Violating a Sacred Trust to Unveil Five More Local Favorites
We all have our local roads that we hold dear, the hidden gems, the secret stash of perfectly paved paradise that you safeguard lest the masses descend and destroy your hidden haven. It might be as short as a few miles or as long as fifty, but it’s your well-worn friend in the dance. You keep its location secret, its very existence guarded, the details only revealed on a “need to know” basis to those worthy of your trust and possessing proper riding abilities.
I will now violate that trust.
After informing the powers that operate Road Dirt that I live in a motorcycle nexus of sunshine days and alpine roads, I was tasked with describing my asphalt playground. The first installment in this series covered the five obvious heavy hitters. But these next five roads are the masterpieces that lie in wait, the obscure gems of Washington State and parts of Eastern Oregon, the roads that are talked about in hushed whispers. When their names are mentioned, experienced bikers give a knowing nod while the rookies tilt their head quizzically, like a dog hearing a far off, unfamiliar sound. The riders of the Mild Hogs Touring Group in Wenatchee, Washington have spent years and in some cases, several decades mining for these paved gems that I am about to reveal to you.
Although my fellow riders may berate me in the comments section and strip me of my colors, I must reveal all in hope that this will inspire others to come and discover what we locals already know, that the upper left part of the United States has mountains and plains, lakes and rivers tied together with evergreens and asphalt.
It’s a ride best enjoyed with friends. If I have any left after this.
5. Old Spiral Highway
If a road is curvy enough to inspire a song, then it’s a good motorcycle road.
Singer and songwriter Charlie Ryan once owned a 1948 Lincoln with a 12 cylinder engine and a chassis shortened two feet then dressed with a 1930 Ford Model A body. He raced a friend who drove a Cadillac up a road outside of Lewiston, Idaho called the Old Spiral Highway. Later, he incorporated parts of this race into his song “Hot Rod Lincoln”, but changed the name to Grapevine Hill.
The Old Spiral Highway is done best northbound, beginning at Idaho Highway 128 and ending at Highway 95. It packs about 50 curves into its 7.3 miles and running uphill, the curves are steeply banked, encouraging deplorable acts of hooliganism. Some of us have torn stitches in the fingers of our gloves from doing finger drags along the perfect pavement. Unfortunately, it was recently overcome with an infection of tar snakes, slippery enough to cause the front end of your bike to tuck and slide. Take my word for it.
Although the tar snakes might curb your enthusiasm, it is still a road worthy of riding, and worthy of song.
4. Oregon Highway 20, A.K.A. “Cow Chip Highway”
I have been stuck in the middle of a cattle drive every time I have been on this road.
The local ranchers drive hundreds of cattle down this mid-Oregon asphalt treasure, cowboys and cowgirls working the herd while dogs hunt down the stragglers. When you look at the road, you see why.
Oregon Highway 20 connects the small town of Austin to the east and Highway 395 to the west, a shortcut through the wooded, serpentine hills rather than going the long way around to the south. The steep canyon walls leave the road no choice but to follow the aged meanderings of the nearby river creating a hidden gem of motorcycle heaven.
But the canyon also leaves the local ranchers no alternative for moving their herds of cattle. The cattle have nowhere else to go, so they just lope along (literally) in the middle of the road, leaving their exhaust treasures behind, making for some very interesting and slippery riding conditions. Who was ever taught about the dangers of cow pies mid-apex in their MSF course??
But they are there, well placed poo mines scattered everywhere among the 44 miles of winding road, giving you just one more reason to turn, lean and smile. The road, the scenery and the cattle drives combine to make it a unique riding experience enjoyed by those with a certain twisted sense of humor.
At the end, there will be cow pies on your fender, radiator, jacket, face shield and smiles galore. Therefore, keeping your face shield closed is highly recommended.
3. Historic Columbia River Highway 30
The Colombia River Highway 30 was purpose built to be a scenic highway.
Oregon Highway 30 stretches from The Dalles to Troutdale, Oregon. Sometimes it temporarily joins Interstate 84, but it is best enjoyed in its isolated stretches that climb, descend and wind around the basalt cliffs that line the Columbia River Gorge. The cool river winds and basalt columns are ever present riding partners on a road that was completed in 1922, designed to flow with and highlight the terrain and scenery rather than plow through it. Imagine that nowadays, building a road for the sole purpose of making a scenic drive.
Even the guardrails are beautiful. Unforgiving granite blocks are masoned together to ricochet your ride back onto the road where you belonged in the first place. Just don’t focus on them for too long.
Major landmarks like the Rowena Curves and the Crown Point Observatory make for great excuses to stop and catch your breath. The Observatory was completed in 1918 for $100,000 with the sole intent of it’s Roman architecture, marble and brass fittings to make it the most beautiful highway restroom possible.
Everything along this drive, from the river, road, guardrails and yes, the $100,000 restroom, makes it one of the most beautiful riding experiences in the northwest.
2. Oregon Highway 245 Dooley Mountain Road
East coast dwellers, you can have your “Tail of the Dragon”. We in the upper left have our own. It’s called Dooley Mountain Road.
With about 188 curves in its brief 14 miles, it is a local, slightly obscure legend. There are few opportunities to catch your breath as one curve leads into another, and another, and another, all while gaining elevation to a summit of 5,420 feet then dropping down the other side into the town of Baker City, Oregon. This is a mountain road after all. Yet, despite its jaw dropping numbers, it still remains relatively empty.
As you read the number of curves, look at the maps, the forest terrain and comprehend the elevation change, it seems like a beautiful motorcycle nirvana.
But it’s dangerous. Beautiful and dangerous like a scantily dressed ex-girlfirend ringing your doorbell with a half empty bottle of tequila in one hand and a gun in the other. One misstep means trouble. There is no room for error.
Steeply banked corners snuggle up to the side of the mountain inviting speed, but this also means there are frequent dirt and gravel patches in the corners waiting like hidden gremlins to send you skidding off line. The smooth pavement is enticing, but the width is narrow with no guardrails, so one mistake means you are hurtled into space among the waiting evergreens. Only the tops of these 100 foot tall behemoths are visible because the terrain drops away that quickly. A recent fire stripped many of these wooden sentinels bare of branches, leaving them looking like 100-foot tall Vietnam era punji sticks ready to skewer a biker with poor decisions.
And if you stray too far in the opposite lane, that log truck coming at you will make sure to put you in your place as its trailer comes way too far into your lane around the hairpin curve you were just ready to strafe. Some of our riders have had a life changing pucker moment on this road, myself included. Maybe we should ride slower…
No way. It’s deadly and dazzling, pretty and perilous and the alarm is part of the allure. It’s the carnival ride that feels like its trying to kill you but makes you want to get right back on.
This is a road you ride for two days just to get there and experience, that you center your tour around, and that afterwards you get off the bike and realize you held your breath the whole time.
Never heard of it? I’m not surprised.
The Glenwood area is one of the best kept riding secrets in the Pacific Northwest. Every road into, out of and around Glenwood are wooded asphalt beauties, canyon carving masterpieces and river hugging roads that are delightfully empty. If I had a guest visit the upper left and ask to tour with me, I would take them to Glenwood. Directly to Glenwood. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.
Our touring group has spent years mining every riding niche this area has to offer and revealing it’s location to others is like pulling the mask off the Lone Ranger: you just don’t do it. However, no other location can take its place as number one on this list. The Glenwood area has a massive network of roads leading in and out that allow you to ride about 140 miles of continuous mountain goodness without ever getting 30 miles out of town.
Here’s how to do it: start at Glenwood and head east along a winding country road to Trout Lake (you earn bonus points for spelunking the ice caves there in full motorcycle gear). Next, take the short scenic jaunt to the town of BZ Corner, gas up, and get ready.
From BZ corner, head north to Glenwood on the BZ-Glenwood Highway. It starts with 15 miles of perfect uphill pavement among evergreens with linked tight curves that rival Dooley Mountain Road. When the road reaches farmland the open range gives way to giant radius sweepers among ancient barns and curious cattle. With miles of visibility, picturesque farms and endless fields graced with the presence of nearby Mt. Adams, it feels like a hooligan shredding of Amish country. Shred away. I still remember this road as the first time I was able to drag my fingers on pavement mid-corner. When I looked up, our Road Captain Todd Shiflett and Tail Gunner Trevor Alexander were doing it also. My son Matt was dragging his muffler which later flew off the bike.
After arriving at Glenwood, head east on the Goldendale Highway. The road is straight for a short stretch before plunging into a gorge that is every canyon racer’s dream: rock face on one side, sheer drop on the other, and a road that barely squeezes between them, embracing the curving cliff face as it throws your exhaust soundtrack back at you. Can it get any better?
It does. At the top of the road, turn south along the Klickitat Canyon for another 35 miles of river hugging road. Once at the bottom of the gorge, then head north on the Appleton Highway and bask in its hypnotic first and second gear switchbacks all the way back to Glenwood. In all, it’s around 140 miles of uninterrupted bliss.
But is not just the local roads. Glenwood also puts the other roads on these lists within reach like Antelope to Shaniko, The Cow Chip Highway, Historic Columbia River Highway 30 and Mt. Rainier National Park to list only a few. The experienced riders among us drop our gear at Glenwood for days at a time and make our breakfast conversation center around what we want to explore that particular day, because the choices are many, varied, and all of them are good.
Then there’s the local folks. We have adopted them as family and they have exchanged the favor, inviting us to their quilt fundraisers (see Searching For America), potluck dinners and into their homes, throwing barn parties in our honor. Here, my inner storyteller is tempted to go on, but what happens at a barn party, stays at a barn party.
I know the stereotypes held by the rest of the nation about the upper left of these United States: it rains all the time, the people are grumpy and the roads are crap. I perpetuate these false notions and keep the real truth a secret in hopes of keeping this homeland of mine sacred.
But should you come to visit, to discover the truth, to see for yourself what I have described and ride like a local, be warned: you might never leave.