Ride to the Rockies.
It had been a long time coming. Last winter I started planning a long motorcycle vacation to the Colorado Rockies. My riding partner, Marv, is a great, steadfast companion for a long road trip. We worked the email chains to see if we could encourage any of our riding friends to join in. We had some inquiries and, at the beginning of the ride, we had John Parish, who committed for the first two days with us, and then would return to Seattle on the third day. Tom Klein had been dealing with some family matters in May and June and, in the last week prior to our leaving, he booked his rooms and decided to head out with us.
Marv and I left Marv and MaryLou’s house on Tuesday, June 23rd, to meet with John and Tom at North Bend. It was going to be a hot day, and we would be crossing the hottest part of central Washington during the afternoon. After our meet & greet at the Chevron station, we left to cross the Cascade Mountains to the Columbia Basin, and the Palouse of southeastern Washington. Our destination for the evening was the Konkolville Motel in Orofino, Idaho.
We took the side roads down the east slopes of the Cascades, and crossed the hot flats with a few breaks for water and an unmemorable stop for lunch. I had never been to Palouse Falls, in all of the years of riding past it. This time we stopped for a few photos.
Before we went to the motel to check in, we ate dinner at the local Mexican restaurant in Orofino. While there, we encountered a couple of guys who were on a dual-sport ride; one was from Alberta, and the other was from Winnipeg. They were heading for Vancouver BC, and quizzed us about good routes to get them there. One of them had received a citation earlier that day from the ‘Sheriff of Lolo Pass.’ I think he’s actually an Idaho State Trooper, but he patrols Lolo Pass for speeding motorcyclists as though he owns it. A motorcyclist probably stole his girlfriend once and now he has a bone to pick with all riders. I filed that away in my memory for the future – Slow down, and make certain the radar detector is turned ‘ON.’
Wednesday morning, we made an early departure to climb the mountains of central Idaho over Lolo Pass, and into Southwestern Montana. We followed the winding Clearwater River south from Orofino to Kooskia, and then turned east. Highway 12 through Idaho over Lolo Pass is a fantastically-twisty road, and always fun to ride. The top of the pass is near Missoula. We stopped at the turnoff to Highway 93 for lunch at a local microbrewery, and then turned to follow Highway 93 south, back into Idaho, and to our next overnight in Salmon, ID.
U.S 93 runs north and south through Missoula and, after crossing Lost Trail Pass, we were in Idaho. It continues south down the center of Idaho. About 20 miles after crossing the pass, it’s a very nice ride along the Salmon River.
We stayed at the Sacajawea Inn in Salmon, ID. That’s a whole story unto itself. Needless to say, we were glad that it was the lowest-budget motel on our itinerary.
Tom decided Thursday morning that two hot, long days on his bike were enough. John Parish was all set to go home in one day, and Tom decided to turn back and head for home as well. He would return the same way we had come, but would do it in two days, with an overnight stay in Orofino.
Marv and I would be on our own for the next 10 days. We would slowly make our way east to Fort Collins in northeastern Colorado, turn south, and make a loop to return home from southwestern Colorado.
From Salmon Idaho, we followed Highway 93 south, and then took Highway 74 to the west through Stanley Idaho. We followed Highway 75 south through the Sawtooth Mountain range, and through the busy Sun Valley resort town of Ketchum. Since we had gained quite a bit of elevation, temperatures were much cooler.
The morning was pleasant, but it got hot again as we rode through the Craters of the Moon National Monument. The craters of the moon is a large area of geologically-significant lava flows. It’s beautiful, after a fashion, but it’s eerie as well. We rolled through this time, as we had both been there on a previous ride.
We crossed the Arco desert, taking a break in a city park dedicated to the “first nuclear power plant in the free world” which had been constructed in the Arco desert a few miles from town. Our overnight motel was in Pocatello.
After drinking nearly a quart of water, we were ready to roll on. The next hour of riding was as dull as the previous hour. This part of Idaho is flat, desolate, and lifeless.
After awakening the next morning and running a few errands, we set out on our way to Rock Springs, WY. Our route would take us over two-lane highways and back roads to Logan, UT where we’d turn east and head over the Bear River Range, through the Cache National forest on the exquisite US 89. It carves its way across the range through a canyon cut by the Logan River, until it breaks over a plateau with an expansive view of Bear Lake to the east, and the emptiness of the high desert beyond.
We stopped at the Bear Lake Overlook Visitor’s Center where we both spent some time rehydrating. I took my camera on a small excursion, while Marv struck up a conversation with a young couple that had pulled into the parking lot on a sport bike while wearing no protective clothing or hearing protection. They were young and invincible, but I’m sure he gave them some well-intentioned advice.
My plan had been to fill up in Bear Lake, but I had forgotten all about it until we had gone past our last service station. We worked our way down the switchbacks to the lake where there was a bit of congestion around the beaches. By the time I thought of gas again, we were crossing the nothingness. I quickly did a little arithmetic in my head, and some checking on my GPS. I decided we’d take a 16-mile detour to Randolph, UT to fill our tanks because, after looking around, I was afraid we’d die out there if we ran out of gas. When we got to what would have been the next on-route gas stop in Diamondville, WY, I took a look at the mileage I would have had on my tank had I not made the detour to Randolph, UT; it would have pushed me into unknown territory. On a California ride, I had gone 200 miles on my gas tank, but I was probably running on fumes when I did it. This would have pushed me about 5-10 miles beyond that, and we were in much, much less hospitable country. Curiously, although we’re riding identical bikes, Marv routinely gets about 10% better mileage than I.
We connected with I-80 in Little America for our last half-hour into Rock Springs. We took a break at a truck-stop before entering the trucker migration on the freeway. Standing next to the door as we walked up, were two riders wearing Aerostich Roadcrafter one-piece riding suits like Marv and I wear. As we approached them, I said, “Hey! Where’d you guys get those suits?” The one smoking a cigar replied “Don’t you guys get hot in those suits?” It was funny as an inside joke, because it’s the first thing people say when they get curious enough to approach you on the road and ask about your journey. They had been on a four-corners (of the U.S.) ride and, as it turned out, were on their way back to the Seattle area. One of them was from Port Angeles, and I think the other was from one of the San Juan Islands.
At our break, Marv had an ice cream cone, and I had a nutritious banana. That’s just one of the many differences I would point out to anyone who says we think alike. Back on the road, we jammed down the freeway to our next night’s stop in Rock Springs, WY, a small I-80 town in the southwest corner of Wyoming that had all the necessities for people on cross-country road trips, but not much else.
Saturday’s ride from Rock Springs, WY to Fort Collins, CO would be a study in topographical, and environmental diversity. We left Rock Springs on I-80, heading east. I don’t mind a little bit of interstate riding first thing in the morning, as I’m a night person, and mornings are slow-time for my brain. We spent an uneventful hour on the interstate, crossing barren high-desert. Wamsutter was our gas stop, just a few miles before we would turn south from the interstate onto a two-lane highway through much the same type of dull terrain.
Wamsutter isn’t much. After we gassed our bikes, we thought it wise to take a short break. The gal at the service station advised us to not drink the tap water, as it was treated for chemical pollution of the groundwater. We had been passing oil and natural gas wells every mile or so since entering Wyoming. She directed us to a dedicated source that dispensed acceptable drinking water.
While at the truck stop, we talked to a couple of riders from Western Washington on dual-sport bikes who had been exploring dirt roads, and back roads on the public lands of Wyoming and Colorado. They were loaded-up with camping gear, and essentials for that sort of a trip. The far-off look in their eyes made me suspect their souls were still out there.
The next section of highway to travel was WY-789, straight south to the Colorado border. It was straight, and dull but, since it wasn’t the interstate, it was an improvement. I kept Marv entertained by pointing out every antelope I saw; there were so many, it nearly wore me out. They’re beautiful animals.
At the Colorado border (finally) we turned east to ride through a very nice section of south-central Wyoming, the Medicine Bow Wilderness. This road was outstanding, as were the views. It’s remote, and beautiful.
We stopped for a break at an overlook where I thought I might get a photo. There was a pickup truck sitting there and a couple of people looking across the hills. It was a really nice view of a couple of small lakes nestled in the trees at the foot of a mountain. The two elderly guys turned to us as we putted in and, as I took off my helmet, one of them approached me and started telling me about a Kawasaki he had once owned. When he got around to asking us where we were from, and I told him we were from near Seattle.
“Seattle? That’s a blue state,” he said as he craned his head around to look at my license plate. It was as if he had heard of such people, but never thought he’d meet one.
“Yeah, it sure is.” I responded proudly.
“We’re a red state here. I’m a conservative. All the people around here are conservatives. “
In my best dumb-hick drawl, “Is that right? You’re a conservative?”
“I sure am.”
“Well I don’t care.”
It was the best I could come up with after the conversation took such a surprising oblique nose-plant into the ditch. He and his pal got in their truck and left, no doubt getting a head-full of right-wing talk radio, their lips parted slightly – drooling, as they drove off to their polluted-groundwater conservative paradise.
I set my cameras up and did a little videography for the next hour, as we wove our way along that beautiful stretch of highway back to civilization.
We wound our way out of the wilderness, and dropped down to cross a straight stretch of highway into North-Central Colorado. We continued without a stop until we got to Walden. It’s a gateway town for the Rocky Mountain National Park, and it was a busy, hot Saturday afternoon. The mini-mart we stopped at was busy with sales of gasoline, ice, and cold drinks.
In Walden we picked up Highway 14 and followed it east. It would eventually come to shadow the Cache la Poudre River through a deep narrow gorge that opened up on a plain where Fort Collins sits. It was a beautiful winding road. The deep green of the pine trees against the red rock walls of the gorge was striking. The clear water of the river gushed ever-downward over the boulders, and the elevation seemed to drop unendingly. We had to content ourselves with the scenery, because we soon realized the traffic was going to be too heavy for us to enjoy the road. There were a lot of areas along the river where large parties of rafters were plunging through the rapids.
When planning this trip, it occurred to me we would be near the Denver/Fort Collins metropolitan area on the weekend but, when I was laying out our route, I was anticipating meeting up with our friend Kurt after he finished riding with his brother, and joining him for the trip home. Being in this area on these days was the only way I could make everything work.
The only days we would have to visit this section of Colorado were on the weekend, so I went ahead with the plan. It had a much greater effect on our Sunday ride. From Fort Collins we would turn south, and follow some very nice canyon roads, skirting the Denver area on the slopes west of the city. The roads were nice, but they might be better to visit on any day that isn’t an early-summer Sunday. We encountered so many Sunday-drivers, and small packs of slow-moving cars, we cut our route short, and cruised in to our motel in Idaho Springs early.
The office of the Columbine motel was closed when we arrived, and there was a small thunderstorm passing over us. We unloaded our gear and sat under the cover of an umbrella-table on the patio. A couple staying at the motel came over and visited with us while we waited. They were in town for a popular bluegrass music festival. We talked music with them, and found out which were the good places to eat.
I was looking forward to Monday morning, and to putting some distance between us and the Denver metro area. We would be dipping south to Cripple Creek, and then turn west towards Gunnison. We went south over Squaw Pass, and through a few suburban areas before getting to some very nice roads south of Conifer.
We enjoyed those sections of road and, around lunch time, we were in Woodland Park. It appeared to be a resort-golfing community. It was as if a timeshare infomercial had vomited it onto the map. The town looked like a contrived, bourgeois retirement village for middle-level managers – tasteless. I think I would rather give myself an appendectomy than live a single day in a town like that.
We passed through areas where there could still be seen the effects of the gold rush. The mountains around Cripple Creek are dotted with mines. Some of them seemed to still be in operation, but most were derelict.
At Cripple Creek, we turned west, and took a very nice set of back roads to connect with US-50 that follows the Arkansas River through a long canyon. It’s a very scenic area, and had some traffic, but it was pleasant enough. Once again we saw the popularity of whitewater rafting. There were many groups of rafters being washed downstream. I remember noticing that the way the mountains on the sides of the canyon lay, it gave the illusion that the river was flowing uphill.
When we got to Poncha Springs, I thought we would take a little short-cut to get to Gunnison a little earlier. We had already ridden a lot of terrific roads, and it’s nice to have a little extra time to relax. My planned short-cut turned out to be through a construction zone with a very long line of cars waiting to get through. I got the nod from Marv, and we backtracked to return to our originally-planned route. It turned out to be one of the best roads we’d ridden. We went south to Saguache, and then turned northwest on Highway 114. We were being given a nice lightning show by thunderstorms that appeared to be on a collision course with us. I thought a few times that we might get wet, but we dodged it. We climbed up to Cochetopa pass, and another crossing of the Continental Divide.
The downhill run into Gunnison was a gem. I followed Marv on a very well-engineered curvy canyon road. Cochetopa Creek was sparkling in the late afternoon sun, and the rock walls of the canyon glowed red like embers of a dying fire. It was pure magic. Later that evening, we both reflected that it was one of those magical pieces of road, at a particular moment in time, which exemplifies sport-touring on a sport bike.
We checked in at our motel in Gunnison, and then made a short ride into town for dinner. We were seated next to a couple of other riders we had seen earlier at our motel. We chatted with them while we had dinner, and learned that the one gentleman’s wife was the person on the cover of the Aerostich Rider’s Wearhouse catalog. She was wearing a suit similar to the ones Marv and I wear, and the photo was taken in Switzerland.
After returning to the motel from dinner, I was in the parking lot fiddling with my bike and noticed a rider in the room opposite to ours on a BMW K1600. It’s the same color as my K1300, which is why it initially caught my eye. After talking with him for a while, I realized he’s quite an interesting character. He does track-days on that K1600, which is probably an odd sight. Most people wouldn’t think of doing a track day on such a big bike. After talking with him I learned he’s a real motorcycle and bicycle enthusiast, as am I.
Tuesday was designed to be a sight-seeing day. We would take a look at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison from all sides. I took a lot of photos.
Marv was patient. We took a water break at a roadside pullout as we headed up the north side of the canyon. Some young women pulled in and parked by us and, while chatting with them, we learned they work for the forest service as wildlife technicians. They were going to hike out to a promontory to observe some nesting Peregrine falcons they’d been monitoring.
We followed highway 92 north to Hotchkiss where we had lunch at a Subway, and gassed our bikes for the trip north on Highway 133 to Glenwood Springs. Once again, at the end of the day we were on a beautiful canyon road to our evening’s destination.
Wednesday morning, we backtracked along the same section of Highway 133 to Hotchkiss, turned west to go over Grand Mesa, and dropped down to Fuita, a suburb of Grand Junction. We got to our motel early enough to take a swim in the otherwise-vacant pool.
From Fruita, we headed north on Highway 139, climbed over Douglas Pass, and would soon leave Colorado behind. We crossed into Utah, and took some very nice roads through the Cache National Forest. Both Highway 35 and Highway 150 were really nice, with outstanding scenery.
Our night’s stop was in Evanston, Wyoming, not far from the area we had passed through the prior week.
Friday, we would cross back over to the Utah panhandle, and then grab the interstate to go home.
After giving it some thought, we decided we’d like to be off the road before Sunday. We anticipated heavy traffic headed home after the long holiday weekend. When we stopped for a break near Ogden, Utah, I received a text message from our friend Kurt. We thought we weren’t going to be able to make the trip home together, as it would have been too difficult to coordinate. But, when I saw the time on the text message, I realized he was taking a break somewhere too. I used an app on my phone to send him a map of our location, and we discovered we were only ten miles apart. Marv and I suited up and went to catch him where he was taking a break at a Dairy Queen.
We told Kurt of our plans to be home on Saturday night, so we could beat the holiday traffic making it home on Sunday afternoon. He did some quick motel reservation changes from his phone, and then we were on our way crossing Southern Idaho on the super-slab. It was a really hot ride, with indicated temperatures as high as 106°.
We made it to our last motel in Nampa, Idaho around 6 pm. The next day, we were up early and crossed the Wallowa Mountains. I was in my garage about 5 pm Saturday night after a 550 mile day on the freeway. The trip had racked up just over 4000 miles. I had a lot of photos and video files to sort through. It was good ride.