The Top Motorcycle Touring Rides In the Rockies

Touring Season Is Here, And We Have Some Suggestions

Andrew Cherney

Photos courtesy of www.DrivetheTop10.com except as indicated

With the Memorial Day holiday comes the unofficial start of the touring season. Let's face it, by the time May rolls around and the weather starts to settle, you can't wait to hit the highway after a long winter indoors. And if you're like us, you're probably already planning the next few months' routes.

Hitting hot spots like the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park seems like the easy thing to do, but it usually means you end up paddling through hordes of tour-buses and traffic-choked asphalt. We came across a new alternative in the Northern Rockies; it seems a safe bet to avoid most of the crowds and still net yourself a nice collection good roads, gobs of great scenery and a variety of historical distractions.

Officially dubbed the Top 10 Scenic Drives in the Northern Rockies (www.drivethetop10.com), this collection of roads was recently unveiled by a marketing coalition as a North American destination for travelers looking for a more authentic connection with the environment. The area is chock full of scenic beauty, American Indian cultures and North American history. The Top 10 Scenic Drives (yes, it's a website too) connect 19 National Parks, Monuments and Recreation Areas via nationally designated Scenic Byways and National Historic Trails. This "destination" - actually a series of routes - is comprised of five U.S. states (Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington and Oregon) and two Canadian provinces (British Columbia and Alberta).

We're told this Scenic Drives initiative began after the International Selkirk Loop and Northwest Passage Scenic Byway joined the Beartooth Highway and Hells Canyon Scenic Byway in achieving All-American Road (AAR) status. With that kind of street-cred, you're virtually guaranteed hundreds of miles of curves, unbelievable scenery, interesting towns, and plenty of dining and lodging options along the way. (A good option is to add one or more of the Top 10 Scenic Drives as a pre- or post-Sturgis trip).

For this particular article, the Top 10 Scenic Drives are (see map at the bottom):

1. Beartooth Highway (All-American Road; MT & WY)

If you're a numbers-cruncher, the Beartooth will challenge you: 10,000 mountain lakes, 20 peaks reaching over 12,000 feet in elevation, and 12 campgrounds. It's what makes this Byway is one of America's most scenic drives. Highlights include the transition of lush forest ecosystem to alpine tundra in just a few miles on the highest elevation road in the Northern Rockies. You can also access the northeast entrance to Yellowstone, or just hit Red Lodge, Montana, and Cody, Wyoming, and make like a cowboy.

2. Circle the Continental Divide Driving Tour (WY)

This tour highlights the best of Wyoming -- national parks, museums, rodeos, Native American tribes, miles of jaw-dropping scenery, and plenty of wildlife. It's about experiencing the essence of the Wyoming Rocky Mountains along the Continental Divide.

3. Hells Canyon Scenic Byway (All-American Road; OR & ID)

Spanning Idaho and Oregon, Hells Canyon Scenic Byway is one of those get-away-from-it-all routes informed by wide open roads, big blue skies, and a heavy dose of relaxation. You'll pass through verdant valleys framed by the snow-tipped Wallowa Mountains, with the option of delving into the deepest canyon in North America.

4. Hot Springs Circle Tour (B.C.)

Seems like this ride is all about the destination: hot springs (sign us up!). But before you get there, you can rumble through British Columbia's pristine Kootenay Rockies and experience the rivers, lakes, waterfalls and snowcaps. The Circle Tour encompasses four of British Columbia's seven national parks.

5. International Selkirk Loop (All-American Road; ID, WA & B.C.)

This All-American Road churns 280 miles through northeast Washington, northern Idaho, and southeast British Columbia. The Loop has earned plenty of recognition for its abundant riches: it was named by Rand McNally as one of five "Best of the Roads" in its 2009 atlas, and Sunset Magazine called it "The West's Best Scenic Drive". Don't miss North America's longest free ferry ride, across Kootenay Lake in British Columbia.

6. Montana Scenic Loop (MT)

When you're riding through the heart of the Great Northern Rocky Mountains -- what the Blackfeet call the "Backbone of the World" -- you can probably bet on having most of the road to yourself . If you don't count the resident beasties populating the spectacular mountains and endless wilderness of this nearly 400-mile-long Montana Scenic Loop.

7. Northwest Passage Scenic Byway (All-American Road;ID)

This 202-mile Scenic Byway winds along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers through northcentral Idaho, through the ancestral homeland of the Nez Perce people. This unspoiled area is where Lewis & Clark crossed the Bitterroot Mountains.

8. Salmon River-Sawtooth Scenic Byways (ID)

Birthplace of Sacajawea, whitewater capital of the world, and Lewis & Clark stopping point: this slice of real estate holds some of the most celebrated land in the Northern Rockies. Beginning in Shoshone, the byway rolls north to the resort towns of Hailey, Ketchum, and Sun Valley, terminating in the Stanley Idaho Rocky Mountains, where the Sawtooth meets the Salmon River Scenic Byways.

9. Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park Loop (MT,B.C.)

It's the 100th Anniversary of Glacier National Park, a pretty good reason to visit this jewel of land. But there's another cause for getting yer motor running, and quick. Many experts predict the glaciers that give the park its name may well be gone by the year 2020. The visually spectacular Loop starts at Whitefish and zigzags through the Montana, British Columbia, and Alberta Rocky Mountains -- formed by Waterton Lakes and Glacier National Parks. At the narrow waist of the Rockies sprawls one of the world's wildest, most diverse ecosystems, and, of course, a healthy collection of rollicking motorcycle roads, including one of the most gorgeous routes in the country - Going to The Sun Highway.

10. Yellowstone-Grand Teton Loop (WY)

Get thee to our nation's first national park - a wild, geyser-accented masterpiece nestled in the heart of the Wyoming Rocky Mountains. The peaks of the Grand Teton Mountains, herds of buffalo and Jackson Hole will likely figure prominently on your ride.

For more information, including maps, lodging and full itineraries, go to www.drivethetop10.com

We'll have more touring articles, gear reviews and tips up on this site in a couple of weeks.