Updated: Sep 4, 2019
Plus the best coffee, beers, burritos and more…
After 51 days, 25 states, 21 National Parks, two coasts, one massive bike rally and just north of 12,000 miles, including the highest road in the country and the lowest point on the continent, I found some of the best riding in America. Clearly, there might be a few places I missed – but maybe I can come back to get them at a later date… So while this can't be a comprehensive or definitive list, here's the ten best roads I found on my trip.
My original plan had been to spend 35 days in the United States. The reason I stayed longer is that it is, quite simply, one of the best – most varied and surprising – places to ride a bike. Once the search for suitable tyres had delayed me, I threw Plan A away and concentrated on doing what appealed to me most – going to the places I most wanted to see and riding the roads I most wanted to ride, making up my route one day at a time. Besides, as I’d had to buy 60 days’ crazy-expensive insurance, I decided to get my moneys’ worth. So here are the roads I enjoyed most in the USA.
If you only ride ten roads in America, try to make them these. Just take a helicopter to get you between them… or give yourself lots of time: 50 days should do it.
10 Tail of the Dragon, North Carolina
Riders flock to Deals Gap to ride this insanely twisty road on the North Carolina/Tennessee border: 318 corners in 11 miles. It’s a genuine challenge, with a relentless stream of bends – many of them tight, plenty that are off-camber. Riding it in the heat and humidity of summer only increases the difficulty. It is a brilliant ride… but it’s a tough one, so the pleasure comes as much from being able to say you’ve done it as actually enjoying it. Where?
9 Pacific Coast Highway, California
California Highway One is a long road – three day’s worth of fun, whether ridden from Los Angeles to San Fransisco or from north to south. There are some busier sections (which can be bypassed) but the coastal run from Ragged Point to Monterey, through Big Sur, is one of the truly great American rides. It’s a good one to do as a fly-ride trip, as one-way hires between the cities are available. Where?
8 Million Dollar Highway, Colorado
The road that twists its way through the mountains from Ouray to Silverton is the Million Dollar Highway, but Highway 505 climbs two more epic passes as it continues south to Durango. Much of the road does have a lower speed limit, but it’s tight enough (and the views are amazing enough) that it’s not a problem. It’s just a million-dollar ride. Where?
7 Moonshiner 28, North Carolina
Named for its role in running booze to Tennessee during Prohibition, I took Highway 28 from Franklin to Deals Gap (though the full road is over 100 miles long). I preferred the slightly more open, flowing nature of this 55-mile corkscrew through the Carolina countryside to the ultra-tight Tail of the Dragon that waits at the end of this road. Highway 28 is wider, the surface is generally better and there’s time to catch your breath every three or four corners… Where?
6 Highway 89A, Arizona
Highway 89 climbs up from the desert on the finest, twistiest two-lane road known to science, but peeling off on the 89A at Prescott is where the real fireworks are found, as the road twists and turns its way up slopes and down through gorges to reach the tiny town of Jerome. It’s a good place to stop for a look around – not quite a ghost town and was once dubbed “the wickedest town in the West”. Where?
5 Highway 178, California
This is hot stuff – quite literally. Highway 178 scales the Salisbury and Jubilee Passes before dropping like a stone to the baking floor of Death Valley. It runs along the foot of the cliffs through Badwater Basin (the lowest point in North America, 282ft below sea level) in a series of long, sweeping, engaging turns, all the way to Furnace Creek. The landscape is spectacular and there’s lots to see along the way – including the Artist’s Palette and the Devil’s Golf Course. Where?
4 Cherohala Skyway, Tennessee
A third road in close proximity to Deals Gap, the Cherohala Skyway climbs around the mountains from Robbinsville in North Carolina to Tellico Plains in Tennessee in a series of long, lazy, sweeping turns – the kind you can really dig the tyres into and enjoy without them tightening up on you. It’s 50 miles of the kind of quiet, involving riding that reminded me of the best bits of Spain’s Picos de Europa. Simply brilliant. Where?
3 Iron Mountain Road, South Dakota
Whichever way you ride it, Highway 16A would be a memorable road. It slices through the hilly woods near Keystone with 314 corners in 17 miles, including 14 hairpins and three endless 270° corners. It's a brilliant ride through the forest. But it also features three single-lane tunnels cut into the rock – and if you ride from south to north, these frame a view of Mount Rushmore. There’s lots of amazing riding in South Dakota, but the way those tunnels add an extra element to the ride just lifts Iron Mountain Road into a different league. Where?
2 Angeles Crest Highway, California
This is one of the more famous rides around Los Angeles, complete with a mountain-top detour (Mount Wilson) and a great bike café (Newcomb’s Ranch). When I rode it, a section between those two points was closed, forcing a detour on equally fabulous roads, but there’s no doubting that heading north from Newcomb’s, with next to no traffic until Wrightwood, delivers one of the greatest rides in America as Highway Two coils round the rocky slopes in an endless series of great corners. Where?
1 Beartooth Pass, Wyoming
Highway 212, between Red Lodge and Cooke City in Montana, takes the absolute prize for best single road I rode in America. It’s a long ride – almost 65 miles – and manages to maintain sensible speed limits, despite having proper hairpins, huge drops, massive views and a reasonable amount of tourist traffic (heading to Yellowstone National Park). Of all the roads I discovered in America's mountain areas, this was the most truly like a European pass – and it’s up there with the very best of them, though at 10,947ft (3337m) it’s higher than anything in Europe. A genuine must-ride road. Where?
The five finest coffees
Endless cups of lacklustre brown hot water? No, there is proper espresso in America too…
5 Go-Go Espresso Café
West Yellowstone, Montana
Of all the drive (or in my case, walk) through espresso bars I found, this one in West Yellowstone had the best roast and the finest finish. So much better than motel coffee…
4 Bella’s Restaurant & Espresso
It looks like a conventional diner from the outside but offers so much more inside. There’s a huge menu of locally roasted coffees (great lunch as well). High-quality double espresso and good value.
3 Moab Garage Co
Not an actual garage but a trendy eatery and café on the main street in Moab – with a genuinely belting, rich and chocolatey espresso. Really good.
2 La Zona Colona
If you’re heading south to the Million Dollar Highway on Highway 505, don’t miss this superb coffee house, set back from the road in the tiny hamlet of Colona. Stunning espresso and a nice outdoor seating area.
1 8575 Perfetto Caffe
Grover Beach, California
A proper weapons-grade espresso, every drop as good as my favourite in Italy (the Motorrad Café in Resia, as you ask). Maybe no surprise as it’s run by Italians Genaro and Laura. Quite simply espresso perfection.
The five best beers
Thank god for craft brewing! The explosion in local (and not so local) breweries creating ales means there’s plenty of quality beer – especially if you like IPAs
5 Four Peaks: Kilt Lifter
I’m not convinced that whoever named this widely distributed amber ale was aware of ALL the implications of the name… but it’s a very decent, quaffable brew.
4 Central Coast: 805
A lovely crisp beer from California’s San Luis Obispo. As well as being sold at the brewery sites and from the “beer truck”, it’s in local supermarkets.
3 New Belgium: Fat Tyre Amber Ale
A really smooth, tasty drop – just don’t get confused and buy the non-alcoholic Flat Tyre… Brewed in Colorado but my friend Bob introduced me to it in Virginia.
2 Sierra Nevada: Hazy Little Thing IPA
Quite hoppy, slightly hazy, totally delicious – especially ice-cold. Quite common in California (on draft as well). A really good beer.
1 Unita Brewing Co: Hoodoo Kolsch
I’d never heard of German “Kolsch” style beers (even in Germany) but this beer is light, refreshing and simply delicious. Probably hard to get outside Utah, but worth the trip just for the beer…
I ate a lot of Mexican food on this trip and the conclusion I reached was, basically, it’s all pretty damn good. But check the clientele: if it’s mostly well-heeled white folks, especially older ones, there probably won’t be any fire in the dishes: the most disappointing, mild dish I had was in a very swanky joint in downtown Folsom… their heat in its “spicy” dish wouldn’t even merit mentioning on a British curry-house menu. When most of the diners are Latino, then chances are the food’s going to have more spice – though even then there are exceptions. Here are my five favourite Mexican restaurants from the trip.
5 Los Altos
Quiet, family-run restaurant. Good, no-fuss, tasty food and good service.
4 Mi Casa
Franklin, North Carolina
Simple, no fuss food with some real authority (but with hot sauce if it wasn’t enough).
3 Pepe Delgardo's
San Luis Obispo, California
Home of "The Beached Whale" - a burrito of epic proportions. Tasty food, also available in sensible-sized portions
Idaho Springs, Colorado
The best black beans of the entire trip, this small chain has four locations in Colorado. Well worth a visit.
1 Ale’s Steakhouse and Bar
I know… the name gives it away: it's not a Mexican restaurant. But the molcajete here was the single best Mexican dish of the trip – full of flavour but properly tongue-numbingly hot. Wonderful.
Where to stay
Frankly, I enjoyed almost everywhere I visited. If I was to pick places to return to, as places to begin a riding trip (especially a fly-ride one) I’d start with these:
5 Culpeper, Virginia
Nice old town, ideally placed for the awesome riding on Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway – plus the superb local roads. Hire bikes from Washington DC
4 Sedona, Arizona
I stayed up the road in Flagstaff, but Sedona’s a more scenic location – and from here you can get to the Grand Canyon or head south, through Jerome, towards the deserts. Hire bikes from Flagstaff.
3 Folsom, California
Forget Johnny Cash: this up-and-coming town has lots going on and is surrounded by the amazing roads of the northern Sierra Nevada. So many good roads, so little time. Hire bikes from San Fransisco.
2 Robbinsville, North Carolina
The nearest town to Deals Gap, Robbinsville gives you access to the Tail of the Dragon, Moonshiner 28 and the Cherohala Skyway. Hire bikes from Knoxville, Tennessee.
1 Moab, Utah
This is as much about the off-bike stuff… give yourself time to explore Arches National Park and take the jeep tour through Canyonlands. Good riding, but there’s even more to see here. Hire bikes from Salt Lake City.