The Three-Pass Blast is a favorite biker route in Washington state. (Courtesy of Jason Sammis)
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Loading up your bike for a 4-day trip
You’re ready to hit the road for your summer dream ride, but this is your first real long-distance and trip and you’re trying to figure out how to pack up your stuff on just those two wheels.
Some tips to help you get on the road:
Don’t overpack. You probably don’t need much as you think. For a four-day trip, you may be able to get by with just one change of clothes and wash as you go, as needed. But don’t forget essentials such as an extra pair of shoes — or at least flip flops — so you can get out of those boots after a day of riding.
Gear for your gear. Your commuter saddle bags may not be big enough for anything more than an overnight. If your bike doesn’t have one, consider a rack — or even better, a trunk — along with touring-sized expandable saddle bags.
Pack tight. Forget folding clothes — tightly rolled pants and shirts will stuff better. Use plastic zip-locked bags not only to ensure that your clothes stay dry but also to help keep them better compressed. A favorite among backpackers for the same reason, cinch-small compression-style stuff sacks are good as well.
Think dual purpose. Instead of leather gear, consider a textile jacket and overpants. They’ll still protect you in case of spill but also double as rain gear when roads get wet. Heated jacket liners — as well as pants and gloves — can also free up space.
Balance the load. Be sure you distribute your weight evenly on both sides of the bike or you’ll suffer on the turns. Especially with heavier loads, you want to be sure your tires are inflated to their maximum rated pressure for optimum handling.
Tools. Don’t get caught empty-handed on the side of the road. Even a small tool kit can handle a wide variety of breakdowns. Must haves: flashlight, socket set, a few spare spark plugs, multi-tool, duct tape, zip ties and a basic first aid kit. A small fuel bladder can get you those extra few miles to the next gas station you didn’t think was quite so far away.
For camping: A few bungies and a tarp can replace a tent. Down-filled bags will compress smaller than synthetic-filled. Look to backpacking suppliers for the latest in ground pads that pack small but sleep comfortably.
Motorcycles and the open road go together like summertime and four-day passes — or better yet, block leave. Put them together and you’ve got a dream road trip begging for you to tank up and get going.
And while your ultimate biker bucket list may only include roads too far away for now, you might be surprised at the dream routes that could be just around the corner.
With the help of our friends at several of the largest military motorcycle groups, here are 10 of our favorite rides around the country.
1. 'Three Pass Blast'
From nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord, this 400-mile loop traverses under the north face of Mount Rainier, through western Washington’s rich farmlands and roadside fruit stands and into the “American Alps” of the Cascade Mountains.
It’s a great overnighter, with plenty of detour possibilities for extended trips, says former Army Apache helicopter mechanic Jason “Samich” Sammis, now leading one of seven Washington State chapters of the Combat Vets Motorcycle Association.
Route: Starting in Enumclaw, head toward Greenwater, where you should “be sure to stop at the General Store for some locally handmade Huckleberry ice cream,” Sammis says. And top off your tank — this is will be your last chance for a long stretch.
Continue on WA 410 over Chinook pass into Yakima. Follow the Yakima River Canyon to Ellensburg and then over Blewett Pass into Leavenworth, known for its world-class whitewater rafting. Continue west over Stevens Pass and into Gold Bar. A few miles down the road, be sure to stop at the Sultan Bakery, “a biker-friendly place with some great food,” Sammis says.
In Fall City, take the turn to Snoqualmie Falls, which is just a short hike from the road and well worth the photo opportunity. Now, follow the Snoqualmie Parkway, which will become U.S. 18, to Auburn, just west of the starting point.
Stay: A slew of campgrounds dot this route, many of which can be reserved online through the National Park Service website. For a more comfortable stay, do an overnight in Leavenworth, an old logging town that reinvented itself as a Bavarian village with surprising authenticity that will impress anyone who’s been stationed in Germany.
Don’t miss: Rainier’s “Sunrise” basecamp. This 33-mile (one-way) detour from Greenwater is worth it. Enjoy views and hikes from this last mountainside outpost, the launch point of most bids for Mount Rainier’s 14,410-foot summit.
“This road can have some pretty massive heaves and dips on it from the winter weather, and there are some very tight turns, so go slow and be careful,” Sammis says.
2. Pacific Coast Highway
With its headwaters flowing from the heart of northwestern Washington’s Olympic Mountains, running all the way down to San Diego’s sandy beaches, this 1,700-mile river of highway cuts a path like no other.
Route: In California, the PCH is officially known as State Route 1. Those stationed at Travis Air Force Base and other Bay Area installations are in an enviable position. Go south and you’ve begun the 500-mile, ocean-cliff-hugging trip to Los Angeles — about 12 hours of drive time — or head north for a more tree-hugging route with switchbacks into the redwood forests of Mendocino County and up along the Oregon coast, where the PCH becomes U.S. Route 101. Portland is a 700-mile trip, or about 14 hours of driving from the Bay Area.
Stay: While the drive to Los Angeles is a car commercial favorite for good reasons, the views are just as spectacular heading north, not to mention a lot less expensive — and a lot less crowded. For example, the Best Western in Coos Bay, about halfway to Portland, will set you back about $140 per night. The same night stay at the Best Western in San Luis Obispo, the halfway point to Los Angeles, will run about $230.
Don’t miss: Drive through a redwood tree — yes, literally — in one of three drive-through trees along the northern California coast. Meanwhile, the miles of windswept dunes along the central Oregon coast are always a favorite. Sammis says Seal Rock is a great layover in northern Oregon, well named for its rocky tidal outcroppings and legions of slippery sea mammals that call the area home.
3. Palomar Mountain Loop
Those stationed in San Diego can get up above the hustle and haze and into the tall trees and crystal-clear skies around Mount Palomar in less than two hours. No wonder it’s the home of Cal Tech’s massive, 200-inch Hale telescope. With its tight turns, the 120-mile Palomar Mountain Loop is often described as one of the most technically demanding rides in the state.
Route: Heading north out of Escondido on I-15, take CA-76 east, then head north on S-6 to start the hairpin ride of your life up the mountain. At the top ridgeline is a four-way stop, home to Mother’s Kitchen, a biker-friendly diner where even hardcore carnivores praise the vegetarian fare. Follow S-7 — also called East Grade Road — back down the mountain until it bottoms out at Lake Henshaw, rejoining CA-76, where you’llgo east on State Route 79 to Santa Ysabel to follow CA-78 through Ramona and eventually connect back to Escondido.
Stay: Palomar Mountain State Park is a local favorite for camping, hiking and fishing.
Don’t miss: Palomar Observatory is open to the public. Add a day to explore San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park, one of the only battle sites of the Mexican-American War in California (where both sides claimed victory). San Diego Zoo Safari Park is toward the end of the loop.
4. San Juan Skyway
Within an easy day’s drive from the military hub in Colorado Springs — a drive with plenty of Rocky Mountain highs in its own right — you’ll be glad you made the trip for this 240-mile loop through some of Colorado’s most impressive scenery, dotted with old mining towns, glacier-fed rivers, ancient ruins, world-class ski resorts and tall mountain passes.
Route: Starting in Ridgeway on CO-62, head over the Dallas Divide to Placerville, connecting to CO-145, to the mountain-resort Mecca of Telluride, and then down to Cortez. That’s where you’ll pick up CO-160 to Durango. From there, take CO-550 north over Molas Pass and into the rough-and-tumble town of Silverton. Saving the best for last — or the worst, depending on your tolerance for narrow, mountain-hugging, cliff-carved roads, often with no guardrails — it’s a stretch of road dubbed the “Million Dollar Highway” to Ouray and the last leg back up to Ridgeway to complete the loop.
Stay: Durango is a good halfway point for this loop, with plenty of biker-friendly hotels and eateries.
Don’t miss: If you want to let someone else do the driving while you take it all in for a day, try the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad aboard their historic coal-powered, steam-driven locomotive.
For a quick detour just outside of Cortez, be sure to visit the ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park.
5. Historic Route 66
Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California
In 1857, Lt. Edward Beale — a Navy officer working for the Army who eventually had an Air Force Base named after him — was ordered to chart a new trail across the West while testing the use of camels as pack animals. The camels didn’t work out, but his road eventually became the most iconic stretch of highway in the country.
Dubbed the “Mother Road” for good reason, Route 66 first connected Chicago to California with its 2,500-mile swath of open road in 1926. Interstate super-highways have largely replaced it, but you can still retrace much of the historic route.
Route: From Chicago, you can travel the first 300 miles of Route 66 all the way to St. Louis in about seven hours. Along the way, you’ll range through urban canyons, Illinois coal country, farmland, forest and open prairie as you pass through the towns of Joliet, Pontiac, Clinton and the state capital Springfield. In Alton, Illinois, you’ll come alongside the Missouri River just before it meets the Mississippi, then make your final leg into St. Louis. Taking I-55 back to Chicago will shave more than two hours off your return trip.
Stay: The historic Abraham Lincoln Hotel in Springfield, not far from the president’s home, is known as a biker-friendly layover.
Don’t miss: A visit to “Our Lady of the Highway Statue” about half an hour south of Springfield is a required pilgrimage for most. Grab a meal just down the road in Farmersville at Art’s Motel and Restaurant, another Route 66 favorite.
6. 'Three Twisted Sisters'
When the Texas chapters of the Green Knights gathered recently for their big meet-up, this was their go-to ride. While most of the Lone Star State is known as Big Sky Country, the 131-mile Twisted Sisters beckons riders into the state’s famed Hill Country.
“I grew up in Texas, and there’s not a lot out here,” says retired Air Force Master Sgt. Craig Colton. “But the Sisters is probably one of the best rides in the country.”
Route: Conveniently located between Fort Hood and Joint Base San Antonio, this route starts in Medina, just south of Kerrville. Take Ranch Road 337 West to Leakey, where you’ll want to gas up before heading north on U.S. 83. A mile later, head north on RR 336 until you hit Texas 41, where you’ll go west. Turn south on RR 335 following the Nueces River and then east on RR 337 back to Leakey.
Stay: The Historic Leakey Inn, until recently a bikers-only spot, remains one of the motorcycle-friendliest places to stay in an area renowned for biker-friendliness. Nearby Garner State Park offers camping, cabins and screened shelter rentals.
Don’t miss: The Frio Canyon Motorcycle Stop in Leakey offers plenty of Sisters swag and, according to the unabashed owners, the “best damn burgers you’ll ever have at the Bent Rim Grill.” To cool off from the road, rent a tube for a lazy trip down the Frio River.
The Lone Star Motorcycle Museum in nearby Vanderpool is an obvious favorite.
7. Kancamagus Scenic Byway
Locals pronounce it “Kank-ah-mah-gus,” but most people just call it “The Kanc.” A short hike through northern New Hampshire’s White Mountains, at just under 35 miles long, this may not be the most epic route you’ve ever taken, but it just might be one of the most enjoyable, says Green Knight founder and former Air Force Staff Sgt. Adam Buehler.
“It’s one of my all-time favorites,” Buehler says.
While it’s hailed as one of the best fall foliage routes in the country, “I prefer riding it in the summer, during its off-season, when I can light up a cigar, turn up the music and just take it all in,” he says.
Route: The byway connects Lincoln on the west, just off I-93, and Conway to east, on NH-16. As the byway follows the aptly named Swift River and its concert of ever-cascading waterfalls, you’ll want to stop at the Sugar Hill, Hancock and Rocky Gorge overlooks for photo ops. The Sabbaday Falls are worth the half-mile hike from the road.
Stay: The route itself offers six campgrounds, all managed by the White Mountain National Forest. If you’re with a crew, the Forest Service rents a Spartan, barebones, three-room, 10-bunk lodge for $40 a night.
Don’t miss: For a more heart-racing ride, try the 7.6-mile climbing hairpin road to the summit of Mount Washington. While New England’s tallest peak sports an elevation of only 6,288 feet, its sits in the center of a three-way weather vortex that brings high winds and extreme cold, with summer temperatures averaging only in the low 50s.
8. Skyline Drive
National Capital Region
Part of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, this 105-mile ridge-running ride is only about an hour outside Washington, D.C., but you’ll feel a world away.
Route: The northern entrance to Skyline Drive starts in Front Royal, accessible from I-66 and Route 340. Traversing along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, there are no fewer than 75 scenic overlooks to stop and enjoy the view before hitting the southern exit at Rockfish Gap. If you want a longer trip, Rockfish happens to be the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway, a Forest Service-managed road that meanders nearly 500 miles down the rest of Virginia and into North Carolina.
Stay: The 200,000-acre park offers everything from big, resort-style lodges and luxury suites to more rustic cabins and camping.
Don’t miss: Arrive early to beat the crowds for the 9-mile local hiker’s favorite, the Old Rag Mountain trail. The full circuit takes about seven hours, so be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks.
9. 'Tail of the Dragon'
About two hours west of Asheville, N.C., deep inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, lurks the Dragon.
It’s just 11 miles long, but with its coiled spine packed with 318 twisty, tight turns, what an 11 miles it is. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better stretch of blacktop to test your motorcycle mettle than on the infamous “Tail of the Dragon.”
“It’s one of those roads you have to do if you’re a rider,” Buehler says.
In fact, it’s such a favorite among bikers, it was a no-brainer for Buehler when it came to asking his girlfriend to become his bride. He proposed under the infamous “Tree of Shame,” to be exact — built from the busted-up bikes that have fallen victim to the Dragon — just after they’d made their run.
Route: Like most dragons, this isn’t the easiest route to pinpoint. Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, it’s just over an hour due south of Knoxville, following U.S. 129. The good folks at Tailofthedragon.com make it easier to find with several free, printable maps with detailed directions from a variety of cities and towns in the region.
To extend your drive, pop over to the nearby Cherohala Skyway for another 40 miles of sweeping mountainside turns though Tennessee. For a more relaxing ride, Buehler recommends the Foothills Parkway along the northern base of the Smoky Mountains toward Gatlinburg.
Stay: The Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort — home to the Tree of Shame — offers basic rooms and camping. At the Two Wheel Inn in Robinsville, you can actually bring your bike into your room.
Don’t miss: In addition to the Dukes of Hazard tribute museum dubbed Cooter’s Place, Gatlinburg boasts the first legal moonshine distillery in eastern Tennessee.
10. Overseas Highway
The last four-hour stretch of U.S. 1 from Miami to Key West is as much bridge as it is road. You’ll cross 42 bridges, to be precise, as you leapfrog to the very tip of the nation’s southeast corner on the 127-mile tropical wonder known as the Overseas Highway.
Route: Leaving Miami, you’ll first pass through the southwestern corner of Everglades National Park. Keep an eye out for manatees in Blackwater Sound as you make your way to Key Largo — then for more menacing interlopers as you pass Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
At Marathon, about halfway to Key West, the line between bridge and road really blurs on the Seven Mile Bridge, one of the longest in the country.
Feel free to stop for a swim, do some fishing or grab a drink at any number of tiki bars as you count down the mile markers.
Stay: With kitchenette-equipped rooms running for around $100 per night, you’ll have a hard time beating the Navy Lodge on Naval Air Station Key West. Plus, there’s a commissary and exchange to stock up on essentials.
Don’t miss: Ride a Hollywood legend for canal tours and dinner cruises out of Key Largo aboard the original African Queen, made famous in the classic Humphrey Bogart movie of the same name.