Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Top 10 North American Motorcycle Rides! - Part 2

Didn't get to read part 1 of my "Top 10 North American Motorcycle Rides!"?

Well, here's a second helping of great motorcycle rides in the United States and Canada:
6. “The Tail of the Dragon!” - We begin not far from where we left off, near Robinsville, North Carolina. Here, climbing into the Great Smokie Mountains, you'll find the tail of the Dragon, an exhilarating stretch of US Highway 129 that contains no less than 318 curves...in only 11 miles! The winding and treacherous nature of the road gave it its nickname, and the bends have names like "Wheelie Hell" and "Brake or Bust!" The ride begins at Deal's Gap, a small community with a permanent population of 6 (at least according to the sign) which also boasts a "Motorcycle Resort" for those preparing to tackle the Dragon, complete with a hotel, a lively bar and restaurant, gift shop and even the "Tree of Shame" - a tree hung with the loose wreckage of numerous failed attempts. The Tail of the Dragon has featured in numerous road movies, such as Two-Lane Blacktop, Thunder Road and The Fugitive. It has also featured on Top Gear. Though the speed limit has technically been lowered to 30 mph, bikers on these roads outnumber any other vehicle a hundred-fold and, because the road borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is no development, meaning no side roads for people to pull out in front of you from. The growing popularity of the Dragon has led to a rise of many other motorcycling routes and hotspots in the vacinity. It also benefits from being close to the Cherohala Skyway, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Foothills Parkway, the Apalachean Mountains in general, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, 2 national forests, Lake Ocoee, white water rafting rivers, Harley Davidson dealerships, motorcycle shops and stops galore, cool cities such as Gatlinburg, TN and Asheville, NC, the Cherokee Indian Reservation (where the roadsigns are written in the Cherokee alphabet) and is also not too far from the Murtle Beach Motorcycle Rally in South Carolina.
7. The Alaska Highway - This is by far the greatest undertaking on the list. Far from being just another motorcycle ride, the Alaska Highway is an adventure all its own, not to be taken lightly! While the other rides I've mentioned so far can easily be done within a day-trip, the Alaska Highway requires planning and preparation and you'll want a couple of weeks at least to do it in full and to make the most of it. Saying that, it is definitely worth the extra time. The vistas you'll see and the things you'll experience cannot be imagined until you're up there doing it. The Alaska Highway starts at mile zero in Dawson Creek (not to be confused with Dawson's Creek) and runs an epic 1387 miles up British Columbia (BC), through the Yukon Territory and into Alaska. It finishes at Delta Junction, from where you can either head north to Fairbanks or back south to Anchorage. As soon as you set off on the Alaska Highway you get a feeling for its remoteness. The few settlements you'll come across are mere mileposts, with the exception of Fort Nelson, Watson Lake and Whitehorse, which are still only small towns at best and sit a full day's ride apart from one another. It's a good idea to plan your itinerary around this. Also, riding the Alaska Highway by motorcycle should be done in the summer months. (I did it in September and got stuck in Whitehorse for two days after a batch of snow fell earlier than expected. Not to mention, on the way back down, a lot of the mileposts - some of which are already hundreds of miles apart - were closed or closing up for the winter. A day later and I would've been stranded!) The most scenic section lies between Fort Nelson and Watson Lake, where the Highway crosses the Rocky Mountains and winds back and forth across the BC-Yukon border. Here's an extract from my journals to give you an idea:

A sea of trees, green and ancient, undulated into the distance until there were no individual firs, just one rolling mass of wilderness. This far north, the towns are just gas stations and the gas stations just somebody’s lodge with a fuel pump. A buckled steel disc clicks around, counting, and a sign reads; ‘Tell us how many litres'.”
“Do you skin these wolf pelts here yourself?” I asked the giant of a man inside.
“Actually my wife did those.” He took stock of me. “You’re on a motorcycle?”
“Are you crazy?”
“You know it was snowing this morning, right?"
No. I hadn’t.
Back on the road, I glimpse my first sight of the Rockies, a distant ridge of glittering shark’s teeth stretching ear to ear across the horizon, dressed in smoky-white cloud and dividing blue sky from golden valley, each leaf a mirror for the sun. The mountains seemed to grow up in front of me at an exponential rate. Before I knew it I was amongst them. Snow topped the trees, lined the banks, began to spill into the already treacherous road. My fingertips went numb. My legs trembled in the icy winds.
At over four-thousand feet I came upon Summit Lake, shimmering like a vast silver plate; a flawless portrait of the sky above rendered on its delicate surface. Brooding, cobalt-edged clouds hung suspended in the lake as I skirted its banks, so close I could stroke them.

Highlights of riding the Alaska Highway include:
  • The Liard River Hot Springs
  • Summit Lake
  • Steaming bowls of broth
  • Rye whiskey
  • A herd of Buffalo
  • Live music in Whitehorse
  • Dog-sledding
  • The Northern Lights
It’s the journey that counts!

8. The Icefield Parkway - Jasper to Banff - While perhaps not the epic adventure the Alaska Highway is, in terms of scenery, the Jasper to Banff ride is second to none! This will take you down Western Alberta through some of the most scenic, beautiful and sought out spots in the Canadian Rockies and in fact the world; including Jasper National Park, a real-life glacier known as Athabasca (part of the the Columbia Icefield), Banff National Park and Lake Louise. You'll need to purchase a National Park permit to travel on the Parkway (officially Highway 93), but it's more than worth it!
9. More of Scenic Canada - Take the Cowboy Trail South out of Calgary and pick up the Crowsnest Highway heading west. This will take you across the Continental Divide at Crowsnest Pass and into beautiful BC. Here you'll find the Kootenays, one of the most scenic areas on earth, complete with lakes, mountains and easily enough forest to cover the British Isles (don't quote me on that, it's an expression). Not to mention Nelson, BC - one of the coolest little cities you'll ever come across. (I say city...it's only a handful of streets really.) Catch it in the "fall" when the vistas are monopolised by red and gold for the full effect. Then continue west to the Okanagan River Valley, notorious for having the most perfect climate in Canada, and centered around the sleepy streets of Kelowna.

10. Pacific Coast Highway 1 - It was a border policeman in Kosovo that first told me about PC1, and I was never able to get it out of my head ever since. Though technically a US Highway, in spirit you can ride this baby all the way from Vancouver to Baja California in Mexico. It's simply too long and too amazing to describe it all, but here's a list of must-sees when riding the Pacific Coast:

  • Vancouver
  • Vancouver Island
  • Victoria
  • First Nations/Native American Reservations
  • Hippies!
  • WWOOFing
  • Seattle - home of Starbucks, Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix
  • North West logging country - as in the novels of Ken Kesey
  • Mt Baker - otherwise known as Desolation Peak in the Kerouac novel, Desolation Angels
  • Portland - my personal favourite US city!
  • Eugene - more forest than city. Look out for the Morning Glory Cafe!
  • The Oregon Dunes
  • Gold Beach
  • Clam Beach
  • Arcata
  • Eureka
  • The Redwood Highway
  • Redwood Forests!
  • Sonoma Valley - the birthplace of the California wine industry
  • Point Reyes - Lighthouse and National Seashore
  • Napa Valley
  • Berkeley - Telegraph Avenue
  • Oakland - home to the first ever Hells Angels' Clubhouse
  • San Francisco - North Beach, Haight Ashbury, Fisherman's Wharf, Pier 39
  • Alcatraz
  • Reno
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Zion National Park
  • The Arlen Ness showroom, Gilroy
  • Hollister - the birthplace of the American Biker!
  • San Juan Bautista
  • Monterey
  • Carmel-by-Sea
  • Big Sur - setting of another Kerouac novel by that name
  • Hearst Castle
  • San Simeon
  • Pismo Beach
  • Malibu
  • LA - Hollywood, Sunset Blvd, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Huntington Beach, Long Beach, Belair, the OC (Orange County), Disneyland...you get the picture.
  • Cook's Corner
  • Slab City
  • San Diego
  • Tijuana
  • Baja!

  • ...and there's tonnes more too. I'll add them as I think of them, but the real joy of Highway 1 is simply riding, twisting along the dramatic Pacific coastline, stopping to watch the sunset on empty star-spangled beaches. There's a reason this is number one and a reason I saved it until last.

    I hope you enjoyed this list. It's by no means exclusive. There are thousands of superb motorcycle rides across North America. I haven’t even touched on Colorado, the Californian National Parks, Eastern Canada, Mexico, and so much more.

    What are some of your favourite motorcycle rides around the world?

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