It has become somewhat of a tradition that I spend my birthday on two wheels, and this year was no exception. Considering I would be turning 50, I wanted it to have a mix of new roads as well as trusted twisties. The routes I chose did not disappoint—except for one. Learn more about my unpaved adventure below.
I just got back from a 5-day motorcycle trip down to northern California, spending all four nights in a tent. That’s a first for me. I’ve bike-camped many times before but only spent one night out of doors. This trip was memorable for other reasons because it included a nice mix of success and hassle, lots of nearly perfect riding weather coupled with a bit of late spring rain, and a lot of fantastic roads. To top it all off, I got to see some good friends, too.
Click on the section titles to see my riding routes in Google Maps.
It was cloudy and there was a chance of showers the day I departed from my home in Sandy, Oregon. I traveled south through Estacada up the Clackamas River on highway 224 to Ripplebrook, then south on NF-46 to Detroit. I topped off my gas tank at the small store there, then continued south on highway 22 about 18 miles where I got off the highway and headed up into the hills on NF-11, Quartzville Road.
This was a new path for me. The road is paved but narrow, and I had to dodge around a lot of tree and rock debris. The upper reaches of this road, topping off at around 4,000 feet, didn’t get clear of snow until just recently. Not long after heading west on NF-11, the rain started. It was fairly intense and constant until I was on the downhill side and approaching Green Peter Reservoir.
I took a break at the Dogwood wayside, glad to be under a patch of blue sky (Spring weather in Oregon is fickle). After resting for 10, I continued west. The road condition improved and the route around the northern shore of the reservoir did not disappoint. I used to ride with a group of sport bike riders that loved to take that route, and I could see why. The pavement was in good shape and the curves were delightful.
After riding through Sweet Home and veering southwest through the communities of Crawfordsville and Brownsville, I passed over I-5 into the small town of Halsey. A few miles south found me in Junction City where I stopped for lunch at the local Dairy Queen.
The rain had paused and I had sunshine to suit up and continue west, this time on Oregon’s highway 36. For the second time in the day, I got to ride a road that was new to me. I’ve been a huge fan of California’s highway 36, so I had to see what my home state had to offer.
It was a mixed bag. The road was nice, with predictable curves and bucolic farm houses, although there was a fair number of homes and pickup trucks decorated with right-wing propaganda. Declaring oneself as a hater of others because of their skin color, country of origin, political affiliation, or sexual orientation isn’t a way to win points in my book.
The rain returned soon after leaving Junction City, although with a milder intensity this time around. It stopped by the time I got to Mapleton and highway 126. I followed it west to Florence. The rest of the ride south on highway 101 into North Bend was uneventful and pleasant.
Once in North Bend, I let my GPS guide me out to Charleston and then to Sunset Bay State Park. The sun was shining and only a few clouds off on the horizon, out over the Pacific Ocean, were visible. I had a reservation for a tent site at the campground, but they wouldn’t let me occupy it until 4 PM, so I killed about an hour of time at their day use area overlooking the small yet idyllic bay.
I got my camp set up and was reading when my neighbors pulled into the spot next to me. They had a difficult time backing their rig into their slot at a 90-degree angle, so I helped guide them. They were so grateful they offered to share their spaghetti dinner with me. I had already set my dehydrated meal to cooking and didn’t want to waste it, so I thanked them and gave a pass.
While we were chatting, however, a trio of crows snuck onto my picnic table and pecked a hole in my as-yet unopened dehydrated meal pouch. The hole was below the water-fill line, so that pouch was ruined. The crows continued to push the issue, quite vocally, until I asserted my dominance enough that they gave up and resorted to mere verbal abuse from the safety of the trees.
After taking a pleasant shower and reading a bit, I settled in for bed. I fell asleep fairly quickly, thanks to my ThermaRest Mondo King air mattress. That beast is expensive and thick, but it sure works well at providing a good night’s rest in a tent. I’m very happy with that investment.
I woke up just before 1 AM to break for nature. Within 60 seconds of getting back into my tent and crawling into my sleeping bag, the rain started. It rained hard for about 15 minutes, then repeated the process again a bit later. It stopped before I got up at 5:45 AM. Although I had blue skies when I woke up, I had a wet tent to pack.
My morning snack was a Clif Bar while I broke camp. I rode into Coos Bay and had breakfast at the Stock Pot restaurant on the south side of town. One of the locals at the table next to me chatted me up about riding. He was a logger that had lived there his whole life and collected Harley-Davidsons, although no longer rode any of them.
A light rain began to fall just as I was leaving the restaurant. It kept up with me as I headed south on 101, turning into a dense mist as I ascended into low-lying clouds just north of Bandon. By the time I got to that town, the moisture stopped and never bothered me again for the rest of the entire trip.
My next rest and fuel stop was in Brookings, where I ate a snack and enjoyed the bright sunshine. Soon I was across the California border, and soon after that I headed inland on highway 197 and then 199 toward Cave Junction. Highway 199 is great for motorcycles but it’s very narrow and windy in places and makes for an uncomfortable drive if you’re pushing a motor home or towing a trailer.
In Cave Junction, it was warm but not unpleasantly hot. I got gas, then ate lunch at Dairy Queen. Suited back up, I took the back roads through pot-growing country to Indian Creek Road up and over the pass and back into California. Last year there was a very large wildfire just west of that road, but I never saw any glimpses of its destruction.
From Happy Camp, I took highway 96 south to Willow Creek. Highway 96 is both challenging and rewarding. The curves are fantastic and the scenery above the majestic and rugged Klamath River is spectacular, but the road itself has a lot of undulations and different surfaces along with plenty of rocky debris to contend with. It’s a road that likes to be ridden fast but the rider must be focused and never slack on their attention or it could easily be fatal.
It was fairly warm by the time I got to Willow Creek and the junction with highway 299. Westward on this much busier route had me up and over a pair of 2,000+ foot passes and their pleasant, cool air. I met back with highway 101 in Arcata, then down to the southern side of Eureka where I filled up my gas tank.
I got into Fortuna and checked into my tent spot at the Riverwalk RV Park at 4:30. I was 15 minutes into setting up my camp when my friend, Roger, showed up. He rode up from his home in the Bay area on his Honda ST1300 to help me spend my birthday riding the loop (more below). We planned to stay two nights in our tents at the RV park.
After we got our tents set up and our showers out of the way, we walked the 1/4 mile over to the Eel River Brewery for dinner. Traditionally, I’ve stayed at the Super 8 which is adjacent to the brewery, so the tent experience there was new to me. It worked out well and saves a ton of money.
Dinner and brews at the Eel River Brewery are always a delight at this busy establishment. We were told it would be 15-30 minutes before a table would be ready, so we headed outside to enjoy some adult beverages and catch up.
I had met Roger at a V-Strom rally a few years back (see my blog for details) and we’d maintained a friendship ever since. He even rode up to meet me back in 2016 when I headed to Fortuna on my 2012 Suzuki GSX-R750. We rode the loop back then, him on his V-Strom and me on my Gixxer. This was the first time I’d seen Roger since then.
We enjoyed our food and conversation, then wandered back to camp. We were in bed a little bit after 9 PM, eager for the loop ride the next day.
I slept well, even better than the night before. After eating a Clif bar and suiting up, Roger and I rode up 101 to the north end of Eureka where we ate breakfast at The Chalet restaurant. We had clear skies and pleasantly cool air for our ride.
We headed north on 101, then caught 299 inland (east). We made a quick stop in Willow Creek so I could plug my phone into a cigarette power adapter on my bike. Continuing on, the weather got warmer but was still very pleasant. We only had to stop for construction once before getting into Weaverville.
At the Chevron, we saw a dozen Porsches get gas as part of an organized rally. Roger and I filled our own tanks, then parked in the shade and ate some snacks under the market’s overhang. While I was filling up my gas tank, the rubber shroud leaked gas over my finger and down the side of my tank. This is dangerous as the fuel may touch the hot engine and ignite. I quickly finished the job and closed the gas tank before anything happened.
As we sat in the shade, we talked with an older gentleman shuffling by with his little black dog. Between repeated ‘sniffs’ from the oxygen tank strapped to his back, we chatted about his dog, our bikes, and the weather. After he left, a couple on a BMW GS came in to get fuel. We chatted with the lady while her husband finished fueling his bike. In our conversation, we discovered she and her husband and Roger went to the same high school, graduating just a year apart.
Roger and I rode south on highway 3, where the road climbs and winds its way up and over a pass, then down the other side into the community of Hayfork. This section of highway 3 is both the most challenging and rewarding road of the area, and one of my all-time favorite roads to ride.
Like highway 96 to the north, this section of highway 3 is both rewarding and challenging. There are no guard rails and it’s a long way down if you leave the pavement. Most corners are blind and are posted between 20-25 mph. You are either climbing or descending, so your throttle and brakes get a workout. The rider must be alert and in the zone or else fatal danger lurks. There can often be rocks in the center of the lane, too, so choosing and sticking to a track around a corner is helpful.
We survived the curves with a smile and stood up on our pegs to rest our legs and glutes as we rode through Hayfork. Soon after, in the community of Peanut, highway 3 ends and we caught highway 36 westbound.
The true highway 36 experience should include its full route from Red Bluff at I-5 all the way west to Fortuna. The best is to ride it one direction, eat lunch, then back track and ride it the other way. It’s tiring but very rewarding. That famous “144 miles of curves” sign is at the Red Bluff end.
Highway 36 includes every kind of curve and corner and straight imaginable. There are mountain passes and their cool air and low-lying valleys and their heat. There are fir trees and pine trees and low scrub oaks and grasslands. There are even giant redwoods toward the western end. It has it all.
I highly recommend anyone serious about riding check out highway 36 in California. Just don’t tell anyone. Let it be our secret.
We sat outside at the Brewery to enjoy our dinner and conversation. Roger and I get along really well, so the company was a great way to celebrate my birthday.
There was a heavy dew during the night so once again I had to pack a wet tent. After breaking camp, Roger headed south toward home while I headed into old town Fortuna for breakfast at the Redwood Cafe. I had sunshine and blue skies again, although it was a bit chilly to start the day.
I headed inland, backtracking on highway 36 in the other direction. I stopped in Weaverville for gas and a snack, noticeably warmer than the day before. I saw the same shuffling old man as the day before and chatted with him about the climate.
My route took me north on highway 3 past Trinity Lake, then up and over Scott Mountain pass. This section of road is incredible, with great asphalt conditions and good sight lines. The northern side of the pass is grassy ranch land before you descend into hot Yreka.
I got lunch at McDonalds (don’t judge me, it was convenient) and got in out of the heat. After I ate, I stripped down a few layers and converted my jacket into hot-weather mode. I got onto I-5 northbound, then exited at the wayside town of Hornbrook. I gassed up, drank a bunch of water, then headed northeast on Copco Lake Road.
This is where things got kind of weird. I had planned my route using both a Gazetteer and Google Maps. Both indicated my route from Hornbrook across the California-Oregon border and into Keno, Oregon was feasible and paved. It wasn’t.
I rode up and down rolling hills and fast sweepers for several miles before the pavement lost its painted lines. That was the first clue things weren’t what I hoped. I reached Copco Lake, an impoundment of the Klamath River, and on the eastern reach the pavement ended. There was a sign that said, “Unimproved road 5 miles, campers and passenger cars not recommended” or something to that effect. I assumed it meant that the gravel only lasted 5 miles and therefore would turn back to pavement. I might be a moron for misinterpreting the sign, but it also wasn’t overtly clear, either.
So I rode onward, gravel be damned. I’ve ridden on gravel before and my bike is made for that, so it wasn’t an issue. The road began to narrow and eventually the conditions worsened. By this point I had ridden nearly 15 miles and there was no pavement in sight.
It was getting quite warm, too, with temps in the upper 80s. The road narrowed even further, barely wide enough for a small car to pass through without scraping brush on either side.
Finally I came to a fork in the road. On the right was a gate to a ranch house and on the left was a gnarly gravel track with rough rock. A hand-carved metal sign was stapled to a tree in between that said, “Adams Ranch” to the right and “Topsy Grade” to the left. I knew from my notes that the road would change names to “Topsy Grade” once it crossed into Oregon, so I knew I was on the planned route.
Except the planned route wasn’t paved, and looked like it would just keep getting rougher. It did.
By this point I had to stand up on my pegs because the road condition was so rough I couldn’t steer confidently while sitting in the saddle. It was also too narrow for a standard vehicle to pass through. Within a mile the gravel disappeared and the road turned into a steep, dusty, rock-strewn path barely wide enough for an ATV to pass through.
I climbed a dozen yards of this crazy road just enough to find a spot barely wide enough for me to maneuver the bike around. I backtracked to a flat spot and parked it. Getting off the bike, I was breathing hard and sweating profusely. My throat was raspy and my lips were dry. I chugged some water, then took a minute to take a short video and a snapshot with my phone.
Realizing going forward was not an option—both because I knew there were dozens of miles of gnarly track to contend with, and that my skill level off-pavement wasn’t up to the challenge—I decided to go back to Hornbrook.
It had taken me a little over an hour to ride 37 miles, so doubling back would cost me a lot of time. But, safety is what matters. After drinking some more water, I headed southwest again to Hornbrook.
There, I caught I-5 for the fast run north into Oregon. I got off I-5 onto a severely twisty highway 273 (it’s so twisty that at one point it actually twists around and passes under itself). That caught highway 66, the famous Green Springs Highway, and I was climbing up out of the valley on a twisty, amazing road. There were guard rails, which is a good thing because going off the road would be a long way down. The pavement is in perfect condition, too.
It was getting into early evening and once I was up into the timber, I became concerned about deer jumping out into the road in front of me. They are a very real risk to motorcyclists, and that time of the evening increased the risk even more.
I got into Klamath Falls around 5:50 PM to gas up and send a text to my wife letting her know where I was and why I was delayed. Fueled, I continued north around the lake and through the town of Chiloquin on highway 97 before pulling off into Collier State Park and my night’s stop.
It was good to park the bike after a long and tiring ride. I got to the park at 6:20, about two hours later than expected. It was fairly warm and the air was dead calm. The mosquitos buzzed in unison, “Fresh meat,” and attacked me as I quickly set up camp.
It was also good to take a shower. I wasn’t hungry because of the heat and fatigue but I ate a dehydrated meal of beef stew anyway. The mosquitos ate as well, biting me in dozens of places on each leg, my arms and hands, and my neck and head. I’m still itchy several days later.
I turned in around 9 PM and was soon asleep.
As is usual for me, I was awake at 5 am. It was cold out, and according to a thermometer on my bike, it was in the upper 30s. I slept in a bit more, then efficiently broke camp and got my bike packed up. Fortunately the humidity was low and my tent was dry when I rolled it up.
I rode 110 miles into Bend where I stopped at a Shari’s and had breakfast. I contacted my buddy, Mike, and let him know I would be in Detroit at approximately 11:30 am, according to my GPS.
Gas was obtained in the themed town of Sisters, Oregon, as I continued my journey north under brilliant blue skies and perfect temperatures. I arrived at the Korner Post restaurant in Detroit at 11:25 to see Mike greet me outside the front door.
We ate lunch and laughed a lot, which is what Mike and I have been doing since we met in grade school. Our humor is particularly childish, a skill we have honed over these many decades of dedicated practice.
Fed and happy, we went our separate ways. Mike headed back to Albany where he lives and I headed north on NF-46, now retracing my steps back to Ripplebrook, Estacada, and finally Sandy.
This trip was especially enjoyable to me for many reasons. It was a delight to have packed all the gear and supplies I needed and nothing I didn’t need (that is a skill that takes a surprising amount of trial-and-error). I only had one very mild pucker moment on the bike, and I was able to analyze what I’d done wrong, decide on corrective action, and get past it without it getting me out of the zone. My riding was efficient and fast enough to feel fun and gratifying yet not so fast that I was unsafe, unlawful, or needing to feel guilty or regret. My bike performed wonderfully after the nearly 74,000 miles that have passed under its wheels. The V-Strom is truly an amazingly competent machine.
I was able to spend some quality time with good friends, and that is something I value highly.
On a rather personal note, my experiences taking trips on my motorcycle have changed a lot in recent years. My trips prior to 2014 were taken while I was in an unhealthy marriage to a very dysfunctional person. I used to think the reason why I enjoyed going on multi-week trips was for its own enjoyment, but I now realize that was only half the picture.
A great deal of my desire to be alone on the open road was to be away from her.
I am now in a very healthy and happy relationship with a woman that I miss very much when I’m gone. Although I still enjoy going on two-wheeled adventures as much as ever, I now feel a reluctance to be away from home that didn’t exist in my previous marriage. I now look forward to returning home.
Now that I got that personal note out of the way, we can return to this trip in particular.
The places I visited and the roads I traveled are some of the finest for motorcycling anywhere on the west coast, in my personal opinion. The section of highway 3 between Hayfork and Weaverville is worth riding two days in the rain to reach. Seriously.
What makes trips like this special, though, is the sense of adventure that carrying everything you need on the back of your bike can convey. It’s a pain to put up a tent every night and pack it all up the next morning. The elements are a hassle and eating dehydrated food and protein bars gets unappetizing after a while. The toll on your body wears you down a lot faster than staying in motels and traveling by car.
But, you also experience the environment in which you travel at a much more intimate level. The smells are far more immediate and vibrant, and the temperature changes also add a more dynamic and impactful element to the experience. You also meet some of the nicest and most interesting people when traveling on two wheels. The bike strikes up a lot more conversations than I’d ever have otherwise if they were to rely solely on my rather shy, natural personality.
Traveling by motorcycle grants you something priceless and unique every time you head out: memories. And I will have them long after the machine itself has turned to rust.