The roads around the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina were made for motorcycles. Whether you own one or need to rent, discovering the beauty and majesty of the Smokies on two wheels gives you the freedom to ride some of the best roads in the country at your own pace.
Perhaps the most famous route is the Tail of the Dragon (or just The Dragon), considered to be one of the most exciting and challenging motorcycling adventure. Allow approximately three hours to do a round-trip and get ready for bend after bend of twisting road that stretches from Chilhowee Lake on the Tennessee side along the infamous US Highway 129 to Deal's Gap in North Carolina. The starting point for this ride is generally at the Townsend Visitor Center on Highway 321 South. From there you travel along the scenic Foothills Parkway for approximately 20 miles before hitting 129 and three miles south, the Dragon in earnest begins -- 11 miles that boast no fewer than 318 curves. This is not a ride for the inexperienced or the faint-hearted. Other vehicles use this road, so cyclists need to be aware of cars, bicycles and RV's when maneuvering the turns. Conquering the Tail of the Dragon is generally on the "to do" list of most motorcycle enthusiasts. Be aware that police patrol this road on the look out for speeding motorists and riders so keep to the speed limits (the speed limit changes when you cross over state lines -- 55 miles per hour in North Carlin and only 30 miles per hour in Tennessee). On the plus side, driving slower will allow you to take in the amazing scenery and maybe even a glimpse of the abundant wildlife like black bears and deer.
The Cherohala Skyway is another visually stunning route waiting to be discovered. It is also known as the Ride above the Clouds and is a 36-mile stretch of stunning mountain highway that crosses the high country between Tellico Plains, TN and Robbinsville, NC. On the way, you will get to ride through two National Forests -- Cherokee and Nantahala -- hence the name -- a combination of the two. The route climbs to elevations in excess of 5,400 feet, often through low lying clouds and temperature drops can be up to 20 degrees. If you want to start in Tennessee, travel from Townsend to Maryville and then take Highway 411 South to Highway 68 and Tellico Plains. From North Carolina, start from Robbinsville via Highway 129 South, along the Dragon. A round-trip should take between four to six hours but ensure you save some time to a few walks in the forests or at least time to admire the views at the spectacular overlooks.
For something shorter but equally appealing, try the Foothills Parkway for a two-hour ride offering exceptional views of the Smokies. The 20 mile Foothills Parkway is actually part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and connects Chilhowee Lake to the town of Walland. This route is less crowded that the Dragon and has clear vistas of Thunderhead Mountain that shadows over the road at over 5,500 feet. Start at the Townsend Visitor Center on US 321 South traveling westwards towards Maryville. From there it is five miles to the Parkway. Half way along the route, you can stop at Look Rock Tower, a half-mile hike from the road. One way access to the tower is free and provides 360 degree panoramic views of North Carolina and Tennessee.
Where to Rent
If you don't have your own, Eagle Rider of the Smokies (tel. 877/856-RENT; www.eagleriderofknoxville.com) can get you on your way. For $135 a day, $357 for three days or $736 for a week, Eagle Rider will rent you a Harley Davidson of your choice -- Fat Boy, Sportser, Road King, Low Rider, Electra Glide and several other models. All rentals must be paid in full in advance and trip insurance and damage waiver can be purchased at an additional cost. The rental prices include unlimited mileage, basic liability insurance, Department of Transportation-mandated helmets for driver and passenger, locks, raingear and saddlebags.
If you'd prefer to take on some of these routes with a group of like-minded riders, then Eagle Rider also runs a number of group tours through the summer and fall each year. They include the "Five Days to Slay the Dragon" which explores historic and scenic stops along back roads, through forests and backwoods with stops in friendly cities and quaint country towns to enjoy local food and unique Smoky Mountains entertainment. The trip includes motorcycle rental, four nights' accommodation, a welcome dinner, a farewell breakfast and five days of riding highlights like Blue Ridge Parkway, Cherohala Skyway, Deal's Gap, the Cumberland Plateau, the Sequatchie Valley, Signal Mountain, and into Chattanooga. Visit the Wheels Through Time Museum to see a display of over 250 rare American motorcycles and also see Hot Springs, NC; Asheville, and the Pisgah National Forest. The trip will run in mid August, 2009 and is priced at $1,599 per person based on double occupancy (both riders), $1,899 single occupancy and $500 for passengers.
Where to Stay
Several hotels in the Smoky Mountains are particularly motorcycle friendly, including Valley View Lodge (tel. 800/292-4844; www.valleyviewlodge.com) located in Townsend, TN. The property is set on 15 acres of gardens and offers standard rooms as well as larger suites with accommodations for up to six people in three queen beds). There are in-room fireplace and Jacuzzis (the perfect end to a long day of riding) and heated indoor/outdoor pools. Rooms with one king bed or two queens start from $55 per night for stays from January to mid May and go up to $110 during the summer and holidays. Fireplace rooms or two room leisure suites start from $75 per night and go up to $145 and family suites with three queen beds range from $75 to $145 depending on the season. Two room Jacuzzi suites with a fireplace range from $90 to $155 per night.
Just across the street from Valley View, you will find their sister property Little River (www.valleyviewlodge.com/littleriver/index.html) with large beautifully decorated rustic style cabins featuring king-sized beds, kitchens and old-fashioned porches with rocking chairs overlooking the river. Prices are comparable to above depending on number of beds and season, ranging from $90 to $150 per night. The properties are located a ten minute ride from the start of Route 129.
Magnuson Hotel Sweetwater (tel. 877/747-8713; www.magnusonhotels.com) in Sweetwater, TN is a motorcycle friendly, rider owned inn which offers special rates and treatment for bikers. It offers double rooms for $58 for bikers throughout the year including continental breakfast, even during holidays and special events (non-bikers pay $60 to $79 per room). It also has secure covered parking, a biker meeting room and courtyard cook-outs. The hotel is located 20 miles from the Tellico Plains and the start of the Dragon, plus it is also six miles from the Cherokee National Forest and 24 miles from the Cherohala Skyway.
For more information to help you plan a motorcycling adventure in the Smokies, visit www.smokymountains.org.