Road Trip: Taming the wild west on a 2016 BMW R1200 RS

By Author: Harvey Briggs, Date: Aug 01, 2016
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The morning sun climbed over the Tetons as I shook the whiskey-induced cobwebs from my brain. Roused by the alarm on my iPhone, the previous night had been one of celebration as a group of eight automotive journalists and a few PR people wrapped up three days of driving across Wyoming in a fleet of Rolls-Royce cars that included their new drophead, the Dawn. My traveling companions and I recounted our adventures over an epic dinner that would include eight courses, multiple toasts, and several bottles of wine, finished off with cigars and a glass of Woodford Reserve over ice sipped by a fire pit on a patio that overlooked the Snake River valley at Jackson Hole.

This Tuesday morning, however, would see me take the controls of a very different form of transportation than the silky smooth Roller. I was going to climb aboard BMW Motorrad’s newest sport touring bike, the R1200 RS. Furnished to me complete with saddlebags, a GPS and a full tank of gas by BMW for a five-day adventure from Jackson, Wyoming to Bozeman, Montana. After the non-stop action of the past few days, I was looking forward to a few quiet days of riding and introspection.

As a rider, I’m fairly old school. My personal bike is a late ‘90s Ducati 900SS CR with a half fairing and nothing in the way of electronics. I don’t ride with speakers in my helmet, a radio or any other distractions. The cell phone gets stowed and the world becomes me, the bike, the road, and my surroundings. For me riding, especially a solo ride like this one, is a chance to think thoughts big and small, pondering both the nature of the universe and the current state of my so-called life.

Riding also gives me the opportunity to connect with strangers who are usually open and quick to engage in a brief but friendly conversation about everything from bikes, the weather, or if we’re feeling particularly adventurous, politics, as I refuel my tank, grab a bite to eat or stop to admire a vista along the way. The ride to Bozeman was just going to take a day, and after arriving in town, I would stay with a relative I don’t get to see often enough. So as I packed my saddlebags and checked out of the Amangani Resort in Jackson Hole, I was really looking forward to getting on the road.

Wanting to avoid the traffic and low-speed limits of Yellowstone National Park, the first leg of my journey to Montana took me over the Teton Pass from Wyoming into Idaho on WY 22 which becomes ID 33 at the border. This is a great road, climbing several thousand feet through a series of switchbacks with plenty of passing zones, so I was never stuck behind a slow-moving truck, RV or trailer for more than a few minutes. Riding moderately, it gave me the opportunity to get to know the BMW, a bike that has more power, more technology, and more mass – especially with a full set of saddlebags – than my Duc. The liquid-cooled boxer twin makes 125 horsepower, produces 74 lb.-ft. of torque, and with the six-speed gearbox had plenty of power to carry me and two full saddlebags up and over the 8,400-foot crest. With the adjustable suspension set to dynamic mode, it didn’t take me long to confidently begin carving through the corners thanks to some very smooth pavement.

My first planned stop along the route was West Yellowstone for a quick lunch break with my niece, but those plans changed when an Idaho county sheriff clocked me at 66 in a 55 and flipped on his lights. Before he could turn around and catch up, I had pulled over, removed my helmet and gloves and waited for him to hand me a ticket. After chiding me for riding too fast, I explained to him that this was a new bike and I was testing it. I told him I just picked it up that morning and that I didn’t realize how quick it was. He mentioned that he was a fellow BMW rider, asked about the bike, how I liked it, and where I was headed. We talked about my route and he gave me the heads up on where I might want to slow down either because of wildlife or “other reasons” he added with a wink. We shook hands, I thanked him for his service and advice, told him I’d ride more carefully and we parted without him ever pulling his ticket book out of his pocket.

Feeling relieved, I got back on the road and turned north onto ID 32 just past Tetonia, my inner twelve-year-old snickering as I left the tiny burg in my rearview mirror, the Tetons themselves looming over my right shoulder. Finally, on the open road, I passed a few pickup trucks and got into the flow of riding.

Traveling by bike is a different experience than driving a 3,500-pound automobile over the same roads. Even with a full face helmet and protective gear, you’re much more aware of your surroundings, in part because the consequences of a lapse in concentration can be dire. Those of us who ride know it can be a dangerous activity and the statistics bear this out. A motorcycle rider is 27 times more likely to die in a crash than the driver of a car. So you keep your eye out for cars, wildlife, changes in the road surface and the weather. Staying safe on a bike isn’t a matter of riding scared. You have to ride smart.

That means understanding the laws of physics and being a student of human behavior. Knowing how a little moisture on the road affects your stopping distances is essential. Understanding that the driver of that car coming toward you might be more interested in texting his girlfriend than looking ahead is a must. You look for trouble and ways out of it in advance of it happening. You hope trouble never comes, but if it does you’re ready. As someone who’s survived being intentionally run off the road once, more than a few near misses involving deer, objects falling off a truck, and having my hand knocked off the throttle when a bird hit my shoulder, I can tell you that getting to be an old motorcyclist isn’t a matter of luck.

On this trip, thankfully there were no near misses, just an amazing ride through a part of the country I don’t get to often enough. The 55 mile drive from Ashton, Idaho to West Yellowstone, Montana through the Targhee National Forest doesn’t take you over the twistiest roads in the area, but the long straights and sweeping curves gave me plenty of time to take in the landscape. It struck me that we were very lucky to have had Teddy Roosevelt as our president at the time our ancestors headed west. Thanks to his love of the outdoors and work to conserve these wild places, I was able to enjoy beautiful vistas in every direction as I rode.

“Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.” – Teddy Roosevelt

Hopefully, in spite of all the turmoil in our country today, our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will have the same opportunities to enjoy these lands and reconnect with their heritage as we have.

The area surrounding West Yellowstone is stunning but the town itself is very workmanlike. With a population of just over 1,200 people it’s mostly a staging area for those visiting the park and a home to the people who work in it. Motels, restaurants and outfitters dominate the local economy. I met my niece, who’s there for the summer working as a docent at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, and we wandered downtown to grab some lunch at The Slippery Otter Pub. I didn’t expect a gourmet meal and wasn’t served one. What I got was a really nice burger and a chance to find out what brought a nice young woman from Scarsdale, New York to a job working with bears and wolves in big sky country.

Contrary to what you read in the media, not every New York millennial wants to be a tech entrepreneur, real estate mogul, or social media influencer. After graduating with a degree in zoology, her love of animals brought her here for the summer to get closer to that passion. Unfortunately, her job at the Discovery Center only goes through September when she’ll continue west to San Diego in hopes of landing a job at the wildlife park there.

After lunch, I said goodbye and refueled the bike. Averaging over 40 miles per gallon, I used about 3 of the tank’s 4.7-gallon capacity. Not bad considering I was testing the bike’s acceleration and speed on open stretches of the road where fuel economy wasn’t top of mind.

The ride to Bozeman while even more scenic and twisty was also a little more frustrating. U.S. Highway 191 winds along the Gallatin River, but traffic, especially a slow-moving mattress truck, didn’t allow me to take advantage of the road’s best sections. The passing zones are very short and limited sight lines meant I had to settle back and move with the flow of traffic. The BMW was very happy just cruising along in 6th gear rumbling at the low end of the rev range. When a passing zone did emerge, one feature I was happy to have BMW’s Gear Shift Assist Pro which lets you shift between gears three through six without using the clutch. A couple quick taps of the shift lever with the toe of my left boot and I was back in the power band and quickly accelerating past two or three cars at a time.

Bozeman is nestled in a valley surrounded by five mountain ranges in southwestern Montana. It’s home to Montana State University, about 45,000 people, and was originally called the Valley of Flowers by the Crow tribesmen who lived there. It was unseasonably warm when I arrived with temperatures topping out in the 90s, about fifteen degrees above normal for late June. The city has transformed over the past forty years from an agricultural community – it was once known as the Sweet Pea Capitol of the Nation – to a mecca for outdoor sports enthusiasts. Named by Outside magazine as the best place to live in the west for skiing, people come to the area not just for winter sports, but also to hunt, fish, kayak, hike, and bike. It’s also a great place to ride a motorcycle.

I took two rides on the BMW. The first was an afternoon ride in the stifling heat up to Hyalite Canyon in the Gallatin Mountains about 20 miles south of Bozeman. When I got off the bike, I enjoyed temperatures that were a good 10 degrees cooler about 2,200 feet above the city. The centerpiece of the area is the 206-acre Hyalite Reservoir that provides water to the city and valley below. There are campsites on the lake’s eastern shore and plenty of parking for people who just want to enjoy a day on the lake. When I was there I saw sailboats, kayaks, canoes all dotting the lake’s crystal blue surface. Powerboats are allowed, but the entire lake is a no-wake zone. Fishermen come up to catch Yellowstone cutthroat, brook trout, and arctic grayling. You can keep up to five trout, but grayling fishing is “catch and release” only.

The road up to the reservoir is both twisty and scenic with plenty of places to stop along the way for pictures. Rock outcroppings tower over the Hyalite Creek, with trails leading to the canyon’s edge for those daring enough to get a closer look. I rode up mid-afternoon when traffic was light and really enjoyed the way the BMW climbed. Without bags to weigh me down, the power was effortless and didn’t fade appreciably due to altitude.

That evening I got to know the town of Bozeman a little better. Yes, Bozeman is a western city and as such you’ll find the requisite number of steakhouses, cowboy bars, and incredible outdoor outfitters. But you can also enjoy, as I did, live jazz at Plonk Wine Bar after having had really well prepared dinner of tiger prawns in yellow curry at Sweet Chili Asian Bistro. Bozeman, like a lot of other cities in the Rockies, has seen an influx of people from LA, NYC and other cities who’ve not only broadened the local culinary scene, but also driven real estate values through the roof, a boon for long-time residents but a concern for those who live there and don’t have a trust-fund to bankroll their home purchase.

My second ride was a little more serious, riding before sunrise north of town to Bridger Canyon where I could get some shots of the bike as dawn broke over the mountain. I was cautious on the way out worried about deer and elk that frequently cross the roads at this time of day. While I saw quite a bit of wildlife, fortunately, it stayed off the pavement and out of my way. Once I found a perfect place for my shot with Sacajawea Peak in the background, I settled in to let the sun do its thing. I could hear elk bugling in the distance as the light transformed from cool blue to a warm orange and trained my lens on the BMW just as the sun appeared over the ridge, illuminating the bike and the landscape perfectly giving me enough time to get a few good shots.

With my work done, it was time for a little fun. After four days I was very comfortable on the bike so with an empty, winding road in front of me and no saddle bags to weigh me down, I mounted the GoPro on my helmet and decided to open the throttle a little wider. Just a little over 30 miles long, Bridger Canyon Road (MT 86) offers everything from high-speed sweeping turns to tight downhill hairpins that will keep you literally on the edge of your seat as you lean your way through.

It was the perfect road for my last real ride on this bike and confirmed what I had learned during the four previous days: this sport touring bike is a lot more sport than it is touring. If you’re used to a Gold Wing, Heritage Softail or even a K1600, this isn’t your bike. If you’re a sportbike fan who wants to take longer rides, however, then the R1200 RS should be your next bike. And, I’d highly recommend heading to Bozeman to put it through its paces.

2016 BMW R1200 RS
Base Price: $14,995
Price as tested: $20,558
Major options:
Premium package: $3,175 includes keyless ignition, gear shift assist pro, ride modes pro, heated grips, Dynamic stability control, onboard computer pro, cruise control, center stand and tire pressure monitor.
GPS Navigation: $799
Touring Cases: $969

While the manufacturer provided the vehicle for this story, the opinions and recommendations in this post are 100% ours.

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Harvey Briggs

Harvey Briggs is the Founder, Editor, and Publisher of Rides & Drives. He has also written for Car and Driver, Winding Road, and the luxury lifestyle blog, Pursuitist.com. His passions run from fast cars, small planes, boats and motorcycles to music, travel, and sports. When he's not on the road testing the latest cars, he been known to turn up on stage playing rock and blues guitar at clubs around his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. Follow Harvey's adventures on Instagram and Twitter @harvey_drives and find him on Facebook. Though keeping up could be a problem. As Harvey says, "If I don't slow down, time can't catch me."

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