As I chased my little compadre Tom Roderick once again into the breech, up California’s astounding S-22, at a speed probably quite a bit above the limit, him on a brand-spanking BMW and me on a 126-horsepower KTM Adventure, I had the thought again that often pops into my head when we’re out riding, especially on this road which I have decided is my favorite: Why doesn’t somebody take this thing away from me? (It’s what James Thurber’s mom said, waggling a revolver, in his short story The Night the Bed Fell.) Everything else that feels half as crazy and exhilarating as riding a fast motorcycle up and down this cliffhanger of a mountain road is not just illegal, it’s impossible. For the average stiff, anyway. The only other things that could approach the adrenaline level this place induces might be if you were one of those guys who owns a Mig or your own racetrack or distillery or high-end women’s shoe store.

S-22, or Montezuma Grade, is one of the few roads where you can actually air out a modern superbike, give it the whip in top cog as they used to say… Okay, maybe not quite top cog, but you can get to redline in third at least, which is 120 or 130 mph, without alarming the citizens (there aren’t any) or scaring yourself too silly. I’ve learned to chill in the corners you can’t see around, since that’s how every good rider I know gets taken out when they get taken out, but there are plenty of parts of the road with wide-open sight lines where the highway engineers absolutely encourage you to try to activate the traction control (though neither of us could bring ourselves to test these bikes’ lean-sensitive ABS this ride). Up the mountain, which climbs 3500 feet in about 12 miles, is a true test of toe-to-toe horsepower that the dyno can’t quite replicate. Downhill will give your brakes a workout like few other roads.

I must say these “adventure” bikes were surprisingly effective S-22 tools. Approximately 25-percent of the action shots in California motorcycle publications have been shot from this turnout. The Salton Sea is way off to the right, the road’s just to the left of frame.

I must say these “adventure” bikes were surprisingly effective S-22 tools. Approximately 25-percent of the action shots in California motorcycle publications have been shot from this turnout. The Salton Sea is way off to the right, the road’s just to the left of frame.

It barely ever rains. The grippy, large-aggregate pavement is nearly always perfectly clean and mostly smooth. And the mostly constant-radius curves, of various radii, make S-22’s 12 miles feel pretty much like our own private little Nurburgring minus the trees and traffic and blind crests. Yes it’s fast, but in the hundreds of times I’ve ridden it, I’ve never seen a crash (knock on wood), though I have heard some hair-raising tales: Some things even stupid people can look at and know they should be respectful. I describe it to people as the road that must’ve inspired The Roadrunner cartoons, though maybe it’s not, since the only thing it’s missing are tunnels. You can’t have everything. I have ridden along behind an actual roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) on it. I guess there must be even better roads somewhere in the wilds of Utah or Idaho, but the beauty of my favorite road is I can get here from the belly of the Orange County beast in two hours.

Here’s one from our Middleweight Sport-Touring comparison back in July.

Here’s one from our Middleweight Sport-Touring comparison back in July.

There’s a little bit of debate as to whether we should reveal our favorite roads in public, for fear they’ll be overrun by our legions of readers. As it turns out, that fear is largely ungrounded. Some of our favorite roads have lately become more clogged with traffic than they were 20 or even ten years ago, but that’s more from urban sprawl than an increase in motorcyclists. Places like Temecula, inland from San Diego, barely existed 20 years ago. Now there are McMansions as far as the eye can see. What used to be a vacant lot on the way to our favorite roads is now Pechanga Casino, the biggest one in the state, complete with 517-room hotel, etc. If you hurry, you can catch the Beach Boys tonight in the Pechanga Theater.

Pala used to be a tiny impoverished mission town full of Pala Indians just beyond the sprawl. It’s fun to watch its progress on each ride-thru as the Pechanga and Pala Indian Casinos grow and inject cash into the village: Shiny Lexi replace hubcapless sun-baked LTDs in front of new dwellings that were once trashy single-wides. Lawn statuary advances… That a scraggly band of rural poor are suddenly challenging Las Vegas is about as American a success story as it gets, which is pretty cool since what makes it possible is that their land is technically not part of the U.S. The Pechanga tribe claims to have been living in the Temecula Valley for 10,000 years. Grab fuel and a Frappucino at the casino gas station. Press on another 45 minutes or so, and you leave it all behind…

Downtown Borrego Springs. What the Hacienda del Sol has to recommend it is that it’s 100 yards from what passes for downtown. And that’s really the only thing. Follow that Beetle and you come to the mouth of Montezuma Grade in about a mile. The one gas station is right there on your left.

Downtown Borrego Springs. What the Hacienda del Sol has to recommend it is that it’s 100 yards from what passes for downtown. And that’s really the only thing. Follow that Beetle and you come to the mouth of Montezuma Grade in about a mile. The one gas station is right there on your left.

S-22 was built in 1964. It took ten years,160,000 tons of dynamite and a bunch of prisoners to hack out a million cubic yards of granite, clearing the way for the road to drop from mountains to desert floor, with beautiful vistas along the way that let you see all the way out to the Salton Sea. When it’s a damp, drizzly November in the rest of SoCal, you can almost always count on bright sun when you reach the grade. The road’s other best feature is that it deposits you in Borrego Springs, which was intended to be another Palm Springs but for various reasons is anything but. (The main one is that the highway that was supposed to cut through from the northwest and L.A. never got built.)

There’s a fantastic Mexican restaurant, three or four motels that were remodelled in the Eisenhower era, and a pretty good bar/restaurant. There’s not a fast-food or chain store in sight along the main street. When you step out of Carlee’s at night in the winter after a stress-reducing cocktail or two with the temperature in the 50s, you have to shield your eyes when the moon’s full and bouncing off the sand, and the air’s so pure you need to smoke so as not to send your lungs into shock. If you show up in the springtime, especially after a wet winter, you’ll be knocked out by all the wildflowers, which are a big reason why Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the biggest state park in California. Juan Bautista de Anza was an explorer; borrego is a bighorn sheep. When I started going out there more than 20 years ago, you’d occasionally see the bighorns climbing around on the next mountain over from the turnout where motorcycle photographers have shot since time immemorial. I haven’t seen one in the last ten years or so, but this year’s count (I SEE EWE) tallied 265 bighorns in other parts of the park.

Before its prices caught up to the 21st century, we used to put up at the Casa del Zorro in a five-man casita with its own pool. Still the way to go if you can spring it...

Before its prices caught up to the 21st century, we used to put up at the Casa del Zorro in a five-man casita with its own pool. Still the way to go if you can spring it…

Personally, I love the dry desert heat — I think because I grew up where it was humid as well as hot. There’s no better feeling than slicing through that warm, dry air in some nice perforated leather with nothing on underneath but a smile, on the way to a cool drink at the bottom of the mountain. But the summertime heat is another thing that keeps most people away. In the wintertime, when it’s always 60 or 70 degrees, I don’t know what keeps them away, but I hope whatever it is keeps doing it. It’s our own little oasis just two hours away from the big city, a  beautiful slice of California that’s still almost as deserted as it was 100 years ago. Our little secret, no?

  • http://www.motorcycle.com/ Sean Alexander

    JB is the secret sauce that makes MO so delicious.

  • Craig Hoffman

    It has been many years since I rode S-22 and went to Julian and Warner Springs, but I recall getting quite airborne in a roller coaster section on my wobbly ’87 Ninja 750. Switched bikes with my buddy, who had a modded ’86 GSXR1100 and did a 3rd gear 100 mph wheelie over one of those crests.

    Ah, the squidly years :)

    • john burns

      We’re perpetual squids.

      • Craig Hoffman

        If you ever make it to Colorado, ride route 125 from Granby to Walden. Trust me on this :)

  • fastfreddie

    Finally found that road on google maps,and I’m jealousness personified at how awesome it looks.Here in norway it would be filled with potholes and cracks. Good story JB.Maybe make more stories about good riding sites here on MO…

  • Andrew

    Nice article John. Roads like that make many of us on the east coast drool. If I weren’t 2,000 miles away, I would definitely come steal your favorite road.

    • john burns

      You don’t have to steal it, it’s community property. Come on out. Actually a perfect vacay for people who like Vegas and motorcycles. Stay at Pechanga, ride around all day.

  • Evans Brasfield

    JB lies. The road is terrible. Don’t waste your time going there. You’ll only be disappointed. There are cops everywhere. Oh, and spiders. Lots and lots of spiders.

    • Goose

      Don’t forget the huge rattlesnakes!

  • Goose

    The XR1200 Owners Group has run through that area. Even the folks in the back (like me) had a ball on that road. It is hard to believe how good the pavement is, what with most of California’s roads looking like they belong in a third world country.

    Makes me giggle when people prattle on about “The Dragon”.

  • DucMan

    I’ll never tell.

  • Buzz

    Love it JB. One of my favorites. I like to stop for lunch at Carlee’s and then continue south on S2 all the way to Interstate 8. I think it’s about a 300 mile day that way.

    I can cover it amazingly fast on my K1600.

  • JMDonald

    A hop skip and a jump from the Ortega down past Temecula. How I miss Southern California. That stretch is haunted to boot. I understand why you like it. Thanks for the memories. Well done as usual.

  • Old MOron

    Ooooh, does this mean an ADV shootout between BMW and KTM is forthcoming?

  • Guest

    If you ever make it to Colorado, ride route 125 from Granby to Walden. Trust me :)

  • vastickel@gmail.com

    You West Coast prima donnas! You need some tar snakes, and high heat and humidity to add a little pucker factor to your rides!

    • 12er

      Oh we dont lack for tar snakes… Now humidity, Ive heard of it before…

  • Plastic Cup

    How I miss riding that area! Now I know where my next vacation will be. Fortunately, it’s just a day’s ride to get there from here…

  • pcontiman

    Enjoyable story there Mr. Burns. I’ve been blessed with living in Colorado and working in San Diego so I’ve gotten to ride this stretch with a local riding club. It’s a hoot. It’s actually faster than I am on my 1200R sporty but that’s the fun of riding a slow bike fast ! Nice to end up at Borrego Springs in the end, did you check out the metal sculptures around the edges of town ? I might stay shy of there in the summer though…mighty hot. Oh yeah, the others advice about 125 in Colorado is right on. Might stay shy of there in the winter though…..

    • Kevin Duke
      • Auphliam

        Only fitting, I guess…since the tail is out east :)

    • http://www.motorcycle.com/ Sean Alexander

      This is 150 continuous miles of some of the twistiest and most scenic and entertaining roads in the world. They are never closed, never have snow and are very lightly traveled. They are my favorite (not JB’s) my second, third and fourth favorites are all also in California. I’ve ridden all over the world and there are some great roads near and through the Alps and Pyrenees, but they don’t quite reach the level of the loop described on the map below.

      • pcontiman

        Where is this, google search is a little confusing on this….

      • john burns

        when are you taking us there, Dirty Uncle Sean?

        • http://www.motorcycle.com/ Sean Alexander

          Skaggs Springs, Pt. Reyes, Morro Bay, Sea Ranch, PCH, Healdsburg, etc, etc, etc…

      • 12er

        Hey! Post about your own hood! 😉 BTW, Sean just drew that on the map, it doesnt really exist, nothing to see here move along…

        • Buzz

          Love that Anderson Valley beer. I served Boont Amber Ale at my wedding reception.

          • 12er

            I found the oatmeal stout on tap in Marin about 15 years ago and Guinness has been dead ever since. Though Lagunitas Maximus is a close second fav, granted not in the same brew ball park but close in neighborhood.

      • http://www.linkedin.com/in/markad Mark Dickinson

        Details of this route please. :) I want to lock it into my “GreatestRoads” App. :)

        • 12er

          Dry Creek Rd off 101 in healdsberg to Skaggs creek to Annapolis rd to PCH (land of the slow RV) to mountain view road (point arena, one laneish in spots) over to Boonville 128 and back to 101. Pick up an oatmeal stout for after at Anderson Valley Brewing company south of boonville, Bear Republic is on the north west corner of Healdsberg town sq, great home brewed Root Beer and tasty other brews and eats.

          You can follow skaggs creek to the coast if you dont turn at the bridge to annapolis, it turns to one lane paved through the redwoods / ferns where bigfoot or an ewok may try and tackle you. PCH can be flooded with RV’s the later in the day. 128 is awesome if you dont get traffic but hard to pass in places if you do.

          If your still itching to ride after that head north on 101 a few miles to hopland and take 175 to middletown (hopland pass is a hoot, nice on the west side, tight and twisty and tore up on the east), then south on silverado trail to Calistoga and back north on 128 back to healdsberg.

          • http://www.linkedin.com/in/markad Mark Dickinson

            Thank you! :)

  • Vrooom

    Drooling over 12 miles of corners? You guys live in the wrong part of the world.

    • http://www.motorcycle.com/ Sean Alexander

      Hilarious.

      • Slinilo

        45 km = 28 Miles; 35 km = 22 miles
        N-26ß, Pyrenees, Spain. Collada del Toses.
        http://iurl.no/ah02z

    • 12er

      Yep, us poor CA folks. Somehow we manage, below is one of my favorites in norcal, just under 400 miles of twisty goodness. 96 – 233 – 3, watch out for CHP on 233, I found out the hard way.

  • D H

    This route is terrible in the winter, high wind and cold temperature. In particular at the 79 South heading there. I rode there on two years ago, and the temperature dip down to almost 50. Right now it’s snowing!!!

    • john burns

      yes, my bad. Beware of the desert polar bear.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/markad Mark Dickinson

    Ugh! I missed reading this article by a couple of days. Was just out in that area riding yesterday. Ok… now I know. :) I’ll be one of those new motorcycle guys trying out this road one day.

  • Andy C

    The roads in the ‘Bu are too windy for those big, powerful bikes. Weekdays, I’m the only one there. Oh, and it’s got a one-way portion too! What’s a little fog?

  • http://superhunky.com Matt Cuddy

    After attending the Marty Tripes extravaganza at some MX track, we happened to go down the 22 in my handivan. I managed to get a nice picture of my foot, and the side view mirror. My Mom lives in Palm Desert, so it was a cool way to find Palm Springs. Wonder how the Hondachair would handle it?