What is Adventure Motorcycle Riding?

The adventure motorcycle segment has been the bright spot in a slow motorcycle economy for the past several years, according to most industry sources. But what, exactly, is an adventure motorcycle? And what is adventure motorcycle riding?

Two adventure motorcycles: A BMW R-100 GS, and a Kawasaki KLR650

Two iconic adventure motorcycles, photographed near Lake Tahoe:
A well-traveled BMW R-100 GS, with a Kawasaki KLR650 in the background.


Adventure motorcycles

There aren’t any exact specifications to define the adventure motorcycle box and determine whether or not a particular bike fits into it. But there are some general characteristics that most adventure motorcycles share. Features like generous fuel range, ample suspension travel, and crash bars are common. Also an upright riding position, comfortable ergonomics, and a seat that works for long days and hundreds of miles. In recent years adventure bikes have also skewed toward more power and more weight. And like most motorcycles, they have become more complicated. This can tend to make them less capable on the dirt and more difficult to repair in remote places. But it does make them more suited for long-distance travel, especially riding two-up with luggage, and great for exploring paved back roads. And if the pavement starts to disappear, it doesn’t mean the ride has to end.

Some bikes will be better suited to particular conditions or styles of riding. A big late-model BMW GS, Triumph Tiger, or something similar will be a great choice for a few thousand miles on pavement of questionable quality with perhaps some gravel and a bit of dirt thrown in to keep it interesting. A lighter, simpler, dual-sport bike such as a Kawasaki KLR650 or Suzuki DR650 will probably be a better choice if the trip has a lot more dirt. The big KTM 990 Adventure has a boot firmly in both camps. And there are many more bikes that are great for exploring out-of-the-way places, even some not typically thought of as adventure motorcycles.

We would go so far as to say that almost any motorcycle can be an adventure motorcycle. Because adventure motorcycling is about riding to new places, seeing new things, meeting new people, and having new experiences.


Adventure motorcycle riding

Adventure motorcycle riding shares at least one trait with pornography: You’ll know what it is when you see it. But defining it ahead of time can be difficult. For some, adventure motorcycling means riding on dirt rather than pavement. And for some of those riders, it’s not really adventure unless the dirt is technical and challenging. The Dakar Rally might be the biggest technical challenge a motorcyclist could face. But unless you are Jimmy Lewis, you probably won’t be riding the Dakar. So there must be more to this adventure motorcycling thing than extreme off-road rally racing.

One of the things that defines adventure is purposefully facing the unknown and dealing with whatever it throws at you. So adventure motorcycling generally means being prepared to ride in lots of different weather conditions, handle mechanical mishaps on the side of the road, and mostly, not allow unexpected challenges to ruin your day. Or your entire trip.

The adventure will depend upon the experience, abilities, and expectations of the individual rider. We’ve met motorcyclists who ride every day in San Francisco, but rarely leave the city. For those folks, riding Highway 4 up over Ebbetts Pass for a weekend in the Sierra could be a very big adventure. For a rider used to uncrowded mountain roads and wide-open deserts, riding in Los Angeles commute traffic could be a definite challenge. Adventure is all around; you just have to go looking for it.

For us, the key word in adventure motorcycle riding is riding. It’s pretty tough to avoid adventure if you actually get out and ride. And the more you ride, the more adventure you will find. Building your experience and skills will set you up to seek out even more. Successful adventures are all about stretching the boundaries of your own comfort zone. If you are doing that on a motorcycle, then you are an adventure rider.


Adventure motorcycle travel

So, what is adventure motorcycle travel? We think it means setting off on your bike, ready for adventure, and riding away from the familiar roads of home for a few days. Or weeks. Or more. Like motorcycling, adventure travel is very much an independent experience. It’s not about packaged tours, cruise ships, fixed itineraries, or gift shops. Certainly, it could be riding your bike to the tip of South America, or across the Sahara. Unfortunately, for most of us in North America the realities of our world make big trips like that a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If we’re lucky. It’s just not feasible to take four months off work for an epic motorcycle trip across a dozen international borders.

But a four-day weekend? That’s doable. And that’s what the Carson / Tahoe Adventure Moto event is all about. We created it to show off some of the best—and most accessible—adventure motorcycle riding in the US. The Carson Valley is just a day’s riding from most of the major population centers in the West, so we are easy to get to. Once here, you’ll find great riding on some of the best roads anywhere, whether pavement or dirt. And if you can stretch your trip out a few days, the roads between our home and yours can turn your long weekend into a truly epic ride.

Look again at the photo at the top of this page. We found that obviously well-traveled BMW R-100-GS parked at Lake Tahoe during our 2012 event. It’s covered in road dirt and the panniers are a little battered, with lots of stickers from lots of exotic places. And the license plate is from a town on the Rhine River, in Germany. It’s most definitely an adventure bike and the rider is most definitely an adventure traveler. Who rode here, to our part of the world, on an epic trip.

We think that says a lot.

adventure motorcycle at Lake Tahoe

License plate from Rüdesheim, in Germany’s Rhine Gorge.
Seen on a BMW R-100 GS, traveling near Lake Tahoe.


Motorcycle Routes from Northern California

There’s a huge choice of motorcycle routes to get to Carson Valley, Nevada. Twisty, scenic backroads lead here from most of the major population centers in the West. Wherever you are, there’s probably a great ride that will get you here.

Here are some of our suggested rides from the Bay Area and Northern California.

Motorcycle Routes from the San Francisco Bay Area

Carson Pass, State Route 88

One of our favorite motorcycle rides from the Bay Area is California State Route 88. This route crosses the Sierra Nevada at Carson Pass at 8,574 feet (2,613 meters) above sea level. Carson Pass is one of the more dramatic trans-Sierra passes, has relatively light traffic, and is mostly open year-round. It closely follows the Emigrant Trail used by overland wagon trains headed for California beginning in 1848. More than 250,000 people crossed over the Sierra Crest between 1848 and 1869, when the Transcontinental Railroad opened. The new cross-country train trip only took seven days and cost about $69. The earlier journey, typically walking alongside a covered wagon loaded with a family’s household goods, took about six months.

The Carson Pass route offers spectacular views of several High Sierra lakes, volcanic rock formations near Kirkwood Ski Resort, and the rugged terrain around the Silver Fork of the American River and the North Fork of the Mokolumne River. State Route 88 begins at State Route 99 in Stockton, California and ends right near our headquarters in Minden, Nevada.

State Route 88 on Google Maps

View of Red Lake from just off State Route 88, at Carson Pass. One of the best motorcycle routes in the Sierra Nevada.

View of Red Lake from just off State Route 88, at Carson Pass.


Ebbetts Pass

State Route 4 over Ebbetts Pass is one of the most beautiful motorcycle routes in the Sierra Nevada. It is also one of the least traveled of all the trans-Sierra passes. The road climbs to 8,736 feet (2,663 meters) above sea level. Pick up the Ebbetts Pass route in Copperopolis, California and ride it 113 miles to our headquarters in Minden, Nevada. The Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway will make up 61 miles of your ride. The road was originally surveyed in the 1850s as a potential crossing for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad Company. It became a booming toll route in 1861 filled with silver miners headed eastward for the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada. Today the highway is still raw and rugged, at times too narrow to support a painted center stripe. For more watch our Ebbetts Pass video, and see the Ebbetts Pass Scenic Byway Association at scenic4.org.

Ebbetts Pass Route on Google Maps

Ebbetts Pass, California State Route 4. A great motorcycle route over the Sierra Nevada

Ebbetts Pass, California State Route 4 over the Sierra Nevada


Donner Pass

Most of the traffic over Donner Pass is on Interstate 80, one of the main east-west highways in the US. Although it has some great Sierra Nevada views, it would not be our first choice of roads. But some of the best motorcycling in the area is right nearby, on old US 40, another beautiful and historic road.

In 1844, the Stevens-Townsend-Murphy Party crossed the Sierra near what would later be known as Donner Pass, becoming the first group to bring wagons over the mountains. The party was led by Elisha Stephens who eventually settled near what is now Cupertino, California. Stevens Creek, and by extension Stevens Creek Boulevard, are named for him, although with some creative spelling along the way. Another leader of the group, Dr. John Townsend, also settled in the Bay Area. He was the first licensed physician in California, and served as Alcalde of San Francisco. Townsend Street, adjacent to the train station in San Francisco, is named for him.

From the west, access the old Donner Pass route via Hampshire Rocks Road at Cisco Grove, just off Interstate 80. The road ends near Donner Lake, in Truckee, California.

Old Donner Pass Route on Google Maps

Motorcycle riders on old Donner Pass highway, above Donner Lake. One of the best motorcycle routes in the Sierra Nevada.

Motorcycle riders on old Donner Pass highway, above Donner Lake.


Echo Summit, US 50

Driving US 50 over Echo Summit is the most popular way to get to the south shore of Lake Tahoe. It’s a beautiful road with some very dramatic views. On summer weekends, particularly on Fridays, it is often choked with cars and RVs headed for the mountains to escape the city life of the Bay Area or the heat of the Central Valley. If you can get away another time, this can be a very pleasant motorcycle route.

US 50 begins just west of Sacramento at Interstate 80. It ends more than 3,000 miles to the east in Ocean City, Maryland, on the Atlantic Ocean. The portion of US 50 that crosses Nevada is most famous as “The Loneliest Road in America.” If you are headed to or from Carson Valley across the Great Basin, this is an excellent motorcycle route. The road closely follows the route of the Pony Express that carried the mail between California and Missouri from April, 1860 to October, 1861. Genoa, on the western edge of Carson Valley, was the site of Station 165 of the 184 Pony Express stations along the 1,900-mile route. Woodford Station, in Woodfords, California, just to the south of Carson Valley, was Station 167.

Our preferred US 50 motorcycle route crosses the Sierra Nevada at Echo Summit (7,382 feet; 2,250 meters), then detours on State Route 89 over Luther Pass (7,740 feet; 2,359 meters) to avoid the thickest Lake Tahoe traffic.

US 50 and State Route 89 on Google Maps

Luther Pass is a great way to avoid Lake Tahoe traffic congestion on a US 50 motorcycle route.

A quick break on a motorcycle ride over Luther Pass, on State Route 89.