You could spend a lifetime steering an off-road touring motorcycle through North America, where wild roads abound—but these five trips top the list.
If you’re like most motorcyclists, you log most of your mileage close to home—and hitting familiar backyard trails is a smart way to build skills and experience. Eventually, though, you’ll itch to take those skills to a grander stage. Perhaps you’ll want to string together a series of epic days to create one long, routine-ditching escape. Or maybe you’ll yearn to test your bike-handling savvy on terrain where humans have barely sketched a road into the earth. And that’ll mean traveling beyond the urban envelope to some quieter corners of North America, places where motorcycle travel is still a full- blown adventure. Some travelers load their bikes onto trailers for long-distance transport; others rent adventure or dual-sport motorcycles in the rides’ gateway towns. As for where to go, that’s easy: The following five destinations promise life-altering adventure and the kind of total scenic immersion that no interstate highway trip can touch.
A throwback in all the best ways, Baja California remains mostly quiet and empty—a genuine frontier. Most beaches along this 760-mile-long peninsula remain alluringly pristine; towering cardon cacti almost certainly outnumber the people living among Baja’s arid inland mountains; and only bigger cities have gas stations (motorists in small towns buy fuel from trucked-in cans). The roads are just as underdeveloped, as the annual Baja 1000 rally attests. Still, southern Baja’s endless straightaways can be monotonous, so to combine fun riding with scenic diversity, make this 800-mile lollipop through the peninsula’s northern half: Starting from Tecate (to avoid Tijuana chaos), head southwest on Highway 3 through the up-and-coming Valle de Guadalupe wine region to Ensenada, the city that claims to have invented fish tacos and margaritas. There’s good surfing, too: San Miguel’s thrillingly fast waves break over a reef, so newbs should avoid it. Continue south on Route 1 as far as Santo Tomás, then jog southwest on the unpaved Embarcadero and Calavera roads to edge the shimmering Pacific Ocean. At the fishing village of Ejido Eréndira, gulp fish tacos for breakfast (Bajaeños only eat fish in the morning, when it’s fresh off the boats), then rejoin Route 1 to Bahia de los Angeles for placid beaches and dorado fishing. Roll north on Route 5, sandwiched between coastal sand dunes and the Sea of Cortez, then follow twisting Route 3 west back to Ensenada.
Get there Tecate is a one-hour drive from San Diego via State Route 94. Its Port of Entry is open from 5 a.m. till 11 p.m. (compared to 24 hours at Tijuana). Stay Camp beachside among the coves north of Ejido Eréndira and at Bahia de los Angeles (pitch your tent at Dagget’s Sportfishing, where you can also hire a skipper and catch your own dorado). Beachfront rooms go for under $100 at Alfonsina’s low-key eco- hotel in Bahia San Luis Gonzaga. Inland, the hacienda-style Hotel Mision Catavina is a road- trippers’ oasis complete with a swimming pool. Eat The waterside Molino Viejo (Old Mill) rounds out Baja’s typical ceviche and shrimp dishes with oysters raised in a nearby estuary. In El Rosario, grab a crab burrito at Mama Espinoza’s, a stopover for Baja 1000 racers that displays decades’ worth of race photos, autographs and other memorabilia. Drink Margaritas are a must at Hussong’s, the Ensenada bar that claims to have invented the drink (and also ranks as Mexico’s oldest saloon, established back in 1892). More great margs and epic pool contests await at Catavina’s bar. Shop Buy a few bottles from the Valle de Guadalupe: Viñas de Garza produces excellent Spanish-style red blends, while the wines at the Mogor Estate demonstrate that classic European varietals (like Swiss chasselas and French cabernet sauvignon) play nicely with Baja’s terroir.
VIRGINIA TO PENNSYLVANIA
This 1,052-mile itinerary proves that the West has no monopoly on scenic solitude. Mapped by a nonprofit group that scouts long-distance motorcycle journeys, the Mid-Atlantic Backcountry Discovery Route strings together sections of dirt and pavement through rugged stretches of the Appalachian Mountains. (Easterners are about to get more options: In January 2020, the BDR organization will release a new route through New England.) Like a motorcyclist’s version of the Appalachian Trail, this ride hugs lofty ridgelines, visits the “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania” and tunnels through hardwood forests that blaze red and orange in October. Northern Pennsylvania clay (which turns to glue when wet) and stream crossings in southern Virginia add challenge to a route that’s mostly accessible to intermediates, though the 150 miles of dirt north of Marion, Virginia, will tire even experts (like a longer Tail of the Dragon, it demands exclusively first- and second-gear maneuvers). Historic sites like the C&O Canal and the Antietam Civil War battlefield add interest. North of Harrisburg, people become so scarce that route mappers only saw other vehicles when they rolled into gas stations.
Get there The southern terminus at Damascus, Virginia, is 140 miles north of Charlotte, North Carolina (a major hub for American Airlines). Stay Dispersed camping (which is common across the West’s public lands) is largely unavailable along the Mid-Atlantic BDR, so reserve campground sites ahead of time. Pettecote Junction (in PA) rounds out its RV sites with cabins, tent pads and safari-style glamping near trout fishing in Cedar Run. The campground at Pennsylvania’s Colton Point State Park perches on the west rim of Pine Creek Gorge, where 600-foot cliffs separate campers from the water below. In summer 2020, the Omni Homestead Resort in Warm Springs, Virginia, plans to reopen the pools that Thomas Jefferson once operated; for now, natural springs feed the hotel’s lazy river and elaborate pools located indoors and out. Eat The same wood-shingled lodge that served as Dirty Dancing’s filming location still serves up wholesome ambiance and food: At Virginia’s Mountain Lake Lodge, steaks and veggies come from nearby farms. More farmstand food awaits at South Mountain Creamery, which turns Maryland milk into delectable ice cream. Amish bakeries abound in PA. Drink Local pickers perform on weekends at Damascus Brewery, where beernossieurs belly up to the hand-polished wooden bar for sours, stouts and IPAs. Harpers Ferry may be the least remote part of the route, but the Barn (behind the Light Horse Inn) makes up for the crowds: The unbuffed, garage-like atmosphere feels like a house party, but cocktails are pro level.
It’s not that Colorado’s mountains are prettier than others—though, with 58 peaks exceeding 14,000 feet, maybe they are. But what really makes this mecca for motorcyclists is the incomparable access to lofty elevations: The state’s19th-century mining booms triggered a flurry of road-building across rugged mountainsides where prospectors hoped to unearth gold and other riches. Today’s roamers can exploit those improbable routes to visit high-alpine lakes and tundra-covered passes surrounded by shark’s-tooth summits. The town of Buena Vista serves as the gateway for an approximately 500-mile loop through euphoric heights: Head west over Cottonwood Pass and relentlessly rocky Tincup Pass, where the treeless tundra affords 360-degree views of steel-gray summits. Continue through Lake City and over staggeringly beautiful Cinnamon Pass to stroll swanky Telluride and soak in Ouray’s hot springs, then cruise east over Owl Creek Pass (ogling cliffy buttes that look right out of gunslinger Westerns) before following U.S. 50 along the Gunnison River back to Buena Vista.
Get there Buena Vista is locagted 123 miles southwest of Denver. The drive takes two and a half hours via U.S. Route 285. Stay Dispersed camping is permitted along various portions of the route, including east of Lake City near Los Pinos Pass: Claim a roadside site among the aspens or in meadows overlooking rolling green ridgelines. In Ouray, rooms at the Wiesbaden sport old-folk décor but include exclusive access to the inn’s subterranean vapor cave (the public can join hotel guests at the Wiesbaden’s rock-walled Lorelei soaking pools). Eat Chef Chad Scothorn personally forages for the wild mushrooms he features on late-summer menus at Cosmopolitan, a Telluride shrine to the glory of local edibles. Ridgway’s True Grit Café is where John Wayne played Rooster Cogburn, and True Grit memorabilia covers the walls of a restaurant that’s equally dedicated to cowboy steaks (regular and chicken-fried versions). But Ridgway also has the Thai Paradise, serving curries and stir-fries that could hold their own in any big city. Drink Order a shot and a beer inside, or settle into a log-built deck chair around the outdoor fire pit at Packer Saloon and Cannibal Grill in Lake City. In Telluride, claim a bar stool beneath the massive wood beams of low-ceilinged Floradora Saloon, a locals’ hangout. Rub elbows with whitewater rafters at Buena Vista’s Eddyline Brewery: Its Crank Yanker IPA manages to stand out in a state that’s saturated with hops. Shop Tincup Colorado whiskey pays tribute to the state’s high-mountain miners by topping each bottle with its own metal shot glass (handy for tenters who didn’t pack proper barware). Shop Matthew Newman patented his unique basket design, worked from a single piece of white oak or cherry wood. Browse them and other carved-wood masterpieces at Trails Artware in Damascus.
Southern Utah is chockablock with chiseled canyons and spires, but the densest concentration of drop-jaw scenery surrounds Moab, an adventure gateway that caters to hikers, rafters, mountain bikers, jeepers and national park collectors (Arches and Canyonlands sit just beyond city limits). So although you could use Moab as a starting point for long-distance rides into neighboring Arizona, the best way to mine its red-rock riches is to make this your home base for day trips into its inexhaustible network of backcountry trails. The Gemini Bridges road lets novices motor among scarlet sandstone buttes; the more remote ride to Chicken Corners hugs canyon rims for panoramas across the Colorado River to “Thelma & Louise Point” (where that film’s final scene was filmed). If you have a large-capacity fuel tank and the skills to negotiate steep rockfall, you can continue along the Lockhart Basin Road to find true desert solitude and vast, mind-stretching vistas. Or nab a Canyonlands National Park permit for the 100-mile White Rim loop, where 200 million years of wind and water have sculpted fantastic formations of crimson, orange and ashen rock.
Get There Drive four hours from Salt Lake City, or fly into Moab’s regional airport on United Airlines’ nonstops from Denver. Stay Mod décor makes the five condos at 57 Robbers Roost unusually spiffy for Moab (where accommodations trend toward generic). Yet for bikers, the real draw is the covered parking, secure gear sheds and outdoor bike wash station. Towing a trailer? Check into the kaleidoscopic Gonzo Inn, a quirky-cool motor lodge that greets returning adventurers with iced cucumber water and sends them off with lavish breakfasts of egg-and-sausage standbys and gluten-free cereals. Eat & Drink The brick-walled Moab Garage Company uses liquid nitrogen to chill its ice cream and serves deep-fried PB&J sandwiches on army-issue metal trays. After 5, the Parlor represents Moab’s first stab at nightlife (this is Mormon country, after all), with dangerously drinkable hibiscus mojitos and IPAs on tap. For dinner, claim a rooftop table at La Sal House, where the owners of Moab’s legendary Love Muffin Café turned downtown’s oldest building (circa 1877) into a new-school steakhouse with cocktails to match. Try the Manhattan: Though it isn’t advertised on the menu, it ranks among Utah’s best. Shop You might spy Greg MacDonald sketching and painting in Moab’s Red Rock Bakery, the coffee shop that serves as this artist’s de facto studio. Its walls display his magical-realist watercolors of anthropomorphic figures that seem like snapshots from a desert vision quest.
OLYMPIC PENINSULA, WASHINGTON
With Pacific beaches and sky-scraping coastal mountains, Washington’s scenery rivals California’s—but with fewer crowds. The Olympic Peninsula is a prime example of the low “people to beauty” ratio. Here, empty roads traverse rugged oceanside bluffs, wend past towering cedars and spruces and tunnel between steep-sided peaks. Jogging east across the Cascades adds even more to the visual diversity with desert scrub. For an 860- mile ramble that stitches it all together with dirt and pavement, start in Seattle and take the ferry across Puget Sound to Bremerton, then drive northwest through Port Angeles to Neah Bay. Explore its remote beaches by bike or foot (hiking trails lead to Washington’s westernmost point at Cape Flattery and Shi Shi Beach, famous for its rock sculptures and sunsets) then take U.S. 101 south through the coastal portion of Olympic National Park. After zooming through lush green tunnels and rocky coves, head east at Astoria to follow the Columbia River through the Cascades. Zip north through the Yakima Indian Reservation’s arid expanses, then meander back to Seattle on State Route 410 skirting Mount Rainier National Park.
Get there The Bremerton ferry costs $8.20 for a motorcycle and rider and takes one hour. Boats leave about every 90 minutes. Stay Watch sunsets, poke at sea stars and urchins in tide pools and sip Washington Rieslings at Kalaloch Lodge, a Park Service inn with oceanview cabins. Or camp beachside at Kalaloch Campground (reserve ahead at recreation.gov). In Aberdeen, the themed A-frame Shorebird Villas let you sleep among Egyptian statuary or ship’s rigging. Off State Route 410, dispersed campsites along Forest Roads 70, 72 and 73 let tenters nestle among tall trees (some sites even sit riverside). Eat Hama Hama farms oysters in Hood Canal (home to some of the world’s tastiest bivalves) and shucks them at its waterside saloon in Lilliwaup. Hand-cut fries accompany fresh-caught crab and haddock at Calvin’s Crab House, on the edge of Neah Bay: From its outdoor picnic tables, you can watch eagles hunt along the shore. Drink Full Sail brews its popular ales in Hood River, where production tours prime drinkers for beer flights at the adjacent brewpub. In Yakima, claim a stool at the tap room’s communal tables for a Yakima Craft Brewing IPA: Ponder its tropical pineapple and peach aromas while you toss beanbags at cornhole targets. Shop Retired plumber John Anderson spent years scavenging among the random stuff that washed up on Olympic Peninsula beaches; now, his bottles, children’s dolls, buoys and miscellania are displayed in all their mesmerizing oddity at John’s Beachcombing Museum in Forks.
GET THIS: BUTLER MAPS
A squiggly line only tells you so much—so father/ son team Fred and Court Butler turned their (and their friends’) trip beta into detailed motorcycle maps that reveal what each road is really like, from its scenic value to its technical requirements. Most of the 37 maps cover the Western U.S., but the company is constantly developing new ones. They’re indispensable for planning epic tours, since they allow you to target G1 segments (dramatically gorgeous pavement that’s fun to ride) as well as Dual Sport recommendations (sweet stretches of dirt). And this September, the company launched Butler Mobile Maps: Smartphone files that let you navigate when you’re out of cell range.