Tennesssee on Two Wheels: Bikers Ride Throughout the State

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Natchez Trace Parkway Bicycle Trail

For cyclists and avid motorcycle riders who crave a lonely byway short on traffic but long on natural spectacle, an abundance of rural Tennessee roads-less-traveled beckons.

Taking the Scenic Route

“It’s a beautiful place to ride,” says retired construction equipment dealer Chuck Mason. The Johnson City biker has been exploring the remote, snaking back roads of East Tennessee for more than four decades from the seat of his Harley.

“It’s my fishing pole and my golf clubs,” he says of his longtime hobby. But even familiar roads, for him, always hold the promise of discovery. “I’ve never gone on a ride when I didn’t see something new,” he says.

It’s that ever-changing, unrivaled scenery that lures Brentwood, Tenn., real estate consultant Ken Barnes onto the saddle of a rented Harley Softail or Street Glide and out into the open air several times a year.

“You feel a part of your surroundings when you’re on a motorcycle,” he says. “The wind and the smells, everything is heightened. You can feel the stress just melt away into the background. I love it.”

Mostly, Barnes enjoys leisurely rides through the rolling Middle Tennessee countryside. “I love to make the run to Lynchburg,” he says. “Or the Natchez Trace Parkway, down to the Alabama line and back, just a comfortable day ride. Stop at Leiper’s Fork, eat at Puckett’s, see a few galleries.”

Related: Enter to win a book about the spooky side of the Natchez Trace

But Barnes’ favorite rides of all require a journey east, and up (in elevation, that is).

The Southern Dozen Rides that Originate in Johnson City, TN

Famous Rides

“The Dragon’s Tail is a fantastic ride,” he says. “It has 318 switchbacks in 11 miles. And then we usually move over to the Cherohala … it’s gentle and rolling, and the views are incredible, looking out over the mountains.”

Those two famous rides – Tail of the Dragon, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina state line along the southwestern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Cherohala Skyway, which crosses the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests in both states – draw thousands of riders every year from all over the world, to test their mettle and take in the spectacular natural beauty.

But Chuck Mason and his Tri-Cities Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) wanted the world to know there was more to mountain riding than “The Dragon” and the Cherohala. In 2005, the group mapped out 12 of their favorite rides, using Johnson City as a launch point, and created a detailed guide for avid bikers visiting the area.

That project succeeded in convincing Harley Davidson to bring the first-ever state H.O.G. rally to East Tennessee.

“Since then, we’ve hosted 11 motorcycle rallies,” says Brenda Whitson, executive director of the Johnson City Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), including BMW and Suzuki groups and even auto clubs for Miata and Corvette owners.

The CVB partnered with the Tri-Cities H.O.G. to rebrand and market the rides, now called the Southern Dozen.

“The beauty of the twelve rides,” Mason says, “is that we have very flowing, easy rides where everybody’s skill level is acceptable. One of my favorites is the Long Dam Ride. It takes in, I believe, nine dams from the TVA system. Another one, the Spelunker Tour, takes in some natural caves.”

For veteran bikers like Mason, with the skills and moxie to zigzag a wildly twisting course and bank low and hard around tight curves, there’s the famous Snake Ride, a challenging 138-mile loop leaving from Johnson City.

“The mantra is ‘Three miles, one valley, 489 curves,’ ” he laughs. “So that really intrigues people.”

At the far end of the loop, the Snake Ride weaves into Damascus, Va., which bills itself as Trail Town, U.S.A., a mecca of trails for cycling types who prefer a non-motorized power source.

"The Snake" Motorcycle Ride Originating in Johnson City, TN

Exercise with a View

Glen Wanner, a Nashville Symphony bassist who is a past president and current board member of Walk/Bike Nashville, falls decidedly into that category.

“Biking combines fitness and travel,” he says. “Going to the gym is just not as exciting as getting outside.”

Wanner and his wife co-authored biking guides to Middle Tennessee and the Natchez Trace and have logged thousands of miles doing bike trips all over the country. He particularly enjoys doing the Natchez Trace Parkway in autumn.

“The Trace is kind of a mental journey,” he says. “It’s pretty and peaceful, and you really feel like you are in a different world, a different era.”
He likes to make lots of stops and check out the natural history exhibits and sights along the way.

“The boatmen, the Indian cultures – my mind is always wandering, thinking, ‘Who built these mounds? What was it like for those traders to walk 400 miles?”

Wanner also recommends tackling the Cherohala Skyway, a beautiful but physically demanding ride that climbs above 5,000 feet; exploring the deep gorges and sheer cliffs of Big South Fork’s O & W Rail Trail; and biking the Mississippi River Trail, a network of routes that follow that great American river from source to delta.

Of course, urbanites looking for short rides can take advantage of paved greenways throughout Tennessee, from the new, still-in-progress Greater Memphis Wolf River Greenway to old favorites at Percy and Edwin Warner Parks in Middle Tennessee.

“It was built in the ’30s during the Depression,” Wanner says of Warner Parks. “The roads really fit the land. There aren’t too many cities that have a ride to compete with that.”

“Of course,” he smiles, “you have to like hills.”


  1. Patricia Booker

    August 16, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    Trying to figure out where the pic as taken of the tunnel picture in your Tennessee on 2 wheels story. Help, please!

    • Jessy Yancey

      August 17, 2012 at 5:19 pm

      Hi Patricia,

      The photo shows what’s known as the World’s Shortest Tunnel through Backbone Rock on Hwy. 133 in Johnson County, TN (between Shady Valley, TN and Damascus, VA). For more information, visit http://www.johnsoncountytnchamber.org/backbone-rock.

      Thanks for reading,
      Jessy Yancey
      Tennessee Home & Farm

  2. Jennifer

    August 16, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    I am disgusted that Farm Bureau printed this article without checking a few facts. The 421 ‘Stiped Snake” is NOT an untraveled road. It is most often the only route traveled by Shady Valley residents. While most don’t mind the occational Harley just cruising through… this is not the case. You have just advertised this mountain highway to bikers across the state as a switch-back ride in which reality, attracts mostly crotch rockets looking for a thrill. These bikers do NOT respect other traffic, sometimes riding alongside you, IN YOUR LANE, around blind curves, while passing on coming traffic. It is so bad that locals don’t even like to travel out of the Valley during the weekends.The bikers can become agressive, and are only welcomed by the the Country Store that you show in the pictures. 421 is a state highway, so there is no way for anyone to stop them unless the police can catch them in the act. FAT CHANCE of that. I have personally have been witness to many alarming incidents, accidents, and I have NO appreciation for ANY kind of advertisement for the road home to be traveled by ANY kind of motor cycle.

    • Jessy Yancey

      August 17, 2012 at 5:12 pm

      Hi Jennifer,

      I’m sorry to hear about your personal experiences with motorcycles on Highway 421. We aimed to showcase the beauty of the state for anyone traveling this fall, highlighting trails throughout marketed to both motorcycle and bicycle riders. We contacted the Johnson City Convention & Visitors Bureau to discuss some of the trails in the area, and the Snake Ride is prominently featured on their website. We were unaware of any major concerns from locals, but I do understand your concerns and will see what we can do to address them in the future.

      Thanks for your comment,
      Jessy Yancey
      Tennessee Home & Farm

      • Jennifer

        August 17, 2012 at 9:42 pm

        Thank you for adressing this issue. The “Striped Snake” is not a trail. It is a two lane state highway that families, school buses, elderly and visitors travel in and out of Shady Valley to the county seat of Mountain City. Shady is located almost an hour away from Johnson City, and it’s remote beauty attracts the bikes by the thousands.
        It is terrifing to come around a curve and pass a motorcycle that is leaned so far over the middle line that you just cringe waiting to hit them head first. They race constantly, and just a couple of months ago, I ran up on one lying in the ditch. A young girl and boy lying there with it, and all their friends just standing around them. No one called 911, they won’t, because they are racing illegally, and probably without a license. I, myself, called for help. I was then “escorted” by a group of bikes off the mountain, through the valley, and then across the next mountain into to Sullivan County. Even the 911 operator told me not to stop for them, and to get out of there.
        You can watch youtube videos of their rides if would like to be witness to some of the experience. Sorry to rant, but it’s a serious issue for locals.


    September 14, 2012 at 11:48 am

    I love to ride and so I really loved this article. Can’t wait to try out all 12 of these rides. Thanks so much!

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