Two famous music cities and enough winding rural roads to keep you rolling for a lifetime, what’s not to love about taking a motorcycle tour through the Volunteer State of Tennessee?
The rectangular state of Tennessee sits horizontally across the top of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia like a gateway to the south. Think of it like painting a door, you dip the brush in the paint and swipe it across the wood to see if you like the color and there you have it, a perfect map of the state.
All good scholars will know it’s called the Volunteer State. If like me though, you thought this relates to the Civil War and the vast amounts of fighting men that joined up on both sides, we both are probably mistaken.
Historians reckon its more accurately linked to the Mexican-American War of 1846 when President Polk put a call out for 2500 volunteer soldiers gathered from across the entire country. Impressively, over 30,000 men stepped-up from Tennessee alone!
History aside, this is one seriously beautiful state. Landlocked by eight other states, it appears to have taken the best topography from each of them, and that makes for some fantastic riding roads.
Some of our rides will feature the picturesque and challenging roads within the state boundary. Others will either begin or end here, having dipped a toe into neighboring waters.
Some will also head towards the many great destinations Tennessee has in bucketfuls. So without further ado, let’s throw a leg over our weapon of choice.
Tail of The Dragon Motorcycle Route https://tailofthedragon.com/
No trip on two wheels to Tennessee would be complete without mentioning one ride in particular, so let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first. The Tail of the Dragon may start in Deals Gap North Carolina but the majority of this 11-mile ride of a lifetime with its 318 curves, happens on the ‘Volunteer’ side.
This road is fast becoming the stuff of legends and although it passes through some very picturesque countryside, lift your head to take it in, and you’re heading for the Tree of Shame.
Some general words of advice for first-timers, watch the vids on Youtube for a taste before you go. Make sure you and your plus-one wear a lid as it’s compulsory in both states, and keep an eye on your speed, the local law enforcement regulate it enthusiastically.
The Cherohola Skyway
Now that’s out of the way, it’s time to take in the scenery, and for that, we don’t have to move far at all. The Cherohola Skyway is on the SE/SW border and takes its name from the two National Forests it passes through; the Cherokee and the Nantahala.
Cherohola Skyway Motorcycle Route
Start at Santeetiah Gap by the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, and as the name suggests, you’re going to take in some breathtaking sky-bound vistas. Pass along the mountain ridges from the highest around 5500ft at Haw Knob, to 900 ft above sea level at the Tellico River.
Mile after mile of un-spoilt forests and deeply carved mountains provide a wicked backdrop, and the blacktop is in great condition. So it should be too, at almost 2.5m bucks a mile to build.
To save you suffering from rubber-necker whiplash, watch out for mile markers 11,12, 25 and 27 for designated ‘overlooks.’ Anyone wanting to visit a spell after the 43-mile bend-swinger should check out the Charles Hall Museum.
Charles Hall Museum www.charleshallmuseum.com
Cherokee to Gatlinburg Motorcycle Route
Another 40+ miler to put a smile on your face is the Cherokee to Gatlinburg run. Once again, it’s a nicely paved twister that will take you through majestic mountains and tree-covered valleys of the Appalachian Trail.
Official Website https://www.tnwhiskeytrail.com/
If you feel like putting some decent miles under your wheels, keep heading west. You can follow the old Tennessee Whiskey Trail or choose your own route; mine, however, ended up in Lynchburg, no prizes for guessing why!
Choosing a point of interest, in this case the Jack Daniels Distillery, is a great way of getting to see the countryside, and if you’re in no particular hurry, you can plot a more scenic route to suit yourself.
Punch in the Gut
Jack Daniels Distillery
This kind of meandering, with a fixed destination but a flexible route, often throws up unexpected and often very cool adventures along the way. For example, after a tour of the JD Distillery, receiving the punch in the gut news that it’s in a dry county and heading to the nearest diner.
BBQ Caboose Café, Lynchburg www.bbqcaboose.com
This eatery turned out to be the BBQ Caboose Café in Lynchburg. While me and the old lady chowed down on a pulled pork sandwich, the owner strolled on over to an old microphone sitting on top of an equally ancient looking desk. He proceeded to broadcast live to a local country music radio station. You don’t get that in a chain restaurant.
Harley-Davidson Dealership, Mursfreesboro. Official Website.
The fun stuff didn’t end there either, heading north towards Nashville, we had to make a stop for oil at an H-D dealer in Murfreesboro. Still in a state of shock from the (lack of) JD experience, my missus happened to mention the lack of liquid libation to the saleslady. ‘We get this a lot,’ she said, taking us into the back office and treating us to a shot of Uncle Jack.
‘It’s in Moore County which is dry,’ she explained, ‘but this is Rutherford, we’re wet,’ she said proudly. You may well ‘meet the nicest people on a Honda,’ but you meet the coolest people on a Harley, that’s for sure.
Deep in Horse Country
Lynchburg to Bristol Motorcycle Route
Riding through this part of TN and the counties just further east, you’re deep in the heart of horse country. It may not have the cloud-scraping mountains or sculpted sandstone rock formations of other states, but it’s green, undulating forested roads are a real pleasure to ride.
While in that neck of the woods, heading to the very northeast corner of the state will bring you to Bristol. They say that its twin is a town of the same name in Virginia, but it’s the same place with the state border running through the middle of it.
Apart from being twinned with itself, it’s also home to the Thunder Mountain Bike Rally. This year it was held at the Bristol Campgrounds and featured the Full Throttle Saloon roadshow and a host of live bands topped by veteran rockers, Mollie Hatchet.
Bikes on Beale
So far we’ve stayed over the east of the state, so let’s take a look at what the west has to offer. West Tennessee as I’m sure you all know is home to the city of Memphis. Now unlike Nashville, whose bike nights seem to come and go, Memphis enjoys regular two-wheeled get-togethers on the city’s most famous thoroughfare, Beale Street.
The city is just over the river from Arkansas, and a stone’s throw from Mississippi, meaning plenty of bikers take advantage of the lightly forested, well-kept country roads that lead there.
With a whole host of cool places to see at any time of the year such as Graceland and Sun Studios, planning a road trip to Memphis is a winner. Head there between May-June though, and you’ll find lots of festivals and cultural events from which to choose.
There’s everything from the Beale Street Music Festival to my personal favorite and the one that saw us head 175 miles west along Highway 64, the World Championship Barbeque Cooking Contest.
Memphis Motorcycle Route
Another popular run sees you heading west across the river to pick up the 77 north. Just after Turrell, the 61 will take you northeast bordering the winding Mississippi. Before you get to Hayti look for Interstate 155.
I usually recommend avoiding those big hunks of slab like the plague. However, 15 miles later you’ll be heading south, down the 51 in a big horseshoe that brings you back to Memphis.
Just Point that Front Wheel
Memphis To Clarksville Motorcycle Route
This route is supposing of course that you want to head back to Memphis, but if like me you want to keep exploring, take the 51 North to Union City. Keep a look out for the 22 heading southeast, and around 30 miles later, this road joins up Highway 79 heading north.
Why take this route in particular? Well, as is the norm now, I always try to fit in one cool sounding place on the route and less than 15 miles up the road you’ll be heading for the heart of Paris.
Along this route, not only can you feast your eyes on the largest model catfish in the world perched on top of the ‘Welcome to’ sign, but also ride right past the Eiffel Tower.
No, it’s not really far away, it’s a 70ft scale replica. Park up, get it in the background, and you’ll have a selfie with the genuine claim that yes, this is the Eiffel Tower, from when I rode through Paris.
You can leave out the rest of that sentence which is, ‘on the way to Clarksville.’ Now if like me, you’re of a certain age, that annoyingly catchy toon by The Monkees will be rattling around in your head right about now.
The Last Train to Clarksville
You are not, however, going to take the ‘last train’ instead you’re going to ride through the heart of Tennessee wine country. Once again, this is a wonderful rural backdrop. Gently sloping hills with curvy roads, covered in old forests, which I imagine, is spectacular in the fall.
Staying on the 79, pass through the town and keep going until crossing the Red River. The 374 finally takes you east towards my final destination, the Beachaven Winery.
I once met a guy called Ed, and we got talking about wine. He told me his family ran a place in Tennessee and to call in if I was ever in the neighborhood, and that’s precisely what I did. I hadn’t intended to, it just worked out like that, but isn’t that how the best road trips unroll?
So, a motorcycle tour through the Volunteer State of Tennessee takes you through lazy roads, rolling countryside and a welcome drink at every stop, not counting Lynchburg of course!
(Thanks to Tennessee Historical Society, Tail of the Dragon LLC, Tellico plains.com, TN Whisky trail, BBQ Caboose, Bumpus-D, Beale Street.com)