Five Major Destinations & Three Burned Restaurants
Hit the reset button on all of the stereotypes you once held about the Pacific Northwest, i.e. it rains all the time, the locals are grumpy, the beer is warm and the roads are crap. True, there is a tiny spot in the state where disgruntled natives seek shelter in the local Starbucks, staring into their devices while moss grows between their toes. However, there’s more to the story.
This upper left corner of the nation has volcanic peaks, carpets of evergreen forests, high plains with wind farms, vast deserts, blistering sun, powerful rivers, some of the most fertile farmland on the planet and a canyon deeper than the Grand Canyon.
Then someone paved it. Wonderful, snaking ribbons of blacktop that follow the will of the land to twist this way and rise in that direction, plummet here and hairpin there. One road took a lifetime to complete. Others hide silently, waiting to be discovered like lost pearls.
So I keep my homeland, this dreamland, the upper left of your country, a secret from others. I drive people away by encouraging the myths. I tell them that the beer is horrible, the natives are grumpy, the roads are crap and it rains all the time, when I know the opposite is true.
On a tour of these roads for this story (I love my job) I was on Lolo Pass where I met Jackie. She had ridden her Harley-Davidson from New Jersey to our upper left part of the U.S. in three days.
“Three days,” I said. “You made good time.”
“Interstate mostly. Not much between Jersey and here,” she replied. Then she stared into the distance. “But this place…,” she spoke quietly, “Oh man.”
So here are the ten best roads of the upper left, five major destinations and five local secrets our riding group has spent years exploring that I will reveal, much to their chagrin. Also included are some pro tips to enhance your ride.
Just please don’t move here. The beer is warm and the natives are grumpy.
And it rains all the time.
5. Mt. Rainier National Park Loop
Mt. Rainier and its 14,410 ft. summit overwhelms the senses, so large it appears close enough to reach out and touch. Forest hugging roads to its east are lined with evergreens but the relentless presence of Mt. Rainier is the real attraction. On clear days, it lurks around every corner. These roads are mountain passes and only accessible by motorcycle during the summer months.
Start westbound on Hwy. 410 from Naches, then head south on Hwy. 123 and finish the loop by heading eastbound on Hwy. 12 back to Naches. Or go the other way around, it doesn’t matter. This 140 mile loop is all about Mt. Rainier, a silent witness to your exploration.
Pro Tip: Ride to one of the two visitor centers at Paradise or Sunrise. The roads to either one have many steep switchbacks that look tempting on the map, but the reality is that holiday traffic and mandatory photo stops make this a pleasure cruise. Paradise is the more tourist-oriented of the two visitor centers while Sunrise is smaller, less crowded with less amenities but higher in elevation and closer to the mountain.
Beware, it can snow at either visitor center at any time, even in July, which makes for an interesting motorcycle ride. Ask me how I know.
4. Asotin to Enterprise
This ride almost falls under the category of local-only knowledge because when viewed on a map it just looks like an arrow-straight farm road in the middle of nowhere.
Don’t believe it.
The curves heading south on Hwy. 3 from Asotin, Washington begin with climbing, hairpin switchbacks on smooth banked pavement for a few miles. Tire warming time. A few miles of sunny, scenic farmland come next and allow you to catch your breath and prepare for Hwy. 3, the Rattlesnake Grade. Then things get serious.
Steeply descending first and second gear switchbacks drop hard on perfect pavement for about 13 miles that feel like 30, testing your braking skills and lane management since log trucks frequent this road and on the hairpins, their rear wheels may trail behind on your side of the road. Stay in your lane. Thirteen miles doesn’t sound like much, but when you can never accelerate past second gear, it seems longer.
Then, just when you get tired of dropping in elevation and your front brakes are begging for mercy, the road hits the bottom of the canyon and rises sharply on the other side. It climbs for miles repeating the whole glorious pattern over again, but uphill. More second gear corners, first gear corners, blind hairpins, log truck!
After about 70 miles of this, you are tired, thankful for a straight stretch of road, greeted with hypnotizing views. Can it get any better?
Yes, it can.
Pro Tip: Eat at Boggan’s Oasis at the base of Rattlesnake Grade for breakfast. This local roadside cafe recently burned to the ground but just re-opened for business and is serving great meals with sides of teasing and friendly sarcasm from the staff, some of whom have worked there for over three decades. It is a perfect opportunity to catch your breath, let your brakes cool and soak in the local culture.
Hwy. 218 in the middle of eastern Oregon heads westbound out of the town of Fossil to the minuscule towns of Antelope (population 50) and Shaniko (near ghost town) for about 45 miles.
The first curves out of Fossil heading westbound are tightly climbing hairpins that give way to medium radius curves in non-stop succession and climb all the way to Antelope. Then the road turns north, shooting up yet another steep grade, climbing to the near-ghost town of Shaniko.
The landscape is generally barren and dry, shattering the “it rains all the time up there” myth. Smooth pavement with good views of apexes and the next few corners gives it an almost racetrack feel. But there is a mandatory stop at the town of Antelope. Here is why.
Pro Tip: Before riding this road, watch the documentary “Wild Wild Country” on Netflix that follows the Rajneesh occupation of Antelope and attempted takeover of local schools and governments. Then stop and look at the town in a new (orange) light.
Once you are in Shaniko, get ice cream at the local store and as you eat it, walk to the red barn down the street on the south side. This barn is an unattended, unadvertised museum of vintage and historic cars, ambulances and early fire trucks. All of them gather dust in their original state, packed tightly to keep each other company as they age gracefully.
2. Lolo Pass
Everything you have heard about Lolo Pass is true. The road. The sign. The mountains. Jackie came all the way from New Jersey to ride Lolo Pass. It’s worth it.
Imagine if you compiled your favorite medium to long radius sweepers from all of your favorite roads, duplicated them by the hundreds, eliminated the straights, perfected the pavement and pasted them together on a mountain pass for 130 miles. Welcome to Lolo Pass.
Lolo Pass is best ridden eastbound and starts to get interesting at the town of Kooskia, Idaho. From there, travel east to Lolo, Montana on Hwy. 12. There are few services between the two spots, so plan your gas stops accordingly.
However, you won’t want to stop because the pavement is rarely straight, being flanked by the middle fork of the Clearwater River then the Lochsa River. With steep mountains on one side and rivers on the other, the road has no choice but to follow along.
Start this ride early in the morning when you are fresh or plan for a long rest stop along the way because you will be weary at the end. Trust me.
Pro Tip: Stay at the Lochsa Lodge. This historic lodge burned to the ground in 2001 (see a theme here?) but was rebuilt into a wonderful timber lodge with rustic cabins, great food and a small store with a much needed gas pump.
On warm days, and after many post-ride beverages, there is a treacherous walk in flip flops down to the Lochsa River for a skinny dip in water that was likely snow a day or two ago that will shock your favorite body parts. Ask me how I know.
Warning number two: the speed limit on Lolo Pass is a ludicrous 50 mph and is enforced well by the Idaho State Police. Again, ask me how I know. But it changes to 70 mph on the Montana side. Game on.
- North Cascades National Park
Have you ever dreamed of riding through the Alps in Germany and polishing it off with German bratwurst in a Bavarian town? You can, no passport required. It’s here in the upper left part of the country. It is North Cascades National Park in Washington State.
From initial funding to final completion, Hwy. 20 through the North Cascades National Park took 73 years. It opened fairly recently in 1972 and the combination of jagged alpine peaks, thin trees and antifreeze colored lakes command your attention. Its brutal terrain that most think can only be seen in Europe. And someone paved a road through it. Whoever they were, thank you. You must have been a motorcyclist.
Hwy. 20, in my experience, is best ridden eastbound making the road run slightly uphill. Smooth pavement maneuvers through the landscape for over a hundred miles that will leave you breathless. No passport required.
But beware, there are no services for a 74-mile stretch through North Cascades National Park. Snow obliterates the road much of the year, making it impassable even into April when the two snow removal crews coming eastbound and westbound meet in the middle, so check conditions carefully. When I crossed the pass to gather these photos in late June, the weather at the summit was 48 degrees and raining. However, the rewards are worth the effort.
Pro Tip: Link Hwy. 20 in the north and Hwy. 2 to the south to complete The Cascade Loop, a 440-mile loop through the middle of the state that crosses the Cascade Mountains twice, once in North Cascades National Park and again to the south over Steven’s Pass. Start from anywhere and go any direction. However, since I live on the loop, I prefer to start from my driveway. Be jealous.
To complete the Bavarian Alps feel after The Cascade Loop, indulge in bratwurst at the Bavarian themed town of Leavenworth, Washington. However, my choice is The 59’er Diner on Hwy. 2 just west of Leavenworth. This 50’s themed diner burned to the ground recently (why do all of my favorite eateries burn to the ground?) but re-opened for business last fall. They have the best milkshakes in the state, perfect for a mid-ride refresh.
For the Grand Finale: Ride them all.
These roads are close enough that they can be linked together in a week of life-changing riding that will make you reconsider where you live, redefine a good motorcycle road and maybe even change what bike you ride. Riders in our group have bought different bikes because of these roads.
While you are busy planning ways to link them together, there are local roads that are more obscure, but just as good. That information comes in part 2 of this series.