Adventure touring on a scooter: priceless

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Packed and ready to roll

With a few days of vacation left, and great weather promised by the soothsayers on TV, I loaded up the Burgman 650 scooter and headed toward Mt. Rainier, Palouse Falls, and Mt. Adams. I found a campground to remember, and one to forget. The scooter is now a pseudo dual-sport motorcycle, after successfully navigating several miles of Forest Service gravel road!

One of my goals was to stay off the highways as much as possible, but in the interest of time, I mixed back roads with riding on those slabs we call interstate highways.

View the Google map of the route here.

DAY 1, SATURDAY

It has been so many years since I visited the Sunrise side of Mt. Rainier, I had to use a map to get there. Population in western Washington has expanded to the point I recognized very little as I head eastward.

In Bonney Lake, I get something quick to eat, a second breakfast, ala Peregrin Took. Already I know the day will be a long ride, so I eat while standing. Other motorcycle riders will immediately know why I chose to not sit while eating!

I see The Mountain!

Finally on State Highway 410, my reward is light traffic and a beautiful, sunny day for stunning views of The Mountain.

Unlike the Paradise entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park, there is no entrance fee on the Sunrise side.

Mt. Rainier

As I ride through the park, the road climbs through different forest types — lowland deciduous trees in warm greens and fall gold, to darker green Western Red cedar and Douglas fir and bluish spruce, to groves of needle-like Subalpine fir interrupted by alpine meadows. The air cools, becoming brighter and crisper as I climb higher. The Mountain is slightly obscured by clouds, but the day is gorgeous.

At a rest stop, a couple of Harley riders approach me and anxiously ask if I saw a rider down on my way up. Even though I tell them of a group of about 12 bikes parked just around the corner, they are sure something has gone wrong with their friends. Moments later the group pulls in, and there is evident relief as they hug and backslap each other. I am forgotten, which is what I prefer on a solo ride like this.

Just before reaching Chinook Pass, I pull off to take photographs. I’m momentarily disoriented as two young ladies with soft English accents ask directions to the Sunrise campground. I am expecting American accents, and the lovely English lilt is delightful. They smile and wave as I motor on, a smile on my face, too.

Highly recommended for any motorcyclist is David Hough’s excellent book, Proficient Motorcycling, available from Amazon.com.

This book provides an excellent refresher for experienced riders, and will form the basis for helping new riders develop safe riding skills.

After many years away from riding, author Hough reminded me of several of my good riding habits, and of some bad ones, too. I finally understand the concept of countersteering.

Headed toward Naches

Crossing the pass, the road immediately starts to lose elevation. While Mt. Rainier is formed primarily of andesite, the cliffs bounding the road to the left appear to be granodiorite. To my right, the hillside falls away to reveal a classic glacier-carved U-shaped valley.

Suddenly I drop into open Ponderosa pine forest, with the Naches River beside me. The light-colored igneous rocks of Mt. Rainier have given way to basalt cliffs and slopes. Brightly colored sumac shrubs dot the slopes as I near the town of Naches. The air becomes warmer.

One of the attractions of motorcycling is I travel in touch with the environment: heat, cold, rain, and wind are all felt immediately, with little in the way to blunt the experience. What I like is the ability to smell changes around me, and the panoramic vistas seen through the faceshield. Near the pass, the air was crisp but smelled musty from the boggy meadows. As I drop into a different forest, the resinous tang of pine trees fills the air.

I muse about agriculture

In Yakima, I navigate to a gas station and fill the tank, then eat a late lunch…while standing! Concrete highway awaits, and while I’ll cover lots of ground quickly, it is not the most pleasant kind of riding. I remove one layer of insulation because it is quite warm.

Rocketing along US Highway 12, I consider the remarkable differences in the way agriculture is practiced in the Yakima Valley, compared to San Juan Island. It is always an oddity to me that an island — in this case, San Juan Island — can be quite arid. Land on an island is at a premium, and much of San Juan Island is rock outcrop unsuitable for growing crops. What little land is available is worked intensively, carefully, to get the most crop production without damage to the soil.

The Yakima Valley also features intensive agricultural practices, but the scale is exponentially larger than on San Juan Island. I see far more monocultures (single crops) in large acreages in the Yakima Valley, and large expanses of land not under cultivation. The valley is land rich, while San Juan Island is land poor. Yakima Valley has access to water through a long-established irrigation infrastructure, while San Juan Island farmers harvest rainwater or pump from small wells.

A park to remember

Palouse Falls

At Pasco, I connect with State Highway 395, and take a quick detour to visit some family graves. Then onward to Connell, where blissfully I turn onto a two-lane road and leave behind the traffic of US 12 and State 395. I can slow down and look around me as I roll toward my next turn, which is a right onto State 261. I follow 261 to Palouse Falls State Park road, and turn left, following the gravel road a few miles to the park.

There are six campsites in the grassy portion of the tent camping area. Four are occupied. Site 1 is near the dusty gravel road. Site 6 is at the far edge, away from the road. While Site 6 isn’t completely level, it will do, and I offload gear and carry it to the campsite.

As I erect my Sierra Designs tent, I see an older couple has a tent that looks identical. It’s not, but it is the same brand. We talk about how easy the tent is to set up, and he invites me over for some wine after I’m done setting up. They are very kind, and I remind myself to be less suspicious of gracious hospitality. I’m not in the city: I’m camping!

This was a long day, and I’m quite tired. I eat a sandwich for dinner, make sure I’m set up for darkness, and turn in at 7:30 pm. A few trains roll by in the night, but washing over me is the constant murmur of falling water from Palouse Falls. There are no highway or road noises, and I sleep long and deeply.

DAY 2, SUNDAY

Good morning sunshine

I awaken as the sun kisses the doorway of the tent. Unzipping the door, I let the sun warm my face as I lay there, listening to birds also awakening. A morning breeze rustles the tree leaves as the air warms, and I begin to hear sounds of other campers stirring.

Park is an oasis

I am surrounded by basalt cliffs, ledges, terraces, ridges, with inhospitable grassy slopes between each feature. In the midst of this arid expanse, Palouse Falls State Park is green and treed, like an oasis.

I hear and smell campfires being lit, and crawl out of the sleeping bag into the chill air, warmed on one side by the sun, and cool on the other. A few stoves on picnic tables are being lighted, and I find it quietly humorous to observe the chilled campers staring dumbly at the water heating for their morning coffee. Without caffeine, mankind would surely perish.

Nearby, a large russian olive tree guards a gully filled with giant sagebrush, and around it, grasses and scattered patches of wild sunflower fill in the landscape.

I remember you, Sir William

What a calm, slow, peaceful morning. I am remembering Bill, my coworker and friend of 15 years, and as I write this, a freshet of breeze rustles just the tree I’m under, then subsides, as if he heard my thoughts and is saying hello.

In the trees and shrubs around me, I see goldfinches, yellow-rumped warblers, meadowlarks, some kind of sparrow, and more. It really is an oasis for birds.

I am amazed to see boomboxes on picnic tables, and while coffee is brewing, modern music invades. Isn’t the sound of nature’s song enough for the soul?

As I prepare to depart, I take some photographs of the falls and the park. The morning light doesn’t show off the falls, but I was too tired last night to take pictures when the setting sun illuminated them.

Uh oh, bike is stuck

There are new roads to explore, so I launch at 10-ish…or rather, I try to. Last night, I put the bike on the center stand. In the night, the bike settled into the dirt. I cannot rock it off the stand. The gracious gentleman who offered me wine gives the scooter a push while I rock it forward, and I’m back on two wheels.

I notice the dust has made the center stand not return fully, so I carefully reach back and nudge it upward with my toe. This is tricky, because the bike is heavy, and I could easily become unbalanced and tip over. I definitely don’t want the center stand to be hanging down, because I intend to round off the tires a bit as I twist and wind through back roads to Dixie.

Continuing south on State 261, I see lots of oil sheen on the road, but the gravel poking through makes for good traction. I take it very easy the first few miles to get the traction-stealing dirt off the tires. The road was dry and dusty yesterday evening, but this morning it was damp from the morning dew, and a bit sticky in places.

At Lyons Ferry crossing I take the bridge and see many boats clustered up. Fisher folk, looking to catch the big one.

An idyllic stretch of road

The road is lovely, with up and down sections, and many slow, winding turns.

After passing through Starbuck, I followed some back roads through farm country to reach Waitsburg, where I connect with US 12 and proceed to Dixie.

The wheat and pea fields around Dixie have been harvested. Some have stubble left, some are covered with golden straw, some are brown — the unmistakable rich brown of the Palouse — from having just been harrowed or disced, and a few fields are black from being burned.

Hello again, Grandma

Visiting Grandma

The pea field next to Grandma and Grandpa’s graves has been harvested. I see dry peas on the ground that were missed during harvest. I tell Grandma how much I miss her, and ask Grandpa to take care of her. Next year, I need to bring some herbicide to suppress the weeds around the headstones. I also notice the headstones are no longer level; perhaps frost-heaving has unsettled them.

The hills and valleys in the area remind me of the ocean, the rounded hills being ocean swells frozen in time. It is a stark but very peaceful landscape.

Disturbing the peace

As I get back on the bike to head to Walla Walla, I am already feeling tired. I know I really am not as sharp as I need to be when I try to start the scooter with the horn button. Nice move, disturbing the tranquility of a cemetery with a horn. I get food in Walla Walla to fuel the rider, and gas to fuel the scooter.

Grandma’s house in Walla Walla no longer stands. Now, the parking lot for the hospital occupies that space. I have great memories as a child of Grandma’s metal chairs in the back yard, playing in the shed, exploring the wheat field behind her house, and the wonderful, rich smell of the soil.

I aim the good ship Burgie toward Umatilla. It is getting windy, but it is not bad. The area around Wallula can get incredibly windy, and it is really just a breeze bumping me around as I ride.

Sailboats!

South of Wallula Gap, I spy sailboats! Out here in the desert! I love the discontinuity of harsh desert conditions and boats. The catamarans appear to be engaged in a good-natured race.

Once on I-84, the wind picks up. It is alternately a headwind or hitting me from the side, and it is gusty. I stop at a rest stop for half an hour to settle down and eat a snack in the shade. Refreshed, I push on to the City of the Dalles.

Get pumped

At the downtown Chevron station, I learn that motorcycle drivers are allowed to pump their own gas. I am completely surprised, because I know car drivers are prohibited from fueling their own cars in Oregon. The attendant tells me they allow it out of respect for motorcyclists.

The Burgman is making an odd high-ptiched whine, somewhere under the dash, when I pull off to get gas. As soon as I remove the gas cap and release pressure, the whining, whistling noise stops. I’ve heard this sound before, so now I know what to do about it.

I grab some chicken for dinner, then head a few more miles west on I-84 to Memaloose State Park, space A28 on the 28th! It’s about halfway between the highway and the railway, and too close to both for it to be quiet and peaceful. But space A28 is close to the bathroom and boasts a small level tent space, so I accept it for what it is: a campsite along the highway.

I’ve pitched camp, changed clothes, and I sit here as evening falls, writing these notes.

It looks odd to have the scooter backed into a space a 30-foot RV could fit into. But for tonight, it’s mine.

Unlike the Energizer, my Philosphizer is run down

I had many huge and pithy thoughts today while riding, mainly in the stretch from Palouse Falls State Park to Dixie. Now I’m too tired to recall any of them. I listen to a Norah Jones album to settle me down and help drown out the sound of the highway while I pitch camp.

As I reflect on the day, I decide it was a mix of delightful, lonely backroads, and harsh, brutal concrete slabs. Because of road and train noise, I sleep with ear plugs in all night.

DAY 3, MONDAY

Mt. Adams

A breakfast bar and some water gets me started on Monday morning. I am packed and away around 9:30 am, looking forward to forested backroads today.

I backtrack to the City of the Dalles and take exit 87, crossing the bridge into Washington State, then turn left on the Lewis and Clark Highway where I am treated to a grand vista showing some farming, the City of the Dalles behind, and capping all is Mt. Hood.

Bike broken in Bingen

At Bingen, I stop to eat, and discover the bike won’t start. It keeps giving me a message of CHEC and the oil pressure light is on. I check the oil: full. I move the bike to put the nose higher than the tail: no good. I reverse the bike: still no good. I pull out the owner’s manual: useless. I pull out my phone, thinking I’m going to call for help, when I notice the kill switch is in the off position. Somehow, I had bumped it. I flip the switch, the bike fires right up, and I breath a sigh of relief while feeling a bit foolish. But I’m on a solo trip, so foolish or not, it just doesn’t matter!

Bingen looks like it was carved out of the side of the basalt cliffs and slopes, making enough room for the highway and a railway between the town and the Columbia River. Nearby, the slopes sport Ponderosa pine and native oak trees.

After refueling the bike, I look up and see a sign that points to Randle. Odd, I think to myself, because I recall the turn being near Stevenson, not Bingen. Oh well, to Randle I am going, so I’ll take a chance and see what happens.

Strange animals

After passing through White Salmon, I see development I do not expect in the backcountry. Clusters of houses soon gives way to scattered homes, and then ranches. Buffalo and llamas! (People trying to find a niche market, most likely.) The oak trees become dominated by pine forests.

At Trout Lake, I pull off and take a some pictures of Mt. Adams. I keep following the signs pointing to Randle.

Then begins the adventure riding

I stop for more photos of Mt. Adams as the paved road climbs ever higher. Suddenly: no more pavement. What? The sign says this way to Randle…so I swallow and figure I’ll give it a go, maybe it’s just a stretch that is being reconstructed. Several miles of one-lane gravel road ensue, over hill and dale, twisting this way and that.

After forest roads

The automatic transmission of the Burgman makes going uphill a breeze. It makes going downhill horribly tricky, as the bike automatically downshifts and causes the rear tire to skid in the loose gravel. Downhill, I roll very slowly. Relax, I tell myself, keep my hands loose and my weight on the floorboards. In a couple of spots I ride Dakar style, standing with knees bent to let the bike float over the washboard surface.

I encounter some vans and pickup trucks, and a couple of dual-sport riders. The riders shake their heads, either in amazement at finding me there or incredulous at my stupidity. Some of these drivers are going pretty fast on this narrow mountain gravel road, so I find a firm spot to stop and remove my earplugs, hoping to be able to hear an approaching vehicle in time to get to the shoulder.

Made it, but I need knobby tires!

I keep thinking I should turn around, because 34 miles of gravel will not be fun. Eventually, though, the gravel does turn to pavement again, and I am sailing toward Randle, but taking the corners easy because I’m tired and the tires are pretty dirty. I watch the temperature gauge because I know a lot of gravel was thrown up against the radiator, but the temperature remains rock steady.

At the Cispus River, I walk around for a few minutes, eat some snacks, inspect the radiator, and take some pictures.

At Randle, I turn left onto US 12. I detour left for a side trip to check out Cowlitz Falls Campground. It looks rather nice.

Back to the slab

Now it’s time to slog it to I-5. I figure I’ll get gas in Rochester, and also get something to eat. I am tired. I feel it in my head and my seat. It is quite hot in my protective gear, so I wet down my neck protector to let evaporative cooling keep me from overheating. My head feels like a cake in an Easy-Bake oven!

The wind is again gusty on I-5, and between wind and vehicle wash, I’m getting slapped around quite a bit. I decide I’ll try the back way up from Rochester to avoid I-5 at rush hour.

I get gas and a bite in Rochester, then head west to the real Rochester. I turn north onto Littlerock Road. A couple of turns later and I’m on Delphi Road, headed for Highway 101. From there, it’s an easy shot home.

PHOTOS

More photos are posted here.

ROUTE SUMMARY

DAY 1, 334 miles from Shelton to Palouse Falls State Park. Take US Highway 101 from Shelton to Interstate 5. North on I-5 to State Highway 512. At Sumner, exit onto State 410 toward Mt. Rainier. Near Naches, turn left onto US 12 to Yakima. Connect with State 395 in Pasco. At Connell, take State 260 past Kahlotus and turn right at McAdam onto State 261. Follow State 261 to Palouse Falls Road, and follow that gravel road to Palouse Falls State Park.

Fuel stops: Shelton, Bonney Lake, Yakima, Pasco.

DAY 2, 229 miles from Palouse Falls State Park to Memaloose State Park. Return to State 261, and follow it south to Lyons Ferry bridge. At Starbuck, turn onto Kellogg Hollow Road, and follow it as it becomes McKay-Alto Road. At Bolles Road, turn left to Waitsburg, where a right turn brings you to US 12. Follow US 12 past Walla Walla to the turn toward Wallula, but go straight. Road becomes State 730. Continue on State 730 to I-82 at Umatilla. Turn onto I-82 to reach I-84. Follow I-84 past City of the Dalles to Memaloose State Park.

Fuel stops: Walla Walla, City of the Dalles.

DAY 3, 234 miles from Memaloose State Park to Shelton. Backtrack from Memaloose State Park on I-84 to City of the Dalles, taking exit 87 onto US 197 and cross the Columbia River. Turn left onto State 14 to Bingen. Turn right onto State 141 and follow it to Trout Lake. From there, continue on State 141, which turns into National Forest road 24 (NFD 24). Take NFD 30 off of NFD 24. Turn right onto Curly Creek Road. Turn left onto NFD 90, then right onto NFD 25. Continue to Randle as NFD 25 turns into State 131. At Randle, turn left onto US 12. Follow US 12 west and turn north onto I-5. At Rochester, exit I-5, taking State 12 to the town of Rochester. Turn right onto Littlerock Road SW. Turn left onto 128th Ave SW. Turn right onto Waddell Creek Rd SW. Turn right onto 105th Ln SW. Turn left onto Delphi Rd SW and follow it to Mud Bay Road. Turn left onto Mud Bay Road, then merge onto US 101 and follow it to Shelton.

Fuel stops: Bingen, Rochester, Shelton.

MILEAGE

  • Total miles, from gas log: 851
  • Total gallons consumed, from gas log: 15.4
  • Calculated miles per gallon: 55.3
  • Highest mileage: 59.6 (long downhill from Chinook pass to Naches)
  • Lowest mileage: 49.1 (70 mph run to Pasco)
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7 thoughts on “Adventure touring on a scooter: priceless

  1. Sue T

    Tom, Sounds like a great vacation. Great pictures. I think that my favorite vaction of all times was when I took one by myself! Solo trips/time is a great way to relax and reflect on life and the future.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Sue

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  2. Tim B

    Tom:

    Great report and I was glad to give you some tips. I was just down riding on my F650 Dual Sport in much of the same area of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest last Fri-Sun (9/26-28).

    From your written report, it appears that you took FS23 from Trout Lake and not the Curley Creek/FS90/FS25 route that's in the ride summary. FS23 has about 10 miles of gravel.

    You should consider coming to the MAXI SCOOTER rally at Stevenson, WA next August. There are so many REALLY nice paved roads to feast on in the Gorge. For details, go to www.soundrider.com.

    Tim

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  3. Ray

    Outstanding Tom! Enjoyed every bit and especially Remembering Sir William and the eastside stops. So close to my White Salmon in-the-ditch episode this winter.
    ray

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  4. Sandy

    Umm, you do know you are crazy, right? Almost as nuts as when you and Glen rode your bikes to the lake... from Des Moines!

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  5. Mary

    Tom...you could have a career writing for travel magazines! How many talents do you have?!! Beautiful trip and I also remember some of the names of the cities you visited from our 'side trip' home from a Commission meeting. ;o) I encourage you to look into the visitors bureau to see if you can start writing and taking photographs for their brochures!!! Always good to have a number of skills in your back pocket.

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  6. Vicki

    With one minor point of clarification ..... what is your definition of "rocketing along US Highway 12"? I chuckled when I read that....loved the stories. You are a great rider.....made me feel like I was there. Only I was on a cute little Harley Sporster named Little Bit. Actually, Little Bit is history. I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of my 1965 Vespa Scooter -- although I don't think I'll be quite as adventurous. Thank you for sharing the words and pics, Tom. You are a treasure to be sure.

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  7. Pat C

    Hi Tom,
    Nice scooter. Nice trip. Nice photos. I really enjoy all you write. This is inspirational for me in a way....I plan to get another new trail motorcycle this year. Probably a 250cc sized machine. Will use it strictly off road though, not brave enough to drive a motorcycle or scooter down the highway.
    Regards,
    Pat

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