What is the most visited national park in the U.S.? If you said the Grand Canyon, you’d be wrong. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park draws more than twice as many visitors as the Grand Canyon. Considering the wealth of breathtaking national parks that bless this country, that’s pretty amazing. Riding through Great Smoky National Park is the best way to experience all that it offers.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, a major part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which, in turn, stand at the southern section of the larger Appalachian Mountain chain. Laced with hundreds of miles of spectacular two-lane twisty roads, the Blue Ridge Mountains lie within easy reach of the eastern third of the U.S. And that makes these magnificent mountains a natural destination for those who live to ride.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has also earned international acclaim as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, adding to its creds. U.S. Highway 441, known within the park as Newfound Gap Road, bisects the park, providing terrific riding, spectacular views, and access to many trailheads and overlook sites. One prime spot overlooks the Newfound Gap; on clear days it offers what many consider the most spectacular views in the park.
In addition, Cades Cove Loop Road is another hit that provides access to several historical structures maintained by the National Park Service. Built in the 1800s, these cabins, churches and the picturesque John Cable Grist Mill give an up-close-and-personal feel to what old-time Appalachian life was all about. Don’t be surprised to see deer and black bears along this out-of-the way path.
After exiting the park at the southern end of Highway 441, a short hop east toward Tennessee will bring you to a pair of simply fabulous motorcycling roads: Highway 129, better known as the Tail of the Dragon, and the Cherohala Skyway, which leads from North Carolina Highway 143 to Tennessee State Route 165. Tail of the Dragon famously dishes up 318 curves in 11 miles as it threads through heavily wooded terrain.
This well-known riding destination can get crowded on weekends, so plan a mid-week run at this fantastic road if possible. The Cherohala Skyway, in contrast, offers 43 miles of lightly traveled tarmac filled with broad, sweeping turns that run up and down ridgelines through majestic mountains. The Skyway climbs more than 4,000 feet in elevation, rising from a low point of just under 900 feet at Tellico Plains in the west to a high point of just over 5,400 feet on the slopes of Haw Knob near the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. Together, these two roads provide motorcycling memories to be treasured over a lifetime.
Swing your attention back to the southern exit from Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Highway 441, and you can pick up the south end of the famous Blue Ridge Parkway—more about that in a minute. Just a few miles east from 441 the Parkway crosses Highway 19/Soco Road, which takes you right to the little town of Maggie Valley.
There you’ll find the fantastic Wheels Through Time Museum, a true treasure trove of rare American motorcycles and much, much more, made famous on the History Channel shows, American Pickers and American Restoration. If you are in the neighborhood, this stop is an absolute must-do!
Back to the Blue Ridge Parkway—famous within motorcycling circles, this dream road follows the crests of the southern Appalachians for 469 miles without a single stop sign, winding up in Virginia at Shenandoah National Park. This span can be covered in a couple of days, but why rush such a delightful ride? Especially when there are so many colorful stops and hidden side roads along the way.
The Blue Ridge Parkway holds the title of the nation’s longest rural parkway. Construction began in 1935 during the Depression but thanks in large part to the wild terrain, it was not until 52 years later that the entire length was fully connected in 1987. The design of the parkway was considered an engineering stroke of genius for its time, particularly the Linn Cove Viaduct that hugs the face of Grandfather Mountain, and is famous for its construction techniques. Along the parkway your see deeply forested mountains, old saw mills, spectacular rock formations, rivers, ridges and overlooks: Peaks of Otter, Roanoke Mountain, Mabry Mill, Grandfather Mountain, Glassmine Falls, Looking Glass Rock and Mount Pisgah are only a handful of the wondrous sights to be found along the way.
To ride all the good roads in this magical section of Appalachia would take two weeks, so plan to stay or plan to come back. Without a doubt, some of the best riding in the country is found in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Places to visit
Wheels Through Time Museum is home to the world’s premier collection of rare American motorcycles, old-time transportation memorabilia and a fascinating assortment of one-off automobiles. The collection houses more than 350 rare machines, comprised of 25 makes including Excelsior, Henderson, Harley-Davidson, Indian and the famous Flying Merkel. Creative and unique displays capture the essence of hillclimbing, board track racing, dirt track competition and more within the 450,000-square-foot facility.
The Blue Ridge Music Center, located near Galax, Virginia, celebrates the history and performance of old time mountain music of Virginia and North Carolina, and is largely concerned with local artists who best share this history. Each summer the Center offers a schedule of events related to a concert series. The Center has a state-of-the-art amphitheater and a 17,000-square-foot museum.
The Folk Art Center
Located near Asheville, SC, the Folk Art Center is the flagship facility of the Southern Highland Craft Guild. It offers sales and exhibits of traditional and contemporary arts and crafts of the Appalachian region, including many one-of-a-kind handmade items. The center houses three galleries, a library and Allanstand Craft Shop. Beginning in March each year, visitors can see live craft demonstrations daily.
Museum of North Carolina Minerals is open year round and highlights the area’s rich mineral resources and the mining heritage. Visitors will discover hands-on, interactive exhibits that explore the creation of the Blue Ridge Mountains and a wide variety of minerals. Mining exhibits at the museum include replicas of cooking bowls, tobacco pipes, and other implements made from soapstone quarried by Native American stone workers; evidence that virtually every silicon computer chip in the world owes its existence, at least in part, to ultra-pure quartz from the Spruce Pine Mining District; oral histories of miner’s first-hand experiences.
Blue Ridge Mountains: Journey of Legend
Photography courtesy of Honda Financial Services.