Labor Day weekend 2012 will go down in my personal record book as the most epic of motorcycle trips on MyConnie…so far. Four days of motorcycle camping from San Mateo, California to Eugene, Oregon and back, taking the best motorcycle roads in between. This was by far the most ambitious and arduous trip I have made on a bike in my life, racking up 1,455 miles and more than 29 hours in the saddle over four days.
This may not sound like a lot to members of the Iron Butt Association, but these weren’t just flat-out highway miles. We went out of our way to choose a route that wrung the best out of our bikes and riding skills. We started by planning the route around four goals: 1) visiting my son in Eugene, Oregon where he is starting freshman year as an University of Oregon “Duck,” 2) going to my Dad’s property in Chiloquin, Oregon near Klamath Falls to put sealant on his roof prior to winter, 3) choosing awesome motorcycle roads that were recommended by Tim Mayhew of Pashnit.com, and 4) ending each day at a campground that had beer.
The third requirement was of particular interest to me because I am an avid reader of Pashnit’s California Motorcycle Roads website where I found that there were wonderful places in the state that I had never visited, all connected by roads that are great for bikes. The fourth and final requirement was at the request of my riding buddies who would go along with the interminably long days in the saddle, but only if they didn’t have to ride somewhere to have a beer and then ride back somewhere else to bed down for the night. SInce I was also trying to experience what motorcycle camping was like and cut down on lodging bills, this meant one thing: KOA Kampgrounds.
What’s not to love about a KOA? They have a store with ice cold beer, nice campsites, food within walking distance, online registration…oh, and did I mention ice cold beer? To top it off, the one we were going to stay at has an espresso machine and a gas pump. What more could three motorcyclists want?
We experienced some amazing motorcycle roads and some still more amazing scenery—learning a bit more about ourselves along the way. Here are the highlights of our adventure:
• Avenue of the Giants – Home of the giant redwoods
We decided to head north taking Highway 101 all the way to Fortuna and then turn east so that we could experience Highway 36 which drew raves on Pashnit.com. As we entered redwood country, we took a side-route called The Avenue of the Giants which parallels Highway 101 and crosses under it in serpentine fashion for about 20 miles or so. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous with massive redwoods trees, the largest living things on earth, lining both sides of the road. Here is a link to a brief video of us riding through the redwoods along The Avenue of the Giants.
• Highway 36 – One of the best motorcycle roads anywhere
250 miles north of San Francisco lies one of the most incredible motorcycle roads anywhere: Highway 36. This 150 mile long road connects the city of Eureka on the coast to Red Bluff in the central valley. Although highway 36 provides a handy connection between Interstate 5 and Highway 101, it doesn’t get much traffic. The lack of cars coupled with its near-new paving and perfectly engineered curves alone would make it one of the best motorcycle road I’ve ever ridden. However, its not just the banking and burning that makes this road THE best in my book, its the scenery along the way. Going from the coastal fog and redwoods, then through a tunnel of fern-like trees, then transitioning to rolling ranch lands, and then mountainous terrain would have been enough in and of itself to claim my top spot. But along the way you are also treated to absolutely idyllic sweeping views of high-country farms and ranches nestled in small valleys that butt up against steeply wooded mountains. The views were indeed breathtaking and highly recommended as a route you should plan to take someday.
One interesting item of note, at one point nearing the junction with Highway 3, we came across a sign that read, “Road Ends 500 Feet.” We thought, “What the heck?!” After riding about an hour and a half just to then find what seemed to be an impenetrable obstacle, we were dumfounded. As it turned out, the road wasn’t impenetrable, just incredibly nerve-wracking. There was road construction going on and for about a quarter mile. The asphalt had been removed and we were faced with what was essentially a gravel road. With no other real options, we sucked up our courage, stood up on our pegs, and let the bikes wiggle crazily beneath us as we drove slowly but confidently over the loose terrain. As it turned out, it was easy-cheesy, but something to remember for sure.
• Highway 3 – Gateway to the Trinity Alps
75 miles in from the coast Highway 36 connects with Highway 3 which heads north through the Trinity Alps. At the junction of the two roads is an unusually large triangular parking area right in the middle of the road which ended up being a nice place to stop for a brief rest. My buddy “Ace” found some previous hitchhiker’s cardboard sign and mugged for a photo expressing a sentiment that we all shared after seven hours in the saddle.
Highway 3 north through the Trinity Alps did not disappoint. Like Highway 36, it was a gorgeous road, both in ride-ability and scenery. It didn’t hurt that we were traveling during the time of day photographers know as “the golden hour” right before sundown. It was a strikingly beautiful day with the golden sun low in the sky at our backs or on our left, illuminating the mountains and small towns along the way. After winding an hour more along Highway 3 we rolled into the Trinity Lakes KOA “Kampground.” It was nice to find extremely pleasant staff, a well-stocked store, beer, ice, firewood and a nice little campsite for our three tents and bikes.
After a well-deserved meal at the adjacent food shack (pizza for me, fish ’n chips for Bocci and Ace), we built a fire and started settling in for the evening. The next morning, I woke before dawn to see if I could get any great photos of Trinity Lakes. It was a short mile walk to the shoreline, and I wasn’t disappointed when I was presented the setting moon over hills lit by morning glow.
I sought out a cup of espresso from the Kampground store, after which, we packed up camp, gassed up, and headed north up Highway 3 towards Yreka. We found that rolling through the Trinity Alps provided an entirely different environment than the rolling valleys of Highway 36. After emerging from the mountains, enjoying some wonderful curvy roads with sweeping vistas, we entered a very large flat high-altitude valley dotted with little towns. I had no idea that a mere 30 miles to the west of Highway 5 on the way to Oregon was this idyllic sub-alpine farming area. It was truly breathtaking to roll mile after mile through these valleys surrounded by mountains all around, and such a nice change from the monotonous drone of Highway 5, California’s main north-south route. I highly recommend taking Highway 3 if you are going from the San Francisco Bay Area to points in Oregon and can afford the extra time.
• Roseburg, Oregon – A quaint jewel along the Umpqua river
Nestled alongside Interstate 5 about halfway between the California border and Eugene, Oregon is Roseburg. This city of 21,000 was the waypoint we would use to head to Crater Lake the following day, but after many hours riding in 90 degree heat, we needed to find a watering hole somethin’ fierce. We could not have had better luck than when we stumbled into the B&M Tavern which was celebrating Cowboy Days. The people were friendly, the drinks were cold, and there was a huge spread of free food on the shuffleboard table. We enjoyed the funky cowboy-chic décor and cowboy songs being sung in the street outside for an hour and then saddled up for our last push towards Eugene.
• Eugene, Oregon – Home of the University of Oregon Ducks
It should not be left unsaid that Trinity Lakes to Eugene is a heck of a long distance—almost 300 miles, in fact. On the heels of a very long ride the day before, we thought that the run to Eugene would be a cake walk. It wasn’t. However, it certainly wasn’t a difficult ride. It was just 5.5 hours long, and 85 degrees hot. When we arrived in Eugene, we were ready to arrive in Eugene. Poor planning for that evening, though, left us in a no-tell motel in two “smoking allowed” rooms (yuck). We didn’t—I guess I should cop to “I” didn’t—prearrange a hotel room or campsite, and we happened to hit Eugene on a Ducks football game day. We were lucky we didn’t have to sleep in a park.
We had a great visit with my son after he got off of work delivering pizzas and he introduced us to Voodoo Doughnuts, an experience not to be missed. It seems like my 18 year old is settling into college life as a freshman nicely.
Oregon Hwy 138 – The Umpqua River Valley
After a more traditional yet excellent breakfast at Glenwood we got ready for our next destination: Crater Lake via the Umpqua River Valley. After copious goodbyes to my son, we rolled out of Eugene and down Highway 5 back towards Roseburg where we turned east on Highway 138 paralleling the Umpqua River.
I should mention that Oregon is a mecca for gorgeous motorcycle roads and we certainly spent too much time on Highway 5 when we could have been exploring other river valleys and redwood forests. But we only had four days and needed to accomplish certain goals, so we would just have to leave more Oregonian exploration for a later date.
Oregon Highway 138 towards Crater Lake through the Umpqua River Valley is a gorgeous route. There is a long section where the road is low, twisty and adjacent to the river, and other sections where we cut across vast forests at relatively high speed. All of this led us to the north entrance of Crater Lake National Park, but before we could get in, we found ourselves at the back of a long line of cars stopped dead on the highway. We were surprised at this, and decided that this many people must have the right idea, so we inched forward in line for 45 minutes just to pay our entrance fee to get into the park.
• Crater Lake – Deepest lake in America and possibly the most beautiful
The road to the crater is about ten miles that crosses pretty spectacular terrain. It leads up to the crater which rises above the valley floor and offers many vista points along its rim. We stopped at the first vista, climbed a sand hill, and found this waiting over the edge:
What a sight! We took a lot of photos at various points around the rim and then decided to skip the lodge as traffic was a mess. It was well worth the trip and the wait in line, though, for the sheer beauty of the lake. We stopped at the Annie Creek Restaurant and waited FOR-EVER for our food, which was mediocre at best. A much better idea would be to continue on to Highway 97, gas up and eat at the KlaMoYa Casino near Chiloquin.
Our goal in visiting the little village of Chiloquin was because I own property there which previously belonged to my parents, and their roof was in bad need of some sealer prior to winter. We quickly found that our bikes did not like the red rock road that led to the house as the Bimmer and MyConnie got stuck. So we hoofed it with my tools to the house and Ace—a contractor by trade—helped me out by shinnying up onto the roof without the help of a ladder and spread the gooey tar over the offending seam.
We finally extracted ourselves from the slippery red rocks by riding out into the meadow, working tenaciously to avoid the holes and cowpies that abounded under shin-high grass. It was already getting late in the afternoon and we had many miles to go to our next campsite, so we decided to leave a visit with the neighbors for my next trip and got back on the road towards Klamath Falls.
• Lava Beds National Monument – California’s overlooked pearl
We had reservations that night at the KOA in Mount Shasta but it was clear that we would arrive there many hours after dark if we stuck to our original route. So we elected to change our camping plans instead. We took Highway 97 down to Klamath Falls and then headed towards Highway 39 which eventually turns into Highway 139. We followed this in the waning light towards Lava Beds National Monument near Tule Lake now across the border in California. This ride would have been more enjoyable if we didn’t find ourselves racing dusk and trying to find the one campground listed in the odd lava beds park. It didn’t help that the visitor’s center and ranger hut were closed so we couldn’t even ask directions.
We accidentally split up for a short time and I found myself riding a causeway through the middle of Tule Lake trying to find the elusive campground. Do you know what you get at dusk next to a large shallow lake? BUGS! I don’t think I’ve ever tucked-in so tightly on MyConnie, trying to shield my helmet from this entomological onslaught.
After regrouping with my fellow riders, they led the way to the campground, but it was now very dark and we had to fumble our way around to find a site and then set up our tents. However, sometimes luck shines on the ill-prepared because we found a campsite that overlooked the lava beds area and were treated to a blood-red full moon, made that way by the smoke from many California wildfires raging in nearby counties. We came to find out from the campground host that this was the only site left, and it was the best of the lot. And although there was no store with cold beer, there was a nice, clean bathroom building and someone kindly left firewood at our site which Bocci quickly lit ablaze with some help from his camp stove gas. We dined on turkey chili, beef jerky and washed it down with hot chocolate—all-in-all, a nice end to a long day.
At dawn, the views were amazing. We came to find out that there are over 700 lava tubes in the national monument area, 25 of which are open to the public and have trails leading through them. Two campers on adventure bikes told us of one caves is 1.5 miles long with ice in the bottom! This is an area we definitely want to visit again to do some exploring. Not only to see more of this unique geology, but also to experience the incredible light of dawn over the lava beds one more time.
• The Modoc Plateau – California’s upper right corner
After our last night camping, it was time to head home. We split up with Ace leaving shortly after dawn and heading south and west towards the Bay Area via a more-or-less direct route. Bocci and I took our time breaking camp and headed out of the back side of the lava beds towards Highway 139. The road leading out of lava beds monument area is not often used, and although completely paved, has a plethora of potholes and cracks with vegetation growing through. It was no problem at all, but considering we hadn’t done this before, we were worried that we were heading down a rat hole and that we might not easily get out without backtracking. As luck would have it, we connected with Highway 139 and got to see some mule deer and bunnies along the way.
One disappointment was that we didn’t have time to get to Glass Mountain, an entire mountain made of large chunks of obsidian. Not only were we not sure of how to get there, but we knew that the last couple of miles to its over 7,000 foot peak were a dirt and gravel road. So we decided to “punt” on Glass Mountain this time, but affirmed our desire to return there in the not-too-distant future.
Turning south on Highway 139 led us on a high-speed trip through beautiful high country ranch land for quite some distance. We came to a decision point of whether to head west down Highway 299 towards Mount Lassen, or to head east towards Alturas and Highway 395. Bocci’s less-than-bottomless fuel tank on the Triumph made the decision for us as it was only 20 miles to Alturas, so off we went in search of gasoline.
We noticed on Highway 139 and then on the road to Alturas that most of the cars traveling in the opposite direction were all covered with white dust. I noticed this but didn’t think much about it until we reached the gas station. After refueling, I went into the store to buy a map. In walked a very attractive young woman wearing an abbreviated halter and Daisy Dukes. Most notably, she had a foxtail clipped to her backside and was covered with the same white dust that we had seen on the passing traffic. Hmmmmmm…what was going on here?
As I exited the store, we noticed a few other strangely dressed individuals and a large van that had the eastern-Indian greeting “Namasté” emblazoned across the hood. Finally it hit me, these people were all returning from Burning Man! I have heard a lot about this festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert where 50,000 people converge to create a sustainable “city” for one week and then leave without any trace that they had been there. I aspire to attend Burning Map someday, but the exhausted look on the white dust-coated people’s faces may make me rethink that position. My main regret now is that I didn’t have the presence of mind to take photos of these desertified miscreants before we left.
Rather than backtrack towards Lassen, we decided to run directly south on Highway 395 to Susanville and then head south and west first on Highway 36, and then on Highway 32 to Chico which sits astride Highway 99. One thing was sure, we were still a very long way from the Bay Area and needed to let our war ponies run.
The run from Alturas to Susanville leads across the Modoc Plateau, a mile-high expanse of lava flows, cinder cones, juniper flats, pine forests, and seasonal lakes. Highway 395 here is dead straight with only intermittent towns along the way. The flat, straight roads and 90 degree heat led to our decision to make the hundred mile run to Susanville a constant 80 mph. Never having been to this part of California before, I was struck with the immensity of the surrounding land and just how remote it was from where most people traverse the state. I’m sure the Modoc Plateau holds many more treasures that we will explore on future trips.
• The High Sierras – The mountains in my back yard
After reaching Susanville and having a very nice lunch at the Chinese Kitchen, we headed off to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains. We would have liked to have gone through the heart of Lassen National Forest, but different wildfires were still being contained so we consulted the California statewide fire map and devised a route around them because we wanted to avoid any entanglements with fire crews. As it turned out, we found a beautiful route back to the central valley passing by the north shore of Lake Almanor and then down through spectacular pine forests to the town of Chico.
• The “Back Way” Home – Taking roads less travelled
Because this was Labor Day, we were worried about hitting holiday traffic and therefore were seeking any alternate routes we could think of to avoid it. As it turned out, we lucked upon an absolutely great way to get close to the last jump into San Francisco without suffering holiday traffic and while enjoying beautiful scenery along the way. Here’s how: From Chico, take Highway 99 south to Yuba City. Then head west briefly on Highway 20, the Colusa Highway, until you can turn south on Highway 113. Continue all the way on 113 until the city of Davis, then you can hop on Interstate 80 towards San Francisco. You will love the rural beauty of this route which is surprisingly fast.
Bocci and I finally did run into holiday traffic at Vacaville where there was a big traffic jam. We did a little end-around using Google maps and surface streets and eventually got back on track. Our fourth day ended when I arrived home around 9:00 P.M. thoroughly exhausted but exhilarated as well.
Looking back over the previous four days I was just amazed at the different climates and types of geography we traversed. And this from a native Californian who has traveled extensively throughout the state and thought he knew most of its attractions. What I learned is that there is much more to the Golden State than what lies close to major points of interest such as Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and Disneyland. And for those willing to explore on two wheels, there is yet a wide wonderful world to discover within their easy reach while enjoying the journey as much as reaching the destination.
I find myself now less interested in planning for trips to faraway lands and intrigued instead with thoughts of Death Valley, the Salton Sea, Desolation Wilderness, Plumas National Forest, Glass Mountain, Lassen National Park, Big Sur and all points in between. We Californians are truly blessed to enjoy topography this spectacular and year ’round riding weather to keep enjoying it all.
I think I’ll now log in to Pashnit.com and start planning my next adventure.
Friday August 31st — Monday September 3rd, 2012
1,455 miles ( day 1 = 424, day 2 = 293, day 3 = 289, day 4 = 449 )
– 2001 Kawasaki Concours ZG1000
– 2010 Triumph Bonneville T100
– 1998 BMW R1100RT
Day One: San Mateo > Trinity Lake KOA Campground = 424 Miles @ 8.5 hours
Click here for Google map
Day Two: Trinity Lake KOA Campground > Eugene, Oregon = 293 Miles @ 5.5 hours
Click here for Google map
Day Three: Eugene, OR > Lava Beds Nat’l Monument = 289 Miles – 6.25 hours
Click here for Google map
Day Four: Lava Beds Nat’l Monument > San Mateo, CA = 449 Miles @ 8.75 hours
Click here for Google map
Additional Trip Photos: