Cherokee – Heintooga One-Way Loop, October 30, 2007
It was October 30, the last day of the year that this one-way gravel road loop through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be open. Nancy and I had wanted to try it for years but just hadn’t been able to find the time. Now the weather was perfect, the fall colors near optimum and we made the time.
We actually started in Robbinsville, but for this article we are calling Cherokee our starting point. We have never been big fans of this overt tourist trap that is such a blight on the Great Smoky Mountains. We do appreciate our Cherokee Indian neighbors and their culture, but the “Made in China” trinkets and Harrah’s Casino turn us off. Anyway, the trinket shops and casino are here for those who are interested.
We headed out of Cherokee on US 19 East passing the now closed and dilapidated motels of the 1960s which are being replaced by newer chain inns within walking distance of the casino. The changes are probably good in some ways, but the motels with the YES/NO neons that used to dot our backroads had a special flavor that is missing today.
Princess MotelThe Princess Motel in Cherokee is a sad example with huge trees now forcing their expanding trunks through cracking sidewalks, decks and roof.
Escaping the blight we found a few good corners on 19 before spotting our turn-off onto Jenkins Creek Road (BIA 409). Note that the BIA designation indicates Bureau of Indian Affairs roads.
Heading north on Jenkins we soon found gravel and the road began to climb with some interesting twists and turns. We were soon out of the residential area and into the woods. The higher we got the sharper the turns and steeper the climbs. At one point we passed a car that had not been able to safely negotiate a sharp corner and the wheels had mired in the soft clay drop-off.
After 5 miles we intersected Dodson Ridge Road (BIA 413) near the Blue Ridge Parkway. Taking a right we passed through a graffiti laden tunnel with the BRP above. We jumped on the Parkway and headed north three miles through several tunnels and pass a couple of good scenic view pull-offs.
Turning onto the road leading to Balsam Mountain Road and Heintooga Road we noted a sign that said the road was closed for the winter. We were quite upset after having checked on the Internet that morning and reading that this was the last day it would be open. But there was no gate to stop us from riding farther so we throttled northward on pavement passing the closed Balsam Mountain Campground.
After another couple of miles we arrived at the Heintooga Overlook and Picnic Area at an elevation of 5335 feet. This is the end of the pavement and the beginning of the one-way gravel Heintooga – Round Bottom Road. The sign here warns ONE WAY ONLY – NARROW WINDING UNIMPROVED MOUNTAIN ROAD NEXT 14 MILES. Sounds like our kind of road! And there was still nothing saying the road was closed.
For those who are interested in such things, Heintooga is a Cherokee word that means hiding place or refurge.
After taking the habitual Red Bull break and walking through the picnic area, we hit the gravel. Now as far as forest gravel roads go this one is about the tamest we have run across. The sign must be meant for those in Cadillacs on Towncars. Even those would have no problem here.
There were some interesting views and some trails leading off to the ridge tops, but overall we were disappointed that there was not a more challenging road. We did pass a few cars along the route and think that in the busy tourist months this road is probably fairly busy. It is a great place for beginning dual sport riders to break the ice.
The last half of the 14 mile gravel loop parallels Ledge and Straight Fork Creeks and then exits the National Park. Soon we were back on pavement.
We took a left onto Bunches Creek Road and began climbing back up to the Blue Ridge Parkeway. The road steepened, turned back into gravel and then came some tight switchbacks. We retraced our earlier path through the graffiti tunnel and then descended towards Cherokee on Dodson Ridge Road and Wrights Creek Road (both designated BIA 413). About half way down the gravel turned to pavement.
We had a good day of riding overall in spite of the tameness of Heintooga. The roads on either side of the Blue Ridge Parkway offered some challenges.
This Cherokee Loop was 59 miles not counting our to and from Robbinsville mileage.