The Snake (US421 between Bristol and Mountain City)
Round-Trip (Johnson City Loop):
Round-Trip from Knoxville:
Everything. Tightest curves on 421.
Points of Interest:
Shady Valley, Backbone Rock, Virginia Creeper Trail
Shady Valley Country Store, Cook’s Cafeteria (Mountain City), Lois’s Café (Mountain City), Trail Stop Café (Damascus)
Watch Out For:
Moving houses, tight curves, THP.
Want to ride miles of tasty curves on a weekend without being hounded by impatient sport bikes, and still be close enough to civilization to have amenities nearby, including a motorcycle-welcoming country store? Despite the venomous name, The Snake might be calling you.
Originally, The Snake was solely the section of US 421 between Mountain City and Shady Valley, where 421, TN 133 and TN 91 meet at an isolated crossroads. But now the section of 421 north of Shady Valley is also identified as part of this asphalt serpent on some local maps. Additional roads in the immediate area serve up prime motorcycling, whether your tastes run to tight switchbacks and technical curves, or scenic motoring. Throw in a few conveniently spaced stopping points with amenities, fabulously irregular terrain sprinkled with historic attractions, and you’ve got a motorcyclist’s playground in the wrinkly eastern tip of Tennessee.
There are several options for loop rides in the region. Riders from the Tri-Cities can simply start and end in Johnson City on the loop suggested on the Johnson City Chamber’s website (ridejohnsoncity.com). Their 138-mile loop including only the northern section of the “snake” leaves Johnson City on 11E heading northeast, veers onto 394 in a more eastern vector, and then hits 421 just below the Bristol suburbs. From there it follows 421 to Shady Valley and turns onto TN133, which winds its way through the Cherokee National Forest all the way to Damascus, Va. From Damascus, this route uses TN91 to get you to Mountain City, but then skips the true “snake” section of 421, opting instead for the milder TN67 to get you back to US 321 near Watauga Lake, and then continues on 321 through Elizabethton and back into Johnson City.
We headed to Shady Valley through Erwin, via Routes 107, 173 and then US 19E/321 to Elizabethton. From Elizabethton, Route 91 heads northeast and is a beautiful ride once you escape the short four-lane section, unless you get trapped behind a mobile home on the move, like we did. This section of 91 is mostly moderate curves through Cherokee National Forest areas, past small communities like Sadie and Buladeen. Twenty miles from Elizabethton, the landscape opens up at Shady Valley.
Coming into the area from Knoxville not via the Interstate, we elected not to start in Johnson City proper. We also elected to include the original snake section of 421 in a loop suggested by Dave Dail, owner of the Shady Valley Country Store (shadyvalleycountrystore.com), a motorcycle destination located right at the crossroads. Like the Chamber’s ride, Dave’s suggested loop also included 133 to Damascus. As we left the country store on 133 we could feel the temperature drop 10 degrees as we cruised alongside Beaverdam Creek.
At 10 miles into the loop we came upon Backbone Rock, touted as the “world’s shortest tunnel.” Backbone Rock is a naturally formed wall of rock approximately 20 feet thick and 75 feet tall. Route 133 passes through a man-made “tunnel” in the rock, originally made around 1901 to allow lumber trains to pass through. A slight miscalculation was made in the height of the tunnel: The original hole didn’t take into account the height of the tracks, and additional hand chiseling had to be done to allow the locomotive’s smokestack to clear. You can still see the “oops” divot at the top of the opening. The adjacent recreation area offers picnic spaces, campsites, and hiking trails, and Backbone Lodge (backbonelodge.com), within walking distance, offers less-rustic accommodations and covered bike parking.
Just a couple of miles farther on 133 brings us to the Virginia state line, where TN 133 becomes South Shady Avenue, and then we’re in the town of Damascus. Damascus seems like a healthy, outdoorsy place, with hikers and bicyclists exercising on the Virginia Creeper Trail we crossed rolling into town. Eateries and B&Bs that cater to the health-conscious abound in Damascus, but I saw evidence of biker food as well (pizza and barbecue!). Hang a right on US58 (East Laurel Ave.) in town and in less than half a mile take another right on 91, and drop back into Tennessee towards Mountain City.
Highway 91 is scenic and more open than 133, winding gently through rolling hills and farm country, a nice cruising road. There’s a new bypass connecting 91 and 421 outside Mountain City, so you can avoid riding all the way into town if you wish. The big wide bypass was a little disturbing after all the fine roads we’d been on so far, but it’s short and we were soon on the bottom end of “the snake.”
And snaky it is, with excellent wide pavement and superbly banked curves one after the other. Maybe not as switch-backy as 129 through Deal’s Gap, but fun and tempting (like Eve and her serpent, get it?). I am glad I rode a slow enduro, because on anything else I probably would have gotten a performance citation from one of several THP officers positioned on 421. We weren’t sure if the lack of traffic on a perfect Saturday was due to the THP heat or the UT-Western Kentucky football going on, but the roads were far from busy.
We stopped and spoke with one officer, whose cruiser was parked at the bottom of a short straight. He explained that the increased presence was due to an aggressive driving campaign grant, prompted by fatalities and serious injuries in 2005-2006. The demographic of the visitors to road had changed, he told us, since the campaign started. A crowd of hard-core sport-bike riders who stunted on a stretch of 421 called the “playground” had been partially replaced by armies of cruising and touring riders. “They spend more money,” he joked, but “They are a little loud.” He offered that since the campaign began, the last fatality occurred in 2006, although a memorial at the Country Store indicated at least one fatal accident occurred in 2007. We passed two more THP cruisers on 421 in the 11 miles to Shady Valley.
Entering Shady Valley on 421 from the Mountain City side is enough reason to ride “The Snake” as any. One last big round left-hander and the mountain evaporates into a fantastic view of the valley. Over lunch at the Country Store we had a chat with Dave, who explained that the 12 miles of road in all four directions from the crossroads encompasses 489 curves. We weren’t counting, but the roads are all excellent motorcycle roads.
We left lovely Shady Valley via the northern section of “The Snake.” This section of 421 was also twisty and in great shape, and also patrolled. And traffic was still not bad at all for a perfect Labor Day weekend Saturday. Eventually 421 connected with 394, which we took southeast, skirting behind Bristol Motor Speedway to Interstate 81 at Exit 69. I-81 is torture on a KLR650, so at Exit 57 we hopped off onto I-26 North for about a mile before heading east again on Route 347 (Rock Springs Road) which is a great ride all the way to Rogersville, alternating between medium curves and wide-open sections through farm-country valleys. There are a couple of tricky intersections on 347, so watch the signs.
From Rogersville it was old familiar 11W, 25E, 375 (Lake Shore Drive) and 92 back to 11E, which dumped us right back into East Knoxville. Lake Shore Drive is one of my favorites now that the Wolf Creek Bridge work is complete, but on this Saturday afternoon it was clogged with slow-moving brake-stompers, stealing my joy. The ride from Knoxville is about 350 miles unless you choose to torture yourself on the slab to get to the Tri-Cities (or have a comfortable seat), but the roads around Shady Valley are well worth it. Pack a tent or book a room and make a weekend of it.
I-40 East to I-81 North to Exit 23 at 11E
11E southeast to Greeneville to Route 107 South (Erwin Highway)
107 South through Erwin to Route 173
173 northeast to 19E
North on 19E into Elizabethton to Route 91 East
91 East to Shady Valley
133 East from Shady Valley to Damascus, VA
91 South to Mountain City, TN
421 North back to Shady Valley, and on to Route 394
Southwest on 394 to I-81 (Exit 69)
I-81 South to I-26 at Exit 57B
I-26 north to 347 (Rock Springs Road) at Exit 6
347 west to 11W (Lee Highway) at Rogersville, TN
11W west to 25E at Bean Station
25E south to Route 375 (Lakeshore Drive)
375 West to Route 92
92 south to Mill Springs Road
Mill Springs southwest to 11E at New Market
11E back into Knoxville