Palms to Pines to the Pacific on California Route 74

Palms to Pines Highway
The Palms to Pines Highway is just what the name would indicate. It’s a climb and descent through a wide spectrum of environments. Photos by the author.

Gassing up in the already-toasty Palm Desert morning sun, it is hard to imagine that I will be riding in the cool, tall pines in less than an hour, and visions of serpentine hairpins dance inside my steaming Shoei. The rapid elevation change on the famous (some would say infamous) California State Route 74 is a major part of its appeal to motorcyclists.

Route 74 is the stuff of motorcycling lore. This is not the Tail of the Dragon; it’s the whole mythological creature. The dragon’s head breathes fire into the Coachella Valley. Its claws cling resolutely to the rugged cliffs above the desert. Its wings spread into the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains, and its coiled tail cascades down the Santa Ana Mountains to dip in the cool waters of the Pacific. OK, enough metaphor, let’s get this ride started.

California Route 74 map
California Route 74 snakes from Palm Desert to the Pacific Ocean. Map of the route taken by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

Palms to Pines

Yes, summer is hot in the Coachella Valley desert. The upside to spending time in the upscale town of Palm Desert in the dog days is that as the mercury rises, the resort prices plummet. I am fresh off a great night’s sleep in an air-conditioned suite that cost me a fraction of what it would have in the winter. I’ve chosen Palm Desert as my staging point since it is the true gateway to the mountains through which Route 74 carves.

Palm Desert
Palm Desert is the logical starting point for the westward Palms to Pines to the Pacific ride.

I ride on palm-lined streets skirted by sprawling golf resorts on my way to the base of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains. Just as the road starts to coil, I pass a sign that warns of “Sharp Curves and Steep Grades.” While motorcyclists consider that kind of verbiage an advertisement, not warning, it is a prologue that should be read earnestly by those of us on two wheels. There will be several subtle and not-so-subtle reminders along this westward trek that the 74 is a route that demands respect.

California Route 74
Signage warns of the steep and serpentine nature of Route 74.

Route 74 starts with a bang. The hairpins that grace the mountains climbing out of the desert are remarkably tight. I carve through gray rocks and increasing foliage as I use only the lower gears on the big BMW GS. There are numerous pullouts for slow vehicles, but I encounter few of those as I got an early morning start on this mid-week day. The road is well-paved and narrow. The sheer number of curves as well as the variety of turn types requires me to stay vigilant.

California Route 74
The climb out of the Coachella Valley is rock-lined and spectacular.

After about a dozen miles of these supremely entertaining curves, I roll upon the Coachella Valley Vista Point. It is not often that a rider gets to relive a great stretch of road so immediately. Looking down from the vista point, the road I just traveled resembles that ribbon candy that so many of us found in our Christmas stockings as children. When I can finally stop staring at the serpentine asphalt, I raise my gaze to a truly impressive and panoramic view of the vast desert valley from which I have just ascended. As I walk away from the rock wall of the overlook, I notice a bronze placard on a granite stone. The sign is an eloquent plea for motorists to respect the road and ride or drive safely. A second powerful reminder.

placard at the Coachella Valley Vista Point
A placard at the Coachella Valley Vista Point gives travelers information and a warning.

After the viewpoint, the winding road continues for several miles before the route relaxes a bit on the mountaintop. The road is now lined not by palms, but rather by towering pines. This part of Route 74 carries the name “Palms to Pines Scenic Highway” for good reason. At one point, I intersect the Pacific Crest Trail, which has enticed distance hikers and soul-searchers for decades. The PCT is the setting for the intriguing movie “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon. The film is based on a memoir of self-discovery and healing by Cheryl Strayed.

More mountain riding leads me past the blue waters of Lake Hemet. The morning shadows shiver on the lake’s glassy surface as I stop for a look. I chat with a maintenance worker who tells me the lake is a favorite for some “Hollywood folks” like Halle Berry and the Kardashians.

Lake Hemet is a cool respite in the California hills.
Lake Hemet is a cool respite in the California hills.

There are some small clusters of mountain cabins as I continue. Crisp, cool air blows through my mesh riding jacket and I notice that the bike’s display indicates an air temperature of 66 degrees. I can’t help thinking back to how that same instrument was reading 92 as I pulled out of Palm Desert earlier in the morning.

I reach a crossroads at the tiny community of Mountain Center. A left turn at the Y spells the continuation of Route 74. A right turn leads to another leg of the Palms to Pines Scenic Highway. While my ultimate goal in this tour is to find my way to the Pacific on Route 74, I can’t resist the temptation of sampling the curves on an out-and-back jaunt on Route 243. As I trace my way to and through the mountain community of Idyllwild, I am supremely glad I took this side adventure. I ride about 25 miles toward Banning before retracing my curvaceous path back to Route 74. Fifty miles well spent. 

Palms to Pines
The scenic designation of the Palms to Pines is spot-on.

Back on my intended path, I embark on a spirited descent off the mountain range. After riding more miles through the conifer-rich environment, I roll into a wide valley. The San Jacinto Valley rests as the midpoint of this ride. To extend that early metaphor, this is the saddle on the back of the dragon. The valley city of Hemet serves as my stop for a spot of lunch and a bit of map study before the next leg of my westward ride to the sea.

For a motorcyclist, that’s what a GPS map route should look like.
For a motorcyclist, that’s what a GPS map route should look like.

Ortega Highway to the Sea

For a while after Hemet, Route 74 becomes flat and sedate as it cuts through the communities, farms and ranches in the San Jacinto Valley. It even blends with Interstate 215 for a brief stretch. However, after ducking under Interstate 15, the fun begins again as I embark on the segment of the road that carries the Ortega Highway designation. 

This portion of the ride begins with a little reflection and reminiscing for me. I pull into The Lookout Roadhouse, which is a popular stop for motorcyclists either before or after riding the Ortega Highway. I take a seat on the rocks outside the tiny diner and gaze down at the expansive Lake Elsinore. Yes, Lake Elsinore was the setting for much of the action in the ultra-classic, maybe quintessential, motorcycle movie “On Any Sunday.” As a preteen, the 1971, Bruce Brown-directed movie stoked my burning, lifelong passion for motorcycling. The place also served as the inspiration for the naming of the sport-changing Honda Elsinore motocross bike. That screaming machine became one of the unattainable objects of my adolescent desire (the one that didn’t wear cutoff jeans and halter tops). 

The Lookout high above Lake Elsinore is a popular hangout for motorcyclists.
The Lookout high above Lake Elsinore is a popular hangout for motorcyclists.

When I finally pull myself away from visions of Steve McQueen, Malcolm Smith and silver Honda 2-strokes, I am ready to tackle the Ortega Highway. I am fully aware that the Ortega has a reputation – not just for great curves, but also for a healthy dose of danger. It has even been purported to be haunted. I stop at a sign beside the road placed there by the family of a fallen rider. It is yet another reminder that discretion, attention and moderation are needed on this road. This stretch of Route 74 has had more than its share of motorcycle tragedies over the years. It is something that I will keep in the forefront of my mind as I ride to the Pacific.

Ortega Highway
The Ortega Highway portion of the Palms to Pines to the Pacific ride demands heightened caution for motorcyclists.

The Ortega is every bit as fun and challenging as the eastern Palms to Pines segment. I find the road surface a bit more variable than in the mountains east of Hemet. Some of the turns are deceptively tight. A road feature that I find reassuring is the inclusion of a heavy rumble strip between the yellow lines in the center of the road. It is a noisy reminder for cars and trucks to stay on their side.

The ride in the Cleveland National Forest is beautiful. A mix of pines, massive oaks and thick underbrush line the wandering tarmac as it passes through the Santa Ana Mountains. This heavily wooded but dry forest is particularly susceptible to massive wildfires and I ride by several “extreme fire danger” signs. I also ride intermittently beside creeks, rivers and small lakes. There are lots of reasons to stop, look and refocus before continuing the descent toward the Pacific on this western incarnation of the dragon’s tail. 

Ortega Highway motorcycle ride
The high chaparral terrain of the lower Cleveland National Forest speaks to the diversity of this ride.

My mountain ride becomes decidedly more urban as I approach the ocean. I ride though San Juan Capistrano before making my final roll into the beautiful Dana Point Harbor. I let the BMW rest in the shade of the palm trees of Doheny State Beach as I watch the surfers pulling their boards from car tops. “On Any Sunday” meets “The Endless Summer.” Documentarian Bruce Brown would be proud.

Doheny State Beach
Doheny State Beach is where the tarmac ends and the Pacific Ocean begins.

Riding California Route 74 is a motorcyclist’s dream. The diversity, the views, the curves and the thrills are magnetic. It is a ride that demands your respect, attention and discretion, but the payoff is one of the best motorcycle adventures in the West.

Dana Point Harbor
Dana Point Harbor is the picturesque endgame of the westward Route 74 ride.

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