Blue Ridge Parkway on two wheels
To hustle through curves or lazily cruise—that is a question best answered by traffic flow. Some days, say in the middle of a week when the trees have lost their leaves and the tourists have lost their interest, the road allows single-minded focus on curves, throttle twists and gear shifts.
It’s not easy to find a good time machine. My grandparents’ house was one. No matter what the year was outside, when I walked through the front door it was the 1930s inside.
A huge painting of the Last Supper hanging on the dining room wall in the center of the small house, the ticking of the hand-wound Big Ben accentuating the silence when conversation slowed, the never changing but comfortable furniture, the always present gallon jug of Mogan David wine shared with all visitors regardless of age all took me back to my grandparents’ early adulthood as fresh immigrants. The only other time machine I’ve found that works about as well is my motorcycle when I take it up on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The two-lane road traverses the Southern Appalachian Mountains from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina/Tennessee border through some unspoiled forest lands to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. A rider crosses more than five mountain chains along the way, including the Blue Ridge Mountains that give the Parkway its name. Mountain crests include the highest east of the Mississippi, topping out at just over 6,000 feet. There are no billboards or shopping malls, no truck stops or stop lights.
To hustle through curves or lazily cruise—that is a question best answered by traffic flow. Some days, say in the middle of a week when the trees have lost their leaves and the tourists have lost their interest, the road allows single-minded focus on curves, throttle twists and gear shifts. Everything else is pretty much irrelevant. On those days the Parkway must be one of the finest motorcycle rides in the country. On other days when lazy cruising is the way to go, the Parkway still offers plenty of entertainment from ever-changing big views of mountains and sky to ever-changing little views of wild flowers and critters. These are the days, though, when you can’t get too focused on nature or you’ll run the risk of running up on a Blue-Haired Gawker starring off into the distance while encased in 4,000 pounds of steel stopped in the middle of the road around a blind curve.
Starting from the southern terminus of the Parkway just north of Cherokee, the Parkway is marked along its length by mileposts, which make locating highlights very convenient. By starting south and heading north, one counts down, rather than up. In this direction, the first 18 miles climb from around 2,000 feet, where the lush southern hardwood forest grows tall, to 5,800 feet at Waterrock Knob, where fir trees have been hardened by acid rain and the clouds often shroud the mountain in an ethereal mist. This section includes five of 26 unlighted Parkway tunnels. I’ve been through the Parkway’s tunnels dozens, maybe hundreds, of times, but the experience is still otherworldly. As sunlight instantly disappears into darkness, the bike seems to disappear out from under you, and you’re left flying calmly through the air unassisted. However, the engine gives voice to movement, its roar echoed and amplified. The pin-point of light from the end of the tunnel grows ever wider, and motorcycle and rider appear once more, suddenly as exclamation points. One wonders for a moment why people even bother with cars.
From Waterrock Knob it’s a steady ride down to Balsam Gap and back up to Richland Balsam, the highest point of the Parkway at 6,020 feet. The views stretch for miles, and shifting clouds make shadow play on the valleys below. Clouds and mountains mimic one another, both becoming blue, and blurring the line where land and sky meet. Yet this is just one of the Parkway’s abundance of view turnouts. Further up the road, the Pisgah Inn is perched at more than 5,000 feet and overlooks the Pisgah National Forest. The inn welcomes bikers and other visitors looking for a place to stretch their legs, grab a meal, and enjoy the view. While it’s rare, eagles have been sighted here.
The Parkway continues on, skirting around Asheville, N.C., passing the southwestern Visitor Center at milepost 384. Stop in for interactive displays about the Parkway’s history and check the calendar of events for the season’s sights and happenings. Spring is for wildflowers, bringing the blooms of pinky-white mountain laurel and purple rhododendron, bright orange flame azalea and eventually the red of Indian Paintbrush. During summer, the Parkway’s elevation provides a cool respite from the valley heat. Fall is when the leaves turn a myriad of colors, with the preceding weather patterns determining which species claims title of most vibrant display.
While Richland Balsam is the highest point on the Parkway, Mount Mitchell is the highest point in eastern North America at 6,684 feet. Beware the cold. Whatever the general weather, it will be cooler up here. The average high temperature barely breaks 50 degrees. When you start to really feel the cold on a motorcycle, speed limits become far less controlling than wind chill. As the cold seeps in, it starts to make sense that speeding could be easily and cheaply controlled if the state legislature would think boldly and simply outlaw windshields for all vehicles. Subsequently outlawing jackets could lead to downsizing half of the highway patrol. But then the crest is crossed, the muddle of hypothermia is avoided, and the urge to purge windshields passes.
Past Mitchell and near Crabtree Meadows, the Parkway leaves the Black Mountains and enters its namesake chain, the Blue Ridge Mountains, which it rides all the way to its end in Virginia. It’s up in the High Country, near the town of Blowing Rock, that the cantilevered engineering marvel, the Linn Cove viaduct, hugs the mountainside. One look at the underside explains why the viaduct, finished in 1987, was the last segment of the Parkway to be built—52 years after the scenic road was begun.
North of Boone, the topography surrounding the Parkway begins to change. The tree-covered, steep mountain sides give way to open pastures cut from mountain forests, soon followed by high-altitude, rolling Virginia farms. The Jefferson National Forest surrounds the curiously named Peaks of Otter at milepost 86. There’s a small lodge, historic cabin and farm, camping, hiking, fishing, and picnicking, as well as the only service station actually on the Parkway within the state of Virginia.
Like my grandparents’ home, The Parkway hasn’t seemed to change much in the many years I’ve been visiting it. In some unexplainable way it removes me from my here-and-now while focusing me on its timeless existence. If we’re lucky, it will go on forever. Unlike with people themselves, the things people build can live on if all of us take good care of them.
A sample of rides in southwest N.C.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The famed scenic motorway winds through the best scenery the mountains have to offer, studded with overlooks to stop and soak in the views. The section of the Blue Ridge Parkway through the Smoky Mountains — from north of Asheville all the way until the Parkway ends in Cherokee — boasts the highest elevation and most panoramic ridgelines of the 469-mile route.
Tail of the Dragon
No doubt one of the most famous motorcycle routes in the world, the Tail of the Dragon offers 318 curves in 11 miles. There are plenty of great rides on roads off U.S. 129 so its best to plan your trip before you go. A great resource is tailofthedragon.com. The route is ranked No. 3 in the nation by American Motorcyclist magazine.
Long corners and endless vistas make this sky-high road and enthusiasts dream. Serving up 60 miles of scenic, mountain cruising, the Skyway climbs to 5,400 feet from Robbinsville to Tellico Plains, Tenn. But be prepared. There are no restrooms or gas stations along the 36-mile Skyway.
Take U.S. 19 south to U.S. 19-74. Travel on U.S. 19-74 approximately 23 miles until you arrive in Topton. Turn north on U.S. 129, taking you 22 miles past Santeetlah Lake and across the Tennessee Line to Deal’s Gap. Turn onto the Foothills Parkway, traveling 17 miles until you intersect with U.S. 321. Take U.S. 321 through Townsend to Pigeon Forge where you will turn south on U.S. 321-441. U.S. 321-441 becomes U.S. 441 through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After about 40 miles you’re in Cherokee, where you will pick up U.S. 19 South back to Bryson City.
Take U.S. 23-441 to U.S. 64. Travel west on U.S. 64, passing Dry Falls and Cullasaja Falls, about 20 miles until you arrive in Highlands. Continue on through Cashiers 20 miles, past Sapphire Valley. Just past Sapphire, turn onto N.C. 281 South and go 10 miles to Whitewater Falls just before the South Carolina line. Back track home or take the long way by taking U.S. 64 about 21 miles past Lake Toxaway to Brevard. From Brevard take U.S. 276 about 22 miles to S.C. 11, which will go about 40 miles before meeting up with S.C. 183 near Walhalla. From S.C. 183 hop on North S.C. 107 leading back to Cashiers. U.S. 64 leads from Cashiers to Franklin.
Take U.S. 23-74 about 14 miles to Waynesville. Exit on to U.S. 276 South, which will intersect with Main Street. Turn right on Main Street, go to the third stoplight and turn left. Continue following U.S. 276 about 22 miles out of town until you arrive the intersection of N.C. 215 and N.C. 110, 215 turns right, 210 to your left. N.C. 215 will take you past Cold Mountain and Sunburst Trout Farms. After 18 miles N.C. 215 will meet up with the Blue Ridge Parkway (which can be taken past Tanassee Bald back to U.S. 23-74). Or continue on N.C. 215 and additional 16 miles where you intersect with U.S. 64. Turn west toward Cashiers, then take N.C. 107 north back to Sylva.
Take Exit 24 off Interstate 40 onto N.C. 209. Travel north through Crabtree, Fines Creek and the Pisgah National Forest for approximately 36 miles until you arrive in Hot Springs. To return go back on N.C. 209, or detour on to N.C. 63 in Trust. N.C. 63 will take you about 28 miles into northwest Asheville, where you can meet up with I-40 and travel about 25 miles back to Waynesville. The trip to Hot Springs will take approximately an hour.