From Chattanooga it was a hop, skip, and jump to Walmart in Madisonville, where we’d planned to pre-stage for our entry into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After my Friday morning meeting, we’d make our way into the woods and try to find someplace to be, hopefully for the weekend, and hopefully where I could load and unload my bike.
There was a little too much “hopefully” in this plan for me, so I went on iOverlander and searched for places to stay in the area. We were only about half an hour from the Cherohala Mountain Trails Campground. Prices were more than reasonable (just over $10 per person, per night). Trisha called and confirmed that they had plenty of room for camping. I’m used to all campgrounds being already booked through the end of time, so this was a pleasant surprise. We abandoned our Walmart plan, went straight to the campground, and booked a stay through Sunday morning. While there’s no cell signal, there’s good WiFi in the office, so I was still able to work. (In fact, my Macbook Pro can pick it up from our campsite, which is how I’m writing this now.)
This place is a hidden gem on the western side of the Smoky Mountains. They have absolutely no problem with camper vans and gave us the tent rate, since we don’t need any hookups. Ninety percent of their business is motorcyclists, mainly of the adventure bike variety — in other words, my people. Just about everyone else staying here right now is here to ride the area, both on and off the road. There’s even another KLR rider here, who unfortunately broke his kickstand while unloading his bike.
Friday, I worked until there wasn’t any more work to be done, then headed out on a loop of the Cherohala Skyway and the Tail of the Dragon. The Dragon gets all the hype and publicity, but it’s just one of many, many great motorcycling roads in the Smoky Mountains. The Cherohala Skyway isn’t tricky or technical, but it still winds its way over the Smoky Mountains, with a maximum altitude of 5,300 feet. It was nice to cool off a bit at that altitude in the middle of the ride. I crossed into North Carolina partway through, adding two new states to my “states I’ve ridden in” list in one day. I’d thought about heading all the way out to the Moonshiner 28, which would’ve extended my ride into South Carolina as well, but it was already mid-afternoon, and we had dinner plans for 6pm. So I stopped for gas and a drink before heading straight for the Dragon.
Then my bike wouldn’t start.
I had electricity, but when I hit the starter button, the whole bike would shut down for about a minute or so until power came back. I wondered if my starter had died. Leaving the gas station there was a nice long downhill stretch, so I got a good rolling start, dumped the clutch in second gear, and got the engine running again. So I could keep riding, but I couldn’t shut off the engine, so there would be no stopping at any more scenic areas or Tail of the Dragon tourist traps. But the best way back to camp was to continue straight through the Dragon. Darn.
The Dragon is famous for being a motorcycle mecca. It has 318 curves in just 11 miles. People flock here from all over to experience it for themselves. It’s been on my bucket list for a while, and now our journey north presented the perfect opportunity to see it for ourselves. Is all the hype about the Dragon actually true?
In all my 20+ years of motorcycling, I have never ridden anything as tricky and technical as the Dragon. The Cabot Trail was amazing but not particularly challenging. Iron Mountain Road in South Dakota was challenging, particularly on an 800lb Indian, but not like this. Not even the Mount Washington Auto Road was this technical, and it even has a dirt section. It’s not just the number of turns, but the variety of them — fast and slow, tight and open, cambered and not… Out of 318 turns, I misjudged two of them. I was also riding far below the limit of traction, so I got away with my errors and was able to correct without an issue. It was so fun, even with an injured bike (that was now showing some additional electrical gremlins). I don’t have much for chicken strips left on my tires after that ride, and like I said, I didn’t push it very hard.
At the end of the Dragon, I told the Garmin to take me “home” as quickly as possible. The turn signals were flashing in strange patterns. One of my driving lights was out. The problem was clearly not limited to the starter. In the event of a massive cascade failure, I wanted to get back to camp ASAP, or at least head directly that way so that if I needed a rescue I could shorten the distance as much as I could. In the end I made it back just fine. The bike refused to restart after I shut it off at camp. After removing the seat and tightening down the battery terminals, it started right up and worked perfectly once again. The biggest problems are also usually the simplest ones.
The next day, it was Trisha’s turn to come along for the ride. We ended up doing the route I’d originally planned before technical difficulties the previous day, in reverse. Just after starting the Cherohala Skyway we turned left onto Route 360, which we took all the way up to US 411. Then it was a quick hop down Route 72 to US 129 and the Dragon. Yes, we rode the Tail of the Dragon, two-up, on a Kawasaki KLR650.
We stopped at the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort for a breather, for lunch, and to inspect the Tree of Shame, thankful that we hadn’t donated anything to it. Trisha also added her first decoration to her helmet, a well-earned one.
From there we made our way back to the Cherohala Skyway to head “home.” Again, Trisha got lots of video, at least until her battery ran out. I would argue that the Skyway was even more difficult than the Dragon for us. I can handle the tight twists and turns, but the steep hills of the Skyway were hard on both the KLR’s engine and brakes, especially two-up. But we did it, and made it back to camp. After a fun evening of socializing we went to bed. The next morning we packed up and headed out.
We will definitely remember this place, both the campground as well as the Smoky Mountains in general. There’s a lot of great riding we didn’t come close to touching, and everywhere we go the roads and scenery are amazing. I’d love to come back someday, take a week off work, and just go riding every day, on and off-road. Most of our fellow campers also rode dual-sports, and it seems the gravel roads in the area are just as good. Plus, after several weeks of straight, flat roads, and months of less than enjoyable riding, it was an absolute thrill to come here and get the type of riding I enjoy most. The only downside is that I attacked the corners so hard I’m about due for a new set of tires on the KLR. That’s not a bad thing, though. I want something better suited for dirt anyway.