A Native American Motorcycle in Cherokee Country

Visiting the ancients on an Indian Chief

The 2014 Indian Chief Vintage
The 2014 Indian Chief VintagePhil Buonpastore

Having an opportunity to ride a 2014 Indian Chief Vintage for several weeks, I pondered where to take the "new Native American" motorcycle. I needed a place that would be appropriate to the bike's historic marque. Knowing well the history of my long-adopted home state of Georgia, I realized I did not have to look much farther than my own backyard, as the area encompassing north Georgia, western North Carolina, and eastern Tennessee is flush with Native American history. Prior to being forcibly relocated by President Andrew Jackson to Oklahoma in 1830, the Cherokee and Creek Indian tribes called this area home.

The Appalachian Mountains are also home to some of the best motorcycling roads in the country, and I aimed to ride as many of them as possible in a two-day loop tour. The ride into Cherokee country begins from the northern Georgia town of Dahlonega, whose name is taken from the Cherokee word “dalonige,” which means yellow or gold. An old mining town is always an appropriate start to a good road trip. Georgia’s state Road 60 is the most direct route northwest, and it is a well-known rider’s road with an almost continuous series of twisting curves, so I had no hesitation in beginning the route here.

The Vintage is a beautiful bike. Harking back to an earlier motorcycling era, this machine takes its styling cues from the classic Indians of the mid-20th century, with solid red paint and a weathered tan seat and saddlebags. With a 68.1-inch wheelbase, it is a large motorcycle but surprisingly agile and very much at home in the twisties of northern Georgia, and I find myself taking on the challenge of SR 60 with confidence and a spirited pace. The road passes by the well-known motorcycle lodge Two Wheels Suches (formerly Two Wheels Only), recently reopened and renamed after the small north Georgia town it calls home. SR 60 eschews the straight line for 46 miles until reaching the neighboring towns of McCaysville, Georgia, and Copperhill, Tennessee, at the Georgia-Tennessee state line.

A cruise on the Appalachian roads on the Indian Chief Vintage is just too perfect.
A cruise on the Appalachian roads on the Indian Chief Vintage is just too perfect.Phil Buonpastore

In Tennessee, SR 68 is a real gem. Within a few miles, the road enters the near center of the Cherokee National Forest, offering the stellar visual combination of an emerald green pine forest against a deep-blue sky, with a perfectly paved two-lane highway that offers both long straightaways and sections of repeating organic S-curves that seem to be naturally spaced to allow a perfect rhythm for rocking the Vintage along the route. Scenic locations and interesting sites abound, including the old railroad trestle that runs over TN 68 near the Hiwassee River and the abandoned semi-comical Kimsey Junior College pumping station. As you approach the town of Tellico Plains, two lodging outfits that cater to the two-wheeled traveler are available: Hunt's Motorcycle Lodge (huntslodge.com) features small cabins and camping for the more spartan two-wheeled traveler, and for the upscale motorcyclist, The Lodge at Tellico (lodgeattellico.com) features premier rooms with whirlpool bathtubs and a motorcycle garage. The Lodge website also has links to area rides and restaurants.

Lodges can be found throughout the mountains in the southeast.
Lodges can be found throughout the mountains in the southeast.Phil Buonpastore
Many small towns dot the mountains and all contain tid bits of history.
Many small towns dot the mountains and all contain tid bits of history.Phil Buonpastore

At the town of Tellico Plains, a right turn off TN 68 takes you onto the Cherohala Skyway, one of the finest motorcycle rides in the entire southeastern US. The name of the road is taken from the two national forests it travels through—the Cherokee and the Nantahala—and is designated a National Scenic Byway. Rising from about 900 feet at the Tellico Plains entrance to the 5,390-foot elevation of Santeetlah and excellently paved throughout, the scenic byway twists and turns its way through national forests and along the top of the Unicoi Mountains for most of its 43-mile length. At the higher elevations, you are riding almost directly over the peaks of the mountain range, with spectacular 100-plus-mile views in almost any direction.

The Skyway ends at Highway 129 near the small town of Robbinsville, North Carolina. As it was approaching sunset, I got a room at the Microtel Inn and walked across the street to buy dinner at a grocery store. Choosing fried chicken and a few side items from the deli counter, I asked the gentleman working behind the counter where they kept their beer. He replied, “We don’t have any beer. We’re a dry county.” Dry county? I didn’t think they made those anymore. I settled for a bottle of Perrier.

TN 68 promises some of the finest motorcycle rides in southeastern US.
TN 68 promises some of the finest motorcycle rides in southeastern US.Phil Buonpastore

The next morning, it was north on highway 129 toward Deals Gap, a must-do when riding in this area. Don't get me wrong; the 20 miles from Robbinsville to "The Dragon" is also a fine ride in itself, running adjacent to the Yellow Creek with its beautiful waterside scenery along the way. At Deals Gap, I ride through the famous 318 curves three times: once to get my sea legs, a return ride to take the Gap at a more challenging pace, and a third time to head north again. The Vintage handled the drill with competence and agility, and leaving the bike in third gear put the engine in the sweet spot for rolling on and off the throttle at the perfect speed for the repeating curves' entries and exits.

I stop at the roadside pullout overlooking Calderwood Dam to unwind from the previous thousand curves, converse with other riders, and take a few photos of the gorgeous Calderwood Lake, the dam, and the surrounding forest before continuing north again.

It’s interesting to observe that in this area of the country there are so many good roads to ride that you can enjoy a half dozen of them in a single day, with just a few miles between to “connect the dots.” From Calderwood Dam, it is 15 miles to the entrance of the Foothills Parkway, which is a nice foil to the previous radical twisting and turning of Deals Gap. Its easy rolling hills and milder curves gives you an opportunity to relax and simply enjoy the vistas that overlook the surrounding Appalachian Mountains.

The parkway exits on Highway 321/73, and going south for a short 8 miles leads to the next leg in the route where Highway 321 splits from Scenic 73. The entire length of the lovely two-lane Scenic 73 runs alongside the twisting Little River for the majority of its 20-mile length. Along this road is the entrance to Cades Cove State Park, a fine place for a stop.

The scenic roads near the mountains are any motorcycle cruiser's dream routes.
The scenic roads near the mountains are any motorcycle cruiser's dream routes.Phil Buonpastore

But don’t enter the park unless you’ve got time on your hands; you’re led through a 20-mile loop road with very low speed limits and lots of tourist traffic. There are no signs along the way telling you that you made the turn, and it can mean an hour-plus detour in the day’s ride. Follow the signs toward Gatlinburg to avoid this.

At the end of Scenic 73, Highway 441 south leads through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and onto Cherokee, North Carolina. A town that trades on its name, Cherokee brings on the shops, museums, and outdoor dramas and historical reenactments that feature Cherokee culture and history. Taking the opportunity to get some great photos of the Indian Chief Vintage in a Native American setting, I also listen to a fine talk on Cherokee history given by Tony Walkingstick and later fuel the bike for the return ride south toward home.

Learn about some Cherokee culture in Cherokee, North Carolina.
Learn about some Cherokee culture in Cherokee, North Carolina.Phil Buonpastore

South out of Cherokee, Highway 19 leads to 74, also called the Great Smoky Mountains Expressway, and how can you go wrong with a name like that? The highway becomes a very nice ride through the Nantahala River Valley, the road’s twists echoing the bends of the river. On hot summer days, the area can get crowded with families taking advantage of the many white-water rafting and tubing companies along the Nantahala’s white water, so watch for pedestrians, especially teenagers, and buses pulling trailers of rafts and rafters.

Once on Highway 19 south of Murphy, I cross the Georgia state line, but the fun isn’t over yet. Near Vogel State Park, the highway becomes another great joyride for the last 16 miles leading back to Dahlonega, where the long passing lanes that continue for several miles mean you can take the curves “Can-Am style,” by moving from the outside of one lane to the inside of the other, allowing a faster average speed than other mountain highways.

Google Maps determines the mileage round-trip from Dahlonega, Georgia, is 375 miles and a little more than nine hours of total travel time. The ride can be comfortably done in two days if you don’t dally too long at any location, but when you have an opportunity to visit areas like this with so many roads to ride and sights to see, why hurry? While there are many long stretches of pristine scenic highway throughout eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, riding here also has the advantage of many towns offering reasonably priced lodging and plenty of restaurants and fuel stations, so it is also a logistically easy place to tour. Taking your time makes a ride in the traditional Native American lands of the Cherokee all the better.

"Taking your time makes a ride in the traditional Native American lands of the Cherokee all the better."
"Taking your time makes a ride in the traditional Native American lands of the Cherokee all the better."Phil Buonpastore

Other Roads and Rides:

Junaluska-Wayah Road: Comprised of two connected forest roads that run from Andrews, North Carolina, to Highway 64 (Murphy Road), this cross-country route runs past Nantahala Lake and through the Cherokee National Forest for 35 miles. The pavement can be a bit rough at times, but the views of Nantahala Lake and sections of spectacular winding road makes this a must-do for those who have the time for some exploring.

State Route 28 from Franklin, North Carolina, to Highway 129 at Deals Gap: SR 28 runs across three states, from South Carolina through Georgia and into North Carolina, ending within a mile of the Tennessee state line. The road follows several rivers through forest valleys and at elevation in the Smoky Mountains and in sight of the Fontana Lake and Dam areas near Tennessee. No matter where you begin the ride, SR 28 is a winner of a road. But the section between Franklin to its end at the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort is an uncommonly beautiful 60-mile ride.