Explore Great Smoky Mountains

10 Places to Ride Before You Die

The best motorcycle touring from thrilling, hair-pin turns to wide-open spaces.

There are places to ride and then there are places that many dream of cruising along and feeling the wind in their hair.

While so many routes are attainable for that leisurely drive, there are some routes and roads that stand out among the rest filled with winding, hairpin turns meant to eradicate a bike's chicken strips—no tire sidewalls at the finish, for sure—or a more laid-back journey to take in the scenery and reconnect with nature.  

These journeys are all possible by car, but the thrill of trekking on a motorcycle is part of the allure of these notable journeys.

"[The joy of touring is] moving forwards, landing at new places every day, after another exhausting day of riding through unimaginably spectacular landscapes, meeting interesting people from all backgrounds, races, cultures, religions, opinions and different ways of life," said Dave O'Byrne, route planner and Motorbike Europe spokesperson. "Also, genuine kindness from people that apparently ‘have nothing’ in Western terms, but are rich in intangible assets—and real qualities—and a human warmth which I have experienced thousands of times."

Throughout history, misconceptions have formed about motorcycle culture and the adventurous travelers that hop on their bikes to explore. For many, though, those misconceptions might be unfounded.

"Motorcycle tours are as diverse as American motorcyclists and the bikes they choose to ride," said Marie Wuelleh, American Motorcyclist Association spokesperson. "Communities large and small in all parts of the country welcome motorcyclists with open arms. Those communities recognize that motorcyclists just want to enjoy time on their bikes and hanging out with family and friends."

Motorcycling may not be for everyone, but for those brave enough to hop on a bike, ride hard and keep the shiny side up, these are 10 roads and routes that the cycling world loves.

Route 66 (©Michael Urmann/Shutterstock)

Route 66

The "Mother Road" has held a getaway for motorists of all creeds since its opening in 1926. The road traipses through eight states in the heart of the country, breezing past national parks, famous cities and historic landmarks. Bike tours typically start in Chicago at the eastern end of the road and wind west from Chicago to California, ending in Los Angeles. 

From Springfield to Tulsa and Amarillo to Santa Fe all the way to Los Angeles, there is no end of things to do and see along this route. Top stops include old-time, Americana diners in addition to Cadillac Ranch's ghostly, graffiti'ed Cadillacs buried nose-down and Glen Rio—a ghost town with one foot in New Mexico and one in Texas. Most travelers also make time to visit the Grand Canyon and watch the rock face's colors dance in the setting and rising sunshine.

Transfagarasan Road, Romania (©Camil Ghircoias/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Transfagarasan Road, Romania

Opened in 1974, this twisting crowd favorite among cyclists has a curious history. Connecting Walachia, in southern Romania, to Transylvania in the country's center, the Transfagarasan Road meanders through the southern Carpathians connecting cities on either end of the road in order to transport local timber and troops. Built by the Army Corps of Engineers in Romania on the orders of Nicolae Ceausescu—Romania's last communist leader—the road is reputed to be a show of force against the then-powerful Soviet forces. 

"The Soviet forces had no involvement whatsoever in building the road," said Simion Alb, Romanian National Tourist Office representative. "Romania's communist leader who strongly condemned the 1968 [Soviet] invasion of Czechoslovakia decided to have an additional road built over the Carpathian Mountains to have one more option to move troops from Southern to Central Romania."

The road is only open four—sometimes four and a half, typically June to November—months out of the year, according to Alb, because of the intense snows in the area. The 71-mile route includes five tunnels, more than two dozen viaducts and north of 800 bridges. At times the drop to one side of the road is steep, pitching hundreds of feet downward, which is understandable considering the 5,000 feet of elevation gain throughout those 71 miles. 

"The initial project would have had a five-mile tunnel," said Alb. "This would have allowed the road to be open year-round but because of high costs and technical challenges this option was abandoned."

The road is used by locals—including some shepherds with massive flocks that slow down traffic—and travelers alike so while the route can realistically be completed in one—very long—day drive, many split up the road into segments. Stop and pay tribute to St. Nicholas at the Curtea de Arges Monastery, known for its superb Byzantine architecture and gravesite of the Romanian royal family. Others hike up to Poenari, one of the many homes of Vlad the Impaler—Dracula's character is based on this 15th-century ruler. The fortress looks the part, darkly glaring down on the Transfagarasan Road from its perch on the mountainside. 

The European Touring Route at a stop between Mosojen and Narvik
The European Touring Route at a stop between Mosojen and Narvik (©Dave O'Byrne)

European Touring Route

Winding through hills, valleys, past beaches and over mountains, the European Touring Route was made for motorcyclists, by an avid motorcyclist.

"As a route developer, I designed and rode the ETR in both directions in 2014—60 days, 60 stages, 25,000 kilometers if you ride it in both directions," said O'Byrne. "The ETR is designed to incorporate a lot of the great riding roads, interesting regions, mountain ranges, coastal runs, bridges, tunnels, castles, battle sites, challenging food experiences and classic European locations of historical and cultural significance."

The 7,000 miles that the route encompasses passes through nine dozen countries—Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, France and Spain—and takes travelers along pristine scenery throughout Europe. The 60 stages can be broken up into their own dedicated journeys or part of the full 60-stage route.

French redoubts
(©Lord Wellington1815/Flickr, Creative Commons)

The Pyrenees on the French-Spanish Border

Pass through crumbling castles, lush vineyards and rolling hills on the trek through the Alps on the French and Spanish border. 

On a break from cruising the peaks, travelers can stop at La Mongie ski resort to ride the cable car to Pic du Midi in Vallée des Gaves. The iconic lookout boasts several observation points and an observatory. Roadside stands dot the hilly landscape and the further the drive goes up the mountain, the tighter the switchbacks become. Visit Spain's version of the Grand Canyon—Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park—roughly 150 miles via highways from Andorra, an autonomous state located along the French-Spanish border with close ties to both countries.


Alaska Highway
Alaska Highway (©James Brooks)

Alaska Highway

Not surprisingly, many people ride the Alaska Highway north through British Columbia—starting at "Mile 0" marker in Dawson Creek, BC—and into Alaska, ending in Fairbanks after 1,387 miles. This is a highway that takes a bit of pre-planning as flats are common and there can sometimes be 100 miles or more between fuel stations. Not to mention the moose danger zones that have historically seen a high number of moose-vehicle collisions. The road is paved and well-ridden in many places. Veteran cyclists urge travelers to be wary of bridges—in Canada the bridges are covered with metal grating that spell trouble for an unsuspecting motorist.

Travelers' favorites include Summit Lake in Stone Mountain Provincial Park. The lake is the highest point along the highway, serving as a picturesque place to stop and rest. A curious and quirky stop along the highway is Signpost Forest in Watson Lake, Canada, also know as the "Yukon's Gateway." Since 1942 visitors have brought tin signs from their hometowns to add to the "forest" which now proudly displays more than 77,000 signs. Stop into the town's interpretive center to make a custom sign to add and learn the history of this quirky stop. 

Gotthard Pass, Switzerland
(©will_cyclist/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Gotthard Pass

St. Gotthard Pass—or just Gotthard Pass—snakes through the backcountry in Switzerland. Stop at the National Gotthard Museum at the beginning of the pass to learn about its history: opened in 1830, it serves as direct connection between Ticino and Uri, Switzerland, at an elevation higher than 6,000 feet, making it one of the highest passes of the Alps. 

The lush greenery and calming streams flow past the narrow, sometimes cobblestone roads, which demand the utmost attention from travelers attempting the road on motorcycles. This pass is also popular with automobile travel and bicycle enthusiasts in addition to local travelers who still use the pass as a trade route connecting Southern and Central Switzerland to major cities like Lucerne and Zürich.

The Tail of the Dragon
The Tail of the Dragon (©thematthewknot/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Tail of the Dragon

Cruising through several states in the Southeast U.S., riders on the Tail of the Dragon have to keep a sharp eye on the road through the 318 curves. 

"Even going exceedingly slow this can be a nauseating thrill ride," said Wuelleh. "Be careful and realize this is about the road, not the scenery—which, by the way is basic North Carolina woods. Motorcycle and car parts litter the most common crash sites."

While the woods surrounding the Tail of the Dragon, parts of which are in the Smoky Mountains, are known to be beautiful during the spring and summer, this area is a prime destination to see fall foliage. Over the 11-mile route, there are dozens of stop-offs, small towns and sites to visit including areas in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. The route is also popular in several stages over the course of several days. Spots like Bryson City, North Carolina, keep travelers intrigued for a day or more with plenty of things to see in addition to restaurants that keep cyclists coming back. Don't forget a side trip to Maggie Valley, NC to check out the Wheels Through Time Motorcyle Museum and stay at one of the motor cycle friendly motels in the town. 

Other favorite cities along the route include Asheville, North Carolina, known for its prime craft brewing scene and Brevard, North Carolina, known for excellent barbecue and gorgeous scenery.

Great Ocean Road, Australia
Great Ocean Road, Australia (©Sam Scherf/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Great Ocean Road

Small ocean towns and national parks and areas filled with unmatched beauty are the draw for this Australian treasure. Riding the Great Ocean Road provides scenic shore views nearly the whole way and cliffs, bluffs, small towns and other beautiful scenery for any traveler who looks away from the beach views long enough. 

The nearly 200-mile stretch of asphalt can be covered in a day or a long-weekend, easily with stops like the 12 Apostles, the Bay of Islands and the Loch Ard Gorge—which always feels like a new discovery with its secluded beach nestled amongst towering cliffs. Start at Torquay—the official starting point of the road—and ride to west to be in the lane closest to the ocean all the way to Allansford, the end of the road. Many start in Melbourne and pick up a bike and supplies, then ride down to Torquay. Lorne, farther down the road after starting in Torquay, is a cute seaside town with several boutiques, quaint coffee and other cute shops.

Pacific Coast Highway
Pacific Coast Highway (©cjuneau/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Pacific Coast Highway

This classic American highway, Highway 1, is a route that should be on every traveler's bucket list—maybe even twice.

"From the Olympic peninsula in Washington south along the Oregon coast and then the redwoods in Northern California, this is some of the most spectacular scenery you can hope to see," said David Rickey, AMA Eagles program-certified leader and avid motorcyclist. "The roads are good, particularly for motorcycles without much traffic, I-5 being the faster route. 'Rugged' is often the term heard describing the coastline and it's certainly true. The Mendocino Headlands being a standout and really worth the time to stop and look about."

"I can’t recommend [San Francisco] on a bike, the traffic can be overwhelming. Riding over the Golden Gate Bridge is a terrific experience though," said Rickey. "South of the city things pick up. Hearst Castle is a good stop."

Other must-see destinations along the route include Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, a stop at Pea Soup Andersens in Buellton and visiting elephant seals in San Simeon just to name a few.

Stavanger, Norway
Stavanger, Norway (©Torgny Seland/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Norway: Stavanger to Nordkapp

Riders looking for an in-depth tour can ride the 1,550 miles from Stavanger, Norway, to Nordkapp, in the north of Norway. Starting in Stavanger, a region in the south of Norway, many riders hug the coast and ride through the Arctic Circle up to the North Cape—the Nordkapp—for adventure activites like dog sledding, viewing the Northern Lights and more. Stavanger is one of the southernmost cities in Norway and also one of the biggest cities in the country. 

Travelers also can stop in Trondheim, more than half-way to Nordkapp, to experience the rich history the city has to offer. Stop in and see the crown regalia, visit one of the many museums or historical sites and sample Scandanavian cuisine.