Riding 'Round Chilhowee Mountain in East Tennessee

Photo with no caption

photo by Russ Townsend

Destination: Circle Chilhowee/Bluff Mountain

Round Trip: Approx 65 miles

Riding: Rural Blacktop

Points of Interest: Bluff Mountain Fire Tower, Walden Creek Riding Stables

Eat At: Home

Watch Out For: Leaves, Blind Hills, Hidden Curves, Altitude Sickness

If you’ve ever traveled through Seymour on Chapman Highway you’ve seen the main destination for this ride, the top of Chilhowee Mountain. Commonly referred to as Bluff Mountain, this is the big mountain you are looking at when you sit at the red light at the intersection of Chapman Highway and 411 in Seymour, traveling toward Sevierville. It is also the mountain you see on your left as you ride 321 toward Townsend. For years “Bluff Mountain,” which runs from Pigeon Forge to Walland, was the central gathering place for off-road riders in the area. Talk to any old school dirt-bike rider and you will hear them talking about riding “on Bluff.”

As a kid in Seymour, I grew up looking at this mountain every day—but when I looked at my map before this trip I realized that I had never ridden some of the roads around its base. All right! There’s a perfect reason for a ride. We were going to circle the mountain.

After what seemed like two months of solid rain, this particular Sunday morning broke clear and sunny with a predicted high temperature of 60. I dug out my long johns, and called my riding buddy Bob and told him to get ready. I had no idea what we would find, but had high hopes. Some of these roads I remembered, but hadn’t been on in nearly 20 years. If figured they had to have been improved over time, but wasn’t betting on it.

Leaving the Shell station in Seymour, we turned up Chapman Highway toward Sevierville. I didn’t get the exact mileage, but the turnoff onto Sugar Loaf Road is about 6–6 ½ miles from the red light at the 411 intersection. Sugar Loaf is a small road on the right side that drops off out of sight, and is very easy to miss. There is a sign, so just slow down and start looking for it.

All of the roads on this route are small country back roads. All are paved, and the pavement is good, but they are country roads. These are not the roads to show off your high-speed skills on. Screw up out here and you’ll end up off in a pasture wrapped in the barbed wire fence you just went through. Slow down and enjoy the ride.

Since we are traveling clockwise around the mountain, this whole ride is basically a series of right-hand turns, so it’s pretty hard to get lost. The worst that will happen is that you turn onto a dead-end road and have to backtrack.

Sugar Loaf Road brings you to Goose Gap Road, which will bring you past Bluff Mountain road on your right. I couldn’t see a sign that identified Bluff Mountain road, but the intersection is in a sharp turn, and there is a big sign that says Smoky Cove Cabins. Turn right here. There really aren’t any options.

If you don’t like a little bit of street bike challenge you may want to skip the trip up Bluff Mountain Road. Just keep going straight. If you do take Bluff Mountain you’ll find that the road starts out simple enough, but continually climbs, and climbs, and gets steeper, and narrower as you go. There are some very tight switchbacks, and there are none of those pesky guardrails to mess up your view of the steep mountainside you don’t want to ride off of. All of this was made even more interesting on the day we rode because in places the road was completely covered with wet leaves and pine needles. It is a dead end road, and there isn’t much traffic to blow it off.

If you don’t want to go all the way to the top, there is a great view from a pull-off that is probably three-quarters of the way up. It has a tremendous view where you can see all of the Smokies, Pigeon Forge, and Wears Valley back toward Townsend.

If you do go all the way the way up (turn left on Fire Tower Road near the top) and you’ll come to a collection of radio/TV/microwave towers all in one area. You can’t miss them. Turn right up a short gravel drive and you’ll find a small parking area at the base of the fire tower.

Climb the steps on the tower (the single hand rail is plenty high enough to fall through) and you’ll be rewarded with a 360-degree view that is absolutely stunning. On one side you see Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and the mountains, and from the other side you can see all the way to Knoxville and beyond. It really is impressive, and well worth the anxiety of climbing the tower. Just try to pick a clear day to go.

According to my GPS, the elevation at the base of the tower was 3,067 feet. I wish I had thought to carry it up the tower with me, because I’m curious how high the tower is. I checked my GPS again when we got back down to the start of Bluff Mountain road and using my excellent second-grade math skills, figured out that we climbed 2,000 feet in just 5 miles.

It was a pretty good climb, and also a pretty good descent. All of the leaves we rode through weren’t too big of a deal going up, but made the trip down rather interesting. My advice: Make sure your rear brake works.

Back on route we turned right on Walden Creek Road. This starts out as regular road with a painted line down the middle, and gradually gets smaller and smaller by the mile. It’s a nice road that travels alongside the base of the mountain next to the creek. The valley is beautiful, and the area around Walden Creek Stables is awesome.

Pay attention through here, because this road has some really tricky spots. You can tell it started life as a dirt road where the highest speed was whatever your horse could do, because there are several blind hills and rises that hide sharp and sudden turns. Be cool.

At some point (I’m not sure where) Walden Creek turns into Millers Cove Road. There will be times that you wonder if you’re on the right path. The road gets down to one lane, the asphalt gets rough, and the creek is close enough to reach out and dip your boot in. I even thought to myself once or twice, “this has to come out somewhere.”

It does come out, in Walland, on the Old Walland Highway. If you need gas you can cross the bridge to Hwy 321, where there is a store/gas station on your left. The store has some picnic tables next to the river, so it’s a pretty good place to take a break. Go back across the bridge to get back on Old Walland. Follow the river until you turn right on Cold Springs Road.

This side of the mountain is more populated than on the other side, so you’ll see a few more homes. When we would ride past someone standing out in their yard, they would look at us like they were trying to figure out who we were. You can figure that these back roads don’t get anything but local traffic.

Cold Springs Road turns into Blair Road, which turns into Old Chilhowee, which turns into Dripping Springs, which turns into Alpine, which leads you back to Sugar Loaf. Be warned, there are several places where the roads aren’t marked. The rule of thumb that worked for us was always turn right on what looks like the main road. I suggest carrying a good back-roads map.

This is a pretty quick ride to make, so it’s easy to work in on shorter winter days. You can also start this ride on either end of the mountain, so if you live in West Knoxville or Maryville you can make a loop that brings you back closer to home.

DIRECTIONS

Start:

Shell Station in Seymour

Chapman Hwy toward Sevierville

Turn right on Sugar Loaf Road

Right on Goose Gap Road

Right on Bluff Mountain Road to Dead End at Top

Come back down Bluff Mountain Road

Right on Goose Gap

Right on Walden Creek Road

Walden Creek Becomes Millers Cove Road

Right on Walland Hwy (just before 321)

Right on Cold Springs Road

Right on Blair

Right on Old Chilhowee Road

Right on Dripping Springs

Right on Alpine

Left on Sugarloaf to return

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