The Ten Best Paved Motorcycle Roads in America
Part Two of an Eleven Part Series
By Mark ‘Buck’ King
Over the last fifteen years I have had the privilege and blessing to have ridden almost all of the top motorcycle roads in the country. Practically every bike magazine and web site has at one time or another published their own list of the top roads. All the lists are a little different. Some list many of the same roads, but in a different order. Some add a different road and leave another out. I really don’t think anyone can rank these roads for anyone but themselves. Your opinion might be quite different from mine, but you won’t know that until you ride these roads for yourself. So I encourage you to quit reading articles like this and get out there and ride them for yourself!
So why eleven parts to the series on the top ten roads? That’s because there are many GREAT roads that didn’t make my top ten that just might be on YOUR top ten lists. #1 is the best road in my opinion so this is my list to this point:
#1 Beartooth Highway and the Chief Joseph Highway
Part Two – San Juan Skyway #2
The San Juan Skyway is on many lists, but few rank it as high as I do. I rank it this high because the road offers a complete experience that is so much more than just scenery and twisties.
On this road can you experience Victorian towns with great saloons, soak in a natural hot spring, see a vintage railroad, ride a million dollar highway AND get your spectacular scenery and twisties. You can also make time to visit Mesa Verde National Park. The San Juan Skyway is the total package.
The SJS spans elevations from about 6,200 feet in Cortez to just over 11,000 feet at Red Mountain Pass. The San Juan Mountains along the route are one of the highest ranges in the country with peaks above 14,000 feet. The San Juan Skyway was designated as a National Forest Scenic Byway in 1988, a State of Colorado Scenic Byway in 1989, and an All-American Road in 1997.
When we rode the SJS we set up our base at the Siesta Motel in Durango, CO. This a nice clean little Ma and Pa type place. It is several miles from the downtown area but there is a free trolley that will pick you up right in front of the motel and take you downtown. In town there is a central section that offers many restaurants and bars. Durango is a mecca for all types of outdoor recreation and most all the vacationers make their way into town for dinner and entertainment each evening.
The SJS is a 240 mile loop but with stops in several spots and perhaps lunch in Telluride it will take all day to complete.
Out of Durango we headed north on US550. This is beautiful scenery right from the start, but about 30 miles out of town it gets spectacular. I remember the morning we started the ride we were blessed with gorgeous weather. When we hit this area of tighter twisties that leads into Silverton I began to smell the luscious pine scent of the San Juan National Forest. The beautiful sight of the forest, the rich pine smell, combined with the movement of the bike through the turns was a sensory overload – a very good overload.
We started fairly early that morning and it was pretty cool. It was probably in the mid- 50s. A stop in Silverton at the Brown Bear Café for a cup of coffee was just what the doctor ordered.
Leaving Silverton headed toward Ouray you are on the Million Dollar Highway. While the entire stretch from Silverton to Ouray carries the label, it is really the twelve miles south of Ouray through the Uncompahgre Gorge to the summit of Red Mountain Pass (11,075 feet) which earned the highway its name. Headed north to Ouray at least you are on the inside of most of the steep drop-offs that would frighten even the Wallendas. Watch out for wildlife in this area where bighorn sheep, elk, mountain goats, black bears, and mule deer are common.
Ouray is another one of the Victorian jewels along the route. Here on the north side of town be sure and stop at the hot springs. This is a public park that looks like any other large swimming pool. Allow at least an hour or two to soak in these naturally heated waters. There is a changing room with lockers for public use. What a great experience at this clean and odorless hot spring. Many hot springs are somewhat tainted with a sulfur smell, but at Ouray there is no smell – unless your buddies are passing gas. I think admission was about $12, but it was worth it. Dry yourself off and put the riding gear back on now that you are completely refreshed.
Ride about 12 more miles north on US550. At Ridgeway turn left onto Highway 62. The next section of the SJS is approximately 24 miles from Ridgeway to Placerville. At this point you are headed southwest. From Ridgway to Dallas Divide you pass through ranch land with big hay fields and pasture all around. Dallas Divide is only 8,970 feet high, so no great changes in elevation heading into it from Ridgeway or continuing to Placerville. A few miles from Placerville there are some great rock formations in Leopard Canyon.
Just before you ride into Placerville, Highway 62 intersects with 145. You will be turning left and heading southeast to Telluride. It is only about 15 more miles to Telluride where there will be plenty of options for a late lunch. Of course, Telluride is best known as a ski town and sits in a box canyon so there are mountains all around.
After that late lunch leave Telluride in basically a southwestern direction on 145 for about 75 miles to Cortez. This section is not as tight as you have seen earlier on the SJS. These turns will be more sweeping as you go by Mount Wilson (14,246 feet) on your right and head over Lizard Head Pass (10,222 feet). The closer you get to Cortez, the more the road tends to straighten out. In Cortez you make your last turn onto Highway 160 headed east back into Durango. From Cortez you are only about 45 miles from your base in Durango at the Siesta Motel.
You will pass Mesa Verde National Park on your right, but at this hour you won’t have time to stop there. If you want to experience Mesa Verde you need to add another day to your stay in Durango to allow adequate time for it.
There is little elevation change in the last few miles. If you left Durango early enough (no later than 8 am) you will probably be getting back into Durango about 4 or 5 pm. My recommendation is to go straight back to the Siesta Motel. Take your boots off and take a little siesta, then ride the trolley into town for a nice steak dinner, walk around town until you’re ready for a little ice cream, take the trolley back to the motel, light up a good cigar and say, “Ole Buck was right about this one, too!”
The next article in the series is coming soon!