Last winter, I convinced Marv and Kurt that it would be fun to make a ride into South Dakota to the Black Hills. We started planning in January. What else is there to do in January? Well, other than riding in the rain that is.
Marv sent emails to several other riding enthusiasts to see if anyone would be available and interested in joining us. Some were interested but, in the end, it was just Kurt, Marv and I. Chris Harnish was interested, and spent the Spring negotiating his availability to join us. Chris let us know in May that he was available to join us for four of the nine days. He would ride east with us as far as Missoula on the first and a portion of the second day, at which point he would meet some family commitments. He then planned to reconnect with us in Columbia Falls, Montana as we returned from the Black Hills, travelling west for the last two days to home. We were glad he was able to join us.
Marv and I left Marv’s house Tuesday morning for the short ride to North Bend where we would meet Kurt and Chris. It was a good starting spot for us to traverse the North Cascades. After topping off our fuel tanks at the gas station there, we spent a few hours on the road before stopping for breakfast in Cle Elum.
While on a ride a few months ago, we found Stella’s in Cle Elum, a good stop for a light breakfast where I had a nice vegetarian spinach wrap this visit.
I predicted decent vegetarian food was going to be scarce, considering we were venturing deep into cattle country.
By noon, we had crossed a good portion of Washington’s ‘doughnut hole’, so-called because there is a dearth of good riding roads across south central Washington. There’s about a two-hour stretch where the road extends to a vanishing point on the horizon. Because of the location and timing of motorcycle rides, it works out that we’re always crossing this stretch of land during the hottest part of the day. The area is heavily farmed, thanks to the benefits of the Bureau of Reclamation projects that dammed the Columbia and Snake rivers, putting the water to use for irrigation and electrical production. Funny how, in a state that’s famous for its forests, you can spend a couple of hours crossing a huge section of it, searching in vain for a shady spot to take a break. We skirted the north edge of the Hanford Nuclear reservation. Later that night, I checked carefully to see that none of my appendages was glowing.
We stopped at a wide spot in the road for a short break before continuing to Washtucna for lunch at Sonny’s, where we cooled off, had some lunch, and then moved on.
The boring section of road was finally over for the day. We spent the rest of the afternoon wending our way through the Palouse to Lewiston.
From Lewiston, we rode the Old Spiral Highway from bottom to top. It’s a short, novelty highway that is aptly named. It’s fun to ride, and there’s a nice overlook of the river valley when you arrive at the top.
We waded through a short stretch of construction on US Highway 12, and arrived at our motel in Orofino after our 413-mile trek across south central Washington.
A few blocks from our motel, we had a nice meal at a Mexican restaurant, returned to our rooms, and turned in.
We set a time of 0800 for departure from Orofino. Our adventure today would take us over one of the best motorcycling roads in the West. After stopping for breakfast in Kooskia, our route would carry us east on US Highway 12 over the fabled Lolo Pass to Missoula.
It’s one of the sweetest, twisty pieces you’ll ever come across as it winds along the middle fork of the Lochsa River.
We snaked along the river all morning, taking photo breaks, passing each other, and just having a great time riding. By the time we got to Missoula I felt as if I’d already had enough excitement for a whole day.
At a gas stop at the junction of US Highway 93 and US Highway 12 a few miles south of Missoula, we parted company with Chris, who was off to some family adventures. Kurt, Marv, and I were on our own for the next six days. Our destination for the night was Bozeman, MT. We followed Montana Highway 200 across a high plateau region from Missoula to Lincoln where we stopped at a combination casino/convenience store, (welcome to Montana) for a short sit-down and snack. Marv nearly bought a Big Mama, but after correcting the newly-hired cashier about which hot dog he had actually picked off the rotisserie, he paid for his regular hotdog.
After a half-hour watching Kurt tap on his cell phone, we got our gear back on and made our way about a mile down the road before we were confronted with…ROAD CONSTRUCTION! Ugh!! A five-mile section of Highway 200 was being replaced. We rode on varying textures of packed dirt and gravel behind a string of trucks and pickups following a pilot car.
When we hit the turn-off to go south on Montana Highway 279 to Helena, we found a really nice stretch of highway through the mountains, and a back road in Helena that was somewhat adventurous.
We were all watching the weather on the horizon as we trekked south toward I-90 where we would take it for the last half-hour to Bozeman. When we got to Helena, we started to get very light sprinkles. After leaving Helena on Highway 12, we hit another construction stop where we were behind long line of cars and trucks. Who’d have guessed there’d be traffic at rush hour around the state capitol? We spent the next forty minutes passing groups of cars as opportunities presented themselves. Kurt was in front, and managed to get past a very long string of cars on a straight section of road. Marv and I, stuck behind traffic, had to wait a while longer before an opportunity to pass presented itself. All the while, the clouds on the southern horizon grew darker and more ominous.
Finally, after getting past the string of cars and trucks, we were free and clear to jet down and catch up with Kurt. Well, we thought we were. Suddenly, the highway veered west just enough to put us directly under a very heavy cloudburst. The accompanying lightning and thunder completed the sad little vignette, as Marv and I had to pull over to secure ourselves and our gear for rain. As we did so, we watched all the cars and trucks we had worked so hard to get around, pass us by.
The rain was falling very hard as we made our way slowly down to the junction with I-90 where we found Kurt waiting for us at the Wheat Montana Farms bakery/deli. It was a popular place, both for its location and its food. Kurt got something to eat, which prompted me to do so also. I had a very nice vegetarian sandwich called ‘John Deere Greens.’ With a name like that, how could I not love it? Marv was still coasting from breakfast, so had nothing. We waited out the rain and, half an hour later, we were on I-90, bound for Bozeman.
We stayed at a clean, comfortable, low-budget motel in Bozeman.
There were only a few restaurants within walking distance, but the one we chose, by the time we got around to choosing, was closing. We ended up getting pizza at a Pizza Factory next door to the motel. It wasn’t exactly what we had in mind, but we were all tired, and it was good enough.
Thursday morning, we awakened to dry weather. Our day’s destination was the Mill Inn in Sheridan, Wyoming. Our planned route would have us covering three nice stretches of highway; Beartooth Pass, the Chief Joseph Highway, and the Bighorn Mountains were all on the slate for the day.
To save some time in what would probably be a long day, I had us set up to ride east on I-90 for the first 90 minutes. Exiting the super-slab in Columbus, we took Montana Highway 78 through Absarokee, and down to Red Lodge.
The area is high rolling range lands offering some great views of clouds building over Beartooth Pass. However, by the time we got to Red Lodge, we were damp, and decided we’d have to let that part of the trip go. None of us wanted to ride a spectacular highway in the rain with the views obscured by thunderstorms. During a break in a convenience store, I plotted a route to the east where we could stay dry.
Our revised route took us southeast through south-central Montana, and crossed into Wyoming where we took a break in Lovell. The next section of road was Highway 14-ALT to Burgess Junction and the connection with Highway 14. This is one of my favorite scenic roads. From the west you quickly climb the slopes of the Bighorn Mountains to vast panoramic views of the plains thousands of feet below. It’s a nice curvy road, and the cliffs keep you on your toes.
The highway levels out on a 9,000-foot plateau covered with green meadows and rock formations. The road then gradually descends to treed meadows covered with blue and yellow wildflowers.
The wildflowers were in bloom, and the scenery was breathtaking. It’s like that all the way to Bear Lodge Resort at Burgess Junction where we stopped for a nice lunch.
The rest of the trip down the east side of the mountains to Sheridan was nothing short of fantastic. The road was curvaceous, wide, smooth and pink. Yep, Pink! We spaced ourselves out, stopping here and there to take photos.
We finally regrouped just before reaching the bottom of the range. We found our way to the Mill Inn, checked in, and went through our routines of chain maintenance, unpacking, and cleaning up for dinner.
Mexican fast-food sufficed for dinner, as it was the only eatery within walking distance. They custom-prepared tacos and burritos, so it was easy for me to get something devoid of dead animal.
I went to bed that night knowing that the stretch of road we did at the end of the day was so nice, missing Beartooth Pass and the Chief Joseph Highways didn’t really matter; they’ll be there to be ridden another day.
Once again, the first part of the morning was going to be covering distance on the interstate. After two hours on I-90 to Gillette, we stopped for an extended break and a cup of coffee, and then rode thirty more miles of I-90 through eastern Wyoming’s barren, rolling hills. We wanted to see Devil’s Tower, so we exited the freeway to make our first pass through a section of the Black Hills.
Devil’s Tower is probably best known as the star of the Spielberg movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” It’s a very odd rock formation in a spot which causes it to stand out. After completing our pilgrimage to Devil’s Tower, we turned southeast on US Highway 14.
Before we knew it, we were in Spearfish, South Dakota, where we had lunch before embarking on our serpentine path through Spearfish Canyon. The picturesque Black Hills are beautiful and distinct, with a unique quality I’ve not seen in any other mountainous region. Everywhere you turn, there is a pretty landscape.
A storm cloud caught up with us as we looped around on the highway to Deadwood Gulch, so we cautiously picked our way down to the Super 8 Motel in Deadwood. After completing our end-of-the-day chores, we took the Deadwood Trolley to the center of old Deadwood.
It was full of Harley shirts and casinos. I just don’t get the connection, but it seems that when you see a casino, you also see a lot of the Harley culture. We ended up walking around town and dithering about a place to eat until we finally went to one of the casinos for a buffet where each of us would be able to find something we liked. While we waited for a table, we watched Kurt donate his ten dollars on one hand of blackjack. They scooped up his chips, and that was that. Our table was ready, so we went down to the buffet where Kurt sorted through the mixed vegetables, and made off with all the broccoli, probably just so he could deprive me of it. Marv found the crawdads to be nearly-empty shells, but the prime rib was to his liking, so he returned to the line for a second slab. I had some slices of cheese pizza, some mixed vegetables, and some cake.
Our hotel was right next to a creek and, with the window open, the sound of the water splashing across the stones put me right to sleep.
We awakened Saturday morning in Deadwood to a blue blanket of sparking sky, and a full day’s agenda. There had been thunderstorms and a very heavy rain overnight. It was a treat to experience thunderstorms again.
Since we were returning to Deadwood again that night, we packed only the essentials on our bikes for the day-ride. We made our way through pastoral stretches of country roads that wound around the hills in a patternless fashion. There was a railroad museum in Hill City where we stopped for a break. Kurt’s a train aficionado, and loves all things trains, so the stop gave him a chance to look at what they had.
Mount Rushmore was our next destination, so we mounted up and headed down the road. At Mount Rushmore, we paid our $11 admission to park in the garage. Mount Rushmore is a National Monument, rather than a National Park, so our National Park passes did not gain us access. We walked down to the viewing area above the amphitheater where we took photos of ourselves and the giant sculptures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abe Lincoln.
We left the Mount Rushmore exhibit on US Highway 16 and went southeast to catch Playhouse Road into Custer State Park. It’s a narrow road that carried us to SD Highway 87, a road that’s curlier than a corkscrew and fun to ride.
With all of the stops for photos and breaks, it ended up taking us the better part of the afternoon to get back to Hill City where we had lunch.
We’d had enough tight turns for one day, and before we returned to our motel we wanted to hit Sturgis.
Being in Sturgis before bike week is a lot smarter than being in Sturgis during bike week. I’ve been to Sturgis a couple of times before and, after each visit, I recall thinking, ‘I can’t imagine why I will ever need to go back.’ But, Kurt had to have a T-shirt.
As we were about to leave town, we ran into a fast-moving thunderstorm, and took shelter beneath a gas station canopy. We filled our tanks and chatted for a bit while the clouds blew through. After returning to our motel, we cleaned up and walked down the road a few blocks to a diner for our evening meal.
Sunday morning marked the beginning of our return route. The plan was to get the interstate portions of the trip over within one day. Our next motel was the Super 8 motel in Big Timber, Montana. We spent about three hours on I-90 between Deadwood, South Dakota, and Sheridan, Wyoming. When we left Sheridan two days earlier, Kurt had inadvertently left his trip-kit in the motel where we stayed, and we’d made arrangements for him to retrieve it on the return trip. When we left Sheridan, we once again crossed the Big Horn Mountains on US Highway 14 and 14-ALT. It was a splendid ride going east-to-west too. The vistas over the cliffs on the hairpin turns are incomparable. From an altitude of 9,000 feet, you look off into the vast space between where you stand, and the checkerboard of rolling hills in central Wyoming 6,000 feet below. I never grow tired of the views of the Teton and Absaroka ranges dominating the horizon.
Kurt led us at a quick pace down the switchbacks of the west-side decent. With the Bighorns behind us, it was an uneventful, but not boring ride to Big Timber. The colorful terrain of Wyoming and Montana is a pleasant alternative to the rain forests of Western Washington where we live.
After arriving in Big Timber, we went through the end-of-ride rituals, and then went to eat at the diner across the parking lot from the motel. The views in all directions revealed mountain ranges on distant horizons. The sky really does seem bigger in Montana.
After finishing the meager continental breakfast offered by our motel in Big Timber, I went out into the windy parking lot and started making the necessary three trips from the room to my bike to transmigrate my gear into my saddlebags.
Our trip from Big Timber to Columbia Falls was supposed to take us east-to-west, on the “Going To The Sun Highway” in Glacier National Park. That was why Big Timber, indeed that section of Montana, was on our agenda, as the area is scenic and nice to visit. Had the park not been on our agenda, we would probably have rerouted through central Idaho and eastern Oregon.
We had heard reports a few days earlier that there had been a snow fall there, but we were still going east at that time, and were holding out hope that the road through the park would be open. The news report, and a text message from Chris on Sunday evening, told us the road was closed due to avalanches caused by the snow earlier in the week.
Chris, who was back in Missoula preparing to meet us in Columbia Falls on Monday afternoon, was planning his trip north, so I rerouted our trip to get us to Columbia Falls without going through Glacier National Park. In retrospect, I’m not too disappointed we were unable to go through the park, because our revised route turned out to be really nice.
We got underway around 8:00 am, and pushed through the stiff winds to the west on I-90 for about 20 miles before exiting onto US Highway 89 north. Although there was a prevailing head-wind, the weather was cool and dry. We rode north through ranch country to a coffee stop at a café in White Sulpher Springs. There were several locals at the counter chatting it up with the couple that ran the place while having breakfast. Kurt and I had coffee, and the three of us soaked up the americana.
Before leaving town, we topped off our tanks, and then continued north through the Lewis and Clark National forest on Highway 89. It starts off feeling like a highway on top of the world because, as you look in any direction, you see nearby mountain ranges that seem to have their peaks at eye level. The highway then slowly morphs into a quiet, smooth, two-lane that winds along the edge of Belt Creek in the bottom of a canyon. The sky was grey, and it appeared as though we may ride into some rain, but we were spared that. We emerged from the forest, merged with Montana Highway 200 a short bit later, and continued across to Great Falls as the weather brightened.
After crossing through the traffic of Great Falls, we stopped at a gas station on the west edge of town for a break, and saw three women with their car sitting at a gas pump, and they were all peering under their car, trying to figure out what was making noise. They had hit something while passing through a construction area that had peeled their lower fairing from beneath their grill, and they had been dragging it under their car for a while. Gallant Kurt walked over, spoke with them, and then pulled the long piece of plastic from beneath their car. Marv and I, sitting on a bench in the shade, snacked on Cheez-its and honey-roasted peanuts, watching the events unfold. When they finished, I asked one of the women to take our photo.
We got back on the road, and followed Montana Highway 200 west to Montana Highway 83, where we turned north to follow Highway 83 almost all the way north to Columbia Falls. The first part was across grasslands, which then evolved into a lakes region. Several portions of the road hugged lake shores. Because we were getting well into the afternoon, we were alert for deer. The tall grass and shrubbery growing close to the shoulder on both sides of the road seemed like the sort of road where deer would be a problem. The frequent fresh carcasses were evidence to it as well. It was a very nice stretch of road, and the weather was absolutely perfect – sunny and warm, but not hot.
We arrived at our motel in Columbia Falls, where Chris had already checked in. We caught up with Chris, and completed our end-of-day routine.
Chris has a brother-in-law in Columbia Falls and, while we finished our duties, Chris made arrangements for Bob and his girlfriend, Linda, to pick us up and take us to the Three Forks Grille for dinner. It was good, and they had some real vegetarian choices too. I had a falafel pita wrap, which I savored. We enjoyed visiting with Bob and Linda. Bob regaled us with a story of a recent visit to Vietnam and a motor scooter trip he made from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon.) We talked about where we were riding the next day. Bob knew the Yaak River area, and told us to check out the Dirty Shame Tavern when we went through. He then told us a story about a time he had been there.
After dinner, we all piled back into the truck, except for Kurt, who chose to walk back to the motel. They are very nice people, and we appreciated their hospitality.
We left Columbia Falls about 8:00 Tuesday morning, headed west on Montana Highway 40, and then connected to US highway 93, north to Eureka. There wasn’t anything remarkable about the first leg of the trip, but it gave us an opportunity to become fully awake.
We stopped in Eureka at a gas station to top off our tanks and to have a coffee. We were parked next to the convenience store, milling about, when a guy aproached us and asked us if we had time to take a survey. He was from some sort of Montana Tourism board, and we consented to answer a volley of questions about what we had done in Montana, and how we had spent our money. After the official survey was completed, we found him to be an extremely talkative fellow. We discussed our route ahead, and where we had already been.
During our discussion, I learned that there was a gas station in Yaak which would allow me to tweak the route to a more favorable selection of roads. I had wanted to go south after leaving Yaak River Road but, while doing the planning, I had a concern about the availability of fuel. I had laid out a route to take us north toward Bonners Ferry, because I knew we could get gas there. That was in my rough draft of the route, and I had never revisited it to verify we really needed to do that. Once I learned there was fuel available in Yaak, I was able to route us back to the south, and then west toward Priest River.
Off we went, leaving Eureka on Montana Highway 37. We followed its twists and turns south, scribing our way along the east bank of Lake Koocanusa, (so-named because the lake is in the Kootenay Rockies region, and spans Canada and the USA). It is a really nice section of highway, with lots of broad sweeping curves, some tighter turns, and all on pavement that is in very good shape.
When we reached the south end of the lake near the Libby dam, we hooked west over the Kootenai River, and then turned back north and followed National Forest Development Road 228 along the west bank of the lake.
The first two or three miles of the road was being repaired by a group of highway workers who were enlarging and then filling cracks in the pavement with tar. These “tar snakes” test the nerve of motorcyclists, as they’re very slippery. The grooved cracks were freshly filled, and a thin strip of paper had been laid over the tar to keep it from transferring to vehicle tires before it hardened. At least the paper strips made them visible to us so we could tiptoe our bikes through the maze on the road surface. After we got past the area where the crew was actually working, I pulled us out for a break.
Chris then led us at a rather brisk pace up to the north end of the lake where we then followed Forest Service Road 93 through moderately and increasingly-technical tight turns along a ridge. When we got to the top, there were several small groups of motorcyclists taking breaks. One guy was working on his Harley, and it appeared he had unpacked a good deal of gear to try to fix something while his wife waited patiently on a small stool. She looked as though this wasn’t new to her. We continued west and down into Yaak, Montana, a very remote area. The town(?) has a single gas pump, a small mercantile, and two taverns. We had lunch at the Yaak River Tavern, while watching part of a World Cup soccer game. Across the street was the other tavern, the storied ‘Dirty Shame.’
Leaving Yaak, we rode southeast on the very sporty Yaak River Road to the junction with US Highway 2. We continued in our southerly direction on Montana Highway 56 to its junction with Montana Highway 200. During a break near Thompson Falls, we learned that the American soccer team lost, and had been eliminated. We followed Montana Highway 200 into Idaho with increasingly-heavy traffic. The Idaho Panhandle is a very difficult area to cross, as there are not that many east-to-west passages because of the way the mountains are situated. The other factor is that Idaho doesn’t take very good care of its roads, which results in the area being very congested and getting worse every year.
We crossed into Washington about 4:00 in the afternoon, roughly forty miles from our night’s stop in Chewelah. We waited out a short construction delay on Washington Highway 20 before breaking free and heading north to Usk. We rode from Usk to Chewelah on the never-disappointing Flowery Trail Road with its open sight lines through high-speed sweepers and no surprises.
In Chewelah, we checked into the Nordig Motel where I had stayed previously. As it happened, Chris had a relative in Chewelah too. Chris arranged for Doug to transport us to Mondo’s, an Italian bistro, where we had an outstanding meal. I’m not exactly sure how Chris and Doug are related, but he is an interesting character, a “salt-of-the-earth” guy. During dinner, we told Doug about the roads we had covered. He knew of Yaak River, and told us of a pretty funny episode that occurred when he was in the Dirty Shame Tavern in Yaak.
Seems there was a wedding party in the tavern with the guests dressed in their finery. One of the crusty regulars told another of the regulars that he was going to go out to his truck and, when he came back in, the second guy was to immediately run out the back door. Well, the first guy went out to his truck and returned with a shotgun. As the second guy ran out the back door, the guy with the shotgun shouted, “I’ll teach you to sleep with my wife, you S.O.B!”, and fired two shots into the earthen floor of the tavern, blasting dirt everywhere. Of course, the members of the wedding party knew nothing about it, and hastily took cover where they could find it.
When it came time to pay for our meals, Doug picked up the tab for all of us, and then took us for a drive out to his ranch and around Chewelah before dropping us back at the motel. His hospitality was truly appreciated.
Wednesday – The Ride Home
We planned to take our usual roads home from Chewelah. Getting on the road about 8:00 am, we followed a nice series of backroads to Gifford and the Gifford-Inchelium ferry across the Columbia River. The ride over Bridge Creek Road and Cache Creek Road was a blast. After fueling up in Nespalem, we split the group; Kurt and Chris decided to take the most direct route home, while Marv and I decided to return over Highway 20.
Marv and I followed the Columbia River Road to Omak, and then took Highway 20 over Loup Loup Pass, Washington Pass, and Rainy Pass. Highway 20 was uncluttered, so we made good time.
In Concrete, we caught the South Skagit Highway, and took the back roads through Mount Vernon. I split off from Marv at the south end of Mount Vernon, and turned north for home. And that was the end of the 2014 Black Hills ride.