To travel from San Francisco to Denver you have to cross several major ranges, endure blistering heat and frosty cold, and carve a path for yourselfup some steep and twisty inclines. There’s plenty of excitement to be had.
The great traveler Marco Polo would be jealous. It took him three years from Italy to reach China. In San Francisco we need only a couple minutes to cross from the Italian quarter of North Beach into Chinatown. The cosmopolitan city impresses with many different cultures in a small environment. But the steep hills and streets are not the only promise of joy. In the next two weeks, the horizon will widen. Atop my 2012 Harley-Davidson Road King I head out with my friends for one of the most interesting journeys: San Francisco to Denver.
The excitement starts right away but is rather undesired. Fires are threatening eastern California, and our intended way through Yosemite is closed. The options are scarce. The next Sierra Nevada crossing to the south is 250 miles away. Our only hope is Sonora Pass toward the north. We get lucky. Even if we can see and smell the smoke, the pass remains open. Sonora turns out to be a spectacular ride, especially the last ascent, a tight part that climbs to the 9,624-foot summit. On the other side, the view from Highway 395 onto Mono Lake is worth every mile of detour.
The Sierra Nevada is the first range we conquer. The second awaits at dawn. We sleep in the cozy town of Lone Pine, CA, the last before the deserts of Death Valley. It is a long ride up to Darwin Plateau, but we’re rewarded by the most beautiful sunrise between the Joshua trees. The altitude gained is eaten up in a dramatic way as we plunge down through colorful black, brown, and yellow rocks into Panamint Valley. This scarce basin of the earth is already down at sea level and belongs to Death Valley National Park. Ironically, we have to climb 4,958-foot-high Towne Pass to get to nearby Badwater, the lowest point in North America.
Old West Nostalgia
Las Vegas heat at 3 p.m. is worse than Death Valley in the morning but almost unavoidable for an overnight stop. Luckily, tonight’s resting point is in the opposite direction of Nevada’s entertainment hub. Seligman, AZ, is one of the nicest and most relaxed places along former Route 66. And it is much cooler here at 5,200 feet above sea level. From Kingman, the road climbs steadily until we arrive at movie-like surroundings in Seligman. The wide Mother Road, some old cars, Angel Delgadillo's barber shop and Snow Cap Drive-In—everything you imagine the Old West to be. When daylight fades, there is probably no better place to relax on 66 than outside of Westside Lilo's, watching the sun drop right above the highway into the horizon.
Motorcycle & Gear
2012 Harley-Davidson Road King
The morning allows a few more miles on 66 before we have to turn onto Interstate 40 toward Williams. This town also inspires nostalgia, but it’s much busier than quiet Seligman. There is a reason for the crowds. Williams is the turn-off for another big landmark: The South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Even if you have been here before like I have and know what to expect, the moment you walk those last feet and step to the edge of this natural wonder is pure adrenaline. Highway 64 circles the edge of the canyon. Each lookout is different and would be a scenic stop. When the path turns away from the rim, the beauty continues. The road rushes down the plateau and rewards us with a sensational perspective of the Little Colorado Gorge, well worth a visit on its own even if there wasn't the big brother around the corner. The log houses of the Cameron Trading Post are our well-suited and comfortable shelter for the night.
In this part of the world, nature is generous and the wonders pass by in a short sequence. An hour into the morning ride we stop shortly before Page, AZ, to marvel at Horseshoe Bend, a picturesque meander of the Colorado River a few miles downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam. The panorama from a cliff 1,000 feet above the blue-green waters of the river merits the three-quarter-mile hike in desert heat it takes to get there.