Tennessee & North Carolina: Theme Rides, Biodiversity, and Casinos

Tennessee & North Carolina: Theme Rides, Biodiversity, and Casinos

It was a bright morning in late May. A leisurely breakfast at Pete’s Coffee Shop & Restaurant in the delightful town of Knoxville, TN, set us up for the start of our Great Smoky Mountains motorcycle tour.

After the breakfast (with eggs, bacon, pancakes, and the works), my wife and I didn’t need to eat much else all day. We then spent an hour or so walking off our overindulgence, exploring and photographing some of the famous murals you can find in the alleys and on the sides of buildings all over the downtown area, especially around the newly renovated Market Square.

Our plan was to ride down to Gatlinburg in the afternoon and overnight there before actually entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Today, Gatlinburg has the feel of a mini Las Vegas with seemingly endless tourist-driven attractions and amusements, their flashing lights and gaudy signs fighting for the attention of the throngs of people who pass through here. It seems 3D rides are now old fashioned, having been surpassed by 4D and then 5D rides as you walk along the strip. I’m not really sure what a 5D ride is—perhaps an immersive VR headset combined with motion in your seat and something like water being sprayed at you at the appropriate time, or perhaps smells?

The Gatlinburg Space Needle is 407 feet tall and has a 360-degree observation tower with views of the Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg itself. When completed in 1969, it was the second-tallest tower in Tennessee.

Even though this curious town is often called the Gateway to the Smokies, it’s a place that is a polar opposite of the very thing that most visitors have come here for. It’s as if they need a heavy dose of artificiality and commercialism before embarking on their trip into the real natural wonders of these mysterious mountains.

A Road with Two Names

The Great Smoky Mountains are a mountain range running along the Tennessee-North Carolina border in the southeastern U.S. The name stems from the natural mist that often hangs over the range and looks like smoke from a distance. Most of the mountain range is included within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which was opened by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.

Almost all of the 816 square miles encompassed by the park are cloaked in forest and boast 99 species of trees, over 200 varieties of birds, 67 mammals, and 1,500 different wild flowers, shrubs, ferns and grasses. But as motorcyclists, we are here for the main attraction—the Newfound Gap Rd.

Motorcycles & Gear

2023 Honda Africa Twin CRF1100L
2023 Honda CB500X

Helmet: Shoei Neotec
Jacket: Held Cool System Leather, Helite airbag vest
Pants: ProBiker Textile
Boots: Alpinestar New Land GORE-TEX
Gloves: Vanucci Viscolab
Luggage: SW Motech tankbag and Kriega waterproof bag
Comm system: Sena 50S

We left Gatlinburg in the morning on US 441 after stopping for another fantastic breakfast in Crockett’s Breakfast Camp on the outskirts of town. You don’t actually need a ticket or pass to ride through the Smokies, but if you want to park at all, you do need to display a parking pass on your bike. As we definitely intended to make lots of stops, we turned into the Sugarlands Visitor Center only a few miles down the road and purchased a cute screen sticker with a silhouette of a bear in the woods. They offer tickets to cover you for a day, a week, or a year, ranging from $5 to $40.