Best Dam Ride in the South: The TVA Dams of the Upper Tennessee River

Tennessee Dam Ride
A heavy discharge of water flows from the top of North Carolina’s Cheoah Dam, which is about 10 miles downstream from Fontana Dam on the Little Tennessee River. Photos by the author.

Looking down on the raging torrent thundering out of the 34-foot-diameter emergency spillway below Fontana Dam, you can almost feel the ground shake beneath your feet! The 100-foot-high plume created by this blast shoots several hundred feet across the Little Tennessee River and creates a Niagara Falls-like mist. At 480 feet, this is the tallest dam east of the Rockies.

In May of 1933, President F. D. Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, beginning one of the largest projects in the history of the United States. The TVA built dams on the Tennessee River and its tributaries to provide flood control, generate electrical power, support agriculture and recreation and put thousands of men and women to work during the Great Depression. Today these magnificent dams are still fulfilling their original purpose and more. Huge reservoirs in the beautiful valleys of the southern Appalachian Mountains help keep a 650-mile stretch of the Tennessee River navigable all the way from Paducah, Kentucky, on the Ohio River to Knoxville, Tennessee. TVA has created a system of lakes and reservoirs that include some 33 dams in five states, providing ample opportunities for boating, fishing and camping. A riding exploration of these dams and reservoirs is a real treat as the roads in these mountains are made for motorcycles!

Tennessee Dam Ride
The author at Melton Hill Dam on the Clinch River in Tennessee, just a few miles from “The Atomic City” (Oak Ridge).

We start this tour at the Copperhead Lodge in Blairsville in north Georgia. The Copperhead is a motorcycle resort offering cabins, rooms, meals and refreshments. Rolling out of the Copperhead on State Route 325 north takes us around beautiful Lake Nottely and over TVA’s Nottely Dam. A little farther on you come to the intersection at U.S. Route 129. The Biker Barn on the southeast corner offers a full line of motorcycle apparel in case you forgot to pack some essential items.

Tennessee Dam Ride
Watts Bar Nuclear Plant is one of three nuclear plants generating electricity in the TVA system.

Continue north on U.S. 129 through Murphy, North Carolina, and on to Robbinsville on the shores of Lake Santeetlah, another reservoir. Follow the Cheoah River down the gorge to the 85-year-old, recently restored, historic Tapoco Lodge for a late breakfast/early lunch. Just past the lodge is the magnificent, 100-year-old Cheoah Dam. In the 1993 movie “The Fugitive,” Dr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) jumped off this dam to escape his pursuers. About a mile farther on you’ll come to the intersection of U.S. 129 and North Carolina Highway 28 at the gateway to Deals Gap, a.k.a the Tail of the Dragon. There’s fuel, food, accommodations and souvenirs here. It’s a great place to take a break, get some photos and visit with riders from all over the country. Take Highway 28 south for a 10-mile side trip up the Little Tennessee River to the visitor center at massive Fontana Dam. The TVA retiree staff is very helpful and the story of the construction of the dam during WWII is inspiring!

Tennessee Dam Ride
This shot of the emergency overflow at Fontana Dam on the Little Tennessee River shows huge discharge from the 34-foot tunnel at the bottom. Only seen about every 10 years!

Backtrack 10 miles downriver on Highway 28 to U.S. 129, then fold up the highway pegs and hit the curves on the Dragon. Bottoming out at Tellico Lake, continue north on U.S. 129 to Knoxville, Tennessee. There are several route options from here but I recommend getting across town and picking up U.S. Route 441 north to Norris Dam on the Clinch River, the first and largest of the TVA dams, started in 1933 and finished in 1936. There is a visitor center here as well and a display that is very informative.

Tennessee Dam Ride
Rafters on the Ocoee River below the dam. The Ocoee River is a very popular kayaking and rafting river, and was the site for the 1996 Summer Olympics competitions.

After such a full day, I head to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for the night via Lake City and Tennessee State Route 116, where there are plenty of modern hotels and restaurants. Oak Ridge, “The Atomic City,” is the site of the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb during WWII. For a fun side trip, check in with the local visitor center or a bike shop for information on the famous “Devil’s Triangle” loop ride just north of town.

Tennessee Dam Ride
The Norris Dam, on the Clinch River in northern Tennessee, is the first dam in the TVA system.

The next day, heading southwest out of Oak Ridge on State Route 58 for about six miles, I take the ramp to State Route 95 south to Melton Hill Dam on the Clinch River. Then I continue south on Route 95, which becomes U.S. Route 321 to Lenoir City and Fort Loudoun Dam on the Upper Tennessee River. Doubling back about four miles on U.S. 321, I pick up U.S. Route 70 west to Kingston, then south on Route 58 about five miles to County Road 304/River Road, which rolls gently down the east side of Watts Bar Lake. Taking a break at the Blue Springs Marina, I discover a great half-pound double cheeseburger with onion rings at the Crows Nest Restaurant on the water. From there I continue south to State Route 68 then west to the Watts Bar Dam. The cooling towers of the Watts Bar Nuclear Plant stand silently issuing clouds of water vapor just below the dam.

Tennessee Dam Ride
Ocoee Dam No. 2 diverts water to the wooden flume in the background to drive turbines at a power generating station a few miles downstream. Kayakers and rafters put in here!

Heading east on Route 68 a couple of miles, I pick up Route 304/River Road south to Decatur, then to State Route 60. Following Route 60 southeast through Cleveland, Tennessee, I pick up U.S. 64/74 east and head into the Ocoee Gorge, a great two-lane ride with plenty of twisties and great views of the lake and river. There are a series of three dams in the gorge that were built starting in 1911 to generate electrical power for the city of Chattanooga. The old, still operational powerhouses and wooden flume starting at Ocoee Dam No. 2 and snaking along the mountain across the river are awesome. The Ocoee River is also the site of the whitewater competition held during the 1996 Summer Olympics; a stop at the Whitewater Center is a must.

Another hour east to Murphy, North Carolina, then south on U.S. 129 brings me full circle and home to Blairsville, Georgia. Two days, 396 miles. It is a real blessing to have scenery and riding of this quality essentially right out of my garage! So many roads, so little time!

Tennessee Dam Ride
A map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

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