Shamrock Tour® - Helen, Georgia

Text: Chris Myers • Photography: Neale Bayly, Florian Neuhauser

Smoky Mountain roads are quiet places, especially in the morning. Turn off the key and listen. Beneath the engine's cooling ticks, the subtle sounds of nature close in. The ever-present breeze dances with leaves above the clear streams tumbling from ancient mountains. Birds and crickets call, then answer. The grass sways. And above it all, clinging valiantly to the treetops, the night's foggy shroud is slowly pulled apart in the morning sun.

The Appalachian Mountains stretch along the Eastern Seaboard from New Brunswick, Canada to Northern Alabama. This near 2000-mile range is home to numerous extraordinary and beautiful places, but few regions cast quite the spell of the Great Smoky Mountains. Despite modern man's best attempts to tame, exploit, and otherwise heap abuse on these majestic hills, the land's resplendent dignity prevails. The mist-cloaked peaks, lonely lanes, and quiet hollows continue to capture the imaginations of all who enter this realm. As motorcyclists, we're always looking for magical places to ride, and this stretch of our country's oldest mountain range, comprising Northern Georgia and Western North Carolina, will always garner a helmet-muffled "Presto!" when we arrive. In these parts, the rugged landscape inspires a sinuous road design that brings joy to the hearts of two-wheel aficionados. There's no place quite like it to drop our bags and spend a few days riding.

Christa and I are scheduled to meet up with our friend and freelance journalist, Neale Bayly, in the small North Georgia town of Helen. As is the case with any motorcycle trip, just getting there is half the fun. Having lived in the Asheville, North Carolina area, I know a few interesting roads that happen to be right on the way. Oddly enough, Christa and I don't often get to ride together, so it's fun sharing some of my old tarmac haunts. She deftly handles the big Honda ST 1300 through the twists, dodging the sporadic showers of sparks cascading from the Harley-Davidson Night Rod's vertically challenged foot pegs, and we arrive mere minutes after Neale who also had a challenging ride up from the Charlotte, North Carolina area on his sporty BMW K 1200 R. Unfortunately, his trek involved rain, lots of rain. I'm glad we chose the scenic route.

Highlands

We're greeted with a cool but humid morning as we suit up for our first day of riding. The incessant showers that plagued Neale yesterday have bypassed the area, and clear skies rule. Heading south from town, we barely hit a curve before braking at the Nora Mill Granary. Built in 1876, this fully operational, water-powered, gristmill still uses its 1,500 pound French Burr millstones to turn out corn and wheat meals. Picking up a few small sacks of Nora Mill's fresh ground wares is highly recommended for biscuit lovers like me.

Back under way, we shoot north on Route 255, eventually picking up Route 197 south toward Gainesville. Along the way, we stop at another riverside mill, only this time, instead of flour we find a passel of creatively turned clay vessels at The Mark of the Potter, a shop and gallery occupying the building that once housed Grandpa Watts' Grist Mill. Located on the banks of the Soque River, the granary ceased milling operations after a damaging flood in 1966. Mark of the Potter opened in 1969, and today it displays and sells the work of four resident artists and over 25 regional potters. Distinctive manmade creations aren't the only things you can see along this quiet, country lane either. Not a half mile down the road, Neale and I stop and trade stares with a rather large black bear. Apparently camera shy, the burly bruin ambled back into the woods just in time to avoid our lenses.

In Clarkesville, it's north again on Route 441. As we pass by the Tallulah Gorge State Park, I feel one of those creepy movie shivers crawl up my spine. In the nearby gorge, the Tallulah River tumbles over 350 feet in a one-mile span, creating the falls and rapids used as settings for numerous scenes in the disquieting 1972 film Deliverance.

Reaching Clayton, we hang a right on Warwoman Road. This enjoyable stretch of tarmac, sweeping across quiet farmland and beneath canopies of oak and maple, suddenly erupts in a carnival of twists, sending us caroming in and out of heavily wooded ravines. With nary a break in the curves, we shoot left on Route 28 and begin the steep and spectacularly serpentine ascent into the town of Highlands, North Carolina. If you're hungry, there are certainly worse places to land. Thanks to a comfortable summer climate that only occasionally posts temperatures in the low 80s, this small mountain town has long hosted many a well-heeled tourist intent on beating the heat. Countless restaurants catering to all sorts of tastes can be found up and down the small but exclusive main drag. But we're keeping it simple today: a satisfying pizza at The Pizza Place fills us up without breaking the bank. And since no visit to Highlands is complete without playing beneath a waterfall, we detour a few miles west on Route 64. Just outside of town, you'll see the final 60 feet of 120-foot Bridal Veil Falls plummeting from atop a sharp, rock outcropping. At one time Route 64 ran behind the falls and the old road is still there. Most waterfalls require viewing from a distance, or at least a fair hike to get up close, so it's neat to find one that's so accessible.

We turn back east on Route 64, wind our way down the mountain into Cashiers and swing right onto Route 107, another ribbon of zigzagging tarmac that plunges out of the mountains to upstate South Carolina. With the sun waning, we make our way back west into Georgia, find Route 17, and soon get back to Helen.

Sylva

After a quick coffee meeting at the nearby Huddle House restaurant, we quietly wheel out of a slowly awakening Helen. A friendly wave from the lone street sweeper sends us on our way. It's a good thing: caffeine, because you need to be alert and bushy-tailed just north of town when route 17/75 reveals its rapid series of tire-tilting curves. The stirring music of this road is best played in a peg-scraping staccato rhythm, and thanks to several strategically placed passing lanes, slower drivers can be dispatched with ease. A little wrung out by it all when we reach Hiawassee, a vacation town on the shores of a placid Lake Chatuge, we recharge our cells with some frothy cappuccinos at the Mystic Mountain Coffee House.

Turning north on route 175, we cross into North Carolina and turn east on Route 64 toward Franklin. Though considered a highway, 64 isn't typical: it's a real riding treat. Almost perfect asphalt winds across steep mountains, affording incredible, panoramic vistas from several locations. Don't get suckered in by the scenery though; these are curves that can really sneak up on inattentive riders. If your concentration is divided - torn between the business at hand, the riding, and the pretty pictures - go ahead and pull over to enjoy the views.

In Franklin, we hook up with Highway 441 north. While we normally eschew four-lane roads, this short stretch is a lot of fun, promoting an exhilarating ride at any speed over its long, sweeping bends. Gem mines, campgrounds, and other down-home diversions dot the roadside.

Lunch is in the offing and the town of Sylva is in sight, so we hand the reins to Neale. He once hung his hat here and, knowing the landscape, he recommends Annie's Bakery. It's an excellent choice. Our made-to-order sandwiches on fresh baked bread are hearty and wholesome too, unlike the fried-and-true road fare that usually tempts me.

After lunch, we start strolling Sylva's lively streets but the display windows in a former department store soon pull us up short. Fashion mannequins and sale items have been supplanted by airy arrangements of fascinating imagery. This site has become The Penumbra Gallery and local photographer Matthew Turlington is there when we wander inside to admire his work. The area's inspirational mountain beauty has long drawn artists like him, he says, but that lure now extends well beyond the creative set. Apparently a number of the folks who vacationed here every year have just stopped going home.

Riding to the east end of Sylva, we pick up Route 107 and begin the climb back toward Cashiers (the locals say Cashers). This road has just enough curves to be interesting but not enough to really challenge us, so it's perfect for a post-lunch romp. Heading west on Route 64, we zip back through downtown Highlands and veer south on Route 106. As the road slowly descends toward Dillard, Georgia, the curves ebb and flow before culminating in a breakneck drop through a section of chassis-challenging twisties. It's surely been an intense day of riding, but the fun isn't over yet. After a relaxed jaunt along Route 2/76 out of Clayton, we bend left on Route 197 for an early evening dessert of curvy pudding. Though this traffic-free rollercoaster ride has us careening along the shores of Lake Burton, we have little opportunity to look at the water; and by the time we get back to Helen, we're more than ready for a drink, something to eat, and early bedtimes.

Dahlonega

We're in the mood for a big breakfast this morning and Hofers of Helen German Bakery and Café delivers. While Neale and Christa opt for the all-American egg dishes, I order a platter of Bavarian cheeses and cold cuts served with oven-fresh bread. I could get spoiled on this stuff. And again, we leave town to the street sweeper's nod.

Scooting south, we arrive in Cleveland and bear right on a piece of motorcycling's rock 'n' roll hall of fame: Route 129. This is the highway that eventually becomes the infamous Tail of the Dragon at Deal's Gap. And while the Dragon's 318 curves in 11 miles is a ways away, it soon becomes obvious that the reptilian slithering isn't relegated to that notorious stretch. The well-engineered road begins with a deceptive crawl across the foothills, quickly building to a symphony of screaming engines and grinding pegs that reaches crescendo at Neels Gap on Blood Mountain. We stop for a well-deserved breather at Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi. Built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, this large, stone cabin near the summit sits right on the Appalachian Trail. As hikers pass beneath the building's breezeway, they're treading on the only portion of the over 2100-mile path that's covered by a manmade structure. The view from the broad, flagstone porch is stunning. On the horizon, the distant mountains seem to fuse with the sky's countless shades of hazy blue. Fittingly, the Cherokee refer to these hills as Shaconage (sha-CON-a-gee), land of the blue smoke.

We drop off the steep mountain into another asphalt blender and soon hang a hard left on Route 180 toward Suches. While this road has all the spiral appeal of 129, it's not nearly as civilized. The very narrow "two-lane" tarmac curves, swoops, and switches back up and down steep hills, boring through thick green vegetation and dense stands of hardwoods. In many places, the best advice is "don't look down." At the intersection of Routes 180 and 60, we stop in at Two Wheels Only Motorcycle Resort and Campground. And as the name implies, TWO is open only to motorcycles. Automobile travelers can stay here, but they have to have bikes on a trailer - a great rule in my book. Owner GT Turner has a reputation for serving up some great grub and he certainly lives up to it by our lights. Judging from the size of the patties, many a cow makes the ultimate sacrifice for GT's tasty burgers.

The call of the north has us back out on Route 60 heading toward Morganton, and the quality of the riding is almost hard to believe. Midweek traffic is practically nonexistent and the roads are as good as any I've ridden on, period.

Working around Blue Ridge Lake, we pick up Aska Road and head back south through a series of serene valleys. Once on Route 52, we track easterly and end up in Dahlonega. This charming town is home to North Georgia College and State University and has an obvious collegiate energy. A number of shops and restaurants surround the downtown square that rings the Lumpkin County Courthouse. No longer a legislative center, the oldest courthouse in Georgia now houses a museum venerating America's first large-scale gold rush, which was centered in Dahlonega. Twenty years before anyone had ever heard of Sutter's Mill in California, the discovery of the shiny stuff drew countless prospectors to these very hills.

Rambling on across the rolling landscape, we count down the few remaining miles back to Helen. It's been another spectacular day of riding and we still have another day of exploration to look forward to.

Franklin

We're greeted with another sunny morning on our final day in Helen. After a quick shot of java, we're wheeling north, but not for long. We find Route 348 and begin yet another crazed, mountain-road tire test. But soon some of the low-hanging clouds so prevalent in the Great Smokies close in and wrap us in mist as we ascend. Though not blinded, we do throttle back a bit until the way clears on the other side of the mountain.

In Blairsville, we stop for a glass of iced tea (sweet, of course) and plot our next move. We've heard that Brasstown Bald is the highest point in Georgia, but we become intrigued by another Brasstown mapped just across the border in North Carolina. What we discover is a delightful little crossroads community with an irresistible general store, Clay's Corner. Perhaps more notably, Brasstown, NC, is also the Opossum Capital of the World. Squashed and scorned, this much-maligned marsupial is celebrated with a great deal of gentility in these parts. This opassion for opossum is hard to explain, but in Brasstown they're more than happy to get you up to speed.

Vowing to find Brasstown Bald, to compare and contrast later in the day, we push on. Through Murphy and north on Route 74, we follow the four-lane. But just as the highway starts to get a little humdrum, the road shrinks to two and the trees thicken. Then, like that, we're in the deep forest shade of the Nantahala Gorge, tracking along the wild, roiling Nantahala River. This stretch of rapids is world renowned in the whitewater community and countless kayakers and rafters can be seen tumbling over class I, II, and III rapids. Numerous outfitters along the way can get you out on the river; that is, if they're not all booked up.

A little further east, Neale has another trick up his sleeve. We hang a right on a rather unassuming little back road marked Route 28, and within minutes our inner Valentino Rossis emerge as the narrow lane spits out rapid-fire curves that never seem to end. All the way to Franklin, we're treated to a swerving smorgasbord that demands every bit of our skill and attention. As soon as we get to town, we drop the kickstands at the Havana Bistro for some authentic Cuban-style sandwiches and very strong, delicious coffee.

Still intent on finding Brasstown Bald, we need to hurry. So we jump on Highway 441 and skedaddle south to Route 76 in Clayton. This curvy stretch takes us back to Route 17, where we would dive south toward Helen; but first we divert on Route 180 when we see the signs for our final stop at the bald. The climb to the mountaintop park is steep and narrow and, with little room to pass, patience is a virtue here, especially in tourist season. An inexpensive shuttle is available to take sightseers from the parking area to the pinnacle; or you can pretend you're still a teenager and hike up. I don't recommend this incredibly steep, half-mile trek unless you're in pretty decent shape. Neale and I made it just fine, but our legs and lungs certainly felt the burn. From the visitor center atop the 4,784-foot summit of Brasstown Bald, we enjoy the 360-degree prospect that encompasses land in four states: Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

With Helen just a few miles down the road, this view, we all agree, is a fitting end to our Smoky Mountains tour. Sure, we work together on a regular basis, but that's "work," a catch as catch can of emails and Monday morning meetings. We all log countless miles each year, but the riding hardly ever occurs at the same time, much less in the same area. So, it's been a blast riding with my coworkers on this four-day trip. We should probably do it more often. And with a neat place like Helen and some of my new "most favorite" roads so close, that's a proposition that may turn out to be easier done than said.

Don't forget to check out clips from the new DVD chronicling our Smoky Mountain adventures.

 

The Helendorf River Inn
and Conference Center
33 Munichstrasse - Helen, GA 60545
(800)-445-2271
www.helendorf.com

After spending the day riding incredible, twisty roads and enjoying the beautiful vistas of the North Georgia Mountains, a comfortable place to coddle your bones is a must. Problem solved - if you're carrying a room key from the Helendorf River Inn and Conference Center. The riverfront rooms have refrigerators, microwaves, coffeemakers, and private balconies that overlook the banks of the Chattahoochee River, guaranteeing a relaxing evening and a good night's sleep. Other nice touches for the wandering motorcyclist include an enclosed pool for the after-ride dip and an on-premise laundry facility. And if a little saddle tenderness becomes an issue at the end of the day, it's good to know that your digs are a brief walk from downtown Helen's shops and numerous restaurants. In fact, I enjoyed my stay and the surroundings so much that I returned with Kathy two weeks later for a few more days of riding and relaxing.

Helen, Georgia

Originally known as the Nacoochee Valley, the area around Helen was a center of Cherokee culture prior to the 1800s. Their villages were scattered throughout the valley and a ceremonial mound still remains just south of town. Though located on private property, the mound is clearly visible from Highway 17/75. Forced from the area on the infamous Trail of Tears, the Cherokee inhabitants were replaced by white settlers. In 1828, gold was discovered in the valley, prompting the first full-blown American gold rush. By the end of the century, the gold had played out. There was still money to be made here, though. Huge stands of virgin timber attracted the attention of other opportunists, the lumber barons, whose profits soared with the arrival of the Gainesville and Northern Railroad. In 1913, a railroad surveyor renamed the valley Helen after his daughter. The Matthews Lumber Company located a sawmill in town on the Chattahoochee River, but by 1931, there wasn't much bark or pulp left for them to strip and saw. In the late 1960s, Helen consisted of a few lowly concrete structures, and when local businessmen met to discuss plans to revitalize the town's image, a nearby artist proposed a winning concept. He sketched the buildings adorned in Bavarian trim and colors. The next year, the town was virtually unrecognizable, sporting a fresh Alpine air and European flair. Today, this mountain oasis is one of Georgia's major tourist destinations, attracting all kinds of outdoor enthusiasts.

Harley-Davidson VRSC® Night Rod

The roads twisting through the North Georgia Mountains are a challenge for even the most capable sportbikes, so they're certainly going to test the heavy mettle of a ride like the Night Rod. Although the bike looks and feels small, it packs a meaty punch at weigh-in time, tipping the scales at 629 pounds ready to roll. Another factor limiting its twist-ability is a peg-grinding five inches of ground clearance and a long, 34-degree rake.

There's no denying the Night Rod is a handful when the swoops set in, but I found the challenge oddly endearing. With its liquid-cooled, 60-degree, V-twin pounding out a claimed 120 horsepower and 80 pound-feet of torque, its got plenty of vamoose. No matter how wild the roads got, I never sensed any instability until hard parts started throwing sparks. Suspension travel is a bit short at four inches on each end, though all but the nastiest of bumps were handled with ease; and the dual front rotors with four-piston calipers up front and a single rotor with another four-piston unit out back provided strong, sure stopping power on the steep Georgia inclines - a virtue that's not usually associated with Harleys.

Honda ST1300

Honda's venerable ST1300 proved to be a fine choice for exploring the Smoky Mountain back roads. Comfort, power, and handling are the three aspects that make the ST such an appealing ride, and all were employed on this trip. The ride to the tour area was an effortless affair thanks to a wide, firm seat and plenty of room to stow gear in the integrated saddlebags. Also, the wide, flat fuel tank is the perfect perch for a tank bag or map pouch. Highway rides and back-road romps are handled equally well, with ease, by the longitudinally mounted V-four that pumps out a claimed 120 horsepower and 85 ft/lbs of torque. And with its rigid aluminum frame and surprisingly sporty suspension, you can get up a respectable head of steam in no time. On tricky roads like the ones in Northern Georgia, it's helpful to always remember that the ST tips the scales at 650 pounds, dry.

The pillion, like the rider's seat, is well padded and spacious, perfectly suited to all-day stints in the saddle. The electronically adjustable windshield offers both aboard plenty of protection when fully extended, or a pleasant dose of wind when all the way down.

BMW K1200R Sport

As a serious high-speed sport touring machine packing over 150 horsepower, the BMW K1200R was perfect for powering down the Interstate to start the tour. Then, once in the mountains, there was enough power to handle anything the twisting roads could throw at us.

It came equipped with BMW's best Anti-Lock brake system (ABS), their own version of traction control and fully adjustable suspension (ESA) that can be changed with the touch of a button. But that bonus allowed me to safely stow all of my gear in the fully waterproof liners for the four-day tour, with my camera stuff and extras attached to the rack.

The sum of its features makes the Sport one of the safest bikes on the road today, and its onboard computer is also one of the most comprehensive. Using the good-sized, flat-screen monitor, you can check air temperature, fuel range, average mpg, and more. Accompanied by sensible white-faced analog gauges for the engine and road speed, the K Sport's dashboard is minimalist by design, but it's highly sophisticated in terms of the level of information provided.

Fast, fun, and providing reasonable wind protection from the sport fairing, the BMW K1200R was perfect for the job: giving me over 42mpg, being quick enough to easily leave anything but a committed sport bike rider in the dust, and possessing solid, stable handling characteristics.

Motorcycle: Harley-Davidson VRSC Night Rod
Helmet: Shoei Multitec
Jacket: REV'IT! Off Track Jacket
Pants: REV'IT! Dakar Pants
Boots: Gaerne G-RT Aquatech
Gloves: REV'IT! R59

Motorcycle: BMW K1200R
Helmet: Arai Vector
Jacket: Joe Rocket Supermoto
Pants. Triumph Jeans
Boots. Motophoria
Gloves: Joe Rocket Speedmaster

Motorcycle: Honda ST1300
Helmet: Nolan X-801R
Jacket & Pants: Olympia Airglide
Mesh Tech
Boots: Sidi Strada Evo Te-Por
Gloves: Vanson Sporty