Stop and Smell the Roses: Lonely Roads in Oregon and Northern California

Northern California Oregon motorcycle ride
California’s north coast offers a wealth of magnificent ocean views that rival the more well-known Big Sur coastline. Photos by the author and Mark Homchick.

How often have you handed out this pearl of wisdom: “stop and smell the roses”? Plenty of times, right? Now the harder question. How many times have you actually followed this advice? If you’re like me, the answer is not very often. In fact, hardly ever. Guilty as charged, I decided to remedy this situation with a long-overdue ride.

I set out with no timetable, no agenda, other than to stop in on two friends to whom I repeatedly made vague promises to visit over the years. With one living in Northern California’s Sonoma County and the second living in southern Oregon, the door waggled wide open to a wealth of fantastic, deserted riding roads.

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

My tale of wanderings begins in Windsor, a small town adjacent to the better-known wine destination of Healdsburg. This area sits just far enough north of the San Francisco Bay Area to weed out most casual traffic. Having lived here for a number of years, my pal Mark Homchick had the surroundings well scouted. Mark and I enjoy a long friendship reaching back to our days on staff at “Cycle” magazine. A former pro road racer, Mark’s tempered his competitive instincts over the years and “just putts” during street rides now—not always the case with ex-racers. An exceptionally smooth and skilled rider, Mark’s flowing style makes every mile we share a genuine delight.

Northern California Oregon motorcycle ride
From Pope Valley to Happy Camp, once you’re off the beaten path in Northern California a motorcycle can transport you to uncounted hidden gems that forever enrich your memories.

On day one, Mark began our 200-mile loop by first meandering through vineyards—this area is home to more than 150 wineries!—a treat in itself. But I had no intention of sacrificing riding time to sip wine. That could come later, back at Homchick Manor. Roaming farther off the beaten path on Dry Creek Road, Dutcher Creek Road and others, the lanes narrowed until I could swear we were riding through vineyards in France or Spain. We then picked up State Route 128/Oat Valley Road northwest out of Cloverdale, a two-laner winding over gorgeous countryside. Eventually, it threads through Navarro River Redwoods State Park until the river ends in a picturesque estuary at the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

Northern California Oregon motorcycle rideA chilly fog often shrouds California’s coastline in summertime, but after a short spell it lifted for us, thankfully. The north coast offers amazing scenery and it’s lightly traveled even in prime vacation time; come here during the off-season and it’s even more isolated. After visiting historic Point Arena Lighthouse and a lunch stop with an ocean view, we continued south to the town of Jenner, where we picked up State Route 116, heading east back to Windsor. We ducked into Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve for a quick look-see, and then Mark brought me to a real gem: Sweetwater Springs Road, a tight, tiny, twisty, bumpy path winding through shaded redwood forest sprinkled with ferns. Simply fantastical and super-fun on the Triumph Tiger Explorer XRt I had selected for this ride. Mark, on the other hand, was less enthused about the relative lack of suspension travel and compliance on his tweaked-for-speed Suzuki SV1000. But I figured, since he’s such a great rider anyhow he could just stuff it!

Northern California Oregon motorcycle rideThat’s just one fun option out of many loops over the plentiful side roads lacing the hills between U.S. Routes 101 and 1, including Orr Springs Road from Ukiah to Mendocino. Alternate routes from State Route 128 to the coast include Philo Greenwood Road and Mountain View Road, or going east from the coast at Stewarts Point, Skaggs Springs Road toward Geyserville. With such extraordinary riding and much more on hand I was tempted to stay longer. But reluctantly, all too soon I said my good-byes and headed to Oregon.

Northern California Oregon motorcycle rideThe far northern end of California offers a huge selection of great motorcycling roads, but hot weather eastward saw me sticking to U.S. 101. I cruised north to coastal Eureka and Crescent City through prime redwood country; a large portion of U.S. 101 is dubbed the Redwood Highway and they’re not kidding. Loads of state and national redwood parks and affiliated attractions beckon to travelers throughout this spectacular route. But I stopped only once, at Trees of Mystery, an admittedly kitschy tourist trap my folks had taken us kids to visit decades ago. Today, the signature 49-foot-tall statue of Paul Bunyan and the 35-foot-tall Babe the Blue Ox still pose roadside right off U.S. 101. Photo op accomplished, I got back to riding.

Northern California Oregon motorcycle ride
Creaky and rusty bridges serve as a reflection of how creaky and rusty Homchick and I have likewise grown over the years….

On the outskirts of Crescent City, U.S. Route 199 peels off for a spectacular ride through the heavily forested Smith River National Recreation Area. As redwoods give way to pines, the road pops out of California and into Oregon. At the tiny town of O’Brien, I headed for Forest Service Road 48 that leads south back to Happy Camp in California. It’s a little tricky here; from O’Brien take Forest Service Road 5560/Waldo Road, which turns into Forest Service Road 5828/Greyback Road. Once this gets settled, it’s 44 miles of incredible riding on deserted mountain roads down to Happy Camp and the State Route 96 junction. A scenic ride east winding through big country alongside the Klamath River eventually dumps out onto Interstate 5, and a short freeway shot north took me to the sleepy little town of Talent, Oregon.

Northern California Oregon motorcycle rideNext-door-neighbor Ashland is the regional big draw, attracting thousands of visitors annually to its popular Oregon Shakespeare Festival and more. That makes finding fine restaurants easy, but there are definitely lots of people as well. In addition, wine production in southern Oregon has absolutely exploded, with more than 100 wineries now drawing more tourists. Talent is just a flyspeck in comparison, and friend Alex Turner lives outside of town, up a dirt road that leads to his hobby farm. For years, Alex tried to lure me northward for a visit with the promise of plenty of picturesque roads, both paved and dirt—perfect for a modern adventure-style bike. Ultimately, the icing on the cake was his establishing a craft distillery, III Spirits, specializing in premium small-batch whiskey. Obviously, I needed to get up there to lend him some much-needed help. Like tasting….

Northern California Oregon motorcycle ride
Oregon is indeed different; this is Alex’s backyard… literally!

Over a tot of smooth Islay-style peated whiskey and a stack of maps, Alex showed me the many options available for incredible riding. Talent rests in a valley at an elevation of about 2,000 feet, and mountains topping out at 6,000 to 9,000 feet surround it. A few miles eastward, Oregon Route 140, Dead Indian Memorial Road and Oregon Route 66 all climb upward toward Crater Lake National Park. On Alex’s advice, a few days of riding covered all three routes, plus many of the paved forest service roads that link them up—37, 821 and 531/Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway being especially memorable. Rivers, lakes and campgrounds abound, and plenty of dirt roads invite exploration too.

Northern California Oregon motorcycle ride
Aboard the versatile Triumph, I passed through vineyards, crossed the Pacific Coast Trail and visited Crater Lake National Park—all in one spectacular trip!

Crater Lake is simply spectacular; it is a national park, after all. About 7,700 years ago, a massive volcanic eruption left a deep basin in place of the mountain’s peak, and over time it filled with rain and snow runoff. That resulted in the deepest lake in the United States, 1,943 feet of crystal blue beauty at its deepest point. I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of crowds, even in mid-summer. Perhaps it’s because people get scattered around the 33-mile Rim Drive and the numerous pullouts and parking areas from which the lake can be viewed. Awesome scenery, world-class riding and hardly any traffic, all within easy day-ride reach of the Talent/Ashland valley.

Northern California Oregon motorcycle ride
I visited my old friends, Paul and Babe, at Trees of Mystery.

Another day, I headed southwest to poke around the forest roads and trails surrounding Applegate Lake, a large, pretty reservoir with hardly another person in sight. I picked up Beaver Creek Road, 10 miles of twisty pavement that becomes an exceptionally well-maintained dirt forest service road for 25 miles called Siskiyou Summit Road. Fact is, it’s in better shape than Alex’s farm road, and it’s especially telling that the only two vehicles crossing paths with me were passenger cars—not trucks or SUVs, but stone-stock passenger automobiles!

Northern California Oregon motorcycle rideI had purposely chosen the Triumph Explorer to take on roads such as this, and it did not disappoint. Terrific for freeway cruising and sport riding, the Explorer’s pushbutton selector quickly and easily engages off-road mode, providing marvelous versatility and allowing me drama-free dirt-going access to a ton of gorgeous backcountry. Along the way, I enjoyed breaks in mountain meadows that crossed the famed Pacific Coast Trail—an extremely satisfying experience, to say the least. For a guy with the goal of stopping to smell the roses, I really couldn’t have come up with a better plan.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Very well written.Great advice.For a few years my friends and I would ride….maybe to the run to the wall in Washington DC.Ride hard to get there and ride hard to get back to Tennessee. I stopped doing that. I started riding up by myself.Take 3 days and see those beautiful mountains and small roads,lakes…stop and smell the roses. I have been doing a lot of riding like that for some years now.Loving it more than ever.But I do miss getting somewhere with my friends.We meet and mess around have a good time.But I am not in a hurry now.Loving it more than ever.

  2. I’m from the East Coast, so I don’t have a great sense of scale for the area you covered. It looks like a great adventure.

    How long did it take you to complete this trip?

  3. Sounds like a great ride. My wife and I came through Oregon several years ago and we drove down 199 to Crescent City. All I could think of was “now this would be a great motorcycle road!” Turning back north at Crescent City, we made our way along PCH all the way to Astoria. I want to do that on my BMW one day!!

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here