Scanning my map, I quickly realize what an incredible motorcycling wonderland I’ve arrived at. There are not many locales where you can visit the ocean, the rain forest, the mountains, and the desert in a few hours. Oh, and did I mention that three national parks and one monument are also accessible within the ride? The fall daylight is warm and inviting, so it seems like a most opportune time to explore the Pacific Northwest.
Our story begins in Longview, WA, which is centrally located along the I-5 corridor between Portland, OR, and Seattle, WA. Autumn is a terrific time to investigate this area as sunshine is abundant, and ideal temperatures range from the 50s to the 80s. During the next four days, I’ll delve into this region’s rich history and explore terrain that has been shaped by rain, wind, and volcanoes.
Exploring the Lower Columbia River and Coastal Communities
Today’s route takes me to the Pacific Ocean and heading northwest on Washington State Highway 4, which parallels the Columbia River separating the states of Oregon and Washington. With its headwaters in British Columbia, Canada, the Columbia is 1,243 miles long and carries more volume than any other North American river draining into the Pacific Ocean. I roll through the 1870s German immigrant community of Stella, WA, whose residents once supplied fuel wood for steamships, and then I take a brief side trip to Norwegian-settled Puget Island. I survey the dairy farms and quiet roads before stopping in Cathlamet for duct tape to secure my tankbag to the motorcycle after an attachment point failed. Continuing west, I leave the river and ascend to the tree-covered hills.
After turning south onto Highway 101 from Highway 4, I encounter more coast-bound recreational vehicles slowly traversing the curves, so I take time to soak in the views of the broad river estuaries and inland bays. Willapa Bay is rich with bird life and includes many shore birds feeding in the mudflats. Most of them are in the midst of long migrations—some starting in the Arctic and ending in Central America. A side trip to Long Beach, WA, leads me to lunch at the Hungry Harbor Grille. After the tasty fish and chips, I walk along the storefronts and enjoy the beautiful day.
Heading south towards Astoria, OR, and passing through the city of Ilwaco, WA (settled in the 1840s by the French Hudson’s Bay Company), I cross the Columbia River into Oregon on the Astoria-Megler Bridge. At 200 feet above the water at its highest point and at a length of four miles, I’m thankful that there is no wind, or the crossing could have been rough. After visiting the Columbia River Maritime Museum along the Astoria waterfront, I wander the downtown streets past a variety of shops and restaurants. Back on the Beemer, I travel east on Highway 30, but I am lured off the highway by a little side road that takes me to Mayger, an old logging company site along the Columbia. Only a house and small dock are left, but as I watch several boats traverse the river, I realize that side trips provide some of the best vistas I’ve encountered.
Working my way east and crossing from Rainier, OR, to Longview, WA, on the Lewis and Clark Bridge, I pick up dinner at Burgerville (a great local northwest restaurant chain) before rolling into the Red Lion Hotel with a smile on my face.
Motorcycle & Gear
1994 BMW K 1100 RS
Into the Crater!
I switch my focus from big rivers and early settlers to geology, destruction, and rebirth. My friend Ed cruises in from Portland, OR, and joins me to see the splendors of Mount St. Helens. Departing Longview, we head north to our first critical stop at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center to gather information about access to the areas within the National Volcanic Monument. Due to activity and harsh weather, regular closures and restrictions can occur, so we acquire up-to-date details before heading in.
Descending into a serene valley just east of Toutle, WA, we see our first evidence of the destruction from May 18, 1980. Massive debris flows came down the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers on the west side of Mount St. Helens during the eruption, destroying everything in their path. We work our way north along smooth and mildly winding roads through Toledo and east along Highway 12, but our view is affected by an east wind sending smoke from a wildfire our way. We stop at the Mt. Adams Café in Randle, WA, for a bite to eat before heading into the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. During lunch, we talk with other motorcyclists from British Columbia and Seattle.
Proceeding south into the smoky haze towards Mount St. Helens, we follow one of the many surfaces rebuilt after the disaster. The weather in this part of Washington is hard on pavement, and we encounter multiple sections damaged by frost and landslides. I’m wishing I were on my long-travel KTM 640, so I slow down and pay attention. We stop along a stream that has seen the ravages of recent heavy rains; trees are scattered along the scoured channel as if they fell out of the sky.
We learned this morning that the route to Windy Ridge Overlook is closed just past the Smith Creek Viewpoint, but we are still hoping for a good look at the resting volcano. With very few cars, a nice uphill grade, decent pavement, and an abundance of curves, I enjoy the ride on my BMW K 1100 RS while Ed appreciates the agility of his BMW F 650. Our ascent rewards us with excellent crater views from the Smith Creek Viewpoint just inside the former blast zone. Trees are still laid over today illustrating the blast pattern from 24 megatons of thermal energy! What is even more amazing is how this area has regenerated since the catastrophe, and I am grateful for the impressive resiliency of nature.