Call it unfinished business, if you will. In 2006, I collected a Ducati Multistrada 1000 DS from Southern California Motorcycles in Brea, CA, and set off to tour the northern Sierra. My trip would include most of the famous Golden Chain Highway, California 49, through the foothills and over the Sierra to Quincy, CA. But, there was a problem. A forest fire raged in the mountains, and the stretch of 49 that swings through the Sierra was closed. Determined to cross it off my list, I whispered just like the state’s former Governator, “I’ll be back.”
It’s September, and I’m riding out of Portland, OR, on my 1995 Cagiva Elefant 900 Lucky Explorer with Jim Bush and Steve Gurry to cash in my appointment with the Golden Chain Highway. We’re soon among scented cedar forests along the winding Clackamas Highway, which faithfully tracks a river of the same name. Beyond Riverford, the route becomes NF-46 and eventually butts into Oregon 22, the North Santiam Highway at Detroit Lake. It’s late afternoon, and the rustic cabins of the Detroit Lake Motel beckon us for the night.
Quartsville Drive (NF-11), which I rode on a Shamrock Tour® out of Eugene, OR, in 2005, crosses the Middle Santiam Wilderness, but on that day I could see nothing. As I rode away from Green Peter Lake, I hit the cloud base and spent a miserable couple of hours in a persistent icy drizzle trying not to fall off the narrow trail. May is a risky month in the Cascade Mountains.
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Today, the air is crisp and cool under clear skies. A “full house” breakfast of eggs, bacon, hash browns, and toast at the Marion Forks Restaurant on 22 sets us up for the ride, and we cross the North Santiam River onto NF-11 (Straight Creek Road) by a wooden bridge. We climb through dense groves of fir before we break through the canopy to gaze over the trees below. From here, the distant outline of Mount Jefferson, one of the volcanoes in the Cascades, peers over the treetops.
NF-11 twists its way down alongside a burgeoning creek with dappled sunlight glittering off the water. We cross a new bridge, noting that the twisted metal and concrete of its predecessor is still lying in ruins below. Taken out by an ice jam, perhaps? By Green Peter Lake, 11 is a broad sweeping highway bustling with holiday traffic, and we’re soon on the South Santiam Highway heading for Interstate 5. We stop for replenishment at Buster’s in Cottage Grove, which was the backdrop for Keaton’s 1926 classic movie, The General.
Riding southeast and back into the Cascades, we swing around Dorena Lake. The last time I tried to ride through this area, Christian Neuhauser, the magazine's founder, had laid out a tour to connect with the North Umpqua Highway, but that was before GPS; and though I had good maps, I got lost. Much of the land here is owned by forestry giant Weyerhauser, meaning that many of the trails simply end with a “private property” sign. Now, armed with my Garmin zumo 550, I assume it will all work out. We need to find Brice Creek Road, which becomes NF-2213 and runs into Steamboat Creek Road.
The GPS isn’t much help, though. Sure, it will get me to my destination; however, Garmin’s maps don’t distinguish between tarmac, gravel, and dirt. So we spend an interesting afternoon rambling over broken pavement and patches of gravel before we stumble on Steamboat Creek and emerge from the trees to the North Umpqua Highway at Steamboat.
We join a solid stream of traffic heading down into Medford on the Crater Lake Highway before turning west for Grants Pass. Eschewing the cluster of chain motels around the Interstate 5 intersection, we book the rather dated, but adequate, Knights Inn.