We didn’t understand how blocked the Pacific Coast Highway was until we saw it with our own eyes. Maybe we’ll be able to scurry over the slide on our dual-sports, I had naively thought. But once we rode around the sandwich-board blockade and got close enough to view the landslide, it was clear there was no getting past. The road simply disappeared beneath a wall of dirt and rock, buried under 200 million cubic feet of earth that had sloughed off the mountainside and spilled into the Pacific Ocean. The same weather that triggered this avalanche north of Ragged Point, California, also damaged a bridge along the Coast Highway about 30 miles south of Monterey, effectively closing 45 of the best miles of the Big Sur coast and eliminating the most popular road-trip route in California.
Back at the roadblock, Zack and I saw that we weren’t the only ones with hopes of making it through. As we consulted our Nat Geo trail map and lunched on beef jerky, a series of rented convertibles pulled up and peered at the “Road Closed” sign. We could relate to the consternation on their faces. For nearly a decade, Zack and I have pilgrimaged to Monterey to watch races at Laguna Seca, visit friends, or simply to get a dose of curves, scenery, and the smell of kelp.
Those sightseers would have to backtrack and take the 101 Freeway north, but we were determined to find a more interesting detour. The map showed forest roads tracing the ridgeline above us—trails we’d noticed before but never explored because we always rip up the coast on sportbikes. Could we find a way through without resorting to the inland freeway and maybe make it a more exciting trip?
We figured we had the perfect bikes to try. Light, fuel efficient, and adapted for distance and just the sort of exploratory adventure we hoped to have, the Honda CRF250L Rally and Kawasaki Versys-X 300 are the harbingers of a new class of affordable, lightweight adventure bike. Built on the bones of the Ninja 300, the Versys-X sports a thicker, longer fork, bigger wire-spoked wheels, shorter gearing, new bodywork, a comfy seat, and an upright riding stance. At $5,699 with ABS it’s affordable, and at 380 pounds (not including the 17-pound accessory side cases and luggage rack) with its 4.5-gallon tank full, it’s easily manageable. Slapping down just shy of 34 hp and 17 pound-feet of torque from its 296cc parallel-twin engine, the X is the smallest, lightest, and most versatile machine in the Versys family.
Ever pined for a Dakar bike? The CRF250L Rally is modeled after the factory CRF450 Rally racebike, so it’s got the long-haul desert-racer image dialed. Besides making it look badass, that stubby windscreen and radiator surround give it a degree of open-road comfort, which is a huge departure from the sail-in-the-wind feeling you get when taking the CRF250L on the highway. Speaking of the 250L, that’s the bike you’ll find underneath the Rally’s new fairing and lopsided LED eyes. The Rally boasts a bit more suspension travel than the base bike, a slightly larger gas tank, and a bigger front-brake rotor.
The Honda’s compact 249cc single-cylinder engine—which got a few minor changes for 2017 but still only puts down about 21 hp and 15 pound-feet of torque—and 2.7-gallon tank help the Rally weigh in at a scant 342 pounds. That’s light, but it comes at a cost. The CRF250L has experienced price creep since it was introduced in 2013 for $4,499, and this year’s Rally version is $6,199 with switchable off-road ABS. Adding the optional $430 side cases and rack to the Versys kicks the Kawasaki’s as-tested cost to $6,129, so these bikes are essentially the same price.
Strapping camping gear and a few days’ supplies to the back of our pint-size ADVs, we’d set off from Los Angeles with nearly 200 freeway miles between us and the landslide on the PCH. That was about 199 miles more than was needed to realize that these bikes are better suited to freeway sprints than marathons. The Versys cruises 75 mph with far more ease than the Rally and its rider is more comfortable doing it, but both bikes are happier (and spin smoother) below 65 and are downright fun on twisty back roads. And once we’d confirmed the road closure for ourselves, turned inland, and found some truck trails to explore, we were excited to see how happy the bikes were in the dirt.
Zack and I were initially skeptical of the Versys-X, eyeing its low-hanging exhaust and street-biased tires and presuming the model to be just another styling exercise. We were wrong. The Versys is actually quite a good little ADV. The suspension is well calibrated for comfort and control, and front-end feel was particularly good. ABS engagement is lenient enough to not get in the way in the dirt, and the rider triangle that’s so appropriate on the highway also works well while standing on the footpegs off road. That Ninja engine—famous for its top-end rush and high redline—has good bottom-end torque and plenty of revs to play with, so I just left the slick-shifting transmission in third gear as we threaded our way up the flank of the Santa Lucia Range, the steep and jagged mountains that wall the Big Sur coast off from the rest of California.
The Versys’ capabilities were a surprise, but our expectations were low. Meanwhile, the Rally suffered from the opposite scenario. With its assertive styling and burly inverted fork, the assumption is that the Rally is going to rip off road. The truth is it’s still largely a CRF250L, which means it’s too soft and too slow for truly aggressive riding.
One look at this bike, though, and it’s obvious that travel and some measure of comfort are baked in, so raw off-road performance becomes less of a priority. That’s a good thing because the suspension—all 11 inches up front and 10.3 inches out back, nearly double that of the Versys—is absurdly soft and has no perceptible rebound damping, leading to a loose ride that dissuades you from hitting obstacles at speed. And if the suspension doesn’t inhibit you from carrying momentum, the engine will. The Rally’s 249cc single feels less anemic off road, but it’s still underpowered and easily outpaced by the Versys.
The Honda’s front brake is better than the Kawasaki’s, but you can’t really exploit it. “On pavement it’s not so much a front-brake lever, as a fork-dive lever,” Zack mused. In the dirt, however, we loved the Rally’s off-road ABS, which lets you lock the rear tire while retaining anti-skid function up front.
In the end, the Rally still works better than the Versys off road and is much improved on road compared to the CRF250L, but as we ascended the ridge we’d looked up at from the PCH and turned our gaze toward the ocean, how the bikes were working was the last thing on our minds.
Big Sur is world famous for its craggy cliffs, the ceaseless pounding of the Pacific Ocean, and the fog that buffets the coast with wicked, cold tendrils. Zack and I have seen the sights, breathed the salt air, and shivered in the mist numerous times over the years, but this experience was entirely new. The views were so awesome, so grand, as to rival anything that’s ever entered our eyes. The cliffs that jut out of the sea and seem so impossibly steep at road level continue to rise another half mile up, and that’s where we were, navigating a road cut along the very top of the mountains. From that elevation the curvature of the planet was clear to see, the sky a cloudless, piercing blue.
We continued to ride, bounding along on our little bikes and reveling in the scenery and the excitement of exploring this new, lonely mountain route. As the sun began to descend the ridge narrowed to a spine, and after threading through a stand of red-trunked madrone trees the trail abruptly ended at a small promontory at the top of an dizzyingly steep bluff. Amazingly, directly below us was the landslide that had blocked our path north, the scarred flank of the mountainside and the raw soil of the newly formed peninsula visible some 2,500 feet below us.
As the sun set, the fog made its final charge and pressed against the cliffs below us, carpeting the world in cotton. “It’s like an airplane sunset,” Zack analogized as we unfurled our tent, the sun beginning to singe the cotton. It was exactly like looking out of an airplane window, except instead of peering out a tiny portal our view was totally unrestricted and utterly magnificent.
Camping atop that cliff under a vibrant moon, its crescent bright enough to cast shadows, was an incredible experience. Our final words of the night conveyed how amazed we were that these trails, this campsite, and this other Big Sur existed and that we’d unwittingly passed it so many times. This detour had become our best road trip yet.
The next morning, what was on our mind was finding fuel for the Rally. The Versys’ larger tank promises at least 200 miles between fill-ups, but even getting an impressive 60 mpg, the CRF Rally will have you looking for a pump at the 120-mile mark. Back on paved roads by midday, we made it to a gas station without having to siphon from the Versys and made it to Monterey in time for dinner and a visit with friends.
This new breed of pint-size travel enduros brings together so many appealing aspects of motorcycling. And other than being capped in terms of top speed, there’s really no limit to what they can be used for. Even if they can’t surmount landslides, the Rally and Versys can get you to your destination, no matter what route you choose. For gnarlier adventures closer to home, the Honda is the way to go. And for more range, comfort, cruising speed, and gentler off roading, the Kawasaki is the clear choice.