As you explode off of the end of the Dragon’s Tail on US129, the exhilarating ride will leave you wanting more. Luckily for you, you are currently in a motorcyclist’s paradise, and all you need to do is stay on the throttle and hang a left at the next fork in the road, leaving US129 and getting on to the 72. From there, you will find yourself making another left onto the 411. As quickly as you get on the highway, you will bid farewell to the busy traffic, and exit off onto the 360 at Vonore, TN. This is the start of what is known as the Dragon / Cherohala Loop.
As you ride down the 360, which turns into the 165 and eventually the 143, you discover that this road embodies a perfect balance of scenery and twisties. The Cherohala use to be one of the “best kept secrets” as far as motorcycle routes go. Many of the surrounding roads have been very well known and promoted for a long time; however the Cherohala, being a relatively speaking newer road, never did receive its fair share of attention in the global motorcycle community. The locals undoubtedly enjoyed this, just as a fisherman never likes to reveal his hot spots, many motorcyclists enjoy having low-key routes, away from the circus like atmosphere surrounding the Tail of the Dragon and other popular roads. In recent years however, the Cherohala Skyway has increased in popularity, and is becoming one of the go-to roads to ride when visiting the motorcycling mecca that is the Deals Gap area. As I toured the region, I personally met riders who came to the area with the Cherohala Skyway as their foremost destination.
- Ride Time: 1 Day
- Surface: Asphalt (varying conditions, very good overall)
- Scenery: Rolling Hills, Mountains, and Forests.
- Distance: 41mi (66km)
The National (and National Forest) Scenic Byway takes you through a vast and sometimes isolated region. The road treks through both the Cherokee Nation Forest and Nantahala National Forest, forming the unique name Chero-hala. You are truly in the wilderness here and despite the increasing popularity of the route; traffic is somewhat limited at times.
While riding the Loop, you will be passing by both Dragon Harley and Cherohala Harley. But if you are looking to grab some swag as a memento for the trip, I suggest supporting the little guy, and spending your money at the T-Shirt Shack at the base of Tail of the Dragon. There is something about a “motorcycle shop” that only sells merchandise, and offers no real bike service that somewhat irks me.
For places to stay in the area, your options are many. In the Moto Roads article on the Tail of the Dragon, you will be able to find lots of information about Robbinsville, NC and the surrounding area. While this area is highly recommended, the small community of Tellico plains, TN is a great alternative for riders looking to visit the Cherohala area.
This small town, with a year-round population of under 1000 has a bit of a messy past when it comes to the Indigenous population that inhabited the land previous to European settlement. Prior to being the Tellico Plains you will visit during your ride; it was the site of Great Tellico, home of the Overhill Cherokee, and one of their largest settlements. In the 19th century the American government implemented a policy called “Indian Removal”, which stemmed from the Indian Removal Act, resulting in the Indigenous people being forced from their land and relocated.
Tellico Plains has gone through some industrial phases over its history, but is now heavily tourism oriented, and acts as the main landing spot for travelers exploring the Cherokee Nation Forest and Cherohala Skyway. Should you be looking for some time off the saddle, a stop here will provide you with the chance to get some very tasty food and cold beverages at Tellico Grains; located at 105 Depot Street. You will find some of my favorites; brick oven pizza, thick homemade sandwiches, and cold beer. You will likely run into many other bikers here, as it has become a customary stopover for hungry riders touring the Cherohala. South of Tellico Plains in the neighboring village of Coker Creek, you can rent a pan, and head to the stream to pan for gold. While most bikers will likely skip this, preferring to get back on the winding road and to the stunning look-offs of the Cherohala Skyway.
As you make your way into the pristine wilderness for a few hours of touring and sightseeing, you will find no amenities whatsoever. There are no restaurants, gas or lodging. You are able to camp along the way should you want to spend some time “away from it all”. You will likely run into backcountry campers, kayakers, canoers, and hikers alike. There are 3 restrooms along the way should you need them, but that is pretty much it for services. Sweeping turns are plenty, with tighter twisties sprinkled in to keep riders humble. The road can be enjoyed by both experienced and intermediate riders, as it allows for a wide array of riding styles. The speed limit is 45mph (72km/hr) for the most part, which is liberal enough in the sections with tight twists and turns.
Near the Tennessee and North Carolina Boarder over a 10mi (16km) pass, almost half of the total elevation change takes place, providing you with an exhilarating decent or thrilling hill climb, depending on your direction of travel. Starting at less than 1000 ft, the road climbs up to almost 5400 ft. above sea level, where the weather can be erratic, and hard rain or thick fog is common. Riders need to exercise caution on the road, especially during poor conditions. Cell phone coverage is spotty at the best of times, and depending on your carrier, you may not receive any signal at all, as was the case for my group (a SPOT provides piece of mind). Due to the remoteness of parts of the route, paramedics are forced to travel far distances to attend the scene of an emergency. Seriously injured riders may need to be flown out of the area by helicopter, carrying a hefty bill of over $15,000 USD according to Tail of the Dragon Maps.
Unlike the mountains in the west such as the Rockies, the topography of the mountainous region of the Great Smoky Mountains and the National Forests allows for roads to go over top of the mountains, rather than just around them at lower elevations. The road climbs and peaks on ridges over 5000 ft. four times, making for incredible views that rival any road in North America. The Skyway is a fairly modern road; opening in 1996, it took over 30 years to build. Construction costs totaled a whopping 100 million dollars, making it the most expensive road built in North Carolina’s history. Be sure to check out the waterfalls and other neat features indicated on your free map from the Visitors Center.
Outdoor enthusiasts find nirvana along the Cherohala. Saying wilderness is abundant in the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests would be a gross understatement. As you work your way through the mountaintops, you have the opportunity to get off of the road and take some short hikes into wooded areas, viewing waterfalls and flowing rivers. Here the locals and tourists take part in fly fishing and paddling sports. Longer hikes are available for those who have set aside more time to spend in the area, with endless miles of backcountry hiking surrounding the Skyway. If you need some new hiking boots, Indefinitely Wild recommends these as The Best Value Hiking Boot.
The forests are home to thousands upon thousands of species of plants, animals, fish and birds. As always, when riding in this type of wilderness, keep your eyes peeled for some of these beautiful animals making their way onto the roadway.
- Food: There are no restaurants on the Skyway itself. A turn off into Tellico Plains is required for food, which has a surprising amount of restaurants available for the size of the town. Tellico Grains has cemented itself as the go-to place for motorcyclists and other travelers in the area. If you are looking for something a little heavier, check out the Outpost Pavilion or Walle’s Smokehouse.
- Camping: The nearby Mountain Trails Campground outside of Tellico Plains comes highly recommended in the motorcycle community, as bikers are their target clientele. Backcountry Camping is allowable (free and no permits) throughout the Cherokee National Forest with a few exceptions, which the visitors center can inform you of.
- Lodging: For proper lodging, bikers need to look to Tellico Plains, Robbinsville, or the surrounding areas. Tellico Plains has a good selection of locally owned Cabins, Vacation Rentals, and Outpost Style Lodges.
- Gas: Fuel up in Tellico Plains at one of the gas stations before heading off into the wilderness.
Plan a bike trip with your riding buddies to the Deals Gap area and explore the many runs. Be sure to give yourself a full day for the Dragon / Cherohala Loop, and experience the “Mile High” riding that the locals have enjoyed over the last 20 years.