Two Lanes of Western Washington—Sport Touring in the Evergreen State

Mount St. Helens still looms large on the Cascade Range.
Mount St. Helens still looms large on the Cascade Range.

Western Washington serves up miles of great two-lane roads. Huge mountains, dense forests and rugged seascapes provide vivid scenery while sweepers and twisties speak to sport-touring riders in the language of speed and motion. This route of roughly 1,000 miles begins in Port Angeles on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It runs south to the Columbia River and dips into Oregon, then east to Cascade Locks, north into the Cascades and west back to the coast. With Dale Larson aboard his Honda ST1100 and me on his Honda CBR1100XX Blackbird, this ride is all about the two-lanes.

The Olympic Mountains viewed from the top of Hurricane Ridge.
The Olympic Mountains viewed from the top of Hurricane Ridge.

The first morning’s highlight is Hurricane Ridge Road, which winds 17 miles through Olympic National Park and climbs to 5,242 feet. The road is smooth, continuous curves. With dry conditions our pace is brisk, aided by frequent turnouts and cooperative slowpokes. The view from the top of Hurricane Ridge is spectacular, but the best part is knowing you get to ride that 17-mile snake back down the mountain.
At the bottom, we turn left toward U.S. Route 101, which meanders along much of our route through coastal Washington. Pointing west, we skirt the edge of Olympic National Forest and pass through the town of Forks, which gained notoriety for the vampires who reside there in the Twilight books and movies. No vampires are sighted, perhaps because it’s sunny. Check your fuel gauge as Forks has the last reliable source of fuel for 100 miles.

Mount Rainier National Park
This road through Mount Rainier National Park gradually gains elevation up to 5,420 feet.

Where U.S. 101 reaches the shore near Jefferson, we stop at Ruby Beach to see huge formations of volcanic rock and enormous drift logs where Cedar Creek empties into the Pacific Ocean. At Queets, U.S. 101 turns back east through the Quinault Indian Reservation. We stop at Lake Quinault Lodge. Franklin Roosevelt stopped here, too, during a fact-finding trip in October 1937. He was taken by the lake’s natural beauty and nine months later signed the bill creating Olympic National Park. The view is indeed grand, but the best part of my visit is meeting a young English bulldog named Marshmallow.

Beyond Humptulips, we sidestep U.S. 101 to enjoy a twisty asphalt gem following the Hoquiam River. Dale’s skill and local knowledge become obvious as I get smaller in his mirrors. He delivers us to Hoquiam, his hometown and an important West Coast port on Grays Harbor. Unlike inland ports in Seattle and Portland, Grays Harbor is on the ocean. That saves freighters one day of travel heading into port and a second day heading out. Grain, automobiles, logs and wood products, all bound for Asia, await loading onto freighters. Grays Harbor also supports a large commercial and sport-fishing fleet.

Our route out of town cuts through Aberdeen, where musician, artist and tragic figure Kurt Cobain grew up, and then heads west on State Route 105 along the southern shore of Grays Harbor. Dale pulls into the Westport Winery, the grounds of which display an impressive collection of sculpture. The winery’s proprietors have big hearts as well, donating a portion of the proceeds from each variety of wine they sell to charitable causes and community projects.

Greenhead Slough empties into Willapa Bay
The road is briefly straight where Greenhead Slough empties into Willapa Bay overlooking the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge.

At Tokeland, we turn off Route 105 and head toward the point overlooking Willapa Bay. There we find Tokeland Hotel. Opened in 1889, it’s the oldest resort hotel in Washington and a National Historic Landmark. Inside we meet a delightful old lady named Marion who tells me she’s wanted to stay here her whole life, and finally has. “It’s just lovely here,” she says. “Go up and look at the rooms.” It’s not every day that you walk into a hotel, meet an interesting woman and get invited upstairs.

As a lifelong New Englander, I’m finding parallels between the coasts of Washington and Massachusetts—scenic beaches, quaint towns, working harbors, historic references to whaling, smells that signal low tide and even cranberry bogs. As it turns out, Robert Gray, who “discovered” the harbor that bears his name, worked for a man from Boston named Bullfinch. The harbor was originally named for Bullfinch, but Gray’s name appeared on the navigation charts he created, so mariners called it Grays Harbor and that name stuck. Somewhere the apostrophe got lost.

Hoquiam River empties into Grays Harbor
Just downstream from this dock, the Hoquiam River empties into Grays Harbor.

Birds of prey can be seen along the Washington shore. Where U.S. 101 curves through the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, I pull over to watch two bald eagles fight over a fish. Stealing lunch is just as effective as catching it. For 20 years, a nonprofit organization called Coastal Raptors has been monitoring and documenting the use of Washington beaches by bald eagles, peregrine falcons, ravens and vultures. Volunteers, led by Dan Varland, capture birds with a net launcher, take measurements and samples, apply leg bands, release the birds, and provide information on raptors in coastal environments to scientists, land managers, policy makers and the public. Just farther on at Cape Disappointment, Dale leads us onto the headlands overlooking Long Beach, one of the locations where Coastal Raptors gathers data.

This is also where the Corps of Discovery, led by explorers Lewis and Clark and supported by a team that included their Shoshone guide Sacagawea, reached the Pacific Ocean on November 18, 1805. The historic significance of their expedition through the West is celebrated especially in the region along the Washington/Oregon border. Consider a stop at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Cape Disappointment on the spot where the expedition reached the mouth of the Columbia River.

Lake Quinault Lodge
A visit to the Lake Quinault Lodge in 1937 helped convince FDR to sign legislation creating Olympic National Park. Note the 17-foot high, totem pole-shaped rain gauge on the chimney.

Celebrating Lewis and Clark takes many forms, with none better for motorcyclists than Lewis and Clark Road. It begins in Astoria and ends in Seaside, bypassing a forgettable section of U.S. 101. This twisty piece of heaven has me cheering “Sacagaweeeeeeeea!”

After a quick stop in Seaside at the end of the Lewis and Clark Trail, we head for Ecola State Park, where the seascape is as spectacular as any I’ve seen. A woman enjoying a picnic on the bluff tells me she hasn’t seen the view this perfect in years. In Cannon Beach, Dale and I lunch on grilled rockfish, but it’s the sheer number of dogs walking through town that gets my attention. Restaurateurs and merchants cater to them by putting out bowls of water.

Huge drift logs line Ruby Beach.
Huge drift logs line Ruby Beach.

Some of the best twisties on this route are found by continuing south on U.S. 101 to Mohler, then zigzagging north on State Route 53, east on U.S. Route 26, north on State Route 103, east on State Route 202, south on State Route 47 and east on Scappoose-Vernonia Highway to Scappoose. We need to get through Portland, and for anyone who reads, a visit to this city demands a stop at Powell’s Books, the largest independent bookstore in the world.

Farther east in Troutdale we enter Historic Route 30, the Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway. This winding two-lane, built between 1913 and 1922, was the first planned scenic roadway in the United States. It’s a National Historic Landmark, a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and a marvelous byway. If you like waterfalls there are several along this road.

classic Honda ST1100
Dale Larson rides two classic Hondas, an ST1100 sport-TOURER and a Blackbird SPORT-tourer. Your humble scribe was lucky enough to enjoy the ’bird on a tour of western Washington.

The Vista House at Crown Point State Park is a popular spot to enjoy a view of the Columbia River Gorge, and then in Cascade Locks we pay a 50-cent toll and cross the Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River back to Washington. At Carson, we point north into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest on Wind River Road. The road’s sensational curves make me wonder whether its name rhymes with “Find.” The forest here is so dense and the evergreens so tall that the Blackbird’s headlight illuminates the road on a cloudless day.

A left turn onto Curly Creek Road takes us to McClellan Viewpoint and a magnificent view of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. On May 18, 1980, the volcano erupted, killing 57 people and devastating hundreds of square miles. Ash shot 12 miles into the air and fell onto 11 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. Forest Road 99, which ascends Mount St. Helens from the northeast, is among the most technical paved roads in Washington, but we find it gated. Our map describes it as “closed in winter” and later we learn from a park ranger that it’s still snowed in—on the last day of June!

The seascape at Oregon’s Ecola State Park is stunning.
The seascape at Oregon’s Ecola State Park is stunning.

Disappointed but not deterred, we ride north beyond Randle and turn west on U.S. Route 12 for a run up White Pass. We take in an awesome view of Mount Rainier from the top and double back to ride up Rainier ourselves. The road to Paradise, the main visitor center at Mount Rainier National Park, bends through forests and along ridges and over gorges, gradually gaining elevation to 5,420 feet. Snow still covers the hillsides behind the ranger station and kids are enjoying a summertime snowball fight. Thirty miles later, when we stop for lunch in Elbe, it’s 100 degrees.

After bison burgers and ribs, we employ evaporative cooling technology (wetting our T-shirts with cold water in the restroom) and ride the edge of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Traffic is light, since people smarter than us are probably sipping iced tea in the shade. A fuel stop in Oakville provides a chance to recharge our T-shirts for the final run on secondary roads to the end of our ride in Hoquiam, where I surrender the Blackbird to Dale (sigh…).

Riding western Washington’s two-lanes is a great way to experience stunning landscapes, a variety of climates, fascinating history and culture, the charm of small towns and the exhilaration of roads that curve and twist and bend all day. I can’t wait to return.

(This article Two Lanes of Western Washington was published in the January 2015 issue of Rider magazine.)

Hurricane Ridge deer
Better to find deer on top of Hurricane Ridge than on the road that gets you there. (Better still to find deer with a side of mashed potatoes!)
Hurricane Ridge Road, Blackbird
The Blackbird stands ready for the ride back down Hurricane Ridge Road.
Map by Bill Tipton/
Map by Bill Tipton/
Astoria Column
Covering the Astoria Column are scenes depicting experiences of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery.


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