Riding North America has been fantastic. The riding every day exceeded my expectations by a long margin. I started this tour in San Francisco in August 2012 renting a BMW R1200RT from Eagle Rider. The rental process was smooth and having stayed in a hotel nearby I simply walked to the shop in my bike gear, signed the papers and transferred stuff from suitcase to top box. I was riding away about 15 minutes later having left my suitcase with Eagle Rider and booked a pickup with UPS to take it to the shop where I was dropping the rental off in 12 days time.
My overall route plan was first south then inland and north to Canada. I had read up on the best riding roads from a few sites and read a few ride reports on US touring forums and finally asked some questions about best weather and my choice of roads to arrive at a position where I was confident I had a top route and good chance of fine weather. Day one riding was a short and easy ride along the coast down to Monterey to get used to things and because I was expecting to be tired from the long flight.
I wanted to start the tour with a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge but alas the fog that I read often blankets the bay was present so it was totally shrouded and not visible at all. I waited a bit but then moved on as it was not to be. I could navigate the city easy by motorcycle and it was surprisingly low traffic in my mind. If I known I might have visited a few movie locations but had not put anything in the GPS thinking it would be difficult/too busy.
Really nice city, nothing like LA which I had arrived at on my first trip to North America in the 90’s and did not like much at all. Day one riding in the USA on a expensive BMW – woot! Quite a lot of fog that day as I rode south the ocean was obscured so not too many photos. Healthy American food. Had a look around Carmel by the Sea then called it a day as still jet lagged. Day two more of the famous Pacific highway which is nothing like the crappy one in Australia. It really is a spectacular ride both in views and curves. After originally thinking to ride just to Nacimiento Fergussen road then go inland I rode on to Cambria and was so glad I did as this later part was by far the best. My route then turned inland. The change in temperatures that I experienced today caught me by surprise. From a cool 16 degrees on the coast the temperature rose sharply after I had lunch in Cambria. A steep narrow climb on a back road to ascend the mountains that hug the coast had me changing to summer gloves and unzipping vents on jacket.
My GPS was taking me on some real backroads which at one point turned to unsealed loose gravel on the final mountain climb and I wondered if I had managed to take the wrong road but anyway the 1200RT rode on the dirt rather well for such a big machine. I was worried at one point as the bike was really sliding about on some very loose gravel but eventually I reached the crest and the road once again was sealed to become a narrow winding descent with some amazing views. Riding down the other side the heat really soared and it was like riding into a oven as the temperature hit 44 degrees! That is an amazing change in such a short distance. Fortunately it was a dry heat not humid tropics but none the less uncomfortable to ride in and needing me to rest and rehydrate often. Riding more backroads in mostly fruit orchards made for easy miles to cover and this helped me in the heat. By mid afternoon I was exhausted and finding a motorcycle dealer at Madera I purchased a open mesh jacket from the nice people at Madera Honda-Suzuki who sat me down and got me a jug of ice water. I must have looked a right state.
From there the road weaved it’s way through some stark sun bleached countryside not dissimilar to some of northern NSW. Mostly good road with plenty of curves, I stopped to have a drink and when the wind blew the yellow fields of grass I was reminded of those mesmerising scenes in the movie Once upon a time in Anatolia. It was good to get to the motel as I was exhausted from the heat and perhaps some dehydration. I got some Febreeze at a local store as no time to wash my bike gear on this ride and this heat was not good.
Fell asleep straight after dinner then woke up middle of night which was of course daytime back home and by my body clock still. Took a few days to stop doing this. Entering Yosemite National Park the scenery changed quite dramatically. I was on the road early to avoid the heat and this also turned out to be a good move for avoiding the heavy tourist traffic I had read it attracted. Riding Yosemite was like a dream, amazing views and a surface so smooth you could have played billiards on it and with so much grip the motorcycle was like magnetised to the road. Truly one of the most amazing rides I have ever had. While mostly the tour focused on riding I did do a couple of tourist things, one of which was visit Bodie Ghost town. On the day I arrived it was packed being the Friends of Bodie day when people dress up in period costumes. What are the odds of arriving on this day! It really was like being in a wild west movie set. But this is a real frontier ghost town. The road to Bodie has some pretty rough gravel so only two motorcycles in the car park but it was not too hard to ride in. The road nearby was superb hot mix that twisted it’s way through some scenic rocky outcrops. I got caught in a storm after leaving Bodie, I saw it brewing and so left and tried to out run it which to some extent I succeeded.
Leaving the beautiful valley to the north I encountered just the edge of it with some heavy rain very briefly and small hail stones while climbing another excellent mountain road and had about 15 minutes of wet roads before I descending the other side where I returned to dry excellent sweeping curve roads the remainder of afternoon. Day three map. Leaving the Tahoe National forest I was riding next into the Lassen National forest however there was a forest fire and the park was closed. I had another couple of routes for this day but I unfortunately had the wrong one in my GPS so ended up going further north before riding west to try get away from the fires. The roads were still excellent, lovely sweepers in the forest, some straight stuff but not boring. I ended up cutting across to Trinity National forest by days end, I had a bit of a head cold today and was feeling poor so did not take so many photos but I still enjoyed the day. Had to turn back shortly after the above photo. Todays map is not how I ended up riding. Still in California day five riding north to the Six Rivers national forest and Klamath forest. Some superb riding on beautiful surveyed roads but in the middle the road all but disappeared to a narrow track for a short way. Amazing thing, I stopped in the middle of nowhere to have a drink and take a few photos of the gorge below the road (which did not come out well) and as I looked down I saw what appeared to be a US $20 bill in the grass but I thought it must be something else but anyway after I had rest decided to go and pick it up and yes it was a $20 bill just sitting there next to motorcycle (in photo above) Amazing haha.
After a great week of riding I left California but not before encountering another serious forest fire. At one point the visibility was reduced to a very short distance and every 2nd vehicle seemed to be an emergency services truck and I was wondering if the road may get closed but I was able to exit the area and enter Oregon to enjoy some more roads with great curves to Klamath Falls. The riding continued to be very good today but I had a bit of flu which I had been fighting the previous day also however today it was really hitting me hard and I basically just got on with the job of riding. This lunch photo is about as clear as my head felt. The salad came free with the sandwich but I barely touched either prompting the waitress to ask was there anything the matter.
Hotel ’continental breakfast’ in the USA seems to be only inedible crap in cellophane bags. It’s curious how some countries have superb breakfasts included with hotel stay, Germany and Japan offer amazing buffet breakfasts. Yet other places like Australia and New Zealand seem to offer no breakfasts despite higher hotel prices. I was doing my hotel bookings this tour on the fly or looking online then choosing when I got to the town and from here on I went for cheaper ones offering no breakfast since the included looked like cardboard. I moved to buying some things from the supermarket the night before to have for breakfast.
This saved me lots of time in the morning and meant I could have a healthy choice like some fruit and yoghurt rather than look for a diner and have fatty fried food. I was missing the espresso coffee I usually start the day with. In the states they love drip filter (“brewed”) coffee. I guess it is all what you are accustomed to. I used to drink this myself all the time working night shifts the place I was at had one of these machines and you can make some very high caffeine content coffee with drip filter machine. But then I got to drinking Italian style and well it is hard to go back as the drip coffee has a watery taste in comparison even though the caffeine level I read is actually higher. Well now I am sounding like the coffee snob I am and starting to digress.
Anyway back to the ride, I zig-zagged from Klamath Falls to Baker City and was not expecting the days riding to throw a lot of curves at me however yet again the riding ended up being way better than I imagined. No shortage of curves in these parts of the country. First was some straight roads but actually quite dramatic landscapes that were never boring and in the afternoon some superb twisty roads in a canyons and ranges south of Baker city. Really interesting small towns here in the west. Would love to explore them more in future. And then the scenery got turned up to 11 as Nigel might have said. Hells Canyon was incredible. I wish I had allowed more time for it. The Grand Canyon is in every tourist brochure but I met some riders here today who said Hells Canyon is deeper than the Grand Canyon and I was only seeing a part of it on my route. Another place I want to revisit. Joseph Canyon pretty impressive also. This day was incredible, every hour was amazing. What a ride. Day 8. Riding north east next to Missoula I rode through Clearwater national forest on highway 12 which is a beautiful two lane road that sweeps it’s way along following the banks of the river and natural curves of the valley. My flu had lifted so I was feeling in great spirits today. Riding next on the roads in Montana near Flathead lake to Columbia Falls it was very scenic with some gentle curves and bit of traffic in places but majestic mountain peaks creating a postcard backdrop. (2017 comment – why don’t I try do more photos like below on tour?) The next day was a major focus of the tour hopefully riding up the ‘Going to the Sun road’ so I stopped today at the town of Columbia Falls. I was walking around and noticed lots of bikes riding past all with no helmets. It was a bit troubling I guess to see these guys in just t-shirts and shorts with beautiful girls riding passenger also wearing no helmets and this is highway speeds. But everyone is free to do as they wish.
As a rider I am taking risks no car driver takes so I am in no position to critic other riders. I asked the road gods for a fine morning tomorrow and safe travels to all and had another early night after another fantastic day of riding. It was fine but foggy start, cold just 4 degrees caught me out and I thought please clear up but I need not worry as I had fantastic visibility on the Going to the Sun road. Photos cannot convey how dramatic the scenery was. The roads namesake. Other side. And a special view at the bottom of other side of the range. (below) How lucky am I on this ride with the weather. Well worth the dawn start to see this. Perhaps a once in a lifetime scene for me which in real life there was jaw dropping and many times better than I can start to express in these photos. (2017 comment – so glad I had a real camera with me on this ride instead of my usual iPhone only. Relatively simple Olympus E-PM1 with 20mm Lumix lens (40mm equivalent) I am wondering why did I not stick with this combo.) Good thing I was up there early far as cars too as on the way back down there was a very long traffic jam. It actually is not really a riders road but undeniably one of the most beautiful for scenery. Up there with the Ice-fields parkway over the border in Canada which I drove some years ago and probably is the most scenic road in the world.
After visiting Glacier National park I went on some backroads via Yaak River to Bonners Ferry. Had a couple of scares with wild deer on the road or crossing the road which really spooked me for rest of the day until I got out of the wilderness and back onto main roads. In Australia the kangaroos rest during the day and you can ride until dusk without much risk but that seems not the case with deer. Next morning I crossed over in Canada with total ease. Rode up to totally empty border check point presented my passport and was stamped and on my way within 30 seconds, never had to even remove my helmet. A modest state motto. The roads along the shore of the Kooteney lake were beautiful riding. I was having such a good time I arrived at the ferry to Balfour forgetting I had no Canadian money on me. Fortunately it is free but I could have done with a coffee as I had over an hour to wait having just missed one departure but no means to buy one. On the other side I tried an ATM and it rejected all 3 types of cards I had but the shop keeper took pity on me and ran a purchase through as a cash out on his till so I could buy some lunch and something to drink.
I need not have worried riding north to Kaslo I found a bank where the ATM worked fine and should have held off to just have lunch there but all good. The road again followed the lake and offered some grand vistas and nice sweeping curves. Different look the the countryside here reminding me somewhat of the lakes region in the Italian border, very scenic. I then stumbled upon what must be the local riders road. Well not stumbled as I have been including all the best road recommendations into the route but perhaps arrived at this one not expecting such an amazing ride. Route 6 Nelson to Vernon. I took a couple of photos but they could be anywhere, the best roads can be so difficult to photograph so enjoying things so much I just rode on but it was great.
The BMW R1200RT is a nice motorcycle. Very comfortable and the weight mostly disappears once you get moving with a reasonably low centre of gravity. It is however not a light bike and in the more tighter corners I really noticed that but I was surprised how well it handled when the suspension was set to firm (electronic adjustment) then on the open road I set it back to medium for decent compliance. The brakes pulled it up well and seat was was comfortable. The screen full raised blocked all the wind and the electronic cruise control was a blessing at times. I had some glitches with the electric screen getting stuck a few times then the cruise control not engaging or the heated grips not turning off. I found these items randomly happened and then fixed themselves which put me off the idea of buying one somewhat.
The engine had ample power. I rode a R1150R naked in Japan prior and I actually preferred the more torque less horsepower of that older engine than this one. Not often did I have the engine revving high so the extra upper rpm engine power is wasted – something I could say about so many bikes I ride I guess. Personally I prefer the sound and feel of a inline four but the boxer engine would probably grow on me if I had one. The luggage is very heavy and built to survive anything by the feel. I never needed the side panniers, everything I had could fit into the top case with room to spare. From Vernon on day eleven I rode to Lillooet via Merritt. Still plenty of curves to enjoy but some very different scenery this morning riding through Indian reserves where the rivers were busy carving canyons into the landscape. Big trains up here. Finally this day I managed to do what I had wanted for many days on the road here and that was have a picnic lunch by the road – it was great and with such glorious weather and scenery so much nicer than sitting inside a cafe. Next I was able to ride a road I had wanted to revisit since when I previously visited Canada in a car 10 years before. Highway 99 Lillooet to Whistler. When I drove this I swore one day I had to return on a motorcycle and so I was very pleased a decade later to have such fine weather and a fine machine to enjoy this road today. Cannot begin to capture how nice this part of BC is and how good the riding is. (2017 comment – here is where I picked up my phone and took my first onboard selfie which I use as a photo watermark now all these years later)
Big day riding today and I was going to have a early night however met a rider from Czech Republic so we went for a few beers and it was good to get out but the tipping thing in North America is hard for me to get my head around. Day 12 and I am riding the awesome Sea to Sky highway from Squamish to Vancouver. Started out nice but the weather then turned a little poor for awhile but I could hardly complain I had no rain after the mere 15 minutes back at the start of this tour! It was really beautiful scenery still despite some gloomy conditions. I had a blast on this superb road mostly ignoring the 80kph speed limit. Getting back into the USA took some time, I was in the traffic queue for 45 minutes and the BMW engine temperature was really high despite the cool ambient air temperature. It barely started when time to leave the check point. Air cooled has it’s drawbacks. Next on my list was to ride Mt Baker in Washington state. The weather looked damp as I approached but yet again I was lucky having missed some rain and was able to ride at a decent pace up the mostly dry road.
Mt Baker turned out to be a great ride the roads offered a bit of everything, sweepers and more technical corners and even a few very tight switchbacks with sheer drops at the very top. I was not able to see the full views but it was rather good all the same and the snow really surprised me when not that far south from here I was in mid forties temperatures on day two of the ride. I was planning to ride all back roads to Seattle and indeed started out on state route 9 with a bunch of other bikers which confirmed I had chosen well however there was a lot of road works and I was wanting to get the bike to the rental shop that afternoon and not ride in the afternoon peak hour traffic so after a number of delays I jumped on the interstate for the last miles. Even this was slow going with terrible traffic jams despite 12 lanes and still pre peak hour. This was the first big city traffic I had encountered the whole trip.
The guys from Eagle rider Seattle looked after me and took me to my hotel and it was overall a smooth no hassle renting experience. The one way drop off fee was at the time reasonable, perhaps because not far from my start point but stopping here worked well for me to fit all this into my allowed time and to fly out next day since my return was via LAX not SFO.
My suitcase I had paid for UPS to pick up from San Francisco never arrived. They did not pick it up because the label I had printed out from their web page was not to their liking. They never advised me it had not been delivered. Did not refund my money. Just a really shitty company to deal with. I have shipped heaps of things with couriers and was in small freight work myself for a few years and it is a common everyday thing the customer might not have a label affixed perfectly, you just stick one on yourself no big deal – except if you are UPS.
So I went to the mall near Seattle airport (which is a Westfield mall <from Australia>) and purchased a new one. No big deal my case was old. Overall I can sum up that this tour exceeded my riding expectations every day. The roads were superb, wonderful consistent surveying, smooth excellent surfaces – the roads that were being resurfaced in California were already better quality than our roads in Australia. Naturally the corners are always a strong focus and these were just great. Not a lot of tight technical stuff but nice sweepers where you can enjoy leaning the bike and feeing the hang time – I loved it.
In many ways it is a ride that anyone could do with ease. Nothing more challenging to overcome than remembering that unique to North America practice called tipping. I had an app on my phone and used it to tell me what to add to bills and tried view it all as a VAT/GST type sales tax that had to be applied to each bill so I would remember it.
I will return again to North America to ride some more, maybe next year or one after. (2017 comment – alas I am yet to return but will some day when perhaps the border is more welcoming to tourists than it is at present)