Trips & Tales

North California Fantasy (early version)

by Steve Larsen • November 23, 2004

Note: This is a pre-publication version of Larsen's story, so PLEASE do not send it anywhere. Thanks (Steve)

Opening Text: Sir Francis Drake Blvd winds through deep redwood groves. Sunlight fights to reach the road through the dense forest canopy as we head for the California coast. The tight, winding roads move us around trees and over bridges and serve as a precursor of what is to come.

North California Fantasy

By Steve Larsen

The quality and variety of northern California roads are legendary. After years of hearing the stories, I burst forth with “Yes!” when my east coast-based pal Andy Forrester called to say, “Let’s do it.” Though I now live in Phoenix, I spent the previous year in San Francisco with a Ducati 750 Monster as my weekend transportation. Andy expected me to not only know all the best roads but, more importantly, stitch them together into a cohesive week-long itinerary to deliver the ultimate motorcycling experience. Possible? What percentage of the “best of the best” will fit into just seven days?

After weeks of research and maps spread across every flat surface, planning is complete. Nine of us meet in San Francisco. With so many “Bobs,” we name each after his home city. “Chicago Bob” is on a rented ’04 BMW R1150R; “Seattle Bob” rides his ’03 BMW K1200RS; “Santa Barbara Bob” is on his vintage ’83 BMW R-80G; and “Boston Rob” rents an ’02 Triumph Thunderbird. The non-Bobs/Rob consist of Urch on an ’03 H-D Heritage Softail; Arthur and Andy on rented BMW R1150Rs, and I’m riding my ’01 Honda Goldwing. With Philip, who’d ridden his air-cooled, mint ’93 BMW R100R from New York to SF a month earlier (documenting the ride at, we had a quorum. Rental bikes come from Dubbelju ( in San Francisco.

Dining at Kuleto’s in downtown SF, we review with anticipation, excitement and some skepticism the planned routes for each day. The California coast, the Redwoods, the volcanic surfaces of Lassen, famous Hwy 36, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite and Napa Valley – it sounds pretty aggressive. Can we do it justice? Around 11 p.m. the west coasters retire for bed while the east coasters order another round.

Day 1
Hwy 1 Coast Ride: Sausalito to Fort Bragg (195 miles)
At Café Trieste in Sausalito over the frothiest and creamiest cappuccinos in all of the Bay Area, we check the bikes and prepare for the day. In a final salute to San Francisco, we head south a couple of miles and ride to the top of Conzelman Road for what every local knows is the best view of the Golden Gate Bridge, with the city of San Francisco and the Bay Bridge as a backdrop. We warm up our tires on the one-way road that winds through the Golden Gate Recreation area, past bunkers and gun turrets built during WWII.

Hwy 1 and the coast is our goal today, but we take the long way, exiting to Sir Francis Drake Blvd from Hwy 101 in San Rafael. Sir Francis Drake winds through deep redwood groves. Sunlight fights to reach the road through the dense forest canopy as we head for the coast. The tight winding roads move us around trees and over bridges and serve as a precursor of what is to come.

Heading west we meet Hwy 1 in Olema. Detouring to ride along the south shore of Tomales Bay, famous for oysters and the San Andreas Fault, we stop at Vladimir’s Czechoslovakian restaurant in the picturesque town of Inverness. Vlad’s is closed and so, unfortunately, we miss his famous goulash. Leaving the 40-mile round trip out to the Point Reyes lighthouse for another day, we head back to Hwy 1. We resume our ride north and pass the Marconi Center. This former transoceanic receiving station was the brainchild of early radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi and is now a popular conference facility. It is worth a stop to walk through the warm sitting room off the lobby and see examples of Marconi’s early radios. A 3-4 minute walk up the hill takes you to the old tower platforms and spectacular views of Tomales Bay.

The Pacific Coast here is far different from SoCal beaches, wild versus sand and sunny. There is no temptation to swim, as the water is far too cold and tides and powerful currents wait menacingly to pull you out to sea. Some surf, but not like farther south. Stopping along the rocky vistas, we’re content to hear the seal lions and look for grey whales who migrate along this route.

Clean, almost-new blacktop leads us from one banked curve to the next. Just as we’re finding our rhythm, we stop at Tony’s Seafood Restaurant, a popular turn-around point for SF-based motorcycle day trips. We lunch on delicious barbequed oysters and fresh fish. While others are turning south and ending their rides, we are just beginning. We continue up Hwy 1 through Bodega Bay and Mendicino and arrive at dusk in Fort Bragg, where we check in at the Best Western hotel.

The single Fort Bragg taxi makes two trips to get us all to the Mendo Bistro for dinner. Over excellent food and a terrific local wine, we discuss the bikes. Boston Rob’s high-mileage, rented Triumph has been problematic all day. After closer examination the following morning, we decide to abandon it, leaving messages for Dubbleju and the keys with the hotel. Rob adopts the Heritage Softail and his wife, Urch, somewhat reluctantly becomes a pillion rider on my bike. By the end of the ride, the Goldwing’s rear seat has been dubbed “Urch’s Perch.”

Day 2
Avenue of the Giants & Lost Coast Loop: Fort Bragg to Benbow (202 miles)
Leaving Fort Bragg on Hwy 1, we climb, descend and climb again along cliffs above the pounding waves of the Pacific Ocean. Moving in and out of fog, we alternate between full visibility and pea soup in seconds. After ninety minutes that seem like hours, we head inland. The temperature climbs fifteen degrees in five minutes and the fog disappears.

Arriving at the Benbow Inn two miles south of Garberville at 11 a.m., we drop our bags, then ride fifteen miles north on Hwy 101 to the Avenue of the Giants exit. Hwy 254 meanders 31 miles under and through 17,000 acres of redwood forests. We stop frequently: sip coffee in a tree; drive through a tree; admire thousand-year old trees. The size of these incredible plants forces us to slow down. Most eerie is the near total silence when stopped in the middle of a forest. It is so quiet. There are no birds chirping or tootling. Birds do not call this forest home because it lacks an important food source – bugs. Apparently, redwood trees offer little to interest insects.

At the end of Avenue of the Giants, we go north on Hwy 101 past Rio Dell and take Hwy 211 to Ferndale. From there we head toward the ocean and the Lost Coast Road – one of the loneliest roads in California. In Ferndale, we resort to the GPS to confirm the narrow, steeply climbing and abused looking alley is truly Mattole Road. The road climbs and twists 2000 feet before emerging from the woods onto windswept grass hills with a sweeping view of the ocean. We descend and follow the coastline, then turn inland and climb and twist our way back past Honeydew to rejoin 101. Though spectacular, this is the roughest road we’ve ever ridden. Thankful to be back on smooth asphalt, we wind inland again to the historic Benbow Inn. This is not a good road and I recommend it only for experienced riders.

We freshen up and get ready for what turns out to be the best dinner of the trip in the Benbow Inn’s excellent restaurant. My biggest worry on this evening is that as the first two days of the trip have been so good, the rest of the trip may disappoint - a needless worry, as it turns out. The best is yet to come.

Day 3
Famous Hwy 36 and Trinity Lake: Benbow to Weaverville (239 miles)
Leaving the Benbow Inn, we start north on Hwy 101 toward Fortuna, turning west on one of the most spectacular roads in the world for motorcycles, Highway 36. On (a website dedicated to documenting with text and photos the best motorcycle roads in California), a contributor wrote about Highway 36, “... the absolute best ride of my entire life!” He went on to describe the road as motorcycle nirvana, saying if you don’t enjoy this road you are “either dead or not deserving of being a biker.” Suspicious of such superlatives, we are all now true believers. It is a thrilling road, with every turn linked to the next and the road hugging the terrain like honey on the back of a spoon.

Instead of following Hwy 36 all the way to Red Bluff, we ride north on Hwy 3 toward Weaverville. Hwy 3 is no disappointment either, providing an incredibly good ride. We grab a quick lunch at a bar that celebrates the California Gold Rush and cold beer. As none of us cares to drink and then drive, we make a note to return later and continue on Hwy 3 to the Trinity Alps.

At 2,300 feet above see level and boasting 145 miles of shoreline, Trinity Lake is one of California’s largest lakes. Several of our group split off to investigate an earlier-spotted junkyard. Meanwhile, the rest travel the well-paved, nearly empty road as it follows the contours of fish-rich Trinity Lake. This lake holds the record for largest small-mouth bass caught in California but also contains catfish, kokanee, rainbow and brown trout.

After registering at the Best Western Victorian Inn on Main Street in Weaverville, we put on our walking shoes and head to the now-crowded bar where the beer is still cold and the steaks thick and juicy.

Day 4
Lassen National Park & Lake Tahoe: Weaverville to So. Lake Tahoe (330 miles)
Starting south on Hwy 229, we turn east on Hwy 44 to Lassen Volcanic National Park. Although unfamiliar with this park, known primarily for its volcanic geology, Andy insisted we fit it in. What a find! Before we arrived here (about 600,000 years before we arrived, actually), the continental plates collided and warped, resulting in 200,000 years of volcanic activity that scarred and transformed the landscape into incredible shapes. Stopping at different points in the park, we see steam vents, boiling mudpots and diamond-like lakes with water so clear the reflections were like undetectable forgeries of the originals.

The road over Mt. Tehama takes us from 5,000 to over 10,450 feet, through landscapes that seem to have come from another planet. The roads are well-paved, twisty and glued to the odd terrain. The temptation to rev-and-roll is constantly tempered by siren calls to the cameras in our saddlebags, so we stop often to click and clamor at the breathtaking views.

Leaving the park, we ride south on Hwy 89. Through Mill Creek and Sierraville, this road offers much of what we loved about Hwy 36, albeit a bit faster. In fact, this “bit faster” part results in the only speeding ticket of the trip and the claim to shame is mine alone. Crossing I-80 at Truckee, we continue south on Hwy 89 around Lake Tahoe, another awe-inspiring ride, and we encounter our first traffic lights since leaving San Francisco.

The Embassy Suites Hotel in South Lake Tahoe turns out to be the home of Echo Restaurant – a surprisingly upscale joint, serving delicious appetizers and several creative main course options. Tired from our longest day yet, we retire without visiting the casino next door.

Day 5
Yosemite National Park: So. Lake Tahoe to Sonora (263 miles)
After a quick breakfast at the Embassy Suites, Hwy 89 draws us south, down dizzying heights to Mono Lake. Beautiful aspens shimmer in their gold coats and wave to us as we traverse the vast plain. We hook up with US 395, gassing up at Lee Vining, before meeting Hwy 120 and the entrance to Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite is so famous I thought I knew it. Familiarity with the writings of John Muir and Ansel Adams photographs led me to believe I knew many of Yosemite’s secrets. I am so wrong. No written description or photograph has prepared me for the sense of awe I feel upon seeing these wonders in person. Although I knew El Capitan from photographs, standing at the base and staring up, I find it impossible to take in its immensity. Looking at the mountain, I am astonished to hear there are climbers on the mountain and they are visible. “Visible” is a relative term meaning “with powerful binoculars, and then only when you know precisely where to look.” When I finally got the loaned binoculars focused on the right spot, the figures on the mountain were still as small as ants.

Arriving in Sonora, we are thrilled to find the Best Western Sonora Oaks not only has a hot tub and pool, but shares a parking lot with a bar/restaurant. In less than 15 minutes, everyone except the napping Andy has crowded into the hot tub.

Day 6
Sonora to Napa (212 miles)
We begin the day with this ride’s obligatory shopping trip. The Harley Davidson store in Sonora has cool stuff. Based on our purchases, you would conclude each of us suffered from a severe T-shirt shortage.

Riding north on Hwy 49 toward Tuttletown and Angels Camp, we stop in San Andreas and check out the museum and jail. Black Bart, a stage robber who plagued Wells Fargo stage coaches for years, was the jail’s most notable visitor. Before his ultimate capture, he taunted his pursuers with poems left at the sites of his crimes.

Hwy 49 is a terrific road, although its traffic load increases as it nears Sacramento. We take Hwy 16 into Sacramento, then I-80 for a few miles through the city before exiting at Davis to catch Hwy 128 west. We’re thrilled to be on Hwy 128 toward Napa Valley. It marks our return to scenic, uncrowded roadways, unlike metropolitan Sacramento.

We take the long way into Napa, going north on Sage Canyon Road and following it into Oakville. Here we turn south on the Silverado Trail to avoid the Hwy 29 traffic and roll into Napa.

Checking in at the Chateau Hotel on Solano Avenue (right off Hwy 29), we find a cheerful Mexican restaurant nearby. Some run to the pool, others do laundry, but we all manage to freshen up and appear promptly for margarita time.

Day 7
Half-day Napa Loop to Lake Berryessa and Chalk Hill Estates (127 Miles)

In the morning we take Hwy 121/Monticello Road east from Napa. At Hwy 128, we head north to Knoxville Road, the road to Lake Berryessa. Soon after seeing Lake Berryessa through the trees, we come across a visitor center.

A friendly and informative ranger provides an excellent overview of the lake and explains how the water level is controlled. The center features exhibits of stuffed local wild animals with explanations of their feeding and habitat. The ranger offers terrific tips on the best spots to stop and photograph this beautiful lake.

The ride along the lake, again on almost deserted roads, provides ample twisty fun. As we reach the end of the lake, the road changes to Morgan Valley Road and heads west. This is the perfect wine country back road, narrow and winding with trees pressing in and shading the road. We ride for more than an hour without seeing another vehicle. While the road surface gets rough in sections, it is dry. I’d not want to ride this in the spring when the water is high, because in many places the river crosses the road. I can feel the anxiousness growing in riders behind me as the road continues to narrow and the consistency of road maintenance drops off measurably.

Just before the road deteriorates to a cow path, we emerge on Hwy 29 near Calistoga. We take Hwy 29 south through St. Helena, Yountville and then back to Napa and our hotel.

We leave the bikes and jam ourselves into a rented sport utility vehicle. On our way to the Chalk Hill Estates near Santa Rosa, we stop at the world famous, always-crowded Yountville Deli. After sandwiches and other neat treats, we cross the mountain ridge that divides Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Beginning in Napa as the Oakville Grade and turning to Trinity Road halfway across, it clearly is a great motorcycle road but a lousy road for an SUV full of people. We sing camp songs between shouts for Rob to slow down.

An hour later we arrive at the ruggedly beautiful Chalk Hill Estates. Our small band is lucky. Philip is good friends with Fred & Peggy Furth, the proprietors of Chalk Hill. Although Philip’s friends are not present, they’ve arranged royal treatment for us, including a private tour and wine tasting. The 1,200 acre estate is surrounded by beautiful heritage oaks. It consists of 60 different small vineyards, each producing distinctive wines. A large, elegant and beautiful equestrian center graces a hillside near the top of the estate.

Our final trip dinner is at a nouveau-chic restaurant called Dry Creek Kitchen in nearby Healdsburg. At a big round table we toast the bikes, the scenery, the roads, the weather, the food, the wine and most of all, each other. Making new friends and renewing old ones is as significant as scenery and safe riding. Any lingering doubts as to whether we’d truly seen “the best of the best” are completely dispelled when Andy throws an arm over my shoulder and says, “Ya done good.” This is high praise indeed. We have all fulfilled a North California fantasy.


All Photographs by “Seattle Bob” Meador

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