Road Trip from San Diego to Prescott by Motorcycle
Story by Karin H Wilson
Photos by Franz Fischer and Karin H Wilson
May 12 — 19, 2018
Through mountains, sand dunes and desert — the geography changed radically on this trip!
Franz and I recently took a dirt bike class and were wondering where we could take the bikes off road. We ride Kawasaki KLR650’s and they are a little heavy for trail riding, but they handle well on dirt roads if there isn’t too much sand. I used to live in Prescott and thought some of the fire roads in the national forest might be perfect. We are going to find out!
We have done a few trips together by motorcycle, but this is the longest one so far. We took the same route out and back so I’m going to describe the trip one way and include all stops in both directions. We started in Encinitas, CA and then spent four full days riding around Prescott, AZ before heading back.
We had some concerns about the heat in the desert because temps were about 10° F higher than usual the weeks before we went. But we lucked out with a cooling trend the day before we left. We have mesh pants and jackets and were very happy with how they worked out. They made a huge difference on the days that were hot!
Hodophile (A lover of Roads)
Encinitas to Blythe, CA
We started in Encintas, CA and rode through Ramona and Julian. This is our usual riding area, so no stops on this portion of the trip. As you head toward Ramona the land gets more hilly and mountainous. The views are pretty cool out here. We took Wynola Road to go around Julian. It is a beautiful curving road that avoids the center of town and meets up with 78 (head east). On the way back we drove through town to take advantage of a rest stop and grab some dinner at Soups and Such Cafe. It was a really wonderful meal!
Julian is at about 4,226 feet. We followed 78 out of town, following the curvy road through the trees, down into Anza-Borrego State Park at around 597 feet! The temperature in Julian was in the high 50’s and rose to the mid 90’s in Borrego.
We followed 78 to the Salton Sea. The geography changes completely down here as it opens to the desert. You can see for miles and it is very dry. This is a stark contrast to the last few miles through the mountains and forest. The road straightens out and goes past the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area. Normally there are people out on quads and dirt bikes covering the sand dunes and hills. It’s a little late in the season and getting a bit hot for that now.
78 merges with 86 and you follow that until you reach Forrester Road. It bears right and turns into O Brien Lateral Road for one block. Then turn left and the road becomes Gentry Road. Follow straight to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge.
This stretch is pretty flat, and straight surrounded by big patches of farm land. Between 78/86 and the refuge, slow down and look for poles along the drainage ditches. They mark holes that are home to the burrowing owl. You can spot the owls standing guard outside of their burrows, or on the poles themselves looking around. If you roll up slow you can even get a photo. The owls are quick to hide if they are startled.
We picked the Refuge as a longer stop because it really is the first place where you can stop with shade after you leave Julian. We made short stops to shake out our hands, snack and stretch, but there was no shelter from the sun. There are picnic tables in a breezeway, bathrooms, water fountain and birds singing all around. After all that desert it feels like you are riding toward a mirage. If you are a bird watcher this place is a bonus stop!
Our original plan was to also go to Salvation Mountain, but because of timing we hit it on the way back. It is about 12-15 miles from the Refuge in Niland, CA.
You don’t need to be religious to appreciate the amazing piece of folk art that Leonard Knight has created here. Salvation Mountain is Leonard’s tribute to God and marks the entrance to Slab City (a snowbird/squatters area). You can easily spend 30-45 minutes looking around here.
We returned to 78 and headed towards the Imperial Sand Dunes. On the way out we encountered some strong wind, so we took it slow and didn’t stop. But on the way back we drove up to the lookout for the view and a rest in the shade. There are also bathrooms here.
In season these dunes are full of quads and dirt bikes. From this location you see pink sand dunes in every direction — it is quite impressive. There were only two quads out the day we were there. Watch for sand on the road and some grooves cut in the pavement. In the wind the grooves were a challenge. The return ride was much better!
Continue to follow 78 through Glamis, Palo Verde and Ripley. This is farm country, so the roads are long straight stretches through here. Once you leave the dunes the road flattens out as well. We start to spot cactus blooming in the desert here. The pop of color is really beautiful.
We planned on spending the night in Blythe, CA. We had to ride a few exits on the 10 to reach our hotel. On the way back we found you can avoid the 10 in Blythe altogether and take Hobsonway on the north side of the freeway. We had a celebratory toast to the successful start to a great adventure (don’t you love the hotel cups)!
We picked the Hampton Inn & Suites because it has a pool and a hot tub. The hot tub was awesome after a day of riding! We also walked to dinner and found a great Indian restaurant a mile from the hotel. It was nice to get some exercise after riding all day. The Taj was new and family owned. The food was really great and we brought back a flyer for the hotel to add to their list of food places that deliver. We liked the hotel enough that we stayed here on the way back too!
Blythe, CA to Prescott
Unfortunately there was some wind for the start of our trip today. The 10 is elevated, so it just makes the wind worse in this section. On the way back we did not have wind; it was better. But we broke up the ride with a stop in Quartzsite, AZ.
I love Quartzsite. It is a funky place that is home to snowbirds every winter and almost abandoned every summer. There are great rock and gem shops here; we stopped to gawk and stretch our legs. Quartzsite has a two-month-long rock and gem show in January and February. It is worth the trip if you love rocks, gems, jewelry or art.
After Quartzsite we got back on 10 and headed for 60 north. I’m not much of a highway rider, but from Quartzsite to 60 the traffic is not too bad. And there really is not a good work-around to avoid the highway here.
Heading north on 60 you go through a series of small desert towns — Brenda, Pioneer, Desert Wells, Hope, Salome, Wenden, Love and Aquilla. We stopped for lunch at the Salome Cafe heading up and back. The food was that good! The menu is varied and the portions are generous. Trip up we got burgers. On the way back I had a salad and Franz had a grilled cheese. Everything was really good. They have some great old photos on the walls from when the town was in its heyday.
After Salome the road is very straight. You can see the mountain at the end that you are riding to, but it seems to be moving toward you at a very slow pace! You can get some strong winds in this area, and on the way out we were challenged with some gusts. Thankfully, the way back it was a smoother ride. Head north on 71 for another long straight stretch. Here you are a little more protected in spots with taller vegetation along the road. That helped with the wind. At Congress make a left onto 89 north toward Yarnell.
The reward for all of that straight mindless riding is now close enough to see! The ride up to Yarnell is a nicely-sloped series of sweeping switchbacks. Franz is a much more experienced rider than I am so I sent him ahead to enjoy the ride. I love this kind of road but I’m slower. It was a perfect run, no cars and an incredible view on the way up.
There is a new memorial to the Granite Mountain Hotshots on the downhill side of this road to honor the 19 Prescott firefighters that died near here June 30, 2013. There is a shuttle in the town of Congress with parking. The day we drove by you could not park at the trail head. It is a seven mile round-trip hike. We did not do this hike on this trip but hope to get back to check it out.
At the top we met at the witch in Yarnell and continued along 89 through Peoples Valley to Kirkland Junction. We made a left onto Kirkland Valley Road. Note: you can go straight into Prescott by following 89 but it is a road full of very tight turns. Probably no problem for more experienced riders but I don’t like that part of the road in a car, so I wasn’t ready to check it out on a bike this trip.
Go a short distance on Kirkland Valley road and make a right on Iron Springs Road towards Skull Valley. This is a nice winding mountain road that goes straight into Prescott. The views along this stretch are beautiful. There are nice long curves with views of chaparral, mountains and forest.
At this junction you will see a sign to go to Bagdad! We understand from friends that there is a great diner there that is open for breakfast and lunch. We did not check that out on this trip but hope to another time.
In Prescott we stayed at a friend’s guest house — with a hot tub! That was a nice treat; at the end of every day we soaked the miles away!
Prescott has some great hiking, so we took advantage of this and hiked every morning 3 – 4.5 miles. After a late breakfast we spent the afternoons riding. It was a great combination to get in both some exercise and adventuring. I loved being back here reconnecting with friends and nature.
We followed Senator Highway east out of town. Eventually it turns to dirt road and we just kept going. Depending on how far back people live, the maintenance on these roads varies. It was nice to be in the forest where it was cool but we still have a good surface to ride on.
We came back to Senator Highway another day and took the road up to the fire lookout tower. Turns out the gate to the lookout was locked and we couldn’t go to the tower or the loop we had planned. We don’t recommend this road for motorcycles. It is very rutted and there are a lot of large loose rock to give automobiles traction when it rains — not so much traction for the bikes! Also, someone suggested that we take the fire escape route down and that was no fun on the motorcycles at all! Very steep with loose rock. Those roads are probably better on a dirt bike!
Copper Basin Road
Copper Basin goes out of town on the west side. We quickly ran out of blacktop and were on a really wide dirt road. We weren’t sure why this road was so wide, but it was nice. The shade of the forest only lasted for a couple miles, then the landscape turned to chaparral. We started out pretty high up, so the views were spectacular.
We had taken a dirt bike class and were able to test out some of the turning techniques that they showed us. We rode this road all the way out till we hit pavement again in Skull Valley (we were practically back on Iron Springs — the road we took to come into Prescott). We turned around and rode back. At this point you can take Iron Springs Road back into Prescott and make a loop, but we wanted to drive on the dirt road instead (it’s a little longer to take the dirt road as well).
Back roads to Jerome
Our final dirt road trip was amazing. So far, the Copper Basin Road was my favorite, but the roads to Jerome were even cooler! First off we saw a lot of animals — a coyote, pronghorn antelope, lots of deer, cows, hawks, ravens and vultures. And second, the changes in elevation and rock colors were visually stunning.
We headed north out of town on Williamson Valley Road and made a right onto Pioneer Pkwy. Follow that to 89 north into Chino Valley. Make a right onto East Perkinsville Road (that road is also called Forest Service 354 Road, but on the off-road map it is labeled 70). Now you are in cattle country, and the road turns to dirt pretty quickly. The land is pretty open here with the mountains in the distance. Eventually we reach those mountains and start to head up them. We are treated to views of even more mountains and color the farther we go.
If you follow 70 all the way you will end up in Perkinsville. We wanted to go to Jerome, so we took a cut over to 72. It is called 9899D. It will save you about 4 miles. Head south on 72 and that goes right into Jerome.
72 is a really nice uphill section. The road turns to red rock here, and the views and drop-offs are breath-taking.
We took a short walk and got some ice cream. There are several public bathrooms in Jerome and a couple nice parks with incredible views. We took our ice cream to a picnic table in the shade. It was really nice to hear the local bar music and watch the people walking by enjoying the day. It was really a great ride up here, and it was just as interesting to see it in reverse!
Note: When we planned this ride we had intended to take 318A up to Jerome. It looked shorter, but we missed a turn at the bottom. We saw it at the top and Franz rode a short distance down it to see if we should take it back. It would probably be fun on a lighter dirt bike. We decided to go back the way we came. But that might be an option for someone with a dirt bike.
We rode every day on this trip — 1054 miles in 8 days! We had layers to control temperatures from 57° F to 97°. We have Kawasaki KLR 650’s. Mine is 2009 and Franz’s bike is 2011. They are dual sport so handle fairly well on the dirt roads, but they are heavy, so we avoided ruts and sand washes when possible. This is what makes Prescott’s dirt road system so appealing to us. There are lots of tracks to explore and check out there.
In the future we will probably trailer the bikes and do the run to Prescott in one day by Jeep. That would give us two more days of dirt road riding and skip the boring straight stretches and highway miles. It would also give us a vehicle if we wanted to preview some of the routes.
I would recommend starting your trip in Prescott at the ranger station and get the free Motor Vehicle Use Map for Prescott National Forest. They also have trail maps with clear designations on them for various activities like hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and dirt bikes. This can help narrow down your choice fairly quickly when picking a route to try out. Arizona also has 12.2 million acres of public land where you can camp and follow four-wheel access roads. Check out the Bureau of Land Management website for more details.
Also don’t miss the charm of Prescott’s downtown. There are some great restaurants and shops to explore. If you are lucky to be in town for a festival there will also be some great music. If you like western history check out Whiskey Row and the Palace Restaurant and Saloon.
I can’t wait to go back!