The Best Motorcycle Roads of the Smoky Mountains (That You Can Ride in One Weekend!)
Every year, tens of thousands of motorcyclists flock to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. With scenic mountain views, cascading rivers, and hundreds of miles of sweeping turns to keep you on your toes (or the throttle), it’s a no brainer why this region has become a top destination for all motorcycle enthusiasts. The Smoky Mountains are undoubtedly home to some of the best motorcycle roads in the country.
No matter what you ride, you’re in for a treat when you visit this region. In just two days, I was able to enjoy many of the best motorcycle roads in the Smoky Mountains. Each of these roads (quite literally) have their own twist to them, making them unique and desirable to ride.
Here are five not-to-miss motorcycle rides for your next Smoky Mountain adventure!
The Missing Link of the Foothills Parkway
The Foothills Parkway has been under construction for over 75 years, making it Tennessee’s oldest unfinished highway project. The “Missing Link,” a 17 mile stretch from Walland, TN to Wears Valley, is the latest addition to the Parkway. This stretch alone took decades to complete, due to construction problems and funding issues. They say good things take time, and this stretch of road was definitely worth the wait. In fact, the last time I visited in 2016, the road wasn’t open yet.
In 2018 the Missing Link was finally opened to the public, offering incredible views of the Great Smoky Mountains. I managed to hop on the Missing Link section of the Foothills Parkway early enough to have it almost completely to myself, sans a giant black bear that ran across the road in front of me as I rumbled down the parkway. Surprisingly, the Foothills Parkway is one of the lesser traveled roads by riders who visit the area, although many locals favor it. There’s plenty of pull off points with scenic views of the Smokies, so enjoy the ride!
Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is the longest linear park in the United States. At 469 miles in length, it connects the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Shenandoah National Park. Even if you only have time to enjoy the first 60 or so miles, from the southern terminus in Cherokee, NC to Asheville, NC, the views are sure to blow your mind. This is the best motorcycle road of the Smoky Mountains, in my opinion. Riders of all skill levels will enjoy the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Between Cherokee and Asheville, you’ll pass through more than a dozen tunnels, waterfalls, numerous scenic overlooks that are worth stopping at for photos, as well as the Parkway’s highest elevation point (6,047 feet) at the Richland Balsam Overlook.
Allow a few hours for this stretch of the ride. If you have time, stop in Maggie Valley and visit the Wheels Through Time Museum. Did you know that every motorcycle in the Museum starts and runs? You have to see this place for yourself!
Fighting Creek Gap to Newfound Gap (U.S. 441) – Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This ride offers the most unique and dynamic range of views the Smoky Mountains have to offer. Plus, it’s free to ride through the National Park! Unlike the Rocky Mountains, which are packed full of evergreen trees, the Smokies offer lush forests that act as canopies to the road below. In the summers, everything is exceptionally green. In October when the leaves begin to change, you’ll be traveling through a much different color pallete, filled with bright yellows, oranges, and reds.
While you can skip Fighting Creek Gap and head into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Gatlinburg, I think this side road from Townsend is worth adding in to your ride. In the summer months, it’s worth it to pull over and dip your feet (or body) in one of the many swimming holes in the Pigeon River that runs alongside the road. Plus, you’ll avoid the traffic coming from Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg by starting your ride in Townsend.
From Fighting Creek Gap, you’ll turn onto Newfound Gap Road, U.S. HWY 441. It’s one of the most heavily trafficked roads that crosses the Smoky Mountains, as well as the most visited National Park in the country. Plan to start your day early to avoid the crowds. The Newfound Gap Road offers plenty of sights, turnouts, and geographic changes as you wind your way from 876 to 6,643 feet in elevation.
As you climb in elevation, the landscape will slowly change and views of the Smoky Mountains will be more frequent. Be sure to stop at the Tennessee/North Carolina state line (the actual Newfound Gap) as well as Clingman’s Dome (the highest point in the park) before descending into Cherokee, North Carolina.
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The mile high, $100 Million dollar highway, better known as the The Cherohala Skyway, is another mountainous construction feat. This road took around 35 years to complete, and connects Tellico Plains, TN to Robbinsville, NC where it intersects Highway 129. Because of its proximity to the Tail of the Dragon, most riders will enjoy both roads in one day.
The Skyway, as locals call it, features sweeping curves, endless mountain views, 9% grades in some areas, and rises over 5,400 feet in elevation. If you time your ride perfectly, you just might ride through the “smoky” fog the mountains are named after as you ride atop the mountain ridges. This is thrilling in good and both ways. It feels like your riding in the clouds, but it also severely limits your visibility. There is no cell service, so always ride within your abilities.
Unlike the Dragon, Cherohala is a bit more accommodating to all rider skill levels. It also offers over a dozen scenic overlooks to stop off and enjoy the Smokies.
If you feel like chasin’ waterfalls, Bald River Falls is worth stopping at as you head up the skyway from Tellico Plains via Forest Service Road 210.
U.S. 129 & The Tail of the Dragon
Ringing in with 318 curves in a mere 11 miles, the famed Tail of the Dragon is considered America’s number one motorcycle road. Is it really the best motorcycle road in the Smoky Mountains? In all honesty, it’s probably my least favorite on the list. Is it an amazing road? Absolutely. Overhyped? I’d say so. Every motorcyclist needs to ride it at least once and cross it off the bucket list.
Due to its popularity, U.S. 129 is heavily trafficked on weekends and weekday afternoons. While the Tail of the Dragon is well paved and typically cleared of debris, you’ll still need to watch out for the oncoming traffic that ran out of talent. Accidents occur daily on the Tail of the Dragon due to speeding, negligence, and lack of appropriate riding skills. Enjoy the ride, but stay alert.
You can ride “up” or “down” the Dragon, as it is a mountain pass. If you start on the North Carolina side, at the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort, you’ll head down the Dragon, and into Tennessee. Most riders prefer the view going down, as you’ll have the mountain next to you and the lake views to your left most of the time.
Most people only associate U.S. 129 with the 11-mile stretch known as the Tail of the Dragon. However, the stretch from Robbinsville, NC to Deals Gap offers plenty of scenic views of Lake Santeetlah and the Cheoah River. Make sure to stop for lunch at the Topoco Lodge before traveling on to Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort. Deals Gap is usually busier than Topoco, since it sits right at the top of the Dragon.
What’s your favorite ride in the Smokies? Leave a comment below!