Northwest Passage

story and photography by Dale Coyner

Somehow my buddy Dave got the idea he’d like to return to riding after a 20-year hiatus. I may have had a little to do with it.

OK, maybe more than a little. Come Monday, I’m always yakking about some great weekend ride I took, or going on about some great barbecue joint I found. Lately I was talking up the great roads of the Northwest I’d visited with the family on a five-week road trip. Everything about the region—the broad, windswept plains, looming, imperial mountains, lonely ribbons of pavement stretching to the horizon—everything told me this would be a great ride.

Dave must have been listening. “Sounds like fun,” he said at lunch one day. “When do we leave?”

Reality Check

The first time he mentioned it, I figured Dave was just making conversation. He’d talked about getting another bike before, but nothing came of it. This time, it came up again a few weeks later. Dave was serious. But was I?

I had my doubts. Was I committing to something I would regret, say, two days into a 10-day run? Dave’s last ride was 20 years ago. His riding gear was a helmet, T-shirt and shorts. What would he say if I told him he had to take a safety course? Buy some gear? Would he be up to riding the same distances and roads I had in mind? We’d worked together for years, but could we travel together for a week and come back friends?

Maybe it would be better if I just let the idea slide. Weeks passed and nothing was said. “It’s just as well,” I thought. “That’s the end of that.”

Early December arrived and one morning Dave announced, “I’m signing up for the riding safety course next spring like you said. I need to buy some gear, too. When did you say we were leaving?”

I suppose if we were going for a ride, I had best put together a plan.

Expedition Planning

With Dave rediscovering the friction zone and tracing figure eights in the parking lot, I charted an itinerary. He wanted to visit big mountains, I wanted swoopy roads. As luck would have it, the two are often found together.

Glacier National Park in northern Montana anchored the northern point on our route; Cody, Wyoming, the southern end. I took the first cut at a route connecting the two: 2,500 miles over six days. Too many miles, too few days. After a few more passes and an extra day, a work­able route emerged. We’d run a big loop touching Red Lodge, Beartooth, Cody, Yellow­stone, Arco, Salmon and Glacier, then return to Great Falls. One-thousand, six-hundred miles over seven days. There were enough potential shortcuts to pare down the route if needed.

Reservations came next. Dave didn’t have a bike and we weren’t interested in riding out and back, so we opted to rent a pair of Harleys. A few clicks at the EagleRider website secured a full-dresser for me and a lighter cruiser for Dave. Airline tickets? Check. First night hotel? Check. Riding gear for Dave? Done.

We were nearly ready for our northwestern journey with just one to-do remaining. Seat time for Dave. On a borrowed bike, Dave followed me on several runs through Virginia hunt country. We circled ever closer to the Blue Ridge Mountains until we found ourselves on narrow lanes and switchbacks that were as technical as anything we would encounter out West.

“I felt pretty comfortable on that last run,” he said as we pulled in from the day’s ride. “I think I’m ready for this trip.”

I agreed. It was our time to venture West.


Our expedition started at Fort Benton, some 30 miles north of Great Falls. Day One to Red Lodge was our longest run of the trip, setting us up for a leisurely tour across the Beartooth Highway. We departed later than planned, and I began to get anxious as we toiled to make 30 miles in the first two hours. Tectonic plates move faster.

Mostly, it was my fault. Mile after blissful mile of pavement unfolded across the high Montana plains, giving us a clear view of the mountain ridges that lay ahead. I wanted to ride, but I wanted to shoot pictures, too. When I stopped, Dave would take the opportunity to get off his bike and make adjustments to his gear. Every two-minute stop became 10 minutes.

At White Sulphur Springs, the Truck Stop Café on the edge of town made us a proposition we couldn’t refuse. The sign atop said “Eat.” So we did.

We began to develop a traveling rhythm after lunch as we motored south on U.S. 89. I had taken enough pictures and Dave had his equipment issues sorted out, so our average speed rose to an acceptable level. Dave felt comfortable on his Heritage Softail, and I was beginning to sort out the Road Glide. The wide seating position and long reach were unfamiliar, but it was growing on me.

A line of black clouds spilled over the Little Belt and Big Belt Mountains to the south. I didn’t know how much water they contained and didn’t want to find out, so we bolted east for a short blast down Interstate 10, turned south on Montana 78, and made a final 50-mile dash to Red Lodge.


On the list of 10 roads to ride before you die, Beartooth Highway should be near the top. It’s one of those roads built during the “Because We Can” era as the West was being opened to the public.

From Red Lodge, the first 20 or so miles is spent in a series of switchbacks that climb the Tetons to near 11,000 feet. At the highest point on the roadway, an otherworldly vista stretches before you—what Jack might have seen when he climbed the beanstalk—endless ridges of rugged mountain peaks and pristine alpine lakes. At your feet lies a carpet of shooting stars, columbine, Indian paintbrush and other wild flowers. The road’s not half bad either, although I would like to have attacked, er, ridden it on a more familiar bike.

At Yellowstone’s northeast entrance we split up. We weren’t sick of each other—it just happened that Dave’s family was camping at the park, so Dave made a visit and I headed northwest to spend the evening in Gardiner, Montana. Our visit to Cody and the Chief Joseph Highway would have to wait for the next trip.

I snagged the last room at the Absaroka Lodge, overlooking the Yellowstone River and headed down river to Helen’s Corral Drive-In, home of the “Hateful Hamburger.” The back of a Helen’s Corral T-shirt depicts a granny in a rocking chair. Shotgun across her lap. At the bottom, the slogan reads “You bet your ass.”

That Helen, she must be a real peach.

After dinner, I coasted out of town for a spell as the evening fell over the park, stopping on a side road across the Yellowstone River. I sat on an outcropping with no agenda except to memorize everything I could about that place and time. Shadows rose slowly across the cliffs, shifting colors of the landscape. A comforting aroma of lightly baked earth rose on the warmth radiating from the rocky landscape. I was in a good place and I knew it. As twilight deepened, I returned to the lodge slowly and reluctantly.

Beyond Yellowstone

From Yellowstone, we rode west to Arco, Idaho, home to the Idaho National Lab and the world’s first nuclear breeder reactor. In 1955, Arco gained fame as the first town to be lit with nuclear power. Sitting just outside the reactor are a pair of hulking machines that look like small-scale refineries. Those would be the prototypes for nuclear-powered aircraft engines. Nuclear reactors. In the air. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

South of town is Craters of the Moon National Park. It may be the largest national park you’ve never heard of. At 750,000 acres (about the size of Rhode Island), Craters is the site of a series of lava flows as recent as 2,000 years ago. Climb one of the larger cinder cones at the southern edge of the park and you can see across this alien landscape for a hundred miles or more over the Snake River plain.

While lunching at Pickle’s Place in Arco, I called ahead for lodging. We didn’t do this every night, but the map showed few large towns in the area. U.S. 93 north of Arco was unknown to me and I wanted to know we had rooms ahead. I dialed around for a while before landing at the Village Inn Motel in Challis.

A woman growled into the phone. “Yeah, we got two rooms left. They ain’t too spiffy, but they’re yours if you want ’em.”

A mental picture came to mind instantly. Granny. Rocking chair. Shotgun. “Helen? Is that you?”

“Who? What?” she barked. “You want these rooms or not?”

Salmon River

Beartooth represents a challenging ride, but U.S. 93 through the Salmon River valley is its equal as a purely enjoyable motorcycling road. For 130 miles between Challis, Idaho and Darby, Montana, U.S. 93 flirts with the Salmon and Bitterroot rivers mimicking their path through the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho. The river valley is by turns narrow and rugged, then springs open into broad, cultivated plains.

Near the Idaho-Montana border, the road widens as it cuts directly through Salmon National Forest and over the Bitterroot Mountains, inviting you to turn off cruise mode and add more throttle and lean angle to your travel mix. Accordingly, I took the opportunity to wind out the Road Glide. It would oblige me a little, but tipping it to any really sporting degree was out of the question.


Nearing the end of our Northwestern expedition, we rolled toward Glacier on a mission. For all the grand views we’d already enjoyed in the northern Rockies, the majesty of Glacier would top them. The Blackfoot Indians regard Glacier as the “backbone of the world.” Naturalist John Muir observed that time spent here adds days to the sum of your life. He wasn’t kidding.

Seeing Glacier’s massive sheer cliffs and snowcapped ridges for the first time is like your first peek over the edge of the Grand Canyon, or popping through the tunnel into Yosemite Valley. The scale is so immense it almost doesn’t look real.

A full day’s ride through Glacier on the Going to the Sun Highway was yet to come, but this evening felt like the close of the trip. We enjoyed a leisurely dinner on the front porch of the Belton Chalet, an inn built by the Great Northern Railroad in the early 1900s. For most of dinner we revisited the highlights of our trip, and there were many.

Dessert arrived, and for a moment, talk quieted down. Then Dave asked. “So, with what you know now, would you do this trip again?”

I smiled, because I knew there was only one answer.

You bet your ass, Buddy.

Dale Coyner is author of The Essential Guide to Motorcycle Travel, published by Whitehorse Press.

[From the May 2007 issue of Rider]


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