For two-wheeled adventurers, Western North Carolina is a diamond in the rough. From the famed switchbacks of the Tail of the Dragon on U.S. 129 to the scenic curves of the Cherohala Skyway, the Smoky Mountains offer a number of gorgeous and exhilarating motorcycle routes to explore on two wheels.
Robbinsville, a rural mountain town located just on the western border of the Tar Heel State, is a great spot to start your mountain motorcycle journeys. The town offers numerous gas stations, fast food, lodging and even a few motorcycle shops like Wheelers Performance Parts and Repair located on Tapoco Road.
From Robbinsville, the nearest two-wheeled destination is the Cherohala Skyway, easily accessed by riding around Santeetlah Lake.
Snaking up and over 5,400 foot mountains for nearly 15 miles from Robbinsville and descending another 21 miles into the deep forests of Tellico Plains, Tenn., the Cherohala Skyway has become known for its long, sweeping turns and scenic mile-high views.
According to cherohala.com, the Cherohala Skyway was completed in the fall of 1996 after being under construction for some 34 years. It is North Carolina’s most expensive highway, carrying a price tag of nearly $100,000,000.
The road crosses through the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests, hence the name “Cherohala.”
Due to its extremely rural setting, the Skyway is a “boom or bust” adventure for motorcyclists. In the spring and summer, it offers scenic beauty with not much through-traffic, but at night and in the winter months, it can be dangerous because there are no facilities other than a couple of restrooms. So make sure you fill up your gas tank before this 36-mile jaunt.
Although some of the mile-high ridges can get chilly even in the spring and summer, the Cherohala Skyway always provides an unforgettable ride. Highlights from the Skyway include pictures at “Big Junction,” a scenic pull-off at 5,235 feet, and the Harley-Davidson dealership at the end near Tellico Plains.
Just as the Cherohala Skyway begins in Robbinsville, the Moonshiner 28 is located just 20 minutes from town toward the famous Tail of the Dragon. While the Dragon offers the most bang for your bike, Moonshiner 28 is a fun alternative that offers the same twists and turns but at a much more relaxed pace.
When arriving at Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort on U.S. 129 at the Tennessee State Line, take a right and you enter on the northern end of Moonshiner 28. The bonus for this ride is that the speed limit is 55 for much of the route. Beware, however, that some of the switchbacks will require a much lower speed than what is posted.
Moonshiner 28 twists its way southeastward through Franklin and Highlands, before turning southward into Georgia and South Carolina at Walhalla, according to moonshiner28.com
Mountain panoramas, waterfalls and isolated lakes appear around nearly every corner, offering great opportunities to pull out the travel fishing pole.
You may hear the name “Hellbender” thrown around on Highway 28. This was a name given to a small section of 28 some years ago by Fontana Village Resort, a year-round vacation destination in the Nantahala Forest. Although Fontana dropped the name in 2009, according to moonshiner28.com, many people still refer to the entirety of 28 as the “Hellbender” despite its original reference to only a small section.
Located next to the northern point of Highway 28 is the famous Tail of the Dragon on U.S. 129 that crosses the North Carolina/Tennessee border and boasts 318 curves in an 11-mile stretch.
Although desolate in winter and sometimes having to be shut down due to rock slides, the Tail of the Dragon is king among motorcycle and sports car roads. Like the Cherohala Skyway, the Dragon offers a new adventure with every trip, from encounters with black bear cubs hanging from limbs above the road to tractor-trailers taking up both of the too narrow two-lane.
Speaking of tractor-trailers, these big rigs have been a problem on the Dragon and other similar roads for years, causing numerous wrecks and injuries. In 2012, the NCDOT banned trucks longer than 30 feet from operating on US 129 anywhere from US 19/74 all the way to the North Carolina/Tennessee State Line. They are also banned on NC 28 from NC 143 all the way to US 129. Also on the ban list is the entire Cherohala Skyway, according to tailofthedragon.com
Although the Dragon offers great scenery, such as the Overlook at mile marker 9, do not get caught looking around too much while driving, as the rapid-fire hairpins require the utmost attention and too much speed heading into a tight turn could leave you on the asphalt.
However, despite all of its danger, the Tail of the Dragon remains very popular, inviting more than 460,000 vehicles in 2011, according to the Tennessee DOT.
Including a view of the Cheoah Dam where Harrison Ford jumped from in the movie “The Fugitive”and professional pictures snapped along the route by photographers like Killboy and US129 Photos, Tail of the Dragon simply cannot be beat for exhilarating curves and a breathtaking mountain experience.
So the next time you stop by Robbinsville and its three stoplights, be sure to seek out two-wheeled adventure on the Cherohala Skyway, Moonshiner 28 or Tail of the Dragon, each providing a unique yet always enjoyable ride.