Many people think a motorcycle ride’s appeal is the scenery, says Todd Thompson, owner of Eastside Harley-Davidson. But they’ve got it all wrong; while a view isn’t bad, his eyes are on the road. What draws Thompson to Northwest highways and byways are the sensory pleasures.

“It’s the main difference you experience in any part of the country, whether farmland or mountains. Just feeling the moisture or heat, the scents,” he says, whether that’s a heavy, warm Eastern Washington breeze or salt-infused coastal gusts off the Washington Coast.

Northwest mountain passes open in June, making it Thompson’s favorite month to ride, followed by September — when the roads are a little less congested and some favorite routes open up for summer.  Here are five Northwest rides from a bona fide expert.

1. North Cascades to Banff

Thompson’s favorite ride is a truly epic peak experience — nearly 1,000 miles one way and through North America’s most iconic mountain ranges. Start out on the curving SR-20 surrounded by snowcaps on the North Cascades Highway. Then, head north on 97 through Northeast Washington’s farmland before crossing the Canadian border at Oroville-Osoyoos.

From there, Okanagan Hwy/BC-97 continues north, past the vacation communities and scents of fruit orchards near Penticton and Kelowna. Stop for lunch or a night, then take BC 5 N as it climbs into the spectacular Mount Robson Provincial Park and alpine town of Jasper, he suggests. “Jasper is always a little pricey but has several good B&B’s,” he says. “My favorite is a sleepy two-unit place called Austrian Haven B & B.” 

 Then, it’s a short distance through the crisp air of the Canadian Rockies to the pristine glacial lakes of Lake Louise and Banff National Park.  “The best part of this entire route is the Glacier Scenic Byway (Canada 93) from Jasper to Lake Louise,” he says.

2. Green River Route

Of course, sometimes a ride is best when close to home and doesn’t take more than an afternoon. From Issaquah, Tiger Mountain and the Central Cascades sit to the left as Thompson takes Issaquah-Hobart Road South to Ravensdale. Firs grow thicker in remote territory as he moves southeast toward Kanaskat and Palmer.

He stops in quaint Cumberland for lunch, then moves through cool air to the waterfalls of Green River Gorge State Park. “There’s a big windy road along the Green River and no traffic,” Thompson says. That’s the real secret to a great ride, he says — few cars sharing roads that zigzag through nature.

3. Chinook Pass to North Cascades Loop

“My favorite Washington loop is only open in summer,” Thompson says and spans a variety of landscapes, from alpine to high desert to farmland. Right after Mount Rainier’s Chinook Pass opens along the mountain’s eastern flank, he rides SR-410 across the central Cascades, inhaling fresh mountain air filled with the fragrance of fir. SR-410 turns into SR-12 near Yakima’s fruit orchards.

He zips up to Ellensburg from Yakima via Scenic Hwy 821 along the Yakima River, then takes quiet sage-surrounded backroads to the mountain passes, winding up in sunny, dry Wenatchee and fun-loving Lake Chelan.

He returns along 97 to connect with Highway 20 (North Cascades Highway) to pass through the western town of Winthrop. “The River’s Edge Hotel in Winthrop is quiet and secluded while still downtown,” he says. “The Omak 12 Tribes Casino Hotel offers nighttime entertainment and clean, comfortable rooms.” After a night’s rest (or recreation) he continues west on Highway 20 toward Seattle. 

4. Olympic Peninsula

While Thompson describes himself as “more of a mountains guy,” one stretch of Washington Coast has a unique appeal — the rugged Northwest Washington Coast. He first heads for Sequim. “I stay at whichever lodge has a special with food and lodging,” he says. “Then head out early so I can ride all of the coast and back home to Redmond in one day.”

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He first goes west to Neah Bay, the most Northwest point of the United States. Then, Thompson goes south along WA-112 E past Beaver Lake. “Even if the weather sucks, I love it anyway. There’s rarely traffic along 112 to 113 into Beaver Lake and past Lake Pleasant,” he says.  

He inhales moss-drenched surroundings and surf spray when extending the ride — heading south along 101 into Forks and then Oil City, or visit the haystack-rock studded dramatic coastline of La Push, Ruby Beach or Kalaloch Lodge.

5. Mount Hood

Another epic ride best taken in spring and fall? A path to Oregon, Thompson says, after snows melt but before summer bakes Central Washington and Oregon. Take Chinook (when open) or Highway 20 down to Yakima, then the more remote, pine-flanked SR-97 to Goldendale, Washington. From Goldendale, a steep descent opens up expansive, unforgettable panoramas of the Columbia River Gorge’s gentle folds and soaring plateaus.

Thompson takes Highway 14 along the Washington side and crosses over at Hood River, Oregon, to spend the night. “The Columbia Gorge Hotel and Spa is expensive, but you need to treat yourself and stay there at least once,” he says of the cliffside stay. “The hotel, food and views are amazing.”

Then, take the back route on OR-35 S past orchards, up to the peak of snowy Mt. Hood. Ensure you stop at Timberline Lodge, a National Historic Site. Then head west again on US-26 W, descending to Portland before heading home.

Experienced motorcyclists know how to respond nimbly to road conditions, weather changes, or traffic, which can vary by day (or hour) in Washington, he says. The ride provides freedom itself to respond while being in the moment, surrounded by the sounds, smells, and feel of the Northwest.

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