Bicycling across Great Smoky Mountains National Park… The 10,000-Mile Bike Trek

Great Smoky Mountains National Park waterfall in North Carolina.

In addition to its tree covered mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is noted for its beautiful waterfalls. Peggy and I found this little beauty next to the road on the east side of the Park.



I can’t imagine a future without wild places for our children, grandchildren and future generations to love and explore. Preserving our wilderness areas and the diversity of life on earth are two of the most important responsibilities we have as humans.

A few years ago, Peggy and I took time off to visit America’s National Parks from Alaska to Florida. It was an incredible trip. The beauty and variety of landscapes, plants and animals found in these parks are a gift of incalculable value. As are all the wild places set aside by other countries.

Given that this week is America’s 100th Anniversary of its National Park system, it seems appropriate that I am writing today about my bike ride through (make that up and over) Great Smoky National Park. (And yes, smoky is how it is spelled.) With over nine million visitors this past year, it is America’s most visited park.

First, of course, I had to get there. In the last post about my bike tour of North America, I was in Dayton, Tennessee checking out the courthouse where the Scopes’ trial took place. I left there continuing to follow Route 30 east as it made its steep, winding way up and over ridges of the Cumberland Plateau. In Athens, Tennessee, I picked up an even smaller road, Route 39, that carried me over another ridge into the small community of Englewood.

Mural depicting the historic town of Englewood in eastern Tennessee.

This mural of historic Englewood is prominently featured on the side of a building entering town.

From here, it was time to make my way north over the relatively flat Highway 411 to Maryville. Bucolic countryside, Mennonite farms, a humorous Spit and Whittle Club, and the Little Tennessee River provided pleasant distractions from the work of bicycling. As I left Maryville on Highway 321 going toward Pigeon Ford, the countryside shifted dramatically, providing scenic views of the Smokies. The road from Pigeon Ford to Gatlinburg, Highway 441, was all about separating tourists from their dollars. I’ve rarely seen such a concentration of “tourist attractions.” Today, there are eight different Ripley’s venues alone— “believe it or not!”

This Mennonite farmer was apparently out enjoying his/her farm.

This Mennonite farmer was apparently out enjoying his/her farm since I didn’t see any work going on.

Spit and Whittle Clubs, sometimes know as Liar's Clubs, can be found throughout the US. In general, their members are story tellers who focus on 'tall tales.' I expect that this is one of their most unusual club houses!

Spit and Whittle Clubs, sometimes know as Liar’s Clubs, can be found throughout the US. In general, their members are story tellers who focus on ‘tall tales.’ I expect that this is one of their most unusual club houses!

Little Tennessee River flowing through eastern Tennessee.

Highway 411 took me across the Little Tennessee River, which didn’t seem so little to me.

The Great Smoky Mountains can be seen in the distance as you leave Maryville, Tennessee on Highway 312.

The Great Smoky Mountains can be seen in the distance as you leave Maryville, Tennessee on Highway 321.

I spent the night in Gatlinburg, not because I wanted to sample the attractions, but because I wanted to develop the proper mental attitude I would need for climbing 4000 feet in the morning to Newfound Gap at 5046 feet (1538 meters). Two beers and a steak just about did it.

The Smokies, as they are often called, received their name from a blue haze early pioneers found hovering over the mountains. It wasn’t actually caused by smoke, however, it was caused by plant respiration (breathing, so to speak). The park is part of the Appalachian Mountains, an ancient range going back some 250-300 million years. (Some rocks in the area date back over a billion years.) Compare that with the Rocky Mountains at 80-85 million years and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a mere baby at 40 million. Once, the Smokies reached for the sky like their younger western cousins; now they are old and worn down. This doesn’t make them less steep; ask any hiker or biker who wanders through them. Nor does it make them any less beautiful.

The 17-mile trip up to the Gap was, as I expected, a workout. People shouted encouragement from their cars on some of the steeper parts. I grunted in return. At one stop a little kid looked at me wide-eyed. “Are you really bicycling to the top?” “Sure,” I replied. “It’s fun. Maybe you will do it some day.” “Maybe not,” he responded. I passed the Appalachian Trail and thought of the hikers making their way north on a journey far different from mine but similar in its challenge. And I entered North Carolina, leaving Tennessee behind. After a leisurely lunch on top, it was time to zoom down the mountain, a thrill I had earned. Following are some photos that I took when Peggy and I redrove the route though the Great Smoky Mountain National Park this spring.

View of Great Smokey Mountains National Park in Tennessee.

Peggy and I drove across the Smokies a month earlier than  when I biked across them in 1989. A number of trees had yet to leaf out.

Tree in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in early spring.

By June this tree would be dressed in green. I am not sure who the round nest on the right belongs to. Or if it is even a nest.

I liked this canyon view.

I liked this canyon view.

This stream kept me company as I biked up the mountain.

This stream kept me company as I biked up the mountain. At one point I had stopped and dangled my toes in its refreshing water.

Because the road over the mountain is so steep and filled with traffic, the National Park recommends that people not bicycle on it.

Because the road over the mountain is so steep and filled with traffic, the park recommends that people not bicycle on it. Naturally, I caught a section of the road that was car free and had a decent shoulder.

Waterfall in Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina.

This small waterfall was part of the same stream I placed at the top of the post.

I flew past the turn off that marks the southern beginning of the Blue Ridge Highway and into Cherokee, headquarters for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. I remember two things about my 1989 stop in Cherokee. One was that the town seemed economically depressed. The second was a bear in a cage. I felt sorry for it. The Smokies are known for having the largest concentration of black bears in the East. The caged bear would have been much happier running around in the woods with them.

The town seems much healthier now, largely thanks to the Harrah’s-Cherokee Hotel and Casino. It draws several million visitors (and their money) into Cherokee annually. As for the bear, I didn’t see it. Instead, brightly painted bear sculptures were found throughout the community representing, for the most part, Cherokee themes. A large, carved wooden sculpture of a Cherokee stands in front of the community’s administrative center. Three tears are streaming down his face— a memorial to the Trail of Tears where the Cherokee were forced off their homeland and marched to Oklahoma so white settlers could take their property.

Wood sculpture of a crying Cherokee representing the Trail of Tears in Cherokee, North Carolina.

The wood sculpture of a crying Cherokee.

Bear sculpture located in Cherokee, North Carolina.

This bear featured a scenic painting with an elk and an eagle or hawk.

I found this scene on another bear, representing the region in historic times

I found this scene on another bear, representing the region in earlier times.

Bear sculpture painted to resemble eagle in Cherokee, North Carolina.

Another rendition of a bald eagle. I liked how the artist turned the nose of the bear into the beak of the eagle. An eagle shaman dances on the rear hindquarters.

Bear sculpture in Cherokee, North Carolina

This bear was decorated with symbols you might expect to find on Native American rock art.

Bear sculpture in Cherokee, North Carolina smoking pie and dressed like an artist.

And, for my final photo today, a little humor.

NEXT BLOG: I ride back up the road from Cherokee to the Blue Ridge Highway entrance and begin my journey north toward Maine and Nova Scotia.

54 thoughts on “Bicycling across Great Smoky Mountains National Park… The 10,000-Mile Bike Trek

  1. The breathing of trees and greenery is what gives the mountains this smoky haze. In Australia we have the Blue Mountains for the same reason.
    Wonderful photos, Curt.
    Glad to hear that National Parks in the US are kept in high esteem. Here more of the country are also made into National Parks, preventing exploitation or development.

  2. wonderful memories… ❤ I'd like to return there some day – asap… meanwhile, the French-Catalan Pyrénées are only 2h-drive from Toulouse… 🙂
    * * *
    merci-thanx for droppin' by my playground, Sir! have a light Friday and a formidable weekend! 🙂

    • Obviously, the strange appeals to me, Andrew. I’ve written about ghosts, big foot, and flying saucers. 🙂 Devil’s tracks? Hmmm. My own interest in the paranormal started with J.B Rhine who ran the paranormal laboratory at Duke University. He offered an ESP test that I copied and offered to a number of high school classes. Both students and teachers were interested, or at least amused. –Curt

      • I first became interested in ESP when I would walk by a deck of cards and think something like ‘there is a red king on top,’ only to turn the cards over and find a red king. Chance, right. Still gave me goosebumps. Then, one time I turned over three cards in a row demonstrating to a friend… and all of them were right. Maybe chance again, but the goose bumps got really large. 🙂 Too bad I can’t do that consistently. Las Vegas here I come. As for ouija boards, I have no interest in communicating with dead people. After my father passed away, I was cleaning the apartment where I had found him and first a light went on and then the water faucet. I vacated the premises and hired a company to go in and do the cleaning. –Curt

      • Just last year my brother and his wife woke simultaneously in the middle of the night and both were convinced that my dad was in the room. How spooky!
        A couple of years ago my middle grandchild kept reporting to us about people being in the room with us. Even more spooky!

      • Yep, that’s spooky. Both. The night after I had my experience, my dad appeared in my ‘dream’ just as I was going to sleep and said, “I’m okay, Curt,” and then disappeared down the proverbial while channel. I haven’t heard back from him since. –Curt

    • Once you escape from the tourist traps, it’s quite beautiful, AC. (I do recognize that the ‘tourist traps’ help the local economy, however. Local people often oppose the creation of national parks because they block timber and mineral industries in the area. Tourism goes a long ways to making up the difference.) –Curt

      • Which is how Peggy and I function as well, AC, limiting most of our visits to popular areas for off season time. As for dogs, my experience that there are few places that they love more than the beach… except for the woods, of course. 🙂 –Curt

  3. I don’t say it often enough just how lucky you were to visit these quaint villages and meet such interesting people! Experience is far more memorable than being book-taught!

    • Damn, damn, damn! 🙂 Can’t have those wild and free rivers out there. I had a friend who once chained himself to a rock hidden in the bottom of a valley to keep a dam from being built. –Curt

  4. Have been to the Smokies lots of times, Curt and glad you and Peggy found it nice. Though, I hope it wasn’t too hot and humid for you. October gets even better up thatta way. Safe and happy trails. Look forward to the Maine pictures.

    • Yes it is, Sue. We’ve also taken in a number in Canada as well. Such incredible diversity. I think there are only three in the US we haven’t visited. And I am ready to do them all again! 🙂 –Curt

  5. What a journey! Concentrated like this for your post, the clos-up shots make it feel as though the route is crowded with bright colours, and then there are the long shots showing a vast perspective of green and distant blue. The waterfall is stupendously beautiful, but I don’t care for the idea of cycling along (or up or down) the mountain road. Thank you.

    • Without a few thousand miles behind me, Hilary, I wouldn’t have been all that excited for the ‘up or down’ myself. 🙂 Redriving the route and experiencing it in a concentrated form was a treat for me. I was surprised, however, that it took Peggy and me almost half as long to drive the route as it did to bicycle it. Admittedly we were stopping a lot, but I thought we would be faster. –Curt

  6. Don’t you wonder about the mental state of those people who named “Newfound Gap”? They may have been happy to have discovered a new gap, or they may have just been relieved. I still remember my astonishment when pulling a U-Haul behind a VW bug through Oklahoma, on my way to Texas for the first time. Somehow, I imagined it being all downhill to the coast. No one had mentioned the Arbuckle mountains.

    The Spit-and-Whittle club’s a hoot. I’ll be writing about a Texas version, which I finally “joined” this summer, after a long search for the By-Laws. As for Ripley, I’ve begun telling people I want to get listed as the world’s oldest varnisher. I’m on my way, but not even close to Varnish John, who was in his late seventies when I met him.

    As always, the photos of the landscape are stunning. Of course, that landscape gives you a pretty good start. Rocks, and water, and big hills always offer something to the eye.

    • I suspect even minor hills might have been a challenge to a VW bug hauling a trailer, Linda. 🙂
      I’ve spent a lot of time in mountains during my life, and passes are an essential part of life, even when you are hiking. I suspect the pioneers had quite a celebration when they found a new “gap.”
      It will be fun to learn more about the club you have joined. I suspect that you can hang in there with the best of story tellers.
      And you are right about the beauty. Great scenery always helps in the photography business! —Curt

  7. Great post Curt. I loved seeing the clever way they painted the bears Very imaginative, especially the eagle beak on the nose. The pictures of the beautiful landscape are so good. We have been having a series of hazy days around here but noting as lovely as what you are seeing. The Spit and Whittle Clubs are such fun. Wonder if any are around here?

    • You could probably Google Spit and Whittle Clubs and find out if there are any in the neighborhood, Kayti. Given your art, I am not surprised that you liked the bears. As for the scenery, spectacular. Thanks. –Curt

  8. I can’t imagine riding a bike up into the Smokies. Hiking it a little ways was enough for me. But it is certainly beautiful there — once you get through the mobs clogging the sidewalks through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. As you said, it’s nothing but one manufactured tourist attraction after another.

    I’ve never heard of Whittle Clubs. Wish I’d found one of those while I was there.

    • The crowds and most of the ‘tourist attractions’ certainly aren’t for me, Juliann. But they have been a boost to the local economy, which is something. They drop off quickly when you wander off onto some of the trails, especially the ones that go straight up the mountains. They are harder to escape on a bicycle, since they can come right along in their cars. 🙂 The Club was just fun. I could imagine a group of folks sitting outside spinning stories. –Curt

  9. You’ve come across so many Cherokee connections on this trip. I am putting the pressure on myself to keep open to a way to get over there and explore Cherokee history in that setting.

    And I have to thank you profusely for the bears!! In my ignorance of Cherokee customs, having not been raised with any teachings or traditions, I assumed the Sequoyah Bear reflected some obvious piece of the Cherokee Nation that I was simply too new to know. I have seen its image many times, imagining it to be a lone bear. But!! Like in so many cities around the nation, it’s just an animal decorating project to add art and delight to a city. I had no idea! The Sequoyah Bear is one more bear among others, and reflecting not only a Cherokee hero, but the Cherokee importance placed on humor. This made my day! 🙂

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