Adventure Touring The Smokies
Want to get away from it all? Leave the pavement behind.
By James Holter
We park the two Buell Ulysses at the end of the gravel two-track, then walk the last hundred yards up to a wide, grassy meadow.
For the past 10 minutes, we’ve been climbing a steep Jeep road, so we know we’re high up. Still, that doesn’t prepare us for the view we find atop windswept Whigg Meadow: a 270-degree panoramic vista overlooking what seems to be every single summit in the Great Smoky Mountains.
We take in the view in awed silence, turning nearly all the way around as we soak up the remote feel of this 4,900-foot-high perch.
The only man-made thing we can see from here is the Cherohala Skyway, which climbs out of the flatlands toward its mile-high summit.
And we’re looking down on it.
Have I mentioned how much I love adventure-touring motorcycles?
It’s not just that bikes like the Ulysses can help you explore forgotten roads leading to cool places like this, nestled just a few hundred yards west of the North Carolina/Tennessee state line. It’s that so few other people bother to make the trek.
So while the overlooks on paved roads like the Cherohala Skyway, the Blue Ridge Parkway or U.S. 441 through Great Smoky Mountains National Park are packed with people, we’ve got the world to ourselves as we enjoy a picnic lunch atop Whigg Meadow.
Even better: It’s just one of many highlights of a day spent exploring dirt roads in the Smokies.
Our ride started this morning with one simple plan:
Search out the best gravel roads the Smokies have to offer.
This is a part of the country known for its spectacular pavement. But we’ve gotten hints that there are great unpaved routes out here, too—if you know where to look.
The search begins in earnest as we emerge from lowland fog right where the paved Joyce Kilmer Road joins the Cherohala Skyway, west of Robbinsville, North Carolina. There, we pick up Forest Service Route 81, leave the pavement behind, and roll beneath a canopy of trees.
The road is more tacky than muddy after recent rains. Still, marble-sized gravel lingers on the surface and is particularly deep on the soft shoulders, reminding us to ease up early going into the tight corners. The Buells are nimble machines, but I’d hate to have to haul one out of a ravine.
Running adjacent to rocky Sand Creek, FS 81 leads through deep forest, occasionally breaking through to sunlight as it winds higher into the hills. Hunting campgrounds dot the roadsides, with morning fires burning in many of them.
Wild boar is the target of choice here, as evidenced by the large specimen we see in the bed of a pickup that rolls by us going the other way. And we learn to keep a keen eye out for hunting dogs, which cross our path now and then.
This route may lack the thrilling curves of the Dragon or the endless sweeping vistas of the Skyway. But boy, does it have atmosphere.
After a while, the campgrounds dwindle to nothing. We cross Sand Creek one last time, then hook a left up a steep stretch of road. At the top, we find a neat surprise: a stone bridge that carries the Cherohala Skyway over our heads.
We continue under it, with FS 81 earning a new name as we cross into Tennessee—North River Road.
Our discovery of Whigg Meadow comes when we explore a side road just past the bridge. At first, the road drops a few hundred feet in elevation, but then it climbs steadily after we take a bridge over a creek cascading down the mountain.
Where are we headed? We don’t know, but the scenery’s great, so we continue onto an extremely steep road, just to see where it goes.
The answer turns out to be one of the most scenic vistas in the Smokies. And we’d never have found it if we hadn’t been willing to get a little lost.
Maybe it’s the scale of the view from Whigg Meadow, but by the time we backtrack to the Skyway bridge and pick up North River Road again, I’ve got a new appreciation for the remoteness of the area.
We roll for miles without seeing another soul—just taking it easy, enjoying the sights and occasionally wincing when a break in the trees reveals just how steep the dropoffs are.
Slowly, the route flattens out, and eventually we’re riding through a valley along North River itself. Beneath a canopy of maples, yellow birch and boxelder, the light filtering through suggests it’s practically twilight, even though the sky—when we see it—is blue.
We reach the pavement again at Tellico River Road, where we take a short side trip west to Bald River Falls, a 120-foot-high series of stair-step rapids that drop from the mountain to flow under the roadway. But with the pavement comes more people, and a regular traffic jam at the falls. Bummer.
We backtrack east along the Tellico River, running out of pavement again after we cross back into North Carolina. The road leads us to the Upper Tellico off-highway vehicle area, a web of two-track trails nestled roughly between Chestnut Mountain and Peckerwood Ridge.
We check out the map that’s posted at the entrance, right next to an honor box for the $5 daily-use fee. From there, we pick up the Tipton Creek Trail, a gravel through-road that crosses the OHV area.
This five-mile route is easily the most challenging stretch of road we find all day. Unlike the earlier dirt roads, this one is littered with pea gravel that rolls liberally between the Buell’s wide tires and the hard-packed dirt surface. The hills are steep enough to require feathering the clutch, and a few of the switchbacks have our elbows hanging out over sharp drop-offs.
Still, the route isn’t exceedingly difficult—not that we couldn’t have challenged ourselves if we wanted, as we find out when we take one wrong turn and immediately encounter a water crossing over soft mud and sand where there’s just enough room to turn around without hefting a wheel. Considering our tires are more suited to asphalt than slop, sticking to the through-road seems to be the responsible plan.
Pavement returns on the other side of the OHV area, in the form of a road that goes by various names—Davis Creek, Beaver Dam and Hanging Dog roads—but remains North Carolina Route 1331 until we reach Joe Brown Highway and then the town of Murphy.
A left on U.S. 129 takes us to Andrews, where we grab a late snack at the local gas station and congratulate ourselves on what we’ve discovered so far.
Still, there’s one last great road to come.
If it weren’t for the sign, I’d think we’d made a wrong turn.
But on what looks like a narrow gravel driveway is notice that we’ve found Tatham Gap Road, a dark artifact of American history. The road is, literally, a part of what the Cherokee Nation calls “Nunna dual Isunyi”—the Trail of Tears.
Built in 1838 by soldiers under the command of General Winfield Scott, it was a direct route for the government to forcefully relocate 14,000 Cherokee from the Smokies to Oklahoma.
While the history might be grim, the road is anything but, at least from an adventure-touring viewpoint. It crests Snowbird Mountain, and that means switchbacks—lots of them.
Heading up from its start, a short ride up North Carolina Route 1391 from U.S. 129 in Andrews, we pick our way around the 180-degree turns and blind corners, doing our best to avoid the dual hazards of potential oncoming traffic (thankfully nil) and sheer dropoffs (plenty).
Halfway to Robbinsville, we detour east, and up, toward Tayahalee Bald. Unfortunately, we reach a closed gate near the top, but the expansive view of Andrews from the turnaround makes the side trip worthwhile.
Coming down the mountain on the other side, the road flattens out to wide sweeping turns. When we reach pavement again, we know the ride is nearing its end back in Robbinsville.
We could have completed this final leg on U.S. 129, which is a great road in its own right. But, thanks to the Ulysses, we were able to find an alternate route that combines fantastic scenery with a sobering element of American history.
Have I mentioned how much I love adventure-touring bikes?