Favorite Ride: Classic Roadways of the Smoky Mountains

Turnout on Foothills Parkway looking east into the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photos by the author)
Turnout on Foothills Parkway looking east into the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photos by the author)

This morning I’m on my way to the Great Smoky Mountains to revisit three gems of the Southeast’s motorcycle-friendly roadways: the Foothills Parkway, Deals Gap (the Tail of the Dragon) and the Cherohala Skyway. These three are close enough to each other to make a super day ride when combined. It’s the middle of the week and the tourist traffic (both the two- and four-wheel varieties) should not be heavy, especially before noon. This is important, since the ride I’m heading for is a lot more fun when traffic is light. I avoid weekends whenever possible.

Map of the route taken. Map by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com
Map of the route taken. Map by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com

My initial destination is Maryville, Tennessee; locals call it “Murvul.” Fifteen miles east of Maryville on U.S. Route 321, a few miles before Townsend, is the entrance to the Foothills Parkway. The Parkway, first authorized in 1944, was envisioned as stretching 71 miles from Interstate 40 to U.S. Route 129 and is currently about one-third completed. I point my 2007 Sportster onto the Parkway at the U.S. 321 entrance and climb onto the western edge of the Smokies to enjoy the gentle sweepers and 20 miles of scenic views. I’ll stop at a couple of the turnoffs and also visit Look Rock. The Parkway ends at U.S. 129 about eight miles from the start of the Tail of the Dragon to Deals Gap, with its 318 curves in 11 miles.

Old timer (your author) trying to look good on the twisties. (Photo by Moonshine Photo and used by permission.)
Old timer (your author) trying to look good on the twisties. (Photo by Moonshine Photo and used by permission.)

The Deals Gap area was so remote and rugged that it resisted early settlement. It is actually a mountain pass and was named after early settlers to the area. In the 1920s and ’30s, the beginning of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the building of power dams helped to open up the area. U.S. 129 borders the national park so there are no crossroads, driveways or private buildings along the way. The road we ride was first paved in the ’30s and extends from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Florida. This local stretch of U.S. 129 has a history of moonshine running, “bushwacking” and fast cars.

Foothills Parkway entrance near Townsend, Tennessee, off U.S. Route 321.
Foothills Parkway entrance near Townsend, Tennessee, off U.S. Route 321.

There are a few things I watch for when riding The Dragon. The first is The Law. He is very active sometimes and can be quite strict. Also, I watch my rear view mirrors for fast-closing sportbikes and try to help them pass, as the road permits. Then, there are the pro photographers posted up in certain corners. I keep my focus on the road ahead, not the photographers, as we know that when riding we tend to go in the direction that we look. I try to ride The Dragon smoothly with a minimum of hard braking maneuvers. For these mountainous conditions, the low-end torque from my Sportster is put to good use in helping to maintain a somewhat steady speed.

Cheoah Dam, two miles from the North Carolina end of The Dragon, was made famous by  Harrison Ford, a.k.a. Dr. Richard Kimble, in the 1993 movie “The Fugitive.” The dam is 232 feet high.
Cheoah Dam, two miles from the North Carolina end of The Dragon, was made famous by Harrison Ford, a.k.a. Dr. Richard Kimble, in the 1993 movie “The Fugitive.” The dam is 232 feet high.

At the North Carolina end of The Dragon there’s the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort with motel, camping, gas station, restaurant and gift shop. I’ll stop there to see if any more broken bike parts have been added to the infamous Tree of Shame.

From here, I continue on into North Carolina on U.S. 129, passing by the Cheoah Dam (seen in the movie “The Fugitive”) and on to Robbinsville, the mountain town where I can get gas for my Sportster’s smallish gas tank.

A brief delay due to Skyway resurfacing. Those in cars: windows up and AC on. Those on bikes: making new friends! Our new friend Kyla from Michigan is touring alone on a rented bike. Way to go, Kyla!
A brief delay due to Skyway resurfacing. Those in cars: windows up and AC on. Those on bikes: making new friends! Our new friend Kyla from Michigan is touring alone on a rented bike. Way to go, Kyla!

I leave Robbinsville and backtrack a few miles to North Carolina Highway 143, heading west toward the Cherohala Skyway. The next 43 miles have no commercial traffic or businesses. This project cost about $100 million and was completed in 1996 after 35 years of work. The Skyway, which connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee, with Robbinsville, North Carolina, has it all—nonstop views, elevation maxing out at 5,400 feet and a high wow factor. It is important to pay attention to recommended speeds on the road as there are several decreasing-radius curves marked at 25 mph. There are a number of turnouts where one can enjoy the spectacular views and also meet other riders.

Bald River Falls. A dry summer has reduced water volume.  Be sure to come  back in the spring and see the rushing flow from winter snow melt.
Bald River Falls. A dry summer has reduced water volume. Be sure to come back in the spring and see the rushing flow from winter snow melt.

One stop I usually make is at Bald River Falls on a side road near the Tennessee end of the Skyway. The falls are found about six miles after the turnoff to a ranger station and are well marked. The Skyway coming into Tellico Plains is an especially beautiful, tree-lined road where it follows the Tellico River. Several small eating establishments can be found here along the water’s edge. My favorite is Tellico Kats Delicatessen and General Store.

Before I begin the return trip to my Tennessee home, I usually make a final stop in Tellico Plains to visit the Charles Hall Museum. Hall was a driving force for the Skyway project. This free museum (donations appreciated) in two separate buildings covers the days of logging, moonshiners and the early settlers. It also contains some outstanding collections and exhibits from the past including coins, toys and guns. When you make this ride, the museum is a must-see.

This complete moonshine still at the Charles Hall Museum in Tellico Plains was an anonymous donation; it just showed up one morning. Note the thump keg; don't overfill or it may "puke through."
This complete moonshine still at the Charles Hall Museum in Tellico Plains was an anonymous donation; it just showed up one morning. Note the thump keg; don’t overfill or it may “puke through.”

Over the years, I have made this loop through the Smokies many times but have never tired of it. Each of the seasons has a different look. You may meet interesting visiting riders from anywhere in the world as this is truly a destination ride area. The roads continue to be very well maintained and have even been improved in spots due in part to motorcycle traffic and the power of the tourist dollars that we bring to the area. If you ride here sometime in the future, watch for a black Sportster with an older guy trying to look good in the twisties. That would be me.

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