Earlier this year some magazine came out with a list of top 10 motorcycle rides. The Blue Ridge Parkway made the list. The Dragon at Deals Gap made the list. Others had me wondering what criteria they used to judge them.
I’ve been all across the US and I’m convinced the best motorcycle riding is in the Blue Ridge / Smoky Mountains, but I’m trying to keep an open mind. When the opportunity came to visit Santa Barbara on the California coast, I made arrangements to insure I’d explore central California by motorcycle to see how west coast mountain riding compared to home sweet home.
I’ve previously been on sections of the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s fabulously scenic, but there’s not a whole lot about it that drives me to want to carve through it on a motorcycle to get the most out of the ride. I remember too much time plodding along behind duffers with lines of cars behind them, not rolling on the throttle to course through the curves and drop a knee towards the pavement. I did ride the Ventura Highway several times, and that Eagle’s song jumps into your mind as soon as you see the sign.
My explorations this trip would be through central California, leaving the congestion of the coastal roads behind for the more challenging mountain passes. Unfortunately, this required time-wasting commutes on the expressway to reach them.
The highlight of all that highway riding was experiencing lane sharing when traffic backed up, which it frequently did. Not for the meek, the skinny Ducati sport bike I was on was perfectly suited for darting between the lines of slower cars, flitting into every hole that opened, and filtering through the traffic. Surprisingly, the cars and trucks made room for you to pass. I guess it beats having a speeding bike scrape along your car. It was fun and I felt like I was given a free pass to cheat at the game. I think we need more lane sharing in the US.
I was a little disappointed to find the rides out to reach the mountain passes long and quite tame. While there was less traffic, it’s still far busier then you’ll find secondary roads in my Blue Ridge Mountains back home.
I first went south from Santa Barabara to Carpenteria, then headed inland to Ojai. Most of the towns are pretty cool, they look like great places to visit, but not what I’d come to do.
Leaving Ojai, my first run across the mountains on CA 33 had me feeling more at home. CA 33 is a good long run with curves that reminded me more of the Cherohala Skyway then the Dragon- a little more open and sweeping in comparison to the tight and technical curves I so enjoy back home.
The Ducati 848 made enjoying the canyon rides at a spirited pace easy. While the suspension was set up way to stiff for my liking, it always provided as much traction as I asked for, the bike ran the curves like it was on a rial. It was a challenge to keep from hitting triple digits when the road opened up, a challenge I failed many times.
Once over the mountains I came down into the oil fields and farmlands near Maricopa. I then headed north through the desert where temps were just shy of 100 degrees to pick up the next great ride near McKittrick, CA 58. Fortunately, I’d topped up the tank as the “No services next 70 miles” signs appeared. CA 58 was another outstanding ride through high open mountain passes, great curves, and a whole of of fun. Lot’s of bikes on this ride, it’s a great one so long as you’re up in the mountains. Once you come down, things straighten out again. I was reminded of the midwest where you ride a road that runs like an arrow to the horizon for miles and miles until you come to a 20 mph right angle turn to do it all over again and again.
I got bored on these long straight runs and after a while the speed crept up and up until I was playing a game to see if I could launch the bike off the hilltops as a the Ducati stretched it’s legs out and sang at the top of it’s booming baritone voice. I looped back through Santa Margarita then limped into San Luis Obispo with the reserve light crying out for a drink of fresh petrol. I wasted a bit of time looking for gas as every station was flagged off with yellow tape. They were all getting some kind of service done and I was running on fumes when I finally found one that had one bank of pumps in operation. I waited my turn in the long lines that had formed, then headed south on the freeway to return home.
The next day I headed north this time, taking CA 154 through the dense morning fog that rolls in off the ocean. My destination was Foxen Canyon Rd, a decent ride, but not as challenging as those I’d previously been on. Most of this day was in wine country and it was more scenic then I’d seen on the east side of the mountains. I worked my way from Santa Maria to Lompoc, then found a nice ride on Santa Rosa Rd. Passing through Solvang, I returned to Santa Barbara on CA 154, then got on the freeway and went back south to Carpenteria to make a few more runs on CA 33.
So how do the California motorcycle rides I was on compare to the Blue Ridge & Smoky Mountain motorcycle rides I know so well?
While the California rides were longer, so were the distances between them – they stood in isolation. Here in the Smokies, you finish one great road to continue your motorcycle ride on the next. You spend far more time in the nice sections and finding a long straight stretch of road means you made a wrong turn and left the mountains. I missed the green trees, the rushing mountain streams, the little waterfalls around the bends. The California countryside is dry, if not desert, close to it. Towns are much further apart, and you’ve got to pay attention to gas stations – when in doubt, top it out. You may have a long ride before you find another.
Many of the California roads were rough and bumpy – a patchwork of asphalt and concrete layer upon layer. I thought we had some rough rods, but I’m beginning to think we don’t have it so bad after all.
In the same amount of area I covered to reach just a few great motorcycle rides in California, there would have been a hundred or so in the Smokies and never a 4 lane road or highway needed. I continue to believe there are more great motorcycle rides in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains than any other area of the country.
To quote the now ex-governator, “I’ll be back”. Admittedly, I’ve barely touched the huge state of California. It’s a nice contrast to the motorcycle rides we have back home in the Smoky Mountains and makes me appreciate how great we’ve got it back east.