By Kim Green
For cyclists and avid motorcycle riders who crave a lonely byway short on traffic but long on natural spectacle, an abundance of rural Tennessee roads-less-traveled beckons.
Taking the Scenic Route
“It’s a beautiful place to ride,” says retired construction equipment dealer Chuck Mason. The Johnson City biker has been exploring the remote, snaking back roads of East Tennessee for more than four decades from the seat of his Harley.
“It’s my fishing pole and my golf clubs,” he says of his longtime hobby. But even familiar roads, for him, always hold the promise of discovery. “I’ve never gone on a ride when I didn’t see something new,” he says.
It’s that ever-changing, unrivaled scenery that lures Brentwood, Tenn., real estate consultant Ken Barnes onto the saddle of a rented Harley Softail or Street Glide and out into the open air several times a year.
“You feel a part of your surroundings when you’re on a motorcycle,” he says. “The wind and the smells, everything is heightened. You can feel the stress just melt away into the background. I love it.”
Mostly, Barnes enjoys leisurely rides through the rolling Middle Tennessee countryside. “I love to make the run to Lynchburg,” he says. “Or the Natchez Trace Parkway, down to the Alabama line and back, just a comfortable day ride. Stop at Leiper’s Fork, eat at Puckett’s, see a few galleries.”
But Barnes’ favorite rides of all require a journey east, and up (in elevation, that is).
“The Dragon’s Tail is a fantastic ride,” he says. “It has 318 switchbacks in 11 miles. And then we usually move over to the Cherohala … it’s gentle and rolling, and the views are incredible, looking out over the mountains.”
Those two famous rides – Tail of the Dragon, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina state line along the southwestern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Cherohala Skyway, which crosses the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests in both states – draw thousands of riders every year from all over the world, to test their mettle and take in the spectacular natural beauty.
But Chuck Mason and his Tri-Cities Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) wanted the world to know there was more to mountain riding than “The Dragon” and the Cherohala. In 2005, the group mapped out 12 of their favorite rides, using Johnson City as a launch point, and created a detailed guide for avid bikers visiting the area.
That project succeeded in convincing Harley Davidson to bring the first-ever state H.O.G. rally to East Tennessee.
“Since then, we’ve hosted 11 motorcycle rallies,” says Brenda Whitson, executive director of the Johnson City Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), including BMW and Suzuki groups and even auto clubs for Miata and Corvette owners.
The CVB partnered with the Tri-Cities H.O.G. to rebrand and market the rides, now called the Southern Dozen and featured on a sleekly designed website, www.southerndozen.com.
“The beauty of the twelve rides,” Mason says, “is that we have very flowing, easy rides where everybody’s skill level is acceptable. One of my favorites is the Long Dam Ride. It takes in, I believe, nine dams from the TVA system. Another one, the Spelunker Tour, takes in some natural caves.”
For veteran bikers like Mason, with the skills and moxie to zigzag a wildly twisting course and bank low and hard around tight curves, there’s the famous Snake Ride, a challenging 138-mile loop leaving from Johnson City.
“The mantra is ‘Three miles, one valley, 489 curves,’ ” he laughs. “So that really intrigues people.”
At the far end of the loop, the Snake Ride weaves into Damascus, Va., which bills itself as Trail Town, U.S.A., a mecca of trails for cycling types who prefer a non-motorized power source.
Exercise with a View
Glen Wanner, a Nashville Symphony bassist who is a past president and current board member of Walk/Bike Nashville, falls decidedly into that category.
“Biking combines fitness and travel,” he says. “Going to the gym is just not as exciting as getting outside.”
Wanner and his wife co-authored biking guides to Middle Tennessee and the Natchez Trace and have logged thousands of miles doing bike trips all over the country. He particularly enjoys doing the Natchez Trace Parkway in autumn.
“The Trace is kind of a mental journey,” he says. “It’s pretty and peaceful, and you really feel like you are in a different world, a different era.”
He likes to make lots of stops and check out the natural history exhibits and sights along the way.
“The boatmen, the Indian cultures – my mind is always wandering, thinking, ‘Who built these mounds? What was it like for those traders to walk 400 miles?”
Wanner also recommends tackling the Cherohala Skyway, a beautiful but physically demanding ride that climbs above 5,000 feet; exploring the deep gorges and sheer cliffs of Big South Fork’s O & W Rail Trail; and biking the Mississippi River Trail, a network of routes that follow that great American river from source to delta.
Of course, urbanites looking for short rides can take advantage of paved greenways throughout Tennessee, from the new, still-in-progress Greater Memphis Wolf River Greenway to old favorites at Percy and Edwin Warner Parks in Middle Tennessee.
“It was built in the ’30s during the Depression,” Wanner says of Warner Parks. “The roads really fit the land. There aren’t too many cities that have a ride to compete with that.”
“Of course,” he smiles, “you have to like hills.”