The Northwestern United States has made it abundantly clear that its motorcycling culture is dominated by the adventure segment. Every BMW F800 and KTM 690 Enduro rider has bestowed upon us their wisdom of riding without a chase vehicle and letting the excitement of the ride dictate the adventure.
But California is for the sport riders – the ones who would rather hit the streets in a one-piece suit on the lightest, most flickable machine they can get their legs over. I am not knocking adventure riding. In fact I would probably prefer it at this point. But anyone who has the opportunity to ride Northern California on a sportbike, I’d say do it! And here’s why.
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Butler Maps has 34 highlighted roads in Northern California, all of which are a day trip away from the centralized Interstate 5. From the border of Oregon to the top of Sacramento are beautiful campgrounds that are not only private, spacious and incredibly hospitable to motorcyclists, but also make the perfect starting point for a multitude of routes that leave civilization in the dust.
West of I-5 are the Redwoods, where there is incredible coastal riding, hot springs, and six national forests. If you ride east, you’ll find eight National Forests including Yosemite, Tahoe, and a collection of outdoor attractions that can keep you vacationing in California for years. For about $25 a day in the post Labor Day off season, you can leave your rig along I-5 and start tackling them one by one.
Our favorite loop began at a beautiful campground on Lake Siskiyou near Mount Shasta, California, just 60 miles south of the Oregon border along Route 97. Taking shelter there the first week following Labor Day afforded us an entire section of the campground to raise clamor like sportbikers in their 20s do. Had we arrived one week earlier it would have been packed with boaters and families enjoying the lake and outdoor attractions. Good security, additional recreational activities, and of course, its location as the western base of an incredible coastal loop make it a must for an overnight stay.
The Sawyers Bar Loop connecting the community of Forks of Salmon with the neighboring towns of Etna and Callahan has more road variations in a 200-mile stretch than the entire East Coast combined. Beginning in Etna as Main Street, Sawyers Bar Road connects highway 3 to the 800-person population of Etna before narrowing into what seems to be the only recently paved road. Complete with jumps, a shoulderless cliff, and a plethora of blind corners hugging the mountain edge, this service road took us through Klamath National Forest in a way that is typically reserved for the single-tracking adventurers we envied in Colorado.
Once out of Forks of Salmon, we veered left towards Callahan where the single lane eventually emptied out onto my favorite section of road in all of my travels. For close to 10 miles, Cecilville Road is a never-ending succession of esses. Slight variations in sharpness, elevation, and entry speed kept it interesting as we switched from one side of the bike to the other in a zen-like rhythm that was both calming and exciting.
This road empties out into Callahan, just 12 miles south on Highway 3 from Etna and the nearest gas station, where you have the option to loop it again, or head straight back. It’s a four-hour loop back to Mt. Shasta that is ideally ridden before the sun sets and the deer emerge. And trust me, they emerge. The amount of deer we saw on any given day outnumbered the amount of cars. Granted we may have seen only three cars on any given day, but either way the stats were in favor of the deer.
We cruised from Mt. Shasta to Redding, then onto Sacramento exploring either side of I-5 along the way with varying levels of enjoyment. As we continued south into denser populations, flat highways and accompanying strip malls, we knew the joyride was coming to an end. There is a certain serenity that comes with the lack of population in Northern California. And while it doesn’t make for the best situation in the event of a crash, flat tire or other potential setback, it brings a peaceful feeling that is unique to California.
Our final destination on this trip was San Francisco, the most populated and NYC-like location of the whole trip. After making friends with a local motorcycle enthusiast and owner of Coyote Coffee, we took shelter in his parking lot at the base of Highway 1 just outside of San Francisco. Not surprisingly, it’s near impossible to park a box truck in the city limits without a visit from authorities, and the local RV parks lack a certain magic when you remove a national forest and replace it with a chain link fence and gravel.
From Coyote, we explored an incredibly twisty section of Highway 1 in a loop that ended with jaw-dropping views of the city and Golden Gate Bridge from Kirby Cove and Conzelman Road. Touristy? Of course.
But as we climbed our final set of curves to the highest overlook, our helmets tightened with grins of victory as we knew this was a fitting conclusion to an incredible trip. There is so much to see in Northern California that I know I have many trips ahead of me before I see it all. I would recommend it to anyone, no matter the mode of transportation.