Favorite Ride: Space Coast to the Smokies

Favorite Ride — Space Coast to the Smokies
The morning sunrise on the Intracoastal Waterway. Palm Bay, Florida. Story and photos by Randy Norton.

You really couldn’t tell that it was the first day of fall in Palm Bay, Florida. The forecast called for lots of sun and 90 degrees. With a beautiful sunrise to my right, I headed north on I-95 toward Daytona Beach on the Harley-Davidson Road King, planning to meet my old friend Bob in Robbinsville, North Carolina the next day. He was riding down from Ohio on his TriGlide. After that it would be Smokey Mountain touring for a few days. 

Leaving I-95 I exited on West Granada Boulevard and headed east to Florida State Road A1A. I was looking forward to a beautiful cruise along the ocean and was not disappointed. Between Ormond Beach and Flagler Beach I stopped at an interesting historical site — a coastal watchtower from WWII used by spotters to monitor German U-boat activity and watch for enemy aircraft. More than 15,000 of these towers were erected along the U.S. coastline after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Favorite Ride — Space Coast to the Smokies

I continued to cruise north on coastal FSR A1A until I rolled into St. Augustine over the Bridge of Lions. The historic lighthouse in the USA’s oldest town came into view and made for a great place to take five. Still a working lighthouse with a museum on the grounds, many structures like it in St. Augustine are reputed to be haunted, but the only spirit I was interested in was a cold beer at the end of my riding day. So, I crossed back over the Tolomato River as soon as I could to pick up coastal FSR A1A and rode on to Jacksonville.

Heading west on Beach Blvd., I left the ocean behind and grabbed the I-295 Loop to avoid downtown Jacksonville. Exiting on U.S. Route 23 I aimed for Callahan, Florida, a much needed break and a fuel stop, looking forward to passing through small towns and riding through the countryside.

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Favorite Ride — Space Coast to the Smokies
North of Folkston, Georgia you will find the Okefenokee Swamp Park.

Crossing the Florida/Georgia border, soon I was in Folkston, and more than one sign reminded me that this is the gateway to the Okefenokee Swamp. After a bite I continued north on Route 23 through Waycross, cruising country roads past classic old farms, red dirt side roads, cotton fields, old barns and even Vidalia, home of those famous sweet onions! Holding to Georgia Route 15 brought me to Sandersville, Georgia, and a Quality Inn on the main drag.

Early on Sunday morning I kept rolling on 15 through Georgia. Sparta is a classic old southern town founded in 1795 that is full of historic buildings and sits in the heart of old plantation country. I stopped at Monument Square, where the courthouse dates back to 1882, then pushing on and ever northward I rolled through the Oconee National Forest and skirted around Athens on the U.S. Route 441 Loop.

Favorite Ride — Space Coast to the Smokies
I was naturally drawn to all of the Harley displays but this whole place is amazing.

Finishing off Georgia on Route 23, soon I had the North Carolina Mountains on the horizon. It was an easy decision to drift up to Cherokee before riding west to Robbinsville to meet my friend Bob. Early Sunday evening I pulled into the Phillips Motel, our home base for the next three nights, a clean and comfortable spot with covered parking for our machines. 

Up before the sun, we took a warm-up ride south of town before leaving on our much-anticipated ride to Maggie Valley and the Wheels Through Time Museum. I was scouting photo ops and enjoying the cool mountain air when a big bird flying way too low came out of the trees. Just before I ducked, I saw the owl’s two large eyes, a beak and lots of feathers, and heard him bump my windshield. Luckily for both us it wasn’t a solid hit, and we both went on our way….

Favorite Ride — Space Coast to the Smokies
A post WWII motorcycle shop is replicated in this Wheels Through Time Display.

After breakfast at Southern Gals Restaurant, we were off to Maggie Valley, riding North Carolina Highway 143 and hooking up with U.S. Route 19. The beautiful mountain roads led us to Dale Walksler’s Wheels Through Time Museum. If you dig vintage bikes and automobiles this place is a must see. The friendly staff has a wealth of information that they are more than happy to share. The museum staff steered us to Pop’s Place for lunch. My Road King was gaining miles, I was gaining weight!

Our Tuesday plan was to ride the Cherohala Skyway Loop. Rain suits and wet roads were the theme that morning, with a fine mist lingering. As we climbed the twisty mountain road Mother Nature tossed in some thick fog, and wet leaves on the road made me even more cautious. The Smokies were really living up to their name and I wondered if there would ever be any visibility at the scenic overlooks we kept passing!

Favorite Ride — Space Coast to the Smokies
The Deals Gap tree of shame is adorned with plenty of broken bike parts.

After a few miles the fog lifted and we began to see breaks in the clouds, and those overlooks started to live up to their reputation. Sunshine, scenic vistas and dry roads were more than welcome. We ditched the rain gear at an overlook and cruised across the Tennessee line to Tellico Plains. After a home-cooked lunch at the Telicafe, I was thinking about what lay ahead — the infamous Tail of the Dragon, 318 curves in 11 miles that would close out our ride. I was thinking, “I’ve already scraped a floorboard or two on these mountain roads, how much more twisty can this Dragon be?” The answer is “a whole bunch more!” It’s exciting, challenging and even dangerous, with 11 miles of hairpin, switchback, and floorboard-scraping turns. Once it was behind me, I stopped at Deals Gap, the motorcycle oasis at the south end of the Dragon, and waited for Bob and his TriGlide. We topped off our day just a couple miles south of Deals Gap at the Historic Tapoco Lodge, dining at an outdoor riverfront table while reliving the day’s ride.

The next morning, I headed for home just ahead of the rain, bidding my friend good-bye and safe travels the night before. I was treated to one last ride through the Smokies before heading south outside of Ashville, already thinking of my next trip up here and all of the Carolina roads waiting to be explored.

Favorite Ride — Space Coast to the Smokies
A beautiful dinner time view from the Historic Tapoco Lodge.

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