For the 3rd time in as many years we returned to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for the Labor Day Weekend. However, we’re pretty sure this will be the last time we go to Gatlinburg as it has lost a bit of its allure. That said, the riding in the Smoky Mountains remains some of the best ever, so it’s only Gatlinburg as a destination that’s likely to change as well as the timing of any future visits to Tennessee, i.e., not in conjunction with a holiday weekend.
When Debbie and I did the Hilton Grand Vacations package weekend in Orlando this past July, part of the package was a voucher that would be good for a night’s stay at some other Hilton property for up to a $200 value. We figured it would be perfect for an overnight trip at the Hilton Garden Inn in Gatlinburg so we could spend a day at the Wheels Through Time (WTT) Museum in the Maggie Valley of North Carolina but never nailed down “when” we’d make that trip. As the summer quickly passed we realized there just weren’t that many weekends left before WTT would shut down and go on winter sabbatical in late November through early April 2016.
We also hadn’t planned on doing anything special for the Labor Day weekend and had, in fact, been looking forward to chilling at the house and getting some projects taken care of. However, during one of our Finally a Friday dinners at Loco Willy’s our friends David & Deb asked if we would be heading off together for Labor Day as we had for the past few years. Gatlinburg came up and to make a long story short, we agreed that we’d once again head to Tennessee for the Labor Day weekend.
The original plan was to travel to Knoxville on Saturday, spend the night and then pack up and head over to Gatlinburg for Sunday night. I got it in my head that Saturday in Knoxville might be a bit of a zoo since the college football season would open up on Saturday and Tennessee was the “home team” for their opener against Bowling Green. By home team, I assumed that meant they’d be playing at their own stadium in Knoxville, making lodging and dining a bit of a challenge. Based on that data point, we decided to spend both nights in Gatlinburg at the Hilton Garden Inn. Well, imagine my surprise when we subsequently discovered that, “home field” was the Nissan stadium in Nashville where the NFL’s Tennessee Titans play. Oh well, best laid plans. However, in retrospect, moving both nights to Gatlinburg wasn’t all that bad since it also meant we’d only have to check-in and unpack once vs. twice during the trip.
Saturday & The Ride To Gatlinburg:
We agreed on a 9:00am departure from a local Race Trac gas station, which gave us more than enough time to have a good night’s rest on Friday night and do our packing in the morning. The weather looked good through the mid-afternoon, so it would be anyone’s guess if we’d make it the entire way to Gatlinburg without putting on the rain gear.
As 9:00am approached, we had a lovely but somewhat cool sunny morning in front of us. I opted to put us in our lightweight insulated wind breakers for at least the first leg of the ride north. As soon as we started moving on the bike we knew we’d made the right call on the jackets.
We arrived at the Race Trac around 8:55am, topped off Blue’s tank and David & Deb arrived about 10 minutes later. We rolled out around 9:20 and decided we’d take the four lane (I-575) to Blue Ridge and beyond vs. the two lane (US 411) for expediency and, well, 411 is only scenic once you get to Tennessee; the Georgia side is pretty depressing.
We made a short stop in Ellijay and finalized our route: we’d go ahead and add 60 miles of twisty mountain roads to the trip by heading north on GA route 5 / TN route 68 at Blue Ridge towards Tellico Plains, TN, where we’d have lunch, then head east across the 43-mile long Cherohala Skyway into Robbinsville, NC. From Robbinsville, we’d stay on NC 143 / NC 28 and merge back onto US route 129, heading on to Bryson & Cherokee, NC, and then into Gatlinburg, TN, through Newfound Gap on NC 441. All told, the extra 60 miles would also add another hour and 40 minutes to the ride. At the time we made this decision, the weather couldn’t have been better: perfect temperatures that allowed us to be cozy in our jackets; not too warm but not cold and beautiful blue skies with nary a cloud in the sky.
The ride north on GA 68 through the Ocoee National Forest was wonderful; lots of twisty roads and elevation changes. Like all twisty roads, there’s a lot of mental task load when piloting the bike through the turns but that’s what makes it such a pleasure vs. cruising along on a dead-straight four lane for hours on end. It’s the ride up TN 68 that adds most of the additional time to the trip across the Skyway but it’s always worth it.
I had it in mind to stop to Katz Deli in Tellico Plains for lunch, but called an audible so we could check out a little dive bar next to the gas station in Tellico Plains called the Crab Trap. We’ve seen folks hanging out there on previous trips and it looked like a biker-friendly place. Yeah, well, it left a lot to be desired so perhaps things have changed which probably explains why there weren’t all that many people in the restaurant. After looking over the menu we bailed and headed on up the road to Katz deli. Before leaving Debbie had me take a photo of her next to the Crab Trap’s topiary homage to the “Tail of the Dragon.”
Our timing at Katz was perfect as we walked in and placed our orders just ahead of two large groups… and I mean really large groups. Whew, we would have had to call another audible if we’d have been behind those folks. Thankfully, we were able to get in and out of there in about 30 minutes. Debbie and I split an Italian hoagie and it was very tasty; again, splitting meals works really well for us since neither of us have a huge appetite and we both tend to like similar things. As a bonus, it’s cost effective and we rarely waste any food.
It was about 1:30pm when we saddled back up and headed up the Skyway. Debbie and I decided to fore go our jackets as it felt pretty nice in short sleeves.That was just long enough for us to get captured by the US129 photo guy so that we’d have a nice beauty shot from the trip.
A few minutes later the skies began to cloud up and as we got close to the summit we could clearly see that rain was falling somewhere over the mountain and the air also changed. Sure enough, moments later we found ourselves in a heavy sun-shower for about a half a mile before we found a turn-out where we could stop and put on our rain gear. Thankfully, the rain let up a bit after the initial dousing so we were wet but not soaked through-and-through as we geared-up. It was two minutes after getting back on the road in our rain gear that the skies cut loose and we were in and out of rain for the rest of the trip across the Skyway. It ranged from heavy to light with some big fat and soft drops as well as those small stinging drops. Things were looking up as we headed from Robbinsville towards Byron, but then lightning appeared on the horizon directly in our path.
After making the transition from TN 28 to US19, and at David’s request, we found a BP gas station with a large canopy where we could check the weather radar and sit out what looked like it was going to be a pretty good storm. We joined about 20 other motorcycles under the canopy so it was hardly an original idea. The radar indicated there were some pretty strong storms ahead – lots of dark green, yellow and red – so it was the right call.
After waiting out the heavier rains we headed on our way and only had to deal with some light showers into Cherokee. As we entered the Smoky Mountains and starting up toward Newfound Gap where the temps would certainly drop we made one more stop in a pull-out to put our insulated wind breakers back on under our rain jackets: that was about perfect for the rest of the ride over the pass and down into Gatlinburg.
Traffic heading into Gatlinburg was a mess: easily a mile-long back-up of stop and go traffic. The back streets were also a mess, so I was never so happy to be off the bike at the Hilton Garden Inn at about 4:45pm where we’d spend the next two nights. Of course, stop-and-go traffic would become a constant theme on Sunday: more on that later.
After checking in at the Hilton, unpacking and hanging all of the rain gear and jackets up to dry Debbie and I headed over to Calhoun’s to see if we couldn’t secure four seats at the bar where we’d have our cocktails and dinner. We timed it just right and after sharing a couple of the seats with some to-go order customers while snacking on deep-fried cheese for about ½ an hour, David & Deb arrived. Debbie and I split the ‘Ale’ steak and a Caesar salad; the cut of meat wasn’t the best I’d ever had but the way they marinade it makes it melt in your mouth good. After dinner we wandered up and down the main drag, ran an errand and then ended up back at the Hilton’s bar where we watched Alabama playing Wisconsin, one of the better match ups of the day. Sadly, Georgia and Tennessee chose to play ‘warm-up’ games against small schools that they could easily blow-out for that first win of the season which is never enjoyable to watch.
All-in-all, it was a pretty good first day, albeit with what ended up being the longest 250-mile ride I’ve even been on: seven and a half hours given all of the stops for gearing up, sitting out rain, etc. But, the scenery was amazing and every minute I get to spend with Miss Debbie at my side is a treasured moment. We also enjoy David & Deb’s company; there’s never a dull moment and always something to talk about.
Sunday & Cades Cove:
We had two options for Sunday:
- Plan A: Head east, back up to Newfound Gap, pay a visit to Clingman’s Dome and then ride on towards the Cherokee casinos and visit the Wheels Through Time museum in the Maggie Valley.
- Plan B: Head west towards Townsend and pay a visit to Cades Cove and then visit to Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson in Maryville.
We went with Plan B and set a departure time of around 10:00am.
While that wasn’t as early as I would have liked, Debbie reminded me that we were on vacation without any real need to be anywhere at any particular time. Of course, in the back of my mind was the fact that there were a few million other folks on vacation as well, and a hundred thousand or so had apparently decided to visit the Smoky Mountains this weekend! Oh well, we’d have a good time no matter what.
Debbie and I slept in until around 7:30 and wandered down for breakfast at 8:30. We ran into David as we headed back up to our room to get ready to go and met David and Deb at the bikes around 10:00am. I had all of the dried-out rain gear and jackets packed back in the saddlebags – yes, more afternoon showers were in the forecast – as we headed off along the beautiful TN route 78 that follows Little River into Townsend. This is simply one of the most beautiful rides you’ll find anywhere with non-stop, amazing river scenes along the way. It was warm enough that we were able to ride in short sleeves which was a nice change from being geared-up most of Saturday afternoon.
We arrived at the entrance to Cades Cove around 11:00am and it all looked pretty good for the first 2 miles of the 11 mile loop. However, things began to slow to a crawl once we got near the numbered attractions.
We visited the Abbott house and that was very interesting, but once we were back on the bikes we knew our patience would be tested for the rest of the loop around the park: it was moving at a snail’s pace or occasionally came to a dead stop for the next 7 miles and was at a dead stop for the last 1.3 miles. It took us 2 hours all told, including the time we spent visiting the first Baptist Church. In a way, it was a trap for motorcycles since the loop is a one-lane road and the “shortcuts” were all very narrow, rutted-out gravel roads that really didn’t make the trip all that much shorter.
I also can’t recall ever being caught sitting in traffic on a motorcycle for as long as we were at Cades Cove. No doubt, the scenery was spectacular. But sitting on a Harley that was well into ETSM mode (idling on one cylinder as the rear can simply tried to pump out hot air) for a good 1.5 hours was not exactly a relaxing time. The roads were also quite hilly which made it all that much more interesting since the clutch got a tortured a bit as well. In fact, as we crawled towards the exit of the Cades Cove Scenic Loop I could tell the hydraulic fluid in my clutch had also been cooked as the pressure fell off and I found myself having to ‘pump the lever’ to make the darn thing work. It took about 15 minutes of riding at normal speeds through cool air before the clutch fully recovered.
Oh well, that’s what we get for going to a tourist destination on a holiday weekend. On the bright side, it was smooth sailing for the 40 minute ride from Cades Cove to Maryville where we stopped for lunch at the Smoky Mountain Brewery. We had a great time enjoying a late lunch at the bar before heading on to Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson (SMHD). SMHD is an amazing place, but I’m pretty sure Atlanta Harley-Davidson actually has more inventory and a better selection of bikes… something I found surprising. But, SMHD always gets the nod when it comes to motor clothes: only Bruce Rossmeyer’s Destination Daytona has a bigger selection which may or may not even be a better selection. SMHD appears to have a really good buyer who finds all the really nice ladies wear as I always end up finding a few things for Miss Debbie. Me, not so much. They seem to use a style of Hanes beefy T that just doesn’t fit or feel quite right so it’s easy to pass on adding another shirt to my collection.
As we prepared to head back to Gatlinburg we could clearly see there was rain in our future. We talked about suiting up before leaving SMHD, but I thought we’d at least make it to the national park before we’d encounter rain. Yeah, well… We made it about 3 miles before we found ourselves being pelted with big fat rain drops in yet-another sun shower. We quickly made our way to a covered driveway where we suited up for the ride back to at least the entrance to the national park, based on the weather radar. We were in and out of rain all the way into Townsend where we made a gas stop.
The skies began to clear as we entered the park and I decided to pull off at Metcalf Bottoms so we could ditch the rain gear for the last 40 minutes of the ride to Gatlinburg. We also made a stop at one of the scenic overlooks because, well, it was just too pretty a sight to pass up.
As we were getting ready to leave the pull-out another couple on a bike that just came from Gatlinburg warned us we’d be sitting in traffic for at least 4 miles; oh great. Just what we needed.
Sure enough, the GPS jumped from showing us 10 minutes out from the Hilton to 35 minutes out with just about 5 miles to go as we left the parking lot. We came to a dead stop about a mile down the road and crawled our way back into town. Oh well, it was Labor Day Weekend and we were in Gatlinburg. Then again, we’ve been in Gatlinburg for Labor twice before and it wasn’t anywhere near as crowded as it was this weekend. We’re guessing that cheap gas may have contributed to the additional crowds as we saw a lot of license plates from Arkansas, Indiana, Mississippi and other places during our travels.
After relaxing a bit and a visit to the Hilton’s bar we headed over to the Park Grill for dinner. It was recommended by one of the folks who works at the Hilton and I must say, the food was a huge disappointment for me. But, as we like to say, at least it was expensive! I made the mistake of trying their smoked oysters off the salad bar: not sure what kind of oysters they were but from the taste I was thinking Rocky Mountain not Gulf, Atlantic or James River. Debbie and I split the salmon which we had blackened for an extra $3; really? It was a small portion on par with the $8 cut that we get at Publix; the Publix bourbon salmon is actually much tastier. The baked potato was also not cooked quite right so it was just not a satisfying meal. We should have stuck with Calhoun’s: it’s never disappointed. But, food is often times hit or miss and on another night, who knows. However, the place is worth stopping in for a cocktail if only to check out the decor and construction: truly amazing!
After dinner we wandered up to Gatlinburg’s Smoky Mountain Brewery to listen to their live music and have a night-cap before heading back to the Hilton. It was a pretty busy place and we had a good time. However, as we thought back on the weekend I think all of us came to the same conclusion: Gatlinburg has pretty much run its course as our overnight destination during future visits, and that’s OK too. It’s good to change things up and Lord knows, there are lots of other places to spend the night that might bring about new adventures.
However, to be honest, I’m thinking I’d rather do weekend trips on non-holiday weekends from here on out, or to look for destinations on holiday weekends that aren’t where everyone goes. So, we’ll be thinking on that for a while.
Monday & The Ride Home:
The plan for the ride home was to delay our departure until 10:00am so we could arrive back in town about the same time as Loco Willy’s opened at 4:00pm. I think the plan still assumed that we were going to stop at Clingman’s Dome on the way over Newfound Gap, as that would have worked out just about right. However, it didn’t sound like David & Deb wanted to make the very steep, ½ mile hike up to the top of the observation tower as we talked about the stop so I pretty much dropped that from the plan.
I found myself awake at 5:00am, noting that my body and subconscious are programmed for weekdays and don’t recognize holidays. I did my best not to bother Debbie and remembered why I like staying in suites or condo’s whenever we can without spending a fortune. I think I gave up on sleeping-in by 6:30am, moved over to the side chair and fired-up my laptop to capture my thoughts from the first two days of our trip. Sadly, the keyboard on my HP laptop isn’t as quiet as the one on my Apple MacBook so I’m pretty sure Debbie was disturbed by my typing. At one point she asked if I was in a bad mood as it sounded like I was typing with a little angst. I apologized and said no, it’s just a different laptop than I usually use on vacations.
Debbie gave up trying to sleep and I reached a stopping point on my pre-blog entry around 7:30am and we started getting ourselves sorted out and partially packaged for the trip home before heading down for breakfast around 8:30am. I will say, the Saddleman touring bag that we bought for the Dyna Wide Glide and used for our first few trips on Blue is still a great bag for overnight trips like these. It’s amazing how much stuff it holds. The only weakness is a rain cover that’s barely large enough to cover the bag when it’s not expanded to its full size and very hard to put-on and take-off at that. Because of the weak rain cover I make a point of putting all of the things that go into the bag into 2 gallon ZipLock bags before they get packed in the bag. This actually makes packing all that much easier since you can force all of the air out of the bags, then zip them closed so that they pack in about as tightly as you can make it. If the bag happens to get wet, no big deal: everything inside stays dry. The trusty rain gear also got repacked after drying out for the 2nd time during this trip so that it would be ready if we needed it again. With everything pretty much packed up, we headed down for breakfast.
As 10:00am rolled around we had both of the bikes loaded up and ready to roll for the ride home. Thankfully, there wasn’t much traffic heading out of Gatlinburg and over the Newfound Gap towards Cherokee, so we had a spectacular ride. However, we were overly optimistic with regard to our attire. As warm as it was out in the parking lot behind the Hilton, once we were riding under the shadows of the trees and mountain tops on the ride up to the gap the temps quickly began to fall.
I held out in the hope that once we passed through the gap and started down the mountain we’d find warmer temps. No so, it was even colder on the southern side of the gap. I pulled off so that we could put on our jackets and we also took a few moments to enjoy the spectacular view… something I need to do more often. Hey, I was two-for-two on this trip!!! That’s a start, isn’t it?
We stopped about 90 miles into our ride home in Murphy, NC, for lunch at a Subway and I must say, that was one of the best tasting, easy-on-the-stomach meals of the weekend! I’m not sure why, but that chicken sub just hit the spot! We shed the jackets as the skies were now partly sunny instead of mostly cloudy and the temps were working their way into the 80’s. It would probably be cool as we rode down into the Nantahala Gorge, but the rest of the time we’d be in good shape… so long as the rain stayed away!
The last 100 miles of the 190-mile trip home were fairly uneventful. We ran into some heavy traffic where US 76 and GA 5 came together in Blue Ridge, but the GPS rescued us by putting us onto old US 76 so that we could by-pass all of the backed-up stoplights. We encountered the same thing in Ellijay and once again bailed off US76/GA515/GA5 onto Old GA 5 to by-pass the gauntlet of stoplights. I’m not sure we really saved any time, but it was certainly a lot more enjoyable speeding along the old highway at 50 mph than sitting in traffic for 10 minutes. Now, I will say that we did get teased with a little rain shower near Ellijay, but that was it for the ride home. There was certainly a lot of rain showers in the area, but thankfully none of it crossed our path.
We split off from David & Deb near the McCollum airport in Kennesaw and pulled into the driveway at home around 3:00pm. While we were an hour ahead of opening time at Loco’s, that worked out quite well. 4:00pm would have been a bit early for dinner, so we adjusted our meeting time to 6:00pm and that gave us a couple of hours to knock out some chores around the house.
I was able to get the bike unloaded, the touring bag unpacked and a couple of loads of laundry sorted and started before heading out to the garage to wash Debbie’s little car (it was a mess after two weeks of afternoon rain showers). After getting her car washed I still had enough time to trim and cut the lawn before heading in for a shower. Debbie was able to get the laundry done as well as some of the meal prep for the work week ahead and then pamper herself a bit before we headed over to Loco’s for dinner.
We arrived right at 6:00pm and toasted the end of our weekend bike trip with a couple of frosty Margaritas as we waited for our hot wings and fries; hey’ it may have been Monday but it felt like Sunday! Shortly after we arrived David & Deb came in and joined us for one last dinner before the weekend was officially over. We capped our meal with a dozen raw oysters from the James River.
Oh boy, did those ever taste good and clear my palate from those nasty smoked things I tried Sunday night at the Park Grill. It was a great way to close out our weekend before heading back home to get ready for our return to work on Tuesday morning.