Inspiration for a great motorcycle trip isn't hard to find in our home. Multiple books, with titles containing phrases such as "The Most Scenic Highways and By-Ways of America," litter our bookshelves. So, when the itch to take a motorcycle trip comes along, those books are the first place we turn looking for inspiration.
Luckily, my husband and I had the opportunity to take a motorcycle vacation this year. After some discussion and a little "inspiration hunting" through our book shelves, we settled on flying into Salt Lake City, Utah where we would rent a couple of Harleys from Eagle Rider.
The plan was to spend five action packed days riding through Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. We planned our travels to accommodate time for me to shoot photos as we passed up through Yellowstone National Park, over Bear Tooth Pass, and back into Utah through the Flaming Gorge.
I am always excited to explore any new area, but I had no idea what was in store for me on this particular journey.
Determined not to let a speed bump called "lost luggage" slow us down, the sunrise saw us hitting the road early our first morning in Salt Lake City. We rode north to Brigham City and jumped onto US 91/89, wiggling through Utah into Idaho along sweeping curves and rolling hills and into Logan and US 89. I think we both began to really wake up once we hit the Wasatch-Cache National Forest and the natural charm the road held for us as it twisted its way up and around the mountain.
But, what really gave us a jolt better than a Double Shot at Starbucks was the view of Garden City as we crested that last peak. The blue in Bear Lake was SO vividly radiant, it caused us both to pull to the side of the road simultaneously with mouths hanging open. The word "Wow" was muttered too often, but in some cases, words just do not come. We sat and stared at the breathtaking view below us trying to soak it in, just knowing that no amount of film or digital media could possibly capture its true essence.
OK, I am a photographer by trade, and would feel incomplete passing such a scene by and not even trying to snap off a few frames. But, trust me when I say- you just have to see many of the places in this article with your own eyes, smell the air with your own nose, and feel the grandeur of the ride and views with your own soul.
No words I can type here will express what simply needs to be experienced in person- but until you have the chance to ride out yourself- the least I can do is try! So peek at the photos, scroll down, and read on, my friend....
I'll continue our story with passing through the charming little town of Garden City, where we stopped for breakfast with the locals. I was feeling especially thankful that morning for the leather jacket and chaps loaned to us by Eagle Rider, (after our riding gear was misplaced by the airline) because this Florida Girl was just freezing beneath all that leather PLUS my own leather pants and other layers piled on- IN AUGUST!
Alpine Junction was a highlighted area of mountainous scenery in this area, aptly named for the terrain. Once on US 26, we also made a quick stop at Palisades Reservoir to admire the view. In Swann Valley, we took Idaho 31 Scenic Highway across the Snake River Range to Victor and Idaho 33. Traveling north on the west side of the Teton Mountains and whipping around the twists, turns and roller coaster roads of that area. It felt like we were crossing from Idaho into Wyoming and back in Idaho several times. I lost count along the way, but we made sure to do our silly raised arms dance at each state line as we crossed to signal "WooHoo State Line Crossing!"
I have long held the moose as my favorite animal, loving the huge majestic antlers and stature of the Bull Moose, and respecting the fierce attitude they are rumored to have. Even the word, "Moose" is fun to say. Go on, I can see you pursing your little lips right now, trying not to smile. It is so much fun to say the word Mooooose! And yet I had never seen an actual live moose in person. Little did I know, as we rode into Yellowstone National Park that today would be the day!
I think we have all heard the name Yellowstone National Park all our lives, at least if we live in America and stick our head out from under our rock once in a while. Maybe you spell it Jellystone and have Yogi Bear associations, but it probably still rings a bell right? I had heard of it, but wow... I had no idea what was in store for me- or just HOW much was in store for me in those 2.2 million acres of park.
We saw wildlife up close and personal around many corners, boiling springs, geysers, and extraordinary views that made me proud to live in a country that took such pride in preserving this phenomenal natural habitat for us to visit and experience.
I pulled over to wait for a big lumpy camper to drive out of my photo range, and as I put my kickstand down, I noticed some wildlife step out of the trees. It was two young female moose and they were heading our way!
Ignoring every moose aggression story I have ever read, I jumped off my bike and walked toward them snapping off photos as I approached. At 50 yards away, I just sat down on the side of the highway and continued shooting photos- delighting in my first experience of being near a live moose. Apparently, the one moose was just as delighted to be experiencing my presence because she did not stop her approach. As I sat on the side of the road grinning like a kid being handed her first puppy, I vaguely remembering my husband telling me I was too close. He was taking my photo WITH the moose being too close for safety, but I still had my helmet on, so if there was a viscous attack by this sweet-faced female moose, my head would have been protected AND we could have it on film!
The ride truly was incredible. The boiling springs were magical to come upon in the morning light. The cold air I might whine about, most likely contributed to the spectral twisting of mist that rose from the creek running away from the boiling spring. It made for incredible photographs.
We stayed on the Grand Loop heading up the West Side of Yellowstone that entire day. We did not make a great deal of mileage, but we did create a lot of memories. Our destination for that evening was Red Lodge, Montana. we stayed at a fascinating hotel called The Pollard that has a list of former guests such as Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane. The entire town is chocked full of Old West charm, which we spent that evening soaking up.
As we sat down to dinner that night, after a full day of unrivalled riding, magnificent scenery, boiling springs, wildlife ranging from buffalo to bears to deer and elk, my dear husband asked me what my favorite part of the day was - I shout out the word "MOOSE!" without a second thought. Even he had to shake his head, I rode the most beautiful roads in the country and what stands at the forefront of my mind is a five minute encounter with a moose. To each his own I guess.
The next morning, four ladies from my women's riding organization, Women in the Wind, met us in Red Lodge to join us on our ride for a bit. We headed out onto "Bear Tooth Pass," which has been called The Most Scenic Highway in America by Charles Kuralt, award-winning American journalist. It seems no matter what book of "Most Scenic Drives" I picked up, Bear Tooth Pass appeared in it! And each time, the words and photos fell short of capturing the essence of this magnificent place.
Sheer cliffs, deep canyons, and the ability to look over long vistas through the canyon were some of my favorite highlights of this region once I got past the obvious thrills of the twists and turns of the roads. My husband is not such a fan of doing switchbacks on the edges of cliffs that just drop off into oblivion - but, it did not stop him from zooming around those corners just as fast as the rest of the gang. All of us grinning from ear to ear as we would come to a stop at the most scenic points for photo shoots with the girls.
I simply could not imagine a more perfect place to shoot portraits. As each mile of asphalt rolled past, this road shot up my list of favorite roads to ride, right past Deal's Gap, right past Blue Ridge Parkway, to the very top of my list. If you forced me to find a negative about this road, I can only come up with two. One is that it is closed part of the year due to weather. The second is that I was unable to turn around and ride it a second time due to time restrictions. To be fair, that is not the road's fault... so the road only has one negative of being closed for the snow season.
I am not even going to try to describe the stunning views of Bear Tooth Pass. It is one of those "You gotta do it yourself" situations. Put it on your list- at the top! If you get the opportunity, but only have a few short days- do not pass GO- do not collect $200... fly directly to Red Lodge, Montana. Rent a bike and ride Bear Tooth Pass (then do what I wanted to do, turn around and ride it BACK the other direction!)
Now, had I turned around at the end of that ride, I would have missed my second moose sighting. A big Bull Moose gracefully bounding up the side of a hill as we entered Cooke City. He had the whole rack of impressive antlers and everything, I was in shock and never even fired off a single frame of film on this big guy. Never even stopping my bike to get a closer look, I just saved the memory like a little jewel. It is much harder to pull over to indulge in silly moose antics when you are in a big group on a busy road. Plus, this was the real deal, a male moose with the massive antlers above us, on a cliff type hill just struck me as not the time to stop for a better look.
Riding into Cooke City did indeed feel like riding onto the set of an old Western movie. My friend, Cynthia Black, knew exactly the right cafe to pull into, and greeted the owner with a hug in front of "Buns n Beds." Leo and Jan Gaertner of Cooke City Montana have cabins for rent and served up the best food I had on my entire trip- Smoked Pot Roast anyone? Their website lists the many other amenities they offer, but I was surprised not to see mention of the sweet puppies that seemed to be the cafe mascots. A doe-eyed beagle and a softly verbal Husky adopted our group and added a memorable and hilarious addition to our lunch experience. These smart canines picked out the one man in our group ( my husband) as the big softy to hit up for free leftovers. You have a table full of dieting females, and the dogs target is the man at the table? Go figure.
The girls headed over to the Chamber of Commerce to get the famous "I Rode Bear Tooth Pass" Patches and my husband and I hit the road toward Yellowstone once again. This time we would be riding the East side of the Grand Loop.
We wandered off the main road a bit and followed a road that led us to a front and center view of Lake Yellowstone. This massive lake is framed by the Grand Tetons but with the wind blowing as hard as it was that day, I felt more like I was at the ocean. Waves literally crashed on the rocky shores, and one look could not take in the view. You had to keep turning your head and body to see the far reaches of this body of water and all the natural treats it had to share.
We made a stop to catch a viewing of Old Faithful doing her Geyser-thing. We had pulled into the parking lot only 5 minutes after she finished her last show, and sincerely considered skipping the 90 minute wait to see this American icon of geysers. But it had been a long day, so we got a bite to eat, spread out the leathers under a shade tree, and just relaxed while we waited for the big show.
We ended that day at Flagg Ranch, which sat on the edge of the Snake River. Truly, our cabin sat on the EDGE of the river. Outside our door was a split rail fence overlooking a valley that separated us from the Teton Mountains. Signs were posted every 20 feet warning about bears and wildlife, and in this remote area I expect the wildlife outnumbered the tourists by a good number.
Although the cabin had no television, A/C, and not even cell phone reception, none was needed. I was captivated by the view and rudely wandered off with my camera while my husband unloaded our unusual little luggage cart. The luggage carts were similar to a backwards wheelbarrow that you pulled instead of pushed. With plenty of room for lots of bags, and easy to maneuver, they added to the Old West look as they sat around the parking lots looking like little wagons waiting for miniature horses to be hitched up.
Because we arrived perfectly at sunset, my wandering hike led me down into the valley closer and closer to the horizon to get different angles of the setting sun against the Tetons. I wound my way back up into the ranch through another path in the valley near a big amphitheater type pit for campfires and cookouts where I met a family and we compared wildlife viewings. Although neither of us had actually seen the bears that the signs warned us about, we joked about carrying hotdogs in our pockets and wandering the valleys at night in hopes of catching a peek at the big beasts.
At sunrise we hit the Grand Loop into Yellowstone for another day in Paradise with plenty of wildlife stopping traffic on roadsides. I did get to photograph MORE moose, (and will spare you the lengthy description), but we barely slowed down for the shots of the buffalo. After having close up encounters with herds of buffalo in the Sturgis area, it simply was not worth the time or crowds to stop and see the buffalo on this trip.
As a motorcycle rider, we all know we are virtually invisible on the roadways. But if that tourist in the minivan has one eye on a buffalo and is pulling out into traffic, motorcyclists must be less than invisible, because they did not hear my horn either. As we entered an area where lots of cars were pulled over in the park, we just KNEW there was something exciting to see in that area. But we also knew that we had to focus on not getting hit 100% more than checking out the sights so that Billy Bob Tourist did not run us over. Several times, it was just too frustrating getting past the traffic in those areas. When I got the "Want to Stop?" signal from my husband, sometimes I would just shake my head- wanting to get as far away from the crazy people who were trying to run me over as fast as possible.
We paused for some photos while passing by the Grand Tetons, and came to a full stop in Jackson Hole for breakfast. Wow, now that is an interesting town on many different levels. The stagecoaches riding down the streets were a nice touch, but cosmetic surgeon ads on the sides of the stagecoach kind of ruined their effect!
We rode out of Jackson alongside the river to Holback Junction. It is not a very exciting route, but I suspect that God used up all his color palette and creativity for the entire region at Flaming Gorge, so these outlying areas just have to deal with being a bit less exciting when sitting between roads like Bear Tooth Pass and Flaming Gorge.
We twisted our way into the Flaming Gorge Dam area and checked into the Flaming Gorge Lodge, before jumping back on the bikes to go exploring in more depth. The Dam itself was pretty impressive, and the surrounding roads and views were spectacular. For the first time in the trip, we pulled out the little camera that took video and played with that toy to capture some video while riding the roads cut out of red cliffs that dropped into brilliant blue lakes. This area was filled with wildlife that came out to stand by the roadside in areas as if employed by the local Chamber of Commerce to enhance the beauty of the already spectacular area.
This is another road that appears time after time in every list and book of "The Best Roads in America" and for good reason. The dramatic colors of the red rock cliffs against the sparkling blue lakes make everything in this area all the more dazzling as you weave your way through the curves and swirls of the roads that resemble a world-class roller coaster. We seemed to be the only ones in the entire area that morning, with the exception of a dozen deer, a frisky mountain goat, some wild turkeys and the hundreds of jack rabbits trying to get as close as possible to our tires. We took the road that brought us down to the lake in the bottom of this vibrant valley, and enjoyed the luxury of playing tourist in what felt like our own private park.
After exiting the Flaming Gorge area, we stopped at a little restaurant called The Villa, in Manilla, Utah. Here we were treated to a close up view of a porcupine by one of the local trappers also having his breakfast.
We were winding down from vacation mode as we headed back to Salt Lake City, knowing we had to return the bikes that night, when just outside of Salt Lake City we stopped for lunch at a cute little deli/ bakery. Marcelo Occon, the owner of Fresh Harvest Bakery & Deli, playfully substituted one of his decadent pastries for the small side salad that actually came with my menu choice. Obviously, this place is a "must stop" on my next trip through that area. If you have a weak spot for exceptional food and overly accommodating service, you can check the details out at www.freshharvestbakery.com.
The folks at Eagle Rider in Salt Lake City greeted us like old friends when we returned the bikes and were eager to hear the stories of our trip. They had won our hearts and our loyalty upon our arrival by filling our saddlebags with new riding gear and clothing when our luggage was misplaced by the airlines on the flight out from Florida. How do you repay such kindness? Mentioning them here is one way! I also fit in a quick photo shoot with one of their female employees for my book project, www.RealWomenRiders.com that night after we turned in our rental bikes.
Even with my experiences traveling all over the globe, these roads truly rank at the very top of the list for the most scenic I have ever traveled.