First, lemme clarify something.
By BEST, I mean the best motorcycle rides my husband John and I have done so far around Knoxville—which, I admit, is slightly limited. John bought our Indian FTR1200 in the fall of 2020, not leaving much time to ride that year, so 2021 was just the start of our motorcycle adventures together.
And one more thing. I’m only speaking from passenger experience. I don’t currently have plans to get my license, but I sure love to ride!
John’s been riding for years before we met. All over the country. No doubt he could recommend a LOT of routes in various states. While you won’t find those recs in this blog post, you will find a few of our favorite motorcycle rides that aren’t too far from Knoxville.
We love our FTR1200, but it isn’t made for long haul rides—which is why we’ve stuck around home so far, and also why John added a Harley Bagger to our fam in January 2022. Look for a future post on that!
Why NOT Tail of the Dragon?
Before I get into the list, lemme also address this question. Tail of the Dragon is by far the most well-known and popular motorcycle ride in East Tennessee and the Smoky Mountains.
In case you’re not familiar, Tail of the Dragon is a route in the Smokies, consisting of 318 hairpin curves in a span of 11 miles. Aptly named, right?
So why not include that on my list?
The short answer is: John and I have never rode Tail of the Dragon.
We drove Tail of the Dragon once in John’s truck and I got carsick. Like, probably the worst car sickness I’ve ever experienced in my life. I’m talking seat reclined as far back as it would go. Eyes closed nearly the entire time. Felt like passing out. Wished I had just passed out, really. It wasn’t over fast enough.
Of course, I do have a history of car sickness, but only when I read or use my phone too long, or if the roads are especially curvy. Still, that was THE WORST ever. I’m not exaggerating.
It’s that carsick experience has me super hesitant to ever try Tail of the Dragon on a motorcycle now. While some of the routes listed below are curvy—and I didn’t get sick on those—they’re not THAT curvy. I just don’t ever want to put myself in a situation where I feel like passing out on the bike, ya know?
I haven’t completely ruled Tail of the Dragon out just yet, but it’s sure not high on my list at this point. Darn carsickness.
If you wanna read more about Tail of the Dragon, click here.
Best motorcycle rides near Knoxville
Alrighty. On to the rides I love and recommend from personal experience.
Like Tail of the Dragon, Cherohala Skyway is quite popular with the biker crowd. Though the curves aren’t as condensed as the Dragon, there’s no lack of them, and there are plenty of stopping points with spectacular mountain views.
- Location: Cherohala Skyway runs from Tellico Plains, TN to Robbinsville, NC
- Total length one way: 43 miles
- Distance from Knoxville: about 1 hour from downtown Knoxville
- Highest elevation: 5,390 feet at the Santeetlah Overlook
- Scenic overlooks / picnic areas: 15
- Fun facts:
- Cherohala Skyway passes through two national forests: Cherokee and Nantahala.
- That’s actually how the name Cherohala came to be—”Chero” from Cherokee, and “hala” from Nantahala.
- It’s designated a National Scenic Byway by the U.S. Department of Transporation.
Foothills Parkway (West) is one of our go-to spots for a spontaneous ride when the weather is too good to waste. My favorite time to visit Foothills Parkway is early November (around November 7th, give or take a few days). That’s when the leaves are typically at peak color and the drive just screams fall. While you’ll absolutely see other bikers and lots of convertibles around that time of year, it’s by no means a traffic jam—surprising for such a prime leaf peeping ride. If you do get stuck behind a slow vehicle, be patient and they’ll likely stop at one of the many overlooks—or you can stop and let them get ahead. The views are worth it anyway!
Another time of year I recommend going is early spring—or, I suppose late-fall after the leaves fall. The key is to go when it’s warm enough to ride with no leaves on the trees so you have a clearer view of the fact that the roadway is literally on a ridge. You can see the valleys and distant mountains on both sides throughout the ride and not just at the overlooks.
- Location: The portion of Foothills Parkway we ride runs from the Northeast Entrance in Walland, TN (southeast of Maryville, TN) to the Southwest Entrance at Chilhowee Lake.
- Total length one way: 16 miles
- Distance from Knoxville: about 40 minutes from downtown Knox (to the Northeast Entrance in Walland, TN)
- Highest elevation: 2,640 feet at Look Rock
- Scenic overlooks / picnic areas: I counted 16 along this stretch
- Fun facts:
- This section of Foothills Parkway
- As I mentioned above, much of the roadway is on a mountain ridge.
Top of the World
Who doesn’t wanna go there?!
This ride is both about the journey and the destination—which is literally called Top of the World, right next to Lake in the Sky. I’m not making these names up! Unfortunately for anyone who doesn’t live there, Lake in the Sky is surrounded entirely by private land. However, there are a few good viewpoints along the roadway adjacent to the lake.
John and I rode to the community known as Top of the World in fall 2020 when the leaves were popping, and I will say peak fall color really gives it the WOW factor. The drive to the “Top” winds through the trees and ends with that gorgeous lake view—which, I imagine, is still quite stunning even without the fall foliage surrounding it.
- Location: Similar to Foothills Parkway, this ride starts outside of Maryville, but on the southwest side. Exactly where it starts is open to interpretation because Top of the World is a place more than a roadway itself. Once in Maryville, take Wilkinson Pike to Butterfly Gap Loop to Butterfly Gap Road. And that takes you all the way to Top of the World.
- Total length one way: This will vary depending on where you start.
- Distance from Knoxville: about 45 minutes from downtown Knox
- Highest elevation: The elevation at Top of the World is 2,024. So no, you can’t take the name literally 🙂
- Scenic overlooks / picnic areas: The ultimate scenic view is at Top of the World. There aren’t really stops along Butterfly Gap Loop & Road, though they’re just the right amount of winding to make for an ideal motorcycle ride.
- Fun facts:
- You can also access Butterfly Gap Road from Foothills Parkway, if you’d like to do a 2-in-1 ride.
- Top of the World is the actual name of the unincorporated community.
Both times John and I visited Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, we took our Indian motorcycle. The first part of the drive is nothing exciting or unusual—for us, coming from West Knoxville, it’s going through the city of Oak Ridge. But once you’re out of Oak Ridge, it’s rural communities and tree-lined narrow, winding roads till you get to Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, nestled between two mountains in Petros, TN.
Why do we ride to a state penitentiary in the mountains?
First, it’s no longer operational. Brushy Mountain closed in 2009, and now offers tours, as well as a restaurant and distillery.
Second, Brushy is quite the unusual place. It opened in 1896 as Tennessee’s first maximum security prison. It also looks almost castle-like, hidden away in a valley, and the facility hasn’t been restored since it closed. Basically, it’s an enter at your own risk sort of place. You can even take a paranormal tour, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Basically, Brushy Mountain offers a beautiful ride to a creepy-cool destination.
- Location: Wherever you’re coming from, you’ll end up in Petros, TN. Brushy Mountain prison is also adjacent to Frozen Head State Park, if that helps with logistics. The address is: 9182 TN-116, Petros, TN 37845.
- Total length one way: varies based on your starting point
- Distance from Knoxville: about 50 minutes from downtown Knoxville
- Highest elevation: I’m not sure of the highest elevation along the way, but Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary itself sits at 1,506 feet above sea level. The mountains surrounding it? Much higher.
- Scenic spots: I’d say Brushy is the scenic spot. There aren’t any dedicated pullover spots along the way.
- Fun facts:
- I wouldn’t call this fun, but James Earl Ray—the man who assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr.—served part of his time at Brushy Mountain. He’s also known for his Brushy Mountain escape, which led to a 58 hour manhunt, till he was captured and incarcerated again.
- If you aren’t able to get to Brushy Mountain for a tour, still check out Brushy’s website or Google more about its history. The stories are crazy—from the guards’ experiences, to the inmates’ violence, to the impact of the prison on the town of Petros, TN.
- For more on the Brushy Mountain Distillery, click here.
That’s all for now, fellow riders and friends.
But stay tuned. We WILL be taking the bagger out soon, and who knows where we’ll end up.
And maybe I’ll face my fear and take on the Dragon… if someone duct tapes me to seat rest so I don’t fall off when I pass out 🙂