Motorcycle Touring - Pacific North West

Olympic Peninsula Loop

Sometimes, the best part of motorcycling is when you turn the engine off. I used to think the best time was that fraction of a second after swinging a leg over the seat when you pause to think about the ride to come. I still like that moment, but now I've discovered this other best part.

It struck me on a recent ride looping around the Pacific Northwest's Olympic Peninsula, over the Cascade Mountains and back down through eastern Washington. I'd covered much of this area already so I was bracing for a familiar, leisurely cruise. Maybe that's why I ended up with four separate encounters in which turning off the engine turned out to be just as rewarding as running the roads.

We had set out for the most northwesterly point in the continental U.S. Highway 112 on the northern edge of the Olympic Peninsula runs along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which separates the U.S. from Canada and connects the Pacific Ocean with Puget Sound. Aside from the U.S. and Canada, however, there's another sovereign nation here: the Makah Indian Reservation. The Makah Nation originally comprised five villages, which in the 19th century consisted of cedar-planked lodges almost 70 feet long. Today, all that's left are a few businesses, a pretty good restaurant and some scattered homes.

As my buddies forged ahead to scout for a lunch stop, I took the opportunity to pull over and enjoy the view across the Juan de Fuca Strait. Shutting off the engine, I sat there for several minutes. All was still and quiet at first, but then I heard a rhythmic sound in the distance. Straining to make it out, I realized it was chanting. I popped on my camera's telephoto lens to scan the waters and managed to spot a Makah whaling canoe off the coast.

Given their location on this remote peninsula, the Makah had evolved into skilled mariners. They built sea-going canoes out of local cedar wood, and their lives centered on hunting whales and seals, fishing for salmon and trading with other tribes. In particular, whaling was central to the Makah culture-so much so that when they signed a treaty with the U.S. government in 1855, it specifically reserved the right to hunt whales. By the 1920s the Makah had stopped whaling, but in 1999 they invoked their long-forgotten rights and, amid great controversy, began the practice again.

I sat there for a while, watching the canoe. I don't know if it was an actual whale hunt, but this was an unexpected and rare sight I wouldn't have experienced if I hadn't pulled over. A bit farther up the road, I turned into a small park to see if I could get a better view and found myself in the middle of what turned out to be a gathering of Makah villages. There were several canoes, all festively painted, pulled onto the beach. It seemed there was a ritual taking place, with one village group requesting permission from a local chief to come ashore and join the celebration. Although it was a public park and no one displayed anything more than a curious glance toward my bike, I still felt like I was intruding, my six-cylinder Honda Valkyrie thrust among 19th-century sea vessels and ancient Native American rituals. After observing for a while, I quietly pulled away.

I soon caught up with the riding buddies I thankfully had pulled away from earlier. Native Americans chanting in sea-going whaling canoes-you can't hear that roaring down the road, even with stock Honda mufflers masking your flat-six engine!

After lunch, we continued our quest to the most northwesterly point. The map showed it was just a few miles away, but we hadn't noticed that those last miles were unpaved-which presented us with the prospect of turning 800-pound touring bikes into dual-sports. What the heck, we figured. We'd come this far... Our menagerie of a Goldwing, two Valkyries and an Electra Glide bounced down the dirt and gravel path amid clouds of dust. We soon reached a parking area and hiked the remaining distance to the tip of Cape Flattery. The view was spectacular, with the Tatoosh Island lighthouse, built in 1955, about half a mile off the peninsula. But all the while I was soaking in the view from Cape Flattery, I was thinking about my encounter with the Makah.

Before heading east to catch a ferry from Port Townsend to Whidbey Island and then to the mainland, we made a short stop at the combination general store/post office/gas station/snack shop in Joyce. After tanking up, a short jaunt took us straight up to Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. Climbing from sea level to over 5000 feet in just 10 or so twisty miles was a thrill in itself, but the real reward was the view from the top, where you're level with the snowcapped peaks of the Olympic Mountains. With engines off we could hear the wind whistling across the mountains. Another moment when the quiet of silenced engines seemed to eclipse the motion of the ride.

Once on the mainland, we headed for the North Cascades Scenic Highway. This road, Highway 20, cuts across the Cascade Mountains through the heart of North Cascades National Park, and none of us had been on it before (it's closed during winter). It made for a great ride through the park, as it's the only stretch of pavement in what would otherwise be a wilderness area.

We finished an early dinner in Concrete, Washington (yes, it's named after the building material), on the west side of the Cascades and really wanted to continue on. The upside was less traffic in the early evening and the potential for a fabulous sunset in the mountains, and we weren't ready to call it a day anyway. The downside of pushing ahead meant more than 100 miles of road with no services, including cell-phone coverage, as darkness fell. The greatest danger, however, was the risk of encountering deer. Known to come out at dusk, deer are credited with killing more motorists than any other creature in the U.S.; we would be heading into deer country at the worst possible time. So with caution thrown to the wind, we called ahead, secured a motel for the night on the other side of the mountains, gassed up and took off.

It may have been our first time on that byway, but it won't be our last. What a beauty! The road was exhilarating, with what seemed to be just the right combo of twisty turns with mild radii and a wide, nicely paved surface. The high point of this leg, however, was when we pulled over and turned off our engines to enjoy the complete, stunning silence of this mountain wilderness. The mute backcountry, coupled with the sun sinking in the west, casting rich colors against the mountains, made for a truly memorable moment.

We pulled into our motel that night feeling like we'd dodged a bullet-or more accurately, a couple of bucks and a doe-on this road, where they post signs updating the tally of deer-related accidents. The next morning, as we turned south down the eastern side of Washington State, we sought out one last road we'd been on several times before. Highway 821 out of Ellensburg runs along the Yakima River a few miles west of Interstate 82. This two-laner runs slow and curvy and just a few feet from the river, through the scenic Yakima River Valley. Only about 40 miles in length, it has long been one of our favorites. Taking a break along the road, we could hear a freight train, barely audible over the babbling river, pulling its load through the valley-another engine-off moment I thoroughly enjoyed. By this time, I was eagerly looking forward to stops where I could hit the kill switch and await sensory discoveries.

So then, what's the best time during a motorcycle trip? I like that early-morning start-up, but now I look forward to shutting down to appreciate the silence, as well. I still think the riding in between is pretty good too. I guess I like it all.