Sometime before sunset, after the tourists have headed back to their hotels, it’s possible to be alone on the Blue Ridge Parkway. You can pull over at a scenic overlook, slip your bike on the stand, lean back, and get lost in the magical vista. As multiple layers of soft color melt away into the distance behind the fading mountains, the spirits of the ancient ones whisper through the still evening air.
Not wild or breathtaking the way the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Tetons tear the horizon with their jagged peaks two miles above the earth. The Blue Ridge Mountains appear more gentle, approachable, and peaceful, as they melt into the pastel horizon. Time disappears, as the transition to night transforms the landscape, and you find yourself lost in thought and wonder in their presence. Later, the cool of the approaching night, and the sound of nature’s orchestra warming up for the evening symphony brings you back. It’s time to swing your bike off the stand, fire it to life, click into gear and head for home. A welcome reception, hot shower, and dinner with friends await us. Leaving the fading mountains to the transition from light to dark, and winding down the sinuous ribbon of tarmac ahead, it’s comforting to know that all roads lead to Maggie Valley.
Main Street in Maggie runs the length of the town of 1,200 people. U.S. 19 through town is given over to tourism. It’s a corner of the world that has managed to avoid the destruction of mainstream development. Small mom-and-pop restaurants, motels and curiosity shops rule the roost, with little influence from fast-food America to spoil the ambience. Southern hospitality, great service, and fantastic prices, it’s long been base camp to savvy motorcycle travelers, the kind in need of refreshing air, lightly trafficked roads, and some of the most beautiful scenery the East Coast has to offer.
A few years ago, Joanne Martin at the Mountaineer Restaurant invited a riding buddy and me for a few days of exploring the area. We couldn’t resist returning to this popular riding destination. Setting up in one of the cabins below the restaurant, we picked up the phone and put in the call that would ensure the best possible riding experience for the time we had available.
Meeting early for breakfast the following morning, we were greeted by a beaming grin bursting out of a plain white helmet. Sitting astride a fully loaded adventure bike with no signs of any chicken strips on the well-scrubbed tires, Wayne Busch is obviously a very serious mountain rider. He is also the owner of America Rides Maps and probably has ridden more miles in these mountains than anyone you are likely to meet. He produces a series of maps highlighting all the best rides available in this area, so just decide what you want to do, where you want to go for the day, grab a map, and head out.
“It’s always fun when Neale comes up to the Smokies,” Busch said later. “He’s an expert rider so I know he’s looking for the best little back roads to enjoy, and Maggie Valley sits at the hub of so many of them. It’s a great place to base out of as so many riders have discovered and the Wheels Through Time Motorcycle Museum is a must see.”
We chose a circular route that included all the best scenery and on the least traveled roads. It’s like putting on the cruise control or having your own private tour guide on top of the tank bag. Busch kindly offered to lead the ride. Over mugs of steaming coffee, he showed us different routes as we told motorcycle stories and got acquainted.
“You may find a great squiggly road on Google or hear about some classic road on the internet, but when you reach the end of it, which way do you go to reach the next great ride?” he said. “Those little connections can make the difference between slogging through town traffic, droning along on the busy four-lane, or enjoying another nice and scenic lonely country back road. A lot of times, these connecting roads are as good as the ride you came for and you’ll see things most others miss.”
Heading out of the Mountaineer with our mapmaker at the helm, we picked one the most popular tours in this area: A challenging ride that would take us to the Tail of the Dragon and the Cherohala Skyway out on the western edge of North Carolina. First we chose from one of three routes on America Rides Maps to take us there. They range from the most direct to the most meandering.
“The Back Roads Approach,” a 145-mile, four-hour route was the unanimous choice for our group. If you are in a hurry and want to focus on the Dragon for the day, U.S. 74 will get you there in under two hours, while only racking up 81 miles on your odometer.
“I always keep a few maps in my pocket, so I can change up my routes on the fly,” Busch said. “Neale knows nothing beats first-hand local knowledge. While I can’t ride with everyone, I’ve made maps to let you discover the roads and sights so few ever get to enjoy.”
Dropping into Maggie Valley on a beautiful, clear morning, the air was alive with the sounds and smells of this small, industrious town getting busy. Lawnmowers cut neat lines in carefully tended yards, and delivery trucks unloaded supplies as we wound down and into the neighboring town of Waynesville. With a tourist tag line of “slow down and enjoy the present,” an historic Main Street packed with brightly colored art galleries, coffee shops, curiosity shops that gives views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it would have been easy to get distracted from the ride. Luckily, we are on a mission and keep rolling, making a mental note to return.
Pigeon Street leads south on U.S. 276 to twist and turn under the Blue Ridge Parkway and down to U.S. 64. Riding along these lightly trafficked two-lane roads is motorcycle heaven. We picked up N.C. 107 to wrap along picturesque Glenville Lake. Traveling in early May the dogwoods are still in bloom, and splashes of intense colors punctuate the warm backdrop of pastel green and brown that lines the route.
Later, we weaved our way to Franklin and ended up on Wayah Road for the next 28 miles. This gives another chance to stretch the throttle cables a little as we carve back and forward on what seems like an endless series of perfectly arced curves. Thick forest interspersed with open meadows accompanies us on the ride, and before long we are popping out onto U.S. 74 at the base of the Nantahala Gorge.
Turning south, within a mile or so we pick up U.S. 129 and roll through the cool, shady countryside on tarmac so fine it’s like a manicured golf course of the motoring kind. This leads us through the funky little mountain town of Robbinsville where we gas up and add a little fuel to our bellies. Within a few minutes we are out of town and back into the country. Crisscrossing the Cheoah River, we make our way past peaceful Lake Santeetlah and the Topoco Lodge. Three miles further, we cross the Little Tennessee River and stop for a look at the Cheoah Dam made famous in the 1993 movie, “The Fugitive.”
Saddling up, we roll up the hill and out to the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort. Located at the end of the world-famous Tail of the Dragon, the resort offers gas, cold drinks and food, as well as plenty of souvenirs and memorabilia. They also have accommodation available for those wanting to spend more time here, but our group votes on one ride up and back before heading to the more leisurely and scenic Cherohala Skyway.
With a clear mental snapshot of the “Tree Of Shame,” located on the grounds of the resort, which for those unfamiliar is decorated like a Christmas tree with parts of crashed bikes dangling in place of shiny ornaments, we took off to tame the Dragon. Featuring 318 curves in 11 miles, it’s a highly challenging series of tight corners, with a few short straights thrown in to really confuse you. Without intimate local knowledge, it’s easy for the Dragon to bite you with its many decreasing radius corners or lurking local policeman. These guys have had their sense of humor surgically removed, so be warned if you go over the limit.
Suitably prepared our experience was fantastic. Swerving, twisting, climbing and tumbling through the undulating mountain countryside, there’s little time to breath. A quick break gets our heartbeat back to normal, and we head back for a cold drink at the resort before the next great riding experience, the Cherohala Skyway.
This is a statelier ride as we head up U.S. 143 to touch the clouds a mile high into the mountain air. Long leisurely sweepers let you feel you are leaned over forever, and sweeping mountain views greet you around every bend. We stop at the top to breathe in the crisp air and enjoy the peace and serenity of a short hike on one of the trails leading out of the parking area. With trees and shrubs in bloom and a plethora of birds and insects busying themselves in the warm spring afternoon, it’s hard to turn back to the bikes.
Ending on the Tellico Plains in Tennessee, we have a couple of choices for the return ride to Maggie Valley, and elect to re-run the Cherohala before taking the shortest route back for dinner. Some bluegrass musicians will be playing back at the Mountaineer, and an outdoor table with the million-dollar view awaits us. With the promise of a plate of their famous meatloaf, we don’t lollygag on the way back to Maggie Valley.
Rolling through Cherokee as the sun finally heads off for the evening, the climb out of this fascinating mountain town on U.S. 19 challenges and invigorates in equal amounts. Cresting the rise—known locally as Soco Gap—by the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway, we make our way carefully down the last few twisting miles of our ride. It’s been a day packed with some of the best motorcycle riding on offer, and tomorrow we can head out and do it all over again on different roads.
With a near endless choice of routes and sight seeing opportunities, it’s sure to cause a heated debate over coffee tomorrow. Personally, I’m voting for anything that takes us on the Blue Ridge Parkway as the spring colors are in full force. It doesn’t really matter the route we take, as any direction is guaranteed to give the same fabulous riding experience.
Besides, whichever one we choose, all roads lead back to Maggie Valley.
Neale Bayly is an accomplished photojournalist, TV presenter and philanthropist based in Charlotte, North Carolina. His motorcycle travels span more than 50 countries while raising funds to help abandoned children through his foundation, www.wellspring-outreach.org. Visit his YouTube channel at NealeBaylyRides.