Little Switzerland, NC Shamrock Tour®: The Parkway's Hidden Gem

Text: Christa Neuhauser • Photography: Christa Neuhauser, Fabio Almeida

Western North Carolina is a mountainous area where the Blue Ridge Parkway slices through the state on a northeast to southwest diagonal. An ideal setting of endless curves and fun in these mountains creates a natural playground for motorcyclists. Fifty miles east of Asheville, NC, right on the route, is a town known as Little Switzerland—the perfect base for our Shamrock Tour.

With little more than a handful of hotels, motels, restaurants, and shops scattered along the 226A, the resemblance of this stunning panorama of valleys and mountain ranges to the Swiss Alps is what gave the town its name. This small village was founded in 1910 and recently celebrated its centennial birthday. No matter where we look, we have a majestic view.

Grandfather Mountain

Since it was only a short two-hour trip from home, we landed at the Switzerland Inn last night so we could start the first of our four one-day loops early this morning. I’m on a 2013 Yamaha FJR 1300A, a comfortable touring bike that’s agile enough for the many twisties we’ll hit. Fabio, my companion, rides his 2007 Kawasaki Ninja 650. It’s early May, and the air smells fresh as we wind south down the twisty 226A. The 16-mile-long Diamondback (as it’s called) requires our full attention. The asphalt has seen better days, but that doesn’t take away the pleasure of this beautiful tour.

We turn northeast in Marion to follow the foothills at our leisure. Now and then, we catch a glimpse of the backdrop that is the mountain range of the Blue Ridge. The morning mist adds a hazy glow to our peaceful meandering along Lake James Road.

At the Collettsville General Store, we stop to remove the liners from our gear. With the warmth of the day settling in, we decide that ice cream and people-watching are exactly what’s called for on this glorious Saturday morning.

Cooled off and eager to feel the pavement beneath us, we continue northeast past nurseries, farmland, and recreational areas until we finally reach 16 North, which brings us to our destination. It doesn’t matter how often I ride this stretch; it’s always fantastic, especially with such light traffic at this time of the year. Sporadically, Catawba Valley peeps through the trees as the leaves have yet to unfurl and block the scenery.

In Blowing Rock, a popular vacation spot just off the parkway, we’re lucky to find parking right on Main Street next to the Six Pence Pub. This place is known for its English fare and friendly staff—and it’s true that they make a shepherd’s pie like nobody’s business.

Right outside of Blowing Rock on 221 is the entrance to Grandfather Mountain State Park. It’s absolutely worth turning off our route, and after paying the entrance fee we follow the 20-mph speed limit and take several serpentines to the top. We leave our bikes, grab the cameras, and climb up the stairs. The 228-foot-long Mile High Swinging Bridge sways as we cross and sends a chill through my spine. Fabio barely contains his amusement, wryly noting, “You fearlessly ride motorcycles, but you dread heights?” Well, we all have our weaknesses, right?

Once at the highest point, the Linville Peak, we’re rewarded with an amazing view in all directions. We breathe in the moment before getting back on the bikes to return to our quarters via twisty 221, which runs just below the Blue Ridge and partially hugs the parkway.

Mount Mitchell and Chimney Rock

We can’t really sleep in at a place with such a panorama—particularly since we leave the curtains open so as not to miss anything. After a light breakfast, we saddle our bikes and head south. The light is still pale, and the sun doesn’t have much warmth yet. The rhythmic swinging of the FJR and the Ninja further infect our good moods and almost cause us to miss the turn to Mount Mitchell. This is the highest point of the Appalachians, and the temperature drops to 40 degrees. The cold creeps into our bones, and I regret not having put the liner back inside my gear this morning. Visibility is limited, and the surrounding mountains mostly remain hidden by clouds.

Back on the parkway, we’re warming up and having fun on this stretch. It’s one of my favorite sections because of the many lookouts and open vistas unhindered by the tree line.

We follow U.S. 70 west and turn south in Black Mountain on 9 South. Apparently the road has only recently reopened after being closed due to a mudslide. Not taking our good fortune for granted, we cross over crests and through a valley, thoroughly enjoying our incredible excursion. We traverse the Eastern Continental Divide, and it seems that we’re the only ones around.

Twenty-five miles southeast of Asheville, NC, and only 20 miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway, we arrive at the astounding Chimney Rock State Park. The prominent chimney tower is a 315-foot rock formation. We take it easy and pick the more convenient way to the top—the elevator rather than the newly renovated stairs. At the peak, the wind gusts as we soak in the breathtaking 75-mile overlook of the valleys, the surrounding mountains, and Lake Lure.

Returning to our wheels, Fabio tells me that the park was once the setting for a famous 1992 Michael Mann film, The Last of the Mohicans. With the unspoiled wilderness before us, that doesn’t surprise me at all.

We travel north, crossing I-40 through open farmland and then chasing along 181 to the Blue Ridge. The light fades fast, and just as we make our way back to the Little Switzerland Inn, we see dark rain clouds forming in the west.

The next morning, it’s raining heavily, and downpours are forecast for the next several days. Between the fog and the rain, the visibility is bad, so we decide to leave and return next week to finish the remaining two loops.

Road Mountain 
and Linville Gorge

We head up 226 North through the rural areas of Spruce Pine and Bakersville. For this leg, I’m riding the 2013 Kawasaki Concours 14 while Fabio remains on his Ninja 650. The long, relaxing sweepers get tighter, and we lean from one side to the other as we follow the bends. The Concours 14 handles well and falls effortlessly into the twisties.

We’re at 5,512 feet at Carvers Gap when we cross into Tennessee and NC Highway 261 becomes Route 143. We pull over to enjoy the expansive landscape to the west and the majestic mountain range. Weaving in and out of Cherokee National Park and Roan Mountain State Park, we snake our way down the mountain on the newly paved surface.

Highway 67 brings us to Watauga Lake, where the last few days of heavy rain have left the water level high everywhere. Camping tables at a rest area next to the lake remain partially submerged. This lake is a popular destination for boat enthusiasts and vacationers, but it’s still early in the season, and we don’t encounter much traffic. In Mountain City, we catch Highway 421, which takes us to Boone, NC.

A popular university town in the Appalachian Mountains, Boone is a vibrant community with souvenir stores, restaurants, and beckoning coffee shops. Without the need for much convincing, Fabio agrees to stop at a local café.

Caffeinated, we turn south and weave through the sun-dappled trees. Fabio signals for me to pull over at the Chestoa View, where we must walk a short distance before reaching the overlook. Once there, he points out Linville Gorge, the amazing geological formation also known as the Grand Canyon of North Carolina. This spectacular landscape, which is 2,000 feet deep, was carved by the Linville River and is part of the Pisgah National Forest. The gorge is home to numerous species of plants, trees, and wildlife including bears, deer, raccoons, wild turkey, and hawks.

Soon we head back to our home for the night, the Skyline Village Inn right at the exit of the parkway.

Curves, Curves, and a Bear

Over breakfast, we study today’s route on the map. If the tour turns out to be only half as exciting as it looks, then it will be fantastic. We plan for the curviest section we can find to make one big loop, and the route definitely looks promising.

I climb onto my Concours 14 and watch Fabio mount his Ninja with a big smile on his face. The weather is mild, the route looks great, and life feels good!

We pull out of the driveway of the Skyline Village Inn to ride south through a green tunnel for a short distance before picking up Highway 80 and continuing north. The fun begins once we get onto 19 West, an extremely twisty road with good asphalt and little traffic. Immediately, it becomes my new favorite.

We cross I-26 and continue southwest, trailing 352, 212, 208, and 209 curve after curve. Left, right, left, right; we weave in and out of the Pisgah National Forest hidden in a green cloak of trees and almost feeling dizzy. For a while, the pavement pairs with a creek. We pass over ridges and crests and down into the next valley riding a continuous roller coaster.

Our path straightens out, and we leave the rural area to check out Asheville, an artsy community and tourist attraction that’s also home to the Biltmore Estate. It’s midafternoon, and the sun is high up. As we cut through a neighborhood before picking up the parkway, I slow down in a bend to give the bicycle rider in front of me some space. All of a sudden, a big black bear rushes across the street fewer than 30 feet away from us and disappears on the other side. I’ve heard stories about bears and people colliding, but I never fully believed them—nor did I think they could be so literal. But now, I’m definitely a believer, and I’m most thankful for sharing the highway with that cyclist.

Leisurely, we roll east on the Blue Ridge content with four wonderful days of riding. Again, I add to my list several new favorite roads, but I guess you’ve heard that before. 

Lodging: Skyline Village Inn

Built in 1942, the Skyline Village Inn is located on 226A, off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Owner Mike Thrift takes pride in the charming renovations he mostly did himself. The inn boasts 16 guest rooms as well as a private guest-only lounge with a bar and restaurant. The balcony of the Skyline’s third floor features a view of the Catawba Valley. An on-site gift shop is filled with locally crafted items and souvenirs that include precious minerals. Find it at 12255 NC Hwy 226A between Little Switzerland and Spruce Pine, NC, (828) 765-9394, www.skylinevillageinn.com. $

Lodging: The Switzerland Inn

This picturesque mountain inn has opened its doors to weary travelers for more than 100 years and is conveniently located next to an exit off the Blue Ridge. A wide variety of lodging is offered (individual rooms in the main lodge, suites, private chalets, and cottages). The outdoor pool overlooks the valley, and additional amenities include a fitness center, hot tubs, tennis courts, and on-site dining with a stunning landscape. A number of souvenir shops are adjacent to the hotel. Find it at 86 High Ridge Rd, Little Switzerland, NC, (800) 654-4026, www.switzerlandinn.com. $

Destination: The Blue Ridge Parkway

There are few rides in the country that can match the Blue Ridge for scenery, long sweeping curves, and mountain charm. Construction began near Cumberland Knob, NC, on September 11, 1935. By order of Congress, jurisdiction was handed over to the National Park Service on June 30 of the following year. Completion of the Blue Ridge Parkway would take more than half a century, with the final stretch around Grandfather Mountain opening in 1987. The road runs 469 miles from Rockfish Gap, near Waynesboro, VA, to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Along the way, it carves a stunning path through one of the most mountainous regions of the East Coast and includes the highest point east of the Mississippi River, Mount Mitchell. Located in the heart of North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains, Mount Mitchell stands 6,684 feet above sea level—hardly impressive by Rocky Mountain standards but higher than any other East Coast peak. Mount Mitchell is located directly off the Blue Ridge, and a lovely stretch of pavement leads almost to the summit, which requires a short hike. From the top, Appalachian peaks stretch to the horizon in all directions. This is just one of literally hundreds of incredible vistas dotting the length of the parkway. Numerous small mountain communities on the route offer places to eat and stay for the night. Due to its greater altitude, temperatures along the Blue Ridge can be substantially lower than in the towns situated near its path.

The riding season generally lasts from May through October. Snow or damage to the roadway may cause frequent closures in the colder months. Traffic is typically light with the notable exception of leaf-peeping season (mid-September through mid-October). The parkway is easily one of the most beautiful and enjoyable motorcycling treks in the country and a must-ride for anyone touring the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina.