The Road(s) Less Traveled
As an avid motorcycle touring enthusiast for many years, I have been all over the United States. My trips usually avoid major interstates as much as possible, going a bit off the beaten path to maximize enjoyment over efficiency. So I’ve been all over the place, with a vast majority of it on the best roads I can find.
There’s a lot of goals when planning such a road trip. Some of my adventures are designed around destinations, and others are purely excuses to find great roads in areas that are known for such things. Usually it’s a bit of both. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t purposely take the long way every chance I get. It has led me to some great places and only gotten me lost a few times.
In my travels I have been fortunate enough to experience a lot of the “usual suspects” in the typical “great road” conversations. Off the top of my head, the two most common would be the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and the famous “Tail of the Dragon” (Rt 129/Deal’s Gap). Both are great in their own way. Both are also a tad overrated if I am completely honest. I’ll explain those controversial claims very briefly and then i’d love to share a few LESS common roads that I prefer over these hugely famous ones.
First, the PCH. I’ve traversed nearly the entire length - LA to San Francisco by the obligatory rented convertible Mustang, and by motorcycle from San Francisco all the way up to Canada. It is lovely, and in a few places it’s absolutely breathtaking. However, the driving experience is not all it’s cracked up to be. There is COPIOUS amounts of traffic nearly all times, and most of it is tourists in large rented vehicles and campers that will make your blood boil as you go slowly through the best windy parts. To be honest, it’s not the challenging driving road I thought it would be either. There are some twisty bits but most of the time it’s pretty easy cruising. I was a bit disappointed.
Also, the PCH is VERY long. I don’t recommend going up the entire thing (or even the whole way from L.A. to S.F. - the best part is just south of the bay area - right around Carmel and Monterey. Nearly every photo you've ever seen of this road is from that part, so If you can see that stretch you’ll “get it” and save yourself hundreds of miles of frustrating parade driving. I’m not saying skip the PCH - it is worthy of being a bucket-list drive but in terms of the “greatest drive in America” it doesn’t even make my top 10.
Next, the Tail of the Dragon. 318 turns in 12 miles (or something like that). Now, THIS one not only lives up to the hype in terms of a technically challenging road it surpasses whatever you imagine it’s like. It is a ridiculous ribbon of asphalt that goes for its entire stretch barely having 100 yards of straight road at any point. It’s SO filled with bends that you’ll likely find yourself giggling about halfway through because whatever you pictured in your head wasn’t quite as convoluted as the real thing. It is absolutely awesome, but also has similar drawbacks like the PCH.
There are almost always a lot of people on the road making for frustrating “runs”. The danger level is extremely high here as well, with no shoulder, sparse guard rails and either a cliff wall or a cliff drop-off waiting instantly after any mistake. The other danger here is people running out of talent and crossing the yellow line into the oncoming lane (which happens a LOT). See the "Tree of Shame" where the scraps of debris from crashes adorn an old shade tree near the resort at the SouthEast end.
It is tempting to go here to try to really push and be a hero, but the honest truth is that it requires more caution than nearly any road I have ever been on, as there are multiple factors of danger and risk going on at all times. Go, get your awesome roadside photo but don’t ignore the nearby roads. My recommendation is to visit Deal’s Gap and experience the legendary road, but I urge you to spend more time in the surrounding area - all the roads around that region are similar (maybe not the technical density of curves to make 129 famous, but they all feel about the same), and are FAR less congested with tourists.
So what else is there? Here are a few of my favorites I suggest trying:
1: Rt 123 in Arkansas
Affectionately known as the “Arkansas Dragon” this bit of road is one I have ridden multiple times and actually prefer it to the more famous Rt129 it gets its nickname from. Aside from the switchback “staircase”, the curves are not quite as tight as the Tail of the Dragon, eschewing the MANY 10-15mph corners there for a lot of medium speed sweepers. The views are a bit better, the elevation change is far more prevalent and there is almost ZERO traffic on this road, making it far less dangerous even though the speeds are generally quite a bit higher. In fact, I kind of regret talking about this one as to not overcrowd it. Perhaps I should’ve kept it as a secret.
2: Colorado 550
The “Million Dollar Highway” is (all things considered) my favorite road in the United States. Of all the ones on this list it rings up as the most scenic, the most varied and by far the most dramatic in terms of views. The stretch between Ouray and SIlverton is especially terrific. If you can handle the (frankly insane) drop-off at the road’s edge without much guard rail in place to save you, one can marvel in the beautiful Colorado Rocky Mountains from somewhere far cooler than Denver’s surrounding area as most stick to. The road is medium-level challenging, and is probably the ONLY one that you shouldn’t go too much faster than the posted limits due to the consequence of error. It doesn’t matter though, never has a fairly slow-paced ride this fun and still exciting.
3: Nevada Highway 50
The “Loneliest Road in America” is something of a misnomer. This is a bit of a weird one - highway 50 stretches across the entire state - from the Edge of Utah to (basically) the Lake Tahoe/Reno area. It’s about 400 miles and the wild thing about it is, that there are something like only 7 towns in that 400 miles. Most of it is open land with absolutely no buildings, attractions, homes, people, or anything else. They have marked signs alerting the longer distances between fueling stations - some gaps are well over 150 miles making it a bit scary for the motorcycle rider with not much more range than that in their gas tank. The upside is that it’s actually pretty great. Not as much an ENTHUSIAST road, but there are really fun and cool parts. I expected it to be a straight-line in the desert kind of thing the whole way. There ARE parts like that, but there’s Mountain passes, salt flats, sand dunes, really quaint towns with terrific places to stop, and more. To be perfectly honest I’ve been on MANY roads that were more lonely, boring and desolate than Nevada highway 50 - and that’s why it is so cool.
The theater aspect of it is cool too - You can get a printed map of the route at a roadside shelter that shows you the main stops along the way, what services (lodging, food, gas) are at each and a URL to go and register your journey with the Nevada dept of tourism. You can have them mail you a “I survived the loneliest road in America” Souvenir pack with a certificate of completion with your name on it, as well as a brass Pin to commemorate the accomplishment.
Not necessarily an exciting road as the rest are, but it’s a must-do on anybody’s list if you end up crossing through the area. Avoid the interstate north of here and take 50 across instead.
4: Idaho Route 12
Oh boy. This one is mega. Part of the Lewis and Clark trail that spans from the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean, this road caught me off-guard. When we planned this particular trip, we were going through South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California,... and… Idaho. If you’ve never been, I’m sure you understand that list. Idaho doesn’t seem like a landmark member of that group. You (like I was at the time so many years ago) couldn't be more wrong.
This road starts west of Missoula, Montana and cuts across the state of Idaho and ends up at Lewiston, WA. From East to West, the road goes downhill at a decent grade for 100 or so miles, all the while snaking (at elevation) at the same shape as a windy river many feet below. Mountain road, a million evergreen trees and the road bends with a natural cadence that almost has a repeating rhythm to it as you go along.
There is very little traffic, only about 3 intersections along its 175 mile length and it is SUBLIME. There are many highways in Idaho that are similar but this one just hits perfectly. Medium challenge, medium to high speeds, safer than many mountain roads and the scenery along the entire stretch is absolutely gorgeous. Idaho roads are the sleepers of the road trip world.
5: California RT 74
This one I can only explain as “desert spaghetti”. Heading Northeast from San Diego to Palm springs, Rt 74 is a generally lovely road and a pleasant way to get across the mountains. However, there is a certain point where it goes from a decent mountain road to a desert rollercoaster.
At the last highpoint before ascending to the Coachella valley (containing Palm Desert and Palm Springs), there is the scenic turn-off called the Coachella Valley Vista Point. It offers a TERRIFIC view of the valley and the cities that just seem plopped into a flat desert, starting and stopping with a harsh line quite literally in the sand. The OTHER view it has is of the road going down the side of the mountain to get there. The last part of rt74 is a ribbon of road that drops hundreds of feet, has more switchbacks than you can count and drives like a roller coaster draped on a cliff. The pavement is nearly the smoothest you’ll find anywhere, the sightlines are mostly clear and although there is tourist traffic sometimes it doesn’t ruin your fun too much. It’s one of those roads I rode down on my way to Palm Springs and my friend Rob and I stopped at the bottom, turned around and went up and back down one more time because it was that good.
For all of you who are in the TL,DR club, let me recap: The two bucket list roads that everybody seems to put on a pedestal are GREAT, but both are a tad overrated in terms of the actual experience. While I have hundreds of good roads strewn around the country, these five are ones that I feel deserve to be on the bucket lists of any road traveler equally or perhaps more so than the old faithful choices.
Regardless, get out there and see for yourself! If you have any great ones you’d like to share, leave them in the comments! I’d love to have more to add to my list.
I write and I know things. I am also the resident motorcycle expert at Everyday Driver - check out the Cycle Report on our YouTube channel - www.thecyclereport.com - The views and opinions expressed here are my own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.