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Northern California was made for cruising, from the jaw-dropping coastline of Big Sur to the wild landscape of Death Valley. You’ll find rides to remember all over the region that you can explore from spring to fall. Kick back on your bike and cruise through spectacular coastal landscapes, gorgeous Wine Country, and epic National Parks.
California’s Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is one of the most famous drives in the world, and for good reason – the scenery is absolutely incredible. Highway 1 twists and turns its way through clifftop splendor, passing by historic bridges, fantastic photo opps at Big Sur, and sea lions on picture-perfect beaches. Hop on anywhere between Santa Barbara to San Francisco and get ready for the ride of your life.
Like the PCH, the best motorcycle rides in Northern California roll through beautiful natural surroundings. Drive Dantes View Road for killer vistas in Death Valley. Take Conzelman Road over the Golden Gate Bridge to find postcard-worthy coastal views. Follow Highway 180 or Highway 101 (the Redwood Highway) to venture into California’s deep green forest. Find your perfect road.
Day One: Oakland to Napa
Miles Ridden: 163.7
There’s a myth that California is one state. It’s really many more than that. Southern California, where I live, is dominated by the urban megalopolis, Los Angeles. Northern California has its own dominant city, San Francisco. But there are vast stretches of California that live outside the urban influence. There are the deserts, the mountains and the coastlines. There is farmland, there are forests. And there are great motorcycle roads crisscrossing all of them. I’m exploring the northern half of the state on this week’s ride, and I’ll just have time to hit some highlights.
I fly in to Oakland International Airport. Oakland is just across the bay from San Francisco, and is home to about 400,000 people. San Francisco gets most of the attention, but Oakland is a great town, really on the upswing as tech companies search for more affordable spaces. Oakland is also home to a wonderful Harley dealership, Oakland Harley-Davidson, just a two-minute cab ride from the airport. I arrive with my gear as the dealership opens at 10:00 am, and rentals manager Raul has my bike all ready for me. I’m riding a beautiful 2013 FLTRX Road Glide Custom this week. The Road Glide Custom comes with a lowered suspension, chopped windshield and sleek styling. It doesn’t come with a TourPak, so I called ahead and asked Raul to add one to use during my rental. No problem. My black Road Glide now has the luggage capacity that I need for a week’s ride, with all of my photo and computer equipment. I travel light, but not light enough.
By 10:45, I’ve completed all of the rental paperwork, loaded the Glide, and I’m ready to ride. I thank Raul for all his help, and ride away onto the spaghetti of freeways that connect the Bay Area. I promptly make a wrong turn, and wind up crossing the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. It’s a cool ride, but definitely a bridge too far. I circle around, and finally find my way north on I-80. I can’t wait to get off of the Interstate and back onto some real roads.
I depart the superslab at CA-29, which will take me through Vallejo all the way up to Napa. Vallejo is named for its founder, Mexican General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo (1807 to 1890), who at one time owned much of California north of San Francisco thanks to a land grant. Vallejo was instrumental in California’s statehood movement, and was directly or indirectly responsible for the foundation of several cities and towns.
I glide through Vallejo on CA-29, looking for the city’s charm. It’s a little hard to find, to be honest. It must be hiding on the backstreets.
A few uneventful miles along CA-29, and I arrive in Napa. With a population of about 75,000, Napa is the 100th largest city in California – but the biggest one in Napa County. The Napa River runs through town, tamed in the late 20th century by flood walls and sluices that contain the floods that plagued the area since its founding in 1847. Napa County and the Napa Valley are known as the heart of California’s Wine Country. This appellation is a relatively recent development. In 1975, the Napa Valley had 25 wineries. Today, the total is approaching 350. Thanks to some very forward-thinking zoning laws that declared the region an agricultural preserve, there’s very little urban sprawl, and vineyards have occupied the very valuable land that might have been consumed by tract homes. Score one for smart planning. There’s a very good chance that the Napa Valley will look the same in 50 years as it looks right now – dominated by vineyards and wineries.
I detour from CA-29 onto the Silverado Trail, which runs up the eastern side of the Valley. The population of the Napa Valley is clustered along the center of the valley floor, strung out along CA-29. Once I get away from hustle and bustle, I discover some wonderful motorcycling roads, just the kind of undulating, curvy blacktop that every motorcyclist dreams about. I swoop through the cool hills beneath the cover of oak trees. I ride all the way to the top of the valley at Middletown, then rejoin CA-29 for the ride back to Napa.
I guide the Glide into the parking lot at the BEST WESTERN PREMIER Ivy Hotel Napa Valley, located on the northern end of town. It’s always cool when my trips take me to a BEST WESTERN PREMIER – especially at the beginning of a week on the road. I’ll be staying at this fashionable hotel for two nights, because tomorrow I’m taking a wine tasting tour, and I will be in no condition to ride my motorcycle afterwards. I get a very nice welcome at the front desk as I check in. My Ride Rewards Card identifies me as a Diamond Elite Best Western Rewards member (after all, I travel a lot!), and I am upgraded to the best available room in the house. My second-floor room is great, with high quality linens and furnishings, and – best of all – a big outdoor porch. I’m in heaven.
I have time to get settled in to my room before I ride off for dinner. A few weeks ago, I used the website Open Table to secure a reservation at JoLe, a very hot restaurant in nearby Calistoga. I unpack my things, change for dinner and ride off into the cool evening.
I’m heading north on CA-29. I pass through two towns on the way to Calistoga, Yountville and St. Helena. A friend explained to me that Yountville is all about the food; St. Helena is all about the shopping. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but just a bit.
Yountville has become the epicenter of California cuisine ever since Chef Thomas Keller took over the restaurant French Laundry in 1994. French Laundry is considered by many to be the best restaurant in the state, maybe the best restaurant in the country. If you plan to try it out, plan in advance. Like, exactly two months in advance, exactly. That’s how they operate. Keller has a second restaurant in Yountville, Ad Hoc, and also owns Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery in New York City. Numerous other fine dining establishments have sprouted in the fertile field that Keller tilled in Yountville, and the culinary excellence has spread across Napa Valley.
St. Helena might be my favorite little town in Napa Valley, I decide as I ride through on the Glide. Perfectly kept examples of Victorian and Craftsman architecture line the residential streets, and downtown’s stone buildings house upscale galleries, gift stores and clothing shops. It’s like a relaxed country SoHo.
St. Helena is also home to a gustatory landmark, the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, the California branch of the famous cooking school. Housed in the former monastery for the Christian Brothers, the CIA has several student-run restaurants and cafes, and also hosts private events and food and wine classes for the public.
The road turns at Calistoga, and I find JoLe on Lincoln Boulevard, the main drag in the tiny town. Calistoga is famous for its mud baths and hot springs, and even has a local geyser, known as the Old Faithful of California. The four-block long downtown is a jumble of restaurants, galleries, gift shops and coffee stands.
JoLe shares a building with another restaurant and a small hotel. I enter the restaurant, and I’m immediately ushered to my table - a victory for Open Table reservations. JoLe is known for its “Farm to Table” philosophy – local foods, locally grown and produced. The menu is ever changing and eclectic. I elect to try a five-course tasting, allowing my waiter to guide me to selections that will show off the international nature of the chef’s talents. I start with a green salad made from ingredients grown in the chef’s garden, then move to lobster ceviche with popcorn (!) to kobe beef barbeque to pork belly to quail with chicken livers and an ancho reduction. Each dish is surprising, delightful and delicious. I choose not to try the chef’s suggested wine pairings with my meal – after all, I have to hop back on the Glide after I eat. But I would love to return to JoLe again some day. Maybe next time, I’ll stay at the BEST WESTERN PLUS Stevenson Manor, which is walking distance from downtown Calistoga.
I ride back to the BEST WESTERN PREMIER Ivy Hotel Napa Valley, completely content with my choice of restaurant and hotel. This is the kind of luxury that travelers dream about, and to add a motorcycle into the mix pushes the premium experience over the top for me. Tomorrow, I’m taking part in a group wine tasting tour – another new experience for me.
I’m going to sleep well tonight.
Day Two: Wine Country
Miles Ridden: 10
Today is going to be a special one for me, unique on a motorcycling trip. That’s because I won’t be riding a motorcycle. I’ll be riding in a tour bus.
Spending a day touring California’s Wine Country is not what comes to mind when most people picture a motorcycle trip. But why not? The average motorcyclist is remarkably similar, demographically, to the average wine connoisseur. The only challenge is that wine tasting and motorcycling do not mix. Not safely, anyway. But I found a solution to that challenge in Platypus Wine Tours. For $99 per person, you can join a wine tour. The price includes visits to four wineries, a picnic lunch, shared cheese tray and water along the way. Tasting fees at the individual wineries (usually $10 or $15 per person) and driver gratuities (optional) are not included. All you have to bring is your camera and credit card. A sense of humor helps, too.
I have a hot meal of sausage and eggs in the breakfast room at the BEST WESTERN PREMIER Ivy Hotel Napa Valley. Just as it is at all Best Western Hotels, breakfast is included with a night’s stay. I have been advised by Platypus that a hearty breakfast lays a good foundation for wine tasting. That makes good sense.
Right on time at 10:30 am, the Platypus bus pulls up in front of the hotel. I’m the last guest to join the tour. The other 10 guests are five couples from all over the US: Austin and Houston, Texas; Philadelphia; Baltimore; Gainesville, Florida; and Chicago. I’m the only Californian on the tour. Our guide and driver, Sam Honey, is a Brit who has lived in the Napa Valley since the 1970s. As Sam drives, he uses the PA system to give us cool facts and figures about the Valley and about viticulture – the study of vines and the behavior of grapes in the vineyard.
According to Sam, one of the factors that makes the Napa Valley so successful as a wine producing region is its many microclimates. In very close proximity, there can be big differences in temperature and precipitation. At higher elevations on the hillsides, temperatures can be 10 or even 20 degrees lower than on the valley floor. Matching the right grape to the right microclimate is the delicate work of the grower.
Virtually all of the grapes grown in the Napa Valley are grown on foreign vines grafted onto American rootstock. There’s some kind of bug in our soil that destroys the European grape vines. The native grape vines are immune to the bug, but unfortunately, the American grapes make horrible wine. Growers figured out that they could graft a foreign vine onto the American one, and get the hardiness of the native vine with the grapes of the import. Voila, great wine is born.
The big names of commercial winemaking in the United States have vineyards and wineries in the Napa Valley – Beringer, Krug, Martini and others. Some bottle millions of bottles of wine here. But they don’t necessarily grow their grapes here. They import bulk wine from other sources, and bottle the wine in Napa Valley, so that they can label the bottles “Bottled In Napa Valley.” Buyer beware. The vast majority of Napa Valley wine is from boutique wineries, not from the big guys.
We’ll be visiting four boutique wineries today, personally selected by Sam for our group. Sam admits that he hasn’t even selected the fourth winery yet – he wants to get a sense of our group before he commits.
Wine tasting doesn’t have to be stuffy or pretentious. Wine is fun, and for enjoyment, and doesn’t need to be taken so seriously. All that sniffing and swirling and sloshing and spitting is for the experts. We’re encouraged to taste and smell the wine in our own fashions, and even to swallow it if we wish. Sam informs us that it is also permitted to ask for a second tasting of a wine if you’re considering a purchase. Most of the boutique wineries sell their wine directly to consumers, either in their tasting room or through their wine clubs. They can also sell wine over the phone and over the Internet nowadays, shipping to almost anywhere in the United States. Wineries will usually waive the tasting fee if you buy a bottle of wine, which makes the prices even more reasonable. All of the wine we would taste today fell into the $22 to $65 per bottle range. $65 is more than I’d feel comfortable spending on an everyday wine, but it seems like a good price for a gift or a very special occasion wine.
Our first stop proves that right premise off the bat. Casa Nuestra in St. Helena was founded by a “Happy Farmer” back in 1979. That could easily read “Hippie Farmer,” as the founder was a refugee from San Francisco’s scene, and evidence of the Hippie influence abound on the grounds and in the tasting room – psychedelic paintings, music posters and a laid-back vibe make the winery a relaxed, fun place to visit. We get to taste four bottled wines at Casa Nuestra: a 2011 Dry Chenin Blanc, a 2011 Riesling, a 2009 Meritage and a 2009 Tinto – a special “field blend” of a variety of grapes. We also get to visit the barrel room and do a barrel tasting, a reserve that has not yet been bottled. Casa Nuestra’s issues are very small, usually fewer than 400 cases per variety are produced. I really loved the Riesling here – it was crisp and fragrant, not too tart and not too sweet. And I usually don’t like white wines.
We also get to meet the marketing department at Casa Nuestra – a pair of adorable goats who live in a big yard near the tasting room. They are the last two surviving goats from a failed experiment in hippie landscaping. The goats were allowed to wander the vineyard to eat the weeds and grass that grew between the vines. Unfortunately, the goats developed a taste for – you guessed it – grape vines!
Sam makes a point of showing off the vineyard’s collection of small tractors, one of which is an old Lamborghini. Very cool – I knew that Lamborghini made tractors before he built cars, but I have never seen one in person before.
Our second winery is Dutch Henry in Calistoga, a California Certified Organic Farm. Named for a famous outlaw, the legendary biggest horse thief in the Old West, Dutch Henry Winery has built a substantial reputation since its founding in 1992. Two airedale terriers greet our bus, and make a point of personally welcoming each person who arrives. Inside the tasting room, two cats, Floyd and Maybelline, rule the premises. They are incredibly friendly and judgmental, all at the same time. Cats.
Tasting takes a while at Dutch Henry, as there are six wines to sample in a flight: A 2011 Sauvignon Blanc; a 2012 Dry Rose; a 2009 Pinot Noir; a 2007 Argos (a blend of Cabernet Savignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc); a 2007 Syrah and a 2006 Cabernet. We also get to do a barrel tasting here – another blended wine that is quite good. I’m very impressed with the blends here, which is my big discovery for the day.
We get to explore the Dutch Henry cave, a literal cave carved into the side of the hill behind the tasting room, very temperate storage for barrels of wine, and a very impressive space. Way at the back of the cave is a dining room with the most amazing acoustics. Dutch Henry occasionally hosts singer-songwriter evenings in their cave, and also rents out the space for private events.
While we’ve been exploring the wine cave, Sam has been setting up our picnic lunch at a few tables in the middle of a small grove of oak trees. A lovely, simple lunch of cold cuts and croissants made all the more delightful by the conversation, which is starting to flow more freely, thanks to the wine. Our group is starting to loosen up a bit, and I’m discovering fun things about everybody. I even get to bond with one gentleman over our favorite professional bowlers. That’s a subject that doesn’t come up very often in the course of my day, regretfully.
After lunch, we pile back onto the bus and Sam drives us to St. Helena’s David Fulton Winery, which is the oldest continuously operated family vineyard in California. David Fulton produced his first commercial wine in about 1865 (exact facts are a little hazy), and the sixth generation of his direct descendants run the winery today. The vineyards are idyllic and peaceful, and the tasting room has a lovely outdoor porch that feels miles (and centuries) away from the hustle and bustle of busy CA-29, just a few blocks distant.
David Fulton Winery also hosts several winemakers’ output, locals who don’t have their own tasting rooms, but who have big reputations and great skills. We try two of the David Fulton wines, a 2009 Petit Sirah and a 2009 Our Sweet Petit, alongside three Jana Winery selections and a Calafia Cellars wine. The experience at David Fulton is almost the equal to the wine – relaxed and welcoming, fun and informative. I really enjoy my time on the outdoor porch, reclining in an Adirondack chair and sipping delicious wines.
We board the bus for our final vineyard and tasting. Sam has selected Razi Winery in Napa for our last stop. Razi is a tiny producer, with an output of just 2,000 cases per year. Owner Farhad “Fred” Razi meets us in his beautiful tasting room, a high-ceilinged space with a stainless steel bar, terra cotta-colored walls and built-in dark wood cabinetry. Thanks to an anomalous microclimate, Fred is able to grow Chardonnay grapes in Napa. Sam tells us that Fred’s Chardonnay grapes are the only ones he knows of in the Valley. Fred produces Razi Chardonnay, and we taste the 2009 and 2010 editions. We also taste his 2010 Shiraz and 2009 Cabernet Savignon. But my favorite wine of the day turns out to be the 2006 Razi Red Wine, a mix of a variety of grapes from Fred’s vineyard and others. It’s really delicious, and when we try the 2009 Red Wine, I’m surprised to discover that I taste a distinct difference between the two blends, and I much prefer the 2006. Am I developing a taste in wines? I step forward and address the group, nominating Razi Wines as the best discovery of the day. Everyone agrees, and Fred does a brisk business, selling bottles to several members of our group. We board our bus again, happily chattering about our picks for the day.
Sadly, it’s almost 5 p.m., and the day of wine tasting is over. Sam opens the bus door and I hop out at the BEST WESTERN PREMIER Ivy Hotel Napa Valley, waving goodbye to my wine tasting friends.
I retreat to the comfort of my room, and relax into a brief (2.5-hour) nap. Visions of wineries dance in my head, and I awake refreshed, thirsty and hungry.
I am no longer under the influence of alcohol, so I gear up, and ride to downtown Napa for dinner. I have searched Yelp for the best BBQ restaurant in Napa, and all signs point to The Bounty Hunter Wine Bar & Smokin’ BBQ. The place is jumping when I arrive, packed to the gills even though it’s a Tuesday night at 9 p.m. I take that as a good sign, and settle for a seat at the bar, rather than a half-hour wait for a table. Unfortunately, they’re sold out of their special beer can chicken, but I have a delicious combination platter with ribs, shredded pork and brisket, so I don’t feel too disappointed.
I ride back to the BEST WESTERN PREMIER Ivy Hotel, park the bike and stumble into bed. Even with my nap this evening, I’m ready for sleep. I’ve got a challenging ride into the heat tomorrow and I want to be well rested. A day of wine tasting promotes a good night’s sleep – I can attest to that.
Day Three: Napa to Anderson
Miles Ridden: 207.4
I wake up from a sound sleep in my plush room at the BEST WESTERN PREMIER Ivy Hotel Napa Valley, thankfully free of any lingering effects from yesterday’s wine tour. I was careful to drink plenty of water during the day yesterday, and plenty more before bed last night. I feel fresh and alert this morning as I join the crowd in the hotel’s breakfast room. It looks like everybody else has been out jogging or exercising already this morning, and they’re now gobbling down fruit and granola for nourishment. I go right for the sausage and eggs, thankful that I’ll get some real fuel for my ride today. I gulp down a couple of cups of coffee, and I’m ready to ride.
I load up the Glide and depart. The BEST WESTERN PREMIER Ivy Hotel Napa Valley is ideally located for exploration of the region. I could ride west to Sonoma County, and explore a whole other wine region, or I could ride east into the hills and on to California’s capital region, the Sacramento Valley. But I’m riding north today, into regions that I’ve never experienced before.
I join CA-29, and once again pass through the lush vineyards of the Napa Valley. I’m struck by how relaxed and beautiful Yountville and St. Helena seem on this sunny morning. I’m so glad that I’m on a motorcycle today, as the microclimates of the valley are immediate experiences. I go from cool to warm and back again over and over as I crest small rises and follow twists and turns. The smells of agriculture wash over me, as fresh air and breezes blow over the Glide’s chopped windshield.
I turn right to follow CA-29 through Calistoga’s main street, and once again pass JoLe, where I had dinner on Monday night. A farm truck is parked in front of the restaurant, unloading produce that will undoubtedly be transformed into delicious gourmet fare this evening.
Calistoga has an active geyser that is maintained as a tourist attraction, Old Faithful of California. I’m a little early for visiting hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the summer), so I ride on by without stopping. Next time.
The road rises to climb out of the Napa Valley. When I reach the peak, I pull off at a vista point and look back down on Calistoga and the valley beyond. I snap a few photos, regretting that I left my wide angle lens at home this trip. The patchwork of orderly vineyards and untamed groves of trees, interspersed with tastefully spaced homes and businesses paints a truly idyllic picture. Napa Valley really must be seen to be believed. It is a rare, beautiful place.
The road ahead isn’t too bad, either. I roll up CA-29 as it meets up with CA-53, eventually connecting with CA-20. The road curves and undulates, following the contours of the land. Most of the route is two-lane blacktop, and I have it to myself on this hot day. Motorcycling heaven. The speed limits are low, generally about 50 mph, going down to 35 or even 25 when I pass through small towns. I’m really enjoying the Glide’s handling and smoothness today. I’m very glad that I’m wearing my Harley-Davidson FXRG Perforated Leather Jacket. Despite the rising temperatures, I’m comfortable and well ventilated.
Soon, the hills flatten, and I’m riding through some very drab countryside. My route parallels Interstate 5 as I approach the town of Chico, and traffic picks up substantially. I hit construction delays, and the thermometer on the Glide’s dash has hit the triple digits. I decide to abandon the blue routes for a little while, and join the trucks and cars on I-5.
I see a few intriguing billboards as I approach the town of Corning, and it’s getting to be lunchtime anyway. I exit the Interstate and pull in to a restaurant/market called “The Olive Pit.”
Corning turns out to be a major olive growing and packing area, with a big processing and canning plant in town and dozens of olive growers. Numerous farm stands and markets offer locally grown and cured olives, along with local plums and dried fruit available. Fresh olive oil gets bottled and sold here, and merchants advertise tasting bars along the roadway.
The Olive Pit has a great variety of olives and oils available for tasting and purchase. I sample several varieties, including garlic-stuffed olives, almond-stuffed olives and jalapeno-stuffed olives. It’s a good thing I’m on a bike, because I might otherwise have invested all of my spare cash in olives at this stop. I have a quick lunch, and satisfy my olive craving with free samples.
Back on the road with a helmet full of garlic olive breath, I ride back into the heat. The temperature is now 108 degrees, and I’m eager to get to my next stop – and some air conditioning.
In the town of Anderson, I exit the Interstate and glide into the shade of the BEST WESTERN PLUS Anderson Inn. I must look like a baked lobster when I check in to my room, because the kind front desk clerk hands me some cold water, and tells me about the hotel’s delightful outdoor pool. I unload the Glide, drop my bags in my room, and find my bathing suit. A few minutes later, I’m floating in cool, clean water, the 108-degree air swirling around my head. Very refreshing.
There are a few restaurants within walking distance of the BEST WESTERN PLUS Anderson Inn, and I choose Humble Joe’s ChopHouse & Grill, a casual family-style place that’s just a few hundred yards away. The air conditioning is blasting, the steak is tender and the service is prompt and friendly. Just what the doctor ordered.
The heat can really take it out of you. I return to my room, fall into bed and instantly fall asleep, even though it’s only 9 p.m.
Tomorrow, I meet some giants.
Day Four: Anderson to Garberville
Miles Ridden: 309.9
I love to sleep, and I sleep very soundly when I’m on the road. I have to admit that if I don’t set an alarm, I can easily sleep until noon. I’ve always been that way.
Last night, however, I set my alarm for 6:00 am, and when it goes off this morning, I leap out of bed. I want to get on the road before the heat sets in, and I’m very eager to spend some time exploring today. I’m on my way to the Redwood Forest.
A good (free) breakfast of sausage and eggs in the lobby of the BEST WESTERN PLUS Anderson Inn, and I’m ready to ride. I check out, thanking the desk clerks for a lovely stay. What a nice place, with very nice people.
I load the Glide and ride.
A few miles up I-5, I exit and pick up CA-44 toward Eureka. I turn onto CA-273, and I’m back on two-lane blacktop again, swooping the Glide through the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. At 3 million acres, the forest is the largest in California. Mt. Shasta, a dormant volcano that peaks at 14,162 feet, is in the northeastern part of the forest. I’m passing through the central part of the forest, south of the mountain. The ride is glorious, with smooth roads, great banking curves, and fantastic vistas. CA-273 turns into CA-299, and I ride along the shores of Whiskeytown Lake. Tiny towns like Shasta and Whiskeytown crop up along my route. I wonder what life must be like in such remote outposts. Services are spare. I’m glad that I’ve got a full tank of gas – the Glide can carry six gallons of gas, good for a range of close to 240 miles. I won’t test that capacity today. I’ll fill up whenever I get the chance.
I stop for a cup of coffee in Weaverville. A few locals engage me in conversation, curious about the Road Glide and my travels. They’re very friendly, and seem envious about my trip. One gentleman shows me an iPhone app that acts as a police radio scanner. I may have to find that when I get home. Weaverville PD radio chatter isn’t a constant squawk of activity, but it is still interesting to hear a few calls.
I bid my new friends farewell and ride on as they wave goodbye. Back on the road, I’ve got another couple of hours of great riding, complete with hairpin turns and floorboard-scraping curves. The Glide responds like a well-trained mount. I’m having a blast.
Finally, after 150 miles of forest roads, I come to the end of CA-299 and turn north on US-101. It would be possible to ride US-101 all the way from the Mexican border all the way to Canada – actually; it would be fun to ride that route. In some parts of California, 101 is a superhighway. It passes right by my home in Los Angeles, in fact. Up here in Northern California, 101 is called the Redwood Highway, and it hugs the Pacific Coast with two and sometimes four lanes of asphalt. About 35 miles north of McKinleyville, I enter the Redwood National & State Park. I stop at the Thomas H. Kuchel Visitor Center in Orick to get my bearings. The Park Ranger on duty points me to the Ladybird Johnson Grove in the park, where I can get off of the Glide for a short hike through the Redwoods.
No photograph or description can prepare you for your first encounter with the Redwoods. The trees are so impossibly tall and majestic that they defy your senses. The trees are ramrod straight, and bear the marks of time on their bark. They have a serene presence that inspires silent meditation and contemplation. The Coast Redwoods are close relatives to the Giant Sequoias that grow in central California. They are taller (up to 380 feet for the Coast Redwood vs. 311 feet for the Giant Sequoia), and thinner (up to 22 feet in diameter vs. up to 40 feet), and have lifespans of up to 2,000 years.
I ride into the parking lot of the Ladybird Johnson Grove, dismount the Glide and walk the one-mile trail through the forest. There are a few other tourists and a few families along the trail, and everyone is staring quietly at the great trees. Even the birds seem awed by the surroundings, as their soft songs drift through the air. I pass several people sitting beneath the trees, lost in deep meditation. Parents with small children spread out blankets and share picnic lunches in the dappled shade. It’s absolutely beautiful.
Reluctantly, I climb back on the Glide and depart the park. Leaving the park doesn’t mean leaving the Redwoods behind, fortunately. The Coast Redwoods grow in groves along the Pacific, and I’m continuing down the coast today. I ride through Eureka, Fortuna, Rio Dell and Scotia, then take exit 671 for the Avenue of the Giants. The Avenue of the Giants is a 31-mile stretch of two-lane road that used to be the route for 101, and is now a scenic drive through a grove of over 51,000 Redwood trees. The Avenue snakes around the giant trees, meandering through the grove and seemingly backward through time. Riding beneath the canopy of trees is hypnotic and transcendent, just the kind of road that a cruiser dreams of. I guide the Glide through the trees, careful to remain alert for bicyclists, pedestrians and slow-moving tourists.
At Phillipsville, I rejoin the modern US-101 for the short blast into Garberville, where I exit and pull in at the BEST WESTERN PLUS Humboldt House Inn. The parking lot is already crowded with motorcycles, as folks are gathering for the Redwood Run, which begins tomorrow in nearby Piercy. I’m invited to the hotel’s evening wine and cheese reception, which sounds great after a day’s riding. I find a good spot for the Glide, lug my gear up to my second floor room, and change into civilian clothes.
The bikers are a lively group, and I enjoy watching old friends reunite as they nibble on cheese and sip on Merlot and Chardonnay. I leave to walk down Garberville’s main street to find some dinner. I settle on Paradise Grill, a road-themed place behind the hotel, and have a very pleasant meal.
Tomorrow, I’ll explore the Redwood Run, a real biker gathering, before riding south to the Sonoma Valley. Tonight, I relax with some playoff basketball. Life is good.
Day Five & 6: Garberville to Oakland
Garberville to Healdsburg | Miles Ridden: 201.4
Healdsburg to Oakland & Home Again | Miles Ridden: 83.4
I wake up to the sounds of V-Twin engines revving, just moments before my alarm goes off. Looking out the window, I see a group of leather-clad riders warming up their bikes and getting ready to ride off. By the time I am showered and dressed, the parking lot has thinned substantially. I make my way to the breakfast room at the BEST WESTERN PLUS Humboldt House Inn and enjoy my sausage and eggs. It seems like everyone staying at the hotel this weekend is here for the Redwood Run. Excitement is high, and I'm eager to get going.
I load the Glide, check out of the room, and join the flow of traffic on US-101 toward Piercy, which is about 15 miles down the road. I stop at a vista point to admire the view of rolling, tree-covered hills, and I meet an old biker, also on his way to the Redwood Run. The old guy is riding a 1941 BMW sidecar hack, loaded down with his sleeping bag, a tarp and other camping gear, along with his cane. He's dressed for the event, with his pin-covered leather jacket, old-school half helmet and crazy biker eyes. He's a character, and we chat about his sidecar rig for a few minutes as we both admire the view. His bike is losing some oil, but he's pretty sure it'll make it the rest of the way to the Run. I snap a few photos, and continue down the road.
I take the first exit for Piercy, and run into a roadblock right away. A group of friendly bikers sit in front of a sign that says "Local Traffic Only." I stop my bike as a woman comes to greet me. "Is this the way to the Redwood Run?" I ask.
"I don't know," she responds. "Are you sure that's where you want to go?"
I can't help but laugh, she's so serious in her response. She breaks into a big, welcoming smile. "It's the next exit. Can't miss it."
I thank her, wave to the bikers, and ride on. I'm already impressed with the Redwood Run's organizational skills – it would have been easy to just have a sign, but many riders might have made the same wrong turn I did, leading to frustration before they ever arrived at the event. A welcoming committee at the exit makes you feel like somebody cares whether you arrive or not.
A few minutes later, I park the Glide at the Will Call tent, and go in to pick up my event tickets. I've arranged for a media pass for this event. The price for a general admission ticket this year is $120 per person, which includes all of the entertainment events, camping and admission to the grounds on Friday and Saturday.
The Redwood Run is a real, old-fashioned biker party. Only motorcycles are welcome on the grounds of the Run – cars and other vehicles must park in a remote lot, and occupants are shuttled to the site via motor coach. Redwood Run is for grown-ups only – expect to see a lot of drinking and smoking, and maybe even some nudity as the days grow long. One of the popular evening events is a wet t-shirt contest. Definitely not family-friendly, unless your family members are all over 21.
Kiwanis of the Redwoods has staged the Redwood Run every year since 1977. The current venue, Riverview Ranch on the south fork of the Eel River, is set up with multiple first-come, first-served campsites, arranged on different flat clearings on the side of a canyon above the river fork. A big, natural amphitheater at the bottom of the hill forms a perfect location for the big rock and roll performance stage, surrounded by multiple beer and food vendors.
Music is a constant feature of the Redwood Run, with local bands starting during the day, building toward headlining acts in the evening and into the night. The stage is professional, with high-quality lighting and amplification, and fans of bar band music will be thrilled with the classic rock tunes that are cranked out by enthusiastic musicians. Food is mostly of the grilled variety, good old-fashioned camping cuisine. Beer is cheap and flows freely, and hard liquor is also available.
The Redwood Run is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for tourists or casual onlookers. This is a biker rally, in the true sense of the word. There's plenty of security on hand, provided by a team of bikers, and the group seems to police its own. If you feel comfortable at a biker bar, you'll feel comfortable at the Redwood Run, and you can have a great time. I feel completely safe and at ease, even though I have to admit that biker events are not really my scene. The part of the biker lifestyle that I enjoy is the riding part. I hang around for a while, listen to some music, get the vibe, visit the vendor area to buy some beef jerky for the road (my staple food), then saddle back up on the Glide and ride on. Been there; done that.
Back on the 101 again, I head south for a dozen miles, departing in Leggett to pick up CA-1, the Pacific Coast Highway. As soon as I get off the 101, I see a sign for the Drive Thru Tree Park, and I'm magnetically drawn to the admission gate. I pay my $3, ride down a dirt road through a grove of Coast Redwoods until I arrive at the famous, 330-foot tall tree with a 6-foot wide by 6-foot, 9-inch hole completely through its base. I ride through the tree, then pull over to watch cars and people passing through behind me. I don't know why, but it's a compelling sight. Luckily, there's a gift shop on site to help commemorate the event. I buy a refrigerator magnet for myself, and a pair of Drive Thru Tree socks for my wife.
CA-1 snakes through the forest groves, up and down hills and through canyons until it emerges on the beautiful Pacific Coast. Riding through the trees on a nice twisty road, then bursting onto an ocean view is one of the great experiences of California riding. Similar to the famous rides along Big Sur, CA-1 this far north is a winding road above rocky cliffs. There's little margin for error on either shoulder, so I keep my head in the game, making sure that the spectacular scenery doesn't distract me from safe riding. Even though it's a Friday afternoon, there's very little traffic on the road, and I'm free to ride as fast (or slow) as I desire. The road is challenging, but very rewarding as well. There's nothing like a sharp 10-mph hairpin turn to remind you about your riding skills.
I ride through Fort Bragg, Albion, and Gualala, all small towns along the coast, any one of which would be a great place to explore on a weekend trip. There's even a Best Western Hotel in Fort Bragg, the BEST WESTERN Vista Manor Lodge. At Stewarts Point, I depart CA-1 and make a left on Stewarts Point-Skaggs Springs Road. At first, I believe that I've made a wrong turn. The road is very rural, very narrow and very twisty. For some miles, there's not even a yellow line to divide the road into lanes. I'm riding beneath a thick canopy of trees, over hills, through canyons, around culverts. There are switchbacks and hairpins, tight turns and short straightaways. The road is a blast, a total motorcycle workout that keeps going and going. After about 45 miles of motorcycle Nirvana, I glide into the Sonoma Valley's Wine Country. Vineyards replace forest groves, and flat landscape replaces hills.
Stewarts Point-Skaggs Springs Road becomes Dry Creek Road, and soon I'm in Healdsburg. I pull in to the BEST WESTERN PLUS Dry Creek Inn. In an elegant town, the Dry Creek Inn fits right in, with Tuscan wine country inspired architecture and decoration. My room overlooks a central courtyard with multiple fountains, lush landscaping and places to sit and relax in the shade. I'm constantly amazed by the variety and inventiveness of Best Western hotels.
I have a reservation at Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen in downtown Healdsburg, just over 1 mile away from the hotel. I could walk, but it's still close to 100 degrees outside. One of the great things about riding a motorcycle is that parking is always easy. I ride into the bustling town square. It's Friday night, and everyone is on the town. I find convenient parking at the end of a row, where no car could fit. I lock up the Glide, and stroll into Dry Creek Kitchen. I proceed to have one of the best dinners I've ever had, a simple preparation of chicken thigh comfit and chicken breast medallions with an olive tapenade, local Sonoma County fresh vegetables and a remarkable eggplant "caviar." I'm so glad that I booked ahead of time with Open Table, because I never would have been able to enjoy this great meal without a reservation in advance. After the fantastic food, I know why.
I return to the BEST WESTERN PLUS Dry Creek Inn and soak in my room's big bathtub, while watching Sports Center on the big flat screen television hanging over the fireplace. What a perfect way to end a successful day of riding and dining. I retire to bed, ready for the quick ride back to Oakland in the morning.
I awake in the morning, and have a leisurely breakfast in the indoor/outdoor breakfast room at the hotel. I don't have to rush today, but I do need to ride directly to Oakland to return the Glide and catch my flight home.
I load up the bike, check out of my room and bid goodbye to the Sonoma Valley. Before I leave, I take the time to walk around Healdsburg's Town Square one more time. There's a Saturday morning Farmer's Market, with a great variety of fresh organic produce available. Everybody looks healthy and relaxed and Californian. I ride out of Healdsburg with a very mellow feeling for the town.
I trace the 101 toward San Francisco, veering off to Interstate 580 and 880 into Oakland. Following the signs to the Oakland Airport, I exit on Hegenberger Road and park in front of Oakland Harley-Davidson. I unload the trusty Road Glide Custom. I've really fallen for this bike during this week of riding. I'm a firm convert to the frame-mounted fairing, and I've even come to love its looks. The Electra Glide's batwing fairing is starting to look less appealing to me. I know that's because I've always been a function over form guy, and the shark nose fairing just plain works better than the batwing.
Raul at the Rentals Desk wants to hear all about my trip, so after I've changed out of my riding gear and back into airplane traveling clothes, we chat about my route, what I saw, where I ate, and how much I enjoyed the ride. I thank Raul for the recommendations he made, and for setting me up on such a great bike. A driver from the dealership picks me up in a big Ford truck, and whisks me off to Oakland International Airport.
I catch my flight with time to spare, and before I know it, I'm back at home with my wife and doggies. It's good to be home; even better after a great ride to beautiful places.
This was a great trip, traversing the highs and lows of culture and cuisine. I felt perfectly at home in the elegance of wine country, and equally welcome and comfortable with the rough-and-ready bikers at the campgrounds. The Road Glide allowed me to experience the extremes and everything in between, on my own terms and under my own power.
So now the only question that remains is the same question that completes every road trip: Where should I go next?