Text: Brian Shaney • Photography: Brian Shaney
This Reader Ride is sponsored by: Clymer®
Looking to put a newly acquired Suzuki DR-Z400S through its paces means finding a location with great roads, both paved and otherwise. After some research, Tellico Plains, TN, stood out as the clear choice.
Sitting at the doorstep of the Cherokee National Forest, the area was inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous peoples. Logging, mining, and manufacturing have all been part of its economic past. In more recent times, the area seems to have found its calling in tourism, and today it’s a haven for those who travel on two wheels. “Motorcycle friendly” definitely applies here, and need I mention the roads? Along with world-class tarmac, the routes I will be traveling are inhospitable to larger bikes.
Pulling out of the Lodge at Tellico, my base for this three-day adventure, I head into the Cherokee National Forest, connecting with a route once used by wagon trains. Pavement soon changes to a combination of hard-packed dirt and stones. Large maples, oaks, and pines envelope me as I leave civilization behind and climb into the surrounding mountains. I come to a series of four water crossings. The first three present no problems. The fourth, however, is much wider, much deeper, and a bit menacing. With long, slippery rock shelves running parallel to my direction of travel, finding the right line is imperative. I make a go at it; about midstream the water hits the top of my boots. Fortunately, I come up on the other side before it gets any deeper. Riding solo, I’m feeling good about my decision to purchase a SPOT—something I’m glad I have, but hope I never need.
After 14 miles snaking up and down by way of a dirt-and-gravel path, I hit blacktop that leads me to the village of Coker Creek, the site of a minor gold rush in the 1830s. From here smooth, undulating tarmac takes me toward Buck Bald mountain. The two-mile gravel road to the summit is passable by car, and I keep that in mind on the tight, blind corners. A fire tower once took advantage of this magnificent 360-degree view of the surrounding area. Further on I pass through the crossroads towns of Farner and then Turtletown, where I connect with a mountain pass and up, up, up we go. Gravel switchbacks, blind corners, and wet, fallen leaves all confront the DRZ.
I trace the edge of a mountain ridge for a few miles before starting a gradual descent down to the southern shore of the Hiwassee River. As the day comes to a close, I enjoy some great twisties back to Tellico.
Day two starts with a visit downtown. As I pass Tellico Grains Bakery, the smell of fresh pastries fills the air. I pull in at Tellico Motorcycle Outfitters and meet the proprietor. He and his wife relocated here and set up shop in 2007. The store is well stocked with an impressive selection of gear. After a discussion about the incredible riding here, I’m chomping at the bit to do some more.
I leave Tellico Plains on a road as smooth as any I’ve ever ridden. Near Tellico Beach, I leave the pavement and head into the mountains. The gravel route is loaded with blind corners and tight curves. Back on the asphalt, I pass through Smithfield, where the road begins to climb and narrow. The one-mile dirt trek up Waucheesi Mountain is winding, steep, rocky, and quite rutted. The lookout tower is gone now, but the top bristles with radio antennas and offers a spectacular view of the area. Going back down, steep hairpin curves on gravel require constant attention. I continue on a long downhill section with a couple of tricky gravel twisties; for a few miles, gravity is all I need to keep moving at more than 30 mph.
Setting rubber back on solid road, I begin an ascent into North Carolina. My stay here is short as a switchback slingshots me back into Tennessee. I navigate countless sweeping curves, tight hairpin turns, and incredible views on the mile-high Cherohala Skyway before making my way down to take a gander at Bald River Falls, the area’s highest.
The final leg of today’s route finds me tracing the Tellico River, zigzagging around rocky cliffs and taking in colorful fall foliage on a ride not even Walt Disney could have imagined.
After a safety check, I hit the road for the final day’s ride. Heading into the mountains on blacktop as smooth as glass, I pass picturesque small farms teeming with horses and cattle. I’m overwhelmed with the feeling that being here, right now, is exactly where I want to be.
After passing through Holly Springs and Ironsburg, I pick up a gravel road that closely follows what was once the only route across the Great Smoky Mountains. Known as the Unicoi Trail, this route had been in use by Native Americans centuries before Europeans arrived.
I climb and descend under towering trees on a road that’s easily traveled by larger bikes and cars alike. However, I see neither in these backwoods. Passing into North Carolina near the village of Unaka, the gravel turns to pavement, and I wind past the old mountain communities of Grape Creek and Texana.
I refuel near Murphy, NC, former site of Fort Butler. More than 3,000 Cherokees passed through the fort during their forced relocation westward on the infamous Trail of Tears. Crossing the Hiwassee Dam, I head back toward Tennessee on a bed of freshly groomed gravel following the Hiwassee River. Flowing blacktop leads me back to the Lodge and the inevitable end of my Tennessee adventure. For every road I took, there were many more left unexplored. This is a must-ride area for motorcyclists, especially if you prefer smooth, twisty tarmac and gravel mountain backroads.
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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the May/June 2012 back issue.