Adventure Five Spectacular North American Mountains You Can Climb From Your MotorcycleMountains with moto-friendly approaches, all doable without climbing experience.
- Words & Images Owen Clarke
The mountains on this list all feature a stellar off-road motorcycle approach but do not require you to be a seasoned mountain climber. These are peaks that will test your strength, stamina, and your nerve, both on the bike and off it, but can also be safely attempted without any formal mountaineering experience. Tackle anyone one of these and you can have a true adventure, worthy of retelling (and of course embellishing) around the campfire for years to come.
White Mountain is far from the most exotic peak on the continent, but at 14,246 feet, it’s the third-highest summit in California, and it features a 4WD road all the way to the summit. White is also the highest peak in the Inyo-White Mountain Range, a region home to fossils that are nearly 600 million years old.
This desert peak is also one of the habitats of the world’s oldest living trees, the Great Basin bristlecone pines. The range’s Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is home to the mighty “Methuselah,” a bristlecone pine over 4,800 years old. This tree is the world’s oldest living, non-clonal organism, but its location is kept secret by the U.S. State Department to prevent vandalism.
While you can’t take a motorized vehicle above White Mountain’s Barcroft gate at 12,000 feet, you’ll still get to tackle 17 miles of rough 4WD road on your motorcycle to get to that stopping point. From there, you can stash your bike, camp for the night, and wake up early in the morning to trudge the seven remaining miles to the summit. The route itself is fairly mellow (mountain bikers and even unicyclists have ridden to the top), but don’t underestimate the need to acclimatize, particularly if this is your first 14,000-foot summit. For more information, check out White Mountain Peak’s SummitPost page.
When I climbed this peak last year, I was held at gunpoint for a few tense moments by a group of men after taking a wrong turn.
Also known as Citlaltépetl, Pico de Orizaba (18,491 feet) is a stratovolcano and the third-highest mountain in North America. Rocketing skyward just a hundred miles east of Mexico City, Orizaba is visible on the skyline even from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s actually the world’s second most prominent volcanic peak, after Kilimanjaro. Despite its lofty elevation, however, climate change has severely melted Orizaba’s glacier, rendering the mountain little more than a high-altitude hike for most of the year. (I wrote “The Last Mexican Glaciers” for Climbing on the subject).
The real treat for motorcyclists, however, is the burly 4WD road that takes you to the mountain’s refuge hut at 15,000 feet. Most climbers hire a truck to take them up from the village of Tlachichua below. (Once at the hut, you’ll camp for a night before attempting the peak in the morning.) But if you’ve rented a dual-sport or other off-road capable bike, you can easily ride it up to the refuge all by yourself. Even if you don’t intend to climb, riding a motorcycle above 15,000 feet is a worthy bucket list feat, and something you can’t accomplish anywhere in the Lower 48. See Orizaba’s SummitPost page for more info, and be sure to celebrate with a little bit of handcrafted small-batch mezcal!
Note: Depending on conditions, the mountain can become completely snow-covered above 15,000 feet (and as such, not an ideal beginner climb). When I last went up Orizaba in the summer of 2021, a heavy storm deposited several feet of snow even down at the refuge. Ice axes, crampons, and helmets were needed. In this case, you can still attempt the climb as a newbie, but hire a guide. Several local guiding companies can be found in Tlachichuca. Servimont is the most long-standing and well-known.
Wilson Peak, its big brother Mt. Wilson, and El Diente are three 14,000-foot peaks nestled together in Colorado’s world-famous San Juan Mountains. Just about any riding west of Colorado’s Front Range is utterly jaw-dropping, but the approach to the Wilson Group, situated just south of Telluride, is a particular delight for off-road connoisseurs. These three mountains are also home to one of Colorado’s four “Great Traverses,” a ridgeline scramble between El Diente and Mt. Wilson that doesn’t require any skill, but contains a few nail-biting moments.
Take your bike 8.5 miles south from Highway 145 through the dense forests along Silver Pick Road to the Rock of Ages Trailhead. There’s plenty of camping in the forests along the road, and in the morning, you can rise early and tackle the peak of your choice. It’s possible to scramble up all three of these mountains in a single day, though to do so would require over 30 miles of hiking and close to 10,000 feet of elevation gain, if not more. More info for these peaks can be found on the group’s route list at 14ers.com.
Note: I climbed these three peaks last summer, and found the North Buttress route on El Diente much safer than the standard (recommended) route, the North Slopes, due to loose rock.
At 13,789 feet, Tajumulco is both the tallest peak in Guatemala and the tallest peak in all of Central America. (And yes, Guatemala is technically in North America. The continent ends below Panama.) That said, Tajumulco is a relatively easy hike, only a few miles from an unmarked trailhead around 11,800 feet.
The most exciting part about this seldom-hiked summit is the approach, on a rocky, precipitous 4WD road for a dozen miles up to the jumping-off point. You’ll begin your ride in the small town of San Sebastián, two hours from Quetzaltenango, and wind your way up spectacular alpine ridgelines to a high point of 11,811 feet, where the road peels off to dive down into the remote villages to the south. Stash your bike in the trees off-road, then begin trudging up the marked trail due west to the peak’s summit.
Note: There are many unexploded landmines in the area around Tajumulco, leftovers from Guatemala’s brutal civil war in the 1990s. As a result, staying on the trail here is extremely important. The nearby mountain passes are also frequented by human traffickers and smugglers, given the mountain’s proximity to the Mexican border.
When I climbed this peak last year, I was held at gunpoint for a few tense moments by a group of men after taking a wrong turn onto Tajumulco’s southern slopes. Once I explained that I was simply trying to summit the mountain, however, the situation was easily diffused.
While more popular mountains like Longs Peak and Capitol Peak are oft-labeled the “hardest” or most “dangerous” 14,000-foot mountains in Colorado, many maintain that Little Bear should hold the title. That said, the mountain is still perfectly suitable for a novice hiker. This is because the primary risk on Little Bear comes from the “Hourglass” portion of the peak’s standard route. This hourglass-shaped gully is choked with loose rock, and any rocks kicked down become deadly missiles for climbers below. As such, getting an early start (before other climbers), climbing during the weekdays as opposed to crowded summer weekends, and staying away from other groups as much as possible will mitigate 80% of the risk on this mountain. Be sure to bring a helmet!
The road up to the Blanca Group (which contains Little Bear, Blanca, and Ellingwood Point, another 14,000-foot peak), is considered one of the roughest roads in Colorado, but a dauntless rider can tackle a significant portion, if not all of it.
If you’re brave and dedicated enough to make it to the top, you’ll get the privilege of camping with your bike at a spectacular alpine lake, Lake Como, at 11,750 feet. The Blanca Group’s three 14,000 peaks ring all sides like the ramparts of a colossal alpine fortress, while afternoon dips in the frosty lake are heavenly, especially post-climb. Simply put, camping here is a real treat.
Note: Little Bear and its neighboring summit, Blanca (14,345 feet), are also home to the most difficult of Colorado’s four “Great Traverses.” However, this route should only be tackled once you have a bit of mountain experience, unlike El Diente-Wilson, which is suitable for any fit scrambler.