Riding the Great Smoky Mountains

August 14, 2008
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

MotorcycleUSA samples some of the most beautiful roads in American when it pays a visit to the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.
MotorcycleUSA samples some of the most beautiful roads in American when it pays a visit to the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.

“The South is a sweet poison… I believe Faulkner wrote that,” says my driver in a slow, subtle drawl. Grinning behind a pair of wrap-around shades he talks about his southern home, giving up a hot tip about the best new local bluegrass band as we drive through the green, genteel hills of Eastern Tennessee.

MotorcycleUSA had just flown into the Volunteer state and were making our way from Knoxville to Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains, where a batch of Triumph sportbikes awaited our testing scrutiny. It was our first time riding down South and we were eager to get a taste of that sweet poison for ourselves. What we discovered were roads that every American rider should sample at least once in their lifetime.

A southern range of the ancient Appalachians, the Great Smoky Mountains run through Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina. One of the first western frontiers of the young United States after the Revolution, the region almost gained admission to the Union as the state of Franklin before Tennessee achieved statehood in 1796.

Fast forward through a Civil War, Reconstruction and the Great Depression (which transformed the region via ambitious public works projects from the Tennessee Valley Authority) and a booming tourist economy is now the main source of jobs in rural Sevier County, home of Gatlinburg. In fact, my driver promises as we continue south on US Route 441 past scenic brick churches, the region is second only to Las Vegas as the destination wedding capital of the U.S.

But nuptials and the gaudy tourist-trap kitsch of Dollywood (located in Pigeon Forge) aren’t the main draws in this corner of the world. It is the mountains themselves, with the Great Smoky Mountain National Park bringing in between 8-10 million visitors a year – comparable to the visitors of Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite combined.

Even with the trees still recovering from winter  the narrow two-lane stretches of US 441 running through the Great Smokey Mountain National Park live up to the area s scenic reputation.
Even with the trees still recovering from winter, the narrow two-lane stretches of US 441 running through the Great Smokey Mountain National Park live up to the area’s scenic reputation.

Motorcyclists flock to the area for some of the most exciting roads in the Lower 48 – including the infamous Tail of the Dragon, a particularly twisty portion of US 129. Although not a rider himself, my driver knew all about The Dragon. Everyone from those parts do. With 318 turns in 11 miles, the Dragon is a formidable road and a destination spot each year for thousands of riders from across the nation.

Arriving at our Tennessee home base for the next two nights, Gatlinburg’s rustic Buckberry Lodge, it was time to rest and relax to the call of song birds and wind rustling through the surrounding woods. Come morning, we’d trade the natural soundtrack for the roar of Triumph’s three-cylinder powerplant and a day’s worth of unforgettable roads.

US Route 441 – Gatlinburg, TN to Cherokee, NC

The smoke of the Smoky Mountains is actually humidity and evaporation from the dense forests that cover the hills, but a light rain and overcast conditions accentuated the effect for our epic ride. Picking and choosing from four bikes in the Triumph Urban Sport lineup, the first road on our Smoky Mountain tour was US 441. Cutting across the national park from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, NC, 441 is a twisting route filled with scenic splendor – the road climbing steady up to the 5048-ft Newfound Gap, which marks the state line.

Scrambling up US 441 was memorable to us for having one of the oddest road signs we’d ever seen – a circle with a line struck through it. As we soon found out, the sign indicates a tunnel followed by a climbing off-camber turn making a full rotation over the tunnel and beyond – an uphill 360-degree turn. Cranked over on a never-ending corkscrew was the climax of 441, but another highlight included a couple shots of wild turkey roadside.

They weren t kidding when they call them the Smokies  with the forest humidity and evaporation giving the Smoky Mountains their dramatic effect.
They weren’t kidding when they call them the Smokies, with the forest humidity and evaporation giving the Smoky Mountains their dramatic effect.

No, we weren’t dipping in the bottle, just glimpsing a small sampling of the park’s wildlife, which includes a reputed 1,500 black bears. GSMNP also features plenty of places to pull off, park the bike and get a closer look at the blooming dogwoods and rhododendrons that proliferate roadside.

A word to the wise park rider is to avoid peak tourist season (summer months and October for the fall colors). Those annual 8-10 million visitors mean creeping along at times behind tourists gawking at the wildlife and foliage. A shrewd throttle hand is wise too, as park rangers are enthusiastic in enforcing stringent speed limits.

Highway NC 28 – Cherokee to the Dragon

Emerging from the park, which features no entrance fee, we arrive at Cherokee, NC, headquarters of the Cherokee Indian Reservation – the native tribe being the original inhabitants of the region before white settlement and forced relocation in the 1800s. In Cherokee riders may opt to take the famous Blue Ridge Parkway east, but we head west on US 74 through Bryson City until intersecting highway NC 28.

It may be best known as the road to get to the more popular Tail of the Dragon, but NC 28 was my favorite stretch of asphalt on our journey. Jam packed with high-speed sweepers as well as some tighter more technical terrain, 28 is a well-kept terrific route for motorcycles.

Built during World War II  the Fontana Dam is one of the most well-known TVA projects - the hydroelectric project providing power for the nearby aluminum industry.
Built during World War II, the Fontana Dam is one of the most well-known TVA projects – the hydroelectric project providing power for the nearby aluminum industry.

While on NC 28 don’t fail to turn off and head up the short access road to take a look at the massive Fontana dam. One of the many dams built by the TVA, Fontana was constructed during WWII to generate power for the region’s aluminum plants, which were critical to the war effort. Rushed to completion between 1942 and 1944, Fontana remains the tallest dam east of the Rockies and also serves as an outdoor recreation area – the famous Appalachian Trail running on top of the dam itself.

After Fontana, NC 28 meanders alongside the shoreline of Cheoah Lake to Deals Gap (population 7) – the beginning of the notorious Tail of the Dragon.

Tail of the Dragon – US-129

That earlier concept of a “sweet poison” came to mind as I began The Dragon aboard a Triumph Tiger. The much-hyped 318 turns are indeed a technical challenge, but nothing a vigilant rider can’t handle. That said, the Dragon claims routine victims. Most are minor lowsides, producing crashed bodywork to hang from a tree at Deals Gap Resort fittingly dubbed the Tree of Shame. But there is a human toll exacted on the Dragon as well, and it is rare for a year to pass without a life being taken on the curving two-lane highway.

Attempting to discourage foolhardy riders, a posted 30mph speed limit is just about impossible to obey (except on those 180-degree hairpin turns!) And the Dragon is aggressively patrolled by law enforcement in marked and unmarked vehicles. Paying attention to the riders in the opposite lane flashing headlamps or tapping the top of their helmets may save you a hefty fine or trip to court.

Leaving Deals Gap  US 129 soon transforms into one of the most exciting  certainly one of the most notorious  stretches of road in the U.S.
Leaving Deals Gap, US 129 soon transforms into one of the most exciting, certainly one of the most notorious, stretches of road in the U.S.

Tickets are one thing to worry about, but a more serious hazard is an oncoming vehicle blowing a corner and crossing over the double yellow. (FYI, law enforcement will ticket riders for crossing into the other lane if their body leans over the yellow). The real trouble, however, come from riders themselves, who underestimate the road and push their bike too far. The key to the Dragon, like any road, is riding within your limits and giving plenty of slack to work with. And we guarantee that on at least a couple Dragon corners, you will need every inch of that slack.

Another thing to watch out for on The Dragon is Darryl Cannon, aka Killboy.com. If you need any further proof on the merits of the Dragon as a must-experience motorcycle destination, consider the fact that Cannon makes his living by photographing perfect strangers which will a) be there every single day and b) want to purchase photos of themselves on his website. We saw Killboy a couple miles past the Deals Gap resort, making sure not to be one of the riders who get free crash photos.

Surviving the most intense portions of 129 at the top of the Dragon a scenic turnout is filled by riders congregating to take in the view of Chilhowee Lake below and to swap some tall Tail tales. No doubt when there you’ll see other riders, as we did, gesticulating on their parked mounts, arms and hands waving to and fro as they regale their riding partners about that corner that almost got them…

The Dragon bites riders will regularity  with many offering up mutilated bodywork to the Deals Gap Tree of Shame.
The Dragon bites riders will regularity, with many offering up mutilated bodywork to the Deals Gap Tree of Shame.

There’s just no road quite like the Dragon.

Foothills Parkway – US 321 – Old Highway 73

The rest of our journey was a tough act to follow after the unforgettable 129, but weaving back toward Gatlinburg still proved memorable. Our route followed a number of roads, including the Foothills Parkway and Highways 321 and 73.

As per usual with our Smoky Mountain experience, the views were stunning. Ascending to the higher elevations on the Foothills Parkway and US 321 afforded spectacular vistas. Re-entering the GSMNP on Old Highway 73 (also called Little River Road) we were treated to more wild turkey sightings, as well as increased park traffic.

But you know what? Taking it slow isn’t such a bad thing – especially in a beautiful national park. Check out those blossoms roadside, the filtered sunlight splashing down through overcast clouds and groves of hemlock. There are far worse things than stopping to smell the roses.

Arriving back in Gatlinburg with a mind clear of mortgage payments and credit card balances, our brisk ride through the Smokies did wonders for a rider’s mental health. Riding the Smoky Mountains, no matter how infested with sluggish tourists or ticket-happy cops, should be on every American rider’s all-time to-do list. It turns out those roads down South are a sweet poison indeed.

Although we didn’t get an opportunity to ride them, there are plenty of other roads worth visiting while down in the Smoky Mountain area. Here are just two.

Riding through the Smokies  riders are treated to many panoramic views  like this shot of one of the many dams built in the area by the Depression Era TVA.
Riding through the Smokies, riders are treated to many panoramic views, like this shot of one of the many dams built in the area by the Depression Era TVA.

Cherohala Skyway and Blue Ridge Parkway

As the GSMNP is often congested and the Dragon the focus of intense scrutiny from the Law, the less-patrolled Cherohala Skyway was recommended for quick-paced riders. MCUSA Associate Editor Adam Waheed took a spin on the TN/NC highway located 20 minutes south of the Dragon during an earlier event and was very impressed.

“With all the attention U.S. Highway 129 gets it can be easy to overlook the 36-mile stretch of wide, smoothly paved asphalt otherwise known as the Cherohala Skyway,” says Adam.

“At first thought the road’s intriguing name sounds like some kind of space highway you may have daydreamed about after watching a Star Wars movie. And as you’re wedged behind the windscreen with the tachometer hovering near double digits, the blurred green landscape might even make you feel like you’re in Hyperdrive aboard the Millennium Falcon. Fortunately the roadway is more than a sci-fi dream – its reality. Completed in 1996, with a price tag of over $100 million, the two-lane road twists, turns, climbs and dives between sparsely populated scenic backcountry in southeastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.

“The Skyway treats its travelers with an overabundance of spacious, gently curving roadway. Turn-outs and view points are liberally sprinkled throughout the stretch of road which allow show a true glimpse of the natural beauty that only the Smoke Mountains can provide.”

Another route with rave reviews is the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway. Connecting with US 441 at Cherokee, the BRP rolls northeast 469 miles to Shenandoah National Park. Another federal works project begun in the `30s, the Parkway runs through its namesake Blue Ridge Mountains. A must-ride piece of pavement, we are told, and one we plan on riding in the future!

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