West Coast Wonders
Most famous for their gorgeous coastlines, Washington, Oregon and Northern California offer any visitor an array of sights and sounds. But further inland the Pacific Northwest also harbors a host of surprises for the motorcycle traveler.
This time out, the Promised Land lies between San Francisco and Seattle - the route along the coast is a dream. However, our first leg takes our small group inland from the City by the Bay to Sacramento, the capital of California, the "Golden State." Even before reaching the "Old Town" and its Wild West style, the eye gravitates to the focal point of the city: the golden-domed Capitol. Apart from this striking structure, the administrative seat has little to offer. Only on the outskirts, close to the highway hotels, can a little nightlife infrastructure be found: restaurants, bars and some noteworthy jazz clubs.
We put our Goldwings, Harleys and Beamers to rest and try to overcome this small disappointment. After having traveled a day from Germany to the US, having picked up the motorcycles and having taken off from the San Francisco Bay, most of us expected a little more from Sacramento than adequate accommodation. But calling it an early night was okay anyhow. We needed to overcome the time difference and get some sleep.
Gold country waits in the morning. The legendary Highway 49 proves to be not only "paved with gold" for those who sought their luck in the 1849 gold rush, bikers also find an El Dorado on the narrow road, with countless bends, that winds through the foothills of the Sierra. Some sites attract with the fame of bygone days, others lie slumbering by the wayside as though reclaiming the tranquil anonymity enjoyed before the gold rush of the nineteenth century.
Two examples of this difference are Nevada City and Downieville. The former still has gold mines that tourists can prospect and work. Main Street has been suitably restored, the historical hotel twinkles in its old-time shine, and the shops, restaurants and bars, the Bed & Breakfasts (including California's smallest with just two rooms) and hotels abound with the wealth of that golden history. Sure, there's lots of commerce, but without the sentimental trashiness one might expect.
On the other hand, time appears to stand still in Downieville. It's not nearly as polished and posh as Nevada City. There's not so much bright paint and plaster, more natural weathering on the buildings, although here too the rich traditions and excavations are shyly suggested. Mountain bikers and climbers frequent the area. It's gold country pure and simple.
Highway 89, another well-known gold diggers route, leads us on to the Lassen Volcanic National Park. Here every seam in the ground spits and spews steam. Above the lush green of the Sierra Nevada Forests, Lassen Peak rises to the full grandeur of its 10,457 feet. The hot springs, sizzling sulfur baths, and gigantic rocks make this relatively unknown park in Northern California a sightseer's dream. Think of it as a mixture of Yosemite and Yellowstone, but without the tourist hordes. We enjoy the ride along the winding roads of Lassen Park; for us Europeans it is paradise found. Hardly any traffic, stunning scenery - what more can we ask for? Maybe some warmer weather as it is astonishingly chilly up here.
A little further on we regret these thoughts as the steep descent deposits us in the hellish heat of the Central Valley. Here, in the main region for agricultural industry in California, numerous farmers are producing well-irrigated harvest crops while the mercury can easily climb over 110°F in the shade. In summer, the asphalt shimmers and the wind, usually bringing relief, becomes a searing blast. You can't sweat as quickly as you dry off.
The journey continues, on and upwards - thank God, and soon we're traveling through higher open country. At Dunsmuir, Railroad Park beckons us to spend the night in what was once the railroad brakeman's carriage. In the background, Mount Shasta, enthroned in majesty, consumes the view. At 14,162 feet, it is one of the highest peaks in North America and just as volcanic as Lassen Peak. From the highest reachable lookout point to its summit, it is still a long way, not something to attempt in a short pause between activities, but rather a challenge for the tireless day hiker or mountain climber. After a severe winter, it is not unusual for the tarred road to the summit to be blocked with meter-high snowdrifts well into the middle of June.
We follow the string of volcanic pearls onward to Oregon. The next climax of this trip is the Crater Lake National Park. Riding over a tree-lined road, we ascend more than 6,000 feet, arriving abruptly on a mountain ridge. Almost 2,000 feet below us the lake lies like clear blue soup in a bowl. Looking down on it, standing close to the brink at this dizzy height, we're mesmerized by a huge, unbelievably blue circle approximately 13 miles in diameter.
One of the most beautiful roads the Northwest has to offer follows after the detour to Crater Lake. At Crescent, a humble path forks off the long, straight Highway 97. It passes through Deschutes National Forest, between picturesque lakes and reservoirs, to curve its way into the foothills of Mount Bachelor. At last the view is clear to the impressive Three Sisters, a trio of petrified rock formations, each over 10,000 feet tall.