Touring California’s Backcountry via Yamaha Super Tenere & KTM SM T
Story and Photography by Kelly Callan and Don Williams
California is well-known for its world-class riding opportunities on the Central Coast, from Cabrillo Highway on the Pacific Ocean to El Camino Real (US Route 101) on the other side of the Southern Coastal Ranges.
Farther east, you have the mileage gobbling Interstate 5 through the San Joaquin Valley, which gives way to the magnificent Sierra Nevada Mountains.
In-between those better known areas sits a triangle – with Coalinga, King City, and Paso Robles on the points – containing a network of ruggedly paved one-and-a-half lane roads. This isn’t so much a ride through the land that time forgot with points of historical interest – this is the land that time never knew, and very much a no man’s land almost right in the center of The Golden State.
Given the uneven road conditions, and one stretch of dirt roads, standard touring bikes were not the ideal choices. However, we were going to be beginning and ending the ride with 200-mile freeway blasts from Los Angeles, so open-road power needed to be on tap.
First, we selected the Yamaha Super Tenere adventure bike, outfitting it with a variety of Genuine Yamaha Accessories, including the asymmetrical hard side cases, tall windscreen, skid plate, and engine guard. Holding a total of 61 liters, the locking side cases are voluminous and, after a bit of familiarity, release and attach to the bike easily and securely.
Yamaha doesn’t recommend the GYA hard Top Case with its side cases, so we added a Cortech Sport Tail Bag for additional cargo space. Installation was almost instantaneous, and the bag easily removes for carrying inside at the end of each day. For this trip the Super Tenere would be the workhorse, carrying clothes and heavy camera equipment.
Given the smaller dimensions of Kelly Callan – 5′ 6″ and 115 pounds – larger adventure bikes were a bit too intimidating for the ride, and the 650s seemed not quite enough for the hours of freeway droning that bookended the trip.
KTM’s SM T is an unconventional choice, but with its compact dirt bike ergonomics (the SM stands for supermoto) and liter-class motor for touring (T) duty, it seemed to be up to the job. A taller tinted windshield and twin 13-liter semi-hard Side Bags (which come on and off in just seconds) from KTM buttressed its touring credentials without compromising its off-pavement capabilities.
A Cycle Case Rider Tail Bag was added to carry two Apple laptops. Our first attempt to secure the Tail Bag with Velcro strips was unsuccessful – they weren’t strong enough, and broke due to the KTM bouncing around. Sturdy reusable matching hi-viz zip-ties replaced the Velcro and held on tightly.
Paso Robles is a perfect base camp at the southern point of the triangle. Outside of this ride, there are plenty of roads through the local wine country to enjoy – scope out your favorite stops on the bike, and then take a tour to the wineries for tasting, while leaving the driving to someone else.
A great off-the-radar independent winery is the 26-acre Vines On The Marycrest, which earned Gold Medals at the 2012 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, along with the Best Zinfandel award for its 2009 edition.
There is also a wide variety of lodging in Paso Robles. You can stay high-end at the Hotel Cheval, or go with the utilitarian and motorcycle-friendly Best Western Plus Black Oak near the 101. We chose the latter and had a fun meal the night before the ride at the Disney-like Big Bubba’s Bad BBQ.
California Highways 25 and 198 divide the triangle into quadrants, but our route focused on the many roads with no centerlines and virtually no traffic. We did cheat a bit on the boundaries, by warming up on California Highway 58, an irresistible set of twisties to the east connected to Paso Robles by the meandering La Panza Road.
On both the faster and tighter portions of the 58, the Super Tenere and SM T shine, but in different ways. Heavier than the SM T by over 100 pounds, and that is before the bags and cargo are added, the Super Tenere is a big, solid adventure bike on high-quality tarmac.
The torquey parallel twin 1199cc motor, with its 270-degree firing order, pulls strongly and surely, making gear changes purely optional. The 17-inch/19-inch wheel combo is manageable on the street, and the Super Tenere doesn’t wander at all.
With the wide bars and full-sized chassis, you will be reminded constantly that you’re not on a nimble sport bike. Still, the Yamaha is quite fun on tight roads. The Bridgestone Battle Wing tires give just a nod to the dirt, so there’s plenty of rubber on the road. Work within the Super Tenere’s parameters and all is well.
Riding the KTM SM T in the twisties is more about keeping traction and the wheels on the ground than anything else. There is a constant temptation to back the bike into corners, and the pure-street Continental ContiSportAttack tires are happy to oblige. The quick-revving, short-stroke, 75-degree DOHC V-twin has plenty of power down low for wheelies and the radially mounted front Brembos (with ABS that can be disabled) make stoppies a matter of bravery.
This is not to say that the SM T can’t be ridden sensibly. If you keep a steady hand on the throttle, the KTM turns into a hard-charging cut-and-thrust bike in the canyons that is ready to hit warp speed when a straightaway allows.
As we turn north on Bitterwater Road, the rural adventure begins. Initially a two-lane road through some ranches and new solar power farms, the centerline paint fades away and the road becomes cracked and potholed. This is a free-range area through rolling hills with a few blind corners, so be wary of livestock on the road. Along each side, there are the occasional dirt trails and no signs waving us off, so we gingerly tested the off-road prowess of each bike.
Bitterwater Road terminates at the commingling of Highways 46 and 41, which we take eastward past Jack Ranch Cafe, and turn north on Cholame Valley Road, just short of the James Dean Memorial Junction.
Cholame Valley Road starts out straight and deserted, offering the chance to test the high-speed capabilities of the Super Tenere and SM T in private. The Tenere is rock solid at high velocities, and the windscreen makes high touring speeds easier to handle for longer distances. Triple-digit speeds are quickly attained on the SM T, and the larger windscreen keeps you from blowing off the back.
As we head toward the small village of Parkfield, we catch a glimpse of a sign for Parkfield Cemetery Road. That is certainly worth a short side trip to investigate. Taking the unpaved road, which includes a trip through a seasonal river (it is bone dry for us), the two bikes get dirty. Thanks to its ergonomics, the KTM is fine in the dirt, especially since there were no tight turns. The Yamaha thrived and the throttle was twisted fairly hard, giving the suspension a chance to show its stuff. With 7.5 inches of travel at both ends, it sucked up imperfections and G-outs nicely.
Parkfield Cemetery is a rough-hewn but dignified and cared-for resting place for the locals who work the sparsely populated valleys. We reverently noted a marker for Jerry L. Frederick, who left behind a wife at age 59, that tells us “He left the woodpile higher than he found it.” Darlene, now 72, still survives him 14 years later.
Shortly, the intersection of Cholame, Vineyard Canyon, and Parkfield Coalinga Roads is met. A small bridge at the junction takes you across the San Andreas Fault, which separates the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate. Fortunately, we don’t feel any tension building, and continue west on Vineyard Canyon Road.
On a fast swooping no-centerline road though more rolling hills and past the occasional farm or ranch, both bikes are simply pure fun. You can go as fast as you dare, or just enjoy the scenery unfolding around you. The road widens as it approaches San Miguel, just north of Paso Robles (yes, we made a 116-mile loop) where we eat lunch at the unassuming and delectable Dos Padres Mexican restaurant.
Gassing up in San Miguel is mandatory. Inside the triangle of towns, there are no gas stations. If you run out of fuel, you will also have no cell service to call for help. Eventually, a vehicle will pass by, and you will have to hope they are inclined to assist you in some way. Plan carefully.
Heading toward King City the fun way, we take Indian Valley and Peach Tree Roads to the north. Again, there is no centerline, questionable pavement quality, and almost no traffic. The roads are barely wider than a lane, though they hug the side of the valley and give you a decent view ahead, most of the time.
The chatter on the Scala Rider G9 communication units that we had on our helmets was constant. We have them as early warning devices for each other, but the more common use is picking out points of interest that the other rider might miss. Understatedly scenic, these roads are stand out places to ride a narrow path free from traffic.
Peach Tree Road eventually widens and improves, becoming Highway 25 at the junction with Highway 198. Just as Highway 25 becomes the more familiar Airline Highway, we peel off to the west on Lonoak Road, which takes us into King City. On cue, Lonoak sheds the centerline, the pavement gets rough and fellow travelers disappear.
A fast ride down a sweeping canyon rewards us with a straight shot through vast agricultural fields to King City. Where Paso Robles has gentlemen’s vineyards, King City is home to growing food – pretty much all you need to make a delicious salad.
We spend the night at Keefer’s Inn, a cozy little place that has been around since 1947. Being able to park the bikes right outside the front door is a plus, as is the welcoming nature of the proprietors. Having had Mexican food earlier in the day, we hit the China One Express in a Canal Street shopping center, which is an interesting establishment – let’s leave it at that.
Getting an early start, we pass through downtown King City and take Lyons Street out of town, where it quickly becomes County Road G13, a sweeping two-land road through ranches set in the gentle hills. This takes us back to Airline Highway for a connection to Coalinga Road.
One of the highlights of the trip, Coalinga Road heads up into the mountains – peaking out near 3000 feet above sea level – which means the road gets tighter as it hugs a small stream, and the trees more plentiful. Speeds are reduced and sightseeing is the focus. The pavement is a patchwork, with few shoulders and fewer motorists. There may be over 37 million people in California, but only two of them are here!
Once past the nearly hidden Hernandez Reservoir, it is a 1500-foot drop into the flats. Coalinga Road remains entertaining, and both the KTM and Yamaha prove to be intuitive mounts that offer two ways to enjoy the California backcountry. Eventually, a dashed white line appears – a welcome sight as most of California is double-yellow these days – though there’s no one to pass.
We are introduced to the outskirts of Coalinga by the aptly named Derrick Road. We take an unmarked road through the unrelenting derricks and take a couple of photos before being shooed off by a Chevron employee.
Paso Robles thrives on tourism, King City is pure agriculture, and Coalinga is all about oil. The town of 13,000 sits on the Coalinga Oil Field, which has reserves of 58 million barrels and 1600 oil wells pumping away. Appropriate for the town, we fill up on high-test and we’re back on our way into the mountains.
Highway 198 takes us to the Parkfield Grade for a climb up to 3200 feet. The ranches return, as do the barely improved single-lane roads. At the pass between Coalinga and Parkfield, the pavement disappears and it becomes Parkfield-Coalinga Road.
Five miles of downhill dirt isn’t much of a challenge. The road is good, and even with the Continental street tires (though with the ABS disabled), the KTM SM T is a worthy mount, a testament to its handling prowess and effective dirt ergonomics. The Super Tenere takes it all in stride, being a true adventure bike. Its wide bars and plush suspension are prefect.
The ABS stayed on, but was not obtrusive.
Decomposing pavement returns as we take the long ride down the valley into Parkfield (population: 18). We arrive too early for the Parkfield Cafe, part of the extensive V6 Ranch that has everything from cattle drives to photography workshops to a Song and Wine Fest.
Crossing back over the San Andreas Fault and the Pacific Plate, we take a break under a shady tree. There, a British couple on a rented Harley-Davidson Electra Glide stops to say hello. They tell us that they’re taking the Parkfield-Coalinga Road over the mountains, and we explain that they’ll be facing an uphill dirt road.
Wisely, they re-evaluate their plans. We send them down Bitterwater Road (which we had ridden the day before), telling them to be careful of the free-range cattle and potholes, and then Highway 58 east to the historic McKittrick Hotel for lunch at the cafe‚Äîa truly American experience. We told them there is something special about the Penny Bar in the back, but didn’t spoil the surprise.
Our route takes us to south Cholame, and the Jack Ranch Cafe with a James Dean Memorial in the parking lot. This is a place that could be a tourist trap with lousy, overpriced food. Instead, the grub is delicious and the service outgoingly friendly – a must-stop in the area if it is not too crowded.
The last treat still awaited us, as we headed south at the town of Shandon to Shell Creek Road. This slightly undulating one-lane route has great sight lines and high speeds were to be had. The pavement is decent, so it’s almost like your own private road course. Highway 58 soon returns, and we enjoy a last two-lane, mountain road blast before reaching US 101 at the friendly tourist town of Santa Margarita. From there, we clicked the bikes into sixth gear and headed back to Los Angeles at freeway speeds (and a bit higher, here and there).
Going into this exploration of a virtually secret part of California, we suspected that we had made good choices in motorcycles. The Yamaha Super Tenere lived up to its reputation, and it was made for a ride like this. Flawless in design and perfect in execution, this is a serious adventure bike.
The KTM SM T was a bit more of an unknown quantity. Could such a sporting supermoto-style bike truly work as an adventure tourer, we wondered? After over 500 miles on everything from dirt to superslab, the answer is a resounding yes. That T isn’t kidding.