Ahhh, the Great Smoky Mountains….. History and nature, combined with abundant riding roads that are first class in scenery and beauty, make for a wonderful destination in the summer months and a trip of a lifetime. My wife Karey and I had been planning another trip to Colorado when our plans had to change. Instead, the topic of the Smoky Mountains came up, and lo and behold, off to the great state of Tennessee we went.
Karey and I started out our journey with great weather and great scenery. Stopping on the way in Memphis, Tennessee to visit family, we had a great Bar-B-Que dinner and rode on into the East Tennessee area. Our destination was Gatlinburg, Tennessee. We chose this not only for the proximity to what we were going to do, but for the lack of major traffic that some of the surrounding towns such as Pigeon Forge have. Gatlinburg has many amenities, and although we had decided to stay in a condo, it also offered camping if we chose to do so during the trip. Some friends of ours, John and Karen, were already on the way, arriving from Kentucky after spending some time camping up north.
Our lodging was secured before we left at Mountain Loft, a Blue Green owned resort east of Gatlinburg. With a wonderful view and excellent accommodations, we were sure to be able to enjoy our time with more time for riding than tearing down our campsite and moving every day. Now don’t get me wrong, I love to camp out on the motorcycle, but sometimes a nice room or condo does make for a wonderful trip. John and Karen arrived that night, so we sat on the balcony, enjoyed some quiet time and listened to their tales of the roads that they had encountered on the way.
The next day, we started our sightseeing. Karey and I went to a winery, and sampled some of the wonderful flavors from the local variety. The one winery we liked the most was the Smoky Mountain Winery located on Cherry St. in the winery square. The Winery provides tasting of all of its flavors, and this allowed us to pick two bottles of wine that Karey really thought were of excellent taste. The prices were very reasonable, and the wines were bottled very well to be carried on our Harley.
Later that afternoon, one of the highlights of our trip took place, when we toured Ripley’s Aquarium. This aquarium, located in downtown Gatlinburg, has to be the best aquarium of its size in the U.S. The prices are reasonable, and we spent the better part of the evening touring the facility. The facility has a 340-ft tunnel under a saltwater tank full of sharks. Sand Tiger, Sand Sharks, and Sawtooth Sharks were in abundance and made for a great time viewing them from underwater. The tank also had sea turtles, and barracudas. A separate tank, with smaller button head (looks like a small hammerhead) and Leopard Sharks, along with Skates, and Rays, occupies one part of the building. Next to the tank underground, you will come up and a shallow pool where you can actually touch and pet the different animals is available. The only concession is you have to pull your hands out of the water when the small sharks cruise in, not because of the safety to you, but because it stresses them. I enjoyed the tropical tank, and the underwater feedings and shows are wonderful. The pirate display downstairs was fun, and the display will have changed more than likely by the time this story is printed. It was due to change for something new the week we were there. Karey and Karen had to drag John and me out of the building; we were having more fun than some of the kids that were there!
The next day we awakened to another wonderful day of weather and took a trip to the Little Pigeon River for a great day of white water rafting. We took the Foothills Parkway (Hwy 339) to the Cripple Creek area, to our rafting area. The company we used to raft, Rip Roaring Adventures, was one of the more reasonable ones on the river. Our guide, Tony P., was first rate. He took the four of us, and another couple that were on a motorcycle on a world class run down the river that consisted of class 2-4 rapids. Not having any children or teenagers in the raft made for a more adventurous run down the river with the ability to “play” more in the rapids. All of us survived to live another day, and we all look forward to it again. Ask for Tony P. and I promise he will take great care of you and show you a wonderful time on the water. His knowledge and expertise made for a great ride.
On the way back to the room, we stopped at a small gas station on the way, and an older gentleman named Gus that was sitting on a bench asked us if we were going to go “tame the Dragon.” (Hwy 129, the famous Tail of the Dragon.) We told him we were planning on doing just that the following day. He informed us that the locals had their own Dragon, just two miles east of where we were. Being curious about a road just looking to be ridden, we got specific directions and set off on it. The road is Tennessee State Rd 32 toward the North Carolina border. The road ends being paved at the border, and this is exactly where the Appalachian Trail crossed the road. This road was a great warm-up to the Dragon. It was over 100 curves, all of them very tight and twisty. Be wary though, for although there are not many cars, there is an abundance of wildlife and almost no guardrails on this road. When we looked back on it, we almost thought the Dragon paled in comparison with the skill level needed to ride this road. This road is not for the meek or unskilled. It has steep drop-offs, and should be ridden with care. The scenery on this road was magnificent, and could only be truly appreciated when you see it in person.
The next day was the day we had set aside to ride the Smokey Mountain Park. We left out that morning after a great breakfast, and headed to the park. We did pack our jackets, as though the weather was warm where we were, the temps in the higher elevations were a little on the chilly side. We took Hwy 441 on into the park, and the ride was smooth and curvy. The mountains along this road were breathtaking. There are numerous points of interest along the road, with ample places to stop. Our first stop was Newfound Gap. You can get off your bike and take some of the trails in the area to view some of the more spectacular sites in the park. There is generally a park ranger in the parking area that is more than helpful with any questions you may have. We left that area and took the Clingman’s Dome Road to the highest point in Tennessee. At 6600+ ft, you can see many states from that location. Beware though, at the base of the Dome, you will have to park and walk to the top. It is a strenuous trek in riding gear, so carry a jacket and some comfortable shoes to make the climb. It is paved all the way to the top, with a concrete spiral leading to the observation point. Clouds will surround you and scurry past you on their treks across the sky. When you get your openings, get the camera ready for some of the best photograph opportunities available in the park. Off in the distance, you will be able to see Fontana Lake, and the Cherokee Reservation. Both are many miles away, and the view is wonderful. We hiked back down to the bikes, and took 441 on into the reservation. There were many places to stop and take a break, and we fueled and took some time to do some shopping for trinkets. Off to Fontana Lake we went, and rode out to the dam. We met up with some other riders from Canada that had informed us that they had come all the way from Ontario to ride a certain road nearby. We grinned knowing that if others from so far away could smile and look back on that certain road with such fondness, it must be good. The lake had a wonderful Park and area to explore, but due to time constraints, we pushed on to the Dragon from there after only about an hour of looking.
Hwy 129. The Tail of the Dragon. Deal’s Gap. The Tree of Shame. Legendary status for a road in the US. There are 318 curves in 11 miles. What more could you add to make it just irresistible. More bikes and riders try to tame this one road in the east than any other road around. With such a cult following in the US, we could not under any circumstances miss an opportunity to ride this road. Now granted, I wasn’t on a sport bike. My 2003 Electra Glide Tour Classic, and John’s new Yamaha Stratoliner were figured to be like fish out of water on this road. We pulled in on the North Carolina side to the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort and checked out the Tree first. Local lore has it that if you lose a part or have a wreck on the Dragon, you must thus give up a piece of your cycle to the tree of shame. Parts of all kinds of motorcycles and cars littered the tree, with dates and tales of their demise. Some included obituaries to those that had lost their lives at the Gap. We did some shopping at the store, and bought some new gear only available at the store. My wife purchased a new riding bell for me with the Dragon emblazoned on it, with 318-11 on it. I was really pleased with such a wonderful gift.
Off we set. Now I am going to be truthful about this. When we first set out, I came to the conclusion that this road was not NEARLY as dangerous as the one we had ridden the day before. Nor was it nearly as technical. After getting the idea that this was supposed to be a fun road, not a technical dreamland of sheer horror, I settled in to a very quick, floorboard-dragging, wife- hanging-on-for-dear-life ride through this road that it should be. To the tune of Rob Zombie’s Devil Man, we cooked this road and had a blast. The curves weren’t nearly as sharp nor hairpin as the previous day’s had been, and the pucker factor increased with speed, not the inability to know what was around the next corner that was 90 degrees. We had a blast. We came out of the Dragon whooping it up, grinning from ear to ear. We pulled in to the scenic parkway, and here John and Karen parted ways with us to head back home. We missed our friends on the rest of the trip, but we knew in a couple of days we would all be back together talking with joy about the road just traveled.
Karey and I pointed Buster (The name my kids gave my scoot) towards Gatlinburg, via the scenic parkway. We headed to the park via Townsend, and came into the park on Old Hwy 73 on the western side of the park. This road was truly beautiful. It ran almost all the way alongside a river, with plenty of pull-offs and places to stop along the way and take in the scenery. It was dark by the time Karey and I returned, so we grabbed a bite to eat at a roadside stand and headed to the room, satisfied our day’s adventure had been a great one.
The next morning, we headed back into town to look around a little closer. Taking in numerous art galleries and small shops took up most of the morning. We went to the Harley Shop and to “Cooter’s Place.” This store is owned by Ben “Cooter” Jones, and has some neat memorabilia from the Duke’s of Hazzard show from the late 70s. Pictures from the show and different items were on display. It is on the northern end of Gatlinburg, and if you are a fan of the show, a great place to stop and look.
It was getting to be lunch time, and we were set to go to the place we had heard all about since we got there, The Alamo Steakhouse. I am going to say upfront, that this was the best place, bar none, that we ate on this whole trip. The Alamo is known by the locals as the place to go for a steak dinner, and rightly so. Steaks grilled over an oak fire lend to a divine taste not found just anywhere. Karey and I sat down, and Kevin was our waiter. Not only great food, but the best service I have received in a long time. We had drinks and ordered the stuffed mushrooms for our appetizer. Kevin was quick to keep our drinks refilled, and took great care to make sure we laughed and had a good time while we were there. I ordered the Alamo’s signature steak. A robust 22 oz ribeye cooked to perfection. The salad that came out was on a good-sized dinner plate and was a meal within itself. The baked potato was loaded to the hilt, fully a pound or better to complement the steak. Flavorful and just wonderful, you hated getting full after eating something so divine, you just wanted more and more. A big boy like me shouldn’t eat at places like that; I hate to leave! We purchased two bottles of the restaurant’s signature steak sauce, and I am already getting ready to order some more, for this steak sauce is by far the best I have ever used. Kevin took great care of us, and if you ever go, ask for him. You can do no wrong. I can’t say enough about the service and food at this restaurant. It was that exceptional.
After having full bellies, we went back to the room and grabbed our jackets for another jaunt on the bike for some scenery. We went on the Roaring Fork Motor Trail there in Gatlinburg. A little over 5 miles of narrow road, it takes you back in time to some of the homesteads in the mountains. We stopped and explored many of the sites, and then set our destination to be Cade’s Cove in the park. When you enter the park, you will take the first left and just follow the signs. Cade’s cove is known for its wildlife, and it doesn’t disappoint you. Turkey, deer, and best of all bears, are all next to the road for viewing. There are many points of interest, and we were disappointed we did not allow for more time in the area to explore.
The next day dawned and we turned old Buster toward home, via Chattanooga, Tennessee. We stopped there to explore Ruby Falls, a cave under Lookout Mountain. Inside the cave is its namesake, the falls themselves. Comfortable conditions inside made for a great stopover for the afternoon from the hot conditions outside. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable about the different formations in the cave, and had some great stories to tell about its history. Features such as the Dragon’s Claw, the Elephant foot, and many others make for a great tour.
Alas, it twas time to point Buster towards home. With many great memories, and a wonderful trip to always look back on, we will cherish the time we spent in East Tennessee. Exceptional roads, great scenery, and friendly people, what more could you ask for? Everything a great trip via motorcycle should be. Karey and I hope to go back soon, for you can never get enough of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Story by Jim Austin and photos by Karey Austin