The Cascade Mountains by 1974 Norton Commando

Motorcyle touring Washington's famous volcanoes

| November/December 2007

The Blue Ridge Parkway. Skyline Boulevard. Deal’s Gap. America’s best motorcycle rides take you through mountains, so it follows there must be some great riding in the “American Alps” — the Cascade Mountains of Washington state. I found wonderful winding roads, snowy peaks, beautiful vistas and great pavement. What’s not to like? Not much, as long as the volcanoes I’ve come to visit stay dormant for the length of my tour.

I swing my trusty 1974 Norton Commando into the parking lot of a gas station-cum-country store in Maple Falls, Wash., looking for my first caffeine fix of the day. I’ve just crossed the border from Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada, and as ever, I’m bemused by how rural northwest Washington is compared with the industrial suburbs I’ve left behind. Behind me lies metro Vancouver, a sprawling city of two million people; to the east, less than 50 miles away, is Mount Baker, an 11,000ft snow clad “dormant” volcano.

A tired and crusty minivan pulls alongside, trailing blue smoke and tottering on its mix of three regular tires and one worn out undersize spare. A trio of mongrels in the back bark cheekily at me, feeling secure behind the glass. Morning sun is streaking through the dense evergreens as I sip my coffee. Baker is the first of three mountains the Commando and I will scale this weekend, and I have at least 800 miles to cover. Time to get moving!

Mount Baker
The northernmost U.S. volcano in the “chain of fire” that runs from Mount Lassen in California to Mount Garibaldi in British Columbia, Baker is a relative “shorty” at just over 10,700ft. But rising from close to sea level, it presents an imposing bulk on the skyline.

Washington’s state Route 542 meanders through the forest alongside the churning Nooksack River, swollen with snow melt, before starting a twisting ascent. The road switchbacks along the mountain face in a hectic series of hairpin bends, many of which turn close to 270 degrees as they wind in and out of the canyons. It’s a technical ride: Though the surface is generally good, some corners are coated with treacherous gravel dust, and rivulets cross the road around blind bends. Discretion demands I take a leisurely ride, letting the Commando’s low-down torque pull me through the bends.

I’m soon at the snow line, and though there’s no snow on the pavement, the white stuff is piled high along the roadside, even though it’s late July. Last winter presented a bonus snow pack, and a cool spring has delayed the melt. I stop to gaze down at the twisting tarmac below doubling back along the mountainside. It is chilly at the crest, and a roadside lake still has ice at its edges, but the air is tingly fresh and the sky indigo blue.

12/3/2009 4:11:33 PM

I enjoyed reading the story but would have loved to get a corresponding route map linked in the story possibly google maps? Editors? I'm jealous of the ride though! Thanks for sharing.

Chuck West
12/3/2009 2:52:43 PM

I always enjoy Robert Smith's stories, and I have great respect for his photography. But, would some one ask him to do a different pose than the one that he always includes of himself "on the scene?" I mean, with all due respect, his dreamily staring off into the un-seen distance is getting to be a goofy signature of his. Again, I don't mean to offend the man. I'd love to accompany him sometime on a tour. I'd take his photo. To give some credibility to my opinion and comments, I have been a professional people photographer for 35 years. Chuck West Santa Fe, NM

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