It was supposed to be raining when I woke up in Maggie Valley. When I’d decided to hunker down for the day, to sit-out the storm, I had visions of sleeping late, enjoying a long leisurely meal or two, and just, you know, hanging out.
So why is it that my first thought upon seeing dry pavement was, “I can ride today after all.” Maybe it’s a sickness.
Since I was close to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), and I had yet to make it to Clingman’s Dome — highest point in GSMNP — I figured that would be a good destination. Once it did start raining, I told myself, I’d be close to shelter.
It didn’t take long at all — 20 minutes? — for me to reach the park entrance, which is near the southern terminus of the BRP. Unfortunately, when I did, I was greeted by a sign proclaiming US-441 to be closed. The Oconaluftee Visitors Center is just inside the park entrance, so I went in to find out exactly where the closure began, hoping I could reach the summit. But it was not to be.
“Actually,” one of the rangers manning the desk told me, “the Tennessee side of the park is currently being evacuated.” What?!?
The weather on the Tennessee side of the park was much worse. There were reports of trees down all over the place, falling on people and cars.
So I headed back toward Maggie Valley. I couldn’t resist stopping for some pics along the way, figuring I might as well make the most of my outing while the weather held. Here are some snapshots I judged to be worthy of sharing. Many are grainy because it was so overcast.
It was interesting to see the difference in the foliage at lower and higher elevations. I hadn’t expected to see so many bare trees. You’ll see the change as I move from lower points near the end of the Parkway, up and into the mountains.
If nothing else, I got to see some pretty cool clouds moving in. It was getting colder, too.
Temps were in the upper 40s by the time I decided to head back to my motel. So that was my morning.
Final note… this post has been in the works for a week. I caught a stupid head cold/upper respiratory think that’s had me coughing/hacking/gagging and blowing my nose for a week. As an extra bonus, each day ended with a pounding headache, too. Last night’s was so bad, I thought maybe I was dying. Needless to say, we didn’t do any riding over the long, holiday weekend. Maybe this coming weekend I’ll feel better.
I have yet to mention long-range weather forecasts and the impact they sometimes had on each day’s planning. A little bit of bad weather can be tolerated. Major storms, on the other hand, must be given serious consideration. That morning, as a major storm was bearing down on the area, I decided to plan ahead more than usual to find a good spot where I could hunker down for a few days. I’d thought Bryson City, where I’d spent the previous evening, might be a good spot. It was close to eateries, shops, and stuff, but the hotel was a bit further from things than I would’ve liked, and on a pretty steep hill.
After a bit of research, Maggie Valley is the spot I chose. I even booked a motel room for two nights. The motel I selected was close to several restaurants, shops, and other attractions, inexpensive, had great reviews, and a Mexican restaurant within easy walking distance. Not only would I not have to worry at day’s end about where I’d be sleeping, I would have a margarita to look forward to as well.
Although storms were expected to move in that evening, the weather was absolutely perfect that morning as I set off for the Nantahala River Gorge.
All of the previous images were captured along the relatively flat US-74/US-19 south of Bryson City. The next several images were captured along the hillier Wayah Road.
All of those scenery pics MIGHT make you think the road wasn’t very good. It was actually excellent.
The road was so nice, I sort of lost myself in thought. Before I knew it, the lovely river, with all its cascades and waterfalls was replaced by a beautiful little lake.
I think I might be happy living in Western North Carolina. Until tourist season hit every year. Which reminds me…
According to the National Park service…
Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers 522,427 acres, divided almost evenly between the states of North Carolina and Tennessee. [There were] more than 11.3 million recreational visits in 2016. (This figure does not include the approximately 11 million travelers on the Gatlingburg-Pigeon Forge Spur.) Highest visitation of any of the 59 national parks. The second most heavily visited national park is Grand Canyon with 4.6 million visits, third is Yosemite with 3.8 million, fourth is Yellowstone with 3.2 million.
That doesn’t include all of the motorcyclists who flock to the region or people who go there to visit other area attractions, like the many rivers and lakes, Dollywood, etc.
In other words, it can get crazy-busy. I was there during the off-season, which is why it looks so empty. I’d be willing to bet that, were I there in mid-July, the roads would be clogged with traffic. Overlooks/pull-offs would probably be so full, I’d be lucky to find a spot on the bike, much less in a car. There would be LOTS of loud-ass cruisers (I will never understand the appeal of that noise). In short, it is probably a place to avoid. Unless you like that sort of thing.
I stopped in Franklin for lunch. While I ate, I was looking at several route options, but decided to stick with my original plan. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize Google maps had “lost” my original plan until I was rather far rom where I was supposed to be.
Instead of backtracking the way I’d already traveled, I quickly selected an alternate route. That’s how I happened upon this.
In retrospect, I should have gone in. But the weather was too perfect to waste even a few minutes of ride time.
Getting to see downtown Sylva, albeit briefly, was a happy accident.
I finally got back to the section of Moonshiner 28 I’d meant to hit, but riding in the opposite direction than originally planned.
Holy cow was I glad I had decided to backtrack. The next images were all captured there…
But wait, there’s more!
There was a LOT of water flowing over that waterfall. I could not imagine why it was called Dry Falls.
The road was actually so nice, I repeated a large section of it “for Hubby” and then decided to continue with the route I’d originally planned, which took me into and through a section of the Pisgah National Forest, up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and eventually to Maggie Valley.
As the road climbed toward the BRP, I started seeing flashes of pink. I HAD to stop for a closer look.
That last shot makes it east to understand where the “Great Smoky Mountains” and “Blue Ridge” labels came from, eh?
I was exhausted by the time I reach my motel in Maggie Valley. And delighted to reach the Mexican restaurant I’d read about and enjoy the margarita I’d been thinking about, off and on, the entire day.
People who don’t ride motorcycles or drive sportscars don’t always “get” the notion that a road can be a destination. Or that a vacation doesn’t have to include a specific place as a goal.
When I left home, I knew the general areas I might be visiting, but had few specific locations or place objectives. I did have one destination road in mind, however, the Cherohala Skyway. (A “destination road” is a road people travel to specifically to experience. There are actually quite a few destination roads in the Great Smoky Mountains region. All destination roads have a name, not just a government-assigned route number.)
As I planned each day’s route, I kinda-sorta had to think about where I might end up when finished riding for the day. When traveling by bike, it’s sort of important to me to stay in a place within walking distance of eateries. Because I’m usually either too tired or too hot to want to get back on the bike to ride someplace for dinner. Plus, alcohol — even a little bit — is a big no-no for me when riding the bike.
When I left Pigeon Forge, I had no idea where I’d be that evening, but I did know it wouldn’t be in Tennessee at the end of the Cherohala Skyway. Of course, that meant I’d have to ride the Skyway twice — out and back — which was not an unpleasant prospect. But first, I had to get to the North Carolina end of the road.
The NC end of the Skyway is in Robbinsville, sort of on the complete opposite side of the mountains from Pigeon Forge. I could have cut straight across the park, but decided to head around the western edge of the park instead. That meant skirting just inside the northern edge of the park — an altogether lovely road — then taking the Foothills Parkway to US-129 at Chilhowee.
The weather was perfect. Low 60s and not a cloud in the sky.
I stopped at the Cades Cove store (inside the park) for a potty break and some snacks. That’s where I met the bear you see in the first photo. And where I saw the sign featured in the following image. It was hanging in a bathroom stall.
Cades Cove wasn’t as busy as the last time I’d visited, but there were still way too many cars for my liking, so I continued on my way.
I exited the park at the Townsend entrance and hopped on the Foothills Parkway. It took me to US-129, not far north of where the Tail of the Dragon (THE most-famous destination road in the area) starts/ends.
Look what I spotted along the way…
…somewhere between exiting the park and entering the Foothills Parkway.
I’ve ridden The Dragon on a few different occasions now. It is a nice road, but there are many nicer ones in the area with higher speed limits — it’s only 30 mph on The Dragon — that don’t attract tons of people.
I actually managed to zip into a pull-off to grab a couple of pictures.
Because The Dragon is such a popular road, there are several spots along the route where photographers station themselves and take pictures to sell. Killboy.com was the pioneer of that practice at The Dragon. I decided to buy a couple of the images, which are shared below.
It’s a great business idea, really. How often does one get to capture good images of oneself actually riding? Killboy has done so well he has his own store at the intersection of US-28 and US-129 selling all kinds of cool stickers, t-shirts, and other stuff. It’s right across from the original store/restaurant/motel complex at The Dragon.
I wasn’t going to stop at the other store, but that’s where the real potty is, so…
I HAD to get a selfie there, too.
Then it was on to the Cherohala Skyway via the northernmost leg of the Moonshiner 28. I did say there are lots of destination roads in the area, right? In my opinion, it’s actually WAY more fun than The Dragon. So much so, that I had to double back and enjoy it a second time for Hubby.
I gassed-up in Robbinsville at a station that also had a Subway restaurant AND sold fried chicken. Great photo op, eh?
Then it was on to the real fun. Finally.
The weather really was perfect. I rode for quite a while before finally giving in to the complaints from my rumbling belly.
I took my trip before prime season. The whole time I sat there and enjoyed my leisurely picnic lunch, NO vehicles rode past. Not one. It was only when I was ready to start off again that another bike or two rode by.
Yes, I know what the sign really means. I just find it funny.
I reversed direction at the Tennessee end of the Skyway and returned to Robbinsville. I think it was around 4:00 or maybe 5:00 by then. Too early to call it a day.
Actually, I could have called it a day, but there isn’t didn’t seem to be enough going on in Robbinsville, when compared to other locations, to make me want to stay for the night. So I stopped at the Giant Chicken again — free wifi — secured a hotel via phone, and rode to Bryson City. That’s where my day officially ended.
Question for y’all… do you care to see videos? I captured some in the hollers of West Virginia AND on the Cherohala Skyway. They take a bit of time to edit. Raw footage is REALLY boring. If no one really wants to watch them, I won’t bother. If some of you would like to see them, I will make time. So please let me know.
My last post ended with me bugging-out of Breaks Interstate Park earlier than anticipated due to approaching thunderstorms. I’d mapped-out a route the previous evening that took me on a meandering trek along and south of the Virginia/Kentucky border through the counties of Dickenson, Wise, and Lee. (I’m trying to hit all of the counties in Virginia.)
Since the radar images I’d seen had looked so ominous, I eliminated some of the higher-elevation roads, following a route that should still take me through all three of those counties.
The first part of the route was especially nice. And I actually got to enjoy the twisty roads as I outran the rain.
As I was making my way past Norton, I noticed signs for the High Knob Lookout tower and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to check it out. I’m glad I did. The road to and from the tower was reminiscent of riding in the Swiss Alps, except with a lot more trees.
I’d remembered reading about the spot at some point, which is described on the virginia.org website as follows:
A brand new observation tower with a long history opened in 2014 atop High Knob Recreation Area. At an elevation of 4,223 feet, the original tower built in the 30s burned down 40 years later. In 1978, Flatwoods Job Corp. built a new three story tower that met its demise by arson in 2007. Thanks to a dedicated community of volunteers in partnership with the Clinch Ranger District, a new, fire-proof tower to compliment and showcase the spectacular view of 5 states was erected. It has become a symbol of hope, like the legendary phoenix rising from the ashes, offering locals and visitors alike an unparalleled view from Stone Mountain.
I’m glad I decided to visit when I did. I pretty much had the whole place to myself. I only passed one other vehicle on my way up to the tower and back down! The place would probably suck during prime season, as the road is so narrow, steep, and jam-packed with very tight curves I can almost guarantee it gets clogged by very poky four-wheeled-vehicle traffic.
The view was impressive. And ominous, depending on which direction I was facing.
It was pretty clear that I’d be getting wet at some point that day.
It was quite windy up there, and I enjoyed watching the clouds scurry across the sky.
It only drizzled a little as I made my way back town the mountain. I continued west and south, heading toward the town of Pennington Gap for no other reason than it sits in Lee County. I also wanted to ride through Gate City, Virginia, in the complete opposite direction. That’s why, soon after passing the Lee County sign, I decided to nix Pennington Gap, and headed south then east along US-58.
I’m glad I did, because I saw some fun stuff along the way. Like this cute farm.
Really, just look at the animals among the Buttercups. 😊
Here’s some more stuff I saw along the way…
A little further along, I came to an almost-screeching stop when I spotted two barn quilts along the highway. This cow was quite intrigued by me.
I had to backtrack a bit, on foot, to get an acceptable shot of the other one.
My “friend” kept an eye on me the entire time.
I continued into Gate City from there. I did a few laps of the downtown area looking for their elusive LOVEwork. I was hungry, so sorta gave up on finding the LOVEwork (it had been missing two years ago, too, the LAST time I rode to that remote town specifically to see the LOVEwork!).
I pulled into the parking lot of a very small diner. Just as I dismounted, it started raining. Pouring, actually. Perfect timing! I was able to site and enjoy a leisurely lunch of fried pickles along with a homemade cheeseburger and French fries. It was all delicious.
I plotted the rest of my route while I ate. As luck would have it, as I pulled out of town onto the main highway, look what I saw!
I didn’t even care that it was still raining. I was so tickled to see the LOVEwork. What are the chances of my getting to that very remote part of the state again any time soon?
From there, it was off to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, to see something I’d been wanting to see for a few years.
Back in October 2010 — the last trip with our old cruisers! — when Hubby and I rode to Kentucky, we passed very close to Breaks Interstate Park (BIP). In fact, we ate lunch at the Hardee’s in Grundy mentioned in my last post. The morning coffee club (what we call the groups of older men that hang out to chat over coffee in fast food restaurants) was still there, and one of the men started talking to us about our ride, where we were from, headed to, etc. And he asked if we were going into Breaks.
Neither of us had ever heard of it. I can’t remember if the guy elaborated or not. But as we made our way into Kentucky, I kept seeing signs for the park. Naturally, that made me wonder. After I looked it up, I was kicking myself for not having checked it out. Since then, I’ve wanted to return. Mike’s kind of been noncommittal about it. He’d rather daydream about long, endurance rides than worry about revisiting areas just to see something we’d missed.
The more I think about this road and whether or not I stumbled across a highway project or surface mining operation, I think it must be the latter. A highway here just wouldn’t make sense.
Surface mining will make West Virginia uninhabitable one day. If you’re not familiar with that practice, check out the Coal River Mountain Watch website. Watch this documentary on YouTube. It’s not just one mountain. And it isn’t just West Virginia. Do a Google Maps search for Breaks, Virginia. Turn on satellite view.
See all the brown spots to the north and west of Breaks? Those are mountains that have already been decimated. Zoom in and see for yourself. It’s awful.
Originally, I’d thought about riding into Kentucky after leaving Breaks. But after seeing the extreme poverty in West Virginia, and what it’s done to the people and communities there, I just could NOT bear to ride into Kentucky and see what it’s done to the land. It was just too depressing. Remember, I was on vacation trying to de-stress.
So, back to happy stuff…
Did anyone else hear Kurtis Blow when you read that photo caption? I’m not sure if I have ever admitted to y’all that I am a rap fan. Mostly old-school stuff from back in the day. Not gangsta rap, either.
Here’s a quick little video taken from one of the overlooks (the park is mostly on the rim of the gorge).
I think the gorge is about 1,000 feet (~305 m) deep at this point.
The view is described by the sign in the image below.
It was actually sort of early when I arrived at the park. I was hot, tired, and grumpy (seeing fellow Americans in extreme poverty as described in my previous post does that). I removed all of my gear, put on some comfy pants and hiking sandals, and rode around the park to see the various overlooks. I had the park practically to myself and was being very careful.
I couldn’t linger long, as the restaurant closed relatively early. And it would have been a VERY long ride to find anything else.
The view was the best part about dinner. That and the 3+ glasses of ice-cold iced tea that I chugged down. The service was excellent, but the food was just okay. State park concessions are not usually known for their fancy vittles.
After dinner, I wandered around the park a bit more. I was too tired for much else.
Looking back, I was probably dehydrated. I never drink enough when riding on hot days. Another reminder lesson learned.
Seeing all the storm shelters freaked me out a little bit. I mean, it’s nice to know there are lots of shelters available, but they wouldn’t have so many shelters if weather up on the ridge didn’t get rather fierce. Am I right?
My lodge room was big, but basic. It had all the amenities, but the decor was plain. I did enjoy having a balcony AND being able to open the windows. I got to listen to night sounds, so it felt just like camping in the woods (or staying at our old WV Place).
From the bed, I couldn’t see the “mouth” of that monster. I only saw a face when I stood up. LOL.
The next morning, I awoke to the sound of wind howling through the trees. I looked outside and saw a lot of gray clouds. I checked the weather radar and saw lots of storms headed my way.
I don’t mind rain that much, as long as I have the proper gear along (I did). But I had no desire to be descending through the mountains on unfamiliar and very twisty two-lane, tree-lined roads during a thunderstorm or two.
I packed in record time and got out of there. I’d hoped to capture more pics around the park that morning, but chose to outrun the thunderstorms instead.
I did manage to get out of the high mountains before the rain caught up with me. But it was fine. All part of the adventure. 🙂
One of the places I definitely wanted to visit during my trip was Breaks Interstate Park. It’s in far southwestern Virginia and actually straddles the Virginia-Kentucky border, hence the “interstate” name. I also wanted to spend some time on WV-52, because I remembered reading that it was a good road.
On Sunday morning, as I drank my coffee, I looked at my various maps — Google and paper — to figure out a route for the day. I THINK I wrote the directions, but can’t remember. I plugged it into Google maps on my phone, too. But it wasn’t a complicated set of instructions. Head southwest on WV-20 then north on US-52. North of Welch at Panther, I’d be turning left to cross the mountains. Easy, right?
The next challenge was repacking the top case in such a way that all my stuff fit. My clothing, toiletries, shoes, and rain/cold weather gear went in the panniers (boxes that hang on the side of the bike).
I hadn’t gone far at all on WV-20 before I realized Hubby and I had ridden there previously. In fact, we’d even been on US-52 all the way to Welch. That was actually the trip — in October 2010 — where we’d heard about Breaks Interstate Park.
I knew we hadn’t been to the town of Welch previously. I was curious to visit, since it is the county seat and should be doing better than surrounding communities in that woefully depressed region.
The highway did pass through several smaller towns, all of which had seen better days, but there most of the route was rural.
For the most part, the town of Welch looked about as I’d expected. There have been efforts at beautification, but there still appear to be lots of vacant storefronts and other buildings in town.
I did take some video along the way, which I’ll have to edit before posting.
From Welch, I continued North along highway 52. I rode for quite a while before I started thinking I may have missed a turn. I pulled off to the side of the roads to check my maps and confirmed my suspicions.
I could have doubled back along the same route, but chose a shortcut through the mountains instead.
I wasn’t at all prepared for what I saw.
The towns along the highway looked depressed, but along the back roads it often felt like I was driving through a third world country. The poverty in that area really is extreme. I must have looked like an alien to those people.
On one hand, I wanted to take pictures, to show y’all what I saw. But on the other hand, I couldn’t. I didn’t want those people thinking I was looking down on them. Gawking at their plight. Or even pitying them.
There is a great deal of natural beauty in that region, but there was little beauty to be seen in the houses, mobile homes, and other dwellings scattered along those back roads. There was nothing even remotely pretty or picturesque. Run-down shacks, some of which were still being lived in. Camping trailers older than me serving as people’s homes. Burnt-out buildings, left standing, I assume, because it takes money to tear them down. Cars and other vehicles in various states of disrepair, some no more than empty shells.
People should not live like that in America. Really.
Most of the time I was riding through that area, I had no real clue where I was, or if I was on the right roads, even. But I felt like I was headed in the right direction, so I pushed on. I was never scared or worried. I just kept going, absorbing all that I saw. It was heartbreaking.
I did capture a few general pics along the way, after I’d left the residential areas behind.
One thing is for sure, I was REALLY happy to see the sign in the next photo.
I’d found Breaks, Virginia! My gut had been right about my direction of travel.
I couldn’t find the park entrance initially, and I had no cell signal, so I headed to the closest town where I knew from that previous trip that I’d find a Hardee’s for lunch and, hopefully, a wifi connection.
I knew I couldn’t linger long. It was actually late-afternoon and I thought I had many more miles to cover before I would find any decent motel rooms. I thought the lodge and other concessions in the park weren’t open. Imagine my delight when I reached the park and discovered the lodge and restaurant open for the weekend.
Honestly, I was pooped. It had been a long, emotionally draining day. It had been hot that day, too. I was sooooo happy not to have to spend a few more hours in the saddle.