silver mining town three hours southwest of Galeana. Real is situated atop a plateau at almost 9,000 feet, and if it looks like a movie set of a forgotten Mexican mountain town, that’s because it is. A good portion of “The Mexican,” the 2001 film starring Brad Pitt and Angela Jolie, was shot there.
There are two ways into Real: a steep, rocky, narrow jeep trail from the west, or right through the side of a mountain via the one-lane Ogarrio Tunnel. We chose the latter, and even getting to the tunnel is an adventure: 17 miles on a cobblestone road. The trick, I learned, is to keep your speed up. Ride too slow and the cobblestones take control of where your bike is going. This stretch should probably be avoided in the rain.
Pay a small toll to get through the tunnel and 1.5 miles later you’ll emerge into Real, once one of the largest silver producing towns in the world. When the price of silver collapsed, the town’s economy went with it, and the downsized village is now largely dependent on tourism. Many travelers come to Real for the town’s reputed spiritual energy or to hunt for peyote, the cactus fruit that is sacred to the native Huichol people who originally inhabited this area.
We parked the bikes and toured Real on foot, hiking up to the Pueblo Fantasma, an abandoned mining quarters for the workers who extracted precious metal from these hills. Expect warm, sunny days and cold nights in Real.
Food in Real is basic and cheap. We ate a breakfast of eggs, tortillas and beans for less than $3. Lodging ranges from basic to luxury, but even the most expensive places in town only cost the equivalent of about $70 U.S. per night.
After a week in the Sierra Madre Oriental I realized I had barely begun to experience the area. The mountains stretch south past Mexico City, after all. Further explorations await.
Because of the times we live in, no story about riding in Mexico would be complete without a word about safety. I’ve been to Mexico a handful of times and don’t consider myself an expert on the topic, but I will say this: not once on this trip, nor any other, did I felt threatened in any way. Quite the opposite, in fact. I have found the Mexican people to be warm, inviting and accommodating. Speaking even a few words of Spanish pays dividends.
Despite being a lifelong Hoosier, I hadn’t spent much time riding in the southern part of Indiana. This year would be different — I had a family reunion coming up in Bloomington, only four hours away from home in Valparaiso. I also had some rare extra days off from my mill job, so I thought I’d meander my way there instead of taking the direct route. Using secondary roads exclusively crossed my mind, but I didn’t have that much time.
I headed east on U.S. Route 30, then south on U.S. Routes 35 and 31. Thankfully, the rains that plagued us for weeks had finally stopped. Indiana is squarely in the Corn Belt, but the crop in our part of the state was pretty much toast due to the wet conditions. This was painfully obvious mile after mile, as stunted seedlings were barely at the ankle. The old saying is “knee high by the Fourth of July,” but with modern hybrids, most years the stalks are at the shoulder or better by late June.
North of Indy I jumped on State Highway 38. I’d noticed a scenic route designation on the map for State Highway 1, starting at Hagerstown, less than 20 miles from the Ohio border. The town is also just above the imaginary line that separates the state into north and south — as good a place to start as any. There was even a motorcycle-friendly eatery, Dave’s Café/Flatlanders Motorcycles. The Harley parked among the pool tables made my burger taste all the better. As poor luck had it, I’d showed up the day before their weekly bike night. Still, this was shaping up to be a good ride.
The Whitewater Canal Scenic Byway offers a snapshot of 19th-century American travel: river, canal and rail. I’d heard at the Greens Fork Family Diner it was also a fine motorcycle road. The report was accurate, with smooth pavement, abundant curves and frequent elevation changes, features that riders seek out but are rare north of the dividing line — especially the smooth part. Plank roads aren’t represented, but there is a heritage railroad running between Connersville and Metamora that features a restored section of the Whitewater Canal that once stretched 76 miles, from Hagerstown to Harrison, Ohio. Construction was a major engineering feat due to the steepness of the route, requiring 56 locks and seven dams, and the costly project drove the state into bankruptcy for a time.
I’m a fan of big rivers. I enjoyed riding the Mississippi and Missouri river valleys a couple of years ago in the Show Me State. Since I was close to the Ohio, I figured I would check it out. I was particularly interested in how it compared to those two flooding-wise, as my Missouri route was often dictated by water-related closures. But the first diversion was due to construction, not flooding. Instead of Lawrenceburg, where the river enters Indiana, the detour put me a few miles downstream in Aurora, where I picked up the Ohio River Scenic Byway. The Hoosier State segment covers 302 miles and follows several Indiana State Highways, 56, 156, 62 and 66, which meld together rather seamlessly. The distance suggested a lot of curves and didn’t disappoint.
Among American waterways, the Ohio is second only to the Mississippi in volume of water discharged. It has been described as a series of strung-together reservoirs, built and operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. As such, it serves many of the same functions as other Corps projects, such as drinking water, recreation, flood control and shipping. Barge traffic was abundant. I stopped a couple of times at riverside parks to watch the towboats do their magic. A century ago, the river towns catered primarily to businesses. Now tourism is a big economic activity as well.
Given the combination of good pavement, hills, curves and friendly locals, unsurprisingly there were lots of motorcycles on the byways. On one construction reroute, where it took 50 miles to go 10, two Harley riders gave chase. They weren’t dressed for a crash but pushed me hard on the straights and sweepers anyway, then I’d walk away from them in the tighter curves. We repeated the pattern several times. Fun!
I’d always wanted to visit our first Indiana state Capitol building, in Corydon. Just off the byway and easy to find, the tidy limestone structure is dwarfed by the current rendition in Indianapolis. But it was doubtless a big undertaking for the fledgling state in 1816. Unfortunately, it was closed for the day, a constant aggravation on my rides when visiting historical sites.
The afternoon was fading when I encountered another reroute. I wondered if this one really was due to flooding, as the stretch ran right along the river. Water or roadwork, I never found out, but I’d neglected to top off the Suzuki V-Strom’s tank in Jeffersonville and the blinking fuel gauge was making me nervous. I’d passed through several small settlements, but none with gas available. Luckily, the Derby General Store was still open. One of the pumps offered ethanol-free 90-octane mid-grade, rare in my corner of the state, and the Strom loved the unadulterated fuel. The attendant clued me into a shortcut that didn’t show as connecting on the map. It allowed me to see the dam at Cannelton, which the sanctioned route bypassed. I don’t use a construction avoidance feature on my GPS; folks that live in an area can generally advise the best route anyway.
Derby also carried a grim reminder of the potentially destructive power of big rivers: flood lines spanning eight decades posted on a utility pole. Like the Mississippi and Missouri, the Ohio sometimes jumps its banks despite man’s best efforts to tame it. But even with the proximity of big water and recent heavy rains, the corn crop in the area was comparatively healthy. One lush field shared space with another common Midwestern fixture, the oil pumpjack.
I stopped for the night in Evansville, an easy enough town to navigate considering its relatively large population. I often wish I’d been born in the southwest rather than the northwest corner of the state. The milder winters, better roads and laid-back lifestyle are big plusses. The next morning, I rode the remaining 25 miles of the Ohio River Scenic Byway to where it crosses the Wabash River into Illinois, then doubled back to Mount Vernon to begin the trek back north on State Highway 69.
I had the whole day to make it to Bloomington, so I stuck to state highways. They passed through endless farmland and the occasional small town. I prefer mom-and-pop diners, and one of the best indicators of quality food is pickup trucks in the parking lot; if the fare is substandard, the locals won’t patronize. JJ’s in Cynthiana looked promising. A man I guessed correctly to be JJ stood behind the register, hands on hips, looking me over, and asked, “What’d ya need, captain?” “How about a menu,” seemed the obvious reply. He shot back, “You sure you can read?” as he handed me one with a smirk. Then he put on a fresh pot of coffee, not so much for me, but for the lunch crowd about to arrive. Like clockwork, trucks of every description soon moved in. I hung out for a while, talking bikes, farm equipment, weather and steel mills.
ABATE of Indiana is a robust motorcycle rights organization. Twenty years ago, it purchased 400 acres in Lawrence County to host its annual fundraising party, the Boogie, which is dubbed the “Midwest’s Best Biker Fest.” The property has since been developed into a full-service off-road riding area with 60 miles of trails, campgrounds, showers and RV hookups. The Lawrence County Recreational Park is off the beaten path, but worth a visit. One day, I’d like to give those trails a try. The Indiana Motorcycle Safety Memorial is at the park’s entrance, dedicated to fallen Hoosier riders. The memorial grounds are impressive and made my detour worthwhile.
Bloomington is smack in the middle of some of the best motorcycling in Indiana. My youngest daughter once rode with me there. She said it felt like “riding through a tunnel,” as we motored under the canopy of trees that covers many of the highways. I’m not complaining, but at times the hills and curves became almost overwhelming. Once, I dropped my guard and almost overshot a tight turn. But I knew in a few hours I’d be back on straight and boring roads, with a large helping of potholes thrown in, so I enjoyed the squiggly lines while I could. Efficiency dictates that major highways cut the hills down to level the run, but rest assured there are still many miles of unmolested pavement in southern Indiana.
U.S. Route 231 was my chosen route home, avoiding the interstate. The dry and beautiful Saturday night brought out bikes by the score. In Crawfordsville, a chapter of the Iron Order with dozens of rumbling steeds had gathered for a run. I waved and they waved back. We were all on V-twins, albeit built for different styles of riding, but it didn’t matter. At West Lafayette, I once again overruled the Garmin’s choice of I-65 and picked up State Highway 43, then U.S. Route 421 for the last 70 miles. It’s weird, but after all the curves and hills, the arrow-straight run that I’ve made many times was strangely satisfying.
The Ohio River Valley is now on my list of favorite places. The byway hugs the river for many miles and I’m glad I ran the Indiana section almost beginning to end. I only wish I could have spent more than a day taking it in. Two or three would’ve been better, as there’s much to do and see. I’m always searching for the perfect ride. Turns out one of the best has been in my backyard all along.
Other minor tweaks for 2020 are a second USB connector in the left saddlebag, while the new Tour version gets LED fog lights and bigger passenger grab handles.
The 2018 update was much more extensive with the introduction of Apple CarPlay, adjustable electric windscreen, major weight loss, new frame, double wishbone front suspension, Smart Key, four selectable riding modes, Hill Start Assist and Honda Selectable Torque Control (HSTC).
The flat-six engine was also revamped with four valves per cylinder.
At just 360 miles, you could probably ride the entire length of Canada’s second-smallest province in a day, including Cape Breton Island on the north end. Having said that, you could also spend a good 3-4 weeks exploring the coastal roads that encompass Nova Scotia. But despite the appeal of the many lightly-traveled roads along the coast, the main allure for me and many motorcyclists all over North America are the legendary roads on Cape Breton Island.
My first stop in Nova Scotia was along the South Shore. From here, the ride was about 190 miles to the Canso Causeway, which joins Cape Breton Island to the mainland. As soon as you are within a couple miles of Port Hastings, the first town you enter once you cross over the causeway, you will immediately notice an increase in the bike-to-car ratio.
Although the Trans Canada Highway runs up the middle of the island and is the more direct route to the Cabot Trail from Port Hastings, you would be doing yourself a disservice by cutting out Trunk 19, also known as the Ceilidh Trail. It is a 66-mile scenic road that rims the Gulf of St. Lawrence, starting at Port Hastings and ending at Margaree Forks, which is a southern point on the Cabot Trail. The paved road passes through quaint Scottish towns offering reasonably priced accommodations that are more accessible than the lodgings on the Cabot Trail.
Up until this point in my trip, I would use my last fuel stop of the day as an opportunity to pull out my phone and assess the availability of the local motels. This strategy will not work on the Cabot Trail, especially if you are planning your trip over a weekend in the summer, because everything seemed to book up really fast. However, there is an abundance of B&Bs in the towns along Trunk 19, a perfect location since it is less than an hour’s ride to the Cabot Trail.
Although you could probably ride the entire trail in 5-6 hours, it took me nearly eight with frequent breaks due to the heatwave conditions in early August. On the advice of the locals, I filled my tank in Chéticamp, a small Acadian village with a main street lined with cafés and restaurants. It is a good place to fill up your tank and grab a bite to eat since both fuel and food start to become scarce after passing this village. Chéticamp was bustling with tourists when I arrived, but this is not a reflection of what your ride will be like on the trail. Because of its vastness, I oftentimes felt as if I had the road to myself, despite the fact that it was a Friday afternoon on a beautiful summer day.
The ride between Petit Étang (which is less than two miles north of Chéticamp) to Ingonish was probably my favorite part of the trail. I enjoyed everything from the spectacular view of the coast north of Petit Étang, to the long sweeping turns around the mountain, to the challenges presented by the switchbacks before descending down the coast to Pleasant Bay. There are many excellent lookout points along the trail, presenting a good opportunity to stretch your legs, snap a few pictures and take in the stunning view of the coast from the mountain.
There is a longstanding debate among the locals over the best way to ride the trail, clockwise or counterclockwise. Although riding counter will put you in the lane closer to the coast, a few of the locals have told me that riding it clockwise is more enjoyable, as you experience the steep descent down MacKenzie Mountain. This was probably the highlight of my entire ride, so I have definitely become biased toward clockwise.
After reaching Cape North, the northernmost part of the trail, you will approach South Harbour. Just past this point, taking a left turn onto White Point Road will bring you down a narrow, paved road along the coast to a small fishing town. It was recommended to me by some locals, and it was a nice 7-mile venture off the trail. It’s a great place to dismount, stretch your legs and take in the beautiful scenery as you listen to the waves crashing against the rocks. The road eventually turns into New Haven Road, which will connect you back to the Cabot Trail.
I ended the loop by riding back to Margaree Forks just before the sun started to set. As a precaution, you may want to time your rides so that you are parked by dusk. Moose are known to frequent Cape Breton Island, and I was told they usually come out around 7:30 to 8:00 p.m. each evening. Not feeling too great about my chances of survival against a moose, I tried to limit any potential exposure to them.
Despite the fact that it is a 186-mile loop, the hours you spend in the saddle on the Cabot Trail will fly by. The three mountains — MacKenzie Mountain, French Mountain and Smokey Mountain — offer different backdrops for your ride, and the tight corners and changes in elevation will present an equal combination of challenge and thrill.
Snakes employ astonishing methods of locomotion. Legs? Who needs ’em! Using muscles and scales, snakes hug the landscape as they wind along their way. Roads can be like that, with narrow, winding runs of asphalt that hug each rise and bend.
Snaking asphalt brings joy to this motorcycle rider, and east of the Hudson River there’s a region with plenty of it. This area of small towns, farms and woodlands straddles New York’s border with Connecticut and Massachusetts. The rolling landscape means the roads rarely go straight, and with some route planning it’s easy to avoid population centers. Connecting roads with snake-like curves is the inspiration for this ride.
Roughly in the center of this region is the western Massachusetts town of Great Barrington. It has a picturesque, old-fashioned Main Street neighborhood and interesting options for eats, accommodations and entertainment, so it’s a good base of operations for two routes that begin and end there.
My friend Andrew joins me and we’re up early to take photographs in the best morning light. Andrew points out the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Castle Street. Berkshire County, the westernmost part of Massachusetts, is renowned as an arts region, and this historic venue has been a performance site since 1905. One marquee is lit up and the neon calls to be captured.
On Main Street, at the corner of Taconic Avenue, the sun shines brightly on St. James Place. It was built as an Episcopal church in 1857 and by the late 20th century it had fallen into disrepair. But it was renovated and, in 2017, reopened as an arts center with offices and performance spaces.
Just south of downtown, we bear right onto Massachusetts State Route 23/41. After a quarter-mile on the left, in a green space next to Silver Street, we find the Newsboy Statue. In 1895, William L. Brown, who was a town resident and part owner of the original New York Daily News, presented it to the people of Great Barrington. I was a paperboy, so it feels right to stop and pay my respects.
When 23 goes right, we stay left on 41 then make a quick right onto Mount Washington Road. It can be hard to find the signs that point the way to Bash Bish Falls State Park, but it’s worth the effort. Turn right onto Cross Road, right onto West Street and left onto Falls Road to the park. Bash Bish Falls is the highest single-drop waterfall in Massachusetts and a short walk from the parking area.
Continuing west lands us in New York, the first of many “border crossings” we’ll be making. We turn left at New York State Route 22, which will make several short appearances throughout our route, then start looking for Under Mountain Road. At U.S. Route 44, we go right and when we reach McGhee Hill Road, begin to meander through sparsely populated areas along serpentine roads.
We curve around Hunns Lake, then in Bangall turn hard left onto Bangall-Amenia Road. A ways on we merge back onto U.S. 44 and pull into the scenic overlook to survey the landscape from a standstill. Just below the overlook — and waiting when we hop back on the bikes — is the Amenia Hairpin, a delightful and downward sloping left curve. Farther along, Halls Corners Road and Chestnut Ridge Road keep us smiling.
By the Union Vale Fire House, a right on Clove Road has us winding south and a bit west. U.S. Route 9 eases us to Philipstown, then we turn left onto State Route 301 through Fahnestock State Park. The area ahead is known to local curve-loving riders, and we spot several enjoying it with a mechanical symphony from their bikes’ exhaust.
Back underway we’re on Gipsy Trail Road and County Road 41 to Farmers Mills. Haviland Hollow Road crosses into Connecticut. We wrap around Squantz Pond State Park and back into New York, then roll north through Pawling and Wingdale. At Dog Tail Corners Road we wag left and soon we’re in Connecticut again, crossing Bulls Bridge over the Housatonic River and turning north onto a gently winding stretch of U.S. Route 7 that parallels the river. The quaint village of Kent is a good place for a break, but we make our stop just beyond at Kent Falls State Park to see another great waterfall.
A few miles north is Lime Rock, home to the Lime Rock Park racing circuit. Actor and philanthropist Paul Newman spent a lot of time here, shunning the spotlight, making friends and honing skills that would lead him to the Sports Car Club of America national title (as an amateur) in 1976 and a second place finish with his team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1979. Lime Rock Road goes right past the track, which is quiet today.
A right on Connecticut State Route 41 begins the return stretch north into Massachusetts and we arrive back in Great Barrington, leaving 221 snaking miles behind us. I notice that the First Congregational Church, which was in shadow this morning, is now basking in afternoon sun. Built in 1883 from locally-sourced limestone, it’s listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Unlike early this morning, Great Barrington’s old-fashioned Main Street neighborhood is bustling now. There are interesting places to eat, shop, explore and spend the night. U.S. Route 7 just north of downtown resembles Anytown, USA, with additional options for accommodations, restaurants and stores, plus a microbrewery.
It’s another early start for day two and another easy roll down Main Street to Massachusetts State Route 23, then right onto State Route 71 and into New York before shooting briefly south onto New York State Route 22 and turning right onto County Road 21. In much of New York, numbered county roads are the roads less traveled, and in this region they embrace the rolling hills and keep me smiling. Sight distances are typically short and forest critters could emerge from anywhere, so I dial up my Spidey senses.
Crow Hill Road and State Route 203 lead us to Chatham and another still-sleeping downtown. There’s no place open for breakfast yet so we continue to Old Chatham, but the Country Store hasn’t opened either.
County Road 13 snakes through East Nassau and Stephentown, then we curl back west on County Road 16 toward Nassau. A right on Rabie Road curves toward West Sand Lake, then Route 351 goes to Poestenkill and Plank Road goes to Berlin. At State Route 22 we turn north to Petersburg then slither east up Taconic Trail (State Route 2). At the top of the ridge we cross into Massachusetts and wind back down to Williamstown.
Massachusetts State Route 2 cuts through the picturesque campus of Williams College. In front of the Museum of Art, we stop to look at several sets of large, disembodied eyes, sculpted in bronze. I ride my bike onto the sidewalk to set up a photo, and even though no one is around I get the feeling I’m being watched.
A short ways on, we turn right onto Luce Road toward Notch Road and the Scenic Byway to the summit of Mount Greylock. On a map, this narrow, 7-mile, seasonal jewel resembles a sidewinder, with successive climbing hairpins. We keep up the revs and power through, while staying alert for trail hikers crossing the road.
From a left at the T, Summit Road rises to the highest point in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (3,491 feet). Reaching skyward another 92 feet is the Massachusetts Veterans War Memorial, a lighted beacon atop a granite tower, which was completed in 1932 and rededicated in 2017 after a two-year renovation. On a clear day we’d see nearly 100 miles over western Massachusetts, southern Vermont and eastern New York, but today we’re in the clouds.
Also near the summit is Bascom Lodge, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Out front I talk with a young couple who are “thru-hikers,” completing all 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail, which runs through here. They started in Georgia a few months ago and have a few more weeks to reach the end in Maine. What’s their hike been like so far? “It’s sure a good way to get to know someone,” the young man replies, eliciting a steely gaze and raised eyebrows from his companion.
Back down the mountain, Rockwell Road rewards us with more twisties and hairpins. At the bottom, a right on U.S. 7 and a sharp left on State Route 43 soon has us back into New York and more curvy county roads through Stephentown, East Chatham and Austerlitz. A short run north on New York State Route 22 and then east on State Route 102 returns us to Massachusetts.
Rolling through the village of Stockbridge seems to transport us into a Norman Rockwell painting, and there’s a reason for that. Norman Rockwell lived here, and his experience inspired his iconic scenes of 20th century American life. Fans of his work can go one mile south on Massachusetts State Route 183 to the Norman Rockwell Museum.
State Route 102 continues along the Housatonic River toward Lee and U.S. Route 20, where most vehicles (thankfully) turn into the outlet mall. We continue onto the best stretch of U.S. 20 in Massachusetts, Jacob’s Ladder Trail. The alternating downhill curves going into Chester are downright danceable on a motorcycle, and mellower curves continue all the way to Russell. There, a right on Blandford Stage Road takes the less traveled leg over to State Route 23.
Turning west, Route 23 twists and curls back to Great Barrington, all the way hugging asphalt undulations in that most enjoyable manner: like a snake.
By Trevor Hedge Images by Damien Ashenhurst and Trev
2019 BMW GS Safari Enduro saw over 80 riders head on an adventure taking them from the banks of the Murray River at Mildura in north-western Victoria, through to the inland heart of Australia, Alice Springs, in what is the 25th year of GS Safari.
The route chosen was a balance between the most intrepid and the most inspiring. As this is the more challenging of the two GS Safari events held each year, thus the ‘Enduro’ suffix added to the GS Safari moniker, this is certainly no walk in the park for most participants. The regular GS Safari takes almost 200 riders but Safari Enduro gets a bit more extreme thus numbers are generally less than half that of the more mainstream option.
In preparation for some of the sand riding and trials ahead, many riders also signed up for the BMW GS Off-Road Training Course that was staged in Mildura across the immediate two-days prior to Safari getting underway.
Dinner on the opening night was a chance for riders to reconnect with other participants they’d met on previous GS Safari adventures. For many these Safari events are simply a must-do every year, and plenty have a dozen or more GS Safaris under their belt.
Some riders are on their GS all the time, others are lucky to get out once every couple of months due to various family commitments or work pressures. Some are doctors, some are tradies, others head up large companies and between riding stints on Safari are on the phone back to the office co-ordinating bids for government contracts.
Some are obviously quite well off, while others are still paying off their motorcycle and their attendance at GS Safari Enduro is very much a treat they have to strive quite hard to be able to afford.
Some are travelling on their own, some are with a group of friends or work-mates. Out on the trail though, everyone is equal, everyone chips in and generally egos and competitive machismo are largely kept in check.
It is somewhat of a team effort as there is always someone ready to chip in and help to fix a puncture, help you pick your bike up, or give you a shove from behind to assist getting up a snotty incline. All that help is given without any snide remarks or put-downs and this helps ensure that no matter what, a positive vibe pervades, and people remain energised. Even when the going gets a little tough.
GS Safari Enduro Day One Mildura to Peterborough – 475 km
It was a brisk morning when we sporadically filed out of Mildura. To help spread the 80-odd riders out there was a sixty-minute departure window, so riders could leave at various times rather than en masse. This is not a ride where people follow nose to tail, you can often ride for half an hour or more without seeing another rider.
After crossing the Murray and Darling Rivers, we turned northwards and headed for the Danggali Conservation Park and Wilderness Protection Area, Australia’s first UN recognised Biosphere Reserve.
The landscape switches back and forth between Mallee wilderness to arid wetlands, and at the time we passed through Chowilla Track it was looking very arid indeed.
In fact, many sections of the track were much sandier than they had been only a few weeks earlier when the recce for the route was ridden by organisers. The sand led to somewhat of a baptism of fire for plenty of riders.
We were already getting into the proper outback on our basically all-dirt route via tracks generally less travelled. Until we met up with our makeshift fuel stop at the intersection of two tracks I had not seen another soul outside of our own group all day.The fuel drop was required as only GS Adventures would have the 400+ km fuel range to make it through to camp safely, the rest of us had our steeds replenished with ten-litres each poured from jerry cans.
The remainder of the day was on wide and quite reasonable tracks, but they still had the odd patch of bull-dust to keep you on your toes.
Our stop for the night was the Peterborough Caravan Park. Peterborough itself is a traditional old-style Australian country town. With a quite charming main street lined by pubs and buildings with balconies. The Indian Pacific train no longer stops in Peterborough so the lifeblood of the town these days relies primarily on grey nomad tourism.
Tents and swags were unpacked before tales were told around the campfire while the local RSL served up dinner out of a makeshift canteen erected in the grounds.
GS Safari Enduro Day Two Peterborough to Arkaroola – 459 km
Riders woke up to another brisk morning as the smell of bacon and eggs prevaded the air as again the men and women from the local RSL prepared breakfast. Coffee was served for those that require caffeine to function of a morning, while camp was packed up ahead of another big day on the bikes.
Heading out past Black Rock Conservation Area we then traversed a series of twisty tracks that criss-crossed private land holdings. It felt like I opened and shut about fifty gates, which turned out to be good stretching practice as I swung a leg over the R 1250 GS Rallye X each time.
Lunch and fuel was at Hawker, a town with a permanent residence of around 350, but frequented by many travellers as they make their way up into the Flinders Ranges.
The terrain heading in and out of Hawker is rugged and rocky, but remarkably this 140-year-old town is only just over an hour from the sea where the Indian Ocean juts into the warm embrace of Spencer Gulf.
Heading north after lunch saw us bomb along a quite enjoyable few kilometres of winding bitumen. ESA into Dynamic and ride mode ‘Sport’ it would have been quite easy to make short work of the rear Metzeler Karoo III hoop.
Still it was nice for a moment to flow along a lovely bit of tarmac with the edge of the Flinders Ranges a stunning backdrop to our west.
We passed Wilpena Pound but instead of heading towards Blinman we turned west on to tracks that led us to Wirrealpa Rd.
This was easy enough going but then later in the day we deviated in to Nantawarrina Aboriginal territory. These were some tight and at times quite technical trails before joining the main tracks towards Arkaroola.
The terrain through Nantawarrina would be truly something incredible to behold after any major rains. The downside would be though that the tracks would also become incredibly difficult and in any truly major downpours would be impassable.
There were a few spots along here though where I wouldn’t have minded being stranded, as long as I had a swag on the back, a bit of tucker and a cask of chateau de cardboard, I would have been well set.In some of my earlier adventures throughout Western Australia I have been known to blow up the empty wine bladder from the cask and used it as a pillow of an evening! #multitasking #class
Instead we were set for proper beds at Arkaroola, a modern oasis suddenly appeared in the desert complete with a large bar….well all but one of us anyway…
One poor fella had suffered a broken ankle, along with a few other injuries in an afternoon crash and was being prepared for a medical evacuation. Royal Flying Doctor Service is your only hope of getting to a hospital out here, and even then it can take 12-24 hours for them to get to you…
GS Safari Enduro Day Three Arkaroola Loop – 122 km
GS Safari Enduro riders had the option of either using this as a rest day, or heading out to explore some tracks in the Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges. It was nice not to have break camp at the crack of dawn.
How were the the rivulets and landscape around Arkaroola created..? Well according to Adnyamathanha dreamtime stories, a mythical giant creature named Arkaroo drank the nearby Lake Frome dry before then proceeding to climb up into the mountains before then pissing it all out, thereby creating Arkaroola Creek…. Don’t know exactly what herbs were growing in the area when that was dreamed up…
The area was first settled by Europeans as a mining area in 1860 before major drought saw the settlers pull up stumps in 1863. It was not until the early 1900s that white settlement started again and the catalyst for that happening was the discovery of rich deposits of rubies and sapphires. Uranium was then discovered in the area by Douglas Mawson, a great man more well known for his exploits in Antarctica than in the outback.
Uranium was almost the death of the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary that had been developed in the area by geologist Reg Sprigg in 1968. Sprigg had purchased a 610 square-kilometre lease on the land but it was not until 2011 that this area was well and truly protected from mining. The South Australian government enacted special purpose legislation prohibiting mining, mining exploration and grazing amidst the Arkaroola ranges. The South Australian populace had been up in arms after a mining company had dumped radioactive waste in the region after exploratory drilling which forced the government to act.
While the miners are not welcome, motorcyclists and four-wheel-drive enthusiasts certainly are and Arkaroola has a network of tracks that can test just about anyone’s mettle.
There were a few riders that wished they had taken the option of sitting the day out as the dry conditions caused some of the planned routes to be quite a bit more treacherous than expected. There were also countless punctures from the sharp and jagged rocks.
Still, as a testament to the communal effort, everyone survived the day to work up a hearty thirst for the nights BBQ dinner.
GS Safari Enduro Day Four Arkaroola to William Creek – 450km
A generous breakfast from the Arkaroola Village kitchen had the riders well prepared for two options, a testing back exit from Arkaroola, or a run back out from Arkaroola the way we had come in.
Bravely, most riders plumped for the harder option, they had come to to put the ‘Enduro’ in GS Safari after all and despite the difficulty, many were really relishing the challenge and enjoying putting themselves and their machines to the test. I mean what better time to do it? On Safari you have medical and technical back-up, along with 80 or so helpers should you get in way too deep.
Thus some were more tired than others as we rolled into Copley for a pie and some fuel before what was perhaps the only real mundane part of the experience over the first few days.A 100km or so of bitumen took us into Marree and the terrain was starting to become flatter as we progressed and left the ranges in the dust behind us.
We then joined the Oodnadatta Track for an easy roll into William Creek for the night.
Accomodation here was primarily in shared dongers and the William Creek Hotel was hit hard by all and sundry.
The biggest lamb shanks I have ever seen were served up for dinner and were washed down with many a beer.
Everyone was in good spirits and I heard there might have been a few middle aged men that stripped off a few clothes and danced on the bar! Allegedly!
When it came for closing time more than a few of the GS Safari boys were not done. A hat was passed around to come up with enough cash to talk the two ladies behind the bar in to working late. The figure rasied was, allegedly, over $500….But what happens in the bush stays in the bush….Sometimes…. My silence can be bought…. LOL
GS Safari Enduro Day Five William Creek to Mount Dare – 460 km
The next morning we worked our way north on the Oodnadatta Track towards, funnily enough, Oodnadatta…
I have done this track a few times and mostly it has been really easy going, two-wheel drive car type easy going, but it was in a shitful state the day we traversed it.
Loose gravel sections everywhere ,with mounds pushed up either side of wheel tracks, turned what would normally have been a relaxing cruise, into something that could go pear shaped awful quickly from any momentary lapse of attention.One rim got squashed so badly from a rock impact it was beyond repair and had to be replaced by the support crew.
Not far out of Oodnadatta we turned right on Mount Dare Road. This was a proper flat and barren landscape like something out of a movie set on Mars. I say Mars as that is known as the red planet and this terrain had pretty much every shade of red known to man.
All except for one spring fed oasis that appeared like a a hallucination as it had been so long since we had seen any body of water. This beautiful spot appeared in what felt like the middle of nowhere thus I had to stop for a photo, gee the flies were friendly!
This is known as Eringa Waterhole in the outback area known as Marla. It was originally part of Eringa Station which was established in the 1870s before being purchased by Sidney Kidman in 1899. Station buildings are now derelict and the land is now part of the greater Hamilton Station.
Others that passed through when we did said they had never seen the waterhole that dry, and that it normally stretches right out to the dip in the road we traversed through Witjira National Park on our way to Mount Dare for the night.
It was a truly magical contrast after miles and miles of largely nothing to have this amazing gum tree lined waterhole appear out of the dust.
We then continued on through a few sandy sections before arriving at Mount Dare where we made camp for the night. Mount Dare consists of a pub on the edge of the Simpson Desert with a couple of fuel bowsers, and that’s about it…
Sounds like a recipe for a good time, although this fella at the bar was quite rude and demanding at times.
It was an earlier one for most as we crawled into our respective swags or tents for the night.
One fella though had a pretty big off before Mount Dare. His Shoei Hornet helmet clearly saved his life. His head had visible marks all across one side where the patterns from the padding inside the helmet had compressed and spread the impact load right across the side of his head. I have never seen anything like it. Come morning those marks were purple lines of bruising. The accompanying GS Safari medics checked him over and gave him the all clear. He liked his Shoei Hornet before, but is now a sworn Shoei customer for life.
GS Safari Enduro Day Six Mount Dare to Alice Springs – 577 km
Day six was always going to be a litmus test for some, those that were brave enough to attempt the Finke access track after lunch were in for a real challenge.
But it turned out that everyone was going to have to negotiate some long and soft sand sections, complete with some testing sand drifts, as Abminga Road presented much more of a challenge than expected even before we got to Finke.
There were plenty of falls but no injuries and everyone rolled into Finke in good shape. I was in early so was lucky enough to get some of the last litres of fuel from the Finke Service Station tanks before they ran dry….
Those on the big tank Adventure models would be okay from here but anyone on a regular GS was going to need fuel. Fuel bladders were emptied and nearly all the remaining gerry cans from the support vehicles were drained to give everyone enough fuel to make it to the next stop.
From here everyone had a decision to make. Take the easier option, which still had enough hazards to keep you on your toes, or attempt the infamous Finke Track. Around a quarter of the riders decided to take the hard option.
I was in two minds at this point. I honestly had hardly really raised a sweat all week, had not come close to falling off, and had picked up many fallen riders through the sand sections that I had sailed through.
But there is sand, and then there is ‘sand’… Would the track be in good shape, or would it be chopped up and really, really soft?I was ready to take the simpler option, to be on the safe side, but a few riders that had ridden with me during the week boosted me up enough to take on the challenge. I should have taken the easier option.
Only a few kilometres into the track the sand was diabolical. The fact that it was deep was okay, sort of, the real problem was how chopped up and messy it was.To ride sand like this you have to be on the pipe, so to speak. Weight back and power on as the bike pretty much wriggles all over the place and follows whatever is the course of least resistance.
Now on a 120 kg enduro bike that is fair enough, but it does take some proper confidence and balls to hold it on when 240 kg of GS is threatening to batter you into the sand every few seconds. It also takes fitness, and 15km in I was done. I hadn’t crashed, but I was going to, and thus I thought it best to pull out and ride the 15km back out, rather than end up being evacuated by chopper or support vehicle. There was another 180km of that track to go, in what could have been the same, or perhaps even worse conditions.
I pulled up and spoke to the chase four-wheel-drive and the decision was made that we would try and ride the bike back out and let those up ahead know that I was going back out and switching to Option B. We had not stopped long before a lead rider came back, and then another lead rider came back. It turned out that in fact more than half of the group were in real trouble a few kilometres further on. The decision to abandon the attempt was made. But we still had to get back out the way we came, which was quite a challenge in itself. The track now even more chopped up than it had been when we went in.
We regrouped back at Finke and then headed out on a long gravel track towards Kulgera Roadhouse. Here we refuelled the bike and ourselves. A few riders had suffered punctures on the run out from Finke, and more yet then suffered punctures on the final highway run up to Alice Springs.
There is no reliable measure of how many puncture repairs were made during the week but we are talking triple digits.
The guys in the support truck, primarily Stu Tait, had completed 148 tyre changes throughout the trip. When on the clock he got it down to under four-minutes! He had worked harder than any of us!
The wind-up dinner in Alice Springs was a celebratory affair tinged with a note of sadness that it was all over. Most were flying out from here, their bikes being transported back to their chosen port of origin, but many still had to ride 2000 kilometres or more to get home.
Among them was the fella that had smacked his head real hard on day five. His helmet looked reasonably okay, externally, but it had clearly done its job and would have had no more compression inside left to give. He still had a few thousand kilometre ride home to do and I could not, in good conscience, let him ride that distance in a helmet that was no longer fit for purpose, so handed him my own Shoei to make his way home in. My good deed done for the day, but so many on Safari had done plenty of favours for others. It was just another gesture in the spirit of the event.
Another rider also taking the long way home was relatively new to motorcycling and had just completed GS Safari Enduro on a G 310 GS! Read Nick’s story here, it is a cracker!
Only a fairly recent convert to GS riding, after riding motocross as a junior and then turning his hand at enduro, 25-year-old Tysen Haley was the youngest on Safari.
At the other end of the scale was 66-year-old Paul Malcolm. However, most riders were closer to Paul in age than Tysen, as the average across all participants was 56. An old man’s game then? Certainly not, it is just that until people get to that age it can be a struggle to come up with the disposable money to buy a late model adventure bike, and also be able to find the time off from work and away from their family.
All in all it was a great experience, on a great motorcycle, in great company and with a great support team backing us up.Of course you could do this kind of trip on an old XT Yamaha or the like, camping all the way and also having a great time. But there really is nothing like taking on this type of trek on a big adventure bike like the GS.
Especially when on the straight bits you can set the ESA to its plushest mode and just roll on in relative comfort. That’s sort of important now that I am not as young as what I was when exploring the Pilbara on an old XT more than 25 years ago.
Although some view New Jersey as home to just oil refineries, highways and urban/suburban sprawl devoid of good motorcycling opportunities, nothing could be further from the truth. New Jersey has counties with miles of backcountry roads to explore. Two of the best are Sussex and Warren in the Skylands Region, where country roads serpentine and roll past farmlands, forests and small towns, and through thousands of acres of state parkland, making for a memorable and scenic favorite ride.
I began my tour in West Milford at the base of Bearfort Mountain. My 1,700cc Kawasaki Voyager comfortably climbed the snaking Warwick Turnpike into the mountains of Abram S. Hewitt State Forest, passing the shimmering waters of Upper Greenwood Lake and the 34,350-acre Wawayanda State Park, which offers swimming, boating, hiking and picnicking opportunities.
After Wawayanda, you cross into New York for a few miles but as my friend, Too Cool Drew, always says, “Just looks like more of Jersey to me.” For a nice view, make a left at the Warwick Conference Center sign onto Hoyt Road and stop at the parking lot of the Mulder Chapel. Mountains and farms spread out like a colorful quilt. From there, continue on Hoyt Road to Route 94 south and back into New Jersey.
Sailing through Vernon Valley on the hilly curves of Route 94, ringed by mountains and embraced by farmland, is one nice ride. Heaven Hill Farm offers multiple farm experiences, plus amusement park rides during fall weekends. At Vernon Crossing Road/Route 644, I turned right and then connected with Route 517 north, continuing my scenic exploration of Vernon Valley.
At the Pochuck Valley Farm Market (a great place for a respite, snack or lunch), I headed south on Route 565, a rollicking road where I was tempted to “just roll that power on” (Bob Seger), but instead enjoyed the scenery at a cruising pace. Riding along the boundary of the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge, there are sweeping views of mountains and farms.
Route 628, another twisty road, leads west to Route 519 south, which weaves and rolls through Sussex and Warren counties. By this time, these beautiful roads had already filled me with contentment. I was in nirvana riding the countryside with my Voyager rumbling in my ears, the cool, fresh fall air caressing my lungs and the sun washing my face with warmth.
Stopping briefly at Space Farms Zoo & Museum, I viewed the bison herd from a side road. Space Farms also has more than 500 animals including tigers, bears, leopards and monkeys, among others. What might be of most interest to riders, however, is the museum of antique cars and motorcycles.
From here it was a straight run on Route 519 to Hope, established in 1769 as a planned community by German Moravians. Many of the original stone buildings still stand today, as does the Inn at Millrace Pond (my lunch stop), a former gristmill built in 1769. The entire town was listed in the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1973.
After lunch, I did a walkabout and imagined what it must have been like living here in the 1700s. Mounting my steel steed, I galloped north on Route 521, another premier road that weaves through Sussex and Warren counties. Recently repaved, it makes for a smooth ride. I stopped in Blairstown for gas and had a coffee at the famous Blairstown Diner, which appeared along with other sites in and around Blairstown in the 1980 “Friday the 13th” film starring Kevin Bacon.
Route 617 in Stillwater branches off Route 521, offering a more rustic ride before reconnecting with it. Also, recently repaved, 617 leads into the high country sooner, with views of the rocky cliffs of the Kittatinny Mountains as it serpentines beneath them. Route 521 joins U.S. Route 206 north, leading to a bumpy ride through Stokes State Forest to Sunrise Mountain and High Point State Park, a combined 31,504 acres of parkland. If you enjoy motorcycle camping, both parks have campsites, and Stokes also rents cabins and lean-tos. Several overlooks bless this route, and watch for wildlife – the parks abound with deer, hawks, bears and coyotes.
Sunrise Mountain gives an eagle-eye view looking east along the route traversed earlier on Route 519. However, the most encompassing panorama on the entire ride is from High Point Monument. The monument obelisk rises 220 feet into the heavens and was built to honor veterans. Even from the base, a three-state mountainous view of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York rolls across the horizon like ocean waves.
With the day growing late, I mounted my Voyager and headed home on Route 23 to Route 94. Images of all the great roads, farms, mountains and country churches flickered in my brain like an old time movie. And I was already looking forward to exploring New Jersey’s northwest counties once again.
Gassing up in the already-toasty Palm Desert morning sun, it is hard to imagine that I will be riding in the cool, tall pines in less than an hour, and visions of serpentine hairpins dance inside my steaming Shoei. The rapid elevation change on the famous (some would say infamous) California State Route 74 is a major part of its appeal to motorcyclists.
Route 74 is the stuff of motorcycling lore. This is not the Tail of the Dragon; it’s the whole mythological creature. The dragon’s head breathes fire into the Coachella Valley. Its claws cling resolutely to the rugged cliffs above the desert. Its wings spread into the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains, and its coiled tail cascades down the Santa Ana Mountains to dip in the cool waters of the Pacific. OK, enough metaphor, let’s get this ride started.
Palms to Pines
Yes, summer is hot in the Coachella Valley desert. The upside to spending time in the upscale town of Palm Desert in the dog days is that as the mercury rises, the resort prices plummet. I am fresh off a great night’s sleep in an air-conditioned suite that cost me a fraction of what it would have in the winter. I’ve chosen Palm Desert as my staging point since it is the true gateway to the mountains through which Route 74 carves.
I ride on palm-lined streets skirted by sprawling golf resorts on my way to the base of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains. Just as the road starts to coil, I pass a sign that warns of “Sharp Curves and Steep Grades.” While motorcyclists consider that kind of verbiage an advertisement, not warning, it is a prologue that should be read earnestly by those of us on two wheels. There will be several subtle and not-so-subtle reminders along this westward trek that the 74 is a route that demands respect.
Route 74 starts with a bang. The hairpins that grace the mountains climbing out of the desert are remarkably tight. I carve through gray rocks and increasing foliage as I use only the lower gears on the big BMW GS. There are numerous pullouts for slow vehicles, but I encounter few of those as I got an early morning start on this mid-week day. The road is well-paved and narrow. The sheer number of curves as well as the variety of turn types requires me to stay vigilant.
After about a dozen miles of these supremely entertaining curves, I roll upon the Coachella Valley Vista Point. It is not often that a rider gets to relive a great stretch of road so immediately. Looking down from the vista point, the road I just traveled resembles that ribbon candy that so many of us found in our Christmas stockings as children. When I can finally stop staring at the serpentine asphalt, I raise my gaze to a truly impressive and panoramic view of the vast desert valley from which I have just ascended. As I walk away from the rock wall of the overlook, I notice a bronze placard on a granite stone. The sign is an eloquent plea for motorists to respect the road and ride or drive safely. A second powerful reminder.
After the viewpoint, the winding road continues for several miles before the route relaxes a bit on the mountaintop. The road is now lined not by palms, but rather by towering pines. This part of Route 74 carries the name “Palms to Pines Scenic Highway” for good reason. At one point, I intersect the Pacific Crest Trail, which has enticed distance hikers and soul-searchers for decades. The PCT is the setting for the intriguing movie “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon. The film is based on a memoir of self-discovery and healing by Cheryl Strayed.
More mountain riding leads me past the blue waters of Lake Hemet. The morning shadows shiver on the lake’s glassy surface as I stop for a look. I chat with a maintenance worker who tells me the lake is a favorite for some “Hollywood folks” like Halle Berry and the Kardashians.
There are some small clusters of mountain cabins as I continue. Crisp, cool air blows through my mesh riding jacket and I notice that the bike’s display indicates an air temperature of 66 degrees. I can’t help thinking back to how that same instrument was reading 92 as I pulled out of Palm Desert earlier in the morning.
I reach a crossroads at the tiny community of Mountain Center. A left turn at the Y spells the continuation of Route 74. A right turn leads to another leg of the Palms to Pines Scenic Highway. While my ultimate goal in this tour is to find my way to the Pacific on Route 74, I can’t resist the temptation of sampling the curves on an out-and-back jaunt on Route 243. As I trace my way to and through the mountain community of Idyllwild, I am supremely glad I took this side adventure. I ride about 25 miles toward Banning before retracing my curvaceous path back to Route 74. Fifty miles well spent.
Back on my intended path, I embark on a spirited descent off the mountain range. After riding more miles through the conifer-rich environment, I roll into a wide valley. The San Jacinto Valley rests as the midpoint of this ride. To extend that early metaphor, this is the saddle on the back of the dragon. The valley city of Hemet serves as my stop for a spot of lunch and a bit of map study before the next leg of my westward ride to the sea.
Ortega Highway to the Sea
For a while after Hemet, Route 74 becomes flat and sedate as it cuts through the communities, farms and ranches in the San Jacinto Valley. It even blends with Interstate 215 for a brief stretch. However, after ducking under Interstate 15, the fun begins again as I embark on the segment of the road that carries the Ortega Highway designation.
This portion of the ride begins with a little reflection and reminiscing for me. I pull into The Lookout Roadhouse, which is a popular stop for motorcyclists either before or after riding the Ortega Highway. I take a seat on the rocks outside the tiny diner and gaze down at the expansive Lake Elsinore. Yes, Lake Elsinore was the setting for much of the action in the ultra-classic, maybe quintessential, motorcycle movie “On Any Sunday.” As a preteen, the 1971, Bruce Brown-directed movie stoked my burning, lifelong passion for motorcycling. The place also served as the inspiration for the naming of the sport-changing Honda Elsinore motocross bike. That screaming machine became one of the unattainable objects of my adolescent desire (the one that didn’t wear cutoff jeans and halter tops).
When I finally pull myself away from visions of Steve McQueen, Malcolm Smith and silver Honda 2-strokes, I am ready to tackle the Ortega Highway. I am fully aware that the Ortega has a reputation – not just for great curves, but also for a healthy dose of danger. It has even been purported to be haunted. I stop at a sign beside the road placed there by the family of a fallen rider. It is yet another reminder that discretion, attention and moderation are needed on this road. This stretch of Route 74 has had more than its share of motorcycle tragedies over the years. It is something that I will keep in the forefront of my mind as I ride to the Pacific.
The Ortega is every bit as fun and challenging as the eastern Palms to Pines segment. I find the road surface a bit more variable than in the mountains east of Hemet. Some of the turns are deceptively tight. A road feature that I find reassuring is the inclusion of a heavy rumble strip between the yellow lines in the center of the road. It is a noisy reminder for cars and trucks to stay on their side.
The ride in the Cleveland National Forest is beautiful. A mix of pines, massive oaks and thick underbrush line the wandering tarmac as it passes through the Santa Ana Mountains. This heavily wooded but dry forest is particularly susceptible to massive wildfires and I ride by several “extreme fire danger” signs. I also ride intermittently beside creeks, rivers and small lakes. There are lots of reasons to stop, look and refocus before continuing the descent toward the Pacific on this western incarnation of the dragon’s tail.
My mountain ride becomes decidedly more urban as I approach the ocean. I ride though San Juan Capistrano before making my final roll into the beautiful Dana Point Harbor. I let the BMW rest in the shade of the palm trees of Doheny State Beach as I watch the surfers pulling their boards from car tops. “On Any Sunday” meets “The Endless Summer.” Documentarian Bruce Brown would be proud.
Riding California Route 74 is a motorcyclist’s dream. The diversity, the views, the curves and the thrills are magnetic. It is a ride that demands your respect, attention and discretion, but the payoff is one of the best motorcycle adventures in the West.
I knew I’d stumbled onto someplace…different…when I pulled into the packed dirt parking lot of the Nipton Trading Post, and it wasn’t just the huge glass octopus sculpture wriggling next to the highway. I rolled to a stop next to the five-room adobe hotel, which was built in 1910, almost startled by the silence after switching off the rumbling Indian Scout.
I could smell the hot, dusty leather of my saddlebags, and was very much aware of the crunching of sand and rock beneath my boots as I stood and swung a leg, stiff from hours of slogging across the desert, over my luggage roll and backrest. My skin tingled – someone was watching me.
For a few fleeting moments I was in another time, a wandering cowgirl who just rode into an unfamiliar – and dangerously quiet – town. A tumbleweed staggered across the empty dirt street to the theme from “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”…OK, maybe that last bit was just in my head. I doffed my hat – er, helmet – squinting in the harsh desert light, and turned to see that I was far from alone, and yes, I had definitely attracted some attention.
Two middle-aged guys got out of a fire engine red ’65 Mustang convertible and were walking toward me, clearly curious about my equally iconic motorcycle. Past them, clustered around the railroad tracks, was a team – posse? – of photographers and assistants, all focused on a blonde woman in a gauzy dress, prancing up and down on the tracks. Based on the tour bus parked in the shade I deduced this was an album cover photo shoot.
I stood for a moment, taking in the rest of the tiny settlement of Nipton: the aforementioned hotel, a restaurant called the Whistle Stop Café, a trading post, a historical marker and a few houses. Farther out in the scrubby desert, past the hotel, I glimpsed a scattering of white teepees, along with a brightly painted old car and what appeared to be metal sculptures. Yep, this is the place.
Nipton, California, current population somewhere between 15 and 20 souls, was founded in 1905 as a stop on the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad, which merged with the Union Pacific Railroad in 1910. It feels very much in the middle of nowhere, despite being just 12 miles southeast of the bright casinos of Primm, Nevada, but positioned as it is on a lonely two-lane state highway in the Mojave Desert, it’s definitely off the beaten path.
I was heading to Las Vegas for a karate tournament on a 2019 Indian Scout that we’d outfitted with some touring accessories, and rather than just slab it the whole way I’d booked a night in Nipton. This put me in an ideal position for a nice ride up to the Hoover Dam and then north into Valley of Fire State Park, before dropping into Sin City to get my butt kicked at the tournament.
Nipton’s location is convenient for a journey into the desert, be it the nearby Mojave National Preserve, Lake Mead or Lake Havasu, or the motorcycle destination of Laughlin. And its quirkiness appealed: accommodations include the old hotel, little “ecocabins” or, my choice, teepees. The ecocabins and teepees are solar-powered, just enough to run the interior lights and to charge your phone, but there are no TVs. The cabins are heated in the winter with woodstoves and the teepees have little propane heaters, but the weather during my visit in late April was warm enough that the provided blankets were plenty comfortable.
I was up with the sun the next morning, wanting to get to Boulder City, the gateway to Lake Mead and the awe-inspiring Hoover Dam, for breakfast. I’d already put 263 mostly freeway miles behind me the day before, and was settling into familiarity with the Scout, which we accessorized with Indian’s 19-inch Quick Release Windshield, sumptuous Desert Tan leather saddlebags and a matching rider backrest. My karate gear took up one whole saddlebag, my street clothes and toiletries the other, so I strapped a duffel across the back to hold my camera gear.
Indian’s Scout (read our full review here) is a Goldilocks weekend tourer for someone my size traveling one-up, with an easy-to-handle wet weight of 591 lbs. (as tested), plenty of cruising and passing power, adjustable ergonomics for reduced or extended reach and a smoothly loping cadence from the liquid-cooled 69ci (1,133cc) 60-degree V-twin that produced little in the way of nuisance vibration.
That is, as long as you don’t mind stopping often for fuel; I averaged 46.6 mpg from the 3.3-gallon tank, meaning 154 miles was my limit. In the lonely desert, that translates to “fill up whenever you can,” especially since the analog/LCD instrument lacks both a fuel gauge and fuel consumption data. Otherwise, the windshield causes the fat front tire to wander a bit at times, progressing from a minor annoyance to more a disconcerting experience in a stiff crosswind, but overall I was enjoying my ride on the Scout.
It’s also undeniably pretty, especially in the Indian Red/Thunder Black livery with gold pinstriping and feathered headdress Indian graphics that accentuate the Desert Tan seat, backrest and saddlebags. As I snapped roadside photos at the Hoover Dam, the new Mike O’Callaghan/Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge arcing overhead, many a passing driver’s head swiveled at the bike in appreciation. Completed in 1936, the dam still produces power for California, Nevada and Arizona, although falling water levels in Lake Mead have affected how much it can output.
From there I cruised north through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and then into Valley of Fire State Park. Valley of Fire, as its name suggests, is full of interesting and beautiful red rock formations, and there are plenty of pullouts with picnic tables and hiking trails where you can stop and stretch your legs. I turned north at the Visitor Center for a ride into the heart of the park, the road dipping, climbing and weaving through a Technicolor landscape of eroded sandstone that’s more than 150 million years old.
Tourist traffic can be heavy, especially through this section, and there are several blind, off-camber turns that can catch you off-guard, so I was happy to putt along and enjoy the scenery, my dance with the Scout a gentle sway. At 5 feet, 9 inches, I found the standard riding position to be comfortably feet-forward; shorter and taller riders may opt for the reduced or extended reach ergo kits to tailor the bike to their needs.
In fact, I was enjoying myself so much that when Scout and I returned to I-15 on the west side of the park, for a moment I wished I could turn north and continue exploring the desert’s hidden secrets, perhaps discovering more gems like Nipton. But I had made a commitment, so south to Las Vegas it was. Still, there are more roads and more secrets to uncover…where should I point my front wheel next?
2019 Indian Scout Specs
Base Price: $11,999 Price as Tested: $15,804 (paint, windshield, backrest and saddlebags) Website:indianmotorcycle.com Engine Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse 60-degree V-twin, DOHC, 4 valves per cyl. Displacement: 69 ci (1,133cc) Bore x Stroke: 99.0 x 73.6mm Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated wet clutch Final Drive: Belt Wheelbase: 61.5 in. Rake/Trail: 29 degrees/4.7 in. Seat Height: 26.5 in. Wet Weight: 591 lbs. (as tested) Fuel Capacity: 3.3 gals., last 0.5 gal. warning light on MPG: 91 AKI min. (low/avg/high) 41.4/46.6/54.4
If I could only make one ride in British Columbia, the Duffey Lake loop would be it. No other route boasts such diversity: a fjord walled by granite mountains, temperate rainforests and flowing glaciers, merging into a dry, semi-arid landscape of sagebrush and ponderosa pine, all on the doorstep of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Vancouver. I am not getting paid nearly enough to tell you about this gem, but journalists are their own worst enemies when it comes to holding back on a good thing.
Duffey Lake refers to the landmark close to midpoint on a loop tour that can be completed in about 10 hours at a steady pace, but is best done over two to three days, stopping to enjoy the scenery and locals, visit a winery and perhaps camp under a clear canopy of stars. The journey begins just northwest of Vancouver on Highway 99 – the Sea to Sky Highway – at postcard-perfect Horseshoe Bay, and continues northward alongside the sparkling fjord of Howe Sound lined by the Coast Mountains.
The highway was significantly upgraded for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and allows motorcyclists to zip along at a comfortable clip, watchful for police radar at the village of Lions Bay. Along the way, consider stopping to gawk at Shannon Falls, hopping on the Sea To Sky Gondola with its spectacular views or watching mountain climbers on the sheer granite walls of the famous Stawamus Chief.
Just ahead is the former logging town of Squamish, now a mecca for outdoor recreation, including kiteboarding at Squamish Spit. Café racers tend to gather at Starbucks, and cruisers at Howe Sound Brewing or Backcountry Brewing, the latter known for its amazing thin-crust pizza.
Road signs warn of black bears as you continue northward to North America’s top-rated ski resort, Whistler. This perfect little village makes for a great first night’s stay, with strolls through shops in the shadow of towering snow-topped peaks, but don’t expect heavy discounts in summer.
From Whistler, Highway 99 heads to the potato-growing Pemberton Valley, and your last chance for gas for about 60 miles as you proceed eastward through the aboriginal community of Lil’wat at Mount Currie. If you arrive in May you can even catch the community’s annual rodeo.
As you pass Lillooet Lake, the two-lane highway begins a steep, switchback ascent into high-elevation wilderness without a hint of commercialism. The road plateaus shortly after Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, a great spot for hikes to a series of lakes, backdropped by Matier Glacier. Don’t let the alpine vistas distract you from the job ahead: lots of twists and turns, with little in the way of shoulders and the potential for patches of loose gravel.
Duffey Lake is a jewel, and makes for a good photo stop at an elevation of about 4,000 feet. It can get cold here even on summer days so be prepared for changing conditions. Continuing eastward, alongside fast-flowing Cayoosh Creek you’ll find several rustic campgrounds, the best of which is Cottonwood, which offers well-tended outhouses, chopped firewood and an on-site caretaker.
You’ll notice some big changes continuing eastward: evergreen forests replaced by ponderosa pines, sagebrush and craggy rock bluffs, the weather becoming warmer and drier. Expect a stunning view of turquoise Seton Lake – and perhaps some mountain goats on the high cliffs – as you wind steeply downhill to Lillooet, an historic gold-rush town on the banks of British Columbia’s greatest river, the Fraser.
If you’re staying overnight, pick the newer rooms at the affordable 4 Pines Motel, just a block off Main Street. Try some wine tasting at Fort Berens Estate Winery across the river via the Bridge of the 23 Camels, a reference to some bizarre pack animals imported from Asia during the Cariboo Gold Rush of 1858. The Rugged Bean Café is your best bet in town for a soup-and-sandwich lunch.
You’ve now accomplished half of the Duffey Lake loop, and have three choices for the ride back to Vancouver. Street riders take Highway 12 along the east side of the Fraser Canyon to the Canadian hot spot of Lytton, watching carefully for hairpin turns and a landslide area where the highway is reduced to one lane.
One false move here and it’s a one-way trip down a steep embankment. At Lytton, take Highway 1 south to Vancouver, or divert to Highway 7 at Hope for a quieter alternative to the bustling freeway. Street riders might also consider doing the loop counterclockwise to avoid having the setting sun in their eyes for the last few hours.
Dual-sport bikes have a couple of gravel options at Lillooet. One is Texas Creek Road, on the west side of the Fraser Canyon, which passes through remote First Nation reserves perched on elevated benches of farmland that once formed the river bottom. Access Lytton via a fascinating, free “reaction ferry” that employs the power of the river to cross from one side to the other. Note that the service can be suspended during high waters of the spring freshet.
The second option for dual-sports is to head north from Lillooet via Bridge River Road, stopping in summer to watch the ancient scene of aboriginals catching migrating salmon to be hung from wooden drying racks. The gravel road boasts rugged scenery as it continues to Carpenter Lake, Bralorne and Gold Bridge before dropping down into the Pemberton Valley for the ride home on the Sea to Sky Highway.
Whichever route you choose, you won’t be disappointed. The diversity and isolation so close to a North American metropolis makes the Duffey Lake loop an unbeatable riding experience.