2006 Motorcycle Tours - Roan Mountain

State Line Surprise

Remember when you got hooked on pizza in high school and couldn't help scarfing it at every meal for weeks? Then you'll also remember that the accompanying buzz faded shortly thereafter; with any guilty pleasure, the too-much-of- a-good-thing syndrome usually kicks in well before you make the Guinness Book of World Records. Most of us can only inhale so many jumbo pepperoni pies before the inevitable bellyache.

So it was with Honda's annual biker bash, the Hoot-after decamping to Knoxville, Tennessee, to attend the event for the sixth year in a row, I felt like I'd exhausted my ride options in the area. That's why, while packing for this year's hoedown, I was tickled to read that Honda had put together a new route for Motorcycle Cruiser's annual ride-in bash. Even better, I had no idea where it was.

The folks at Team Red invariably string together a sweet series of byways for these rides, and our several years at the bucolic Norris Dam had been, by any measure, resounding successes. It's just that by Year Three, we'd OD'd on all that concrete and water. Kudos to Honda, then, for coming up with the Ride to Roan Mountain

Freaky FloraIf you've never been to Roan Mountain, you've missed one of North Carolina's most popular natural attractions-at least that's what the locals told me (what they didn't mention is that the top portion is actually located on the North Carolina-Tennessee state line). But I'd never even heard of the place, so I was just stoked to be hitting a fresh, unexplored destination-even if rhododendrons aren't really my thing.

Yup, rhododendrons. Roan Mountain's claim to fame is that it's host to the largest natural display of these flowers on the planet. Thousands of folks come 'round to witness the vibrant Rhododendron Catawbiense gardens at peak bloom every June'-about the time I stumbled upon them, too.

Roan Mountain is both a town and a state park, and your first stop should be Roan Mountain State Park Visitor Center (just outside the town) to get oriented, stock up on literature and refill your water bottle. And if you like guys in uniform, a naturalist is on hand to dispense more in-depth info, too.

The gardens themselves sprawl across seven miles of meadows studded with moss and heather, some eight miles beyond the park. As you gain elevation on the ride up Highway 143, Roan Mountain State Park recedes in your rear view and is soon replaced by dense hardwood forests. This dream of a road unfurls with seductive sweepers and ripping curves that loop in and out of the ever-rising plateau of the Pisgah-Cherokee National Forest. On a good day, you're rewarded with sweeping vistas of the surrounding peaks. Just down the other side of this rather large hill lies the fabled Blue Ridge Parkway, but to access the famous gardens (and the old Cloudland Hotel), it's best to hang a right at Carvers Gap onto the Forest Service road.

Carvers Gap is a low notch in the ridgeline of Roan Mountain, and the adjacent parking lot also gives you a straight shot at the Appalachian Trail (AT). To the north, the AT crosses a series of grassy balds-nearly treeless areas that offer unobstructed views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The 10-mile stretch that includes Carvers Gap has been lauded by many an AT through-hiker as one of the most beautiful bits of the entire trail. Just south, the AT climbs to the high point of the ridge-6285-foot Roan High Knob.

When I rolled into the Gap, it was flush with rhododendron in full bloom, the plump blossoms putting on a blazing show of color. Legend has it that Indians came to the top of the Roan to wage a great battle, and so much blood was spilled that the rhododendron turned from white to red. Plunked haphazardly among forests of evergreen, the gardens seem anomalous, but there's no denying their visual pizzazz. And because of its elevation above the clouds, the whole area goes by the nickname "Cloudland."

Miller TimeAnother must-stop in the area is the Miller House. Halfway up the mountain between the visitor center and Carvers Gap, this compound includes a barn, smokehouse and old frame main house built in 1909. The whole homestead is preserved as a reminder of the way folks used to live in these parts-and it's where the Cruiser crew convened for lunch. During the summer months, local musicians and traditional storytellers visit the house to share their talents. There was a fiddler on hand to serenade us with the sweet sounds of Appalachia as we chowed down on catfish and grits-all things considered, not a bad way to spend a hot summer day.

But there's more than just local history and boutonniere fodder here; Roan Mountain State Park encompasses some 2000 acres of southern Appalachian forest, with elevations ranging from 3000 to 3700 feet, so you're virtually assured of cooler temperatures than those of the surrounding areas. Wildflowers and wildlife jam the hollows and ridges of these foothills, and should you want to spend more time tramping the trails or just need a place to flop for the night, the woods hold campgrounds, as well as 30 cabins, each complete with a front porch, kitchen, full bath and wood-burning stove. The best part? No TVs.

There are interstates leading to the park on the Tennessee side, but by coming into the High Country on a main highway, you'll miss the backroads that really define what it means to be in these mountains. Opt for the lesser-traveled, grittier paths, and you'll gain the full experience. From its inexplicable "balds" to its lush forests, Roan Mountain remains one of the most intriguing places in the southern Appalachian highlands. It's a prime riding area I'll wager I won't get sick of anytime soon.

Directions:From Knoxville, TN, and the west, the most direct route is 1-40 to I-81 to I-181 south through Johnson City. Exit Elizabethton/Roan Mountain State Park (Hwy. 67) to Hwy. 19-E south. In Roan Mountain, TN (the town), you'll hit Roan Mountain State Park. The steep drive to the top takes about 20 minutes on Hwy 143.

From Boone, NC, and the east, take Hwy 105 to Newland, NC. Take Hwy 194 North out of Newland toward Roan Mountain, TN. At Elk Park, NC, take Hwy 19E to Roan Mountain and Highway 143 into the park.