I make it a point every year to make at least one trip up to Tennessee the ride the Cherohala Skyway and the tail of the dragon. I am located in north Georgia so the trip is usually a there and back one-day adventure but sometimes I do book a room and stay the night to break up the ride. If you are not familiar with the Cherohala Skyway or the tail of the Dragon I highly recommend them to any experienced motorcycle rider. Both rides will challenge your skills in different ways and each have their own unique elements that make these rides so enjoyable.
Sizing Up the Motorcycle Rides
The Cherohala Skyway ride is 51.8 miles long and begins in Robbinsville North Carolina and ends in Tellico Plains Tennessee. It takes an estimated 1.5 hours to complete. The road was finished in 1996 after 34 years of construction. Summer motorcycling enthusiasts consider this route one of the best rides in the United States. The Cherohala Skyway passes through to national forests and has beautiful views throughout. I recommend that you complete the ride at least twice. The first time through try to complete the ride without stopping to get a full feel for the exciting curves that wind across the mountains at such a high elevation. The second time through take your time and stop at at least one overlook. One of the most popular overlooks is the Santee la Overlook that is about 5390 feet high. This is the highest elevation on the skyway. The view is amazing. If you like long winding curves that you can take at accelerated speeds and are not intimidated by heights then the skyway is the ride for you.
The tail of the Dragon is a completely different ride than the skyway. Tell the dragon is a two Lane stretch of road on US 129 in North Carolina. It is an 11-mile stretch of road that has over 300 challenging curves and has been featured in movies and TV shows. Some call at one of the most challenging rides in the United States. The tail of the Dragon begins in Deals Gap North Carolina. The road borders both the Great Smoky Mountains in the Cherokee national forest and in some stretches runs by the little Tennessee River. Some of the challenging twist interns have their own names such as hog pen bend, wheelie hell, copperhead corner, shade tree corner, sunset corner, mud corner, and beginners end. The corners come so often and so quick that you will be working the gears regularly. So unlike the skyway where you can enjoy winding long curves where you can push your speed the dragon is more about tight quick cornering and bursts of speed.
This year we decided to do the trip as a one day there and back ride. A buddy of mine put together a pretty tight itinerary for the trip. I know some riders have an issue with working off of a structured itinerary but I actually enjoy it. Especially with a large group that keeps us on task and on schedule and make sure that we don’t waste our time with things that will take away from our riding time. So with our schedule improved and our group with together we sat out for a great adventure.
7.00am: Meet up at Racetrack on I 575 Exit Ridgewalk in Woodstock
A popular place for groups of riders to meet in our area of North Georgia is the Race Track gas station by the ridge walk in Woodstock. It is right off the interstate and it’s pretty easy to access and has a lot of parking. I came rolling in to the Race Track a few minutes after 7 o’clock in the morning. My plan was to get there and take a few minutes to gas up and grab some water and some small snacks to take on the ride. This morning it appeared that everybody else had the same plan. Everybody in our group rolled in to the Race Track between seven and 7:15 AM. So after a few minutes of greeting and catching up we are all gassed up and ready to hop on the interstate. Next stop hit 575 north and head into Ellijay where we will meet some other riders and grab some breakfast.
8.30am to 9.25am: Breakfast. IHOP
It’s pretty typical for our group to choose the IHOP in Ellijay as another meeting place. It gives anybody in our group that lives further north in Georgia an easier place to meet up with the group and also give us a chance to sit down and have some breakfast and just catch up. The ride to Ellijay this morning was unseasonably chilly for the first day in June. I immediately regretted not bringing warmer riding gear. When we left all I had on for a shirt was one of my favorite Tail of the Dragon T-shirts. That did not last long as I immediately realized I needed to get out my jacket, my gloves, and even some arm sleeves for extra warmth. So we were all very happy to pull in to the IHOP at Ellijay as it would give us a chance to get out of the cold wind and warm up. The hope was is that after about an hour or so for breakfast the sun would finally break through the clouds and begin to warm everything up.
This IHOP is located right off of the main highway heading up to Blue Ridge so it’s easy to access but unfortunately it can sometimes be extremely crowded. Today we got lucky as we only had to wait for 15 minutes for a table, which is pretty good. Once seated we all began to catch up on current events in each other’s lives. Some of us had not seen each other for a few weeks so it was nice to get reacquainted. So breakfast went off without a hitch and we were staying on schedule and it was time to hop back on the bikes, resume speed, and head north through Blue Ridge Then take Highway five into McCaysville Copperhill. From there it is a enjoyable back road ride With a good amount of curves up to Ducktown and then up to Tellico Plains.
There was a little bit of traffic in McCaysville this morning, which was A little bit of a pain. The Town only has one light but you’d be surprised i’ll traffic and back up at it. On this brisk June morning there were already a lot of people walking the streets of this little out-of-the-way town. It’s definitely worth a visit especially around Christmas time when the stores in the streets are decorated with lights. The town definitely has a lot of country charm to it and there are a couple of nice watering holes as well as some gift shops for those that are interested.
After you leave McCaysville The route from there up to Ducktown has a couple of fairly hazardous train track crossings that you have to be aware of. I’ve made the mistake in the past of powering through this route to quickly and hitting the train tracks at a high speed and it did not make my bike very happy. This morning I made sure that the group was focused and had a heads up about the train tracks and we took them all smoothly. We had a great time powering through a lot of the curves along this country route and we were going strong until we came across a few cars that were out on a leisurely Sunday ride. We were very patient however and bided our time until we came to an area of the road where it was legal and safe to pass. I do have to admit it is pretty invigorating to roll through the throttle on your motorcycle on those back country roads at passing speed then keep that momentum going and power through the curves.
Unfortunately the sun was still hiding behind the clouds so the ride was still unseasonably chilly so once again we were all looking forward to pulling in to our next stop. By 9:30am we rolled into the Exxon station in Tellico Plains Tennessee. So far so good as far as our schedule and now it was time to gas up take a 15-minute break and start heading up the skyway. The Exxon station we stopped at is a pretty popular destination for motorcycle riders on the skyway as it features a outdoor dining area that caters to bikers and plenty of motorcycle parking. Inside you can find some silly skyway gifts and commemorative items such as Cherohala Skyway T-shirts and novelties.
On our way to the Cherohala Skyway
9.30am: Takeoff to 450 Cherohala Skyway, Tellico Plains TN 37385
Everybody gassed up had some refreshments and rolled out on time onto the skyway. I had a particular feeling of excitement and anticipation, as the skyway is one of my favorite rides in the southeast. The air was still a little brisk but I didn’t mind as our motorcycles thundered along the beginning of the skyway overlooking the Tellico River. Traffic was light and I knew this was going to be and invigorating first pass through the skyway. As we work through the early stages of the skyway we began to climb to higher elevations and that is when the ride got really good. With no traffic in sight like a powerful snake slithering to the mountains our group of motorcycles powered through the long curves of the skyway. We have a good group of experienced riders with various types of motorcycles from sport bikes to cruisers and baggers but everyone of us has a good grasp on how to handle their machines. I was having a great time and really getting a kick out of pushing my cornering skills at high speeds along those long looping stretches of the skyway. I was third in line in our group and the two riders in front of me were really pushing my skills this morning. Both riders in front of me have small lighter cruisers with
Larger engines than my Harley Davidson Street glide. My street glide is a 2007 with a 96 in.³ stock engine so I don’t have a lot of power so keeping up with a brand new Harley Davidson Softail with a 103 in it can be challenging and it was. However it was a lot of fun and then almost seemed like my big old motorcycle was enjoying it as much as I was. The only complain I have about the skyway is that it is so much fun and you can take it at such competitive speeds that the ride seems to go by so fast even though you are on it for over an hour. This ride was no exception as The end of the skyway was an unwelcome sight for me and I just wanted to put a few more miles on my motorcycle. Oh well it was time to get off and take a break and top off the tank before we headed to the tail of the Dragon.
11.00am: Takeoff to Tail of the Dragon, 17555 Tapoco Rd, Robbinsville, NC 28771
Staying on schedule we began our trek to the tail of the Dragon. I got officially warmed up and it was now a very pleasant day. The sun was shining and it was about 68°; beautiful motorcycle riding weather. The route to the tail of the Dragon was somewhat uneventful and smooth. We traveled mostly back roads and there was very little traffic. However a small stretch of road that we traveled on was pretty bad. The scenery was somewhat beautiful but as we were traveling down the road the quality of the blacktop Degraded as the road went along and in many places we even encountered some loose gravel. Normally a little bit of loose gravel wouldn’t set off any alarms but you have to understand that this is a very winding road and when you mix loose gravel and constant downshifting and cornering things get a little hairy. Oh well we were only on that road for about 10 minutes or so but once we got off of it I was happy to put it in my rearview mirror. We traveled a few more miles on so-and-so Road and then finally pulled into deals gap at the mouth of the tail of the Dragon.
It was Memorial Day weekend so the tail of the Dragon was hopping. During spring and summer there are always a lot of motorcycles and exotic cars at the tail of the Dragon but this weekend it was particularly crowded and festive. Deals Gap had a pretty solid country band playing live music, which really helped to set the mood. They also had a few beverage vendors as well as food vendors stationed in the parking lots to keep people refreshed and happy.
My group and I hung out for about 30 minutes as planned and enjoyed some refreshments but we knew we had a schedule to keep and we were ready to hop back on our motorcycles and go challenge the tail of the Dragon.
1.00pm to 2.30pm: ride on the Dragon and Back
A group waited for a nice opening in traffic and we proceeded on to the first challenges on the tail of the Dragon. I decided to bring up the rear our group. I like being in the back position because I can keep an eye on the rest of the group and also I love the feeling of having that little bit of pressure on me to make sure that I keep up with the group and don’t hold up any other riders that might be behind me. The first 10 to 15 curves went super smooth and we were really cruising but then we started to catch up with some slower traffic. That lasted for only a couple of curbs and lucky for us the car that was causing the slow down pulled off to the side of the road and allowed all of us to pass. We rolled the throttle and sped off.
This was only my second time taking my 2007 Harley Davidson St. glide on the dragon. The first time was about six months ago and I was very cautious but now I was very comfortable with this bike and I wanted to push it to see how it would perform. So it is a heavy bike it does corner surprisingly well. I started pushing it so hard that I was consistently scraping the bottom of my exhaust pipes in most of the corners. It was a very invigorating feeling. It’s kind of funny that I have always been uncomfortable with scraping my motorcycle’s riding pegs but I don’t have any issues with scraping the pipes. To me the feeling of scraping the pegs is very jarring where is when you scrape the pipes it’s more of just a smooth satisfying scraping sound.
As I mentioned before, riding the tail of the Dragon is all about changing speeds and working your lower gears and doing a lot of shifting. With that in mind there are often times that you are revving your bike a little higher than you normally would on regular road circumstances. My bike was handling it very well and I was very pleased. I was having so much fun and I even decided to ham it up a little bit for a few of the professional photographers that are stationed strategically throughout the various curves. With each curve I got a little more daring and a little more confident and push my limits a little further. Of course just as I thought that I could not have any more fun I came around the last corner of the dragon. When you come around that last corner it’s a mix of both satisfaction and disappointment. Satisfied that you just conquered the dragon but disappointment that it is over already. On this day it was actually a speed trap set up at the end of the route and they had at least a handful of bikes and cars they were getting tickets. It’s a real bummer to see that.
Our group wrote down the road a little bit until we came to A great place to pull over next to the river and relax for a few minutes and talk about each one of our successes on the tail of the Dragon. As I mentioned before, one of our guys was riding on a 2021 Harley Davidson Softail and he in particular put in a impressive effort. When he was not in sight all I could hear was the scraping of his pegs going around the corners. He’s a brave and skilled motorcycle rider, much braver than I, and it really showed today.
All that was left to do now was to start bikes back up and start heading back the way we came. One more run through the dragon going the opposite direction and then backtrack our way over to the skyway for a middle of the afternoon run back toward Tellico Plains then take the back roads back home to Georgia. All in all it had been a very successful day and I was looking forward to a much more relaxed and laid-back pace for the ride home