Shamrock Tour® - Bakersfield, California

Text: Christian Neuhauser • Photography: Christian Neuhauser

Arriving at John Wayne Orange County Airport, the "Neuhauser Motorcycle Gang" is excited to begin their explorations in yet another area of Central California. In the next few days we'll roam over four loops in the Bakersfield area and our base, the Four Points Sheraton, is in the perfect place strategically, with all major routes out of the city easily accessible.

Why Bakersfield? The city isn't very appealing to Californians even. To the north and the west in the Kern County metropolis one is surrounded by oil rigs and to the south and east huge expanses of land are consumed by agribusiness in the form of vegetable plantations and fruit orchards. Endless tracts of uniform farmland and grimy industry - where's the attraction?

Well, for one, from the many impressions we gathered, the inhabitants of Bakersfield (pop. 267,000) are very friendly. No one seems to be in a hurry and the folks we met showed a genuine interest in us and our touring. We found a good variety of excellent restaurants close by and, undoubtedly, we could have frequented a number of good bars and clubs had time allowed. Frankly, we were too exhausted by our incredible tours to explore any of the Bakersfield nightlife. Ah, but none of us were complaining about any of that after the days we had in the surrounding area. That's where you'll find the overwhelming attraction of spending your nights in the San Joaquin Valley.

Poring over the maps before our adventures, I could see that the altitude of Bakersfield is only 408 feet, but in short order, in three directions, the mountains reach elevations ranging from the 2,635 feet of the Pozo Summit in the west to Pine Mountain, at 7,510 feet in the south, and Sherman Peak, soaring 9,909 feet in the east. If true to form, twisty roads normally accompany such altitude changes, and the Neuhausers had arrived to keep the mapmakers honest.

Loop One
The morning starts out great. I guide my crew out of the city and as soon as we pass the city limits I wave them by. Christa takes the lead, followed by our sons Florian and Manuel. I follow like a wary sheepdog and admire the play of colors, the vivid contrast of their colorful helmets skimming across a screen of bright blue sky. Christa smoothly circles her yellow Honda 599 through the wide sweepers along the Kern River. Florian, also on a four-cylinder, the FZ6 from Yamaha, and Manuel on the Triumph Speed Four chase their mother towards Lake Isabella. I ride my Suzuki SV 650. Along the way, Hwy 178 treats us to 30 miles of outrageous asphalt and grand vistas encompassing the crystal clear water of the Kern River, apple orchards, and the Greenhorn Mountains.

The hot sun stings our necks when we turn into a gas station to fill the tanks. We need a little refreshment too. Coffee, water and the candy bars are welcome. The boys, obviously enjoying the bikes and this type of riding, are beaming and babbling about their leaning experiences and ground clearance so much I have to interrupt to calm them some and warn them about the mountain road that's coming up.

After this short rest, we take Hwy 155 toward Glennville, winding nine miles beside Lake Isabella before a sharp left turn in Wofford Heights sends us snaking along the asphalt in the Sequoia National Forest. The bikes feel good on the sometimes bumpy surface and in the tight corners. Slowing down to a complete stop in Glennville is recommended; otherwise you'd miss the Crazy Horse Saloon & Restaurant, an old-fashioned establishment that served us some mouthwatering burgers and sandwiches. The gang appreciates the chance to rest and charge the batteries. This is the longest family tour of the year and the last 19 miles require a lot of concentration.

The afternoon ride is very special. The surface has the quality of a racetrack, the curves are smooth, and the landscape breathtaking. The road runs through golden hills and green meadows and sometimes by clusters of trees that cool us with a bit of shade.

The appearance of oil pumps lets us know we're closing in on Bakersfield and even this last part of our first stage through the oil fields is a nice ride. All in all, it's a most exceptional 178-mile tour. And soon enough we're jumping into the pool and paddling about contentedly.

Loop Two
A totally different day presents itself in the window. Gray with light drizzle isn't an open invitation to begin our longest ride. If you've planned to cover 330 miles, you expect nice weather when that time arrives. But I'm optimistic and maybe the skies are clear behind the San Emigdio Mountains down south. We take I-5 toward Frazier Park. The only highlights are some high-speed moments on the first 40 miles before we leave the Interstate. As we near Frazier Park, the sun starts burning holes in the gray curtain. We take a left onto a familiar route, Lookwood Valley Road, used during a number of our test rides in 2004. Our four 600cc bikes are just the right rockets to launch over the next few miles.

The ceiling color has changed to blue and the sun warms us on an enjoyable ride through the picturesque valley. We're whizzing past white, shining rocks, green meadows, and gigantic trees on a twisting layout engineered with skills worthy of a thrill-ride designer. The sharp corners, with little rocks scattered on the best line, demand our complete concentration. Then a left on Hwy 33 shoots us into the heart of the Padres National Forest.

Maricopa Highway to Ojai is simply another great Central California ride that's mainly composed of wide sweepers with very little traffic to slow our progress. On the way to sunny Santa Barbara, we take 150 and 192. Our boys had never been here before and both of them were amazed by the grandeur of the hillside homes. Right beside 192 in Santa Barbara, we pull over at a trattoria, the Via Vai, an authentic Italian restaurant that we now know for its friendly service and delicious food. The pasta tastes like pasta, with a tasty non-acidic sauce, and the pizza is thin and crisp, as it should be. And in this particular California neighborhood, another seaside conclave of the fabulously rich and famous, it's a pleasant surprise for us to have a gourmet lunch at a reasonable price.

"Easy going" becomes the afternoon theme. Hwy 154 climbs smoothly over San Marcos Pass and suddenly the landscape opens up with a breathtaking panorama around Lake Cachuma. Santa Ynez and Solvang, "The Danish Capital of America," are next. We stop for snacks - fluffy pastries and some good, strong coffee - in Solvang, and that break fortifies us enough to keep us alert for the next 120 miles or so.

On the last legs of the loop, we hit the road to Los Olivos where a sharp right onto Foxen Canyon Road leads us on to Tupesquet Canyon Road. Both roads, unexpectedly, are in good shape with the black lines of new asphalt weaving through vineyards and pastures. Time flies by on 166, crossing the Carrizo Plain and the San Andreas Fault Zone, where, coincidentally, my bike starts stuttering a bit. But the roadway isn't heaving; I'm just running out of gas and roll into a station in Taft on my last few drops.

As daylight fades, a gorgeous spectacle appears behind us. The sun brushes what seems to be the full spectrum of reds, oranges, and yellows across the sky before disappearing over the Sierra Madre Mountains. Our lengthy loop almost finished, I spur us on to Bakersfield, and but a few minutes later we arrive at our hotel.

Loop Three
A new day, a new loop, and the crew is in a very good mood. We explore the Temblor Range and the La Panza Range west of Bakersfield today. First up, Hwy 58 west to McKittrick. Boring! But just past McKittrick the road becomes curvy. The next 34 miles are a blast, presenting asphalt that grips phenomenally. I signal for Florian to pass me and, immediately, he takes the lead. Totally relaxed, he sweeps through the corners, and it feels good for me to see how my sons are improving their riding style. I'm riding between them in line so I can watch them. Manuel pretty much duplicates my line through the turns and it looks like he feels comfortable on the Speed Four. And to the rear, Christa rips her yellow 599 hard through the twisties.

We cross the Carrizo Plain, a long straight stretch but not so dull, particularly for Florian, who opens the throttle and lets her fly. Too much in fact. On one of the huge humps he goes airborne, but after that, without any warning from me, common sense kicks in and he cancels all future flights by slowing down. I take over at La Panza Road and guide my family to Creston for a good lunch at the LC Steakhouse.

Route 229 is another of those outstanding roads you won't discover if you aren't lucky or a local. Consider us lucky. A small single lane of paved road sneaks past meadows and creeks rushing through rolling hills. The bright blue sky and the mild temperatures transport us to a motorcyclist's paradise. It is difficult to describe what it feels like to ride here; but if you're ever feeling blue, this is one of those rare spots that offer a sure-fire, natural cure. Arriving in Santa Margarita settles me back in reality. There's no gas station. Our usually dependable Mad Maps™ have steered us wrong there.

We head back down 58 and take Pozo Road toward Pozo Station. It's hot and I hope the Pozo Saloon is open; but the place turns out to be a ghost town relic. Definitely in need of an update here, the map is wrong again. So, we stay on Pozo Road until we come to a fork. The sign points left, the map says right. I trust the sign and take the left. The road turns into dirt; but, since we're carrying little weight, it looks doable. Cautiously, we roll over the La Panza Range and meet a guy in a Land Rover at the top.
"You are on Pozo Summit," he says.

"But I have no clue what road we're on." He tries to help. The map was right. Some knucklehead delinquent probably turned the sign.

No matter. Wherever we are, we can see for miles and the view is unbelievable. Other than the lone dirt road, there's not one sign of human intrusion or habitation anywhere. It's special, and I want to stay a while to soak it all in - the vast unpopulated valley and all the golden hills - but Manuel is complaining about his fuel situation. Great! Finally returned to 58, we only make a few miles before Manuel runs out of gas. However, on the left side of the road we notice a spread called the San Francisco Ranch and when we roll up to ask if they could help, the owner, a warm Hispanic, laughs and waves us in.

Behind his house he has a big barrel. He fills our bikes and tells me we aren't the first. After a short chat, we say goodbye and hit the road for Bakersfield. I had planned to take Bitterwater Road, but with all the misadventures, we're running drastically behind our schedule. We ride back over the same 34 miles to McKittrick that we covered in the morning, and once in the twisties I slow down. I don't know why. I just had a feeling. Then a right-hand turn and two rabbits intersect my line. I brake hard, release, and pass by. The left comes up and I lean smoothly and accelerate. A look in the mirror - Where is Manuel?

My heart stops when I look to the top of the hill and see a huge dust cloud. A yellow helmet appears and Manuel is jumping around his dropped bike like Rumpelstiltskin. I turn. It doesn't look good. Fortunately, Manuel is okay, and Christa and I set about to calm him down. We see that he's lost half of an incisor. Fear and concern runs hot and cold up and down my back.

"I saw the rabbits too," he says. "I delayed hard, but I couldn't lean the bike into the curve." Dropped on a large graveled overlook, the Speed Four can still be ridden. Florian and I bring the bike back to a gas station near Interstate 5, and then ride back to pick up Manuel and Christa. He takes a seat on Christa's pillion and we make it back to the hotel. That night I lay in the bed staring at the ceiling and thanking God that nothing more serious had happened. A thousand thoughts kept me awake, and the one that worried me most was the thought that perhaps I had encouraged our boys too much in taking up a hobby this dangerous. I kept seeing Manuel fall and fall and...finally I fell asleep.

The next morning a dentist puts her practiced fingers to work in Manuel's mouth and he leaves the chair with an exceptional repair. The rest of the day we try to relax by the pool. So far, so good - the minor damage is fixed, but how long will it take for him to regain his confidence?

Loop Four
Today we are a trio. None too thrilled with the idea of riding the pillion, Manuel stays behind at the hotel. We head out east and take Breckenridge Road, an extremely challenging ride that winds approximately 50 miles over golden foothills, green mountain meadows, and mountains covered in evergreens. It shouldn't have taken as long as it did for us to arrive in Lake Isabella (over two hours), but it seems the shock of Manuel's fall has registered enough to slow us all down and cloud our silent moods. Not even the stimulating test of riding Breckenridge Road can do much to lighten the outlook. It's one and a half lanes of bad surface, steep and exposed, with loads of gravel and sand in the corners. Our bikes were made for this stretch, but I'd rather take it on a supermoto if given the choice. I certainly don't recommend this road for inexperienced riders and heavy cruisers.

We surely earned our great burger lunches at Nelda's Diner and took off on 178 east afterward. This road is a corridor between the Indian Wells Valley and the San Joaquin Valley and much of the landscape provides quite a contrast to the well-watered greenery seen on the morning ride. It's a dry brown moonscape, rocky slopes and uninviting desert unfolding in the direction of Death Valley. With a sharp left, we take Hwy 395 north and push the bikes hard on this straight to escape the 100-degree heat as soon as possible. After Pearsonville, we roll along 41 toward Johnsondale. The map will have it printed as 41, but the sign calls it Kennedy Meadows Road. No need for confusion. This steep route snakes between Skinner Peak (7,120 ft.) and Owens Peak (8,453 ft.). Later, on Sherman Pass Road, we stop at a lookout to admire the snow-capped mountains that shoulder Mount Whitney, the highest mountain (14,494 ft.) in the contiguous states.

On the way down to Kernville, a crazy driver cuts the curve and almost pushes Florian from the road with his car. But this time our guardian angel happens to be alert and on the job. We pass Lake Isabella again before hitting Caliente Bodfish Road. The sun, now low on the horizon, paints the landscape peculiarly. Golden grass tinted with orange sunlight and the long gray shadows transform the area into a setting fit for hobbits and elfin creatures. The long road cuts through the hills and small valleys until it ends at Hwy 58. Back at our base, I realize it was a long day in hours, but okay for mileage: 289 miles. Not the longest day, but the most challenging ride in months.

Insiders know what we experienced. We hope other riders will feel inspired to check out this area, too. I, for one, won't ever think Bakersfield is only about agriculture and oil. It's also known as the Country Music Capital of the West, and I can guarantee that your riding days here will have a most distinctive twang and tang. If we compiled ratings for shamrock tours, Bakersfield would top the chart as the number-one shamrock touring area I have yet discovered in the years I've ridden US roads.

[By the way, Manuel is feeling strong, back on the bike, and full of confidence.]

Four Points by Sheraton
What better base could there be for a shamrock tour out of Bakersfield than the Four Points by Sheraton? When parked we were comfortably ensconced in one central location with four points of destination - perfect. Speaking of perfect, let's mention our host. Once we found out that manager Bill Murray (no relation) was an avid rider, we knew we were in good hands. Bill presides over a fabulous property right in the heart of the Bakersfield business district. But despite being within walking distance of numerous corporate offices, the Four Points provides an oasis of serenity amid all the downtown hustle and bustle.

After a day of hard riding, it was nice to break free of the Bakersfield traffic and ease into the quiet of spacious rooms kept spotless by the crack housekeeping staff. Every room is equipped with high-speed internet access, which made staying in touch with the office very convenient - after all, we wouldn't want them to think that we weren't hard at work, too.

Spending all day riding in Southern California, we really worked up an appetite. No worries there either: the on-premise Bistro can take care of any grumbling belly with meals that are second to none, as is the wine list. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week, the Bistro never failed to satisfy. After several meals we found it perfectly easy to see why the Bakersfield Californian's Readers Poll selected the Bistro as "Most Romantic," "Best Business Lunch," "Best Fine Dining," and "Best Overall Dining Service Experience." We certainly second all of those accolades.

We would like to thank Bill and all of the staff at the Four Points by Sheraton Bakersfield for everything they did to make our stay truly memorable. The rooms, the food, and the entire property are exceptional, first-rate from top to bottom. So, if you ever find yourself in the Bakersfield area and notice a Shadow in front of the Four Points by Sheraton, stop in and say hello to Bill. He'll see to it that you're well taken care of.