“Those were the best switchbacks that I have ever ridden” I say to my riding partner as we sit outside of a rundown convenience store near the end of the Devil’s Triangle, trying to avoid hornets which have built a large nest above us. We went inside looking for a coffee, but decided on some cold drinks after the lady in the store started microwaving the morning’s pot following our request for a cup of joe. In this neck of the woods, “hillbilly country”, the roads and people are a little less refined, but that’s just fine by me. If you have some time to kill, most locals passing by would be more than happy to stop and chat about the state or province stamped on your licenses plate.
The roads to the north of Deals Gap are significantly less commercialized than the likes of the Tail of the Dragon. There are no gift shops and professional photographers here. In fact, as we rode the Triangle we did not see one other bike on the road, just a few local pickup trucks and off-road vehicles were encountered. The locals recommend riding the Devil’s Triangle in a clockwise manner, undertaking most of the gnarly switchbacks downhill.
Completing the run clockwise will have you starting at the intersection of Highway 62 and TN 116, northwest of Oliver Springs, TN. As you turn off the highway on to TN 116 you pass by a small town called Petros and the former site of the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. As we stop to take a closer look, kids on 4wheelers and dirt bikes throttle by, kicking up roost and tearing across the road as they head up the mountain to what I can only image to be rugged and challenging off road terrain.
Before the road starts its accent into the hills, sits the site of the former Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary which operated from 1896 to 2009. The large maximum-security prison radiates an eerie feeling as you approach the now defunct facility. It’s as if you know deep down that some real bad dudes use to call this place home, and your gut feeling would be correct. The former big house had some notable criminals pass through its gates, including the likes of James Earl Ray who shot and killed Martin Luther King Jr, escaping from the prison in 1977 along with six other inmates, only to be recaptured a few days later. More recent inmates included convicted killer Byron Looper, who murdered a State Senator. It is also known to movie buffs for its role in the Silence of the Lambs. Clarice attempts to swing a deal with Hannibal, offering a transfer to Brushy Mountain State in exchange for the identity of Buffalo Bill.
As creepy as the place seems, there are actually impressive plans for revitalization by a group of extremely successful Tennessee entrepreneurs, under the name “Brushy Mountain Group”. The proposal includes a RV park & campground, a restaurant, distillery, brewery, and gift shop. Should they succeed, this will be a great spot for bikers to visit, and will most definitely increase traffic on the Devil’s Triangle.
The slightest error around one of the three steep and challenging switchbacks or one of the numerous tight corners could leave you seriously injured or dead at the bottom of a steep embankment; making the road no place for inexperienced riders, or inexperienced passengers for that matter. The majority of the twisties, sweeping corners and switchbacks take place in the Frozen Head State Park just after the Penitentiary and again when the road passes through the Coal Creek OHV area. The section of the TN 116 between these two areas is fairly tame, giving the rider a chance to relax and cruise through the former coal mining villages, now resembling ghost towns. Occupying the land beyond the road’s shoulder are abandon and dilapidated trailers and shacks displaying the confederate flag. Old neglected vehicles rusting in fields provide additional backdrops as you ride through the hills. The rough looking buildings and residents can be a bit unnerving, but the people are genuinely friendly. The first thrilling switchback you encounter is located at Graves Gap. At the mid-section of the switchback sits a Baptist Church… maybe a place to pray for safety for the rest of the ride. The Coal Creek OHV area has over 72,000 acres of land covered with off-road trails, so if you are visiting the area on a dual sport, plan for some time in the dirt.
The road conditions have drastically improved over the past few years. In 2013, the State launched a 1.2 million dollar improvement project for the roadway, in an effort to curb the high rate of fatal accidents. There are many new shiny guardrails, great for vehicles, but not so much help for motorcyclists. The biggest improvement has been the road surface, and the amount of gravel on the road has been drastically reduced according to local riders. Riders need to be on the lookout for large logging and mining trucks crossing the roadway in certain sections.
- Ride Time: 1 Day
- Surface: Asphalt (varying conditions, good overall)
- Scenery: Bush line, rock outcrops, rolling hills.
- Distance: 44mi (71km)
- Food: Bray’s BBQ in Oliver Springs served up my first true Southern style BBQ meal, and it is worth the stop should you be passing through the town at meal time. Oliver Springs has a handful of decent restaurants to choose from.
- Camping: Windrock Campground is located north of Oliver Springs in the Coal Creek OHV area, which would make a great base camp for dual sport riders as it caters to the off-roading crowd.
- Lodging: If you are tired of ruffing it and are looking for some nicer accommodations, the Hampton Inn in Lenoir City (40 min south of Oliver Springs) is highly recommended in the Motorcycle community. There are also many options in the Deals Gap area should you be stationing yourself there.
- Gas: Fuel up in Petros, TN before you start the run.
Looking for switchbacks and a thrilling ride? During your Deals Gap adventure, head north for a day and ride the road that only the Devil himself would design.
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