Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway and Tail of the Dragon – 2007

When you live on the 22 square mile island of Bermuda, motorcycling is restricted to machines that don’t exceed 150cc and the speed limit is 35kph. So, in August 2007, our group of four Bermudians travelled to the United States for a motorcycling trip through the Smoky Mountains to get a real motorcycling fix. We would be riding bikes significantly larger than those permitted in Bermuda.

Blue Ridge Parkway

When deciding where we should choose for a riding holiday, it was difficult to resist the allure of a 469 mile road that doesn’t have a single stop sign or traffic light, no commercial vehicles, no advertising billboards, and all of it running through the amazing scenery of the Smoky Mountains. That is the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Blue Ridge Parkway runs roughly north-south through North Carolina and Virginia. When considering where to begin our journey, we had to select a city that had a motorcycle rental company and that was accessible by air from Bermuda. The choice came down to Atlanta (with direct flights from Bermuda) or Knoxville (that is closer to the southern end of the Parkway). I opted for Knoxville, so that we could keep highway driving to a minimum and spend more time riding the mountain roads.

Planning the Route

The initial plan only involved my friend Nyon and myself but, when word got out, others began to express an interest in joining us on the trip. Our group of two became four, when we agreed to include John and Brian.

Eaglerider of Knoxville was selected as our rental company. Nyon and I both opted for Honda ST1300 sport-touring bikes whilst John booked a Harley Davidson Fatboy and Brian went for the Honda VTX1300. The bikes were booked for a week in August and we booked flights with US Airways via Charlotte to Knoxville.

The next challenge was deciding how far to ride each day and where to spend each night of the trip. If we were riding on highways, 500 mile days would probably be reasonable, but the speed limit on the Parkway is 45 miles per hour and there are various points of interest along the way. We also wanted to ensure we had time to do some riding at the bottom end of the Parkway on the infamous Tail of the Dragon at Deal’s Gap, as well as the nearby Cherohala Skyway. After studying the route of the Parkway, we settled on an itinerary.

Day 1 – Knoxville to Asheville

We arrived at Eaglerider Knoxville around midday to rent our bikes. Clothing and personal items were transferred from our luggage onto the bikes and the luggage itself was placed in storage at Eaglerider. The ST1300 has two hard bags that can be detached from the bike. This made it easy to transfer our belongings from the bike to the various hotels each night. It wasn’t as easy for John and Brian, who had fixed leather saddlebags.

Once the bikes were loaded, we set off to Gatlinburg where we picked up the 441 and began our mountain riding. The 441 runs over the top of the Smoky Mountains and comes down on the other side, heading towards the town of Cherokee (and the reservation of the Northern Band of Cherokee Indians – complete with Harrah’s Cherokee Casino).  Prior to reaching Cherokee, we turned off the 441 to join the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We encountered some rain showers as we got on the Parkway but they soon cleared as we headed north towards our destination of Asheville.

Our first 40 miles on the Parkway had taken us up the mountain to Richland Balsam Overlook, the highest point on the Parkway at 6,047 feet, where we stopped for a break and some photos. We then continued north, absorbing the continuous mountain vistas with grins firmly planted on our faces! After about 69 miles on the Parkway, we passed through the first of many tunnels (Ferrin Knob Tunnel). The tunnels added to the experience of riding the Parkway.

We reached Asheville about 6.00pm with a daily mileage of 140 miles. We checked in at the Comfort Suites Biltmore Square Mall Hotel.

Day 2 – Asheville to Roanoake

We departed Asheville about 8.00am and headed north on the Parkway.  Initially, we enjoyed some cooler temperatures on the mountain but it wouldn’t last long, as the area was in the midst of a heat-wave with daily highs above 100 F. 

We took a 4.8 mile detour off the Parkway to ride up Mount Mitchell, the highest point of land east of the Mississippi at 6,684 feet. Mount Mitchell is part of the Black Mountain range that includes six of the ten highest points in the east, all within a five mile range. Unfortunately, the observation platform was closed but the views from the parking lot were still worthwhile.

We returned to the Parkway and headed north again. Our next stop was at Linville Falls. We took a short hike to view the falls but didn’t do the full hike to see all five views. John said “This is a biking trip, not a hiking trip” and it was a hot day. 

Shortly after leaving Linville Falls, we crossed the Linn Cove Viaduct and began to encounter more straight roads and less severe bends. Traffic on the Parkway was sparse and most slow-moving cars tended to pull over onto an overlook to let us pass. Some of the straights offered opportunities to pass those vehicles that didn’t pull off the road. The straights provided clear views of the road ahead and were conducive to quick sprints to pass vehicles or just to stretch out the ST1300’s.  In this section of the Parkway, most bends could be comfortably taken at 50-55mph.  Even the sharp bends that were posted at 35mph could be taken at 45mph without problems. This contrasted to warnings that I received before riding the Parkway, as I had been told that bends posted at 35mph should not be taken at higher speeds. 

Our next stop was at Mabry Mill, visible from the Parkway.  We took a few photos and took advantage of the facilities before heading north towards Roanoke.

About 6.00pm, we had a group of 3 deer cross the road about 100 yards in front of us. We were anticipating the possibility of deer, due to the time of day, so we were riding at a slow pace. We arrived at Roanoke about 6.30pm – 7.00pm (some 11 hours after departing Asheville).

We checked into the Ramada Inn in Roanoke and soon realised that this had been a bad choice. There was no water in the soda machines and no ice in the ice machine. The bathroom had flaky paint and rust, there was no pen or paper in the room and we couldn’t order a movie in the room without calling the front desk and placing a deposit. 

Daily mileage = 299 miles
Total Mileage = 439 miles

Day 3 – Roanoake to Waynesboro and Skyline Drive

After the previous long day, we had a more leisurely start to day three. After breakfast at a nearby Waffle House, we departed Roanoke about 10.30am and headed north on the Parkway. At 87F, the temperature was lower than the previous couple of days. We drove the final 120 miles of the Parkway with a couple of rest stops and arrived at the Days Inn Waynesboro about 2.30pm.

With only four hours on the road, this was a fairly short riding day. We relaxed in the hotel and took a nap. About 6.30pm, Nyon and I headed out for a short ride and saw signs for Skyline Drive so we decided to ride it.  Skyline Drive is essentially an extension of the Blue Ridge Parkway but it has a $10 entry fee and a 35 mph speed limit.  Considering the time of day and the potential for deer crossing the road, we stuck to the speed limit. We headed north on Skyline Drive for about 50 minutes and then turned around.  On the return leg, we learned that our caution was well founded, as a group of four deer crossed the road about 10 yards in front of us.  The slow evening ride along Skyline Drive proved to be a very enjoyable experience.

We closed out the evening with a delicious dinner at the South River Restaurant, located behind Days Inn (highly recommended).

Day 4 – Waynesboro to Blowing Rock

Having reached the northernmost point of the Parkway the previous day, we now had to turn around and re-trace the route heading south. With 280 miles of Parkway to cover during the day, we left Waynesboro early at 7.30am. We headed south on the Parkway, maintaining a steady pace whilst keeping an eye open for deer, until 9.00am when we stopped for breakfast at Otter Creek (about 60 miles down the Parkway).  We resumed the ride south about 10.00am and pulled off the Parkway near Roanoke for fuel. John’s Fatboy needed to be refuelled every 150 miles, at which point the ST1300’s still had a half-tank of gas left.  After refuelling, Nyon and John took the lead and pushed the pace whilst I tootled along at my own pace, catching up with them further down the road.  We stopped for ‘butt breaks’ along the way and left the Parkway again for fuel near Jefferson.

We arrived at the Days Inn at Blowing Rock about 3.45pm, having covered a total of 985 miles on the trip to date. The hotel’s hot-tub was a welcome feature, that helped to ease the aching muscles.

Day 5 – Blowing Rock to Deals Gap

Following breakfast at the hotel, an 8.15am departure had us continuing south, for the final 200 miles of the Parkway. The weather was cool with low cloud making visibility poor for the first couple of hours. At one point, the visibility was very poor and almost caused us to turn around, but fortunately it cleared and allowed us to continue our journey. The cool air was a welcome relief from the usual heat.

We left the Parkway near Asheville for fuel and then continued south, leaving the Parkway at the southern end near Cherokee, having ridden the entire length of the Parkway in both directions. We followed US19 past Bryson City and then turned towards Robbinsville. Once at Robbinsville, we located the Two Wheel Inn which was to be our home for the next three nights.

We arrived at Two Wheel Inn about 3.30pm. This bike-friendly location has motorcycle garages attached to each room and is conveniently located for access to Deal’s Gap and Cherohala Skyway.  The rooms are equipped with a microwave and a fridge and are very clean. The owners were extremely friendly and helpful and I recommend Two Wheel Inn to anyone visiting the area. We were surprised to learn that Graham County, in which Robbinsille is located, is a ‘dry county’. We had to ride 16 miles, to Andrews in Cherokee County, to purchase some beer from a gas station so that we could stock our fridges!

At 6.40pm, we left Two Wheel Inn to visit Deal’s Gap at the Crossroads of Time. We stopped at the Deal’s Gap Resort and took photos of the Tree of Shame, which is decorated with remnants of bikes that were ‘bitten by the Dragon’.  We decided that we may as well make our first run on the section of US129 known as The Dragon, aka the Tail of the Dragon.  This 11 miles section of road is reported to have 318 curves and has been called the curviest road in the United States.  We cautiously made our way along The Dragon from Deal’s Gap Resort and were soon buzzed by a group of very competent riders on sport-bikes, who were riding the Dragon at unbelievable speeds.  I was just happy to make it to the other end in one pice without any mishaps!  We then turned around and rode the Dragon again, in the opposite direction.  The road seemed less daunting on the second run and we were able to ride it more comfortably.

Total daily mileage was 339 miles, bringing the trip total to 1,324 miles.

Day 6 – Cherohala Skyway, Hellbender and Tail of the Dragon

This was the first day that we didn’t have a fixed mileage to cover, so we slept until about 10.00am and then headed out on a ride about 12.30pm. 

We headed out to ride “The Loop”.  Having left Robbinsville on US129, we turned left onto NC143 to reach the mile-high Cherohala Skyway. We rode along the Skyway until we reached Cherohala Crossing where we stopped for lunch. This biker-friendly restaurant, on the river bank, specialises in barbecue including smoked turkey and pulled pork.  Following a delicious lunch, we back-tracked slightly to take the 210 that runs for 5 miles alongside the river to Bald River Falls.  The bridge at the Falls gives a wonderful view without having to get off the bike. Having taken some photos, we re-traced our route along the 210 towards Tellico Plains. We then took TN360 to Vonore, where we made a right onto US411.  After a short ride along US411, we turned right onto TN72 towards Tallassee and picked up US129 to The Dragon.  We rode The Dragon again and stopped off at Deal’s Gap to visit the Deals Gap Resort retail store.  We then turned onto NC28 (also known as Hellbender 28) to Fontana Dam.  The Hellbender was a nice ride and we stopped at the dam to take photos.  After visiting the dam we returned to Robbinsville and reached the Two Wheel Inn around 9.00pm.

The day’s ride had covered 190 miles, bringing the total mileage for the trip to 1,514. 

Day 7 – Deals Gap and Cheoagh Dam

After riding over 1,500 miles in the first six days, this last day in Robbinsville was a relaxed one.  We rode back to Deal’s Gap to purchase souvenirs from the Tail of the Dragon retail outlet and then visited Cheoagh Dam – where Harrison Ford was filmed for the movie Fugitive.

We only covered 39 miles in the day for a total mileage of 1,563 miles.

Day 8 – Return to Knoxville

We departed the Two Wheel Inn about 8.00am for the return journey to Knoxville.  We left Robbinsville and headed to Cherokee, where we stopped for breakfast. Following breakfast, we followed the 441 over the mountains from Cherokee to Pigeon Forge and then reached Eaglerider of Knoxville about 11.30am.

Mileage for the day was 105 miles with the total mileage for the trip being 1,668 miles

Wrap Up

Our itinerary worked quite well, allowing us to cover quite a bit of ground whilst still seeing some of the points of interest. The main aim of our trip was to enjoy some motorcycling, so seeing any points of interest was a side benefit.  Anyone wanting to see more of the points of interest along the way would need to plan much shorter daily mileages.

Riding in August, in the middle of a heatwave, meant that we had to contend with high temperatures. When riding on the Parkway, we were still able to wear riding jackets and pants for protection, although we often had to ride with the jackets open to catch some breeze.  Riding later in the year would probably be better temperature-wise but may also mean encountering more traffic on the Parkway, which is a magnet for cars to watch the Autumn colours.

Starting and finishing the ride in Knoxville worked well and I enjoyed riding the 441 over the mountain from and back to Knoxville. Eaglerider of Knoxville were easy to work with when booking the rental bikes.  The Honda ST1300 was an enjoyable bike to ride for the week, but the stock seat became uncomfortable after a few days – I wish I had taken a gel seat pad with me to improve the comfort!

The riding in the Robbinsville area provided a contrast to riding the Parkway. It was a nice change to have a base hotel to ride from, and the Two Wheel Inn proved to be a great choice.  Whilst much of the riding on the Parkway was relaxing, riding the Dragon was very challenging.  I didn’t particularly enjoy the Cherohala Skyway but I really enjoyed the side road to Bald River Falls and I enjoyed Hellbender 28.  Overall, I preferred the Parkway riding, but am glad that we balanced it out with the time in Robbinsville.  We hardly saw any law enforcement officers on the Parkway but law enforcement was very active in the Robbinsville area.

With everything considered, it was a very enjoyable trip.

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