Destination: Big South Fork / Rugby
Round Trip From West Knoxville: 200 miles
Points of Interest: Big South Fork Rugby Frozen Head State Natural Area
Eat At: Harrow Road Café
Watch Out For: Steep Grades: Caryville Exit off of I-75 South Buffalo
East Tennessee is an absolutely great place for a motorcycle rider to live. Pick any direction you want, and within about 30 minutes you’re getting into some prime motorcycle-friendly asphalt. This month I picked a different direction and headed north up through the Big South Fork, and the historic town of Rugby. This ride has a few moments of extreme twistiness, but generally it is a very relaxing, very scenic ride. It’s an excellent route if you’ve got a passenger, with lots of flowing curves, smooth roads, and light traffic.
I filled up the bike at the Lovell Road and Pellissippi Parkway intersection and headed out to Oak Ridge. Following the same route we took on our Highway 116 ride, we go through Oak Ridge, all the way to Oliver Springs. In Oliver Springs we turn right on Highway 62 and follow it past Petros, all the way to Wartburg. You’ll go past Frozen Head State Natural Area, which is a nice area in our back yard that most people don’t know about. Good place to take a picnic and a short hike. This first section of Highway 62 (approximately 40 miles) isn’t too thrilling, but it isn’t bad.
In Wartburg you turn right on Highway 27 North. Highway 27 is a wide two-lane with gradual turns and wide shoulders. There aren’t a whole lot of businesses on this 25-mile section between Wartburg and Oneida, so if you’re on empty you may want to gas up now.
When you get to Oneida you turn left on 297, the road that takes you through the Big South Fork National Recreation Area. Just outside of Oneida, before you get to the Big South Fork, you travel a few miles through a rural area. I was cruising along, thinking about how nice the area was, when I rounded the corner to see a whole herd of buffalo (not in the road). Well, maybe calling them a herd is a little overdramatic, but there were more than a few, so I’m calling them a herd. I can’t help it; I’ve always thought buffalo were cool. I remember that on a trip to Wyoming years ago that the Park Service advertised selling buffalo calves to farmers all over the U.S. Maybe that’s where these came from.
After I got the local bison to smile for the camera, I proceeded on into Big South Fork. The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area has been called a hidden treasure and you can see why. Its 125,000 acres straddle the Tennessee/Kentucky state line, and the rugged terrain and river is beautiful. There are plenty of hiking trails and campgrounds, and it doesn’t get nearly the tourist traffic of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
The road gets real interesting as you get close to the river. Signs warn you that the grade is 13 percent and you will become a believer real fast. There are very few roads you will travel that are as steep as this road down into the gorge. At the bottom you cross the bridge over the South Fork of the Cumberland River, but to really see it well you need to pull into the Leatherwood Ford area at the bottom and walk down to the water.
As you come out of the gorge you get to experience climbing a 13 percent grade. If you have the misfortune of getting caught behind a truck pulling a camper or horse trailer, you can forget it. They aren’t going to go very fast.
Big South Fork is one of the South’s most popular equestrian destinations, and you can tell by the numerous equine businesses near the park. Route 297 on the west side of the park, is lined up with horse farms, riding stables, dude ranches, and tack stores. I couldn’t help but notice that the economy has affected more than a few of these folks, as there are a lot of farms for sale in the this area. I know what I would do with 20 or 30 acres up here, a small house, a big garage, some dirt bike trials, and a few head of buffalo.
At the end of 297 I turned left (south) onto 154. This is an absolutely great road that continually twists and turns and changes elevation through more beautiful country. It’s not too long, but it’s loads of fun.
Highway 154 leads to 127. Turn left on 127, and you come into Jamestown. There are some fast-food places in Jamestown, like there are everywhere. Live with your growling stomach a few more miles, because after you turn left on 52, you will soon be in the old town of Rugby.
Rugby was founded in 1880 by Englishman Thomas Hughes. Mr. Hughes wanted to create a perfect little community for Englishmen who wanted to start a new life in America. Twenty of the old Victorian buildings, churches, and homes have been restored, and riding into this little town is like suddenly rounding a corner and going back in time. If the road was dirt instead of pavement, the town would probably look the same as it did nearly 130 years ago. There are tours of the old homes and churches you can take, but they would have to be made on my next trip. The only tour I was interested in was the Harrow Road Café.
The sign for the Harrow Road Café brags that it has been there since 1880, and with food this good I believe it. Run by the same lady since 1880, the Harrow Road Café... just joking, I don’t know if the same lady still runs it. All kidding aside, the burger and fries I got were great, and I was picking off of the bottom of the menu. The Harrow Road Café has everything from steaks to down-home meals, and the desserts looked outstanding. You’ll want to wait and eat here.
You’ll also want to relax here. This café is in an incredibly peaceful setting, and has a nice front porch. Don’t be in too big of a hurry to leave. This is a great place to kick out of gear for a while.
When I continued on 52 out of Rugby, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the road had just been paved and was perfect. This was greatly appreciated, because I ate way too much at the café.
After a few miles, 52 brings you back to Highway 27, where we had come through earlier. You have a choice of where to go from here. Turn right, and you’re back on Highway 27 the way we came, or you can do what I did and turn left, and follow Highway 27 back up to Oneida and turn right on 63. Highway 63 travels through Huntsville and out to Interstate 75. I went this way because I hate to backtrack when I can avoid it. Both 63 and 52 are designated scenic routes, and 63 isn’t bad, but it’s nothing like 52.
At the end of 63, I jumped up on the dreaded I-75 south for a few miles down to Caryville. When you take the Caryville exit, be careful. This is an old, strangely designed exit that brings you to an abrupt stop, and forces you to turn left across four lanes of traffic. To make the trip home more interesting you turn left and cross back over the interstate, and then make your first right onto 25W/116.
25W is the old road that was used before the interstate was built, and has some interesting old sites. You see old motels and closed businesses that probably thrived right up to the day that I-75 was opened. It’s not a bad road, and it’s a lot better than I-75
25W pretty much brings you home. I followed it all the way through downtown Clinton, and down Clinton Highway to Edgemore Road. Turn right on Edgemore and follow it back to Pellissippi.
This figure eight route was just over 200 miles, but could be easily shortened in a couple of different ways. You can also run it backwards to avoid having to ride the same section of Highway 27 twice.