Show me a squiggly line on a map and I’m all over it like a seagull on a chip. I’ve been fortunate in my work as a motoring journalist to have driven and ridden on some of the squiggliest roads in the world. There are many I could suggest as a great motorbike road, but the one that sticks in my mind as the greatest is the Pines to Palms Highway in the San Jacinto State Wilderness in the mountains behind Palm Springs in California.
The hot Coachella Valley city 200km east of LA is a playground for the rich and in the 1990s Sonny Bono of Sonny and Cher fame was the mayor. Few riders are also golfers, but it’s interesting to note that there are more golf courses here than anywhere in California. Comedian Bob Hope lived here so he could frequent the many courses. Palm Springs also has the highest concentration of same-sex couples, it has been the scene for many Hollywood movies and among its citizens have been stars of the golden Hollywood era: Lou Costello, Bing Crosby, Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, William Holden, Jerry Lewis, the Marx Brothers and legendary actor and bike rider Steve McQueen who must have enjoyed racing his Elsinore through the surrounding deserts. Sadly the golden era has long gone.
What’s left today is tacky and crass, but also fascinating. Palm Springs has a vibrant restaurant and music scene and is a great place to base yourself for this 150-odd kay round trip. Any time of year is fine for the ride. It hardly ever rains with more than 300 days of sunshine each year. However, you may experience substantial temperature changes from the hot valley to the mountains of the San Jacinto State Wilderness, so wear appropriate clothing. Winter daytime averages are 21°C, but you can expect 40 in summer. If you ride into the night, it will be near freezing, even in summer.
The ride starts by heading south on State Route 74 or the Pines to Palms Highway which climbs like a long, straight freeway ramp up the side of the mountain past gated communities for the rich and famous. It just keeps climbing long and straight for about 6km before it suddenly ties itself in knots into the mountain desert air. There may not be as many switchbacks as the Stelvio Pass, but the road surface is better quality. Beware of the edges, though, as they are sharp and on a Jeep press launch there some years ago a motoring colleague not used to driving on the right-hand side of the road kept dropping a wheel over the edge and punctured two tyres.
For those who remember the 1962 Hollywood comedy, “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”, this section of road featured in the opening scenes. On the world press launch for the Victory Judge, police closed off the road for us so we could take photographs. Not that the road is very heavily trafficked. However, you can encounter slow-moving RVs. Thankfully there are plenty of overtaking opportunities and turnouts for the slow vehicles.
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Back over your shoulder Palm Springs sits like a supermarket oasis in the parched desert. To the left and right the plants are as dry and gnarly as the rocks. This is harsh desert country but quite majestic. At several points are gravel turnouts where you can grab a photo of the valley and the squiggly road leading up the mountain side. Stop and take photos and double back for another hit up the range. Most riders do.
At the top, the chilly air will squirt down that gap between your neck and your jacket and either refresh you in summer or take your breath away in winter. Here the road rides along a high-desert plateau where the bends become less frequent.
We were told that the road is often patrolled, but we didn’t meet any law enforcement officers. As you head west the road begins to rise and fall steadily over increasingly more forested areas, gradually fading from a harsh and macho landscape into a pretty alpine-like region. Here it often snows in winter.
At the geographical point of Mountain Centre you can chose to climb up into the mountains on State Route 243. It’s another fabulous winding ride with the bears through the forests. The road twists and turns for about 35km of exhausting fun down the mountain side, emptying out on to Interstate 10 which runs east back to Palm Springs.
If you don’t want to do this road, at least detour the 5km to the pretty little log-cabin town of Idyllwild where you have to call in for a burger and brew at the Goodtimes Bar and Grill. There was something about our waitress that mesmerised all the boys on the Judge ride. Then it hit us. She was the girl from the tasteful semi-nude poster on the wall behind the bar. It certainly was difficult tearing ourselves away from that place, but we backtracked to SR 74 to continue the ride around the mountains, taking in the gob-smacking views as we scraped pegs all the way down the mountain to Hemet where we turned right and joined Interstate 10.
You’d think a straight run along a major highway would be boring, wouldn’t you? Wrong! If you avoid peak hours, the multi-lane super-smooth superhighway is not highly populated and you can easily manage 160km/h without drawing the attention of the constabulary, even though the road is posted at 65mph (105km/h). California is a state dominated by lawyers who have tested the road rules on many occasions, leaving an interesting legal conundrum called the “Basic Speed Law” which defines the maximum “reasonable and prudent” speed a vehicle can travel. While police can still book you for speeding, they tend to only look for motorists traveling faster than the 85 percentile – that is, a speed which is faster than 85% of surrounding traffic at that particular time.
In the middle of the day everyone was going like mad fools, so a dozen cruisers motoring down the highway at roughly the same speed doesn’t draw any unwanted police attention. It was quite simply the perfect way to unwind after the technical twisties we had tackled over the previous few hours.