Washington’s Top 5
story and photography by Bruce Hansen
Let’s say you had to list the best songs you’ve ever heard, the prettiest leading ladies, your favorite child. Could you do it? My self-appointed task was to pick Washington State’s Top Five Rides. At first I felt like I was facing more guesswork than predicting the weather three weeks from Tuesday, but after thousands of miles of research and reviewing my notes, maps and photos, the Top Five became clear.
My idea of a top ride includes not only great pavement but also extreme scenery. The ride needs to possess something unique and powerful, not just racetrack turns. A great ride needs to have something that calls me back to the same area again and holds a special quality that haunts my daydreams. Just looking at a photo or thinking about a series of linked turns fires a longing to return to certain fabulous roads.
OK, I’ve picked five. These highways now own me as I own them, and if you ride them, they may take possession of you. Your daydreams will be obsessed by the visions they grant you.
North Cascades Ride
The North Cascade Highway from Sedro Wooley to Winthrop should be on everyone’s list of great roads. The rugged mountains blocked generations of road builders until the 1970s, when the current highway was completed. Now, as a result of modern engineering, its gentle sweeping curves whisper the same message to each rider who takes this road: You are the best rider ever. You take each turn like you’ve done it hundreds of times.
A traveler can sightsee because the road is so relaxed. Naked peaks, glaciers and deep virgin forests abound. Jade-green rivers and lakes play hide-and-seek with a rider. If the road is modern, the wilderness is ancient. Its piney breath will tell you secrets if you turn off your bike and walk a few hundred feet into the woods for a picnic. Plentiful mosquitoes, deer and eye-grabbing views fill the park.
Few services exist in the North Cascades National Park. If you are camping, take everything you will need. I like to stop in Concrete to get a meal at the Cajun Bar & Grill, ride through the park and spend the night in Winthrop.
Olympic Peninsula Loop
This circuit includes Hurricane Ridge, Crescent Lake, a night in Forks and the Puget Sound.
The secret is out on Hurricane Ridge Road—it has an elevation change of 400 to 5,240 feet in 17 miles. Need any more convincing that this road seems designed for motorcyclists? If it weren’t for the deer, RVs and twitchy weather, it would be the diamond of my Top Five Rides. This certainly is not a racetrack, but even staying within the speed limit will cause pegs to scrape. I love to watch the climate zones change as I ascend this nearly perfect road. Unlike Highway 20 through the Northern Cascades, Hurricane Ridge Road demands more riding skill.
Make your way to Port Angeles to find the beginning of the Hurricane Ridge wonderland. Since it’s only about two hours from Seattle, pay your $5 park entry fee and experience this member of the Top Five Club.
I like to spend the night in Forks using one of the many inexpensive motels and eat dinner at the South North Garden Chinese Restaurant. After Hurricane Ridge, I ride toward Forks on scenic, curvy Highway 101 along Crescent Lake. For the return trip, I take Highway 113/112 through Joyce. Be sure to stop at Joyce for gas and an ice cream bar at the funky store/gas station/post office, and snap a photo in front of the antique gas pump.
Does it count as choosing a sixth top ride if I make the twisty run to Neah Bay from Forks? Neah Bay is the proud home of the Makah Tribe and the most northwest point in Washington. Check out their million-dollar museum and pick up a parking permit so you can take the dirt road out to the tip of the contiguous 48. Riders should watch out for deer, uneven pavement and vacation traffic in these areas.
Most Seattleites know about the North Cascades Highway and Hurricane Ridge. What will be new to many veteran Washington state riders is the run from Clarkston to Enterprise, Oregon. Anyone looking on a map will mistakenly think this is a straight, rural road running along the Idaho border. This arid, hilly countryside holds some of the mightiest roads in the whole of the Pacific Northwest. You are truly out in the wilderness with this ride; far from any services or motorcycle repair places.
Looking down into the Grande Ronde River Canyon, its snaky traffic-free highway may make you want to turn your bike around and do it again. Watch for some rocks on the roads as they skirt steep cliffs and rocky hills. When veterans of this road speak of the Rattlesnake, they think of the black sapphire roads cutting through the Grande Ronde River Canyon as well as the pass a few miles later.
Mount Adams/Klickitat Canyon
Riders come from everywhere to ride the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. They should. The journey along Highway 14 from Vancouver to Goldendale is a must-ride for anyone touring southern Washington. Meandering along the Columbia River, Highway 14 offers a rider the chance to see the climate change from forest to desert within the world’s most beautiful basalt canyon.
Riders often fail to take advantage of our secret 100-mile loop. If you don’t tell anyone, I can reveal it to you. Just past Stevenson, a great place for food and gas, Highway 141 sneaks off to your left toward Trout Lake. Your goal is BZ Corner. BZ Corner has gas and food, but my heart is usually racing with anticipation by the time I get there. No stops for me.
Once in BZ Corner, take the road to Glendale, not Trout Lake. This road will be the crown jewel of any rider’s experience. It affords the best views of Mount Adams—the most massive volcano in Washington. Most Seattlites know nothing of Mount Adams and few people ever see the mountain like riders on the BZ/Glenwood Highway. At first the mountain views thrill you, but the true treasure is the Ramen-noodle twistiness of the road as it winds through the Klickitat Canyon. Bring a camera so you can show your friends this brilliantly cut rider’s road. Just don’t tell them where it is.
Follow the highway from Glendale until you get to Highway 142. Be sure to go west (right turn) toward the mill town of Klickitat, not to Goldendale. Highway 142 is the rest of the Ramen noodle that will take you through the perfect basalt Klickitat Canyon to Highway 14. I suggest you follow Highway 14 east to Goldendale and all the wonders that abound in that area. Beware of the blasting afternoon winds in the Columbia Gorge.
Spirit Lake/Windy Ridge
Which ride should you do last? I suggest you save the twistiest roads in the whole of the Pacific Northwest for dessert. I’m talking about the Windy Ridge run on the wild east side of Mount St. Helens. I start this ride about 50 miles from Vancouver, Washington, just off Highway 14. Take the Wind River Highway north from the town of Carson.
You leave the broad-leafed forest and Columbia River to venture into Gifford Pinchot National Forest, one of the most beautiful and terrible forests in the state. Stop at viewpoints. When the road tees at Forest Road 25, turn north (right) toward Spirit Lake. The forest becomes ever wilder as your bike takes you deeper into this wilderness. Shortly after taking the turn toward Windy Ridge (Highway 99), you will notice evidence of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Imagine super-hot 800-mph demon winds tearing through the area, baking and scouring all of creation. Stop and turn off your bike to view and listen to the sighs of the gray floating forests still covering parts of Spirit Lake.
Nearly constant micro earthquakes deposit rocks on these roads. Be careful around blind turns. Watch for deer, huge rented RVs and packs of adrenaline-addled sport riders. These guys are the friendliest people on the mountain, but tend to put speed ahead of safety.
From Spirit Lake, I go north to the town of Packwood for the night. In Packwood I lie in my motel room trying to decide which road to do next. Perhaps I should go exploring again to see if I’ve overlooked an even greater treasure than the Top Five I’ve already discovered. If you long for such roads as Washington’s Top Five, I say go ahead and risk the daydreams—ride.
Bruce Hansen is author of Motorcycle Journeys Through the Pacific Northwest, Whitehorse Press, (800) 531-1133; www.whitehorsepress.com.
Where to Rent: Because of changes in the insurance industry, the rental market has opened up to a wider variety of bikes. I bet you can find a bike that excites you.
Tigard, Oregon: Paradise Harley-Davidson; (800) 829-7102; www.paradiseh-d.com
Near Portland, Oregon, Airport: Northwest Motorcycle Adventures, Suzuki V-Stroms; (360) 241-6500; www.northwestmotorcycleadventures.com
Near Seattle (Issaquah): Mountain to Sound Motorcycle Adventures, Honda, Yamaha, Harley, BMW, Triumph; (425) 222-5598; www.mtsma.com
[From the June 2007 issue of Rider]