Mountains, Oceans and Back Roads in California, Oregon and Washington

(Photos by Clement Salvadori)
(Photos by Clement Salvadori)

“Less than half a mile after you go over the old swing bridge, the first road to the right is Lower Smith River Road. Take it. It’s a great ride!”

With that suggestion from a total stranger at a gas station, I did. Lower Smith River Road, just north of Reedsport, Oregon, begins as County Road 48, but loses that designation as it goes into Bureau of Land Management land, as well as all signs of signage. The single-lane asphalt was OK, and I kept the river on my right, but there was no indication where the forks in the road led. Reaching a campground, the few campers were from the coast, not from across the mountains in the Willamette. They thought the left fork went toward Eugene, but there were a lot of places to go wrong…and I was due at the house of friends for supper. The right fork would take me 15 miles over a mountain to a state highway at Scottsburg. “Went over it a couple of years ago,” said one camper. “You’ll love it.”

Setting up Saturday morning for The Meet vintage motorcycle festival in Tacoma, Washington; the LeMay museum is off to the left.
Setting up Saturday morning for The Meet vintage motorcycle festival in Tacoma, Washington; the LeMay museum is off to the left.

Done, I was off. After a few minutes I realized that perhaps no one else had been over this stretch of thin pavement since that camper. Vegetation had grown in, narrowing the narrow lane even more as I went up and down and around, admiring views and hoping I would not have an irreparable flat tire. No cell service here, just a too-vivid imagination.

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These vintage (mostly) motorcycles are getting set for a leisurely Sunday ride around Mount Rainier.
These vintage (mostly) motorcycles are getting set for a leisurely Sunday ride around Mount Rainier.

Designed for such adventures, the 2014 BMW R 1200 GS Adventure never missed a beat, and I had some seven gallons of gas in the tank. All’s well that ends well, and I got to my friends’ place before they began to worry.
The trip was based on my needing to be up in Tacoma, Washington, to be a judge at The Meet, the third annual motorcycle concours d’elegance held at LeMay—America’s Car Museum. Mapquest showed that I could be there in 1,000 miles by hooking into Interstate 5 and going north. Too boring to consider. A more reasonable alternative would be to take U.S. Route 101, at 1,100 miles.

The Mount St. Helens volcano blew its stack back in 1980, devastating the region; lots of natural growth has now returned.
The Mount St. Helens volcano blew its stack back in 1980, devastating the region; lots of natural growth has now returned.

The 101 is an interesting highway going from the middle of Los Angeles all the way to the Olympic Peninsula, sticking pretty close to the Pacific Ocean once it gets past Eureka, California. A lot of the northern section is still two-lane, with beaches on one side, coastal mountains on the other. The way to happiness on these main roads is to find the little roads that parallel them, and there are lots.

Ever want to sleep in a caboose? The Hobo Inn in Elbe, Washington, on Alder Lake, is always happy to accommodate.
Ever want to sleep in a caboose? The Hobo Inn in Elbe, Washington, on Alder Lake, is always happy to accommodate.

The first day would be a big swat, with very little room for entertainment, doing 500 miles on U.S. 101 to Eureka. Couldn’t even think of taking the incomparably beautiful State Route 1, California’s exquisitely twisty coast road, as it would take at least two days to get to Eureka, probably more. A few little 101 diversions were in order, like Metz Road (G15) and Old Stage Road up the east side of the Salinas River Valley. These are the old roads, built on higher ground to avoid the occasional flooding of the valley, with lots of elevation changes and turns. Before the new highway, built after World War II, stagecoaches, Model T Fords and Indian Chiefs went north and south.

The main street in the town of Vashon is packed with vehicles for the Isle of Vashon TT, including this trio of three-wheelers; to the left is a 1938 Morgan, to the right a 2014 Morgan, and in the middle a 2007 Ace Cycle-Car.
The main street in the town of Vashon is packed with vehicles for the Isle of Vashon TT, including this trio of three-wheelers; to the left is a 1938 Morgan, to the right a 2014 Morgan, and in the middle a 2007 Ace Cycle-Car.

Then one enters the hubbub of San Jose, San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. For those in the know, you can take the first exit after the bridge and do a small loop through old Fort Baker, with magnificent views of the bay and the ocean.

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North of the bridge, the 101 is pretty much a six- or eight-lane commuter strip all the way up to Santa Rosa, but after Healdsburg bucolic little roads parallel it all the way to Cloverdale. Then, in the interest of time, I was back on the 101, which had become quite fun. Occasionally you will see signs for State Route 271—my advice is to take it. That is the old road, and parts remain that will keep you alongside 101 with far more twists and turns.

This 300-ton icebreaker is the RV (Research Vessel) Hero, a converted trawler, which spent 44 years up in the Arctic and now is anchored by Bay Center, Washington.
This 300-ton icebreaker is the RV (Research Vessel) Hero, a converted trawler, which spent 44 years up in the Arctic and now is anchored by Bay Center, Washington.

Route 271 tops out at Leggett, also the northern end of Route 1, followed by a few twisty two-lane miles as it descends to the Eel River. Caltrans would like to four-lane the whole thing, which would mean a lot of dead redwoods, so there is considerable opposition. Exiting onto State Route 254, Avenue of the Giants, is advisable, for the 30-mile run through the great trees of Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

Finally arriving in Eureka, I had supper, a good night’s sleep, then breakfast at the Black Lightning Motorcycle Café before continuing on in the morning. A detour on the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park is a must, bringing you out at the Klamath River. Then it is on to Oregon and my little deviation at Reedsport.

Motorcycles and riders are waiting patiently to get on the ferry for the short trip to Vashon Island, where the annual Isle of Vashon TT is taking place and a thousand or more bikes will show up.
Motorcycles and riders are waiting patiently to get on the ferry for the short trip to Vashon Island, where the annual Isle of Vashon TT is taking place and a thousand or more bikes will show up.

My friends live in the Willamette Valley, and the next day Bob and I went adventurin’ over in the Cascade Range near Whetstone Mountain, in the Mount Hood National Forest. Dirt roads forked and forked again, and on one mountainside I elected to turn around, as the GS had rather road-focused dual-sport tires which were not doing well on that very steep, rocky road. Knobbies would have been appreciated. The GS proved a great traveling machine as long as I didn’t get off-off-road. Very comfortable, with a good adjustable windshield, and it averaged 42 mpg. It is heavy, at 600-plus pounds, and expensive, at well over 22 grand equipped as it was, but for serious adventuring would be hard to beat.

Apparently Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox, migrated to northern California at some point; these statues are at Trees of Mystery near Klamath.
Apparently Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox, migrated to northern California at some point; these statues are at Trees of Mystery near Klamath.

On Friday I looped around the backside of Mount St. Helens and up to Tacoma. Saturday was The Meet. Over 300 motorcycles were entered, with 17 classes, five special awards, all divided up among a dozen judges who would take the blame. Vintage European bikes predominated, but awards went everywhere, from Antique American to Best of Show (1969 BMW R69S with sidecar). White-tented vendors were on two sides of the grassy concours site, everyone from Nolan helmets to the local BMW shop…and Hagerty Insurance, which specializes in insuring classic bikes and cars. Anyone needing a respite from the motorcycles could go inside the LeMay museum and cast covetous eyes on the hundreds of cars—like a red 1959 Chrysler 300E two-door hardtop, with better fins than a great white shark. The late ’50s was, for me, the best of American car styling…pleasantly over-the-top.

that's a 1948 Indian Chief done up in Sunshine Yellow
That’s a 1948 Indian Chief done up in Sunshine Yellow.

After lunch the judges got together and hammered out decisions. And then we all took a walk around the field to see what our fellow judges had done—and if we agreed. A couple of 1st or 2nd decisions were actually made by the discreet flip of a coin between judges. Then the awards were given out and most everyone was happy.

you'd want this Flying Merkel if you were a boardtrack racer a hundred years ago
You’d want this Flying Merkel if you were a boardtrack racer a hundred years ago.

Next morning a ride was organized for a looksee at Mount Rainer, but I bowed out since I wanted to go to the Isle of Vashon TT, 32nd rendition, put on by a local club, Vintage Motorcycle Enthusiasts. I had long heard about the event, and now was my time to go. Vashon is an island just north of Tacoma, at the south end of Puget Sound, and the TT is a poker run around the island that ends up at the Sportsman’s Club. Over 700 riders signed up in hopes they would win the astronomical first prize of $100. The TT is focused on vintage bikes, but a lot of modern machines show up for the day.

Map by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com
Map by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com

The heart of the event is the informal show of bikes in the small town of Vashon, where motorcycles of every persuasion and age are lined up for a half-mile on either side of Main Street. I liked the 1950s LE Velocette parked next to a new Hayabusa. An impressive sight were the three three-wheelers side by side, a 1933 Morgan with a Matchless V-twin engine, a new Morgan from England, and in the middle the Oregon-built Ace Cycle-Car three-wheeler, with a Harley engine, which was first produced in 2007.

I took the ferry off the north end of the island to disembark at Southworth and headed southwest to get back to the coast—which I did at South Bend, Washington. Getting back on U.S. 101 is efficient, but all sorts of tempting side trips are still in order. Like the loop through Bay Center, 12 miles south of South Bend and just a couple of miles west of the highway. This is a town of 300 or so, with a little fishing, a couple of campgrounds—and an old icebreaker, the RV Hero, waiting to be tarted up and opened to visitors. Unfortunately nobody was around, so I had to admire the ship from ashore.

After getting to Oregon I had to brave my way through all the tourist resorts south of Astoria, until my map told me that if I cut east on State Route 53, went a couple of miles to Mohler then turned south on an unnamed road, I’d skip 20 miles of traffic. The two-lane road went along a delightful valley, never straight, with farms, cattle, tree-covered hillsides, the Miami River—and only two cars. This is my notion of a minor adventure, just getting off the main route and finding byways that take me in the direction I want to go.

The Elk Prairie is in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, on U.S. 101 in northwest California, and usually has lots of Roosevelt elk.
The Elk Prairie is in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, on U.S. 101 in northwest California, and usually has lots of Roosevelt elk.

The Miami River flows into Tillamook Bay, where I had a look around the cheese factory (which claims to make 85 tons of cheese a day) and a grilled cheese sandwich (what else!) at the Creamery Café. Napoleon said an army travels on its stomach; so do motorcyclists.

Eight hundred miles to go, maybe two days, with a little dawdling. Like the Carpenterville cut-off (Oregon Route 255) between Pistol River and Brookings. Actually, I could probably spend two weeks adventuring along those 800 miles. I don’t need to cross the Sahara or ride over the Himalayas to have an adventure—just find a few back roads I’ve never been on before.

One of my favorite U.S. 101 stops is Greasy Spoon Café, a real down-home diner in Langlois, Oregon; unfortunately it's closed on Mondays.
One of my favorite U.S. 101 stops is Greasy Spoon Café, a real down-home diner in Langlois, Oregon; unfortunately it’s closed on Mondays.
This pleasant little road is in the mountains somewhere east of Reedsport, Oregon – I'm lost and there is no cell service.
This pleasant little road is in the mountains somewhere east of Reedsport, Oregon – I’m lost and there is no cell service.
this 1920 Harley J Model is all set to go on a fishing trip.
this 1920 Harley J Model is all set to go on a fishing trip.
A chopperized Honda 90 will always gather a crowd
A chopperized Honda 90 will always gather a crowd

1 COMMENT

  1. Great ride! Brings back memories of touring the west coast in the 70’s. Nice bike/bikes too. Cheers!

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