Touring Tip: East vs. West

Dec 06, 2013 View Comments by

Touring Tip:  East vs. WestThis month’s installment is not about which of our two coasts offers the best motorcycle touring venues, that’s a debate that could continue without any foreseeable end. And, like beauty itself, what constitutes the best riding area is, truly, in the eye of the beholder. Having ridden across most of America’s lower 48 states, some generalizations can be made about differences between riding in the East vs. the West. Having said that, though, there are also exceptions to every rule. Why is this important? For riders who live and ride in one area, it’s important for them to have an appreciation of these differences before they venture forth into new territory. Here are seven categories where noticeable regional riding differences often exist:

  1. Terrain: One of the most obvious differences between east and west is the height of the mountains. The Rockies have many peaks over 14,000 feet and a lot of roads thread their way through mountain passes, which are also quite high. The Appalachians, on the other hand, have relatively few peaks and roads that top out over 6,000 feet. Consequently, greater altitude and temperature variations, thinner air, and longer duration switchback riding are to be expected in the Rockies. Motorcyclists must have the clothing, physical conditioning, and skills to ride comfortably in this environment.
  1. Climate & Weather: This can be the least predictable and often the most challenging aspect of riding in a new environment. Generally speaking, the East Coast will have more humid and wet weather than the western states. Of course the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascade Mountains, is probably the wettest region in the country.

Touring Tip:  East vs. WestIntra-day temperature fluctuations are more likely in many of the western states—a cold front can descend rapidly on unsuspecting riders. Intense thunderstorms also can develop quickly, often in the afternoon hours. There are many locations in Colorado’s Rockies, for example, where almost daily thunderstorms spawn lightening strikes that place high altitude riders at considerable risk. Of course, thunderstorms also happen in the East, but my experience has been that they generally are less intense.

  1. Flora: Prime riding areas in the East are often more heavily forested than the more arid climes of the West. In addition, deciduous trees and their undergrowth often grow close to the edge of many of the best motorcycling roads on the East Coast. Consequently, riders on those roads have more limited sight lines and distances, especially around curves. Blind curves require riders to anticipate the possibility of an oncoming vehicle straying across the yellow centerline. Fall is a particularly scenic time of the year for touring the East Coast countryside, but wet leaves on serpentine roadways can be a threat to traction. But, by the same token, pine needles on western roadways also can reduce grip.
  1. Fauna: Animals on roadways, particularly at night, are a risk that’s especially difficult for riders to mitigate. Urban sprawl has displaced many of these creatures, requiring them to migrate and become more concentrated in suburban and rural areas. Because of their size, in relation to a motorcycle and its rider, deer and bear can, with little or no warning, cause catastrophic accidents. With dense vegetation (and no predators other than man), the deer and bear populations have exploded in many East Coast riding areas. Similar riding risks are present in many mountainous locations in the West, but probably not of the same magnitude as in the East.
  1. Roads: I’ve found no great distinction of road conditions between east and west. The quality of road surfaces tends to vary more by state and region. For example, the roads in western North Carolina are generally well maintained, probably because their curves and scenery bring in a lot of two-wheeled tourists. The roads in the New England states, which are also quite scenic, are generally not in good condition because of the harsh winter weather.

The western states have some of the curviest and most scenic mountain roads in America, but in between those iconic motorcycling locations there can be many miles of straight-as-an-arrow tarmac. On the other hand, I recently completed an 1,800-mile trip through the Appalachians, where 85 to 90 percent of the entire route had beautiful curves and frequent elevation changes. With many hairpins and blind curves, East Coast roads are often technically challenging, even for experienced riders.

Traffic is another consideration, but it’s usually more a function of urban versus rural and well-known roads vs. what a friend of mine calls invisible roads—the ones that most drivers don’t know about. Some of the most famous roads, in both the East and West, are often clogged with traffic: the Blue Ridge Parkway during leaf peeping season and on weekends and the Pacific Coast Highway during summer months and on weekends. Both the East and West Coasts have lightly traveled invisible roads—you just have to find out about them and RoadRUNNER’s website is an excellent source for that information.

  1. Scenery: There are many dramatic and iconic scenic vistas in the western states. The Rockies are younger and more rugged than the much older, worn-down Appalachian Mountains, which present a more gentle, bucolic landscape. If you’re expecting the Appalachians to be like the Rockies when you venture east, then disappointment may follow. But this is where an appreciation of scenery becomes very subjective. My personal favorite riding topography is rolling farmland with frequent elevation changes and a serpentine roadway. For some reason that type of topography triggers the zen factor in my riding. On the other hand, the rugged, scenic vistas I’ve found on many western roads are sufficiently breath-taking that I have to stop, put the kickstand down, and just drink it all in. Long story short, it’s all good!
  1. Services: In remote parts of the West, oil and gas, bike repair shops, food, water, lodgings, cell phone, and other services are often less frequent and further apart. As a result, it’s particularly important that your bike have adequate fuel capacity to ride the greater distances and be well maintained. It’s also prudent to carry extra food and water. And due to the summertime popularity of many western locations, like the National Parks, it’s probably a good idea to have advance reservations for overnight accommodations.

As someone who lives and rides mostly east of the Mississippi River, I always grasp any opportunity to head for points west. Much of the joy in motorcycle touring seems to flow from the new sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes that motorcyclists experience when riding in unfamiliar areas. The unfolding mystery of what lies around the next curve or over the next hill is one of motorcycling’s most powerful attractions. So, whenever possible, head for parts unknown, but be mindful of the different riding conditions you are likely to encounter before venturing there. I’m sure that many of you also have ridden extensively in our country and can add to the above list.


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