Updated: Mar 26
When it comes to street riding, The Smoky Mountains just may be motorcycle heaven. So it’s not surprising this area is home to my favorite one-day motorcycle loop on the east coast. Riding here is extraordinary for many reasons. There are hundreds of miles of limited access roads, both in and outside of the National Forests. This results in very few intersections and a riding pace that flows uninterrupted by traffic signals. Roadways are very well maintained with virtually no potholes or gravel and the abundance twisty roads are well marked for added confidence when carving corners. Throw in the stunning mountain scenery and rushing water filling the river valleys, and riding here quite the sensory experience.
I have been riding in this area for 15 years and have logged thousands of miles riding roads like Blue Ridge Parkway, The Rattler, Moonshiners 28, Foothills Parkway, Road to Clingman’s Dome. But my favorite loop includes a combination of The Cherohala Skyway and the Tail of the Dragon. Depending on where you choose to start, the length will obvilously vary but the loop it's self will be approximately 180 miles. With rest breaks and lunch, the ride will take most of the day due to complete.
I tend to begin on the North Carolina side of the mountains near Bryson City and start my day with a ride toward the town of Robinsville. It’s here that RT 143 becomes the entrance to the Cherohala Skyway. This winding road climbs up above 4,000 feet and stretches for 43 intersection-free miles with nothing to disrupt your pace but overlooks and photo ops. This section is filled with amazing views and constant radius sweeping turns that make me feel as though the roadway engineer must have been a rider. Near the end of this road is access to Bald River Falls. It's well worth the 20 minute detour to go check this out.
Within a few miles of leaving the Skyway there is a hidden gem of a general store / deli with great soup, sandwiches and deserts and a covered picnic tables on the river. You’ll be hungry and ready for a break when you get here.
Should you need gas you can ride a few miles into Telico Plains, otherwise take Rt 360 north toward Vonore, TN. This is a winding 45-minute ride through rural Tennessee. Then, a short run north on RT 411 will get you across the Little Tennessee River before turning east on RT 72 for the return trip back over the mountains. RT 72 runs along the Little Tennessee River in many places making for some very scenic riding before starting your switchback climb up RT 129 (AKA The Tail of the Dragon.)
The Tail of the Dragon is marketed as “America’s number one motorcycle and sports car road.” With 318 corners in 11 miles, it’s kind of like riding your bike on a rollercoaster track. The road is ideal for Supermotos but will leaving you smiling regardless of what you ride. A bit of caution, it can get busy and there are riders who ride beyond their skill level (evident by the “Tree of Shame” at Deals Gap.) If possible, avoid weekends, ride within your ability and stay alert for other riders.
When you reach Deal’s Gap you can swap stories and relive your ride with all of the other riders who look like they need a cigarette. Snap a photo in front of the Deals Gap Resort sign and top off your gas tank. Then ride down a short stretch RT 129 that’s just as twisty as the Dragon, pass the “Fugitive Dam” and look out for signs for Tapoco Lodge on your right. This historic lodge, is motorcycle friendly, has great food and drink served on a patio overlooking the river. Try and find that combination anywhere else!
Once you are rested, backtrack to Deals Gap then onto RT 28 for more great corner carving and a stop at the Fontana Dam. This is tallest dam in the eastern United States and serves a bridge for hikers on the Appalachian Trail to cross the Little Tennessee River. Upstream views of Lake Fontana and downstream views of the river valley are both worth the short detour in your ride.
From here your loop is nearly complete with the final section of RT 28 leading you for 25 miles, back through the Tsali Forest, and onto Bryson City. It's hard to image a better way to spend a day on your bike!
Feeling inspired to ride the Smoky Mountains? See below for some more info to make this ride a reality.
What bike should I ride – I’ve taken several bikes here over the years. Certainly, if you have a choice a bike that handles well and is comfortable enough to be on all day is your best bet. Naked sport bikes are a great choice, but you will see a little bit of everything here. Below are the bikes ridden here and I can say I had a great time on each of them.
o Ducati Monster 1200 R
o Ducati Monster 1100 EVO
o Ducati Hypermotard 1100 S
o Ducati Monster 696
o Triumph Street Triple
o Harley Davidson CVO Fatboy
o Kawasaki ZX-11 Ninja
o Honda 1100 XX Blackbird
o Honda VFR 800
o Honda CRF450X Supermoto – (I took this bike on an off-road trail route from the mid-point of the Cherohala Skyway following the stream through the woods until it brought me to the top of Bald River Falls. – A great adventure!)
Skill Level – On a scale of 1 – 10 this is probably 5. Although the roads are extremely twisty, they are well marked and easy to ride as long as you stay within your limits. If you’ve never experienced the Tail of the Dragon here is a video of me leading a group of five riders from the Tennessee side into North Carolina. I’m riding my old school ZX-11 and my buddy Ted is filming his first time on the Dragon on his Triumph Speed Triple.
Travel logistics – This is a very motorcycle friendly part of the world. Most of the tourism in this area comes from motorcyclists. As a result, there are many lodging options from camping and cabins, to lodges and AirB&B house rentals. I prefer to stay in North Carolina vs Tennessee. This side of the mountains has fewer tourists and less RV traffic to deal with than the towns of Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge in Tennessee.
Time required – Give yourself at least two full days of riding in this area. There will still be more roads left to ride.
Where are the best photo ops – Not to worry. Both the Skyway and the Tail of the Dragon have professional photographers along the roadway taking your picture and posting it to their website. Simply log onto Killboy.com, 129Photos.com or 129Slayer.com to purchase and download a shot of you in action!
How physically demanding is this ride – On a scale from 1 – 10 this is probably a 7 . This can make for a long day. Get an early start and you’ll be able to finish at whatever pace you choose.
Who will go with me – Funny thing about this ride, I’ve never had to twist anyone’s arm to ride along.