NORTH BY NORTHWEST
A GUIDED MOTORCYCLE TOUR FROM OJAI, CALIFORNIA TO THE PACIFIC OCEAN & BACK
By Deon De Wet
The team here at the Ojai Motorcycle Club wanted to share with you the story of a guided motorcycle tour that we recently led for an interesting group of guys, who flew into Los Angeles from Australia, for the time of their lives.
Five of us were on BMW GS Dual-Sport/ADV bikes – with our support staff in the truck – when we began our trip in the Upper Ojai Valley, about 75 miles north of Los Angeles. By the time we arrived back five days later, we had averaged 200 miles a day spanning an area that lies between the Pacific Ocean to the West, and the Mojave Desert to the East, and northwards as far as Carmel at the top end of the Big Sur Coastline. We spent the ideal amount of time riding on a variety of gravel and dirt (50%) and the other half on well-paved roads.
This North By Northwest Tour, my favorite location-specific guided motorcycle tour, took us through the Los Padres National Forest, the Cuyama Valley, the Carrizo National Monument, and then along and above the Big Sur Coastline. Each night was spent at a different location – comfort camping or in a guesthouse, hotel or ranch. And the food – fresh, organic and locally sourced – sure hit the spot after each day out in the wilds of Central California.
DAY 1: Getting Oriented
LOS ANGELES TO OJAI
As usual, we arranged a chauffeured ride for our guests, for the 90 minute drive from LAX Airport to the the company headquarters, at the Moondog Ranch, halfway between the Ventura County towns of Santa Paula and Ojai.
The row of BMW GS motorcycles stood ready and waiting for their riders to arrive.
In the late afternoon we rode around the nearby hills and valleys on some scenic, winding roads to get familiar with the bikes. There was enough daylight to leave the pavement for some dirt road riding, so we reviewed some basics such as off-road body position, balance, braking, acceleration and how to safely lift a fallen bike.
Although it’s no substitute for a full Adventure Motorcycle Training Course like those offered by RawHyde and BMW, we always like to insert this type of familiarization and a good deal of orientation throughout our guided motorcycle tours. It’s great to see the fun-factor rise as participants improve their dirt-riding skills and their self-confidence improves.
That first evening, we chilled out by the fireside under the shadow of the Topa Topa Mountains. Dinner was a foray into authentic South African style “Braaivleis” (barbecue grilled meat) and “Potjiekos” (outdoor-prepared stews), as well as local craft beers and award-winning wines from regional vineyards. The new arrivals slept in comfort at our recently renovated Crescent Cottage, adjacent to the Moondog Ranch.
DAY 2: The Adventure Begins
INTO THE CUYAMA
The morning’s coffee, tea and full breakfast was just what we needed before hitting the road for our scenic California motorcycle tour: cereals, fruit, fresh yogurt, milk and free-range eggs from the ranch, bacon, grilled mushrooms, tomatoes – all expertly prepared and served outside on the patio.
We threw the bulkier luggage into the support vehicle and kept personal essentials on the bikes, as we headed west towards the Lower Ojai Valley. After a quick tour through the picturesque town of Ojai, it was north into the Los Padres National Forest, along the famously curvy Highway 33, perfectly paved and cambered as it snakes through the Topa Topa Mountains towards the Cuyama Valley.
After about an hour’s ride through the breathtaking twisties, we dropped into the valley below and got to play in the dirt. I guided the group to an extensive network of roads I know that has so much varied terrain there was something for everyone to explore, and a chance to practice at whatever level of motorcycling skill felt right.
We rode around the Cuyama Valley, exploring the top edges of mountains as well as deep into the valleys. It’s hard to shake that feeling of blissful solitude in an area where you can gaze around 360 degrees and not see another vehicle, anywhere.
For lunch, we chose a local watering hole filled with some very colorful characters. Then it was onto some of the favorite off-road and paved routes that make up the 50-50 split that we strive for each day of an ADV style motorcycle tour.
By late afternoon we got to the Songdog Ranch at the north end of the valley to get settled in. Some of the group managed to snag queen beds in the two spacious rooms inside the Main Ranch House, while the rest of us camped on the Mesa or slept on comfortable camp cots in the Speak Easy Bunkhouse.
There’s nothing like that feeling of relaxing by campfire over gourmet fare, savoring world-class beverages while reliving the day’s ride. The first full day of riding in the Cuyama Valley always seems to offer our California adventure tour groups just enough practice to prime us for the rest of the journey.
DAY 3: Full On
THE MAGIC OF THE CARRIZO
Another great breakfast to get us going before riding north into the Carrizo National Monument, where we spent another day of spectacular riding – crisscrossing the Plain and traversing the mountains.
We found the campsite in time for lunch, where the support team was preparing a base camp for the overnight adventure on the Plain. The crew had set up deluxe tents with our comfortable camp cots where we got the bonus of an hour or so to relax after lunch.
That afternoon, we ventured into the cattle country of the Red Hills to the West and also into the flatlands of the Kern County oil fields. We planned it so the ride back to the campsite went from West to East, so we could witness the fantastic color saturation as the sun was setting behind us. The landscape ahead was bathed in the most gorgeous shades of gold.
Dinner on the Carrizo Plain was another culinary delight, served up as we relaxed under the stars and – we got lucky – a full moon.
DAY 4: That Ribbon of Highway
ABOVE BIG SUR AND PACIFIC COAST
After another scrumptious breakfast, we said goodbye to the Carrizo, dipped down into some beautiful sweeping turns and made our way to the Pacific Coast, cruising through the Central Coast Wine Country on the way to the famous Highway One.
We had good visibility, so once on the California coast we alternated between riding the asphalt on Highway One, along the Big Sur coastline, and taking off onto the unpaved roads high along the ridge of the Coastal Range. We were simply awestruck as we looked down on the Pacific Ocean to the West and then onto the inland rolling hills in the East. This was adventure motorcycle riding at its best.
It was warm enough for us to lunch at a roadside cafe along Pacific Coast Highway. (On the winter guided motorcycle tours, we favor lunch inland where temperatures can be 20 degrees higher.) We made good enough time to hit the beach and also spend a couple of hours in the mineral hot springs of a famous Big Sur wellness retreat (by very special arrangement).
Afterwards, we made our way to the guesthouse at the Flying M Ranch in the Red Hills of San Louis Obispo County and got there just in time for a spectacular sunset with a view out towards the California coastal range, where we had spent most of the day.
Another amazing meal, great company, conversation and some of the deepest sleeps anyone could remember.
DAY 5: Winding down
BACK TO OJAI
After breakfast at the Flying M I led the group over narrow broken-asphalt farm roads and then back through the Carrizo, this time going southeast, along a different route than the one we had taken northward. After all the riding along dry desert roads, it was amazing how good it felt to experience the speed and smoothness of the well-paved and nicely graded Highway 33 – this time going South.
By the time we got back to the Moondog Ranch and the Crescent Cottage guesthouse, there was a palpable sense of achievement and also a little bit of melancholy… Like that bittersweet feeling at the end of all good things… In this case, the enjoyable camaraderie of a small group on a true adventure, together witnessing the incredible beauty of nature, while happily exercising body, mind and soul.