Slaycation: Riding the best of the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains

It is Monday morning, a day of the week that’s typically abhorred by motorcyclists as they park their bikes, hang up their riding gear, and return to the weekly grind.

Not for us, not this Monday morning.

We are busy doing pre-ride bike inspections, securing our panniers, and zipping into our riding suits. This Monday morning starts a week-long familiar journey for us. We are heading east and sticking to twisty paved backroads.

Both astride KTM adventure bikes, my husband Caleb and I are eager to begin a much-needed week-long getaway to the Smoky Mountains. The Smokies are one of our favorite places to ride. Partly because it’s Caleb’s home and he has rich family history in Southern Appalachia, and partly because of the beautiful roads you find, both paved and dirt. It is the perfect territory for our KTM 950 and 990 Adventures.

It's a hot summer morning, one where we’re already sweating by the time we’re loaded and ready to go. It's the type of heat where you bring the three-liter hydration bladder rather than the lighter 1.5-liter, since that's how much you'll drink between breaks. It is summer in Tennessee, and we are fully aware of that by our 7:30 a.m. departure time.

Fall Creek FallsOur plan for the week is to hit a few of the superb twisty back roads around eastern Tennessee and visit some of our favorite stops along the way. Leaving Nashville and getting out of the city is always a great feeling for us, like we are going home to the mountains. We ride along Highway 30, a fun little twisty stretch that connects middle and eastern Tennessee over the Cumberland Plateau and through the Sequatchie Valley. Our first stop is Fall Creek Falls State Park, Tennessee’s largest and most visited state park. The park encompasses 26,000 acres along the Cumberland Plateau, which divides the mountainous eastern part of Tennessee from the flatter middle section of the state. It’s where the hills begin as you make your way towards the Smoky Mountains.

Not roughing it on this ride

The road continues to wind east towards Tellico Plains, Tennessee where we find The Lodge at Tellico, a motorcycle-catering bed and breakfast located just outside of town. Usually, we find ourselves down some gravel back road pitching a tent along a river or on a bald, a grassy clearing atop a mountain in southern Appalachia originally used to graze cattle. This time we decided to change things up a bit, not wanting to bother with the camping gear. We are going for a “relaxing road trip," so we check in and set off to find the game room to play shuffleboard and have a few beers.

The next morning, we enter the Cherokee National Forest bright and early, riding along the Cherohala Skyway, a roughly 40-mile stretch of scenic road that connects Tellico Plains to Robbinsville, North Carolina. Detouring slightly, we ride by one of the larger cascading waterfalls in the area, Bald River Falls, located about five miles off the Skyway. Recent rains mean the water is flowing more than we have seen in a long time, pounding the rocks below. Knowing we have nearly 300 miles of snaking back roads to ride, we decide to skip a swim and get back on the road.

Once in Robbinsville, we continue following small back roads southeast to yet another waterfall. This one is not quite as magnificent but is worth a quick visit if you are in the area. Bridal Veil Falls is located just off Highway 64 as you head into Highlands, North Carolina. The water drizzles down 120 feet from the ledge above, but what makes this waterfall particularly interesting is that you can ride your motorcycle behind the falls! We wait our turn in the short line and ride through.

Smoky Mountains

Watching the show at the Dragon

Caleb and I are making great time, quickly carving up the corners on our trusty Orange steeds. We packed close to nothing — just the essential tool kits and a change of clothes — to keep our luggage light so we can enjoy these fabulous winding roads to the fullest. Highway 28, or the “Moonshiner 28,” takes us northwest and follows the Little Tennessee River Valley as it winds towards its Northern terminus at U.S. 129. Highway 129, or “The Dragon” as it’s been dubbed, is famous among motorcycle and car enthusiasts for its 318 curves in just 11 miles. Motoring fanatics from all over the world flock to the area during the warm months. It’s a rather technical section of road that shows no mercy to those who lack skill or confidence, claiming numerous victims annually. Combined, my husband and I have ridden this road hundreds of times over the years and like many locals, we see it as more of an attraction than a superb driving road. The steadily growing popularity of The Dragon has transformed it from a motoring Mecca to more of a novelty that people visit to justify sticking a cliché sticker on their vehicle. For this reason, it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for the out-of-town plates, since they tend to drift over the double yellows in their pursuit of “slaying the Dragon!”

The restaurant at the Deal’s Gap store makes a mean burger, so we decide to stop for lunch and “people watch,” as it’s one of our favorite pastimes. The restaurant has seating that’s well suited for this purpose, with an outward-facing bar that provides an excellent view of the constantly bustling parking lot. We see license plates from all over the country on various kinds of cars and motorcycles. We notice a group of sport bike riders in full leathers comparing times, a group with cruisers enthusiastically discussing how they had scraped their floorboards as they compare chicken strips on their tires, and a group of dual-sport riders talking about the unpaved roads they found trying to get here without touching tarmac. We watch as a parade of supercars thunder into the parking lot. The exotic cars begin to draw a small crowd of car lovers as the drivers smugly step out of their vehicles. Even though The Dragon has turned into a bit of a tourist trap over the years, it is not often that we ride through without seeing something interesting.

We finish our lunch and continue down the mountain where what’s left of Chilhowee Lake comes into view. Chilhowee Lake is usually full of beautiful clean and clear water, but the water level has been dropped so repairs can be made on the hydroelectric dam. We notice foundations of buildings along what used to be the river from before the dam was built, as well as the long boat ramps that used to lead down to the water’s edge. We can also see the old road that used to parallel the river. All this is surrounded by fresh vegetation as the Smokies are quickly reverting to their natural state.

The Foothills Parkway is the last stretch of road on our itinerary for today. The Parkway takes us from Highway 129 over to Townsend, Tennessee where we find a well deserved dinner and our accommodations for the evening. Nestled in the mountains, Richmont Inn is a quite peaceful bed and breakfast that has a stunning view of the surrounding mountains. We purchase a bottle of wine upon check in, and settle in after a long day of riding. Today was primarily composed of the type of riding that wears the edges of our tires more than the center, which is certainly a win in my book!

end of the day

Family ties

Caleb’s family has a rich history in this part of Appalachia, with roots that tie back to the Cherokee Indians and early European settlers. Cades Cove is known to many only as a scenic drive to make when you are in the area, famous for its gorgeous views, hiking trails, and homesteads dating back to the early 1800s. John Oliver, the first settler to move into Cades Cove, was Caleb’s fourth great grandfather. The family lived in the Elijah Oliver cabin up until the National Park Service took the land in the 1930s. His great grandmother was the last relative to live her life in that cabin, and the last person to live in Cades Cove. Riding around the loop in the early morning hours leaves us feeling a strong connection to this area that others do not experience. We notice a gravel road that runs through a beautiful section of the park and it turns out to be one we have never explored. Excited to get a little gravel in, we split off and ride through a stunning section of this secluded Tennessee valley.

gravel road in Cades Cove

fixing flat tireComing off the gravel and back onto the paved loop, we realize that Caleb’s 990 has suffered a flat rear tire. Luckily, we happen to be in a beautiful place to do a quick tube swap. We find a shady spot with a great view, remove the wheel, fit the new tube, and button it all back up. We even manage to make a new friend from Arizona who had stopped on his BMW R 1200 GS to offer a helping hand. After chatting for a little while we all hit the road again. He heads back towards Arizona, and we make our way out of the park and towards Gatlinburg for supper (this was before the fires that affected the area).

Night has fallen by the time we arrive at our bed and breakfast for the evening, an elegant mountaintop escape filled with artwork by the owner. After being greeted with full southern hospitality, we settle in for the night with a little complimentary homemade banana pudding from the kitchen that’s open all night on a “make yourself at home” policy.

We wake early to the smells of fresh bacon and coffee. The sun is shining into our room through the window and we catch our first glimpse of the breathtaking mountain view. The Hippensteal Inn, just outside of Gatlinburg, is possibly the best bed and breakfast we have ever had the chance to stay in. A truly gourmet French toast breakfast is prepared and served to us by the owner and fuels us for the day’s ride as we begin our journey westward.

Cades Cove

While this does mean that our ride is coming to an end, we still have several hundred miles of zig zags to follow before we pull back into our driveway. We leisurely make our way to Oliver Springs, Tennessee. We take the long way and finish the afternoon by riding the Devils Triangle, a 44-mile triangular loop full of switchbacks and potholes.

Two hundred miles to cover on the last day of our ride and they are roads we know well. Coming off the Cumberland Plateau on Highway 85 we are forced to reroute when we discover the road is closed due to a landslide. We stop to check our gazetteer and we’re able to route around the impassable portion with a slight gravel detour (always a good thing). Soon we find ourselves cruising the familiar corners around Center Hill Lake. We pull into our driveway around mid-afternoon, check the mail, and begin to unpack. The coming work week is looming as I place my helmet on the shelf and hang up my jacket. It’s the feeling all riders dread, going back to “normal life” so we can continue to sustain our riding habits. It’s unavoidable, but the thought of future moto travel and adventure keeps me motivated.

What’s next for us? Maybe something with a little more dirt, tents, and campfires… However, our road trip was a fantastic change of pace.

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