Three days and 500 miles of motorcycle bliss
It’s not just the roads that make western North Carolina one of the best motorcycle riding regions in the country. It’s also the people you meet and the sights you see. These things combined made this trip the best I have ever taken to date. Three days and 500 miles of riding bliss have left me saddle sore with a smile on my face.
This ride starts in Asheville and begins on the Blue Ridge Parkway, going south. The Parkway is an excellent motorcycle road that leads to other great roads. In my case, NC 215 to Cashiers and Highlands, NC. The overall objective of this trip was to see towns I had never seen and to ride roads I had never ridden in western North Carolina. I wanted to ride the Parkway all the way to NC 215, but the road is closed at mile marker 401 due to a large rock slide. Lucky for me because the detour around the slide took me to NC 276 North which goes through Transylvania County and the Pisgah Forest. Transylvania County is called the Land of Waterfalls because of the 250 waterfalls located throughout the county. Unfortunately, I only saw one, but it was a good one.
Looking Glass Falls is a powerful waterfall situated on the left side of the road going north. I made a pit stop here and met up with another rider that had passed me on the way up here. He was easy to remember because he had a Hero video camera suction cupped to his helmet. It turns out he was a tourist from Brazil who rented a Harley in Washington DC and rode it down here to ride the Blue Ridge. We walked down to the waterfall to take pictures and then headed off separately toward the Parkway. At the Parkway, I headed south again towards the next exit, NC 215. On the way, I made a stop at one of the overlooks and once again ran into the Brazilian rider with the helmet cam along with a collection of other riders who had just pulled in.
I met Hans, a big guy riding a fully decked out, top-of-the-line BMW touring bike with a trailer on the back. I asked him what it was like to pull a trailer with a motorcycle. He said he doesn’t even know it’s back there and sometimes has to look back to ensure it’s still there. Hans introduced me to Ghi, a french Canadian rider who pulled in to ask directions to the Dragon, aka, The Dragons Tail on NC 129. Ghi rode from Quebec on his Harley with a mission to ride the Dragon and see Graceland in Memphis. Since I was heading in that direction, I offered to let Ghi follow me for a while. Before leaving, the Brazilian rider and I exchanged cameras and took pictures of each other for our scrapbooks.
Ghi and I headed south down the Parkway. He split off at NC 215 to follow the Parkway into Cherokee and Memphis via the Dragon. I rode south down NC 215 towards Cashiers, NC, on route 64. Most notable about Cashiers was its beautiful golf courses and Lake Toxaway. Unfortunately, I didn’t see much of the Lake because all of the entrances I found were private roads. I settled for just a roadside view and then headed north on 64 to Highlands, another town I have been anxious to visit. Highlands reminds me of Breckenridge in Colorado, without the ski area. It’s a beautiful, well-presented town, with a nice downtown center. The streets are clean and lined with old-fashioned lampposts with pots full of flowers hanging on them. Judging by the many Mercedes and Porsches I saw, this is an upper-class town. As one blogger put it, “you can smell the money here.” I liked the town in my short stay and will probably return for a more extended visit.
Franklin is well known for its gem mines open to the public for prospecting. The ride was pleasant and uneventful. In Franklin, I continued on 64, looking for Wayah Road, my route to Nantahala. When I couldn’t find it, I stopped at a roadside welding shop where I met another VStrom owner. His friend, the welder, gave me directions to Wayah Road and a few tips on where to turn later. Off I went down 64 when I saw and felt something small and furry broadside my bike out of the right side of my vision. I realized quickly that it was a small dog. It ran straight into the toe of my boot. It took me a couple of hundred feet to stop and turn around. The dog was lying unconscious in the middle of the road, and cars were coming. I raced back to the dog, got off my bike, and picked her out of the road. As she was starting to revive, another rider pulled over to help. She called her local vet with the license number on the dog’s tag to find the owner. Just as we were starting to call, the owner pulled into the road we were on and said, “that’s my dog.” I explained to the owner what had happened and recommended she take the dog immediately to a vet. I don’t know the final outcome of all of this, but I am grateful that both the dog and I are still alive. I am also grateful to the other rider who pulled over to help. Riders like that give the sport a good reputation.
From Highlands, I rode north on Highway 64 to Franklin but on the way stopped at two lovely waterfalls outside of town. Bridal Veil Falls and Dry Falls are a short distance from each other and easy stops on the way north. Bridal Veil Falls is literally a drive-through. You ride behind the falls. Dry Falls isn’t dry at all. It’s a massive fall that requires a short trek down. You can walk behind these falls and view them from the inside out. It was very refreshing.
Wayah Road was just a short way up Highway 64. This narrow, two-lane road winds its way uphill and then down to Nantahala Lake. This Lake also seems private, although there were some public access points off of Wayah Road. From Lake Nantahala, I headed north up Wayah Road towards Nantahala, NC, and the famous Nantahala Outdoor Center. This center is known worldwide for its Whitewater School and other outdoor programs. I spent the night camped out along the river, and it was a nice respite from the high heat and humidity of the day. The campground owner, Charles, was nice and friendly and spent some time chatting with me while I set up my tent. Big Nantahala’s campground had showers, and boy did I need one after a long day of riding in the heat.
I had a small snack for dinner that night, so I made up for it by looking for a big breakfast the next day. I headed down Highway 19 to the Rivers End cafe. The cafe sits right on the river, so I got to watch some fly fishing activity while I ate. I didn’t see anybody catch anything, but it sure looked refreshing standing in the river.
After breakfast, I headed north on NC 129 towards Robbinsville. My destination today was the Cherohala Skyway and the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. The Skyway is a ride much like the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s a scenic two-lane road that winds non-stop through the mountains all the way to Tellico Plains, Tennessee. The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest was my first stop because it is a place I have been yearning to visit. It’s located about 15 miles north of Robbinsville on Highway 143 and is the oldest old-growth forest in the United States. Some of the trees here are 400 years old, over 20 feet in circumference, and stand 100 feet tall. Standing in the forest, it feels ancient. If you love trees, which I do, this forest is a must-visit.
It was only a short trip from the Kilmer Forest to the Cherohala Skyway since they were both off the same highway. I only road the Skyway to the Tennessee border and turned around. It’s much like the Parkway in its look and feels. On my way back, I stopped in Robbinsville for lunch and ran into a father and son that I met at the campsite the night before. They were finishing up a six-month road trip that started in Houston, Texas. What a great way for a father and son to spend time together. While in Robbinsville, I was close to the Tail of the Dragon but chose not to go there because it is partly closed due to a rockslide. Maybe another day.
I took Highway 28 north out of Robbinsville and headed uphill to this well-known motorcycle stop. Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort was my next stop. The resort offers a small motel and a campground to riders. It’s a nice place to connect with other riders. If you stay there, there’s usually a campfire gathering at night where everyone can share their stories. Because all of the rooms were booked and I was just not into camping that night, I headed back north a few miles to the Fontana Village Lake Resort. The room prices were high but I needed some AC for the night and this was the first hotel I passed. I was able to get a cold beer, have a nice dinner, and take a refreshing swim in the pool. I met the owner, who treated me to a glass of wine and some good conversation. He has lived in the area his entire life and told stories of how they sent buses around the country with “help wanted” banners on the side, for men to work on building the Fontana Lake dam. Help was hard to find at that time because World War II was keeping everyone occupied. The dam got built and now holds back one of the largest lakes in North Carolina. Fontana Lake is unique in many ways. Unlike most lakes in the area, shoreline development has been kept to a minimum. More than 90 percent of the land around the Lake is owned by either the National Park Service or the US Forest Service.
After a rough night’s sleep due to a faulty air conditioner, I set off for my next campsite in Great Smokey Mountain National Park. I should mention that part of the reason for this trip was to see the Synchronous Fireflies in the park. They’re called Synchronous because the males all flash their lights at the same time. It’s supposed to be an impressive show. Unfortunately, I was too late. They only show up for about two weeks in June, and they had already come and gone. I’ll catch them next year.
Before going to my next overnight stop, I went into the touristy side of the town of Cherokee to get some lunch. This is an area with a lot of traffic going into the park and a lot of activity on the sides of the road including people tubing and fishing on the river. There were lots of people having a good time on a hot day. I went to a little cafe on the river (I’m into these “on the river” cafes). While eating, there was this very old man cleaning tables. He was wearing a cap with World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam embroidered on the front. When I asked him which war he was in, he said “all of them”. He proceeded to tell stories about his adventures in World War II including finding two abandoned Japanese subs under Hokkaido Island after the war. He lost part of his lung from his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam but it didn’t stop him from smoking. He was proud of his unit in Vietnam which he said was featured in the movie “We Were Soldiers”. I think he enjoyed having someone who was interested in hearing his stories. He, like many Cherokee Indians, made many sacrifices in the name of their native country.
On my final day, I rode to Maggie Valley for yet another big breakfast. The night before was a mere can of Campbell’s soup. I stopped where I saw the most cars & motorcycles, at Joey’s Pancake House on the edge of town. It was average food with great service and friendly people. There were a lot of locals there who were obviously regulars since the waitresses were calling them by their first names. With a belly full of pancakes, my last stop on the way out of town had to be the Wheels Through Time Museum. The museum owner has been collecting old American cars and motorcycles for 42 years. This is a warehouse of two floors full of nostalgia going back to the early 1900s. The staff and the owner are as friendly and welcoming as can be. The $12.00 fee to get in is a donation to keep the museum open. It’s well worth it. The owner was thrilled to have someone local come to visit. Apparently, not many local North Carolina riders come by. I encourage all riders to make this stop.
I chose my next campsite for its altitude. The Mt. Balsam campground is at 5300 feet above sea level, offering a retreat from the heat that no other campground in the area could offer. The entrance road is right off the Blue Ridge Parkway and runs about 8 miles up the mountain to a ridge. It’s a quiet, remote campground with great tent sites. I chose to pitch my tent at the edge of the woods. I always try to select campsites with as few other campsites around me as possible. This one had two neighbors across the street. One was fellow Ashevillager camping with his young daughter for Fathers Day, the other, a fellow rider who had come up from Atlanta to escape the heat. When I checked in, I discovered that I didn’t have the correct dollar denominations to pay the exact camp fee. After riding around unsuccessfully trying to find change for a twenty, I came across a guy walking his dog. He didn’t have the change I needed either but gave me a five-dollar bill to pay the fee. He said, “just pay it forward to someone else.” He had only stopped to walk his dog and was not staying at the campground. These are the kind of people I have run into this entire trip. Nice, friendly, willing to help people. I think motorcycles are like dogs and babies; they open up people’s hearts. When you have one with you, everyone wants to talk about riders and non-riders alike.
After the museum, I had the choice of continuing my journey or going home. Three days of riding, beautiful as it was, had worn me out. The decision was home. This was an incredible journey through one of the most beautiful regions of the United States. The country may be in a recession, but the riding is still good, and people still have their hearts open. If you want to see the best of what this country has to offer, get out and meet people. Take your dog, your baby, or your motorcycle and go. You’ll like what you see.
My belief is that we all should have the right to choose what we feel is best for ourselves. Life experience combined with education and information gives us the tools we need to make a decision for our own lives. This is true when it comes to wearing a helmet while riding also. I choose to wear a helmet because my internal advisor tells me this is what’s smart to do. In North Carolina, you don’t have a choice. In Colorado, where I started riding, you do. I have bumped my head and fallen off of bicycles throughout my life enough to know that just hitting your noggin on something at a slow speed hurts and can do a lot of damage. I have also seen what falling off a motorcycle at high speeds can do to your head, even with minimal protection.
I choose to wear a high-quality, full-face helmet for protection because I want to keep my face if I go down and live through it. I say this because the consequences of no face protection could literally be an erased face; complete removal of the jawbone and nose. I saw a picture of a rider that this happened to, and the visual still sticks in my mind. This rider lived, but I’m sure went through years of painful surgery to restore his face. I choose to wear full-body protection for the same reason. My back, elbows, shoulders, knees, hips all get protection. I had a boss once who was a pro bodybuilder. He decided to get his tan one day by riding down the freeway in shorts. He went down and slid on the hot pavement long enough to remove most of the skin from one side of his body. The full-body scar he has to live with now ended his bodybuilding career.
We all need to make our own sound decisions on what we wear when we ride. What are you willing to sacrifice if, or should I say when, you go down on your motorcycle and live to tell the story? I, for one, would like to tell my story with the nose on my face and the skin on my body.