A motorcycle trip through Yosemite provides an intimate way to experience one of our greatest national parks
“How do you feel about twisty stuff?” the manager at the motorcycle rental shop asked, looking up from a map. My buddy Martim and I exchanged glances. The more the better, we said.
I’d ridden passenger on a bike before–often with Martim behind the handlebars of his sporty BMW for day trips around the Bay Area. It should be noted that I’m the kind of person who still swoons over the safety record of Volvo 240 station wagons. But as long as I kept my boots on the back pegs, didn’t wiggle around too much, and hooked my fingers firmly through his belt loops, a winding road was exactly the kind of ride this usually cautious lady was up for.
For my first overnight venture, we had landed on the 500-mile round-trip between San Francisco and Yosemite National Park. I’d visited the 1,189-square-mile UNESCO World Heritage Site several times–leading backpackers to remote waterfalls or taking a greatest-hits tour through the valley where most of the four million-plus visitors tend to congregate. The sheer expanse of Yosemite means you might see most of it in a car getting to whichever peak or lake you’re aiming for. Stuck behind a windshield, I can get caged-puppy restless, the result of simply observing the iconic landscape from a distance. Being on a bike is a different story; views are nearly 360°, and the experience feels up close and personal–like a run or a hike along a fire road, only faster.
For this long haul, I was looking for something more comfortable than my friend’s backless seat, which doesn’t do much to keep me from flying off. Thus, out of all the technical and aesthetic features of the Harley 2018 Heritage Classic we rented, the one I was excited about was the “sissy bar,” essentially a backrest for the caboose (me). We knew little else about what we’d signed up for–only that the rental company had set us up at biker-friendly hotels and planned every mile, and that our goal was to see as much of the park as possible.
After kitting up in jackets with protection inserts and checking that my helmet was tightly in place, we made our way onto the freeway. Martim is a smart driver who’s crisscrossed the country (as well as a few others) on two wheels, so I felt safe even when we split lanes during traffic. Let’s be honest: Hanging onto a bike you’re not driving is one big trust fall. “You good back there?” he asked over the wireless intercom that connected our helmets. “Looks like the GPS is taking us on a country road soon. You can put some music on if you like.”
About an hour later, we were winding down Mines Road, an empty 28-mile stretch of golden hills south of Livermore, punctuated only by power lines and the occasional pod of mopeds and choppers out for a cruise. Peace signs were exchanged, and Canned Heat played over our Spotify soundtrack. Eventually we crossed Merced County’s flatlands and climbed State 140 into the mountains. When we got to the Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal, about 2 miles from the park, around 5 p.m., the light was beginning to fade. We were wind-worn, but we hadn’t come all this way to call it a day yet. So we made a quick stop in our rooms to drop off the few things that fit in the panniers (dopp kits, an extra sweater, gloves), and headed to the Arch Rock Entrance. “Cool bike,” said the clean-shaven ranger who checked our pass. “Got one myself. You’ll make it for sunset at Tunnel View on that, easy.”
Mythologized in photographs by Ansel Adams, Tunnel View is a popular place to be as evening approaches. The parking lot is often at capacity with shooters capturing the panorama of El Capitan, Bridalveil Fall, and Half Dome. We dismounted and sat on the stone wall to survey the sky as it turned the granite domes pink and gold. Maybe it was because of the painterly view in front of us, or the fact that this was the first time in hours we weren’t in motion, but Martim and I didn’t have to say a word to each other to sum up the mood. We’d gone from sixty to zero, and it was serene.
The next morning, we layered up to catch first light and drove an hour into the park toward a sharp bend in the road right before Glacier Point. The air was frigid, and my legs went slightly numb. Martim killed the engine, and we climbed onto a rock outcropping to watch the mist rise out of the valley and burn off in the sun’s early rays. “Mind if we take your picture?” asked a couple of college kids who pulled over when they saw the parked black-and-chrome Harley. They were up from Arizona on a car-camping trip and had a few dozen questions about the bike, many of which I couldn’t answer. But we exchanged Instagram names and bid them good luck before making our way to the valley’s campgrounds, where group tent sites were starting to stir.
By the time we got to the village, traffic had started up again, and we came to a standstill in a line of fellow road-trippers. Families in overstuffed sedans rolled down windows to give a thumbs-up; stylish #vanlife-ers in a refurbished VW bus waved from the side of the road; an accountant staying in a campground popular with rock climbers invited us for tea by the fire. With our helmets and moto boots, we stuck out amid the usual beanies and trail runners, but that didn’t seem to matter. It made me wonder–if it weren’t for our open-air ride, would we have met so many types of people who came from all over to experience John Muir’s Eden? Then a tour bus slowly rolled past and the driver gave us an extended shout-out over the speaker. Under my helmet, I grinned at the reminder that there wasn’t a single set path to experiencing Yosemite. All are undeniably thrilling; right now, though, this one was just my speed.