Destination: Blue Ridge Parkway
Round Trip: 300+ miles
Riding: Easy and Incredible
Points of Interest: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cherokee N.C, Awesome Views
Watch Out For: Overlooks, Changing Weather, Leaf Watchers
Sometimes it’s easy to justify taking a day off from work. This was one of those days. I had a vacation day to take, I had a new bike that I hadn’t been able to spend any “Quality Time” with, and the weather forecast was perfect. The decision took me about 30 seconds to make. “Hello, Boss... cough, cough... I think I need to stay out today... cough... cough...” Maybe my sudden illness would have been easier to sell if you couldn’t hear the bike idling in the background.
The bike I just picked up, a used Ducati Multistrada, is designed for rides like this—a little bit of everything, but with lots of curves. I figured by the end of this day I would definitely be in tune with my new ride. It was sort of like a first date.
My goal was to hit the Blue Ridge Parkway and travel it as long as I could before I had to turn back towards K-town for a 6:30 birthday dinner. I got on Pellissippi Parkway (aka 140) at I-40 and followed it to 129 (aka Alcoa Highway). In Maryville I split off on 321 to Townsend.
The fog was thick going through Walland and Townsend, and I was wondering how much cooler the temperature would be along River Road. I left out about 8:30 in the morning and realized real quick that summer was closer to over than I realized, and that my long-sleeve T-shirt and jacket might not be enough.
When you pass through Townsend into the National Park, River Road is the left fork you take at the Townsend “Y,” the big swimming hole just inside the park line. A right turn will take you to Cades Cove, a left turn lets you follow the river most of the way up the mountain.
My early start had rewarded me with very little traffic on River Road, and sunlight was just starting to burn through the fog as I cruised easily alongside the whitewater. The air was crisp, and the mist off the river required an occasional finger wipe across the face shield. By the time I got to the top of the mountain, the sun was out and any small feelings of guilt that I may have had for calling in sick were completely gone.
River Road ends at the Sugarlands Visitor Center above Gatlinburg. This is by far the best way to get to Cherokee, N.C. from Knoxville. Number one, it is incredibly beautiful; and number two, it cuts out all of the Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg traffic. Here you pick up 441 through the National Park across the mountain to Cherokee. There always seems to be traffic on this road, so just enjoy the scenery; you won’t be able to make any time. Besides, the incredible stuff is waiting for you in North Carolina.
I was so excited about hitting the Blue Ridge Parkway that I just scarfed down a quick lunch at the Hardees in Cherokee. While I was eating, I thought about how I was letting the readers down by not finding a cool place to dine, but I had a hot date with a new bike. I’ll try to make it up to you later. Be advised, you do need to eat while you’re in Cherokee, because there is nothing on the parkway but berries. I filled up the tank, and threw a bottle of water and a Snickers bar in the saddlebags.
You actually pass the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway as you ride into Cherokee, so you have to back track a few miles to get on it. If there are any of you out there who have not ridden this road you absolutely have to do it. When the best motorcycle roads in the America are listed, the Blue Ridge Parkway is always mentioned.
Stretching 469 miles from Cherokee, N.C. to Waynesboro, Va., the Blue Ridge Parkway was built to be a scenic road for driving. It is uncommercialized, so with only a few exceptions it has no gas stations, convenience stores, businesses, or homes. What it does have is a seemingly endless supply of incredible overlooks. The road is a constant series of arching turns that switch from one side of the mountain crest to the other, always climbing or descending as you work your way along the mountains. It is Motorcycle Nirvana.
On the day I was riding, I saw more bikes than cars on the road, which is common. This was no doubt helped by this being a weekday, and that the leaves had not yet started to turn. Later this year (probably by the time this is printed) when the leaves start to turn red and orange, I would advise getting a very early start because the parkway gets very busy with “Leaf Watchers,” as an old friend of mine use to call them. Usually, the heaviest car traffic is closer to Cherokee and Asheville, since most people in cars aren’t driving the whole length.
Because the Parkway has very few straightaways, safe passing opportunities are limited. Don’t get in a hurry and take any unnecessary risks; more than likely the car you are behind will pull into an overlook soon.
The biggest safety concern on the Blue Ridge Parkway is probably maintaining concentration; the ride is easy, and the views are spectacular, but pull over if you want to look off the mountain. Remember, your bike goes where you look. The second biggest safety concern would be the scenic overlooks. Watch for cars that are turning into, or pulling out of these. There are usually signs telling you when an overlook is around the corner, which is often.
I rode the Blue Ridge from Cherokee to Asheville, which many people consider the most beautiful part. This 70-mile section takes you across the highest point on the Parkway, Richland Balsam, which is 6,053 feet—only 550 feet less than Mount LeConte, the highest point in the Smokies. The difference is you can’t ride your bike up Mt. LeConte.
This section also includes 15 tunnels, which I have always hated for some reason. I’ve always had this fear that a tunnel would hide an oil spill, ice patch, an anvil inside a paper bag, or something else weird laying there in the darkness for me to hit. I’m proud to report that I cleared all the tunnels without incident. Besides, by the time you go through the 15th one, you’re starting to get used to them.
As I got closer to Asheville I had to pick a point to turn around and head back. There are three or four places where you can get off of the Parkway and make a shorter loop, but I chose to go all the way to Asheville. This let me enjoy more of the Parkway, but it also put me in Asheville afternoon traffic when I got off. I took 191 off the Parkway, and then took 19/23 back toward Canton. In Canton I jumped up on I-40 West. This requires you to run I-40 through the “Gorge,” which can be pretty intense if there is a lot of traffic.
At this point in the ride you have already done some serious riding, and are probably starting to feel it. You’re not going to see anything prettier than what you’ve already seen, so the temptation may be to stay on the super slab and get on home. However, there are still some great roads you can take that are much better, and don’t add much time to the trip.
I followed I-40 to Newport where I took Hwy 411. This gets you off the interstate and puts you back on some better roads. At Chestnut Hill (in front of the Bush Bean Plant), 411 branches to the left towards Sevierville, and 92 bears to the right. Turn right on 92 and this will bring you through some farmland, crossing Douglass Lake into Dandridge. Turn left on 139 and you can enjoy some nice views of Douglass Lake until you reach Hwy. 66 in Sevierville. Right on Hwy. 66 brings you out to the 407 exit, and you can get back on I-40 to get on home. This was a big ride. My odometer was showing just over 300 miles by the time I got home.
If you want to sample the Blue Ridge Parkway (which you need to do) you can always ride the Parkway and jump off to Maggie Valley (Hwy. 19), Waynesville (215), or at Beech Gap (276). The National Park Service has a great map of the Blue Ridge which shows all of the side roads, mileage markers, elevations, and places of interest. I would suggest you pick one up.
Always watch the weather when you ride the Blue Ridge. You can figure that it will be at least 10 degrees cooler than Knoxville, and can change by the minute. Take some warm gear, some rain gear, and a camera.
From I-40 / 140 (Pellissippi Parkway)
140 to 129
Right on 129 (Alcoa Hwy)
Left on 321 in Maryville
Left on River Road in Townsend / National Park
Right in 441 to Cherokee, N.C.
Left on Blue Ridge Parkway
Left on 191 (Near Asheville)
Left on 19/23 to Canton, N.C.
Get on I-40 West in Canton
Left on 411 in Newport
Right ion 92 at Chestnut Hill
Left on 139 n Dandridge
Right on 66 in Sevierville
Left on I-40 to Home