Until last November 30th, I had never been to Kennon Road. This was a travesty because Kennon is one of the most beautiful roads in the country. I’ve travelled around lots of places in the Philippines, and Kennon ranks way up there among the roads that are just pure joy to ride through.
Kennon snakes for more than 30 kilometers through a canyon dotted with waterfalls, slopes covered with pine trees and sunflowers, and cliffs and peaks that truly scrape the skies. It’s also a road with a reputation for danger. Kennon has sharp curves, switchbacks, and pavement that can turn slippery in the rain. Rockslides also occasionally happen, especially when there’s heavy rain. All this means that motorists can’t safely take their eyes off the line of the road for more than a few seconds, which is a shame because they’re missing out on the awesome scenery.
Bikers, however, are not so burdened. Since we move according to a more natural pace—the pace of our breathing—we can soak in as much of the mountain spectacle as we want. We are swimming and diving in the scenery while motorists are just skimming the surface. It makes you almost pity them.
I didn’t actually know that we were going to be riding up Kennon. When we arrived in Rosario La Union, I was gearing myself up for some trail riding. But apparently, that wasn’t scheduled until the next day. We had a whole day to burn, so my fellow biker Bong suggested we try biking up Kennon Road.
Although I wanted to shake up my legs with a ride, I also had my worries about burning out on the long ascent. I also wasn’t sure if I’d have enough gas in my tank for the real challenge the next day. But I had always dreamed of riding from sea level all the way up to Baguio. I may not have this chance again. So I said: Screw it, let’s ride!
Bong is a veteran of Kennon. He is also one of the stronger climbers I know. I was concerned that he was going to turn our Kennon ascent into a KOM contest, but thankfully, he tuned off his racing instincts. We had enough time to enjoy the views, visit a waterfall, shoot pictures, and just let our grins expand from ear to ear because life is good at times like these.
A Brief History of Kennon Road
According to dangerousroads.org:
“The construction of the road commenced in 1903 by cutting across the mountains of Benguet … and was considered one of the most difficult and expensive civil engineering projects of its day… More than 2,300 foreign and local workers worked on the road. Aside from Filipino engineers and construction workers and U.S. Army Engineers headed by Col. Lyman Kennon…”
While constructing the road, the workers established camps, which eventually became settlements along the road: these are Camps 1-8. Hundreds of workers also supposedly died from disease, and accidents such as falling off cliffs. Seems like constructing Kennon was quite a feat for its day. And it’s plain enough to see why when you ride a bike here.
Road vs Highway
Kennon truly deserves to be called a road instead of just ‘highway.’ You may ask, what’s the difference? Milan Kundera sums it so in his novel Immortality:
“A highway differs from a road not only because it is solely intended for vehicles, but also because it is merely a line that connects one point with another. A highway has no meaning in itself; its meaning derives entirely from the two points that it connects. A road is a tribute to space. Every stretch of road has meaning in itself and invites us to stop. A highway is the triumphant devaluation of space, which thanks to it has been reduced to a mere obstacle to human movement and a waste of time.”
Road: a human place. Highway: a soulless invention.
Bikers, motorcyclists and travellers have a saying: it’s the journey, not the destination. It’s a thought that’s grown threadbare from too many repeated sayings. Despite this, its truth is undiminished.
Baguio is an awesome destination to arrive at. But while riding through Kennon, you almost feel sorry that the road has to end somewhere, even if it is the country’s summer capital.
Kennon is an incredible mountain road for biking, but let me disabuse you of any notion that it’s an easy ride. If short 10-minute uphills are already leaving you gassed out, then practice some more. Metro Manila bikers should first try climbing Antipolo, then The Wall, then Shotgun. If you can do those challenges, Kennon’s climbs shouldn’t give you any trouble and you can savor the scenery.