Running Moonshine, and Slaying Dragons in Western North Carolina

Finally, after two months of rain on my chosen camping dates, there is a clear weekend (sort of) at my mountain destination. My gear has been packed for weeks, so I load up the big Honda and I’m off at 8:00 AM to the mountains of Western North Carolina. It will be a long, exciting day in the saddle before bedding down in my tent at night. My route takes me north on beautiful twisty tarmac as the latitudes get larger and the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway gets closer. I travel approximately 30 miles on the Parkway before exiting and riding the remainder of my journey on mountain highways to my camping destination: Ironhorse Motorcycle Campground & Resort in Stecoah, North Carolina.

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The beagles come with me everywhere!

Ironhorse Motorcycle Resort

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My Ironhorses (all 115 of them) at the Ironhorse

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Camping in the mountains is a requisite if one is to beat the heat of a summer in  South Carolina. However, on this trip, I didn’t experience much relief; it was 89 degrees in Stecoah by afternoon, but it sure beat sweltering in 97 degree heat back home. Besides, I was finally camping!

Ironhorse: Motorcycles yes, but also RV’s trailering motorcycles!

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Pitching tent by the creek guarantees being lulled to sleep by bullfrogs!

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This group of Harley riders even set up their tents in parade formation! Ha!

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After a hard day carving through these mountain roads, this Ducati is ready to crawl into his tent for the night. Check out those pipes! How loud do you think this Duc is? Hope he’s not first up in the morning.

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After setting up camp, it was back on the ST for the 15 mile ride to Bryson City, North Carolina. Lunch was on the docket at my favorite coffee shop and cafe: Mountain Perks.

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Bryson City, North Carolina

This small mountain town is one of my favorite places to visit, and I do so fairly frequently. Other outdoor enthusiasts love this town as well. Bryson City won the Best Small Mountain Town of 2014 by Blue Ridge Outdoors (BRO) magazine. This area is outdoors heaven for hikers, mountain bikers, paddlers, motorcyclists, equestrians, trail runners, and Bryson City is the hub of all the hub bub.

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After lunch, it was time to head north towards the Tennessee state line on a fantastic motorcycling road with a sordid past. Firing up the V4, I was ready and excited to be leaning the beaST around the same curves on the same mountain road that Federal Revenuers and moonshiners did back in the days of Prohibition; Highway 28.

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Moonshiner 28

This area of the southeastern US houses the absolute best motorcycling roads east of the Mississippi River. Thousands of motorcyclists travel here from around the world each year from April through November, bringing with them open wallets with dollars to spend for the joy of riding this mountainous terrain of the Southern Appalachian mountains. That means big profits for the businesses here and for the marketers to keep people coming back. Hence the naming of motorcycle routes. Most are very unoriginal: The Snake        (NC 421, must be curvy), The Rattlesnake (NC 409, uh….must be curvy…no,no….twisty!) The Dragon (Hwy 129. A firebreather? More on this one later). But Moonshiner 28 actually has a history behind it and comes about it’s name honestly.

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Highway 28 runs from near the Tennessee state line through North Carolina, North Georgia, and into South Carolina. During the 1930’s in the Prohibition era, people here made “corn whiskey” in stills hidden throughout these mountains, mostly at night. Hence the name “moonshine”. It was big business to get their “shine” to their customers, and Hwy 28 was a major route to make their run. The cars used had engines that were “hopped up” to be able to outrun the Feds. But Hwy 28 was a dangerous road, and many a life and lots of alcohol were lost to it’s technical curves. Today, 28 retains much of it’s original character, making it one of the most technical motorcycling roads in the area.

A moonshine run car

A moonshine run car

Today, classic car buffs find these cars in barns or garages, buy them and then customize the bodywork and “hop up” the engines. They are then categorized as “street rods”. Nothing new under the sun.

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 My ride up Moonshiner 28 was awesome. As I left Stecoah and headed north towards Deals Gap, the curves got tighter and tighter. Coming around a long sweeper, I came upon a tractor trailer chugging its way up the grade. What? I know this road, and there is no way this rig is going to negotiate the 10 MPH curves ahead. After about half a mile, the trucker pulled off the road into a pullout. I flew past, enjoying the rest of this fantastic road and didn’t give the truck a second thought. He’ll figure it out soon enough.

Scenes from Moonshiner 28

After an exhilerating blast up the mountain I come to Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort, the North Carolina starting point for the infamous Dragon. I park the ST and walk around shooting photos while slugging down copious amounts of water (it’s even hot up here). Twenty minutes must have gone by when lo and behold here comes that same truck I passed on 28, pulling into the parking lot! Holy crap! Are you shitting me?

After consulting with numerous bikers, the driver walked back to his truck and proceeded to make a u-turn to descend back down Moonshiner 28!

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 The trucker explained that his GPS directed him up Hwy 28. It would seem he doesn’t read, or didn’t bother to heed the signs at the bottom of 28 and the Tennessee side of 129 (which merges into 28) stating NO TRUCKS. How he made it through the 10 MPH off-camber switchbacks with that rig is beyond me.

Deals Gap & the infamous Dragon

Anyone who rides a motorbike and reads motorcycle publications has almost certainly heard of The Dragon. If you live in the US, you may have even ridden it. If you live in the eastern US, particularly the southeast, you almost certainly have carved its curves. It is not the most technical motorcycling road, but it has gained its infamy through expert marketing of it’s 318 curves in 11 miles and news reports of the number of crashes and lives lost through the years. Bikers and sports car aficionados from all over the world come here to test their skills or show their lack thereof.

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The Dragon begins at the confluence of Moonshiner 28 and Hwy 129 north. It runs through a cut in the mountain known as Deals Gap into Tennessee. For 11 miles there is not a straight piece of asphalt.

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 I did not run the Dragon on this day, having done it numerous times before and always at least once on each motorcycle I have owned. Sort of a tradition, or rite of passage for the new bike, if you will. The beaST has done it, and has received her badge of honor for its completion.

Run The Dragon out and back, get your badge for bragging rights.

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The Dragon attracts all kinds of motorcyclists displaying various degrees of skill. On weekdays, the moto traffic is somewhat lessened, usually consisting of  traveling motorcyclists. But come the weekend, this place is bedlam. Every Ricky Racer wanna be comes out on the weekends to make Hwy 129 their personal race track. Not a weekend goes by where someone has not crashed, or worse.

This was a Friday. On weekends, this parking area is loaded with bikes!

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The Tree of Shame

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I call this the tree of stupidity. This is where broken bits of crashed motorbikes find a home as a badge of honor. Most of these crashes are caused by Ricky Racers riding over their ability level and flatlanders on vacation who only negotiate curves back home when getting on/off an interstate ramp. Respect the road! Those who survive even wear their road rash and broken body’s as some symbol of pride by going viral with photos and videos. Even the Dragon store sells Dragon crash videos.

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Killboy is a video company that has cameras set up all along the Dragon, taking photos and videos of your ride. You can then go on their website and purchase your photo! Last time out, Roo and I two up on the ST were leaning into a right hander with a Cobra sports car on our tail. Killboy got the shot! We have that one hanging in our hallway!

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The Tail of the Dragon is a must do ride. The road is great and challenging. Just don’t ride it on the weekends. Take away the hype and the Moto GP mindset and you have a beautiful, fun, challenging ride into Tennessee. Out and back brings you back into the Deals Gap resort. The surrounding roads are fantastic and the scenery is gorgeous!

Back on the ST, I now point her south and head downhill on Hwy 129, which starts out super twisty, then slowly opens up to relaxing sweepers, on my way to the Nantahala Gorge. Nantahala is the Cherokee Indian word which translates to “land of the noon day sun.” The Nantahala Gorge only gets full sunlight when the sun is directly overhead.

My destination in the Gorge is NOC, or, Nantahala Outdoor Center, the premier whitewater raft and kayak venue in the area. I have taken their whitewater kayak course here years ago, and Roo and I have run the rapids in rubber kayaks a few years ago. This is a great place to stop and take a break while watching kayakers play in the whitewater on the Olympic trials course.

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Kayakers “play boating” on the Nantahala River

The Nantahala River is a Class 3 rapids river as it nears NOC. Upriver, it is a very relaxing Class 1 & 2, but it is cold! Wet suits required, even in summer!

River’s Edge Restaurant. Great food, great views!

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The Nantahala as it meanders past River’s Edge Restaurant

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Sport Touring & Whitewater Kayaking. What fun!

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A long day, it’s time to head back to camp as the sun sits low in the sky. Back at Ironhorse, a refreshing shower and cold beer await. Tomorrow it’s homeward bound back to Roo, the beagles, and the heat of South Carolina!

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7 thoughts on “Running Moonshine, and Slaying Dragons in Western North Carolina

  1. The IronHorse Lodge is a really great place to stay, I can’t wait to get down there for the Triumph Rally in September. Thanks for the great photos and tips on other food destinations!

  2. If you liked the Tail of The Dragon, then come over to France and ride Le Route des Grandes Alpes, 648km of twisty high altitude heaven! I’d be pleased to show the way. 🙂

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