The Flight of the Wasps: Touring on Vespa Scooters

Vespa 300 GTS touring
An historic wildflower “super bloom” set the hills aflame in the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Photos by the author.

The Vespa 300 GTS Super scooter is a unique ride. While iconically Italian, its 350-pound weight and 31-inch seat height blurs lines. Is this a large around-town grocery getter, or a mini highway tourer? As day trips progressed to overnighters, I had my answer: Anywhere you can go I can go better—I can go anywhere better than you. Allow me to offer proof.

My friend Joe, who also owns a white Vespa 300 GTS Super, has a similar riding situation. He commutes through west Los Angeles, and I ride through the South Bay area of the City of Angels, where congested traffic and tight parking make scooters invaluable. But I also planted the touring seed deep in Joe with relentless pestering, and soon we were off on a full-blown 76-mpg scooter voyage through the verdant mountains of California on two white wasps (vespa being Italian for wasp).

Vespa 300 GTS touring
Joe and I began our adventure at iconic Newcomb’s Ranch on the Angeles Crest Highway.

We began our 4-day, 3-night voyage by blasting up the Angeles Crest Highway to iconic Newcomb’s Ranch for breakfast. Even at altitude, maintaining 60 mph from the 278cc single is possible. A quick bite, quick chat and a few puzzled looks later, we hit the high desert. My goal in charting this voyage was to avoid large roads and instead find smaller, tighter paths. On a Vespa, even one-lane roads feel downright spacious.

Vespa 300 GTS touring
A normally docile waterfall on the Kern River explodes from a granite cliff.

A quick stretch on State Route 58, and Caliente-Bodfish Road awaits, a narrow, harrowing, barely two-lane squiggle littered with rocks and oblivious cows. On larger bikes, this road can be unforgiving, yet on the Vespas with their shiftless CVT transmissions and low weights, smooth effortless carving becomes the norm. A well-modulated wrist twist and the mini-tourers lap up the road like a kitten’s tongue on milk. As Lake Isabella comes into sight, we marvel at its bursting capacity. A year before, in the midst of a record drought, it acquired the nickname of Lake Isapuddle. State Route 178 provides a rollicking ride over the southern Sierra Nevada and a blast up State Route 99 into Visalia for the night. Over beer and burgers at Brewbakers Brewing Company, we both bemoan saddle soreness. Firm, solid saddle foam is ideal for urban jaunts, but proves to be a downright derrière disaster for all-day riding.

Vespa 300 GTS touring
Joe carving along Caliente-Bodfish Road, a tight, technical back road that seems, well, amazingly open on a small bike.

The next morning, sky cerulean blue, we head northeast into the Sierra proper along State Route 198, turning north onto County Road J21, a suitably squiggly two-laner, and slice through rich fields of produce and citrus. Fields yield to evergreen forest as we gain elevation, and approaching Pine Flat Lake gives us impressive vistas of the recently engorged reservoir, with the Kings River roaring out of its western terminus. Climbing bucolic Tollhouse Road (State Route 168), elevation sets in, and we slip from a leisurely 45 mph cruise to a 35 mph slog. But the slower pace rewards us with panoramic views of the San Joaquin Valley below, a shimmering green carpet rolling off into the horizon like an endless golf course. We summit and descend quickly, small bikes slingshoting with gravity assist through curves, and take Crane Valley Road into Oakhurst for the night. A hearty dinner at South Gate Brewing Company quenches our physical thirst, but not our thirst for adventure.

Vespa 300 GTS touring
The drought-weary Kern River raged back to life after a winter of record snow pack frosted the Sierra Nevada.

Day three dawns steel gray. The weather gods (read: The Weather Channel) have been wrong in their divination, and a finger of a late season soaker points down upon us. Hastily, we hit State Road 49 and turn west on amusingly named Grub Gulch Road. This rollicking, writhing ribbon of road epitomizes scootouring: tight, twisty and suited to slower speeds. Descending, temperatures rise, yet alarmingly clouds grow. Slipping back into the San Joaquin Valley, Joe and I pick up the pace to outrun this soaker. Jumping on State Route 152, we settle into a top-speed 70 mph drone. Fortunately only sporadic showers hit, and ducking behind the ample weather protection of our scoots’ windscreens, we dodge what could have been a true trip drowner.

Vespa 300 GTS touring
A landslide on State Route 25 had us considering the off-road prowess of the Vespas—however, we wisely chose to take the detour.

Coastal Range approaching, we climb Pacheco Pass and circle San Luis Reservoir, resplendent in its deep blue hues fringed with emerald green grass. The grade slows us, yet we manage to hold an honest 60 mph. The whimsy of the weather gods sated, we sail south into Hollister, site of the 1947 motorcycle rally that inspired the 1953 movie “The Wild One.” Smiling, I reimagine the movie, Brando putting into town on his Vespa, crowds parting like the Red Sea as his two-stroke smoker pops and burbles like boiling champagne. Perhaps my imagination runneth over.

Vespa 300 GTS touring
Crossing grated metal bridges becomes a dicey affair on 12-inch tires which are prone to track the cleated grooves.

Picking up State Route 25, the Airline Highway, we face another scootouring dilemma: fuel range. Topping off the 2.5-gallon tanks at the last station for 80 miles, I mutter a prayer to the great god Octane. While 120 miles is feasible for these 300cc scoots, loaded with gear on twisting roads, it could be optimistic. Pinnacles National Park, established in 2013, soon appears. The park straddles the San Andreas Fault, making for stunningly jagged rock formations. Smooth cruising leaves gray in our mirrors and blue sky ahead. Blissfully, we avoid a gastastrophy, and segue into King City for a lunch of street tacos. Then leaping across U.S. Route 101, we hop onto a true gem: Jolon Road. Though hardly small, its rural nature makes scootouring a breeze. Lake Nacimiento marks the outskirts of the California premier wine region of Paso Robles. Slipping into the quaint mid-size town, we head for the iconic Paso Robles Inn. A steak dinner with a local Syrah perfectly caps a slow soak in the hot tub.

Vespa 300 GTS touring
Taking a brief respite along beautifully remote Jolon Road, en route to an overflowing Lake Nacimiento.

Day four leads us south to State Route 58 and a fascinating find at Carrizo Plains National Monument. This normally dusty plain, rife with antelope, is a veritable Garden of Eden. Joe and I park the white scoots, framed by electric yellow blooms, under cornflower blue skies. Then on State Route 33 we relish the climb over the hills and descent into the quaint mountain hamlet of Ojai before wending our way back to car-clogged suburbia on the Pacific Coast Highway. Proud to have survived this gas-sipping, road-ripping adventure, we say ciao to the voyage of the white wasps!

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