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Common Tread

Back roads and camp fires: Bald Eagle State Forest

Jan 25, 2016

“It doesn’t look like you’re riding a Harley,” she said to me with a faint accent I could not place. Irish maybe? Swiveling on my bar stool I came face to face with a blonde woman smiling kindly as she took a long swig from her glass of beer. 

I was immediately aware that I was covered in a thick layer of dirt and sweat from a long day spent off-road. I had stopped at the Elk Creek Café and Aleworks while passing through Millheim, Penn. Assuming that “Aleworks” was fancy speak for “brewery,” I pulled over and headed inside.

The Elk Creek Café would be perfectly at home in a free-spirited city such as Asheville, N.C., or Boulder, Colo. Dressed head to toe in muddy ADV gear and carrying a bug-encrusted helmet, I didn’t exactly blend in with the local scenery, but this particular woman, wearing a flowing tie-dyed dress, didn’t seem to mind.

The Elk Creek Café and Aleworks is a must stop for anyone visiting Bald Eagle State Forest, I just wish it were closer to home. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

I pointed to my Tiger 800 XCx parked out front and she beamed, revealing that she was the proud owner of a Kawasaki Super Sherpa. From the conversation that followed, it sounded like there was a decent contingent of dual-sport riders in the area. Based on Millheim’s location, this didn’t surprise me.

Millheim is located just north of Bald Eagle State Forest. The forest has over 100 miles of dual-sport trails of varying degrees of difficulty, maintained by a group of outdoor enthusiasts knows as the Seven Mountains Conservation Corp. I first explored these mountains when we shot the Triumph Tiger 800 XCx review. I was so impressed, I bought the press bike from Triumph at the end of our test period. I couldn’t think of a better place to revisit with my new Tiger.

The entrance to one of the many trailheads on Bald Eagle Mountain. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

With the Labor Day weekend offering up the promise of 72 hours straight sans a computer screen, I planned to leave civilization behind and head to the woods. Thoreau would be proud.

It didn’t take much convincing to rope my buddy (and director of RevZillaTV) Brett Walling into tagging along. There is no one in my life who needs to disconnect from his computer screen more than Brett. He was as excited as I was to escape civilization and the reach of cell service. Our original plan was to secure a campsite at Woodward Cave campground. That was until we realized an extra $40 could rent us a whole cabin and a hot shower at the end of the day. I think my accounting friends would refer to this as “simple math.”

On the morning we were set to leave, however, I received a call from Brett to let me know he was under the weather and couldn’t make the trip. As the payment for the cabin was non-refundable I set off on what was now a four-hour solo trek across the state to find some muddy dirt roads to play on.

I invaded Bald Eagle State Forest from the east, turning off the four-lane blacktop of Route 322 onto the sandy gravel of Sand Mountain Road. With a quick stop to deflate the Tiger’s newly upgraded Mitas E-07 tires, I was off.

The Mitas E-07 tires were an excellent choice for handling the duality of the Tiger's personalities. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The lack of rain had turned most of the outlying trails to dust and I was excited to escape the main stretch of road and the dirt clouds being spun up by jacked pickups. I traversed the mountain trails using a PDF map I found on the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resourses website. The six different trail designations ranged from “Improved Dirt Road/Driveable Trail” to “Dual Sport Single Track Trail.” Before tackling any of the latter, I decided to shed weight and drop off all of my unnecessary gear at the cabin.

With the majority of my luggage jettisoned back at camp, I set off with a small tailpack full of water and Clif bars. Back in the forest, I blew down the purple and black lines on the map that were designated “Dual Sport on Forest Road.” I found these roads to be mostly packed dirt and I was able to pick up speed.

The road changed drastically after the first of three vista overlooks on Poe Paddy Drive. A sign warned of a lack of maintenance just before the packed dirt degraded to large rocks and loose sand. I made it about a half a mile into the mess before I lost the front end on a steep declining hill, dumping the Tiger and tumbling off the trail. While crashing is all part of the fun, picking up 500 pounds of bike on a steep rocky hill was another story.

Crashing a Tiger was easy, picking it up was a bit more difficult. Kick stand out, handlebars cocked, engage front brake, lift with your legs.... Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Back on the horse, I took off. The trail got worse before it got better and I was busy reacclimating myself to the weight of the Tiger off-road. By the time I made it to Strong Mountain Road, designated as “Dual Sport on Driveable Trail” on my map, I was splashing through deep mud puddles and kicking over rocks with ease. I felt like I was flying until a group of riders on KTM 350 EXCs and Yamaha WR250s blew past me as if I were standing still. My efforts were quickly humbled.

Strong Mountain Road was rough enough to be challenging but fast enough to carry some speed to launch the Tiger over some deeper ruts. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The mountain trails eventually spit me out onto Route 235 on the western border of the forest.  As the road twisted and ebbed its way down the mountain, the duality of the Tiger’s personality shone through. As I spun the 799 cc triple to redline, it was clear Mr. Hyde had replaced Dr. Jekyll. I was only hampered by the limitations of running the 50/50 E-07s, but they performed much better on road than I had expected. I only had the back end kick out once, losing traction with the blacktop.

Heading back to camp at sunset. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Ripping through the foothills of the mountains I set my sights on the small town of Millheim in search of gasoline for the Tiger and food for my belly. After fueling up, I stumbled upon the Elk Creek Café while heading back to camp. While I had already procured two cans of chili for a dinner over the open flames of a campfire, picking up some cold beer to go with it sounded pretty damn enticing.

Before I left, the woman had introduced me to her local group of riding buddies and we were deep in a discussion debating the merits of the larger Tiger against smaller bikes like the Suzuki DR650 and Kawasaki KLR650. I headed down the road with a growler of local Great Blue Heron Pale Ale and invited my new acquaintances to join me.

My campsite, including a two-bedroom cabin, was around $70. Moto-camping is the most affordable form of stress relief I have yet to find. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Sometimes all it takes is a trip out of the range of our cellular devices to be reminded that we don’t need them to be social. A muddy motorcycle, cold beer, and the promise of a campfire attract a pretty solid crowd.