2015 Trip Six, Great Smoky Mountains, Oct. 9

Gatlinburg, TN October 9

We spent half an hour today following “The Virgins”. That is our term for a couple on a motorcycle and trailer combination driving along the two lane roads in NC. They were from Alabama and in a 45 mph zone, were doing 35 mph. At every turn, they braked some more. We assumed it was an elderly couple on their first motorcycle trip. On our two lane, curvy roads, there was no opportunity to pass them. They did not pull over until it started to rain and they probbly had to put on rain gear. AND, two hours later, they pulled in to the cafe in Townsend TN that we had chosen for a mid day meal! They were old! Probably about our age.

Speaking of two lane roads, a direct path from our Thursday lodging to our Friday lodging would be 150 miles. We drove 300 miles, only 15 of those were on four lane roads. Most of these were on scenic byways. We hit the road early, stopping for breakfast in Ellijay again, this time at the Cornerstone Cafe. Food was fine but this is definitely not a dairy zone. No real butter, just “butter” spread. Milk was in a small juice glass for $3.

As we passed into Tennessee, we went through Copperhill and Ducktown, towns that were the site of a copper mine, now closed. Old mining buildings still line the road. In the nearby forest was the site of the Olympic kayak course from the Atlanta Olympics.

View along Cherohala Skyway

View along Cherohala Skyway

Our first major scenic byway was the Cherohala Skyway, a 40 mile national scenic byway. The name comes from a combination of Chero for the Cherokee National Forest and hala from Natahala National Forest. The road goes through both of those forests. The Cherohala Skyway took 30 years to build and cost $100 million. The road goes from an elevation of 1000 feet above sea level to 5,390 feet above sea level. $100 million did not buy shoulders, though.

Some red among the fog along the Cherohala Skyway

Some red among the fog along the Cherohala Skyway

The scenery was good but pictures from this section are few. The drive covers forests and several rivers and river valleys. The pull-offs (about one in every two miles) either were in areas with poor visibility or poor scenery. Fall colors here were much brighter-in areas with no pull-offs. Plus, the day was cloudy and drizzly early, with complete fog (or in the clouds) from about 4,800 feet to 5,390 feet and then back down to about 4,800 feet above sea level.

View from the Cherohala Skyway

View from the Cherohala Skyway

As expected, we observed numerous motorcycles, generally with good mufflers, and obeying the speed limits. Coming down from the high point on the Skyway, we pulled over at one overlook crowded with motorcylists enjoying the view and swapping tall tales. As we drove farther down, we encountered “The Virgins” and were thus able to even enjoy the scenery more as the speed was reduced below its already moderate level of 35, 45, or infrequently, 55 mph. Halfway between the end of the Skyway and the beginning of the next scenic route, “The Virgins” pulled over.

Along the "tail of the dragon"

Along the “tail of the dragon”

Our next major “named” scenic route was the “Tail of the Dragon”. This road is really hyped as a major motorcycle route. It is only 11 miles long with the speed limit 35 mph for the majority of the route. There are 318 curves along the 11 miles. Some of the curves are named: Hog Pen Bend, Parsons Curve, Little Whip, Pearly Gates, Wheelie Hell, Brake or Bust Bend, etc. Many of the curves are sloping, so on left turns the road drops down to the left side. Once again, we got behind a slow motorcyclist. Before this, I never would have thought I would be driving behind two slow motorcyclists in one day. This guy, however, on left curves with no oncoming traffic, dipped into the oncoming lane to enjoy the ride.

One of the photo entrepeneurs

One of the photo entrepeneurs

Near the beginning of the route is The Tail of the Dragon Store where there must have been over 100 bikers parked. Every kind of bike imaginable seemed to be taking the road and enjoying the curves. During the 11 miles, we passed at least five spots where entrepreneurs were set-up under a canopy and taking pictures of every vehicle that went by. They sell these pictures on the Internet. We went to one site and there were thousands of pictures. We were not positive of the time we drove by, doing a search for an hour period would have taken forever. Chris had fun waving to them as we passed, though.

A view from the overlook along the Tail of the Dragon

A view from the overlook along the Tail of the Dragon

As we were close to the end, we pulled over at an overlook. The motorcyclists were having a great time chatting and comparing bike notes. Us car people were in a minority. A short drive from Tail of the Dragon began the Foothills Parkway.

Chris was pleased to have us reach the Foothills Parkway. After the Cherohala and Tail of the Dragon and the hundreds of curves, her stomach was starting to feel a little queasy. Foothills is much gentler, although there are plenty of curves, generally you can take them at the posted speed limit of 45 mph. For Cherohala and Tail of the Dragon, the car was braking for the curves and she would have to hold on, the car would start accelerating again, then braking for curves, and repeat over and over.

View from the Foothills Parkway east into the Great Smoky Mountains

View from the Foothills Parkway east into the Great Smoky Mountains

The Foothills Parkway looks over into the Great Smoky Mountains, traveling along the Tennessee River valley uplands. Here the trees were almost completely green, even though we were farther north. Later on, a park ranger at the Great Smoky Visitor Center indicated he believed soil conditions played a major role in determining fall color. I don’t know, over the years I have heard so many conflicting reasons as to why fall color changes, or why its vividness is different, when the changeover begins, etc. We will just enjoy what we see.

This 20 mile stretch of the Foothills is not new to us. We drove it 2 years ago but it continues our theme of making the day one of scenic viewing with very little hiking. It ends at Townsend, TN.

One day in June, when I was at Union Depot in St. Paul, waiting for the Amtrak train to arrive and begin one of my Trails to Rails stints, I met a woman from Townsend. As we were talking, she mentioned that when we visited the Great Smoky Mountains, we should eat at Miss Lily’s Cafe. I made a note of it and Chris and I had our major meal of the day there at 3 PM. The food was quite good, we shared a strawberry salad and a chicken salad croissant sandwich. Dessert was chocolate cake and a sugar cookie.

The final scenic drive was along the Little River within the national park. It was the most direct way to Gatlinburg without traversing miles of tourist trap stores. It provided just a glimpse of the steep mountains, tall trees, and rushing creeks we will be seeing over the next week.

We stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center for the Great Smoky National Park and gathered up our literature for the next week. Driving through Gatlinburg was as unpleasant as driving through Pigeon Forge, Atlantic Beach, or other tourist places. Mini-golf, fudge shops, pedestrians, restaurants, hotels, T-shirt shacks, curio shops, etc. Our lodging is at the Westgate Resort, between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. While it is off the main road, it is a large complex and has its own crowds. Oh well, the unit has two bedrooms, a jacuzzi tub, kitchen, two bathrooms, a deck and it came for a great price.

Ed and Chris Sat. 10/10 11:15 AM and it has been raining constantly for the last 12 hours

Categories: road trip, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “2015 Trip Six, Great Smoky Mountains, Oct. 9

  1. Chris

    I can sympathize with Chris getting sick on curves….When I was 13 and Dad drove us all to New Orleans, we went thru the Ozarks on curvy, hilly, 2 lane roads. I did get sick! We had pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast, and I couldn’t stand the smell of maple syrup for ten years….. Happy trails! Good to hear from you


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