Hot Springs, N.C.
From (downtown) Knoxville:
Straight-ish two-lanes, sweepers and twisties
Points of Interest
Hot Springs, Little Laurel Creek, Historic Dandridge
Steady Eddy Coffee, Iron Horse Station, Smoky Mountain Diner
Watch Out For
After a hot ride in black leather on a moist, muggy day there's nothing I like more than a soak in natural-spring-fed hot tub. Well, maybe on a cool day in the spring or fall. But even in warm weather there are still plenty of reasons to head across the North Carolina border to the little town of Hot Springs.
There are several breakfast and lunch options (and lodging if you want to make it an overnighter) at a natural stopping distance, and several optional routes out of Hot Springs if you want to log some more miles on beautiful motorcycle roads. The ride is mostly pleasant (except the day I chose) and you're never more than 35 miles from gas and other amenities.
Just to get out of town, I took Interstate 40 East to the Strawberry Plains Pike exit, and then took "Strawplains" east to 25/70, near Carter School. Strawberry Plains Pike is actually a pleasant two-lane road through the country as soon as you're out of sight of the Interstate exit, but with frequent driveways and feeder roads—so exercise care and anticipation of drivers entering the road. The junction at US 25/70 is less convenient from Strawplains than it used to be, so if you haven't been through the area in a few years, be aware that the intersection has been redesigned.
Take a left at the light, and US 25/70 will take you all the way to Hot Springs if you desire a direct route. US 25/70 is the old Asheville Highway, and a few remaining architectural remnants hint at a day maybe 50 or 60 years ago when it was the main drag. The section of 25/70 between Carter and Newport is my personal auto graveyard and cool yard-car viewing route. For a decade, a mint-yellow Opel Manta Rally winked at me from a yard at the junction with Route 139. I resisted her charms and now I fear she's gone to the crusher.
Rolling hills and incredibly green farmland from a wet early May lined the road almost all the way to Dandridge, and I caught glimpses of the interstate off to the right, full of drivers oblivious to the pleasant alternative they're missing. This stretch of 25/70 has great visibility and frequent passing zones, so motorcyclists have their choice of pace. The road crosses under the interstate just outside Dandridge, and as you enter town the speed limit drops considerably. You'll want to slow down and check out the historic homes and other buildings as you roll through Tennessee's second-oldest town.
As I exited Dandridge and sped up and down the hills toward the bridge over the French Broad River, traffic slowed to a crawl. Our friends at TDOT were inspecting the interstate bridge over the river. All interstate traffic was diverted onto 25/70 across the bridge and all the way to Newport before dumping back onto the slab at Exit 432. This was not the most pleasant way to traverse this usually fun section of the route. The bridge work was expected to take 10 days, so hopefully by press time this frustration will be over.
A few miles of four-lane took me to the historic part of Newport, past the beautifully restored Rhea-Mims Hotel building. The traffic lights are small and oddly placed through downtown Newport, so it pays to keep an eye peeled. Again, some historic buildings line the road on the east end of Newport, making this another section on which to relax and take in the scenery.
After Newport, 25/70 follows the French Broad into the Cherokee National Forest, and the terrain becomes more steep but still lush and green. I cross the swollen river again at Bridgeport, on the green steel girder bridge, named for Major J.T. Huff. Sadly, Major Huff's bridge is not long for this world, as its enormous concrete replacement is being built alongside. Enjoy the view from the old one while you can.
The road twists and turns past the community of Del Rio, and then the bike-friendly Bobarosa camping/bar complex beside the river. A few "resort" developments sprang up in this section in recent years, but lots don't appear to be selling, and there's a perfectly engineered neighborhood along the river, with no houses.
Just past Bobarosa, there's a Cherokee WMA marker and a sign indicating Route 107 to the left. This little detour adds about 35 miles to the trip, but they're very good miles and less traveled than the straight shot on 25/70. Route 107 heads into the Cherokee Forest and follows Houston Valley between Meadow Creek Mountains and Brush Creek and Paint Mountains. It's at first cool and shady, with excellent curves and scenery, and then opens up through bucolic pastures and farms, but still with great curves and views, but there are precious few places to stop and reflect or take photos. After 14 miles or so, 107 intersects with TN 70 below Greeneville, and I took a right (South) toward the looming mountains and the North Carolina state line.
The road looks arrow-straight, encouraging throttle-twisting and ludicrous speed, but Highway 70 quickly switches character and becomes almost Deal's Gap-like, snaking over tight switchbacks and hairpin turns as it approaches North Carolina. At the state line on top the hill, TN 70 becomes NC 208, and the long-abandoned State Line Gas station welcomes me to Madison County, N.C.
Route 208 follows Little Laurel Creek, which looks like some fine trout water, judging by the number of fishermen parked along the road. Alternating between dark shady creek side and open farmland, this section of 208 is entertaining, but there are some sections of rough pavement to watch for. There's but one passing zone, so if you get trapped behind an 18-wheeler it might be wise to use one of many turnouts to take a break and gaze on the river.
At the tiny community of Hurricane, 208 intersects with US 25/70, and a colorful coffee shop, the Steady Eddy, welcomes hikers, fishermen, and kayakers (and motorcyclists too). I took a right onto my old friend 25/70, and flew down the hill towards Hot Springs, crossing the Appalachian Trail. Signs warn motorcyclists of a sharp curve and recommend 30 mph coming off the mountain, but the dire warning seemed a little exaggerated.
Rolling into Hot Springs, I pass two locations for the aforementioned hot soak (maybe next time) and I discovered that one of my favorite lunch stops, the Paddler's Pub, has been demolished, leaving just a slab where it stood. The Iron Horse Station (www.theironhorsestation.com), which is an eatery, tavern, and hotel with Pullman-car-themed guest rooms, is directly across the street, but it's a bit more upscale than the old pub. Several other locations in Hot Springs proper will feed you, and the always-reliable Smoky Mountain Diner is a few blocks away for more casual fare.
Hot Springs can be a starting point for a number of other fine rides besides this one: 209 is a fabulous ride towards Asheville, and 25/70 through Marshall to Weaverville is very fun as well.
My trip home was just 25/70 all the way, and I dreaded the backup at Newport. At the state line there is a lively looking biker-themed saloon and grill that I hadn't noticed before, but on this rainy Saturday there were no bikes. One more bridge crosses the French Broad before I was back at the junction of 25/70 and 107, where my little detour began, and sure enough at Newport the interstate detour was still making locals and travelers (and me) miserable. Once past the bridge though, all was well, and the rest of the ride home was pleasant and familiar.