A few years ago, brother -in-law Jay called and suggested that we go to the mountains on the Yamaha XT250 dual sports. . Why not, I asked myself, and having no good negative answer, I said yes. This retirement gig isn’t bad.
In keeping with our usual planning style, we didn’t have an actual destination until two days before we left when Waynesville NC became our home base. Monday morning, Memorial Day, the XTs went into the truck and about 6 hours later, we were unloading them in the parking lot of the Oak Park Inn, a very motorcycle-friendly motel just a block or so from the downtown of this North Carolina town. By 3pm we were at the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and had again convinced ourselves that the 250cc bikes were the best way of seeing that national park. By 4pm, we were on the verandah at the Pisgah Inn, enjoying pie, overlooking the enormous valley below. A quick run down Rt. 276 (where I had crashed the R100GSPD a few years earlier…I’m still looking for black gravel in every turn on that road !) and we were back in town. Our Irish pub there had closed, but two doors down from its location, the Tipping Point Brewpub had opened, with much of the same type of atmosphere. I recommend the Porter, though Jay preferred the wheat ale.
Tuesday dawned bright and clear…..no, wait, that would be someone else’s tour. We awoke to a downpour. We are nothing if not prepared for such things, so we suited up and were headed through Maggie Valley and up to the Parkway right after breakfast at the local bakery. Up on the Blue Ridge, the rain intensified, so we made our soggy way down to Cherokee and started up through the Smokies. On the other side of Newfound Gap, the rain began to slacken and when we reached Cade’s Cove, we were mostly in the dry. Rich Valley Road is a dirt and gravel path that leads through the mountains from the Cove down to Townsend and the night’s rain had left it just wet enough to be tacky but not muddy and kept the dust down. The dirt portion ends still far above the river level, giving us a long downhill of paved sweepers and switchbacks to reach the town. By now the sun had reappeared, the roads were dry and a decent lunch awaited at a roadside restaurant. We headed back up to Cade’s Cove, this time to take the dirt path on the other side of the mountain, down Parson’s Branch road. This one is mostly dirt, with some gravel that has been beaten into the surface and a fair amount of rock poking up to keep one up on the pegs. There are ten stream crossings on this one, though they are for the most part quite shallow and with a concrete bottom, but still fun to raise a splash or two. Parson’s Branch ends abruptly on Rt. 129, “The Dragon”, a few miles before the Deals Gap store. It had been years since either of us had ventured onto the infamous racer road, but on this Tuesday afternoon we didn’t encounter much other two wheeled traffic. There was one Gold Wing, whose rider seemed to be puzzled by the two dirt bikes in his mirror, and was determined not to let us go around. We found some amusement in the idea that on this road famous for speedy travel, these 250 cc dual sports with knobbies were being impeded by an 1800cc machine.
We didn’t stop in at the store, but did take a photo op at the dragon sculpture at Killboy’s on the other side of the road. The view from there is amazing, when one thinks of what that store looked like when we started coming down here more than 25 years ago, a small one-person operation with nothing to suggest the mega-resort it has become.
I’ve always thought Rt. 28, the left leg of the Y intersection at the store, to be a better ride than 129, so we headed that way with the notion of stopping for pie at the Fontana Village. The turns on this leg are not so severe and the pavement clean and flawless, allowing us to explore the edges of our dirt-oriented tires and the limits of our confidence (both keeping us well within the safe range of crazy) until we reached the Village. The Wildfire Grille was completely empty of other customers, so we had the wide covered porch, the waitstaff, and the Key Lime pie, to ourselves.
By now it was getting near suppertime, so we meandered through Bryson City, up the “old” 19 back to Cherokee and then scaled the Parkway back up to the top of the ridge. Late on a Tuesday afternoon, all of the tourists and motorhomes had gone and we could wind out the XT’s in fourth gear all the way up the curving route to Rt. 23, then back down into Waynesville. What had started out in a thunderstorm had ended in perfect weather and an equally perfect riding day. We found supper at the Frog’s Leap restaurant, about three blocks from our room, with an excellent meal accompanied by yet another local microbrew.
Before heading back up to the Parkway on Wednesday morning, we stopped in at a local auto parts store to get some oil to top off the hard-working little Yamahas. When we walked in with our helmets, the two good ol’ boys behind the counter asked us immediately if we had been to Cataloochee. We said no, and they replied in unison, ” Well then, you boys ought to be slapped !” and laughed in that way some do at the terminally benighted. They proceeded to tell us of the re-introduction of the elk to that valley and the fine dirt roads and trails that lead to it. We changed our plan to go south and headed north up 276 to Cove Creek Road which begins as a paved track, then as it proceeds ever upward, spiraling around the mountain, it turns to dirt at the top and heads back down into the valley below. We soon were deep in the woods, with steep dropoffs to our left and high slopes to our right, constantly looking for one of the huge beasts to be standing in the middle of the trail around each corner. Eventually the dirt track ends at an incongruously paved three mile stretch that goes down into the Cataloochee valley, where there are campgrounds, a ranger station and preserved early farmhouses for tourists to peruse What wasn’t there, at least on this morning, were elk. It seems that we were too late, too early or too something, to encounter any of the horned quadrupeds. Maybe next time. We did see large flocks of Monarch butterflies, flitting about in the air and gathered in clusters on the ground around something that we couldn’t discern but which obviously was of great interest to Monarchs. Later on the trail out, I had a close encounter with one of the large butterflies when it hit me square between the eyes, with one large wing over each lens of my glasses. I had a split second of seeing the spread-eagled creature in front of me and then complete darkness….not a good thing when on a switchbacked trail. I’m sure both of us exclaimed our respective species’ equivalent of a two-word phrase beginning with “Oh”. Fortunately for me and the Monarch, our encounter lasted only a brief second, leaving both of us no worse for the wear.
The trail leaving the valley on the other side from where we came in was 28 miles of dirt and gravel road winding through the eastern side of the Smoky Mountains and eventually dumping us out at I-40 with no apparent option but the Interstate or backtracking up the trail. We didn’t know exactly where we were, but opted for the four lane, thinking there would be some quick exit back to more hospitable travel. No such luck. We were running low on gas, so finally just buckled down to take the highway 13 miles back to Maggie Valley. The little 250’s soldiered on, accepting this as just another addition to their resume as all-rounders. They happily buzzed down the interstate, maintaining 60 mph and even working their way around the occasional car or truck not as capable as they were at keeping up with the traffic.
Another quick stop in Maggie for apple and peach cobbler, then we started back up to the Parkway to begin, at 3 pm, the route we thought we were going to explore this morning. Near the top of the ascent up from Cherokee, there is a turnoff to Black Camp Gap, a road we had passed by many times on our excursions up here. It leads to what seems to be a private Parkway, the same kind of curves, perfect pavement and stunning overlooks, with no one else there to enjoy it but us. Six or seven miles in, it terminates at a cul-de-sac with trailheads leading off along the ridges and a sign pointing down the hill, warning that Heintooga Road, down from here is unpaved, steep, winding, one way and rough. Sounds good to us. It is not quite a trail, but not really a road either, sort of a combination that turned out to be the perfect thing for what we wanted to do. There are many switchbacks as it winds down into the valley, that long wide valley one can see off to the right as you make those last 20 or so downhill miles on the Parkway, to the terminus at Cherokee. In places the path follows a tumbling creek that eventually ends up at the tribal trout hatchery within the Reservation.
Heintooga Road is paved for the last few miles, past the trout farm and ends at a T intersection that isn’t on our map. We go over to an older couple sitting in a pickup truck on the side of the road and ask politely “Can you tell us where we are?” . When they quit laughing at us, they tell us that Cherokee is “6 or 8 miles that way” and we set off to get back up to the Parkway.
Thirty or so miles later, we’ve wound the bikes out in fourth through countless curves and we’re back in the rain again on the ridgeline. We call it a day at Rt. 215 and make our way back to Waynesville by 7pm, another 11 hour day with about 230 miles under our wheels. Not bad, when one thinks of how much of it was in the dirt. We opt for a beer on the wide deck behind Frog Level Brewing Company, bordering the creek and then the Sweet Onion restaurant for a late dinner.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have done a lot of motorcycle traveling, and this trip has to rank up near the top when considering the enjoyment-versus-hassle ratio. I know I’ve waxed poetic on a number of occasions about the virtues of the XT 250, and yet I must do so again. These are the perfect combination of dirt/street characteristics, fast enough on the road to keep up with traffic (or exceed it, on the curvy bits) and docile enough to be at home in the woods. The torque available from the quarter-liter engine seems amazing, more than ample to haul my overlarge frame up and over whatever I still have the nerve to tackle. On the trails, one can stick it in second or third and just motor on serenely, trusting the bike to handle the problems with aplomb. It is the ideal vehicle for the Parkway, where the 45 mph speed limit can be maintained, or sometimes bent a bit, through any curve, leaving the bike in fourth gear and leaning as much as one dares on the little knobs out there at the edge of the tire. As we say, it’s way more fun to ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow. And all of this, while returning 65 or 70 miles per gallon of regular sipped. I know I’m at least 50 pounds heavier and half a foot taller than the person the manufacturer had in mind when they designed the bike and its suspension, but the XT just handles it all without much protest. When I was a young man, all those years ago, I rode street bikes in the woods and dirt bikes on the street, but I could not have imagined one machine this capable of being both. Waynesville, a small town with the good fortune to be located near both the Parkway and the Smokies, is another example of making the most of its resources. The small town where I live is about twice the size in population, but has not one tenth of the amenities offered in this motorcycle-friendly venue. The Oak Park Inn is within a five minute walk of several very good restaurants, two brewpubs, a Mast General Store (in case you forgot anything) and a fifteen or twenty minute ride from the Blue Ridge. Its an old cliche, but it really doesn’t get much better than this.