TOTD – Cherohala Skyway & Dragon Loop

The Cherohala Skyway is a National Scenic Byway running from Robbinsville, North Carolina to Tellico Plains, Tennessee. It is 40 miles of two lane, paved, and well-maintained road with unbelievable vistas and views. Referred to as “The Mile-High Legend” their tag line is “A Drive Above The Clouds”.

 

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Haw Knob, Cherohala Skyway, Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina

The name Cherohala is a conjunction of Cherokee and Nantahala as this majestic road, full of long sweeping turns, runs through the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina and the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee.

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Cherohala Skyway, Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee

Just south of Robbinsville, North Carolina, off US 129, you take a left onto Rte. 143. The road changes names from Massey Branch Rd. in Robbinsville, to Snowbird Rd. and then Santeetlah Rd., as it winds its way 11.4 miles around Santeetlah Lake, to the beginning of the Cherohala Skyway. The entrance into Cherohala Skyway is marked with obvious signage, although you have never left the road you started on.

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At the northern end’s entrance near Robbinsville, called Santeetlah Gap, the elevation is 2,660 feet above sea level. As you begin the Cherohala Skyway, there is an obvious climb going on. You can feel it in the throttle. The turns are long, sweeping, and have none of the technical riding skills the Tail of the Dragon requires. Any skill level rider can enjoy this ride.

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You can feel the temperature drop as you climb to the highest point at Santeetlah Overlook, which is 5,390 feet above sea level. Here, the clouds often brush across the top of the mountain and, in early morning rides, visibility can become an issue for the few miles you ride at the highest elevations. The fog that lies in the valleys, which give the Smoky Mountains their name, can obscure views from the highest overlooks in the early morning. By afternoon, visibility usually clears with the heat of day.

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Cherohala Skyway

There are overlooks all along the Skyway giving you ample photo opportunities and areas to pull off, dismount, and usually put warmer clothes on as you climb and fight the drop in temperature. Vehicle traffic is rarely a problem here. And there are a few straight sections that offer a passing opportunity should you get behind slow moving traffic.

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Cherohala Skyway, Tennessee, view from Spirit Ridge, 4,950 Ft Elevation

After crossing the highest elevations, you begin your descent into the valley and Tellico Plains. But there is still plenty of road ahead as you are only halfway there. The descent is just as breathtaking with many additional overlooks to enjoy. If you stop at the Mud Gap Overlook at 4,480 feet above sea level, you may well encounter hikers crossing the mountain on the Mackay Trail. As you drop through the continuing sweeping curves and scenery, you will feel the temperature start to rise. I found myself opening vents on my helmet and riding jacket, until we pulled off at an overlook and I could re-attire for the growing warmth.

The roads are patrolled by Federal Forest Rangers, fully equipped to enforce municipal and National Park regulations and rules. But they are just as friendly as they are efficient. Ranger stations, pull-offs, overlooks, picnic areas,  trails, and bathrooms have clear signage and the roads are in exceptional condition.

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Bald River Falls, Cherohala Skyway, Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee

As you continue down, a few miles past the Turkey Creek Overlook, you will come across Forest Service Road 210, which leads back to Bald River Falls. Not overly impressive, as you have likely seen larger ones, but it is a decent photo-op or rest area. Or you can sweep by and view the falls without ever dismounting your bike. It is about 20 minutes back to the falls and returning to the Skyway.

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Katz, Cherohala Skyway, Tellico Plains, Tennessee

Finally, you will pass Katz on the right. A quaint little place with cold drinks, great deli sandwiches, and shaded seating on a small outside deck next to Bald River. Parking is gravel, so care should be taken on two wheels. Beyond Katz you will near the end of the Cherohala Skyway and enter Tellico Plains. You will have dropped to an elevation of 860 Feet above sea level. If your ears haven’t popped on the way up and down, you are on the wrong road. There is a Harley Davidson shop, convenience store, and a gas station where the Skyway meets Rte. 360, just a stone’s throw from Katz.

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Cherohala Skyway Harley-Davidson

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Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center

 

 

If you are looking to ride the Cherohala Skyway/Dragon loop, Rte. 360 would be where you turn right to head back to the north end of the Dragon, then over the Dragon and back into Robbinsville. But even if that is the plan, Tellico Plains is only about a mile further, with restaurants, the Cherohala Visitor Center, and other establishments. You can find maps, souvenirs, t-shirts, food, and gas. Just about anything you need. Then a quick jump back to the Loop or on to other destinations.

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The Cherohala/Dragon Loop is about 120 miles round trip. Rte. 360 from the Skyway is scenic and rural. You will have a short stint on Hwy. 411, with ample areas for breaks and gas. Then right onto Rte. 72 until it meets US 129 at Pumpkin Center. A couple of stores, a repair shop, Dragon Pit Inn & BBQ, and gas sit at this intersection. Definitely worth stopping in, if you are looking for more unique souvenirs or just a bite and cold beverage. From here it is right onto US 129 for about 9 miles to the foot of the Dragon. For you Harley riders, you will also pass another opportunity for H-D merchandise at US 129 Dragon Harley-Davidson.

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U.S. 129 Dragon Harley-Davidson, Tallassee, Tennessee

Prior to reaching the Dragon, there is an entrance on the left to the Foothills Parkway, which I will cover in my next entry.

Comments
4 Responses to “TOTD – Cherohala Skyway & Dragon Loop”
  1. zed14 says:

    Hopefully we get back to the US and get a chance to ride the roads in this area. They are certainly on my list.

    • Brad Osborne says:

      Zed,
      I hope so too. There is no other place like it. Many people from around the globe come here to ride the Dragon and the other phenomenal roads. If you haven’t done so yet, please read my entry titled Tail of the Dragon. That is the road you will find no where else in the world. Thanks for reading and commenting! Keep the shiny side up!

  2. Some lovely shots here. Like the skyway pic a lot. Did you take them?

    • Brad Osborne says:

      The fourth and fifth photos were not taken by me, and of course the maps are from online sources. All the others were taken by me with an inexpensive digital camera and unedited. Thanks for reading!

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