The Grand Tour: A motorcycling route across the USA and back again

  • AUTHOR
    American Honda
  • POSTED
    Sep 27, 2013
  • POSTED IN
    Street

Beginning in the late 16th century, it became fashionable for young aristocrats to visit the major cities of Europe as the culmination of their education. Thus was born the idea of the Grand Tour, a popular pursuit that endured for the next 300 years. American notables joined this practice; in 1867, Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, set sail for Europe for a Grand Tour, and his reports of this journey later became his first best-seller, The Innocents Abroad (1869).

The prospect of riding motorcycles through Europe, Grand Tour style, presents a tempting scenario but, truth be told, there’s plenty of world-class riding to be had right here in the USA. To prove that point, we’ve developed our own All-American Grand Tour, tailor-made for motorcyclists. And we’re going big this time: our ambitious travel plans take us all the way across the country and back again. By hitting the road and delving into a wide range of resources—travel books, Web sites, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s America’s Byways program (www.byways.org) and our own deep well of travel experience—we’ve developed a detailed itinerary that we’ll present in six installments. To accomplish this, we begin on the East Coast and head to the Pacific Ocean via roads that take in northern states for the most part. Once we arrive in the West, we’ll swing south and head for the Atlantic once again.

During this guided tour, we’ll endeavor to take in the most fun roads, spectacular scenery and fascinating historical spots we can find along the way. Whenever practical we’ll stick to byways, not highways, and there will be plenty of meandering along the way; this is not a trip for watching the clock, or even the calendar for that matter. It’s all about the finest roads from one end of the country and back again.

FULL DISCLOSURE DISCLAIMER: We will definitely NOT highlight every “best road” in America. Some of your favorites will definitely not make our list. But don’t despair; it would be highly impractical to ever think we could include every bit of fun road in this six-part series. The purpose of this exercise is to share the wealth and provide some inspiration to get out and ride. So enjoy!

Heading West

Dip your toes in the Atlantic Ocean for starters, if you like, then head for western Maine and the town of Rangeley and Rangeley Lake, which is the centerpiece of 112 interconnected lakes and ponds scattered throughout the region. Here you’ll find the Rangeley Lakes Scenic Byway, home to magnificent lakes, mountains, rivers and spectacular roads that wind through the mountains of Maine. A nest of scenic highways intertwines throughout this area, including State Routes 27, 16, 17 and 4. All of these roads offer broad views from high vista sites, nice tree cover in many areas, plus a couple of picturesque waterfall sites.

After you’ve enjoyed a heapin’ helpin’ of Maine, follow U.S. 2 west into New Hampshire, or as an alternate take State Route 26, a State Byway in Maine. Either one will get you to the White Mountains with its made-for-motorcycling roads carved from granite. You won’t want to miss the Kancamagus Highway (U.S. 112), which you should take west to SR 10, a Scenic Byway river road that meanders along the Connecticut River.

Head south and soon you’ll hook up with I-89, but don’t let that interstate-highway designation throw you; 89 offers smooth sailing as well as gorgeous views, a designated scenic highway that takes you west and north through Vermont in fine style. You’ll pass through the Vermont state capital Montpelier and Burlington, a city that’s rapidly becoming a vacation destination. Eventually, I-89 will take you almost to the Canadian border as you hip-hop across Lake Champlain to the town of Champlain, New York.

Early American History

This is where you’ll pick up another Scenic Byway, the Lakes to Locks Passage that follows the northeastern border of New York. Paralleling Lake Champlain and the Champlain Canal, the Byway supplies scenic views mixed with plenty of history. Here you can immerse yourself in pre-colonial history by visiting the fortifications built by the French and British during the French and Indian War. Visitors to Fort Ticonderoga, made famous by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, will find a restored 18th century stronghold that includes costumed interpreters, guided tours, a world-class museum, daily musket demonstrations and more. The fort, first built by the French in 1755-1758, not only played an important role in the French and Indian War, but is also the site of the first American victory of the Revolutionary War. Can’t get enough military history? Expand your warfare IQ by visiting the other nearby outposts of Crown Point and Fort Defiance.

The road varies from areas with level, lakebed landscapes to hilly, twisty terrain. SR 22 going south offers an array of particularly enjoyable sweeping curves, especially south of Ticonderoga. And a number of areas include nice vegetation overhanging the road or framing views if you’re inclined to stop and take photos.

This route can be a little confusing because the roadways change names and merge together at times, so we’ll list a brief rundown below. However, even if you get off the main path on the Lakes to Locks Passage, just consider it an opportunity to check out another historic site or two; fascinating stops abound on this old-time route.

Beginning in Champlain, head south on SR 9 to Plattsburgh, then Keesville, where you take SR 22 south. You may want to stop along the way to see the towering cliffs and primeval forest at Ausable Chasm. From Keesville travel south on SR 22 to Essex and Westport and on Crown Point as two SRs join up, 9N and 22. SR 9N/22 takes you from Crown Point to the town of Ticonderoga.

From Ticonderoga, head south on SR 22 to the town of Whitehall, which touts itself as the birthplace of the American Navy. On display you’ll find the ruins of the schooner Ticonderoga, which served in the battle of Lake Champlain during the War of 1812.

Into the Adirondacks

The Lakes to Locks Passage Scenic Byway continues on, but from Whitehall head west to the south end of Lake George and pick up SR 28, a scenic highway that takes you west through the Adirondack Mountains. For those who think only of skyscrapers and big-city congestion at the mention of New York, a ride through this portion of the state will be a mind-bender. Consider these few fast facts about the Adirondacks: Adirondack State Park plus Adirondack Forest Preserve constitute 8.3 million acres of wilderness including 8000 square miles of mountains and more than 2000 high-peak mountains, 40 of which top 4000 feet; this area contains 200 lakes at least a square mile in area, and a total of 2300 lakes and ponds, and there are 1500 miles of rivers and 30,000 miles of brooks and streams. All in all, a riding paradise!

In due time you’ll head northwest to Watertown, New York, or more specifically, Cape Vincent Lighthouse just outside of town to the west, which sits on the shore of Lake Ontario. There you’ll pick up the Great Lakes Seaway Trail Scenic Byway. To get there via the Adirondacks, we suggest either SR 28 or an even longer mountain ride by way of State Routes 28, 30 and 3, all of which are designated scenic highways, as would be expected. Whatever your choice may be, this is the time to get your fill of mountain riding.

The Great Lakes Seaway Trail Scenic Byway

Following our Adirondack adventures, the Great Lakes Seaway Trail offers a more subtle travel experience with relatively flat landscape formed by lakes. This ride abounds in spectacular greenery and offers many scenic points with lots of pull-offs featuring interpretive signs or recreation access sites. Traveling the Seaway Trail through New York and into Pennsylvania takes you along the scenic shorelines of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, with the famous and spectacular Niagara Falls between the two.

Many of the major battles of the War of 1812 took place along the shoreline of the Seaway Trail. Forts, battlefields, military cemeteries and former shipbuilding communities retain their historic links. Sackets Harbor, home to the Seaway Trail Discovery Center, was the site of two British attacks designed to disrupt military shipbuilding. Also, a total of 28 lighthouses, built in various architectural styles, dot the Seaway Trail shoreline; some have public museums, and a few also offer overnight accommodations. Niagara Falls and the State Park at the mouth of the river constitute a mandatory stop; this is also your chance to nip into Canada for some foreign allure. In addition, you may want to stop at the Niagara Aerospace Museum while you’re in the area.

After New York, enter Pennsylvania, where a fine stop can be found on the water’s edge at Presque Isle State Park near Erie, Pennsylvania. Erie also serves as home to the Erie Maritime Museum, which among its varied exhibits tells the story of U.S. Naval Officer Oliver Hazard Perry, who declared, “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” after capturing a British squadron on Lake Erie in September 1813.

Road recap: As a general guide, NY SR 12 takes you from Watertown to Cape Vincent. From there, backtrack to NY SR 3, SR 104, SR 250 and SR 18 south into Buffalo. South of Buffalo, NY SR 5 traces the Lake Erie coastline across the state border into Pennsylvania. These routes lead in and out of the small towns dotting the Erie coastline, where over its 64 miles you’ll find plenty of scenic and historic detours along with some nice, twisty roads.

Into Ohio

Upon entering Ohio from Pennsylvania, we took in only the first 15 miles of the 293-mile-long Lake Erie Coastal Ohio Trail, but you’ll quickly get a feeling for the industrial lake shipping history of the Great Lakes. From Ashtabula, travel south on SR 11 to East Liverpool where you’ll connect with the Ohio River Scenic Byway. Ashtabula County encompasses 16 covered bridges; a fun hunt if you care to spend the time wandering the backroads of northeastern Ohio. Otherwise, it’s a quick 100 miles or so south from Ashtabula along SR 11 to East Liverpool.

Initially, much of the Ohio River Scenic Byway, SR 7 here, appears quite industrial with riverside shipping businesses and railroads, but you’ll also find interesting views, sweeping curves and bluff side vistas as backdrops. Once south of I-70 near Wheeling, West Virginia, SR 7 grows much more rural, with a number of small historic communities along the way. The Byway then skirts the edge of Wayne National Forest, which offers an alternate route; the National Forest has pleasant side trips up wooded ravines, including one Forest Service Byway complete with covered bridges.

The friendly little burg of Marietta, Ohio, which lies on the banks of the Ohio River in the southeastern portion of the state, serves as a fine layover spot for this ride, as the area is studded with photogenic stops including the Ohio River Museum and the W.P. Snyder, America’s only surviving steam-powered, sternwheeler towboat.

Rolling through mile after mile of marvelous tree-laden back-roads along the Ohio River, the Byway changes names from SR 7 to 124 to 338, then back to 124 and 7 once again, after which it takes on the name of U.S. 52 all the way into Cincinnati. As you approach this bustling metropolis, the Byway follows a variety of routes including interstates with heavy truck traffic, but take heart: Soon you’ll enter Indiana’s calm countryside.

Winding your way through Indiana

The Ohio River defines the southern border of Indiana, so you’ll meander along some of the best motorcycling country that the area has to offer, along SR 56/156. Most of this setting is comprised of rural communities and home sites/farms set into the wooded slopes and small floodplain sections. Twisty, narrower roads butt up to the edge of the river bluffs, and the overhanging canopy of trees makes this an especially appealing route.

Madison is a particularly interesting little town with shops, restaurants and the waterfront as a whole under development, where a number of places lend themselves to evening strolls along the river’s edge. West of Madison, you’ll move away from the river a tad and soon you’ll come to the Louisville area, where a number of historic communities make up the landscape. We’ll head west to Corydon on SR 62, a particularly lovely section of road combining lush landscapes, hills, curves and gorgeous vistas. On through town you’ll find the Hoosier National Forest, and SR 66 south dishes up a terrific riding experience. Along SR 66 to Evansville you’ll come to the cutoff that leads across the Ohio River to Owensboro, Kentucky. Past Evansville, the Wabash River coming from the north joins the Ohio River and you’ll continue tracing the southern border of Illinois and Kentucky along the Ohio River Scenic Byway.

Next stop: Saint Louis

In Illinois, the Ohio River Scenic Byway offers rugged terrain with rock outcrops, cliffs and heavy growth, courtesy of the Shawnee National Forest. The Scenic Byway route follows different roads as the jurisdictions change but it’s well marked and supported by an excellent route brochure with travel instructions found at information centers; major portions include parts of SR 1, 146 and 37. Historic communities include Cave in Rock, Metropolis and Mound City as well as Cairo.

Fort Massac State Park in Metropolis features the site where a fort was originally built in the mid-1500s. In time, the fort passed through the hands of the French and British, then finally fell to the U.S. during the Revolutionary War. Troops were last stationed there during the Civil War, and in 1908 the site became Illinois’ first state park. On site you can visit a replica of the 1802 American fort that contains two barracks, three blockhouses, officer quarters and a stockade along with a fraise fence. The site also holds the archaeological outline of the 1757 French Fort, plus a visitors’ center and a museum.

In Cairo, a park at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers presents an impressive sense of water merging to form a great river. And here, as the Ohio yields to the Mississippi, you’ll also take up with the Mississippi and the Great River Road National Scenic Byway along SR 3. In sheer size and importance, the Mississippi River has few equals in the world. Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans used it for trade and travel. The French sent trappers down its banks after coveted beaver fur. For years, it served as the western boundary of America, providing the next western frontier as the United States acquired new lands. Western settlements expanded along the river, with their rugged pioneers doing their best to tame the mighty river country.

As you enter the St. Louis area, the Meeting of the Great Rivers Scenic Route interrupts the Great River Road. Meeting of GRSR still includes the Mississippi, but here the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois River join together to flow to the ocean. Rich in historic significance and natural beauty, the junction of these mighty rivers demonstrates both American river culture and American pioneer spirit.

Rivers were the main transportation arteries for both Native Americans and early European settlers, and historic sites all around the area contain a record of both of these groups. The Wood River Region at the north end of the Route commemorates the beginning of Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition to the Pacific. The Camp River Dubois State Historic Site offers several exhibits, including a restored campsite of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery and a cross-section replica of the expedition’s keelboat, allowing you to experience the expedition firsthand.

Alton played a pivotal part in events leading up to and during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held their final debate in the race for U.S. Senate here in Alton, with the entire nation watching as they contended over the issue of slavery. Life-size bronze statues now stand in Lincoln-Douglas Square to commemorate the event. Just outside of Alton lie the remains of a federal prison, as well as a sobering monument marking the mass grave of Confederate prisoners who died there during the Civil War.

As you settle into a comfy chair in one of St. Louis’ more notable restaurants, you can reflect on travel well done—motorcycle style. This trip will have taken you from the rugged mountains of Maine to the water’s edge where three rivers combine force in a most historic site. One down, five segments to go on this trip across America and back again.

Honda Powersports
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